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Thomas Hobbes: Political Thought

Utility of studying Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes is the most important thinker to understand principles of modern political life.  Principles and practices of modern state. The most defining feature of the modern state is SOVEREIGNTY. Hobbes was the first person to give the complete theory of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is called as the supreme power. Sovereignty is a concept of modern times. It means supreme authority to make laws and to enforce law. In medieval times authority was divided or it was federal. In medieval times, it was not clear who is supreme, whose law will prevail or who will have the last word. It led to the state of confusion, chaos. Hence there was a need to establish a institution which will be considered as supreme with respect to law.
The need became more acute with the rise of capitalism. In feudalism, the relations of production will be based on birth. Whereas capitalism is based on contract, hence there was a need of a authority who will be responsible for ensuring the law, enforce the contract.
There are different traditions of laws: 1) Natural law, based on reason. 2) Religious law, based on book of religion. 3) Customary law, based on customs and traditions. 4) Positive law, which means law made by state. The theory of sovereignty establishes the supremacy of the law made by state over all other traditions of law.
The law made by state should be supreme because it is a product of reason/rational debate, it is certain and it comes with the power of punishment.

Hobbes as individualist.


Individualism means man is prior to state, it means self-interest is supreme. According to Hobbes, man is individualistic by nature and social only out of necessity. Hobbes is a scholar of possessive individualism.

Possessive individualism.

Possessive individualism is a philosophy of capitalism. According to this view, whatever man posses is because of his own efforts, hence man cannot be compelled to give back to society.

Hobbes’ theory.

Hobbes belonged to Britain, he has witnessed the troubled phase of British history. Puritan revolution of 1641. It was a complete chaos at the time of Hobbes. In this revolution, there were different contending groups. Catholics vs Protestants. Royalists vs Anti-royalists. In this situation, there was no security of either life or property. Hence the main concern of Hobbes became order or security. Hobbes main concern was the protection of life. Hobbes has established right to life or right to self-preservation as ‘absolute right’. According to him, right to life is so sacred that man can even kill other person for the protection of his life.  Means right to life includes right to self-defense. It also means that life is given by god, state is not the source of right, only protector of right. State cannot deprive a person from his right to life, in arbitrary manner, which means state can deprive a person from his right to life only in accordance to the procedure established by law under Art 21. Since he considers right to life as absolute, it is one of the reasons to regard Hobbes as greatest of all individualist.

Hobbes as a greatest of all absolutists.

Function of state according to Hobbes.

Absolutist is the one who gives absolute power to the state.
It means, 1] State is sovereign – no other association, not even church will have power over the state. (It is for this reason Hobbes book was prohibited by the church). 2] State is absolute means man has liberty only where law is silent. It means if law exists, you have to act according to the law. It means man is free only to the extent state has permitted him to be free by not making the law. If state has made law, man has to act according to the law. If man does not obey the law, state will have right to punish the man.

Why lawbreaker should be punished?

1] If one person does not follow law, others will also be tempted to not follow law. It will result into chaos.
2] When person does not obey law, it means he claims himself to be sovereign. Means he believes that he can have his own law. In a particular territory, there cannot be more than one sovereign.

What is state according to Hobbes?

The most important purpose, for which state exists is preservation of life. The state which cannot protect life is a failed state. And in case state itself start taking life of the people, people will have right to resist the state.
But state is also sovereign. It has absolute power to make law and to punish the law-breaker. That law is law which comes from the state. And which comes with the power of punishment. Function of the state is to protect the life. State is an institution which has monopoly over the use of coercive force on a territory. Any other organization using force is not permissible.

Why Gandhi was critic of state?

He was critic of not any state, he was critic only of modern state. Modern state introduced in India by the colonial masters. What is the idea inherent in the state? Violence / power to punish. Origin of state is to punish the law-breakers. Gandhi opposed the modern state as it represents institutionalized violence. Thus the foundation of state is not in justice but in power. Hence state is Leviathan. State is having power many times more than a single person. It means don’t fight with the state, you’ll not win. State is a collective institutionalized violence.

Whether there is contradiction between his individualism and absolutism?

No contradiction. Because man is so individualist, he cannot live in peace with other men, until and unless there is absolute authority. Hobbes absolutism is not for the sake of absolutism but for the protection of the individual.

Hobbes has laid the foundation of utilitarianism. What is utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is also known as hedonism. It means man seeks pleasure and wants to avoid pain. Utilitarianism also means materialism. It is a philosophy of capitalism because it promotes consumerism. Since man is utilitarian by nature, man is individualistic by nature. The reason is pleasure and pain are individualistic experiences.

Resolutive Compositive Method of Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was the first person who tried to introduce scientific method for the study of politics. Why scientific method? It was age of science. No theory will be accepted until and unless it is scientific in nature. Hobbes method is known as ‘Resolutive compositive method’. Scientific method in social sciences. French mathematician and philosopher Descartes has shown how scientific method can be used in social sciences. He gave following steps. 1] Observe the phenomenon. 2] Divide the phenomenon into simpler/elemental parts. 3] Establish the cause and effect relationship. This is called resolutive compositive method.

Hobbes Method:

1] Hobbes was very much influenced by Galileo and Newton. 2] Hobbes believed that principles of physics can be applied for understanding politics.
Concept of Mechanics : According to the theory of mechanics, universe is made up of matter. Matter is made up of particles. Particles are in the state of motion. Man is also the part of universe. Man is also made up of particles. Particles are in state of motion.
He also applied the concepts of psychology. He suggested to understand human behaviour.
He believed that geometry is also useful to develop scientific theory. Why? Geometry is the most logically consistent discipline. Most systematic.

Application of Methodology by Hobbes

Resolutive-Compositive Method.
All human actions are shaped by human behaviour. Human behaviour is shaped by human brain. Like all other things in universe, brain is also made up of particles. Particles are in the state of motion. Motion continues so long man is alive. Motion may slow down when we sleep.
There are two basic motions 1] Inclination and 2] Aversion. Motions are shaped by the movement of particles in response to external stimulus. There is an inclination towards the things, which give us pleasure. There is an aversion towards the things, which give us pain.
Hence all human actions are guided by pleasure and pain. Love and aversion are the two basic emotions.
Thus man is hedonistic or pleasure seeking by nature.

Implications of hedonistic nature of man.

Man is materialistic.
Man is individualistic.
Man is possessive.
Man is fearful since he is possessive.
Man is power seeking.
Power is a means to attain the things which give us happiness.

Hobbes on Social Contract.

Hobbes belong to the tradition of ‘Social Contract’. It is a concept based on capitalism. If economy in capitalism runs by contract, society and government is also based on the concept of contract. Contract symbolizes, state and society are not natural. They are result of contract among people. Mechanistic view of state in opposition to Naturalistic view / Organic view of the state. When we use the term machine, we actually undermine that institution. Here state is a machine or a means  for the end of man. The end of man is attainment of happiness. It means state is a institution of utility. Purpose of the state is to increase pleasure and decrease pain. Social contract is also a methodology to evolve political theory.

Social contract method consist of following steps.
1] Description of human nature.
2] State of nature: It is a hypothetical concept which shows the life of man, if man is left to live naturally without state. Hence there will be certain problems in the state of nature for which man will enter into the contract with each other to form the state.
3] Process of contract: This will determine the terms and conditions, obligations and liabilities of the parties.

1] Description of Human Nature

“Life of a man is a continuous search for power, after power, which ceases only with his death.”

In above statement, Thomas Hobbes explains reasons behind power seeking nature of man.
He applies resolutive compositive method to understand the fundamental characteristics of human nature. Like anything else in the universe, human brain is also made up of particles which are in the state of motion. So long man is alive, particles will remain in the state of motion. All human motions can be categorized into tow basic types. Love and Aversion. The things which give us pleasure, generate the motion /emotion of love and the things which give us pain generate the emotion of aversion. Hence there is a continuous desire for things which give pleasure. Man is not satisfied…. Satisfaction of one pleasure give rise to the search for the other.

Power is a means to obtain the things which give us pleasure. It can be physical power, economic power, political power or any other sort of power. Since the desires for pleasure continue throughout life, the search for power also continues. Hence the life of man is  a continuous search for power after power, which ends only with his death. Thus power seeking nature of man is  a derivative of the utilitarian nature of man.

Critical evaluation: Hobbes description of human nature is too much influenced by the situations prevailing in England during his times. He gives only one sided view of human nature. The way he describes human nature show Hobbes as the scholar of the emerging capitalist class. It cannot be considered as the scientific explanation and is nothing but a discourse.
This can also be seen as an attempt by Hobbes to justify absolute authority of state,

2] State of Nature

“The state of nature is a state of war. Of all against all.”

“In the state of nature, the life of man is nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”

“In the state of nature, there is no scope for art, literature, letters, navigation, industry.”

State of nature is a hypothetical concept used by Social Contract thinker to show how our life will be in the absence of state, or when we live just according to our nature. According to Hobbes, human life in the state of nature will be in the state of war, a war of all against all.
He finds explanation for state of war in the fundamental characteristics of human nature. The fundamental characteristic of human nature is that man is utilitarian. Utilitarian nature of man is because of the movement of particles in brain. Movement of particles continue, so long we are alive. Hence there is a continuous search for pleasure.
Power is a means  to obtain the things which give us pleasure. He brings the dilemma of unlimited desires and limited means. People may have different desires but means to obtain desire is same. Hence all people run after power. There is a competition or struggle for power. Man is assured of enjoying pleasure only when man has more power than the others. Power is a zero sum game. When one person increases his power, it makes other person powerless in the same proportion. Hence the other will also try to acquire power. And the struggle will continue. Hence the life in the state of nature is a state of war. There is no security of life. There is always a fear that other person can deprive me from my life.
When life is not secure, there is no scope for good life. Hence the life of man will be nasty, poor, brutish and short. In such scenario, there will be no scope for civilizational developments. Such a state of nature is a state of pain. Hence pleasure seeking man would like to avoid anarchy or state of nature.

It is to be noted that his description of the state of nature is influenced by the situations prevailing in Britain during the time of civil war. (Puritan Revolution – 1641)

“I and fear were born together.”

In above statement Hobbes has shown that the foundation of the authority of the state lies in the element of fear in man… justification of powerful state… etc.
Hobbes is not only one of the greatest political philosophers, he is also one of the greatest authors in English literature. He has used metaphorical language. The above statement has link with the event in his life. His mother gave premature birth to him because of fear of Spanish Armada. Hence he suggests that “I and fear were born together.”

3] Social Contract

He means to suggest that man is fearful by nature. On the basis of resolutive compositive method, he proves that man is utilitarian, man is fearful of losing the life. Man fears death because death is the end of pleasure. In the state of nature, there was no security of life, it was the state of war, life was nasty, poor, brutish and short. Hence for the sake of security of life, man enters into the contract and creates the state. The most important function of the state is the protection of life. Right to life is the supreme right, state is to preserve the life. And even state cannot take the life of man in an arbitrary manner.

Thus like Machiavelli, he also established the basis of authority in the fearful nature of man.

Who are the parties in the contract?
According to Hobbes, it is a contract of all with all. It means this contract will be applicable on all.

What are the terms and conditions of the contract?
All people decide that they will transfer all of their rights which they were enjoying in the state of nature to the third party. That third party is state or commonwealth.

Was there any limitation on the liberty of man?

There was no limitation on either right or liberty. Man was completely free to do what it wanted. It will result into the situation of chaos. There will be no protection of even life. Hence man will transfer all of the rights except right to self-preservation. Right to self-preservation is inalienable, natural right. Earlier man was sovereign, man had all powers, but now after the transfer state becomes sovereign. State has all powers. Hence the authority of the state is absolute. According to Hobbes, man has only two options . Either to live under the absolute anarchy or under the absolute authority of the state.

Which option man will chose and why?
Man will chose to live under absolute authority of the state rather than anarchy or absolute liberty. Hence security has a primacy over liberty.

“I give up all of my rights, to this assembly or to this person (state) on the conditions that all will give up their rights.”

Hobbes on Liberty

“Liberty is where law is silent.”

Hobbes does not prefer liberty. According to him, extreme liberty results into anarchy. In the state of anarchy, there is not guarantee of even right to life.  For Hobbes, security is the supreme value, more important than liberty.
In the process of contract, man transfers all of their rights except right to life. Since man has transferred all of his rights, the authority of state is absolute. When authority of state is absolute, man has no freedom to act according to his choice. Man is under compulsion to act according to the law. Man will be punished in case he does not act according to law. When man does not follow the law of sovereign, it means he asserts as if he is sovereign.
In a particular territory, there cannot be more than one sovereign. Man will follow law so long it appears to him useful. Man will be tempted to evade law, when it appears more useful.  If one person goes unpunished, others will also follow. It will lead to the state of anarchy. Life of all cannot be brought back into the state of anarchy because of the mischiefs of few persons.
“Man has only two options either to live in the state of absolute authority or absolute anarchy.” Thus the power of sovereign is absolute, man has no freedom to act according to his own wishes. He has freedom to act according to his own wishes, only when law is silent.

[ The statement is not about liberty, rather justification of absolute authority of the state and state’s power to punish those who do not follow law. ]

Liberty is being understood in two forms.

1] Negative liberty – which means absence of state, the original concept of liberty.
2] Positive liberty – the concept came with welfare state. It denotes the capacity building functions performed by state e.g. Amartya Sen defines ‘development’ as freedom.

“Liberty signifies properly the absence of opposition in external impediments to motion.”

Hobbes has provided justification to the absolute authority of the state. He has preference for security over liberty. According to him, man has no liberty where state has made laws. Liberty is where law is silent.
Hobbes is not only one of the greatest philosophers in politics, he is also regarded as one of the greatest authors in English literature. Hence at times, it becomes complicated to understand Hobbes’s ideas. He adds further complication when he incorporates many concepts of natural sciences, specifically physics in the vocabulary of political philosophy.
Hobbes has tried to explain the proper meaning of liberty, by differentiating liberty and capacity. He explains his position on the basis of two examples.
1] A person, having freedom to walk, is unable to walk because he is sick. In this situation, we will say that he does not lack freedom, he simply lacks capacity. Freedom and capacity should not be confused.
2] He gives the example of liquid, closed in the bottle. Liquid has capacity to flow, but unable to flow because walls of the bottle act as impediments to motion of the liquid. Using the concepts of mechanics, he shows that wall is opposing the movement of liquid in turn liquid is putting pressure on the wall. In case there is no wall, there is no such pressure. Thus liberty in proper sense is the absence of opposition in external impediments to motion. Thus liberty in proper sense is absence of law. The walls of the bottle can be equated with the law made by state. Hence when the law exists, man has no option but to act according to law.

Hobbes Model of LIberty
Hobbes’ illustration of liquid in container to explain liberty

Hobbes on Law.

“Covenants without sword are nothing but words and no strength to secure man at all.”

The given statement is a justification of the power of punishment enjoyed by sovereign. It means that law is useless, if it does not come with the power of punishment.
In western world, there are two prominent traditions of law.
1] Natural law / Reason.  Plato, Aristotle favored the tradition.
2] Positive law. Positive law is the law made by state. Hobbes supports the tradition of positive law.

Hobbes does not recognize Natural law as law. He suggests that natural law has two weaknesses.
1] It lacks certainty i.e. It may vary from person to person.
2] It fails to achieve purpose of the law i.e. Establishment of order or security.
He gives the example of state of nature. In the state of nature, there was no state. In the State of Nature, natural law existed. However natural law was not sufficient to establish order. That is why, state of nature was state of war. Natural law is a product of reason, it expects man to be reasonable. In man, reason is dominated by passions.
Man does have reason but only limited reason. The reason which is just enough to help man in getting things which give him pleasure. He does not have enough reason to guide whether man should aspire for that pleasure or not. Hence the reason in never sufficient to establish order. According to Hobbes, there can be peace in the state of nature, if man acts with reason but it is the dilemma of life that man is controlled by passions. Hence he suggests that natural law is not a law in proper sense. It is better to use the term ‘Articles of peace’ or ‘Councils of prudence’.
Only positive law can establish peace. It is definite and it comes with the power of punishment. If there is no fear of punishment, man will not obey law. Thus fear is the basis of authority.
If we look at the state of international politics, it is in state of anarchy, where power is a means and power is an end. International law is a weak law. It is voluntary in nature, it lacks power of enforcement.

Hobbes suggests that the law without fear of punishment is not law in proper sense. In the state of nature, there was natural law. However natural law was insufficient to establish order. Hence the state of nature was nasty, poor, brutish and short. Natural law depends on the reason of man. If man follows natural law, there will be peace. However the dilemma is that man has limited reason, and his passions dominate over his reason. Hence he suggests that it is better to call natural law as ‘Articles of peace’ or ‘Councils of prudence’.
According to him, law in proper sense is command of sovereign. Not only the law made by state is definite, it also comes with the fear of punishment. If fear of punishment is not there, man will not obey law. Hence he suggests that “Covenants without swords are nothing but words.” Hobbes view is quiet acceptable when we compare the situation in domestic sphere with that of international sphere. International law lacks power of enforcement and hence international politics continues to be the struggle for power.

Assessment of Hobbes as a thinker.

Hobbes as greatest of all individualist.

Individualism is a philosophy of modern times. However we can trace its roots in the thoughts of Sophists. According to the individualists, self-interest has a priority over the interest of the whole. Individualists can be categorized into two types.
1] Methodological individualists: Those who evolve their political theory on the individualistic nature of man. e.g. Hobbes builds his political theory on the individualistic nature of man. Hence he is methodological individualist.
2] Normative individualists: Normative individualists are those for whom, there is nothing wrong in being individualist. Hobbes is regarded as even the normative individualist. He considers that there is nothing wrong in being individualist. He is normative individualist because he does not believe that human nature has to be changed. For him, there is no difference between is and ought.

Hobbes is considered as greatest of all individualists, because he was the first person to logically establish on the basis of resolutive compositive method that man is utilitarian by nature and so man is individualistic by nature. It is as a natural fact as earth moves around the sun. He was the first person to remove the sense of guilt from being selfish.
Hobbes is a scholar of the capitalist class. His philosophy serves the interest of the capitalist class. Because he legitimizes the capitalists maximization of profits. He suggests that there is nothing wrong as everyone is self-centered. He can be considered as greatest of all individualists, also because he established that right to life is the absolute right and man can kill other man for the purpose of protection of his life. At times, scholars find contradictions in his thoughts e.g. According to McPherson, “Hobbes start as an individualist, concludes as absolutist.” or “Hobbes in individualist in his assumptions, but absolutist in his conclusions.” However according to Sabine, Hobbes’ absolutism is a derivative of his individualism. It is for the protection of the individual and his right to life, Hobbes create absolute state. Even when he creates absolute state, he gives individual right to resist the state in case state deprives him from his right to life.

“Leviathan is useless as a book of history and fruitless as a book of politics.” – Vaughan

Hobbes is one of the most criticized scholars. He was described as devil, Leviathan was described as a book containing lewd principles, poisonous tadpoles. His book was among the prohibited books by the church and was burnt twice during his life.
Vaughan was contemporary of Hobbes and critic of Hobbes. According to Vaughan, Leviathan is a useless book. It neither tells the reliable account of origin of the state. Leviathan is also a fruitless book to understand the politics.
However it is wrong to criticize Hobbes. Hobbes’ purpose was not to tell the history of the origin of the state. His purpose was to tell why we should obey state and how our life will be without state. Hobbes is not an anthropologist to give the scientific account of the origin of the state. Hence the criticism is not justified.
Hobbes is one of the most important scholars to understand the principles of modern political life. Leviathan is not only a masterpiece in English literature, it is also a masterpiece in political philosophy. Karl Marx who is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers, has acknowledged Hobbes as father of all of us.

“While Bodin was standing on gates on modernity, it was Hobbes who jumped inside the gate.”

Who is to be treated as the first modern thinker, remains contested.  Since modern political life revolves around the modern nation state, and the most distinctive aspect of the modern nation state is, the theory of sovereignty. The thinker who has given the first complete theory of the sovereignty of the state deserves to be known as the first modern thinker.

There are three major contestants for the status of first modern thinker.
1. Machiavelli
Some scholars regard Machiavelli as the first modern thinker because he was the first person to give the concept of nation state. However Machiavelli, though established the primacy of nation, has not given any systematic view on sovereignty.
2. The second contestant is Bodin. Bodin was the first person to give the theory of sovereignty of the state. He defined sovereignty as the supreme power of state over the citizens and subjects. However Bodin’s theory is partial. As he gives sovereignty, to the state only in secular matters, as far as the matter of religion is concerned, church is supreme.
3. Hobbes. It was Hobbes who gave the first complete explanation for the sovereignty of the state. He held that even church is under the state. It is for this reason his book was prohibited by the church.
Since Hobbes has given the complete, systematic, logical explanation of the theory of sovereignty, he deserves to be called as the first modern thinker and we can say that Bodine was  standing at the gate of modernity, he could not come out of medieval mentality completely. And hence it is right to suggest that Hobbes jumped inside the gate.

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I have kept mam notes on one side and this tab opened the other. SR notes have made me understand the base but PSIR India notes have given a flow to my understanding and answers. I really want to congratulate the team for their wonderful work and help.

Last edited 6 months ago by Shantanu Pawar

Thankyou so much for this crisp explanation..


Thank you so 💓 much


Should be Counsels of prudence instead of Councils of prudence at a couple of places


I spent 1200 ₹ on buying SR notes from markte and 50000 ₹ to study optional from would have been better if I had known about this earlier.I should make a donation of 5,000₹ at least.

ill come
thank you so much I have SR notes but am not able to find them systematically.



Last edited 1 year ago by Niraj

Although I have SR mam notes but it is not in exact order syllabus wise, hence I really appreciate your team efforts to bring mam notes for 1A & 2A in organised form. Thank you so much to the whole team.Keep the good work going.


Shubhra Mams notes are copy of these notes.. regret spending on her notes!!!!




wow, superb!!!!! I am studying PSIR from Subhra Mam’s notes. I must say you have explained it very systematically. Loved it!

Varaprasad kommu

Actually,it is also shubhra mam notes.