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Thomas Hobbes

Book II, Chapters 20-24

Book II, Chapters 17-19

Book II, Chapters 20-24, page 2

page 1 of 3

Book II
Chapter 20: Of Dominion Paternall, and Despoticall
Chapter 21: Of the Liberty of Subjects
Chapter 22: Of Systems Subject, Politicall, and Private
Chapter 23: Of the Public Ministers of Soveraign Power
Chapter 24: Of the Nutrition, and Procreation of a Common-wealth


Hobbes has written primarily of sovereignty established by agreement, but he now says that sovereignty established through force incorporates all the same rights and requirements of contract. The only difference lies in the way the sovereign is installed and retained; a sovereign who comes to power by institution, or universal consent, gains the support of the people because the people fear each other. In contrast, a sovereign who comes to power by acquisition, or force, gains the people's support because the people fear the sovereign himself. Yet both kinds of sovereignty are consented to by social contract, and both kinds of contracts are always established by fear.

Contractual sovereignty is similar to the power of a parent over a child. In the state of nature, a child is owned by both parents, but because a subject cannot obey two masters, only one parent can have absolute dominion over the child. With no matrimonial laws in the state of nature, the mother alone knows who the father of her children is, and consequently, the father has no claim to paternal authority. Familial power in the state of nature is naturally maternal. However, Hobbes suggests that just as natural man escapes the state of nature by contracting with a sovereign, sacrificing personal rights in exchange for security and peace, so too do two parents in the state of nature contract with each other to give the father power of the family, also for the sake of security and peace. This contract subjugates mother and child to the father, and because the father has sovereign power by contract, instituted sovereign power is therefore called "Paternal." But Hobbes argues that sovereign power does not naturally reside in the father (rather, it resides in the mother). Only contract determines sovereignty, and Hobbes contradicts patriarchal discourse by suggesting that paternal authority is an accident of history (and contingent upon men in positions of power favoring men), rather than a dictate of nature or religion.

Acquired sovereign power is often called "Despotical" (as opposed to paternal) because it seems to be a relation between master and servant. But Hobbes says that this relationship is also by contract (unlike the relation between captor and slave, where the slave has no obligation to obey and may rightfully rebel); thus the despot and the paternal sovereign are one and the same.

Hobbes considers the nature of liberty under sovereign power and says that liberty means the ability to act according to one's will without being physically hindered from performing that act. Only chains or imprisonment can prevent one from acting, so all subjects have absolute liberty under sovereignty. Although the contract and the civil laws mandated by the sovereign are "artificial chains" preventing certain actions, absolute freedom and liberty still exist because the subjects themselves created the chains. Subjects write the social contract and are the authors of the sovereign's power. Thus, argues Hobbes, the subject is responsible for all hindrances to his actions and therefore cannot complain.

In the state of nature, liberty did not exist, because actions were hindered by fear of death and fear of the power of others. In the Leviathan, fear and power are still present, but because the subject has consented to give them to the sovereign to use as tools, the subject has attained absolute liberty. That is, the subject is an author of the sovereign's power and is accordingly responsible for the sovereign's actions. So even if the sovereign imprisons or kills the subject, the subject has been personally responsible for his own fate. Hobbes concludes that freedom can only truly exist under a sovereign power authorized by its subjects.

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Hobbes Leviathan, Important Terms: PLENUM

by HerrDay, October 12, 2014

Sparknotes editors, you need to review your definition of PLENUM in the glossary for Hobbes' Leviathan. A picture of the universe as a plenum makes a vacuum impossible.

Fifteenth Law of Nature

by YHLD, March 16, 2016

Dear editors,
The 15th Law of Nature is missing in this summary (Book I, Chapters 14-16, first page). Because of the missing number, the 15th Law is explained as the 16th, the 16th as the 17th and the 18th has become a short version of both the 17th and the 18th Law of Nature. Could you please look into this?