Thomas Hobbes and the Language of Good and Evil


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.University of Virginia

Thomas Hobbes is generally recognized as the first social contract theorist. He thought philosophically and politically about the nature of the human community and the proper shape of human organizational structure. What were his thoughts about the language of good and evil? How was he influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers?

Human statues wearing blindfolds, with the words immortality written on them.
For Thomas Hobbes, good and evil literally have no reference beyond what people agree are good things and evil things. (Image: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock)

Laws need a social system of governors, a ruler, or a legislator of some sort. If the legislator is absent, there is no way for laws to exist, and there is no way for people to know if they’re doing right or wrong. They don’t even care if they’re doing right or wrong; they’re doing what is strictly speaking in their interest. 

That’s the law that people will follow. Given, that is, that moral norms arise from peoples’ cooperation to affirm laws and rules, whether explicit rules about right and wrong in the form of political laws, traffic laws, etc., or tacit rules about what is good or bad behavior in the form of cultural standards, given this assumption, the state of humans in the state of nature means for Hobbes that in nature itself there are no such standards; there are no such laws.

For Hobbes, good and evil literally have no reference beyond what people agree are good things and evil things. This is because since people’s knowledge of good and evil depends on having words with stable meanings which talk about them, when such words do not exist, there are no ideas of good or evil at all.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil ExistsWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Hobbes’s Theory about Good and Evil 

Most people, when the Leviathan was originally produced, were astonished by Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature and the idea that humans are in their being fundamentally bestial. But a few thinkers very quickly, and more and more people as time went on, realized that in some ways even more troubling than that is Hobbes’s basic idea that the language of good and evil doesn’t apply in nature itself. 

Hobbes turns out to be not only the first social contract theorist, but he’s also what philosophers today call the first full-fledged social constructivist; that is, he is the first person to say that morality has no basis in people’s natures but is merely something people construct socially, entirely in some important way contingently as a matter of explicit decisions, possibly even shallow preferences, it is sometimes implied. 

Learn more about Greek philosophy.

Ancient Parallels with the Leviathan

Thrasymachus in Plato’s dialogue, the Republic, seems to suggest in some important way that morality is merely what the strong can get away; and, of course, Thucydides seems to suggest that the Athenians on the island of Melos say something similar. But Hobbes is really the first truly clear example of someone stating this overtly and following out its consequences to their end.

Interestingly, though, the idea seems to be something that Hobbes and his contemporaries had glimpsed in their own readings of Thucydides. Thucydides tells stories in the Peloponnesian War that seem to suggest some real dark truths about the nature of the human order. 

Thomas Hobbes’s View on Language

A portrait of Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes believed that people have bestial natures. (Image: David Beck/Public domain)

Hobbes, in recognizing the idea that language can float, that language can be mobile across meanings of words so that a word at one point can mean one thing and then in another context entirely another, and that sometimes these language changes can be due to changing political circumstances, was not even the last person to make this point. 

Of course, in our century, thinkers studying the way that the Third Reich thought about language have talked about this, and also most famously perhaps, the English essayist and writer George Orwell, in several writings, has talked about the possibility that language itself can be perverted by politics.

Politics and Language

Hobbes goes further than this, though, in some way, because what he says is that language can not only be perverted by politics, but if the politics is absent, language loses its sense altogether. Hobbes and his contemporaries saw Thucydides’ lesson as not only revealing something about their own time but revealing something that, in fact, in their world was shocking about the nature of human moral order in general. 

Theirs was a world where patriotism at one moment meant the support of the king, at the next moment it meant a desire to exile the king, and the moment after that a desire to kill the king. On Tuesday, virtue meant scholastic ethical submission to a religious community; but then on Wednesday, it would mean republican independence from a tyrant. 

At one-time fidelity meant one thing, and then in the next moment, it’s the opposite. The revolutions in politics that Hobbes and his contemporaries survived, were nothing compared to the revolutions in language and meaning and culture that they had to endure on a daily basis.

Learn more about the Peloponnesian War.

Hobbes’s Description of the Human Condition

A statue of Machiavelli.
Hobbes was similar to Machiavelli in some aspects. (Image: Eddy Galeotti/Shutterstock)

None of this is to say that for Hobbes, everything is equally likely to be successful in human linguistic endeavors; far from it. Human flourishing relies on successful human communities knowing words properly and being founded. And the conditions under which they can be founded and can continue through time are very narrow and typically for him involve a powerful, almost tyrannical, executive power to ensure, to compel all, to obey the rules. 

Absent that very strong ruler founded on a very narrow range of principles, human life will devolve again into a condition of being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But Hobbes thinks that he’s not proposing this; he’s merely describing the conditions of humans, not evaluating them. In this, he’s like Machiavelli: I’m not telling you how things should be, I’m telling you how things are.

In general, Thomas Hobbes had two huge points: First, the human is a beast; second, the bestiality of humans means that language is, in some important way, a social construct.

Common Questions about Thomas Hobbes and the Language of Good and Evil

Q: According to Thomas Hobbes, what is the relationship between laws and the state of nature?

According to Thomas Hobbes, rules are implemented in a standard system and are fixed. Therefore, laws have no place in the state of nature, and in fact, there is no such thing as law in human nature.

Q: According to Thomas Hobbes, what are the characteristics of a language?

According to Thomas Hobbes, a language is distorted under the influence of politics. Words in a language have different meanings in each context. Given the state of nature, a language doesn’t make sense without politics.

Q: In general, what were Thomas Hobbes’s views on human nature?

Thomas Hobbes developed two viewpoints about the state of human nature. First, the human is a beast; second, the bestiality of humans means that language is, in some important way, a social construct.

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