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Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory


Hobbesian war primarily arises not because material resources are scarce; or because humans ruthlessly seek survival before all else; or because we are naturally selfish, competitive, or aggressive brutes. Rather, it arises because we are fragile, fearful, impressionable, and psychologically prickly creatures susceptible to ideological manipulation, whose anger can become irrationally inflamed by even trivial slights to our glory. The primary source of war, according to Hobbes, is disagreement, because we read into it the most inflammatory signs of contempt. Both cause and remedy are therefore primarily ideological: The Leviathan's primary function is to settle the meaning of the most controversial words implicated in social life, minimize public disagreement, neutralize glory, magnify the fear of death, and root out subversive doctrines. Managing interstate conflict, in turn, requires not only coercive power, but also the soft power required to shape characters and defuse the effects of status competition.

Corresponding author
Arash Abizadeh is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2T7 (
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Douglas Jesseph . 1996. “Hobbes and the Method of Natural Science.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, ed. T. Sorell . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 86107.

S. A. Lloyd 1992. Ideals as Interests in Hobbes's Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noel Malcolm . 2002. Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Quentin Skinner . 2002. Visions of Politics, Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richard Tuck . 1993. Philosophy and Government, 1572–1651. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wendt . 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael C. Williams 2005. The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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