3 ways Leviathan can help us understand modern conflicts

Not all books age well.

Even books that transcend their time are dated by it, and there’s certainly plenty in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan that feels a little worse for wear, from the Kingdom of Darkness to Christian Principalities and Commonwealths.

But what makes Hobbes’ masterpiece so special is how relevant many of its concepts remain today. The book still offers a useful prism through which to understand contemporary events.

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan

1. The “state of nature” is alive and well

Hobbes’ most compelling concept was his “state of nature,” where the absence of law and society reduced men to a dangerous and antagonistic free-for-all.

Today, failed states give us a real-life example of what life is like in Hobbes’ vision. A failed state like Somalia—where the government has lost control of most their territory and their authority exists in name only—has some of the lowest quality of life on the planet.

The prevalent violence that seems to bring out the worst in mankind is more vivid than Hobbes’ description, but Leviathan’s conceptualization of the state of nature is still the go-to text for understanding life in the absence of a society.

 

2. Absolutist sovereigns left and right

With democracy and the division of powers now the norm throughout the West and elsewhere, it is easy to forget that much of the world is still ruled by leaders who, democratically elected or otherwise, have centralized much of the power of the state in their own person.

Absolutist tendencies and structures today aren’t exclusive to the left (China) or the right (Russia) and they are not arbitrary. Hobbes’ defence of centralized power is clearly less widely accepted today than it was in his own time, but states operating on that principle are still a lot more common than we might think.

 

3. How much power is too much?

A constant theme of governance around the world is the battle effectiveness and efficiency on the one hand, and pluralist deliberation and division of power on the other.

When the European Union faces off against Putin’s Russia, the former is hampered and constrained by a multitude of voices, actors and institutions that all shape Europe’s foreign policy. The process is slow and cumbersome.

On the other hand, Putin has the power to not only make snap decisions but to also enforce and enact them without much restraint.

Hobbes argued against the diffusion and separation of power, and it’s fascinating to see this divide play out in real time like a schism between West and East.