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Thomas Hobbes

Book II, Chapters 17-19

Book I, Chapters 14-16

Book II, Chapters 20-24

Book II: Of Common-Wealth
Chapter 17: Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Common-wealth
Chapter 18: Of the Rights of Soveraignes by Institution
Chapter 19: Of the severall Kinds of Common-wealth by Institution, and of Succession to the Soveraigne Power


Although the laws of nature require that human beings seek peace, and maintain that the establishment of contracts is the best means of doing so, the natural human hunger for power always threatens the safety of the contract. Hobbes concludes that there must be some common power, some sovereign authority, to force people to uphold the contract. This sovereign would be established by the people as part of the contract, endowed with the individual powers and wills of all, and authorized to punish anyone who breaks the covenant. The sovereign operates through fear; the threat of punishment reinforces the mandates of the laws of nature, thus ensuring the continued operation of the social contract.

The sovereign is the ruling force behind the contract; in the analogy between the abstracted contract and an artificial person, the concept of sovereignty is the soul of the artificial person and the sovereign itself, the head. This artificial person is a metaphor for the state in total, and Hobbes names this artificial person "Leviathan." Hobbes's description of the construction of the Leviathan draws upon the conclusions made in Book I about the state of nature and repeats its images: "The only way to erect such a Common Power, as may be able to defend them from . . . the injuries of one another . . . is, to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon an Assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices unto one Will . . . This is more than Consent, or Concord; it is a real Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person, made by Covenant of every man with every man, in such a manner, as if every man should say to every man, I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man . . . on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him . . . This done, the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH . . . This is the Generation of the great LEVIATHAN."

The purpose of establishing a commonwealth is to escape the state of nature and to provide peace and the common defense of the people; the sovereign is responsible for ensuring this defense. The sovereign may be an individual or a group of people, but Hobbes always speaks of the sovereign as "he." The power given to the sovereign permits him to do whatever he deems necessary in order to protect the commonwealth. All rights of the individual have been transferred to the sovereign in order for this protection to work, and the only right retained is the right of self-preservation, which was the original reason for establishing the Leviathan.

There are two ways of establishing a commonwealth: through acquisition (force) or through institution (agreement). The latter accords with Hobbes's description of how natural man raises himself out of the state of nature (through the establishment of the Leviathan). The former, establishing a commonwealth through force, means that a sovereign power takes control of a group of people, who--if they do not resist the acquisition and depose the sovereign--must consent to his control. Thus, a sovereign instituted by force is as much a part of the social contract as a sovereign instituted by agreement. Both have the same function--to protect society and secure peace--and both have the same rights relative to their subjects.

The rights of a sovereign are as follows: 1) Subjects owe him sole loyalty; 2) Subjects cannot be freed from their obligation to him; 3) Dissenters must yield to the majority in declaring a sovereign; 4) The sovereign cannot be unjust or injure any innocent subject; 5) The sovereign cannot be put to death; 6) The sovereign may determine what ideas are acceptable (he is the ultimate judge of philosophical/scientific first principles) and may censor doctrines that are repugnant to peace (ideas that may cause discord within the population); 7) The sovereign prescribes legislative rules; 8) The sovereign has judicial power in all controversies, civil and intellectual; 9) The sovereign may make war and peace with other commonwealths; 10) The sovereign may choose his counselors; 11) The sovereign has the powers of reward and punishment; and 12) The sovereign may make all civil appointments, including that of the militia. All rights of the sovereign correspond with the laws of nature deduced in Book I and the philosophical methods Hobbes has employed throughout his argument. The sovereign is both the foundation of all true knowledge and the embodied power enforcing civil peace.

There are three kinds of sovereign authority instituted by agreement: monarchy (where power resides in one individual), aristocracy (where power resides in a group of people), and democracy (where power resides in all people willing to assemble for the sake of government). All other variations of government can be reduced to these three categories (for example, an elected monarchy is really a democracy, because sovereignty resides in the people who elected the monarch). Of the three possible versions of the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that monarchy is best, for several reasons. A monarch's interests are the same as the people's, because his political body is the same as his public body (the king's "body" is both his own natural body and the body of the state--the Leviathan). Contrastingly, in sovereign groups, the rulers do not share a body with the public. Secondly, a monarch will receive better counsel than aristocratic or democratic governors, because he can select experts and obtain their advice in private. Third, a monarch's policies will be more consistent because he is of one mind. Fourth, civil war is less likely in a monarchy because the monarch cannot disagree with himself. Finally, succession of sovereign power is more stable in a monarchy because the sovereign can choose his heir and the method of succession.


Hobbes's political state, the Leviathan, is a monster. The name "Leviathan" itself refers to the Biblical sea beast: "None is so fierce that dare stir him up . . . his teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. . . . His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. . . . When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid . . . Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear" (Job 41:10-33). Yet Hobbes takes this creature as the inspiration for his political state, because the Book of Job describes Leviathan as "King of all the children of pride." Hobbes's political state has to be a Leviathan, the most terrifying of all monsters because it must subdue the pride inherent in its human constituents, and it must use fear to prevent a recurrence of the state of nature.

The horrors of the state of nature are always lurking behind the state of the Leviathan. Civil war within the Leviathan causes the artificial body to collapse and all the subjects to fall into the state of nature. Fear of the state of nature is one reason for avoiding civil war. Fear of the sovereign Leviathan is another. The Leviathan is constructed to combat the fear of the state of nature, but it is capable of doing so only by wielding fear as its own weapon. Thus, in Hobbes's view of things, fear never disappears from human existence. However, there is a security accompanying fear of the Leviathan, an assurance of peace and the preservation of life. In contrast, fear of the state of nature has no such assurance. Thus the fear experienced by people living within the Leviathan is infinitely preferable to the fear experienced by people living within the state of nature.

Hobbes's political Royalism is clear when he abandons consideration of the other possible forms of the Leviathan, aristocratic and democratic, in favor of monarchy. Although Hobbes offers certain reasons for valuing monarchy above all, his philosophical argument does not necessitate monarchy's preeminence. The rest of Leviathan develops one kind of Leviathanic sovereignty at the expense of the other two, but Hobbes's framework leaves room for equally strong arguments in favor of aristocracy or democracy. Hobbes was a monarchist and his writings reflect this, but there is no reason why Hobbesian philosophy could not be used in a less totalitarian context. Hobbes has a historical reputation for validating absolute monarchy, and his work is often dismissed as dictatorial. But it must be remembered that, for Hobbes, sovereignty does not only reside in a king but also in sovereign congresses and sovereign democracies.

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