Hobbes’s combination of pessimism about human nature with a sublime confidence that the human condition can be greatly improved if only power will listen to reason helps place him in a distinct phase of modern thought – that of the early European Enlightenment. Contrary to a popular stereotype, Enlightenment thinkers are by no means always optimists about the future. Modern-day partisans of enlightenment may like to think of history as a saga of continuing progress culminating in their own unrivalled wisdom, but Hobbes was fully aware that the moral and political gains of one generation are very often lost by the next. What he never doubted was the existence of a rational method that could deliver human beings from the worst kinds of conflict. By contracting to create a sovereign with authority to do whatever is needed to ensure peace, humankind could escape life in the state of nature – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – and enjoy the amenities of “commodious living”.
Because he had no interest in liberty or democracy as ends in themselves, Hobbes can be seen as the greatest exponent of enlightened despotism. Contrary to silly chatter about “liberal Enlightenment values”, the Enlightenment has always included a highly influential current of authoritarian thinking – a current that includes later thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Auguste Comte, along with political leaders such as Lenin and Ataturk. Hobbes belongs in this current but it is part of his greatness as a thinker that he can also be viewed as the founder of liberalism. His best 20th-century interpreters – the Marxist C B Macpherson, Leo Strauss (intellectual mentor of the American neocons) and the sceptical conservative Michael Oakeshott, acknowledged that Hobbes, more than any other thinker, was the progenitor of the most fundamental tenet of modern liberalism – the belief that there is no natural or divine right to rule. The idea of Hobbes as a liberal seems puzzling only as long as you cling to the historically parochial notion that liberal values are essentially to do with a human right to freedom. For Hobbes, government existed only to protect its subjects, but for that very reason rulers were not bound to respect any of the freedoms we now think of as integral to liberalism. A Hobbesian sovereign could legitimately curb freedoms of belief and expression as long as doing so was necessary to keep the peace.
Before I ever took a philosophy class, I knew that Calvin’s stuffed tiger companion was one of the wisest philosophers I had yet encountered, so I was always interested to learn about his inspirational namesake. I still prefer the feline version, but this is an interesting take on the human one.