Hobbes on Human Nature

Thomas Hobbes was an influential English philosopher with a very pessimistic view of human nature. This was due in part to being around during the English civil war, and witnessing the atrocities that come with a break down in law and order. He was shunned by several monarchs and at times feared for his life after being branded an atheist heretic due to his materialist, egoist philosophy.

Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature was built on his systematic, although in some instances erroneous,  philosophy of materialism and psychological egoism.

Materialism is the view that there is only matter and the world consists entirely of matter in motion.  It is linked to scientific views that everything can be explained through physics and cause/effect. It denies a spirit world or some non-material force working in the universe.

This was largely why Hobbes was branded a heretic atheist in his time, although it seems from his writing that he still held some religious belief or concept of God that he saw as reconcilable with materialism. Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist.

Where I think this philosophy, as applied by Hobbes, becomes unstuck are his applications around conciousness, imagination and memory. These aspects of Theory of Mind were and still are difficult territory for philosophers. As many say, the human mind is the last great unexplored territory of space.

Hobbes linked imagination and memory to external motion, thinking all human thought originated from external sense and was thereafter a decaying effect of the original motion. This is difficult to reconcile with modern views of creativity, artistic expression, memory and imagination.

Psychological egoism is the the view that people necessarily seek what is good for them. All desire is ultimately self-interest. Whatever a person tries to attain or achieve, they have deemed as good, otherwise they would not pursue it. This is often a controversial view as it leads to moral subjectivism.  It means there is no objective morality, no absolute or external morality. This was obviously a dangerous view to hold in a very religious time.

Man in a ‘State of Nature’

Hobbes believed humans were created relatively equal in their mental and physical faculties. He also believed humans had an unceasing desire for power after power.

So by combining these two views of humanity, it creates a state of animosity between people. People are always going to be competing with each other for power and resources. They have no guiding spiritual force (due to his materialist stance) and no objective moral code to hold them back. Hobbes saw this as a ‘state of nature,’ which humans descend into without an overarching power to impose law and order. This state of nature comes about during collapse in established order, such as civil war and natural disasters (think looting).

Hobbes saw this state of nature as entirely undesirable, because it prevents peace and prosperity through industry. Everyone is out to get each others stuff and living in fear of each other, which leads to escalation of militarism (e.g. arms race).

What I find interesting is that Hobbes denies objective good through egoism and moral subjectivism, yet seems to think people will naturally want to seek peace from anarchy. I see this as being somewhat of a conflict, for if he sees peace as being desirable to all then surely it throws a spanner in the egoist model of ‘good’? If peace is desirable by all, then we have at least one element of universal good.

the Leviathan

The only way Hobbes thought we could achieve this peace and avoid anarchy is by everyone entering a social contract and agreeing to the rule of a sovereign. This is outlined in his famous philosophical treatise that landed him in hot water: the Leviathan.

He saw the only way to establish objective good is by everyone agreeing to let a sovereign ruler impose law and order. Collective good is therefore defined as whatever the sovereign says is good (the law).

Through this philosophical and political argument he is advocating a form of monarchy. He sees a monarch as being the best sovereign ruler, because they hold supreme rule and also have one body. Which he then turns into this argument, which I see as a bit stretched, how if the ruler has one body it will more likely be cohesive and less divided rule.

Hobbes thinks that people will agree to a sovereign ruler because having this concentrated power to impose law and order will ensure peace, production and prosperity rather than anarchy. Much of this thought was a reaction to the events he saw during a bloody and brutal civil war. He saw the civil war as humanity in a ‘state of nature.’


While there is much of Hobbes’ philosophy I disagree with, I also think he is pretty close in his description of humans in a state of nature, as chaotic and unruly hordes all trying to loot each other’s stuff.

As said previously, I do not agree with his entirely materialist account for all human faculties. I reject the concept that conciousness and elements of theory of mind can all be explained as originating from external sense and essentially being external motion carried on and decaying in the mind.

I still agree with materialism in general (there is only matter/energy, there is no dualism), but I think these theory of mind questions are answered too simply by Hobbes’ account, as modern psychology and theory of mind has shown.

I tend to agree with psychological egoism, but have some reservations. I think Hobbes’ is too cynical in his view of humanity. While I think people can descend into chaotic, lawless states of anarchy, I also think he has totally underestimated the human capacity for empathy.

Hobbes would likely state there are no altruist acts, everyone acts in self-interest and even charity has benefits for the giver. Nietzsche said that empathy is the a person projecting their self onto the sufferer and thus empathy is about alleviating our own suffering.

It is hard to logically or systematically fault these views, but I still lean more towards the neutral side of human morality. I guess I’m just not that pessimistic, and part of my moral optimism would come from reading Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal. In his book he outlines examples of primates acting altruistically and morally, arguing that we have evolved a core morality, not just an egoist veneer.

Yet, I do think he has a point that without some sort of governing rule we will have lawless anarchy and not a blissful global hippie commune. I also think this state of anarchy would be undesirable, but I don’t think it would be undesirable to all, and therefore not necessitate universal good by accepting this.

Where I flatly disagree and reject his conclusion is that absolute monarchy is the best state of government. I think a constitutional monarchy with it’s democratic rule held in check by a monarch (who has more long-term vested interest in looking after their nation than an elected government… but that’s a whole other political science debate and a digression from human nature) is a viable alternative.

I also don’t think his ‘sovereign power’ necessarily needs to be a monarch. Hobbes would probably argue it does, due to the cohesive element, but I don’t accept that. I think there’s still just as much chance for power struggles and disrupted rule under monarchy as with a democracy created with a constitution.

A representative government could still, at least abstractly, be seen as one governing body. By having a representative government rather than direct democracy (governing body vs general will of people), it more closely fills the sovereign role. It also prevents, at least to some extent, a tyranny of the masses – a real threat under direct democracy.

By agreeing to follow the rules of the democratic system (referendums etc), people are agreeing to accept the commonly elected government. They are also then, at least generally, agreeing to accept the rule and laws on this government. So I don’t think the only conclusion to Hobbes’ state of nature is monarchy. Democracy can also establish and enforce ‘collective will’ or ‘collective good’.

Hobbes’ was a daring philosopher for his time expressing a cynical, materialist view in a devoutly religious time and place. His state of nature describes an anarchy where life is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ [Leviathan], requiring a sovereign rule to prevent chaos, bloodshed and looting. Unfortunately, he seems to think a supremely powerful monarch is the only way on ensuring peace…. along with some wacky backwards ideas about the human mind.


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