Tuesday, 22 April 2014


“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” - Greek Proverb

A discussion with a friend yesterday brought Hobbes’ name to the fore and we both remarked how relevant his philosophical views were to today. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is best known for his vision of the world, which is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics. The main concern in his writings is the problem of social and political order: How human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. His monumental work “Leviathan” discusses the essential nature of humans and how their societies are driven by their physical nature, which he describes as a sophisticated machine.

Thought, too is regarded mechanistically by Hobbes and human action is explained as a complex of desires and appetites that arise in the human body and are discomforts or pains that must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. Everything we choose to do is strictly determined by this natural inclination to relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our bodies. Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire.  Hobbes, however, supposed that humans are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else.

As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature emphasises our animal nature, leaving each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others. This produces what he called the “state of war”, a way of life that is certain to prove “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The only escape is by entering into contracts with each other - mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide.

The last paragraph is what my friend and I discussed and seemed particularly relevant to the modern age. It seems an almost universal attitude nowadays, this egocentricity that rules our lives. The complete lack of regard for others often stems from such an attitude where the individual’s own importance translates to selfishness. The “ego” reigns supreme and fails to acknowledge other individuals who should have a similar right. How many of us have been reduced to exist in this emotional desert through that lack of social intercourse? Instead of enriching our life, this functioning as an independent organism detracts from our social well-being. Hobbes’ ideas are still relevant to us on a personal, social and global level, it appears.

1 comment: