Thomas Hobbes, first political scientist?

On this day, April 5th, 1588, Thomas Hobbes was born. He was in his 40s when his thoughts turned to political science. He admired the way in which Euclid's geometry started from first principles and reached its conclusions by deductive reasoning. He wondered if the same could be done for politics, and set about writing "Leviathan," his classic of political philosophy. Leviathan, the Hebrew sea-monster from the Book of Job, refers to the huge creature we call the state.

Hobbes wrote his book against the background of the English Civil War, and published it in 1651, when he was 63 years old. Hobbes looked back to a state of nature in which, without government, life was not worth living. It was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," with everyone against everyone else. To remedy this, people agreed with each other to accept the rule of a sovereign to impose order. Unlike Locke's later version, Hobbes' sovereign did not agree to do anything in return.

Political thought has come a long way since Hobbes. Now we regard government as a two-way process in which rulers and ruled each have their rights and responsibilities. Given the way in which power is abused so often, we seek limitations on that power, and restraints that bring it under the law. Where there is government, though, people will abuse it. They will use it in an attempt to make others live as those using the power think they ought to live, rather than letting them live as they wish to live.

The only was to restrain this process is not, as Plato thought, to make our rulers virtuous but, as Popper thought, to limit what they can do. If constitutional restraints are in place that set limits to authority, and if there are checks and balances to restrain it from infringing the liberties of its subjects, there is a hope that its excesses might be restricted and its ambitions thwarted.

We need to recognize what Hobbes saw, that people seek power over others. He thought the only way to restrain them from abusing others was to put them under a power that would restrain them. In more modern times we seek to put them under laws that will restrain them, and with restraints and limits put upon the power of those who administer and exercise those laws. And we need to prevent Leviathan from growing too mighty.