Introduction to Hobbes: Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes is regarded as one of a handful of genuinely great political philosophers, whose masterwork Leviathan, changed history. The idea of a ‘social contract’ as the basis of political power is his most powerful contribution, eventually becoming the theoretical foundation of most contemporary societies. Hobbes is however a controversial philosopher. His understanding of humans as self-interested, insatiable, desiring machines, without any ‘natural’ sense of morality, remains unacceptable to many. Liberal theorists believe that he trades off too much freedom in the service of security. In modern political theory this is called the ‘Hobbesian Threat’ meaning that a government will attempt to increase its power by claiming it needs more powers to protect its citizens, often reducing their rights in the process. In this course we will consider both sides of the debate. Leviathan is a complex work with many subtleties, often missed by those who use Hobbes as a mere foil to their ‘liberal’ politics.

DELIVERY MODE

  • Online

COURSE OUTLINE

  • Biography: Hobbes (liked to say) that his mother gave birth to him prematurely because she took fright at the approach of the Spanish Armada (1588). True or not it seems a portend of the violent, Post-Reformation world into which Hobbes was born, and to which his philosophy was proposing a political solution.
  • Hobbes the Scientist: Hobbes was also an exceptionally fine scientist, which is evident in his systematic approach in writing Leviathan. In the course we will also look at his scientific theories and his discussions with many of the great scientists of his age.
  • Concepts: We will begin with a preliminary discussion of his concepts: The State of Nature; The Social Contract; Leviathan as an ‘Artificial Construct’.
  • The writing of Leviathan: Firstly we will ask: What is the political problem which Hobbes is attempting to solve in the work, and further do we still have this problem to solve today.
  • Leviathan and the issue of Security vs Freedom: Hobbes is often accused of trading off too much freedom in the service of security. In modern political theory this is called the ‘Hobbesian Threat’ meaning that a government will attempt to increase its power by claiming it needs more powers to protect its citizens, often reducing their rights in the process.
  • Leviathan at the practical level: Hobbes gives many insightful suggestions on how to organize society at a practical level. His main aim is to foster trust, cooperation, and economic prosperity.
  • Morality: Given that Hobbes does not rely on conventional moral/religious structures to ground his theory, the question arises as to his position on the existence of any moral foundationalism. We will examine this issue.
  • Language: For Hobbes the transition from the state of nature to a political society relies on the development of language. Language is the faculty which allows humans to organize humanity into a community; it produces the public realm.
  • Contemporary Approaches: His defenders and critics.
  • Hobbes and Contemporary International Law: We will look at how Hobbes’ theory relates to contemporary international law theory. Many of our global issues require agreement between nations under a ‘social contract’, but the problem remains: How do the relevant parties secure such contracts.

LEARNING OUTCOMES

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Give the student an overview of the origins and complexities of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.
  2. Show the important role played by Hobbes’ theory in the development of political history.
  3. Give the student an understanding of the complex structure of Hobbes’ theory of human nature.
  4. Discuss the relevance of Hobbes Leviathan for the issues confronting our contemporary political situation.

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