Philosophy Essay - Hobbes in 21st Century - UG 2:2 | Critical Essays

Philosophy Essay – Hobbes in 21st Century – UG 2:2

Is a Hobbesian solution appropriate for life in 21st Century Britain?


Leviathan was published in 1651, the year in which saw the end of the “third” English Civil Wars. It offered neither Parliamentarians nor the Royalist full support, due to its ambiguity. On the one hand, Hobbes suggested that a Monarch could undertake any course of action towards his dominions, so long as he maintained security and defence. “…to whatsoever Man, or Assembly that hath the Soveraignty, to be Judge both of the means of Peace and Defence”.[1] Most importantly, Hobbes clearly stated that a sovereign could not be punished by his subjects, which would be inappropriate in 21st century Britain. Without the sovereign, whether it be a group or individual, there would be no enforcer of covenants. In turn, they would be utterly void in the state of nature due to the lack of ‘fear of punishment’ to oblige them, “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”[2] Hobbes expresses clearly that a sovereign should be the ultimate power and enforcer, to take matters into his own hands while all his subjects are obliged to follow. However, on the other hand,  Hobbes exclaims that an individual can go back on his covenant if he feels it no longer secures his self preservation, which was the case with Parliament and King Charles I. Thus, the King has to answer to the subjects, and this idea was the birth of democracy in England, although different to what we experience in 21st Century Britain.

Hobbes fails to draw the line between these two rights that both parties share, which ultimately renders the covenant between the sovereign and subject void. Such ambiguity was the topic of debate amongst the nobility during the restoration period in England. There is also ambiguity in Hobbes’ theory, which is well addressed by Martinich in The Two Gods of Leviathan in regards to covenants in the state of nature. He states that because there is no coercive power in the state of nature to enforce covenants, then “no covenant creating a government could be made in the state of nature.”[3] Then how can governments be set up?While ‘perceivable flaws’ inhabit Leviathan and Hobbes’ thinking, Hobbes’ influence and philosophy has become more important to us in our increasingly dangerous world were wars could see the deaths of millions, if not the destruction of civilisation. This is because, at the core of Hobbes’ work is the idea of power and it offers insight in controlling and taming power: something of a remedy for our modern era. According to C.B. M Macpherson we are drawn closer to Hobbes on three major accounts, power, peace and science[4]. Thus, it must be asked, is a Hobbesian solution appropriate for life in 21st Century Britain? In a nutshell, yes and no. The Hobbesian solution was never flawless to begin in the 17th century, and nothing could be further from the truth in our current society. The English Civil Wars demonstrated this, as rights of both parties come in clear contradiction to each other. However, the foundation and analysis made by Hobbes in Part 1 Of Man in regards to the objects in which he builds his political science is fundamental, and the use of fear has been one of the prevalent tools of our world leaders. Hobbes has given us a fresh perspective of human nature and the mechanisms of motion. Thus, Hobbes is still very important for us due to these amazing insights. Before demonstrating that elements of the Hobbesian solution is in some ways appropriate and inappropriate for life in 21st Century Britain, I will clear the grey areas of Hobbes political science, delve into the arguments of his contemporaries while at the same time drawing on a concrete solution.

For Hobbes, two of the most important elements of human nature are fear and self-preservation. Many times these go hand in hand, I.e. the fear for self-preservation.  Part I of Leviathan was not only important for Hobbes to build and base his political science around, but it is important for us in understanding human behaviour. If there are flaws, then his whole science crafted through a delicate composite method would collapse like a house of cards. If Hobbes’ theory of man in the state of nature should stand, then there would be no escape from the state of nature, for no covenant would be valid. Drawing upon Martinich’s rightly spotted flaws in Hobbes’ state of nature, I shall, colour in the gaps. The state of nature is an artificial scenario of man in a world without civil law. For clarity, I shall as Martinich did, refer to the artificial state of nature as the primary state of nature, and the state of nature in which the ‘Laws of nature’ are introduced as the secondary state of nature.

In chapter 14 Hobbes says that “if a covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties perform presently, but trust one another in the condition of mere nature, which is a condition of war of every man against everyone, upon any reasonable suspicion, it is void.”[5] In chapter 15, Hobbes lays the laws of nature in which he claims as law three, “that men perform their covenants.”[6] Now this poses a very interesting dilemma for Hobbes’ philosophy, for covenants are deemed as void in the state of nature (both primary and secondary) if there is no power to enforce them. In the secondary state of nature a civil government has still not been set up. I shall demonstrate that covenants are valid in the secondary state of nature, and ultimately have to be.

Firstly, reasonable suspicion does not necessarily mean suspicion of everyone, and unlike the primary state of nature, Hobbes gives birth to injustice. For, according to Hobbes, man is just by default, and actions only become unjust if a covenant is broken which come into play in the secondary state of nature. Again, it is clear that Hobbes meant for covenants to exist. How otherwise can man be unjust if there are no covenants to break? Two great examples of covenants in the secondary state of nature are given by Hobbes in the scenario of the pirate’s ransom and the weaker prince.

The following quotes deserve to be quoted in full:

“If I covenant to pay a ransome, or service for my life; to an enemy; I am bound by it. For it is a contract, wherein one receiveth the benefit of life; the other is to receive money, or service for it; and consequently, where no other Law (as in the condition, of meer Nature) forbade the performance, the covenant is valid. Therefore Prisoners of warre, if trusted with the payment of their Ransome, are obliged to pay it: And if a weaker Pricne, make a disadvantageous peace with a stronger, for feare: he is bound to keep it; unless (as hath been sayd before) there ariseth some new, and just cause for feare, to renew the war.”[7]

Hobbes is clearly demonstrating that covenants are valid in the state of nature, especially when it comes to someone’s life being threatened, as Hobbes states many times, one cannot lay down the right for his self-preservation and defence. This is reinforced by Hobbes as he states “covenants entered into by fear, in the condition of mere nature, are obligatory.”[8] And the enforcer in the secondary state of nature, (God) is not the best of enforcers, as men fear other humans more than they do invisible powers. Therefore there is a necessity for a sovereign to be set up on earth. Without God as the enforcer then it would be impossible to set up a sovereign on earth and keep man and his passions in check. A civil government is needed to enforce the laws of nature because God is not so sufficient in doing so. Just because a covenant is void, does not mean that no covenants exist. Covenants in a civil society can be broken, just as they are in the state of nature. Theft and scams are not uncommon breaking of covenants in our 21st century Britain. Even attempts to take power from a government are not so uncommon in history, even when the lives of the subjects are not threatened. Covenants in the secondary state of nature should be followed, but there would be no punishment (in this life) for breaking a covenant and being unjust.

Before I embark on Hobbes operating in our 21st century Britain, I would like to pause and look at Hobbes and his critics, especially in his own age. There are numerous great thinkers of the 17th and 18th century who went against Hobbes. Sir Robert Filmer, Alexander Rosse, Clarendon, George Lawson, and Whitehall are but to name a few. According to John Bowle, “they emphasised the inadequacy of purely rationalistic social programme, the importance of the distinction between society and government, and a need to maintain a standard whereby state power can be judged.”[9] Hobbes removed such a standard, giving in their view, the state ability to use tyranny. Rosse was strongly against this, claiming ‘There is to put no difference between the father and the butcher of his country. A king governs and is governed by laws – a tyrant hath no law but his will.”[10] This is something that requires careful consideration, as I shall demonstrate later, a Hobbesian solution will find difficulties operating in a democratic 21st century Britain. While Hobbes received severe attacks on his works, it appeared to be more a battle of old traditionalist fighting to keep hold of views they were so acquainted with. Filmer, while sympathetic to Hobbes views of sovereignty, completely disagrees with his premises, “If God created Adam and of a piece of him made the woman, and if by generation of them Two, as parts of them all mankind be propagated.”[11] Clarendon said it would be against God’s purpose if “he should leave His creatures, His masterpiece, in a war of all against all.”[12] John Bowle says of Hobbes that “He was attempting nothing less than to deduce a political philosophy from deterministic assumptions which made men appear automata, devoid of free will.”[13] Throughout such a long list of critics, especially in Hobbes’ times, much of the attacks focus on combating blows that Hobbes exacts upon religion and the church. The ideas of free will, religion, and its giving birth to the state are the points in which his critics try to defend. Rosse cannot make it any clearer, “I quarrel… with his book, which not onely I, but many more, who are both learned, and judicious, men, look upon as a dangerous piece both to government and religion.” It is extremely clear that critics could not argue with Hobbes on an intellectual level until they were prepared to drop their foundation of thought based on creation and religion. The idea of freewill gave them no freewill to manoeuvre and look at Hobbes’ arguments from a different view point, subtracting religion from clear facts.

With Hobbes’ philosophy cleared up, we can now look at the theory in light of the 21st century Britain. Although there are vast differences between 17th and 21st Century Britain we still remain the same objects. Hobbes admired Thucydides whom he translated, due to his “down to earth view that men could learn from history ‘how to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future.”[14] Fear and self-preservation are still our governing motions which propel us to take action. A great example in history of this is the Cold War and the development of game theory. The idea was to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent, not for actual usage.  Through fear of annihilation, neither side will see it in their interest to go to war, and Hobbes based his political science on the idea that all men agreed that peace is ‘good’. It is such fear that would allow the Hobbesian solution to work in the 21st Century Britain. Professor Carlo Ginzburg claims that it is the “fear factor that sustains authority,”[15] and I would agree that there is a technological terror which glues states together. An example of technological terror would be the bombing of Bagdad in 2003. Dr Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University similarly said “While Hobbes saw authority as free men’s chosen solution to the imperfections of anarchy, his 21st century heirs seek to create the fear that led to submission.”[16] Submission and obedience has still not been received by defeated Afghanistan, and later Iraq.

What is the consequence of such failure on Hobbes’ political science? It could be viewed that Hobbes’ political science is weak and has clearly been demonstrated by the failings of America and the neoconservatives. On the other hand, it might not show success or failure, as America and Britain did not intend to become new sovereigns, but only to gain rights to the nations resources. I prefer the latter, as the sovereigns’ duty is to protect the people, and only then could he be granted entitlement to their obedience.  America and her British allies attempted to gain sovereignty via acquisition (which is validated in Leviathan) but they put Afghanistan and, later Iraq in a situation where they were self-preserving themselves from American domination.[17] America was seen by Iraq not as a new sovereign, but a temporary sovereign which intends only the strip the nation of valuable resources and then leave. What is interesting about the Neoconservatives is that they have, unlike our theoretical analysis, undertaken direct practical principles from Hobbes. However, their failure should not be taken as a reflection of the frailties with the Hobbesian solution. Their isolation of specific parts of Leviathan in regards to power and submission has misled them and their understanding of Thomas Hobbes’ political science. It is in my view that the whole of Leviathan cannot be used in modern 21st century, due to the many differences of society and our way of ruling, such as our new age of democracy. It must be used in parts, at least in order to reshape it into a working solution for the 21st century Britain.

Attention should be given to what kind of civil government Hobbes envisaged for his political science? The 21st Century Britain is a democratic state. Would Hobbes’ political science be applicable? In regards to where the line should be drawn between Sovereign and subjects in a democracy, I shall deal with this later as it ties together with the situation of King and Parliament and the civil wars. Interestingly, Hobbes is clear that the Leviathan can be a monarch, or a group of individuals such as a parliament. However, Hobbes viewed democracies as ‘defects’. He argued that monarchs are better suited for rule because their policies will be more consistent, (because he is of one mind), civil war is unlikely because a Monarch cannot declare war upon himself and because the monarch shares the same body as the state, for he is the sovereign and is the Leviathan. The very term leviathan is a metaphor used by Thomas Hobbes to represent the sovereign. In the book of Job, the Leviathan is described as the “King of all the children of pride.” Pride and all other passions of men must be checked, for such passions will always put covenants in danger. When Hobbes speaks about an unhealthy Leviathan, a democratic leviathan is seen as “Defectuous Procreation.”[18] For he states in point five that “if the sovereign is subject to the laws he creates,” then the Leviathan is unhealthy. Leaders, especially in the 21st century Britain cannot be free from the laws they create. According to Quentin Skinner, Hobbes “treats it as one of the disadvantages of democracy that ‘all men have a hand in public business’”[19]. Although Hobbes’ work is not a doctrine for dictatorship as if often perceived, his view that power should ultimately be vested into the hands of one man does not go down too well in the 21st Century Britain. Tyranny in our modern society is often linked to abuse of power and horrific crimes. We only have to look at tyrants of the past, such as Hitler and Stalin, while looking at modern tyrants such as Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-il. It is in my view, that Hobbes is correct in assuming individual leaders make for better decisions, but when it comes to corruption and abuse of powers, dictatorships tend to go overboard unlike the petty scams in democracies.

However, we as people in our 21st century Britain are constantly laying down some of our rights to create covenants and strengthen our sovereign for our protection and defence. A great example of this would be the new terrorist acts of 2006 in Britain. Following the London Bombings of 2005 acts have been passed which have given police the ability to detain suspects for 28 days (from two) , greater police stop and search powers and warrants to enable police to search property of suspected terrorist. Such fear orchestrated by the state can be paralleled to Hobbes’ idea to have the state hand out copies of Leviathan for people to read and be obedient. Growing fear of crime in Britain has also led to increased police stop and search powers. It is clear to see that due to fears for our preservation, we as human beings will always give up further liberties for our protection. A return to the state of anarchy is at the end of the spectrum of danger that we face, and here the Hobbesian solution stands strong. And we are not permitted to complain upon any impediments, restrictions and invasions of our privacy, imposed upon us by our sovereign as we have agreed to it initially by setting up our sovereign. In our democratic state, this further demand for protection was not part of the original contract, but has been demanded by the people. If you like, it is an upgrade of protection in the contract. “They made artificall chains, called civil lawes, which they themselves, by naturall covenants, have fastened at one end, to the lips of that Man…to whome they have given their Sovereigne Power.”[20] And this is true of our society in the 21st century Britain, as some smaller freedoms have been lost to secure our major freedoms and liberties.

As I stated in the introduction, the leader’s rights come into direct clash with the rights of the subjects. In the 21st century Britain, although we retain the monarchy, it has little influence in politics. How can the Hobbesian solution work when the leader always has to answer to the people in our democratic state? In Hobbes’ Leviathan, a leader has the right to do whatever he perceives as the best method of maintaining peace. In the 21st century Britain, subjects have the right to re-elect another leader after the prime minister’s term ends. A leader has to secure the protection of the people, but if his actions are perceived as unfavourable, his popularity will diminish and he will fall from office (the nation being safer or not under his rule). Putting aside economic pressures a leader would face in an advanced capitalistic state, public pressure currently now exists which was not in existence in the 17th century. Freedom of Speech and the power of the media has given rise to many protests against governments, the most recent being the protest against the Iraq war. The Hobbesian solution even strips our freedoms of thought which is one of the main achievements of the 21st century Britain, promoting more free thinkers than ever before. Such rights of the sovereign would not work in the 21st century Britain. Examples of these rights would be 6 and 8 illustrated respectively – “The sovereign may determine what ideas are acceptable (he is the ultimate judge of the philosophical/scientific first principles” and “the sovereign has judicial power in all controversies, civil and intellectual”. 17th century Britain went a long way in reforming into a secular system, but it has gone even further in the 21st century, with intellectual ideas and science. The government of 21st century Britain has, and should have no part to play in sciences and ideas. The commonwealth is shaped by the people themselves. In the 21st century, the sovereign is not a self-perpetuating sovereign, and his or her standing in office is based on popularity.

An introduction to Leviathan by C. B. Macpherson says that Hobbes wrote of 17th century subjects as being bourgeoisie. He goes on to say “One cannot be sure how far he was aware of this – now he saw it, now he didn’t.”[21]  According to Macpherson “With one or two corrections it is a remarkably good one,”[22] as he is missing only a few major elements of a bourgeoisie society. It is clear that our self-interests are our driving force, which in our modern society has shifted more from food and land to commerce. We, like our 17th century counterparts, are bourgeoisie, and Macpherson argues that once it is pinpointed, it is clear to see. Therefore he argues that there is not much difference between Hobbes’ model in the 17th century and of that of the 21st Century.

So how can the Hobbesian solution work if we do not allow the sovereign so much freedom and why should a leader make a difficult decision then be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ by the public and media due to unpopular but righteous decision making? If this is the case then the Leviathan is ill and does not fit into Hobbes’ view of the relationship between sovereign and subjects. In our 21st century Britain, the rights of the subjects have been extended. What if we could mend the model, without changing the fundamentals of human nature in Part I Of Man. Could the Hobbesian solution not be tweaked to fit fully our 21st Century Britain? Maybe this gap has already been bridged before our very eyes. As I stated earlier, our current political system has not accidentally fallen into place, but has been designed and constructed by the motions of man, as “everything, including human sensation, is caused by motion, or more accurately by the differences of motion.”[23] There is little difference in our primary and natural makeup as our 17th century counterparts. Maybe the question should not be, Is the Hobbesian solution appropriate, but is our 21st century Britain a evolution from 17th century Britain?

Let us take a look at the current civil government in Britain. The prime minister holds office for four years and despite unpopular decisions, he will remain in power until elections. The Media’s power and the public’s protest do not mean rebellion and if you like, fall on deaf ears in regards to leadership. A various and significant number of freedoms exist, especially in ideas and movement. This democratic system of the 21st Century could arguably be that bridge between the rights of a sovereign and its subjects, unlike the ambiguity of the 17th century which saw a return to the state of nature in the civil war(s). Here, both parties receive a fair amount of luxury to play out their roles. The Leviathan thus is a continually changing Leviathan, with each leader serving a shorter but more efficient role. With such a system, the snaky hands of tyranny are warded off and people remain contempt with the ability to decide their own fate and pass judgement. This is the standard that Hobbes’ contemporaries demanded “whereby state power can be judged.”[24]

Taking the foundation of Hobbes model and tweaking trivial elements such as drawing the line between rebellion and complete rule, we are able to look at the Hobbesian solution working in our 21st century Britain. If it doesn’t work, then Hobbes’ analyses Of Man in Part I would have to be flawed. If, as I believe the foundation of Hobbes’ work on man to be accurate, then the development in Britain seen from the 17th  to the 21st Century is a result to us, man, the objects within the system. If that is also deemed to be true, then the Hobbesian solution is not only applicable and appropriate, but it is already in effect. It has been updated by the ever evolving thoughts of the objects in it. It is based on our fundamental motions of fear, preservation and ultimately, fear for our self-preservation. We remain the same objects in Hobbes model that rebelled against King Charles I. We remain the same objects who lay down our rights of freedoms in return for further protection against crime. It is clear that fear is still widely used in our modern day society – fears of nuclear developments, national security, crime and acts of terrorism have dominated the public thought. However, such hypotheses are easy to draw out and conclude, but not so easy to prove. We can see for ourselves certain problems with the Hobbesian solution (not the tweaked version) taken directly from Hobbes period, working in a democracy and the failings of the Neoconservatives in their thirst for power. Hobbes wrote a political science which attempted to aid man kind in showing him what kind of government we needed to secure peace. Although the elements of power are deeply woven into such a text, it is not a blue print for controlling nations. I believe that certain elements of Hobbes’ political science are very valuable to us, such as his analysis of man and the sovereign’s use of fear to keep man in check. If the Hobbesian solution cannot be tweaked, then it is up for the brains of our current and next generations to reassemble if not rework such a theory. It should not be discarded outright because of certain flaws, as I have demonstrated routes around them, but it should also not be followed religiously; for a theory is nothing more than a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural. Even if we are or are not a product of Hobbesian solution to maintaining peace, the Hobbesian solution would still be appropriate for us as intellectuals even if one renders it obsolete, because no matter what – the Leviathan is a very interesting text, giving us fascinating insights into philosophy, anthropology, and science. This is likely the reason as to why it is still being read to this day, appropriate or not.







G. E. Aylmer, The Interregnum: The Quest for Settlement 1646-1660, Macmillan Press, London: 1972.

Bowle, John, Hobbes and his Critics, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, London, 1969.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Fear Reverence Terror, Italy, 2008.

Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson, London: 1968.

The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. W. Molesworth, 1839-45, Vol. VIII

Martinich, A. P. The Two Gods of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Internet Sources


Drayton, Richard. ‘Shock, awe and Hobbes have backfired on America’s neo-cons, Wednesday December 28 2005 00.03 GMT,



[1] Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson, London, 1968, p. 232.

[2] Ibid., p. 223.

[3] Martinich, A. P. The Two Gods of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics, Cambridge:   Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 83.

[4] Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson, London, 1968, p. 11.

[5] Leviathan, p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.

[7] Ibid., p. 198.

[8] Ibid., p. 198.

[9] Bowle, John, Hobbes and his Critics, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, London, 1969, p.9.

[10] Ibid., p. 66.

[11] Ibid., p. 16.

[12] Ibid., p. 164.

[13] Ibid., p. 50.

[14] The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. W. Molesworth, 1839-45, Vol. VIII, P. VII.

[15] Ginzburg, Carlo. Fear Reverence Terror, Italy, 2008.

[16] Drayton, Richard. ‘Shock, awe and Hobbes have backfired on America’s neo-cons, Wednesday December 28 2005 00.03 GMT,

[17] Ginzburg, Carlo. Fear Reverence Terror, Italy, 2008.

[18] Leviathan., p. 364.

[19] G. E. Aylmer, The Interregnum: The Quest for Settlement 1646-1660, Macmillan Press, London: 1972, p. 82.

[20] Leviathan, p. 263-264.

[21] Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson, London, 1968, p. 12.

[22] Ibid., p.7.

[23] Ibid., p. 18.

[24] Hobbes and his Critics, p.9