Thinking Sociologically Why is Thomas Hobbes important?

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Thomas Hobbes, is known more for his work in the field of political philosophy, however, his theories can also be applied to the discipline of sociology.

Hobbes lived between 1588 and 1679, making him a very early thinker in the field. He lived during the English Civil War, a time in which there was much social unrest and no government to speak of. This provided the background for his thoughts on what he called ‘The State of Nature’ and contract theory. Hobbes is known also for his work as a liberalist and the theory surrounding.

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His main work, Leviathan was first published in 1651 and set out his ideas about basic human nature and how the violent nature of humans can be suppressed by the correct form of governance. His ideas on these issues have proved lasting and have gone on to influence other social thinkers and modern governments.

It is important to detail his background and major works, before we can say why he is ‘important’.

Hobbes on ‘The State of Nature’

State of Nature- “the war of all against all”.

The concept where by there is no notion of law and order, punishment rules or indeed right and wrong. People free to do as they wish.

Hobbes is often credited as the very first ‘behaviourist’, in that he did much work on why people behave as they do. He saw everything as material bodies, in constant motion until something or someone altered their path. Hobbes said that human beings, as well as every other entity are on a moving path, forever in motion. Things only stop moving when a force or an obstacle obstruct our course or change our path. Such as gravity holding us down or (a modern example) being on a rollercoaster.

Further to this, Hobbes argues that humans also have a basic behavioural path, in that there are certain intrinsic rules and values that we each conform to. Hobbes therefore, discounts the classical Greek and Christian ideas of humans having been created by a greater being, and following their designated path in life. Instead, Hobbes said that humans a propelled by desire; we have an insatiable desire for ‘things’, nothing in particular, simply items we are attracted to.

This attraction, therefore changes our path in life, and away from any celestial path, as philosophised by Christian and Greek writers, such as Plato. It follows, that not only are we attracted to certain items, but we are also repelled by others, once again, changing our course. Hobbes simplifies what we are attracted to or repelled by as ‘good and bad’. Humans use reason in order to get what they want. We some up the different paths and calculate the best way to gain our prize. We can assume that there will always be things that many people will find attractive; consequently, there will be a level of competition for ownership.

Hobbes argues that in order to get what we want, we must first gain power. With power lies the key to the rest of our desires. Authority affords us many luxuries and in the State of Nature, we need not compete for our desires, instead, we can have someone get them for us and indeed have subordinate humans hand over items they hold that we desire. Therefore, power is a desire that many people will compete for. Of course, it will be a struggle to get the power desired.

Therefore, humans are forever in battle with each other in order to get sufficient power that their other desires are easily accessible. Power, in the State of Nature is gained with both intellect and brute force. Those strong enough to fight their way to the top gain power through fear, but there are also those who gain power through out-smarting the strong. For a short time, those with the power can rest, however, there will always be someone else ready to challenge their authority and gain their desire for power. The constant circle is never ending, as Hobbes argues that the want for pleasure and power is unlimited. Here enters Hobbes’ theory of a State of Nature.

In the State of Nature, people are at war. They can do as they wish to satisfy their desires. There are no rules or laws and no government to rule over the people therefore, in theory, no one is doing any wrong. In this climate, humans do not trust each other as people fear there will always be someone right behind them who will happily attack them to obtain what they hold. However, they do hold some hope, as everyone is has certain equalities.

Equality of strength and skill means that someone who is strong may not always win over someone with the intelligence to out-wit their opponent. For example, the strong man has to sleep like everyone else. At this point, he is at his most vulnerable; therefore, the intelligent man will attack him while he sleeps.

Equality of foresight means that we can choose our next move with some education. We all learn from past experiences and mistakes, and so, next time we are more likely to succeed.

Taking the first two into account, humans in the State of Nature also have equality of hope. They can be confident that with foresight and the knowledge that brawn does not always prevail, they have as good as a chance as any at obtaining what they desire. This means that the rivalry and competition will be never ending and therefore neither will the conflict.

Hobbes argues that in this climate, it is simply not possible for human beings to be peace lovers. Violence is rational, says Hobbes, part of human nature. He goes on to suggest that humans are inherently cruel and violent, but only because the climate forces them into it, they have to be vicious in order they ‘get one up on the other man’. Hobbes also comments on how humans would live alone, and not cohabit.

“[life is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short lived.”

However, humans do not want to live like this, says Hobbes. Instead they would like to live without fear of attack, but no one will stand up and say ‘stop’ for fear of further attack. Further to this, he says that people cannot trust others to agree to not harming others, and the situation would flare up again. Human beings would need someone to show them the way.

Thomas Hobbes suggests that we need a sovereign government. We should give up our natural rights to this government in order that we live in a society without fear. If we give up the right to kill and rape, then we can live with the peace of mind that others will not kill or rape us. The state would provide this security in exchange for us giving up our natural rights. This is how Hobbes justifies his strong government model. How can Hobbes, as a liberalist, suggest we give up our rights to a strong, overarching state?

Hobbes on Liberalism and Consent

As a classic Liberalist, Hobbes’ ideas and theories have gone on to influence those of key social thinker Emile Durkheim. Hobbes’ ideas on human nature, as detailed above, influenced the way he thinks we should be governed. He suggests that because human nature is as it is, we must all agree to be bound by rules and laws a government would enforce.

In order that we can live without the fear imposed by the State of Nature, we must all agree to stop hurting and attacking each other. This way we can trust that our neighbour will not kill us in order they have our property. However, Hobbes’ already says that we simply will not trust each other enough to make such a pact, and so, the agreement must be enforced.

The ‘Social Contract’ that Hobbes drew up meant that people would have to give up certain freedoms such as the right to kill and commit other crimes, but they would gain safety and security, together with peace of mind. A strong, absolute state would be put in place to enforce the new rules. Giving up certain freedoms is not very liberal on Hobbes part, but this way, everyone is better off.

The new contract means that we give consent to be ruled over, and so, if we break the rules, we have also given our consent to be punished accordingly. So not only will the treat of punishment deter us, but also, it could be argued that breaking the rules we have agreed to live by would be like breaking a promise and so the moral obligations of this act on us also.

It seems strange that Hobbes was not a huge fan of overbearing, strong government, as his work sets out that an all powerful, sovereign state is the best way. Not only this, but Hobbes also suggested that all power should rest with one body and strongly refuted the idea of separation of powers.

So why is Thomas Hobbes important?

Hobbes’ theories and values have helped shape the way the world is governed today. During the time he wrote Leviathan, the English Civil War was in full flow, and of course that meant that there was no real government in place. His foresight and ideas have helped shape the way, certainly this country, and many others are run.

Although some of his work is now outdated and it is hard to see a return to The State of Nature, Hobbes views remain significant and his consent theory can still be applied today. For example, in voting for our government we give them our consent to rule over us, and if we vote against the government, we are still consenting, as we agree to be bound by the majority rule.

Hobbes’ views on intrinsic human nature have also been proved to be of importance. What he set out about the way in which we behave has been of great influence to other key sociologists and his ideas have been filtered down into modern functionalist sociology.

Thomas Hobbes wrote his main work Leviathan in 1651, nearly 400 years ago yet his work lives on unlike many before and after, this is testament to how influential and important Thomas Hobbes is.


Swift, A. (2001) Political Philosophy: A Beginners Guide for Students and Politicians.

Malden, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Raphael, D.D. (1977) Hobbes: Morals and Politics.

Oxford, Great Britain: Alden Press

Raphael, D.D. (1990) Problems of Political Philosophy. 2nd edn.

London, Great Britain: MacMillan Educational Ltd.

Wolff, J. (1996) An Introduction to Political Philosophy

St. Ives, Great Britain: Clays Ltd.

Gilliatt, S. (2004) Lecture to students of political thought

Northumbria University 11th October.

Mundy, M. (2004) Lecture to Sociology students

Northumbria University 8th October.

Wikipedia (2004) Available at

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