Hobbes on Humans Before Politics

Thomas Hobbes’ statement that “man is made fit for society, not by nature, but by training,” is significant in the history of western political thought because it represents a complete divergence from the conception of politics as a natural state of human affairs and a repositioning of political legitimacy and authority as ascending from the consent of the governed.

Traditionally, politics was viewed as a natural state of affairs and legitimacy was either rooted in nature or in God. For Plato, the political state was an extension of the human tripartite soul and to be organized accordingly (Plato xxxvi-ix). For Aristotle, the political state was an extension of human social gregariousness and a way for humans to fulfill their telos (Aristotle xix-xiv). Saint Augustine expressed the way that political institutions were corrupted by human’s natural state of sin while Saint Aquinas more optimistically suggested that human reason could create order within political states so that their telos, knowing God, could be better fulfilled (Augustine 103-4; Aquinas 7-9, 10-11). Clearly, from classical to medieval periods, western political thought has been conceived of as a natural condition of human affairs, just in different ways.

Enter Thomas Hobbes, who proposes, contrary to the dominant body of Western political thought before, that human nature is opposed to political organization. He considers humans to be naturally equal in their abilities, such that even the strongest of humans may be killed by the weakest of them (Hobbes 183-4). Given the limited resources, the fear for one’s own security, and the desire for reputation, humans constantly war with one another and no end to the war can be had due to the relatively equal abilities of all those who compete (184-5). Whereas past thinkers believed that humans naturally associated with one another (whether that be to fulfill their own needs or to fulfill some divine cosmic order), Thomas Hobbes proposes instead that any natural association of humans is marked by a kind of fear and greed that produces either active or latent war. This led Hobbes to conceive of political institutions, not as the extension of human nature, but as a compromise to the awful state of affairs outside of a civil society (189-91). Civil society was seen as a necessary infringement upon the natural unlimited rights of humans to pursue their own livelihoods, such that peace may be secured. Given that individuals sacrificed their rights to enter into civil society for the sake of peace, civil society was conceived of as a contract that required their consent and which could not be compatible with a state of affairs which disrupted their peace (190-5). Thus, human nature was redefined as inherently competitive and antisocial and the political state was redefined as an unnatural compromise in which political legitimacy and authority was ascended from the citizens, not descended from nature or God.

The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is significant because it radically redefined the natural state of human affairs and argued for the political state as a compromise between citizens, relying upon a social contract that required their consent. This had the effect of grounding political authority and legitimacy in the consent of the governed which, even though it was sometimes recognized that the state was to be to the benefit of the citizenry, was never formally articulated in this manner.Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a radical re-imagining of human nature and the political state in the lineage of political philosophy.


Works Cited
Aristotle. The Politics and The Constitution of Athens. Ed. Stephen Everson. Padstow: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Aquinas, Thomas. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1988. Print.

Augustine. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1988. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. St Ives: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.

Plato. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.


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