Thomas Hobbes and his theory of the state

Why are there states? Why should there be? Probably the best-known answer came from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In his work on political philosophy with the title Leviathan or Substance, Form and Power of a Church and State Community of 1651, Hobbes laid the foundation stone for modern political science and provided answers to the question of the legitimation of the state.

  1. Goal and history
  2. Hobbes at odds with his thought leaders
  3. Starting point: the state of nature
  4. Man is a wolf to man
  5. The prisoner’s dilemma
  6. The social contract
  7. About the title ›Leviathan‹
  1. What was the basis for the Leviathan work ?
  2. What does the natural state mean?
  3. Why is it rational to have a state?
  4. What does the Prisoner’s Dilemma say?
  5. Why did Hobbes choose this name for his work?

Goal and history 

The English state theorist, mathematician and philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is considered the founder of enlightened absolutism and, alongside John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is one of the most important theorists of the so-called social contract.

The central task in the formulation of such a treaty is the legitimation of a state – how can one establish the rights of a state?

So how can one justify that it must be allowed to hand over personal freedom to an externalized authority and also to give it enormous power, which results in the right to collect property from other people in the form of taxes?

Hobbes’ aim was to give politics a rational basis. That means declaring that it is sensible and sensible to have a state that has the right to legitimately restrict my freedom and property.

The title of the work may of course be particularly striking: Leviathan . Those familiar with Christian mythology will recognize this name immediately. Hobbes is alluding to the sea monster mentioned in Psalm 104 , for example . We will come back to the meaning of the name as a metaphor for the state later.

Hobbes at odds with his thought leaders

Of course, Hobbes was not the first philosopher to formulate a comprehensive theory of the state. Already in antiquity there were different versions of political models, which were founded mainly by Plato and his pupil Aristotle. However, Hobbes uses a feature in his theory that is drastically different from the ancient theories.

Aristotle, for example, saw humans as a naturally state or political being, i.e. a zoon politikon who naturally lives in a social community:

From this it is evident that the state is of natural origin and that man is by nature a state being, and that a being that is by nature, and not merely accidentally, outside the state is either bad or superhuman, just as Homer disdains such a being “Foreign tribe” and described as a “lawless and hearthless”. [1]

A hierarchy of people and human coexistence is therefore intended to be naturally given. The state is something natural, just as it is natural that there must be people who are useful for leading and others who are good for obeying, so Aristotle.

Hobbes disagreed and even opposed Aristotle to such an extent that in the dedication of his work De Cive  (About the Citizen) he speaks of the fact that the previous writings of moral philosophers (including Aristotle) ​​have contributed nothing to the knowledge of the truth . [2]

For Hobbes, Aristotle did not think politics through to the end. The question is why every single person would unite in a community of the state. The state is obviously a product of man, which he himself designs. With this Hobbes immediately comes to an important distinction, namely between the state of nature and the state of the state.

Starting point: the state of nature

Hobbes really just asked himself how people get from a stateless state of nature to a state of orderly socialization and why they do that. The reason for this must somehow lie in the state of nature itself, otherwise there would be no motivation to leave it.

By the way, about the concept of the state of nature: You might think that this is a state of stupid caveman, but that’s not what is meant here. The state of nature is simply meant to denote the state without a state. Whether people ran around wrapped in furs because of this, is not included in the term.

In order to be able to understand how Hobbes imagined this transition from the state of nature to the state, one must be able to understand his political anthropology, i.e. his image of man, which is based on how man is in fact in the state of nature, i.e. without a state.

Man is a wolf to man

Here we find Hobbes’ much-quoted saying: homo homini lupus est . In English: Man is a wolf to man. Unfortunately, we also find a common misunderstanding here. Often Hobbes is assumed too early that he has a consistently negative image of man. Many believe that Hobbes thought humans were inherently evil. That’s not true.

Man is a wolf to man because he has no other choice. Basically he is peace-loving, but due to his two basic motives, which, according to Hobbes, are firstly self-preservation and secondly benefit maximization, man in a natural state gets into a war of all against all because he cannot trust the other people in the context of a cooperation.

Human life in the natural state is lonely, poor, disgusting, animal and short, according to Hobbes. [3, p.96]

Mistrust guides man in the state of nature and not malice. However, this distrust is only the result of rational considerations. After all, nobody can feel safe, even the most intelligent and strongest cannot, because as far as physical strength is concerned, even the weakest is strong enough to kill the strongest – either through deceit or through an alliance with others. [3, p.94]

The following consideration should clarify the scenario of the natural state.

The prisoner’s dilemma

Hobbes assumes thoroughly rational actors. As I said, the problem is the distrust of one another. Let us assume that we have two actors: A and B. These could be two people, two families, at least stateless communities.

Everyone has two options to act, cooperation and non-cooperation, ie attack. If both actors cooperate, both are doing accordingly well. Everyone can do their work undisturbed, they help each other and don’t bother each other.

If, however, both actors are geared to attack, they enter a state of war that requires enormous resources on both sides and therefore leads to heavy losses. The end situation would then be a bad one for both parties. The other combinations are interesting.

If A cooperates and B does not cooperate, then A, to put it bluntly, is completely without pants and is excluded from B. B is doing very well because he is bagging A’s income, while A is doing very badly because he has just been robbed. Of course, the same applies vice versa. Schematically this looks like this:

It is now shown by simple rational considerations that it is always advantageous not to cooperate because the average prosperity is greatest through this option. This simple example from game theory is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Cooperation is good, but it would be even more advantageous for the individual actor if everyone adhered to the rule of reasonable cooperation, except himself.

The actors are of course by no means stupid! They both see that it would be better for them to cooperate, but as I said: the problem is that I can’t trust my neighbor. After all, he also knows that it would be better for him to attack me if we have actually agreed to live in peace. A solution has to be found to circumvent this dilemma.

The social contract

The only possible solution to this dilemma is to force everyone to cooperate. This can only create a form of coercive violence that punishes those who violate these very reasonable rules of cooperation. With these penalties, breaking the rules will never be worthwhile. As a result, it is more beneficial for everyone to join the cooperation.

Hobbes now describes this exit from the natural state as a contract in favor of the state or the formation of a state in general, which must be based on two central aspects in order for it to function meaningfully:

  1. Everyone reciprocally admits to everyone the same limited freedoms.
  2. A force is authorized, monitored and punished if necessary.

What Hobbes is able to provide with his argumentation is a kind of proof of the state, that is to say a rational justification for the fact that under the given circumstances everyone would prefer a state of nature, a state of state, to any other state. With this, Hobbes created a legitimation for the state.

About the title ›Leviathan ‹

At the beginning of the article I briefly pointed out that the name of the work alludes to a monster from Christian mythology. Hobbes probably found this analogy appropriate for several reasons. We find a first reason in the 17th chapter of his work:

The conclusion of the contract is the creation of that great Leviathan or, to put it more reverently, that mortal God to whom we owe our peace and protection under the immortal God. [3, p.134]

The sea monster is a powerful being that spreads its rule over all people. Metaphorically speaking, however, he remains only a mortal god, since the state is only created by man. The central motive, however, is power, that is, the rule of violence.

Hobbes makes it clear that a law without punishment is pointless talk. That is why the state must intervene with brutal severity if it becomes necessary to punish people for breaking the rules. This is probably the main reason for this naming: The state is basically nothing more than a powerful monster to be feared of.


by Abdullah Sam
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