American Political Science Review

Research Article

Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory


a1 McGill University


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.


c1 Arash Abizadeh is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2T7 (


For valuable comments on previous drafts, I am grateful to Dan Garber, Doug Hanes, Kinch Hoekstra, Michael LeBuffe, Catherine Lu, Clif Mark, James Moore, Nina Valiquette Moreau, Patrick Neal, Vincent Pouliot, Will Roberts, Travis Smith, and the anonymous referees and coeditors of ASPR, especially Kirstie McClure and Arthur Stein. In addition, I thank participants at the Concordia University Political Theory Speaker's Series, Montreal, October 2006; the James A. Moffett Research Workshop on Thomas Hobbes, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, April 2008; and the Research Workshop on Thomas Hobbes, McGill University, April 2009. For funding, I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture.