Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (1588 – 1679) was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.
Though on rational grounds a champion of absolutism for the sovereign, Hobbes also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.
In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality. This gave rise to social contract theory. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War; much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war.
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature; much of this was based on Hugo Grotius‘ works. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). The description contains what has been called one of the best known passages in English philosophy, which describes the natural state mankind would be in, were it not for political community:
‘In such condition, 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, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’