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Hobbes and power


Explanations > Power > Hobbes and power

Naturall Power | Instrumentall Power | Relative power | Ceding power | So what?


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a 17th century thinker who sought to apply the new methods of science and the Greek rigor of logic to sociology. In his 1660 masterwork, 'Leviathan', he describes power and promotes the notion of a commonwealth as an effective society.

Hobbes divided motivation into appetites and aversions, predating Freud and his pleasure-pain principle by a couple of centuries.

Naturall Power

Hobbes defined power as the ability to secure well-being or personal advantage 'to obtain some future apparent Good'. He saw people as having 'Naturall Power' that come from internal qualities such as intellectual eloquence, physical strength and prudence.

Instrumentall Power

He also noted that we have 'Instrumentall Power' which has the sole purpose of acquiring more power. This includes wealth, reputation and influential friends.

He thus saw the quest for power as the quest for command over the power of others. If I can get you to use your power on behalf of my purpose, then I can add your power to my arsenal. In its most simple form, we buy the compliance of others.

'The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power.

Relative power

Hobbes noted that power is relative only to the power of others. If I have less power than you, then I am effectively powerless in your presence. This leads us to a perpetual power struggle with other people, each vying for ever greater power and each seeking to acquire the power of others.

He also noticed that there are some people who can never get enough power, and who seek to use others rather than cooperate and live in harmony with them. This he considered a dysfunction.

Ceding power

Hobbes found that many of us find a balance in life and gaining 'sufficient power' is adequate for us. We also seek to co-operate and share power with others to escape from an endless escalation.

'that a man be willing when others are so too, as farre-forth as for Peace and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down the right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe.'

He considered the most effective use of personal power in society is to cede it to a central authority who can use this power without question back on the people who give the power. This effectively leads to an elected monarch and commonwealth, which Hobbes called the 'Leviathan'.

The Leviathan, by the way, is monstrous and fearsome sea creature in the book of Job. Going against the Leviathan was an act of great peril.

So what?

Manage your power and find your balance. Build it. Lean on the power of others. Share it where appropriate. And help to build an effective democracy where power is used for the common good.


Pleasure-pain principle, Utilitarianism, Acquired Needs Theory


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