The Shadow of Tyranny

By Gabriel Blanchard

The political ideology of Hobbes, formed by his times, may yet not be so strange to ours.

England saw one of its most turbulent periods in the seventeenth century. The religious settlement of Elizabeth I was being strained in every direction. Puritans were clamoring for further reforms in the Church of England to remove vestiges of “popery,” especially Calvinists. Meanwhile, the increasingly unpopular Stuart monarchy was emphasizing its prerogatives, and endorsing rituals that many considered the thin end of a Catholic wedge. The tension erupted into a series of civil wars, starting in 1642. Before it all ended, Parliament had executed a king for treason—an act without precedent in English history. The plague broke out again more than once that century, and a gigantic fire ruined much of London in 1666.

It was against this background that Thomas Hobbes lived and worked. A philosopher, translator, and mathematician, he even served as a tutor to Charles II, the son of the executed king, who would return to England and restore the monarchy in 1660.

Hobbes is a key figure in the transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. He attempted to design a political philosophy that was as objective and axiomatic as geometry, rather than one entangled with history and culture. Like later Enlightenment thinkers, Hobbes upheld the social contract theory; however, he drew quite different conclusions, resembling autocratic political ideals popular during the Renaissance.

His principal work is Leviathan, subtitled The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. He published it while more or less in exile in Paris, safely out of reach of Cromwell’s government. The name refers to one of the monsters from the book of Job, which God uses to taunt Job with his powerlessness. The famous frontispiece, partly shown here in the image overlay, bore the Vulgate text of Job 41.24, meaning “There is no power on earth to be compared to him.” The gigantic figure of the monarch holds both a sword and a crozier, symbols of power over state and church alike.

To begin with, Hobbes asserted that there was no summum bonum or greatest good, because people want too many different things. There was, however, a greatest evil: death. The state of nature, before or without civilization, was one of total war for survival between every individual; he famously summarized life in the state of nature as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The alternative was for men to come together into a commonwealth, exchanging their personal liberties to a sovereign, for protection from this horrible anarchy. This sovereign might be democratic, monarchic, or aristocratic; Hobbes argued in favor of a monarchy on practical grounds, though it was not a theoretical requirement of his system.

In the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death.

All this was a radical departure from Medieval and Renaissance political theory. A unified idea of human purpose and a summum bonum, and the responsibility of the state to promote the common good, were basic assumptions. Even his notion of the state of nature flew in the face of Aristotle, whose definition of man as “a political animal” (or as we might say today, a social animal) was all but universal.

Still, so far, this is none too unusual by later Enlightenment standards. Even his preference for a singular monarch, rather than an assembly of some kind (whether noble or popular), was not so odd. But Hobbes went further. He claimed that, in order to achieve this security, individuals had to give up all of their liberties and rights absolutely to their sovereign. He enumerated a multitude of powers that only the sovereign has: total authority over all laws; immunity to any attempt to change the form of government; authority to define religious doctrine; power to examine and censor all writing and speech; and immunity against any claim that he has acted unjustly. In fact, Hobbes argued that it was logically impossible for the sovereign to act unjustly, because the social contract presupposed total consent to anything the sovereign might do thereafter. Tyranny, by definition, could not exist—only rebellion, which the government had a right to put down by any means it chose.

Unsurprisingly, Leviathan was not popular with the Parliamentarian government that had executed King Charles I for treason. The English royalists, however, liked it no better: Catholics and Anglicans alike were infuriated by its secularism. The court-in-exile of Charles II shunned Hobbes, and he fled back to England only a few months after publishing it, fearing for his life. Nevertheless, when Charles II reclaimed the throne, he showed favor to his former tutor, protecting him against certain legal dangers and granting him a pension.

Hobbes’ legacy (other than indirect fame through a cartoon namesake!) is hard to discern. The philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to follow in his footsteps in affirming some version of social contract theory; but few of them agreed with his extremely dark view of human nature, and the authors of classical Liberalism—Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the like—attacked royal absolutism and defended individual freedoms. We see something like Hobbes re-emerge in the twentieth century, with the rise of fascism and its accent on a supreme, all-powerful leader. In that sense, the shadow of tyranny cast by Leviathan still lies over us.


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at this introduction to Sophocles, this three-part series on the role of the Classics in the history of Black education, or this piece on dealing with propaganda.

Published on 30th November, 2020.

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