- “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes is a timeless masterpiece in political philosophy, delving into the nature of political authority and the social contract.
- If you’re interested in unraveling the foundational ideas that underpin modern political theory, delve into “Leviathan” to discover Thomas Hobbes’ enduring insights into the necessity of government and the social contract.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s classic treatise is almost as old as Machiavelli’s The Prince, and it appeared roughly 15 years after the publication of the King James edition of the Bible. Leviathan evokes both works, with the former’s timeless insights into human nature and power, and the latter’s God-fearing absolute religious reverence.
Thomas Hobbes’s insights into human behavior still resonate, and his exploration earns its place as a classic. Hobbes contends that citizens must obey a single sovereign in order to have an effective, peaceful and law-abiding commonwealth. His view goes against the separation of powers and the accountability concepts adopted as the cornerstones of Western liberal democracies. It also thwarts free speech, which Hobbes opposes, because free speech might generate rebellion. So is his tract still relevant today? Substantial sections are informative, though not dispositive, but that’s the way of philosophy.
A modern-day reader may find Hobbes’s themes as relevant today as they were in the 17th century, given that the world still has dictators who answer to no one. Arguably, the linchpin of Hobbes’s benign sovereign-monarch model – and its weak spot – is that the fear of God will keep rulers in check. getAbstract recommends this classic to those who wonder about the structure of effective government in light of the vagaries of human nature.
- Human nature and behavior prove that people are prone to conflict.
- Collectively submitting to one sovereign power serves the population; one body can make major decisions, maintain order and offer protection.
- Citizens enter a “covenant” – a social contract – of obedience with their sovereign; the sovereign’s actions become their actions and are beyond their reproach.
- The sovereign answers only to God.
- The ruler’s “private interest” mirrors the public interest; it is better for the sovereign to have the support of prosperous, contented and healthy subjects.
- The sovereign must control the militia and the means of paying its soldiers.
- The sovereign also controls “opinions and doctrines,” appoints judges, censors books, and limits who can speak to the “multitudes.”
- Laws constrain people’s freedoms so that others do them less harm.
- A king may have family members and favorites to indulge; they are bound to be fewer in number than the families and favorites of many members of an assembly.
- Advice to a monarch can be one to one and therefore candid.
Human beings, left to their own devices, do not live together as harmoniously and cooperatively as “bees and ants”; rather, they compete for “honor and dignity.” This competition leads to jealousy, enmity and battle. Because everyone can reason, many people think they’re smarter than other people and should be running things. As a result, they try to change how their current government functions, thus sowing the seeds of rebellion. Without the peace and order provided by a “covenant” – a social contract – of obedience to a sovereign, society would never escape “continual fear,” and each person’s life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
“All truth of doctrine dependeth either upon reason or upon scripture.”
The main role of a “commonwealth” is to induce people to subsume their individual will into a single will, that of a sovereign monarch or a sovereign assembly. A country’s population must give up individual freedoms to create a secure commonwealth which can protect them through its laws. Each individual loses some liberties but gains the sovereign’s protection. The sovereign keeps other nation-states from acting against the citizenry.
“In all deliberations and in all pleadings, the faculty of solid reasoning is necessary.”
Laws exist to stifle the freedom of men who, unconstrained, would hurt their fellow citizens. Rules force people to help each other when a “common enemy” threatens. The Leviathan’s purpose is “to set before men’s eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience.”
Laws and the sovereign’s other actions have a primary obligation and intention: maintaining the indivisible nature of the sovereign’s power in order to prevent conflict. Without a strong central ruler to enforce laws and define power, human nature guarantees that small disagreements and conflicts would escalate into widespread anarchy, and that foreign countries would seize any opportunity to invade and conquer.
The sovereign monarch or assembly receives authority only from God and is answerable only to God. This aligns with the idea that all citizens become, in essence, one person – their sovereign. The person of the monarch embodies the commonwealth. The ruler is essentially a human god to whom the citizenry shows obeisance by keeping the peace and defending the realm. Anyone else who has any degree of power in the commonwealth receives his authority from both God and the sovereign. The power of the sovereign is the realm’s highest power, and no group or law can limit or control the ruler’s authority or actions.
“Covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
A sovereign can gain the submission of a nation-state’s subjects in two ways: by “acquisition” through power or war, or by “institution,” when people submit voluntarily. Free people might yield without a fight, because, without a sovereign power, “amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war.”
“Now in monarchy, the private interest is the same with the public…For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor or contemptible.”
A subject who submits forms a covenant with the sovereign. Through this covenant, every citizen is the “author” of the sovereign’s actions and cannot accuse the sovereign of injury, because “to do injury to one’s self is impossible.” If the sovereign is an assembly, the members must each support the majority’s decisions – once an agreement has been made – so that they can speak and act as one. A citizen who, under personal free will, joins the government’s sovereign assembly has accepted the covenant by taking that action and, thus, pledges to “stand to what the major part should ordain.”
A Supportive Population
Having a strong, healthy, supportive population best serves the interests of a monarch and enables that ruler to build the nation’s prosperity and defend it against other countries. Because citizens fight for the defense of the state, the monarch – for personal protection – must care about the well-being of his subjects.
“A sovereign…may ordain the doing of many things in pursuit of their passions, contrary to their own consciences.”
In contrast, differing members of a sovereign assembly can have conflicting interests and profit from corruption, disharmony and “treacherous action.” The subjects of a monarchic system may feel that their situation is terrible, but they must weigh their position against “the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war.” A country and its population thrive because there is order and because the citizenry obeys. Calm and prosperity matter far more to the daily life of an individual than the means of government.
“A monarch receiveth counsel of whom, when and where he pleaseth.”
Having a single monarch offers less opportunity for disunity than having a sovereign assembly does. Although a king may have family members and favorites to indulge, they are bound to be fewer in number than the families and favorites of the many members of an assembly.
Nations must closely confine the scope and longevity of regional representation systems to make sure they produce no challenge or alternative to the sovereign’s power. If an assembly proved to be the one true “representative of the people,” it would be a sovereign power. If there are two sovereigns over any state, conflict – and possibly war – inevitably results. In order to protect the authority of government, a sovereign must declare large gatherings of people unlawful and “tumultuous” if the citizenry has no peaceful reason for convening in large numbers. A gathering becomes threatening when its participants become too numerous for officers of the realm – that is, police, militia or soldiers – “to suppress and bring to justice.”
Protection and Defense
The relationship or covenant between subjects and their monarch, because it is based on the ruler’s ability to “protect the people,” does allow subjects to be released from their loyalty once the sovereign can no longer protect them. This might occur, for instance, in times of civil war.
“The subordinate judge ought to have regard to the reason, which moved his sovereign to make such law, that his sentence may be according thereunto…”
During the era of Jesus, an individual leader, a monarch – governed Judea, and “an assembly of the people” governed Rome. The assembly constituted “a monarchy; not of one man over another man; but of one people over another people.”
The subjects of a commonwealth have the right to own private property and keep the earnings from their labors. But the subjects’ right to keep all private gains does not apply to money due to the sovereign. Without taxation or other levies, the sovereign would be unable to carry out the primary duty of this station, which is to maintain public order.
“The use of laws…is not to bind the people from all voluntary actions; but to direct and keep them in such motion, as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness or indiscretion.”
Long-term defense of the commonwealth costs money. This defense may include risks that the population is unaware of or irresponsible about addressing. Individuals’ “passions and self-love” might make them feel “a great grievance” at paying for the realm’s protection, but people cannot see the far-off miseries that may threaten them and that cannot be avoided without such payments. The benign sovereign has the right to collect this money, even if it’s against the subject’s will, on the understanding that it is for the subject’s own long-term good.
The sovereign should have the power “to be judge or constitute all judges of opinions and doctrines” in areas which may affect governance and politics. Maintaining peace and obedience is government’s most important task, so the state must censor dangerous and rebellious ideas.
“The resolutions of a monarch are subject to no other inconstancy than that of human nature.”
Regarding questions of politics and power, free speech has little value compared to the risk of rebellion and disharmony that radical opinions might engender. This is why suppressing or channeling public opinion to support the monarch ultimately serves to govern the behavior of the citizens.
For example, universities are the “fountains of civil and moral doctrine” and therefore their waters must be “pure.” This is because “preachers and the gentry, drawing such water” then “sprinkle” it across the wider population. Most subjects who are aware of their responsibilities to the monarch will refuse to listen to “a few discontented persons.”
The sovereign should have the power to prescribe the rules of private property and business, and to take from private business what is necessary to finance the defense of the nation-state or its law and order. Subjects are free to “buy and sell and otherwise contract with one another,” and are free to choose where they live, what they eat, what they trade and how they raise their children.
“Laws…of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.”
The sovereign should establish and maintain good “propriety” relations – rules establishing who owns what and how to record and protect ownership rights. Unless the sovereign creates and upholds civil laws, “everything is his that getteth it and keepeth it by force; which is neither propriety, nor community; but uncertainty.”
A sovereign can give away many of the commonwealth’s economic advantages or monopolies, but must maintain control of the militia to retain law and order. The ruler must hold “the power of raising money” to pay the militia.
“A commander “must therefore be industrious, valiant, affable, liberal and fortunate.”
If a subject has a “controversy” with the sovereign which is “grounded on a precedent law, he hath the same liberty to sue for his right, as if it were against a subject.” But if the controversy involves questioning the sovereign’s power to make laws, then the subject has no right to sue. The sovereign’s authority comes from “the authority of every subject.” Those who sue the government are only suing themselves. Subjects can challenge the sovereign for not following established laws, but they cannot challenge the sovereign’s right to create and set the laws.
Counsel and Advice
A single sovereign monarch is better placed than a sovereign assembly to receive the best advice and counsel. A monarch can take the counsel “of whom, when and where he pleaseth” from any man or woman of any “rank or quality.”
“The subjects “have authorized all [the] sovereign’s actions and in bestowing the sovereign power, made them their own.”
Because not everyone – including the wealthy and highborn – is capable of providing sound counsel, an assembly of the rich and powerful is not necessarily the best means of making decisions. One-to-one counsel with a monarch can be more candid. In contrast, an assembly might make decisions not based on wisdom but on the various members’ passions.
“But man, whose joy consisteth in comparing himself with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent.”
The monarch, being one person, can collect advice and hear controversial opinions in secrecy. A monarch can “examine, when there is need, the truth or probability of his reasons.” Because an assembly has so many members, no such body can enjoy candor, reflection or confidentiality. Should advice followed by the monarch lead to an unfavorable outcome, the ruler who sought the advice cannot punish the counselor. Good counselors should have “ends and interest” that are consistent with those of the monarch or assembly they are advising.
Counselors who resort to passionate “exhortation” are probably likely serving their personal interests. Exhortation takes the adviser a step away from considering the “consequence of what he adviseth” and the “rigor of true reasoning.”
When making decisions about domestic matters, the ruler can find good knowledge and counsel “from the general information and complaints of the people of each province, who are best acquainted with their own wants.” The sovereign’s subjects have no power in the relationship, but the sovereign should try to find out and pay attention to the concerns and complaints of the subjects firsthand, rather than relying on officials or aristocrats. Subjects should be free to voice their opinions and complaints, so long as they do not challenge the ruler’s power.
About the Author
Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, when notions of kingship and sovereignty were central concerns.
“Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes is a timeless classic in political philosophy, first published in 1651 during a tumultuous period in English history. In this seminal work, Hobbes explores the nature of political authority and the social contract, offering a provocative and groundbreaking perspective on the structure and purpose of government.
Hobbes begins by examining the state of nature, a hypothetical scenario in which individuals exist without any government or social order. In this chaotic state, Hobbes famously argues that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He contends that human beings, driven by self-preservation, naturally seek power and are in a constant state of competition and conflict.
To escape this perpetual state of war, Hobbes posits the social contract theory, where individuals voluntarily surrender some of their natural rights to a governing authority. This authority, the Leviathan, acts as the embodiment of the collective will and power of the people, ensuring order, security, and justice in society. The Leviathan is granted absolute sovereignty, and individuals agree to obey it in exchange for protection and a more stable existence.
Hobbes’ philosophical insights provide a foundation for the modern concept of the nation-state, arguing that only a strong, centralized government can maintain order and prevent the chaos of the state of nature. His ideas have had a profound influence on political theory, especially in the development of the social contract theory and the formation of modern democratic governments.
“Leviathan” is a thought-provoking and foundational work in political philosophy that continues to resonate today. Thomas Hobbes’ examination of human nature and the necessity of a strong, centralized authority is both controversial and compelling. His argument that the state is essential for preventing a descent into chaos and conflict offers a stark perspective on the role of government in society.
Hobbes’ writing style is eloquent and persuasive, making complex philosophical concepts accessible to a wide audience. The book challenges readers to consider the balance between individual freedoms and the need for a structured society, sparking ongoing debates about the nature of political authority and the social contract.
While some may find Hobbes’ conclusions to be pessimistic, “Leviathan” remains a vital text for anyone interested in political theory, governance, and the foundations of modern society. It is a must-read for students of philosophy, political science, and anyone curious about the origins of political thought.
In summary, “Leviathan” is an enduring classic that provides a deep and enduring exploration of human nature, political authority, and the social contract. Hobbes’ ideas continue to shape the way we think about government and society, making this book an essential read for those seeking to understand the roots of contemporary political thought.