top of page

Thomas Hobbes, Civilization and Therapy

I went to Oxford yesterday – purely as a tourist – and enjoyed wandering around the beautiful old buildings, designed as places where young people could develop their minds (I know, they don’t spend all their time there doing that…) I went browsing in the huge bookshops on Broad Street and stood admiring the posters for plays and concerts. This, I felt, is civilization.

Then I came home and turned on the news. A summit between two psychotic world leaders. Huge parts of a city washed away because nobody had repaired a dam…

Back in 1651, Thomas Hobbes argued that the ‘state of nature’ was the natural human one. That state was dire. Everyone was pitted against everyone else. He wrote:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.”

His remedy was strong political leadership.

There are clearly states that have fallen into the kind of hell that Hobbes was talking about. Contemporary Haiti seems to be like that, with no leadership just feuding gangs. Libya, tragically, looks to have become similar, with government crippled by a vicious Civil War (Hobbes wrote his classic Leviathan at the end of the Civil War that had ripped Britain apart).

But human nature and history are more nuanced. Civilization has arisen, not just been imposed on feuding idiots by enforcers. Unless one believes it was imposed on sinful, useless humanity by a better, higher power (Oxford, in a way, argues for that: the old colleges began as religious foundations), it must have arisen because something in human nature required it to, something as basic and strong as Hobbes’ need to bully, control and steal.

We cannot get very far without some notion of reciprocity – if we are to respect ourselves, we must respect others. (Psychopaths, to whom this does not apply, make up a small minority of the population. Sadly, such people are very good at obtaining and keeping power – viz the two grinning world leaders on the TV. A problem for Hobbes: what if the big boss is a psycho?)

Civilization means evolving ways of ‘baking’ reciprocity into everyone’s lives. Law is a part of this – law that applies to everybody. Social norms are another, though these are more flexible in a modern society, where different sub-cultures will have norms that, in some ways at least, differ from others. In a diverse society, we all have to work out where we fit into that semi-plurality.

Once these are in place, a basic virtuous circle of self-respect and respect for others can grow and flourish.

This circle seems to me to be at the heart of what it means to be human, just as much as our lesser, Hobbesian side. Yet there are clearly situations where this growth is absent (I would argue stifled or poisoned), so it seems a little odd to regard it as some kind of human quintessence. The psychos will say, ‘We’re human, and this stuff means nothing to us. We don’t even know what you’re talking about’.

Logically, it’s hard to argue with that. In one of the bookshops, my eye was drawn to a book by the therapist Carl Rogers. He sought to make his treatment room a ‘safe space’ where such a virtuous circle could grow – often in the lives of people whose lives had become undermined in such ways that there was no room for it to grow elsewhere. He talked of ‘unconditional positive regard’ (a mite over the top in my view: shouldn’t simple respect be enough?). Respect. There seems something very sacred and important about that, a genuine antidote to the Hobbesian world it sometimes appears we inhabit.


Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page