Philosophy 211 - 11.3.2 Thomas Hobbes and Absolute Monarchy

The frontispiece f Leviathan is divided into a top and bottom section. The top half shows the head and shoulders of a man holding a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other. He is larger than life, overlooking a hillside and a city. The bottom half is divided into a right and left side, with five small images on each side. The images on the left include a castle, crown, and cannon. Images on the right include a church, a pope hat, and arrows coming out of a cloud.
Figure 11.5 Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan, first published in 1651, presents absolute monarchy as an order-creating and necessary force in society. (credit: “Frontispiece of Leviathan engraved by Abraham Bosse, with input from Thomas Hobbes, the author” by Abraham Bosse by unknown author/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Leviathan, written by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and first published in 1651, looks at the structure of systems of government and develops the social contract theory. In the text, Hobbes imagines a time prior to the creation of social institutions, when humans were motivated solely by satisfying their desires. When land and food are plentiful, people can meet their needs and even store surplus for lean times. But as population increases, people compete for resources, which means that one person’s gain is another’s loss. Scarcity leads to conflict when people fight to obtain what they need. Prior to the establishment of political authority, there is no check on violence, and thus human beings enter a state of perpetual war, which Hobbes considers the state of nature. In this state,

there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes [1968] 2002, ch. 13)

To successfully leave the state of nature, people must form a political community that ensures their basic needs are met, moderates conflicts, and codifies rules of behavior. Part of that project includes identifying a power that can hold authority. Hobbes believed that power should be held by the monarchy, arguing that one absolute and central authority is the best method of maintaining peace and avoiding discord and factionalism.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax