Philosophy / Competition And Conflict: Central To Hobbes' Modern Existence Yet Incongruous To Greek Thought

Competition And Conflict: Central To Hobbes' Modern Existence Yet Incongruous To Greek Thought

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Autor:  anton  04 November 2010
Tags:  Competition,  Conflict,  Central,  Hobbes,  Modern,  Existence
Words: 2185   |   Pages: 9
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One of the fundamental themes governing Hobbes' description of modern life in the Leviathan, is the dynamism between competition and conflict as a central feature of modern existence. Human life, though, hasn't always been an endless battle between individuals for better schools, better marks, better jobs, better salaries or better titles. In fact, as I shall explain in this paper, it is within the modern rejection of the ancient worldview that we find the origins of competition and conflict.

From its birth in Greek teleology and through the Middle Ages (with the help of the Catholic Church), the idea has persisted that people have a specific purpose, or telos, delegated to them by nature. One's role in society was predetermined by birth; a noble was born to nobles, a commoner to commoners. It was not until the Lutheran Reformation and the religious wars that followed, in the second half of the 16th century, that people began separating from the ancient doctrines perpetuated by the Catholic Church. The ideological vacuum left by the Church gave way to a more contemporary mechanistic approach, subjecting laws of nature to mathematical paradigms.

It was this new scientific approach, then, that Thomas Hobbes used to contextualize his definitions of modernity and mankind. In the Leviathan, Hobbes mechanistically dismantles human behavior and concludes mankind to be equal in its drive for physical comfort. For Hobbes, then, we are all equal and free, driven by our appetites and aversions, pursuing what we like and avoiding what we hate. An inevitable outcome of discarding the teleological worldview for the scientific one was the loss of an inherited social identity. While in pre-modern societies, an individual's social role was predetermined by birth, in modern societies, individuals are condemned to perpetual competition, in order to obtain, and maintain, an identity.

Although Greek teleology and modern scientific worldviews can be compared in numerous aspects, I shall concentrate only on the ones necessary for addressing the role of competition and conflict in both. To establish a substantial basis for comparison, I will examine concepts such as equality, freedom, and personal security, and the role each plays in shaping first, the ancient worldview, and then the modern perspective. Moreover, such a comparison will, in turn, help explain the susceptibility of the modern paradigm to competition and conflict.

The Teleological/Ancient Worldview

Before beginning an analysis of the ancient worldview, it is important to first understand the Teleological perspective. Once a teleological foundation has been established, we can examine how certain values prevalent during ancient Greek society were understood within this foundation. In the teleological paradigm, everything has its end purpose; all that exists, exists for a reason. In ancient thought, human conduct, insofar as it is rational, is generally explained with reference to ends pursued or alleged to be pursued.

The first aspect through which we can examine the ancient teleological approach is by understanding the concept of equality among men. For the Greeks, humans are hierarchically ordered and differentiated from one another. One differentiation was that between a slave and a master, based primarily on intellectual capacity . Another differentiation was that between a slave and a woman, where the superiority of the latter was again founded in intellect. More divisions were made between the civilized and the barbarians, the rich and the poor. These differences between people led to the conception of different kinds of people; this fact later served to perpetuate the existence of social classes based on hereditary patterns. In the ancient thought, one who was born to slaves, inherited the natural qualities of slaves, and was therefore befitted for slavery himself. The same was applied to the aristocracy. It was this climate, then, that undermined competition. Divisions between classes would little serve the need for men to compete for what was theirs from birth.

Another crucial aspect needed for our comparison concerns matters of daily life. In the ancient world, the realm of daily life was considered to be an obligation necessary for the achievement of a higher existential meaning. Daily life was concerned with matters of the private household, aiming solely to provide man with the necessary grounds for achieving his true purpose - virtue. Here, the teleological pursuit of virtue as an end can be seen; it was through man's participation in communal politics that this virtue was obtainable. This model was later on reproduced in medieval times to serve the needs of the church. Scholastic Christianity was considered a virtue befitting only a few. The rest were to provide the means necessary for living, and from that daily existence came their salvation (Medieval salvation is analogous to the Greek virtue). It was through fulfilling one's predetermined purpose that virtue was achieved. From the above we learn that individual freedom was confined within the strict boundaries of one's class. If virtue was to be achieved only by abiding to one's true nature, and one's true nature was inherited, personal choice, then, became a strict contradiction with one's quest for virtue . Lacking the choices in life, men were left with a predetermined path that left little to aspire for, and therefore little to contest over.

Perhaps the most relevant aspect to our discussion of the ancient worldview is the matter concerning personal security, as it pertains to security within one's social world. As discussed above, individuals in ancient times had little to worry about determining their social role. After all, one was born into his social class and found acceptance within it regardless of his economical condition. A poor aristocrat would remain an aristocrat no matter what and so will a rich craftsmen remain craftsmen. One could always find encouragement in his alike. This notion of security in one's role in society served to eliminate the need for self determination. Competitive ambition, therefore, would only result in jeopardizing the sense of security one often found in fellow class members.

Although ancient teleology had many more aspects through which it made itself evident over people's lives, equality, daily life, and personal security are fundamental aspects necessary to understand the main motives behind the transition from ancient to modern. As mentioned previously, the Lutheran Reformation and the religious wars that followed in second half of the 16th century, played a key role in shaking the remnants of ancient thought, perpetuated by the Catholic Church. Resentment towards inequality, lack of personal freedom, and contempt for the class oriented scholasticism nurtured a fertile ground for change .

Along with other trends, such as advancements in technology and science, a new modern wind gave rise to what was inevitable. Modernity had diminished the role of ancient dogmas and Catholic dominance and gave way to science as the new explanatory force behind nature. Hobbes' Leviathan is an embodiment of that era in its view of the human realm.

The Modern/Scientific Worldview

With our quest to explain the centrality of competition and conflict to modern existence and the lack of these forces in Greek thought, we can begin to examine Hobbes' view of Modernity as related to the aspects defined before. By examining the same aspects of equality, daily life, and personal security again it will be possible to illustrate how these variables changed to accommodate the modern perspective. It will be these accommodations that prove to be the impetus for the rise of competition and conflict.

Perhaps the most immediate dissimilarity, arising right in the beginning of the Leviathan, concerns matters of equality. For Hobbes, the differences in the faculties of body or mind seemingly apparent among men are not enough to suggest superiority of one kind over the other. It is mortality that unifies humanity as equals; for Hobbes, even the strongest can be killed by the hands of the weak once the weak has set upon the task of doing so: "For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself. " It is the fear for our well being, argues Hobbes, that inclines us to regard our fellow man as equal to ourselves.

It is as equals that men no longer face barriers standing between their ambitions, aspirations or hopes. If one wishes to have the riches of a king, it is his ambition and excellence that can lead the way. This new paradigm of ambition and success is not limitless, however. A problem arises. What if all who wish to be kings set their ambitions towards it? Obviously, scarcity will dictate an ending with few successes and many failures. It is through competition, then, that the outcome will be set.

Another aspect arising from the Leviathan concerns the matters of Daily Life. According to Hobbes, it is not the quest for a life of virtue that defines our existence, but it is our need to accommodate our appetites for whatever is considered good and our aversions of evil that guides our daily life. It becomes our appetitive soul that governs our behavior and shapes our reason for seeking pleasure. For Hobbes, the sense of good is synonymous with pleasure .

Legitimizing the appetitive soul is the affirmation of everyday life. If in the ancient teleological dogma, the realm of everyday life was an insignificant layer perceived to be a mere support for the real purpose of higher meaning. For Hobbes, the purpose for which we live is reaffirmed with every little thing we do. Therefore, it is for the satisfaction of our appetites that we live. And as long as this remains true, we are destined to continual friction with others who desire the same satisfaction as ourselves.

Although equality and daily life are essential for comprehending the two worldviews, it is in Hobbes' modern conception of individual freedom and personal security that we really understand how competition and conflict arise from modernity. As we have seen in the analysis of teleological thought, the lack of equality and freedom contributed to one's security in his social realm. Security was assured because of one's solace in his predetermined role in society. With the emergence of modernity, however, and the rejection of the old order, all men became equal and free, obliged to define their social realm as they saw fit. Man's sense of social security slowly lost ground.

With the lack of heritage as a determining factor of one's social role, people are forced to define their own place in society based on merits and achievement. According to Hobbes, it is because we are among equals, every individual in his quest for self determination seeks other men to evaluate him the way he evaluates himself. Because we are all equal, none is required to respect others more than himself. Therefore, men are inclined to set upon endeavors to assert their superiority and extract acknowledgment from other men.

As explained by Hobbes:

"For every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them in quiet is far enough to make them destroy each other), to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from others, by the example. So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory." (Leviathan, p. 185).

Here, Hobbes argues that people's need for a defined role in society and their quest to assert it impels man to indulge in competition and conflict against other men.

It appears that equality and freedom had a price; that is, humanity traded its relative sense of security for a fate of competition and conflict as part of our everyday reality. The ancient tradition, starting from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle continuing in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas and other medieval theorists, formed the teleological backdrop against which western civilization found its orientation until modernity. Despite the lack of equality or freedom, mankind had the consolation of being born into a destiny free of disappointing aspirations or a helpless hope for more. People shared their communal social role in acceptance and drew security in the fellowship of it.

Rejection of the flaws of the traditional exposed humanity to the flaws of the modern. Like most other novelties, the freedom and equality that were once celebrated later became a center for criticism. Growing contempt of this harsh mathematical depiction of human nature, with the help of reality that never fails to supply evidence, gave rise to newer and more companionate descriptions. Nevertheless, it was Hobbes' Leviathan that signaled the end of Ancient thought and served as the first link to bridge between ancient and modern.


1. Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Benjamin, Jowett. New York: Dover Publications, INC. 2000

2. Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin, Jowett. New York: Dover Publications INC. 2000

3. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edit. C.B.Macpherson. England: Penguin Books. 1985

4. Washington State University Website:

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