Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Leviathan, Part II: “Of Commonwealth”
Summary: Chapters 17–31
The first law of nature demands that humans seek peace, an end best met by the establishment of contracts. Yet the natural inclinations of men toward power always impel them to break contracts. Without the fear of punishment for breaking contracts, men will break them whenever it is immediately advantageous for them to do so. Thus the basic social contract of the commonwealth must vest power in one central, sovereign authority, with power to punish those who break the contract. Under the rule of the sovereign, men are impelled, by fear, to keep the commonwealth functioning smoothly.
If the state is imagined as a person, the soul of that person is the concept of sovereignty, and sovereign himself is the person’s head. Hobbes names this artificial person, representing the state in its totality, the Leviathan. Desiring to escape the state of the nature through contract, all persons erect a common power at the head of their commonwealth, whether one man or an assembly, and agree to submit to its will to escape fear of each other. The sovereign is charged with doing whatever necessary to defend the commonwealth. As all individual rights are transferred to him, all are compelled to follow the sovereign’s commands regarding defense. Although Hobbes here states that the sovereign may be either an individual or an assembly, he does not yet state his preference for the sole sovereign ruler.
Commonwealths can be formed in two ways: through institution, or agreement; and through acquisition, or force. Although the group of people taken by force under a sovereign’s rule may resist the acquisition and depose the sovereign before he takes control, if they do not do so initially, the sovereign in both acquisition and institution holds the same right of dominion over his subjects and the same responsibilities regarding the common defense. The sovereign is the foundation of all true knowledge and the embodied power underlying all civil peace. There are three possible forms of sovereign authority created by contract: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of these, Hobbes proclaims that monarchy is the best because it offers the greatest consistency and lowest potential for conflict, limiting the decision-making body to one.
Liberty may be defined as the ability to act according to one’s own individual will without being physically hindered from acting as one wishes. From a strictly materialist perspective, only chains or imprisonment can prevent one from acting as such. Thus, under the rule of the sovereign, free subjects, unencumbered by chains, maintain their liberty. Although there may be certain laws and “artificial chains” arising from law under the sovereign, subjects have no right to complain about such chains because they have entered into a contract with the sovereign. Furthermore, since fear dominates the state of nature and hinders a person’s ability to act as he wishes, true liberty does not exist in the state of nature. Only when the subject has forsworn his own fear and power to the sovereign to be used as tools is he absolutely free. If the sovereign ever loses his authority or ability to protect the commonwealth, then the soul will have gone out of the Leviathan, and subjects will be released from their contract and returned to the fear-filled state of nature—necessitating that they form a new contract if they don’t wish to endure its horrors.
Hobbes identifies all the subunits of society as systems within that body: towns, trade organizations, and households that can be established by the sovereign or by groups of individual persons joined by some common interest. Political systems are always established by the sovereign, while systems created by independent subjects are termed private systems. Those ministers appointed by the sovereign to administer his systems are understood to be representatives of the sovereign’s will. These “public ministers” act as joints in the Leviathanic body, manipulating the movements of all its limbs. Further expanding the bodily metaphor, Hobbes states that all goods produced within the commonwealth or obtained by trade are the “nutrition” on which the Leviathan’s body subsists. Meanwhile, money, the liquidated form of commodities, is the blood of the body, circulating through all its various members to keep it functional. Last, the self- reproduction of the Leviathan is achieved by bearing versions of itself in miniature, offspring we know as plantations or colonies.
Through the last part of book 2, Hobbes elaborates on the specific functionalities of the Leviathan, particularly in relation to the creation and administration of laws. He also points out “birth defects” by which the Leviathan may be a dysfunctional body. The possible scenarios by which the Leviathan may be doomed and unhealthy include the sovereign lacking absolute power, subjects maintaining faith in the supernatural rather than submitting to the learned doctrine of the sovereign, matters of good and evil being decided by individuals rather than civil law, and civil and religious authority being divided and under different powers and imitating the governments of the Greeks and Romans. All of these problems have the potential to poison its body and dissolve the commonwealth into civil war. A healthy and stable commonwealth depends on absolute respect and abeyance of the one sovereign’s will.
Hobbes’s discussion of the complex functions of the Leviathan’s body and its different possible forms of government all boils down to his strident belief that a body with two or more heads cannot function peacefully. He lists many other advantages inherent to absolutist monarchies. A monarch’s interests are necessarily the same as the people’s because he shares both a physical and a political body (the Leviathan) with the people, whereas in sovereign powers composed of groups, the members of a governing council do not share a body with their subjects. Since a monarch can choose his own advisors and meet with them in private, he will receive better counsel than aristocratic or democratic governors. Conflicts over the succession of governmental power are impossible because the sovereign is solely empowered to determine his successor.
Crucially, no matter how the sovereign gains his sovereignty he holds the same rights and responsibilities. Whether by force or agreement, in both cases he gains his power through contract. The precise nature of the contract and dominion is all that differs, as the contract by which the sovereign who gains his power through universal consent results from the people’s universal fear of one another, while the sovereign who gains his power through force is backed by a contract resulting from the people’s fear of the sovereign himself. The form of dominion vested in contractual sovereignty is analogous to the dominion that a parent holds over a child. Naturally a child is “owned” by both its parents, yet since no subject can obey two masters, only one parent can have absolute dominion over the child. A mother will often enter into contract with a man, granting him absolute dominion and sacrificing personal rights to attain security. Just so, the contractual sovereign is granted his “paternal” authority. By contrast, the sovereign who acquires his power by force holds a dominion similar to that of a master over a servant. Although his power is called despotical, this sovereign, like the paternal sovereign and unlike the slave-holding master, holds his power by way of contract. Therefore, in the end, though the authority ascribed to different sovereigns may be termed paternal or despotical, the actual nature of their power is exactly the same. Above all, since both forms of sovereignty are consented to by a social contract grounded in fear, Hobbes considers them equally valid.
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