Hobbes and the Absolute State

03 November 2019

Shouldn’t citizens have a say in how they are governed? Or is that just a recipe for extremism, division, and war? Do we need a ruler with absolute power to maintain peace? This week we’re thinking about Thomas Hobbes and his views about citizenship and the state.

Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” By “state of nature,” he meant life without any kind of government. Essentially, he’s saying that we need to be governed if our lives are going to be remotely bearable.

But is he right to think that? Let’s start with the first part of that claim, that life would be “solitary.” This seems obviously wrong. Humans are naturally social creatures and, like other social animals who live in the state of nature, we would probably live in small family or tribal groups without a state. Indeed, before government ever existed, isn’t this exactly how we lived?

Sure, humans like to fight with one another. But is that fact enough to defend Hobbes’ claim that without the state to govern us, life would be “brutish and short”? That sounds like in the state of nature we’d constantly be in danger of being attacked and killed by other humans. But humans are not only social animals, we’re cooperative animals too. We band together to get things done, we work with one another to create stuff we can’t create alone. Can’t we concede that we might fight sometimes, but also insist it’s usually not to the death?

That’s not to say that the state’s coercive power—its ability to arrest and incarcerate wrongdoers for things like theft, assault, and murder—doesn’t deter people from behaving badly. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that without the coercive power of the state to detain and punish, we’d all go around trying to kill one another.  

I’m not trying to pay too rosy a picture of human nature here. Of course, I lock my doors at night time precisely because I don’t trust other people to always behave appropriately. But Hobbes’ paints an overly pessimistic picture of human nature, like without the state we’d live short, brutal lives.

Hobbes’ picture of government is similarly extreme. It’s possible to believe that some kind of state is necessary to maintain order and peace, but Hobbes advocates for an absolutist state, one where there’s a single ruler who has all the power. As citizens in this state, our job is just to obey the supreme ruler. It sounds like life in Hobbes’ ideal state is what would be nasty and brutish! Citizens would be nothing more than obedient subjects of a monarch, or other absolute ruler, and we’d have no say in how we are governed.

So why did Hobbes think that a sovereign with absolute power was the only way to maintain peace and stability? And what is the relevance of Hobbes' thinking for the modern political state? Tune in to this week’s show to find out! 

Comments (7)

drywallcompany's picture


Monday, November 4, 2019 -- 8:52 AM

I love this article! Having

I love this article! Having recently gone through a national election there are many Canadians who are left disgruntled by the outcome. Seems that there is no pleasing the masses, but some semblance of integrity in ones platform would certainly go a long way at least for me. Thanks for the share!

RepoMan05's picture


Tuesday, November 5, 2019 -- 12:21 AM

The issues of a single ethnic

The issues of a single ethnic monarchy are same as the issues with a multi ethnic republic. Nepotism.

People ruling themselves(anarchy) vs psychopathy ruling themselves(democracy) vs "The rule of people's" recodified as "the rule of law."

The winner is the last but only until it inanely writeS the people into a corner where they have to break the law in order do abide it.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, November 7, 2019 -- 12:35 AM

Drugs tend to prove hobbe's

Drugs tend to prove hobbe's point.

Hard drugs make you addicted to them while simultaneously revoking your innate humanity. Sure, hippies think they're about love etc. etc. Have you ever seen a hippy when their heroin runs out?

Have you ever seen a farmer turn into a pederast warlord?

Is there really any wonder at all why anarchists, heroin cartels, Catholics, and dixiecrats coalesced to form the modern democrat party under their limp-wristed misandrist fuher?

Democrat leadership is so weak I'd hazard the global population addicted to heroin marched upwards a full 10% under Obama's 2 terms.


FFS!!! How many ways can you go out and FIND even more ways to lose a war?

Hobbs has a point. But what happens when the fox guards the hen house?

Cannibalistic functional corruptions(our form of government) have limited uses.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, November 14, 2019 -- 12:05 PM

I never put much stock in

I never put much stock in Hobbes either...

Manu Oquendo's picture

Manu Oquendo

Friday, November 15, 2019 -- 1:13 AM

Congratulations. We should

Congratulations. We should came back to this subject constantly. It is "the subject" of our times.

I am not going to dwell in depth in the issues raised by the author but we probably need to start thinking about Constitutions that Substantially Restrict the Areas in which Governments Can legislate. For instance, beyond a given total taxation level per person governments will need to get the "Individual Taxpayer approval", Or, "no new tax without a corresponding decrease in spending", etc, etc, etc.

We seem to have forgotten that the 4th book of "Democracy y America" explains in detail why Democracy will inevitably end in Despotism. Tocqueville wrote the book around 1840. Today we live in despotic regimes. Pathologically Extractive.

Tks & Rgds

Manu Oquendo's picture

Manu Oquendo

Friday, November 15, 2019 -- 1:17 AM

By the way, Hobbes wrote his

By the way, Hobbes wrote his book while in exile in the hope that Cromwell would allow him to return to England. Naturally, Cromwell obliged after the book.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, September 13, 2022 -- 9:18 AM

Hobbes was culturally

Hobbes was culturally disadvantaged. He could not help it. His limited thinking and notions about the common good were in concert with the nasty, brutishness of the times. It was just too early in the civilization game for institution of a kinder, gentler form of government. so, Thomas Hobbes did what anyone with a brain would do: he did the best he could with what he had and knew.

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