5 Quotes by Thomas Hobbes Explained

Hobbes teaches us to seek truth, beware of manipulation, understand human nature, value science, and approach language cautiously.

Jun 29, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

quotes thomas hobbes explained


Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher born in 1588. He lived through the Civil War and the establishment of a republic in England, then saw the restoration of the monarchy. Hobbes is a forefather of theories on social contracts and state sovereignty; without him, there would have been no Rousseau, Diderot, or Smith.


His main book, Leviathan, presented views on social structure in ways not entirely novel, but still hitherto rarely seen. So, what did Hobbes claim that set him apart from other philosophers?


1. “Hell Is Truth Seen Too Late”

Map of Hell, Sandro Botticelli, 1480-1490, Source: Wikimedia Commons


To truly understand Hobbes’ famous quote, “Hell is truth seen too late,” we must first familiarize ourselves with his philosophical ideas. Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher of the 17th century who is perhaps best known for his theories on politics and social contracts.


Hobbes believed that people are essentially selfish and driven by self-preservation. In their natural state, he thought, humans are at war with one another.

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In this quote, Hobbes suggests that the consequences can be dire if truth only becomes apparent when it is too late to act upon it. Suppose you don’t recognize or acknowledge something as true until it’s too late to do anything about it. In that case, you risk finding yourself in an unfortunate situation where there will be suffering because of your ignorance.


Imagine that a country’s leader denies an impending economic crisis even though all signs indicate just that. People who trust that leader and ignore what they’re seeing might continue their usual spending habits until they experience financial ruin.


Had they recognized what was true earlier and acted accordingly–rather than ignoring reality–they could have lessened or avoided a catastrophe.


Another example is personal relationships. Say someone overlooks red-flag behavior from their partner, but doesn’t realize how much has been sacrificed for years into the relationship until later on. At that point, leaving would be more complicated due to emotional attachment or other factors like shared finances or children. Recognizing earlier what was true could have spared them unnecessary pain and suffering.


Think of hell as being locked in prison for regretting choices made based on not appreciating truths that had previously gone unnoticed. Metaphorical hells result from actions taken (or not taken) because essential truths were ignored or went unrecognized until some future date when it’s far too late to do anything about them.


The point seems straightforward: It’s better to seek out truths than wait until it might be too late. Always be skeptical and question things rather than putting off the task of doing so until some date in the future that may never come.


2. “The Condition of Man…Is a Condition of War of Everyone Against Everyone”

The Consequences of War, Peter Paul Rubens, 1637-1638, Source: WikiArt


This quote sums up what Hobbes is all about. In their natural state, human beings are guided by self-interest and engaged in an ongoing struggle for power and resources, according to Hobbes. The result of this constant competition? A state of war where people are pitted against one another.


The idea here is that if you remove government or social order from the equation (just for argument’s sake), individuals would be free to do whatever they want without restriction. However, conflict becomes unavoidable because everyone wants something at someone else’s expense.


Resources such as food, shelter, and water become things that people compete over–scarce commodities, if you will–leading to aggression and violence as individuals fight each other for them merely to survive or achieve their personal goals.


Another example might be international relations between nations. Each country operates on behalf of its own interests.


Without binding agreements or alliances (think no social contract), states look to gain an advantage by fighting over territory, resources, influence, or dominance. These fights can scale into wars as countries vie for top-dog status.


Hobbes’ point is that this perpetual strife requires a central authority powerful enough–a sovereign power–to keep order within society and maintain peace. Only when they surrender their freedoms in exchange for protection from the state can people escape this war-like condition.


By highlighting how conflict comes naturally once you take away social structures or governing bodies designed to check our baser instincts, Hobbes argues that strong political systems are needed for stability–chaos reigns otherwise.


It also speaks volumes about how fear pushes us towards seeking societal order under an authoritative government rather than always looking out just for ourselves.


So, without some kind of control or governance, humanity would be stuck in a state of perpetual violence, a bit like living under eternal martial law where each is pitted against all.


3. “Force and Fraud are in War the Two Cardinal Virtues”

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Source: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía


Once again, Thomas Hobbes makes an uncomfortable assertion about war and conflict. He suggests that using force and fraud is not just common but a virtue in wartime.


The roots of Hobbes’s philosophy lie in his belief that people are driven primarily by self-interest and the desire for power. In a state of war, where resources or dominance are up for grabs, he argues that force and fraud work best if you want to get what you want.


Force in battle refers to physical aggression or strength used to intimidate or overpower your enemy; it covers things such as military attacks, fighting battles, or acts of violence aimed at weakening your opponent. It is considered virtuous because it allows combatants to control others through physical aggression or tactical superiority.


Fraud means deceptive tactics during warfare that gives an edge over opponents: misinformation, propaganda, spying on them, or pretending to be their friend. By manipulating information–lying about strengths and weaknesses, intentions or actions–you can gain advantages on the battlefield.


For example, consider how both sides resorted to force and fraud in historical conflicts such as the Second World War. The Axis powers launched aggressive campaigns using military might while propagandizing heavily by manipulating public opinion with false stories about their aims.


Allied intelligence agencies meanwhile employed fraudulent techniques such as code-breaking (Enigma machine) against Nazi Germany; they also ran double agents (Operation Fortitude).


Hobbes’s suggestion that force and fraud are virtues when waging war sheds light on his understanding of conflict as an arena where these tactics are deployed to assert dominance over others and gain strategic edges–secure survival even?


By casting these vices as cardinal virtues within the context of warfare, Hobbes forces readers into a sobering reflection on the darker corners of human nature when hard-pressed.


4. “Science Is the Knowledge of Consequences and Dependence of One Fact Upon Another”

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632, Source: Mauritshuis


Science, for Hobbes, is the understanding that facts are interrelated and dependent on each other, not a collection of isolated facts or observations.


What Hobbes means by this is that true knowledge comes from understanding causal relationships–how one thing leads to another in chains of cause and effect. Science involves unraveling these chains to understand things comprehensively.


Let’s look at an example from physics to illustrate what he means. According to Hobbes, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion show science perfectly well: they establish causal relationships between forces and the movement of objects.


For instance, Newton’s second law says that the net force acting on an object is proportional to its acceleration (F = ma). That tells us something about how the force put into an object affects its subsequent acceleration.


Similarly, knowing about cause-and-effect relationships in biology enables us to understand phenomena such as disease transmission. For example, by studying epidemiological patterns, we can determine who infected whom with a disease and thus figure out how it spreads within populations. Understanding this helps with decisions about preventive measures such as vaccination or quarantine protocols.


In short, scientific knowledge doesn’t just involve isolated facts or observations; it looks at connections and dependencies between them. It identifies patterns and causes so we can get our heads around individual things more accurately–but also see their bigger picture when they’re part of some broader pattern.


According to Hobbes, this aspect of science is important because it helps you make better predictions, make better-informed decisions in all fields, be more systematic about learning stuff by seeking out underlying principles behind natural phenomena, and see how various bits depend on one another.


5. “Words Are Wise Men’s Counters; They Do but Reckon With Them: But They Are the Money of Fools”

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, William Dyce, 1851, Source: National Galleries of Scotland


The final quote we want to emphasize gives us an insight into Hobbes’ perspective on language and its functions in communicating and intellectual discourse. He suggests that words have different worth for people based on the extent of their powers of critical thinking and discernment.


Hobbes thought that wise persons saw words as just tools or counters used to convey meaning–much like tokens are in a game of calculation. For them, words were a way of expressing sophisticated ideas, engaging in rational debate, and arriving at truth.


These wise individuals recognized that because words can be manipulated or misused, they need to approach language with caution–always testing whether there is substance behind the rhetoric.


By contrast, fools–here defined as those lacking the capacity for critical thinking or gullible individuals–treated words as having intrinsic value without scrutinizing what was being said.


For these people, words held sway over reality itself; they took what was being said at face value and might easily be swayed by persuasive speech or empty promises.


To illustrate this point further, consider political debates. Wise politicians would carefully analyze each other’s arguments and claims while concentrating on what lies behind the words. They would critically evaluate the evidence given and engage their opponent in meaningful discussion founded on rationality and facts.


By contrast, some voters might unquestioningly swallow grandiose speeches full of appeals to emotion rather than subjecting policy proposals to rigorous analysis.


Similarly, everyday life provides plenty of examples where misleading advertising material or manipulative speeches encourage people to make irrational decisions or subscribe to false beliefs. Charlatans exploit others’ susceptibility to persuasive language by offering empty promises or presenting information in such a way as suits their own interests.


Hobbes’ quote shows his understanding that language does not inherently carry reliability but rather depends upon our ability to examine it critically.


Wise individuals recognize this distinction–using words as tools when navigating the complex world of communication while searching for deeper meaning and truth. Fools, on the other hand, put blind trust in words without testing their validity or determining what lies behind them.


So, What Does Hobbes Teach Us?

Thomas Hobbes, John Michael Write, 1676, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Hobbes’ quotes teach important lessons from which we can understand human nature, society, and knowledge. Firstly, they remind us that human behavior is driven by self-interest. Hobbes claims that people naturally seek power and self-preservation. If left uncontrolled, this leads inevitably to conflict and competition.


Secondly, the quotes stress the importance of being proactive about recognizing truths. Hobbes warns about the consequences of ignoring or realizing things too late: We must be truth seekers and critical thinkers to avoid bad outcomes.


Moreover, Hobbes’s focus on force and fraud within the war in his famous description of life outside society underlines a bleak truth: Conflict is hardwired into our species. Disturbing though this may be to some, it shows why strong governance systems are needed–if chaos is not to erupt.


As far as science goes, Hobbes underlines how facts are interconnected and emphasizes the need for causal explanations if we are really going to know what’s what. He wants a systematic approach beyond surface-level observations; he wants us to explore how different pieces of evidence depend on each other.


Lastly, he alerts us to just how much significance we attach to words–that powerful tools, if handled wisely, are potential instruments of manipulation for fools who swallow them uncritically.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.