The Totalitarian Doctrine of Hobbes

Hobbes’s political doctrine is totalitarian. He bases his thought on premises of human nature and social contracts that are themselves wrong and paradoxical, with his particular view of the state of nature, “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre as is of every man against every man”[1] being shown to have no basis but within muddled views of human nature based on anecdotal evidence. He sees humans as atomistically individual and out for themselves, meaning that only a central authority can control them. However, both earlier and later concepts of political thought, such as propounded through Lockean theory and theory from libertarian and anarchist traditions, have shown that humans actively cooperate and that it is in our nature to do so. Locke provided examples of such behaviour occurring in societies where power was not centrally concentrated. Then there is his view of how the sovereign should act, being a centralised controller who enforces forms of behaviour that ends the so called state of war. Hobbes propounds the idea that the sovereign must have absolute power over their subjects so as to maintain the rule of law. To do this, he believes both that individual’s natural rights must to some extent be violated, and that the sovereign itself be above the law. These ideas are a recipe for tyranny. Further, Hobbes believes in some form of implicit consent towards such a sovereign in his social contract theory. By being born into a society, you automatically follow its laws without question. Again, this is a tyrannical proposition that quashes any questioning of or rebellion against bad government, meaning that even the most brutal of dictatorships are legitimate as individuals happen to live within a sovereign’s territory. Finally, there is Hobbes’s failure to recognise how the state, or sovereign, actually exists. The state itself is based on coercive means of funding coupled with implicit recognition of its absolute power. Nearly every example of a nation-state or central authority is one dogged by repression, war and corruption. The case is that the state itself creates the problems that Hobbes sees in the state of nature. Elements of power grabs and pure self-interest and greed are seen within the state and organisations that rely on a commonwealth. Hobbes’s contention that the state is the only arbiter of individuals and society is itself completely despotical, as history has shown.

Hobbes’s political theory was written during the time of the English Civil War, where Hobbes saw a lawlessness that ended with a huge death toll and an unnecessary change in the sovereign power. He saw the dissolution of the monarchy during the civil war a result of human passions, rather than based on rational grounds. Further, he saw this dissolution as leading the citizens of England into a position of anarchy, where “every man against every man…The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place”[2]. Thus Hobbes had a view of human nature as that of inevitably leading to constant war. Without a common power survival was key and one only looks out for oneself, with society seen as a zero-sum game. However, this view of human nature has no place within history, and itself gives rise to tyranny as it sees an all-powerful, absolutist government as the solution to this warped view of human nature. As Tarlton notes ” Hobbes reduced human beings to no more than ‘herds of cattle, each of which has a master, who looks after it in order to devour it’”[3], suggesting that humans are naturally brutal creatures who require the forceful hand of a sovereign to keep them in line. However, nearly every philosophy before and since has contradicted such a view. As Tarlton states “Hobbes’s contemporaries, however, generally recognized the despotical nature of the political theory of Leviathan. Many writers, from widely disparate political persuasions, agreed in rejecting Hobbes’s absolutist prescriptions”[4] Smith for example saw in human beings natural feelings of sympathy, what he termed fellow-feeling. As Smith explained “Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever”[5]. Locke, too, disagreed with the Hobbesian view of humanity and its existence within a state of nature. For Locke, the state of nature is “a state of equality, in which… all born to all the same advantages of nature and to the use of the same abilities, should also be equal”[6]. This is in contravention of Hobbes, who states “And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation; that is, by force”[7] suggesting that humans are not equal and are instead consumed with the accumulation of power, thus needing a central enforcer to maintain the rule of law. Further exploration into the realm of human nature has again shown Hobbes to be wrong, and in some cases for opposite conclusions to be true. Bauman states “we know that people enlisted into the organizations most directly involved in the business of mass murder were neither abnormally sadistic nor abnormally fanatical. We can assume that they shared in the well-nigh instinctual human aversion to the affliction of physical suffering, and even more universal inhibition against taking life”[8]. This shows firstly that humans have a natural aversion to murder and other brutal behaviour that Hobbes assumes we characteristically would use without the control of a sovereign. Secondly, it shows that the organisational characteristics of modern civilisation, particularly governments and bureaucracy, serve to create the conditions that produce the behaviours Hobbes believed to be a part of human nature. Arendt saw this as well with her concept of the “banality of evil”[9] whereby evil acts are committed because of one’s inherent evilness, but rather because of organisational structures, such the Nazi bureucratic state, that devolve responsibility and allow for acts of great evil. This shows that the state is no enforcer of a particular concept of human nature, but rather dilutes individuals’ innate humanity. Overall, Hobbes’s view of human nature actually constructs a tyrannical form of society, where control is necessary to supposedly allow for the rule of law. Because Hobbes sees this as the norm, he believes that an all-powerful sovereign is necessary and indeed desired, otherwise we end up in a position similar to the English Civil War. However, much of history and philosophy contradicts this view, and shows in fact a much more benevolent picture of human nature, which in many ways seems to be the norm. As Locke pointed out “The promises and bargains for truck, etc., between the two men in Soldania…and keeping of faith belongs to men as men, and not as members of society”[10] showing how humans create peaceful relations not through a centralised body but through transaction and trade. However, because Hobbes takes this warped view of human nature and how it functions, he creates a political theory that is itself tyrannical, proposing an absolutist sovereign that is above the law, with the power to do what it likes without question from those who are subject to it.

With the Hobbesian view of human nature, the form of sovereign prescribed to end the state of nature is a tyrannical, despotical one. This can seen with Hobbes’s view of the sovereign’s right to be above the law. As Hobbes writes “there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign; and consequently none of his subjects, by any pretence of forfeiture, can be freed from his subjection”[11]. This demonstrates a sovereign’s status as being above the law, based on the idea that a covenant is created by the subjects to a sovereign, meaning any act or law instituted by said sovereign has been implicitly ratified by the people. This itself is a recipe for tyranny, as it is accepting a role for dictatorial, authoritarian government that can effectively do as it pleases. Hobbes states further that “every subject is by this institution author of all the actions and judgements of the sovereign instituted, it follows that whatsoever he doth, can be no injury to any of his subjects; nor ought he to be by any of them accused of injustice”[12] again following the same logic of accepting the rulings of the sovereign due to living within the proximity of said sovereign. In this case, it allows for the ability to commit injury on the part of the sovereign, meaning again the very real potential for an extreme form of tyranny, where property and even the body are subject to the sovereign and not the individual. Then when it comes to the powers the sovereign has, they are said to be effectively limited to man’s right to life, yet the powers given mean that there is no limitation on what the sovereign can actually do. The sovereign could not even be questioned due the implicit consent supposedly given, meaning that while “subjects were wholly answerable to the sovereign, but the sovereign was accountable, if at all, only to God. The will, judgment and, perhaps, the conscience of the sovereign were all that determined the nature and scope of his actions and, thus, the amount of his power”[13]. Hobbes similarly is disparaging of separation of powers within government, meaning the sovereign is judge of his own actions, thus violating a significant principle of natural justice, Nemo judex in sua causa (no man a judge in his own cause) again showing a disdain for accountable government, as it can judge its own case, biasing itself towards its power and meaning citizens have no remit to question the sovereign, as they effectively have the game rigged. You can’t question the laws because you have apparently submitted to them as a subject, you can’t question the sovereign as they are above the law, and even you do get to a court to make the sovereign accountable, all courts are controlled by the sovereign and said ruler can judge his own case. Looking back at Hobbes’s views on consent, we see the implicit forms of tyranny at play, with his conception of the “negative vote”[14] and non-voting on issues that the sovereign commands as giving consent to those actions, as they are participating in the system. Again, this gives rise to a whole host of tyrannical legislation, such as populist law that could be seen with the Jim Crow laws found in America, where, if following Hobbesian logic, because they were implemented by a form of sovereign power, in this case with the majority of popular consent, the Black American population was subject to the most vile treatment. Further, Black Americans had no ability to question these laws because they gave consent by living in these areas. As Tarlton states “This disdainful torturing of logic served merely to define consent away; the mere shadow of assent expanded to fill up the entire conceptual space”[15] showing that Hobbesian consent is a farce, merely to justify the absolute power of the sovereign. Overall, Hobbes’s political theory of an absolute sovereign answerable not to the citizens or subjects but rather to itself, that is above the rule of law and has almost unlimited controls over the lives and bodies of its subjects is extraordinarily tyrannical. But this fundamentally comes from the conception of the Hobbesian state being the central authority within society, with this state itself being a tyrannical conception based on the limiting of freedom.

Irrelevant of the criteria, the fact that Hobbes proscribes a state within his political theory makes his theory despotical, first due to the fact that anyone who was a sovereign of a Hobbesian state would be a self-interested, power hungry individual who would use a commonwealth to achieve his own ends, as according to Hobbes’s framework of human nature. Secondly because the state, as a concept and structure, is itself an authoritarian agent that has created some of the worst abuses seen in history. When we look at Hobbes’s theory of the foundation of the state, the first idea we see is the Hobbesian view of conception, where supposedly every member gives consent implicitly to the establishment of a sovereign. There are issues with this concept in the first place, such as how this consent is brought about. One of the ways Hobbes identifies the development of a commonwealth is “One, by natural force: as when a man maketh his children to submit themselves, and their children, to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse”[16] which shows the tyranny that can be involved in the establishment of a commonwealth. The other way that Hobbes identifies of developing a commonwealth is by mutual consent via a social contract. However this position is paradoxical, as Hobbes believes that in a state of nature contracts become void due to a lack of trust between self-interested individuals in the state of nature. Yet somehow they will overcome this trust to create a commonwealth. With this paradox, it stands to reason that the state according to Hobbes can only be created via natural force. However this then produces a whole realm of tyranny, where concepts of self-ownership and the right to life are assimilated to that of the nation-state. As Raymond states in his essay, “The man who fears Hobbes’s “warre”, who sees every one of his neighbours as a potential murderer, will surrender nearly anything to be protected from them. He will call for a strong hand from above; he will become a willing instrument in the oppression of his fellows”[17]. If a man fears such a warped idea, he will give up anything to allow for his protection. This is how the state functions, through fear which allows it to increase its own powers. Thus it stands that the state itself is created and sustained through coercive measures, particularly in the case of the Hobbesian state. Here we can look to Locke to see that Hobbes was wrong in his idea that a commonwealth is essential for the ending the “condition which is called warre”[18]. Locke shows that the state of nature is one “of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another”[19] where there are conceptions of rights and law not enforced via a state. In fact in many ways the state, or commonwealth, is a violator of these rights, such as the right to not be aggressed and the right to self-ownership. As Rothbard points out “Only the government obtains its income by coercion and violence—i.e., by the direct threat of confiscation or imprisonment if payment is not forthcoming. This coerced levy is “taxation.” A second distinction is that, apart from criminal outlaws, only the government can use its funds to commit violence against its own or any other subjects”[20] demonstrating the fact that governments fund themselves through coercive means, and by controlling the monopoly on violence allows for the state to act in a way that Hobbes man acted in the state of nature. Another figure who showed the brutal characteristics of the state was Burke, who saw that when states interacted “the typical relation is war”[21]. He also pointed out “that governments do things ‘for reasons of state’ which individuals could not justly do”[22] contradicting the view Hobbes takes of the state being for the benefit of people, as the state props itself up by being in contravention to the individuals within a society. Locke noted this in the case of a sovereign accruing absolute power, whereby such a commonwealth becomes despotical and is at war with its own people. If we take the consent argument in social contract theory as void and paradoxical, as has been shown, we see that government operates in this way, explicitly and implicitly. In general, the concept of a nation-state that Hobbes lays out is itself despotical, and the many forms of commonwealth that have developed have done what Hobbes predicted individuals would do in a state of nature. Commonwealths have restricted rights, started arbitrary wars, steal from their citizens without good reason and props itself up for its own purposes. Thus the state itself is an immoral institution, and antithetical to the conceptions of natural justice and laws that have been identified by Hobbes.

Overall, Hobbes presents a political theory that is despotical. When we look at how Hobbes describes human nature, we see an authoritarian view of humanity, where a central authority is required to keep the rule of law functioning. This opens the door to tyranny, as a strong, central state allows for the violation of rights and the development of state-of-nature-like circumstances. Further, it means that these circumstances become justified and codified as necessary for the preservation of society, when in fact human nature is not atomistically individual as Hobbes believes, but rather based on values of cooperation and sympathy, such as Smith and Locke theorised. When looking at Hobbes’s specifications for a commonwealth, again we see the underpinnings of tyranny. He prescribes an absolutist form of government that violates the basic rights of humanity, such as self-ownership and the right to life, rights which Hobbes identified as essential. This form of government also allows for violations of natural justice, and means citizens have no ability to question their government without the fear of persecution. Finally, Hobbes’s idea of the state is tyrannical in itself. It’s based on rights violations and creates the circumstances of war and violence upon the general population. As scholars such as Rothbard and Burke have shown, the state is based on forms of coercion and explicit violence, and that one cannot consent to the state and are instead forced into accepting it. This whole political program is authoritarian, and shows Hobbes to be a believer in tyranny.

[1] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 77.

[2] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 79.

[3] Tarlton, C. (2001). THE DESPOTICAL DOCTRINE OF HOBBES, PART I: THE LIBERALIZATION OF LEVIATHAN. History of Political Thought. 22 (4), 587-618.


[5] Smith, A (2005). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Sao Paulo: MetaLibri. 6.

[6] Locke, J. (1823). Two Treatises of Government. London: McMaster University. 106.

[7] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 77.

[8] Bauman, Z (2001). Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 20.

[9] Arendt, H (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press. 118.

[10] Locke, J. (1823). Two Treatises of Government. London: McMaster University. 111.

[11] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 108.

[12] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 109.




[16] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 106.

[17] Raymond, E. (2003). The Myth of Man the Killer. Available: Last accessed 5th May 2015.

[18] Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. St. Pauls Churchyard: Green Dragon. 77.

[19] Locke, J. (1823). Two Treatises of Government. London: McMaster University. 106.

[20] Rothbard, M (2006). For a New Liberty. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute. 57.

[21] Rothbard, M. (1958). A Note on Burke’s Vindication of the Natural Society. Journal of the History of Ideas. 19 (1), 114-118.

[22] Rothbard, M. (1958). A Note on Burke’s Vindication of the Natural Society. Journal of the History of Ideas. 19 (1), 114-118.

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