Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British thinker from the middle 1600s, the godfather of the banana republic. In his book “Leviathan” he argued that democracy would never work. He is famous for saying that man’s life is naturally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Hobbes was a private teacher for the powerful Cavendish family in Britain. He also translated Thucydides into English. Thucydides wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta, showing how men were driven by self-interest alone, however they may dress up their actions in fine words.
Later Hobbes saw Britain itself torn apart by war when Cromwell and the Roundheads rose up against the king. He fled with the Cavendish family to Paris to wait out the war. There he taught the future king, Charles II, and wrote his master work, “Leviathan“. He also met some of the best minds of Europe, like Descartes and Gassendi.
When his book came out in Paris in 1651 the Catholic Church was not pleased. The “Leviathan” seemed to have little room for God; man was little more than a machine. Hobbes was no Catholic, but he left Paris and went back to England.
“Leviathan” lays out Hobbes’s philosophy about nature, man, history, morals, power and the state. It planted two seeds into Western thought:
- The power of the king comes not from God, as everyone up till then believed, but from the will of the people. Power and rights in society come from a social contract, an agreement among the citizens of a state at its founding that binds future ages. The contract is often taken for granted, not written down.
- Nature is a machine. Not just the stones and the stars, but even living plants and animals and man himself. Even the mind itself is nothing but a machine.
Hobbes saw man as driven only by self-interest. Out of fear of death he will give away his rights to a king. The king then has all the rights and power of society, his subjects are left with none – they gave them away. The king is above even the law.
Kings grew powerful not by divine right, as they said in those days, but by force. His power came not from above but from below, from his subjects.
But even though Hobbes used this sort of thinking to support the right of kings, Jefferson would later use it to argue for democracy: since the king got his power from the people, the people had the right to overthrow him.
Hobbes thought that democracy would never work: it makes decisions too slowly and changes its mind too often. This makes it completely unsuited for war. In time the kings would overthrow any democracies that took root. Democracy is one of those bad ideas spread by the Greeks.
Few accept Hobbes’s philosophy, but his way of thinking has become common. Like reasoning from history instead of from the nature of man. It has especially affected Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham and Mill.