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Early Modern Political Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes - Book Report/Review Example

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Early modern political thought begins with Thomas Hobbes. He is generally regarded as a champion of absolutism and totalitarianism in view of endless pursuits of political powers bestowed upon Hobbes’s Sovereign. …
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Early Modern Political Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes
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Early Modern Political Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes: An Individualist and itarian of Student

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Early modern political thought begins with Thomas Hobbes. He is generally regarded as a champion of absolutism and totalitarianism in view of endless pursuits of political powers bestowed upon Hobbes's Sovereign. This, however, is not a reality. Why He is also an individualist and the very first proponent of individualism in the modern age. Despite his all powerful Sovereign, individuals are entrusted with quite a few rights - not merely implicit but in very clear cut terms. This appears to be an interesting predicament in analysing Hobbes's magnum opus or his masterly writing Leviathan (1651). This is an apparent contradiction in Hobbes's political philosophy. How to resolve this apparent and inherent incongruity
Why political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is apparently both 'totalitarian' and individualistic libertarian Indeed, the socio-political situation of Hobbes's time and a logical analysis of his Leviathan may throw some light on this totalitarian versus libertarian paradigm in his political philosophy.
There is yet another question about why Hobbes and not Machiavelli should be regarded as the first early modern political thinker.
These questions further gain relevance in view of Hobbes's major precepts of 'social contract', 'scientific materialism', 'brutish human nature', 'state of nature', 'commonwealth and leviathan', 'absolutist sovereign', 'natural law', 'individual and individual rights', and his stress on 'geometrical method' for each individual entering into a political entity vis--vis every other individuals. This leads to the emergence of a commonwealth to come out of a chaotic state of nature. This is an act of creating political order in society through the instrumentality of the establishment of an all powerful legitimate sovereign in whom every individual has reposed his rights for good governance.

Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.1
The bonds of words are too weak to bridle men's ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power.2
I authorize and give up my right of governing myself , to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up by right to him, and authorize all this actions in like manner.. this is the generation of that great leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that mortal God, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.3

Hobbes is creating an edifice of "matter of motion" and "geometrical" way of looking at the need for resurrection of Royalty and royal establishment in England of his time. He has written his Leviathan, the matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil mainly to support the cause of royal and regal restoration. His book, on the other hand, has also proved to be a thesis on liberal individualism. In reality, both the royalists and individualists turned out to be great critiques of his Leviathan. This book alienated both the imperial and individualist quarters. As such, "Hobbes was forced to seek the protection of Oliver Cromwell's revolutionary government."4
For Hobbes, in Leviathan, the utterly selfish, brutish and nasty man in the state of nature was living in constant conditions of conflict, warfare and chaos and sorrowful existence. Passions and aggression prevailed more than anything else. In such a state, each individual entered into a contract one with another to create an indivisible sovereign power reposed by each individual into one such being or assembly of persons. Every individual surrenders his or her rights to such a sovereign. Hobbes is considering all such happenings rather too simplistically maybe in order to apply his 'geometrical' method of always moving from simple to complex contexts and propositions! But it is also a known fact that Hobbes is using his "state of nature and its lawlessness" as a priori foundation for crafting a solid need for a sovereign royalist faade.
This Hobbesian tradition continued in Locke, Rousseau and Kant as well.5 However, John Rawls has revived this contractualist tradition in the second half of the twentieth century. All these contractualist thinkers, despite several other differences, have in "common, three-part structure:
1. a description of a situation in which there is no state;
2. an outline of the procedure for either submitting to a state or agreeing to a certain set of coercively enforced political principles - this is the 'contract';
3. a description of what is chosen - the state or political institution.6

Hobbes, through his contractual logic, is carving out an esoteric basis to launch his so-called "de jure" and "civil" commonwealth. This starting point for him is in human nature and need for an ordered political set up. He is moving 'geometrically' from simple to complex logic of 'scientific materialism' through using the tool of 'reason'. That is why he is the first early modern political thinker instead of Machiavelli. The Machiavellian logic is different for it is none other than merely stating 'what is', 'how it is' and what is the 'statecraft' in his Prince.
Despite Hobbesian purpose of providing legitimacy to royalty when liberal revolution was emerging from the chaos of an ongoing civil war in England, individualism can be seen in Leviathan from beginning to end. Maybe the Hobbesian logic integrated powerful undercurrents of individualism on the basis of 'scientific materialism' where geometrical foundations erect a triangle moving up to its apex and most complex point at the top.




This above mentioned diagram depicts Hobbes's quest for bringing about political order in a situation of complete chaos in the state of nature. This is an attempt to move on from explaining human nature in the state of nature as a simple logical and imaginary fact and then going on into the realms of sociological conditions and needs including the selfish and aggressive psychological human instincts. All this is found to be resolved in Leviathan in the apex political complex of an all powerful sovereign. This is how one can come across certain elements of logical scientific materialism in Hobbes's political philososophy. However, at every stage, it is the individual who is really an active participant in the Leviathan.
No doubt, the sovereign in Leviathan is having absolute power. Yet that sovereign is not an absolutist because Hobbes's commonwealth is created for every individual's secure and more peaceful life after the institutionalisation of a sovereign. If such a sovereign is not able to perform his highest duty of providing safety and security to the individual then, ipso facto that sovereign person or assembly of persons will not remain in the position of a sovereign. A new contract will then have to be entered into once again! In this sense there are certain restrictions on the powers of the sovereign in Hobbes's political theory. Hobbes's as such lays down the foundations of an individual's precious right to life in his Leviathan as a natural corollary of his so-called absolutist sovereign.
Except as there is a tangible superior to whom men render obedience and who can, if necessary, enforce obedience, there are only individual human beings, each actuated by his private interests. There is no middle ground between humanity as a sand-heap of separate organisms and the state as an outside power holding them precariously together by the sanctions with which it supplements individual motives.7

Various tendencies pointed out by Hobbes in his Leviathan are very much present in the modern age. Diverse structures and practitioners of politics and diplomacy are trying to grapple with them through the means of sovereign state and autonomous non-state actors and institutions even today. These problems and conflict situations arise in different political systems - democratic, socialistic and totalitarian alike.
In this sense, the sovereign in leviathan, is in "effect authoritarian" and not a totalitarian entity.
Yet it is not difficult to agree with John Plamenatz that the very basis of Hobbes's political philosophy falls to ground when nasty and brutish and imprudent individuals are suddenly shown to see prudence in entering into a contract for their own security and peace. How can such prudish and piggish individuals think of doing such a prudent and logical act Despite these weaknesses, Hobbes is a unique modern individualist and authoritarian both!
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