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Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes

Book II, Chapters 20-24

Book II, Chapters 17-19

Book II, Chapters 25-31

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

Summary

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.

But considering the more common understanding of liberty--namely, that the subject may rightfully resist or disobey a sovereign's commands if he or she so chooses--Hobbes determines that such liberty goes back to the laws of nature. A subject has the right of self-preservation and is never bound to injure himself, put himself in danger of death, kill himself or injure another (the sovereign may rightfully punish or kill the subject for disobedience, but the subject then has a right to defend himself). However, for nothing else may the subject rightfully resist the sovereign, because such resistance detracts from the sovereign's ability to protect the commonwealth.

If the sovereign is no longer able to fulfill the function of protection, then the soul has left the body of the Leviathan, the commonwealth has collapsed, and subjects are no longer bound by contract to the sovereign. However, at this point, they have returned to the state of nature and must create a new contract or be imprisoned by fear and horror.

Hobbes has reinforced the metaphor of the Leviathan as an artificial person, and he now begins a lengthy examination of the systems of this artificial body. The "systems" of the Leviathanic body are defined as groups of individuals joined by some interest. Towns, provinces, trade organizations, and households are examples of systems. A "regular system" has a representative, while "irregular systems" do not. The representative is analogous to the sovereign in that the members of the system are contractual subjects of the representative, but the representative's power is not absolute because it is subordinate to the sovereign power. "Political systems" are established by the sovereign. "Private systems" are established by the people's own volition. "Lawful systems" are permitted by the sovereign, while "unlawful systems" are not.

"Public ministers" are appointed by the sovereign to administer certain sets of affairs. Public ministers are sovereign representatives of those involved in their affairs and are considered to be the joints of the Leviathan's body, coordinating the members.

Commodities and goods produced within the commonwealth or by other commonwealths are the "nutrition" for the Leviathan's body. Money is the blood that circulates throughout the body, keeping it animated. Finally, the Leviathan reproduces itself by bearing children: "Plantations" or "Colonies."

Commentary

We saw earlier how each layer of Hobbes's argument mimics previous layers; the structure of the Leviathan is figured in a similar way. The Leviathan's body is like a set of nesting dolls, in which each doll is a bigger version of another doll inside of it. The Leviathan as a whole is a representative of all the people, but its body is made up of a succession of subordinated systems each with its own representative. The conditions of contractual sovereignty are identical for each representative in relation to its subjects, although only the Leviathanic sovereign has absolute sovereignty, because he is at the top of the structure. The smallest unit of representation is the family, in which the father represents the mother and their children by contract. The atomic element of the Leviathan is the individual human body, and, like the smallest motions of matter that ultimately determine human actions in Hobbes's philosophy, the individual constituents are the ultimate authors of the actions of the Leviathan as a whole. Each constituent part of the Leviathan's body strengthens and acts upon the others. This intricate engineering of the Leviathan renders it virtually indestructible, securing a supremely durable peace.

The laminar endurance of the Leviathan has its troubling aspects, despite its ability to provide safety and freedom. When Hobbes makes the subject responsible for authoring the actions of the representative, a total acceptance of the status quo is cemented. Of course, this is for what Hobbes aims, and the logic of his own terms is extremely robust. But there is no possibility for civil change when the actions of the representative must always be accepted as having been, in fact, committed by the constituents. Hobbes tries to strengthen his claim with an analogy: He says that a state's subjects determine the actions of their sovereign in the same way that the kinetics of external material bodies, by the transfer of motion hierarchically from one body to the next, result in human bodily sensations, perceptions, and thought. But even if this argument is accepted, the analogy made with the relation between the human body and the sovereign representative does not hold up to scrutiny, because the individual constituent does not directly cause the actions of the sovereign in the same manner as the action of matter causes human perceptions. Hobbes's analogy seems to suggest that the actions of the sovereign are caused by material motions--just as human perceptions in general are caused by material motions--and not by his human subjects--although these subjects may have a certain amount of influence.

Despite Hobbes's confidence that the sovereign's power will remain paternal in nature, he provides no logical guarantee that it will not devolve into a tyrannical or despotic mode of rule. Hobbes writes that when the sovereign no longer protects the security of the commonwealth, the subjects are no longer obliged to obey him. But the tightly interconnected body of the Leviathan, in which the smallest members are responsible for actions of the entire figure, resists governmental change even in cases when the abuses within the Leviathan are worse than within the state of nature.

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