Tag Archives: human nature

Hobbes and Human Nature: Wish-fulfilment of the father manifested in the Unconscious

Any political theory has at its core a set of assumptions concerning human nature. Thomas Hobbes theory of human nature was a particularly unedifying and scathing indictment of mankind outside of the ‘civilising’ influence of absolutist government.

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. […] In such condition there is no place for industry […]; no culture of the earth; […]; 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, poor, nasty, brutish, and short 1.

This, according to Hobbes, is discovered through knowledge of physics, and honest introspection2, so first, a necessarily brief introduction to his physics, followed by an outline of the key components of Hobbes conception of human nature. For Hobbes, humans are material, mechanical beings, with hedonistic passions, a lack of rules, a measure of rationality and a natural equality which breeds insecurity. Since Hobbes claims this can be understood through introspection3, it can be assumed that he has attempted analysis of his own psyche; using his theory of human nature as manifest content, a psychoanalytic exploration will be undertaken to highlight the wish for the return of the father that has been repressed in Hobbes’ unconscious.

According to Hobbes, human nature is inextricably linked to the nature of bodies; just as bodies are purely material, mechanical structures, so too are our psychological states. As a materialist, Hobbes considers that matter is all there is; further, with the acceptance of ‘Galileo’s principle of the conservation of motion’4, Hobbes presents the view that Man5 is essentially a complex machine, operating on natural laws6. Humans are determined, and they are in constant motion. This view has important implications for Hobbes’ theory of human nature; since motion is constant, so too are our ‘passions’.

Based on this view of physics, Hobbes first characteristic of human nature is found. Just as humans are determined by the laws of motion, so too are our ‘passions’7, since they too are ultimately motions. ‘Passions’, for Hobbes, are hedonistic motivations, whether they are innate, or developed from experience; there are ‘appetites’ towards acts and objects that provide pleasure, and ‘aversions’ away from other acts or objects that provide pain. These ‘passions’ are experienced throughout life, and, while not everyone experiences the same passions, nor will their passions be the same throughout their lives, they will not cease until death. It is these dual passions for the pleasures of life, and the fear of death that push us to survive and thrive.

Life according to Hobbes is an egoistic quest for the satiation of desires8; that is, the quest to maximise ‘felicity’. Felicity is a ‘continuous prospering’9, from satisfaction of passions, but it has no final state of ‘complete satisfaction’10, or greatest good. Instead, it is an unceasing cycle of desires, progressing from one object to another11. Humans are forward looking creatures, and they aim at satisfying desires over time, not simply a once in a lifetime, fleeting moment of achievement12,13. This looking forward is also a reminder of the unsurmountable fear of death.

Even more powerful than this desire for pleasure, is the aversion, manifesting as fear, of death. Once life is set in motion, the imperative is to continue; humans have a tendency to accept any ‘new conditions’ if it means they have a greater chance of survival14. However with an awareness of mortality the “‘perpetuall solicitude of the time to come’ causes anxiety”15 in mankind. For Hobbes, it is this fear, and knowledge of death that is both the main cause of, and solution to overcoming our human nature; it also has a deleterious effect on the capacity for morality in humans.

Humans are amoral, in the sense that there is, and can be no common morality. Moral terminology has no significant meaning in a humans’ atomistic, natural state; morality is a distinctly social construct. This must be so, because ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are not intrinsic to objects; there is no physical or mental capacity to determine if something is right or wrong. Instead, for Hobbes, these terms are simply used to describe the objects of our appetites and aversions. The value of every act or object is relative to an individual; each individual must use their own reason to decide16.

For Hobbes, all humans are capable of rationality, if that rationality was equated with ‘reckoning’ of the consequences of agreed general names, and ‘marking and signifying our thoughts’. Our capacity for thought and imagination provides us with the ability to consider future outcomes; we develop prudence through experience, have the ability to deliberate over particular courses of action and apply our judgement to discern the most ‘rational’ course of action. However, humans are fallible, and so can reason incorrectly; they have a tendency to appeal to reason or custom as it suits their ends17, and also, due to their egoistical nature, will give precedence to their own rationality in the case of dispute. In the absence of an independent arbiter, we have no way of judging outside of our own experience.

By nature, all humans are fundamentally equal in body and mind. While there are differences, in that some may be physically stronger, others may be smarter, and yet others may have the ability to influence others, these differences are not so great as to make someone invulnerable18. Even the weakest can overcome the strongest by ‘secret machination, or by confederacy with others’19. All can be perceived as threatening to someone. This equality breeds hope for acquiring goods for survival and ‘commodious living’20, however, since all are equal, it is likely that there will be many others with similar passions. This natural equality actually makes us powerless21. We understand that some things we desire are scarce, and many cannot be divided or shared. As resources are limited, and all men have the same essential desires, not everyone has the ability to realise these desires. This places us into conflict with others who share our particular passions; in the state of nature the division of resources will always be open to the possibility of conflict. This leads to a constant state of insecurity, driving mankind to constantly strive for power to extricate them.

Humans in their natural state cannot assure security. Their security is always threatened, due to their passions, and their equality. While we may not all individually be unsatisfied with our current lifestyle, we are driven by our need to secure our own survival; even though we ‘have enough’, what we have, even our life, is under threat of being taken from us at any time. Everything in the ‘state of nature’ is simply dependent on what you can take and keep; there are no rights of property, or even rights of self. This is we find, by the ‘natural law’22 in the state of nature, that man has the right to do whatever they regard as necessary to preserve their own life, even if that requires taking the lives of others. However, this is subjective, and what constitutes a threat depends on an individuals’ perspective; everyone is guided by their own reason. The threat need not even be imminent; ‘pre-emptive strikes’ are valid. There is no security of living a normal life span, and since we are afraid of death, we are continuously trying to expand our safety net by addition of instrumental power.

This power seeking places us in a precarious security dilemma, where any attempt to ensure our security may place others on alert23; there may be others who take our security measures as a threat on their position or power, and they may want to attack us for fear of losing this position. Likewise, there may also be others who are envious of our position, and seek to usurp our place. We recognise an advantage in ‘anticipation’24; even though we may not be directly under threat at a particular time, we are safest in assuming that any ‘Other’ is a potential threat. Life in this natural state is a constant struggle, based on ‘continuall feare’25 and distrust, with everyone keeping to themselves and using much of their energy on self-protection. There can be no social goods, because there is no safe ‘space’ in which to form long-term, stable cooperation between individuals or groups26.


The picture of mankind which Hobbes presents is decidedly unedifying, and indicts society by the claim that humans need the civilising effect of a god-like authority figure standing over us to make us ‘fit for society’27. Since, for Hobbes, one of the keys to recognising the nature of man is introspection, or ‘read[ing] thy self’28, it can be assumed that his own nature is being demonstrated in his thinking. So what insights can the themes within Hobbes’ thought offer about the author himself?

In Hobbes, there is an overarching theme of a man-made ‘god’ figure, the Sovereign, who stands apart from the rest of society, and is not subject to the same rules or limitations as the commons. This could be theorised as a substitute-formation29 fixation30 with the father figure, stemming from a complex relationship between the pre-oedipal event of abandonment by his father due to aggression issues31 and subsequent wish for the return of the sovereign (his ‘ultimate’ father) to conquer the insecurity of social interaction.

Firstly, due to an event of aggression at his workplace, Hobbes’ father exiled himself, leaving his family to the care of Hobbes’ mother, with financial assistance from Hobbes’ uncle. Without his father being present, Hobbes Jr. would have searched for other male figures through whom he could act out Oedipal-style identification. Hobbes, being educated in his formative years through the church, may have found this male role-modelling through his teachers at his church school, hence the strongly religious framed authority figure coming to dominate his theories. Perhaps through the mythology of the church, particularly the ideas of return, Hobbes had hope of his own father, or a replacement, returning to claim him. This is particularly prominent with the constant reminders in his theory of human nature that humans are naturally atomistic, and aggressive; the father figure, usually being the dominating figure, the voice of authority that stops the children fighting amongst themselves, would have been a strong desire for Hobbes, in an insecure, warring world. Further, this recurrent image of mankind as aggressive, whether through pleasure or necessity, could be theorised as a representation of a fixation on the ‘Anal’ phase of development, presenting an under-control of aggression, and a projection of a ‘playing out of the Oedipal psycho-drama’32 using the entire of human nature as the projectee. Finally, this can be seen as a manifestation of the Freudian origin myth33. The young Hobbes may have had very negative experiences with the alcoholism and abandonment34 of his father; there may have been a childish understanding of these events as being his and his brothers’ fault. In effect, he may have interpreted the abandonment as a kind of ‘death’ where he and his brothers ‘killed’ the father, as in Freud’s origin myth35 and subsequently felt ‘remorse’, and placing his father in an overly idealised position above him, leading once again to wish for the return of the father figure.

Humans in their natural condition are rather uninspiring creatures. For Hobbes, though, in spite of this, there was hope for peace, through identification and acceptance of an absolutist system of government. Only through having a strong ‘father’ figure, could mankind subdue the darker parts of his nature, and be protected from the harshness of others and the environment. This clearly presents a wish-fulfilment in his political theory; the desire for the return of ‘father’ to resolve the disputes of the warring brothers.


Ahrensdorf, Peter J. “The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy.” The American Political Science Review 94, no. 3 (2000): 579-93.

Berger, A.A. “Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Chap. 3 In Media Analysis Techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2004.

Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Freud: On Psychosexual Development.” In Introductory Guide to Critical Theory: Purdue University, 2011.

———. “Modules on Freud: On Repression.” Purdue University, http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/freud3.html.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Translated by James Strachey. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.

Hobbes, T. Hobbes: On the Citizen. edited by R. Tuck and M. Silverthorne Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

———. Leviathan. edited by Richard Tuck Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Millen, Raymond. “The Hobbesian Notion of Self-Preservation Concerning Human Behavior During an Insurgency.” Parameters 36, no. Winter 2006-07 (2006): 4 – 13. http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/parameters/Articles/06winter/millen.htm.

Moehler, Michael. “A Hobbesian Derivation of the Principle of Universalization.” Philosophical Studies 158, no. 1 (2012): 83-107.

Read, James H. “Thomas Hobbes: Power in the State of Nature, Power in Civil Society.” Polity 23, no. 4 (1991): 505-25.

Wolff, J. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2006.

1 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 89.

2 Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 10 – 11.

3 Leviathan, 10.

4 J. Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2006), 9.

5 This author uses ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ in the sense of ‘(hu)man’ and ‘(hu)mankind’. There is textual evidence to suggest that in many cases, so does Hobbes.

6 Hobbes, Leviathan, 9.

7 Leviathan, 38.

8 Leviathan, 47.

9 Leviathan, 46.

10 Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 10.

11 Hobbes, Leviathan, 70.

12 Ibid.

13 Michael Moehler, “A Hobbesian Derivation of the Principle of Universalization,” Philosophical Studies 158, no. 1 (2012): 85.

14 Raymond Millen, “The Hobbesian Notion of Self-Preservation Concerning Human Behavior During an Insurgency,” Parameters 36, no. Winter 2006-07, http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/parameters/Articles/06winter/millen.htm.

15 Hobbes, and Peter J. Ahrensdorf, “The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy,” The American Political Science Review 94, no. 3 (2000): 580.

16 Hobbes, Leviathan, 91.

17 Leviathan, 73.

18 Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 11.

19 Hobbes, Leviathan, 87.

20 Leviathan, 87, 90.

21 James H. Read, “Thomas Hobbes: Power in the State of Nature, Power in Civil Society,” Polity 23, no. 4 (1991): 514.

22 Hobbes, Leviathan, 91.

23 Leviathan, 89.

24 Leviathan, 87 – 88.

25 Leviathan, 89.

26 Ibid.

27 Hobbes: On the Citizen, ed. R. Tuck and M. Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25.

28 Leviathan, 10.

29 Dino Felluga, “Modules on Freud: On Repression,” Purdue University, http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/freud3.html.

30 A.A. Berger, “Psychoanalytic Criticism,” in Media Analysis Techniques (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications), 90.

31 Hobbes, Hobbes: On the Citizen, x; Leviathan, xii.

32 Dino Felluga, “Modules on Freud: On Psychosexual Development,” in Introductory Guide to Critical Theory (Purdue University, 2011).

33 Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), 143.

34 Hobbes, Hobbes: On the Citizen, x; Leviathan, xii.

35 Freud, Totem and Taboo, 143.