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Thomas Hobbes

Book II, Chapters 25-31

Book II, Chapters 20-24

Book III

Chapter 25: Of Counsell
Chapter 26: Of Civill Lawes
Chapter 27: Of Crimes, Excuses, and Extenuations
Chapter 28: Of Punishments, and Rewards
Chapter 29: Of those things that Weaken, or tend to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth
Chapter 30: Of the Office of the Sovereign Representative
Chapter 31: Of the Kingdom of God by Nature


Hobbes continues to detail the functionality of the Leviathan, addressing specific offices and legal issues of the commonwealth. Counselors to the sovereign must by worthy of their position; their knowledge, abilities, and experience must be adequate to the advice they give. Furthermore, the motivations and goals of a counselor must be the same as those of the sovereign or discord will ensue. The best kinds of governments are those administered by sovereigns privy to the advice of many counselors; the second-best kind of government is one administered according to the judgments of the sovereign alone. The worst governments are those administered with the help of counselors who must arrive, with difficulty, at a plurality of consenting opinions before offering their advice to the sovereign (Hobbes is tacitly describing a parliament). Consensus is only possible, according to Hobbes, when one man, having heard a variety of opinions, is responsible for making resolution.

For this reason, the sovereign alone is the final judge of laws. "Civil laws" are those rules commanded by the sovereign through word, writing, or other sign of his will. Laws must be made known in order to be laws, and if they cannot be known (for example, in the case where the sovereign does not communicate the laws or, in the case where the subject is a child or an idiot, incapable of knowing the laws), then they cannot be justly enforced. However, the just enforcement of the laws of nature, which are contained by and form the basis of civil law, are not contingent upon the laws' communication, for the laws of nature are knowable through reason alone.

All laws require judgment and interpretation, and while the sovereign is the final judge, he may appoint subordinate judges to administer his laws. A judge must be impartial, decide equitably, and reach his conclusions through proper exercise of reason.

A judge may sometimes excuse a law's transgression if the transgressor demonstrates reasonable ignorance of the law. However, breaking the law is never excusable when the law is known or should be known. Breaking the laws of nature, which are apparent to everyone's reason, can never be excused (except for children, madmen, and other creatures without reason).

"Punishment" is "an evil inflicted by public authority, on him that hath done... a Transgression of the Law." The sovereign has the right to punish criminals in order to defend the security of the commonwealth. The sovereign also has the right to require certain subjects to punish other subjects for transgressing the law. But the sovereign can never require a criminal to punish him- or herself, because this violates the fundamental right of nature--the right of self-preservation--for which the sovereign was created. Moreover, the actions of the sovereign can never be declared illegal, because he is the origin of the law, not governed by it. Consequently, the sovereign can never be punished.

The counterpart of "Punishment" in the Leviathan is "Reward." "Reward" is granted to a subject by public authority and may take the form of either a "Gift" (if it is given by the grace of the public authority), or a "Salary" (if it is given in return for a service). The interplay between punishment and reward makes the Leviathan function properly, and, in the language of the body metaphor, they are "the Nerves and Tendons, that move the limbes and joynts of a Commonwealth."

Hobbes concludes his discussion of a properly functioning commonwealth and now considers a commonwealth in disarray--an unhealthy Leviathan. Hobbes likens a defectively conceived commonwealth to a "Defectuous Procreation": a birth defect. An unhealthy or unstable Leviathan can arise: 1) if the sovereign lacks absolute power; 2) if actions are determined as good or evil by every private individual, rather than by civil law; 3) if the subjects hold the mistaken belief that one's individual conscience should always take precedence over civil duty; 4) if the subjects maintain faith in supernatural phenomena, rather than in the learned doctrine instituted by the sovereign, thus challenging the sovereign's authority over knowledge; 5) if the sovereign is subject to the laws he creates; 6) if the subjects maintain a sense of individual propriety over personal goods, thus resisting the sovereign's rightful claim to all properties of the commonwealth; 7) if individuals divide up the sovereign power among themselves; 8) if the commonwealth imitates the governments of other nations; 9) if the commonwealth imitates the Greeks and Romans; 10) if the Leviathan divides civil and spiritual or religious authority; 11) if the government is a mixed government of varying modes of administration; and in a few other situations. All these conditions, whether "birth defects" born with the Leviathan or "diseases" that have appeared over time, will eventually lead to divisiveness within the Leviathan, which will in turn lead to civil war.

The office of the sovereign is designed to "procure the safety of the people." When this office is no longer fulfilled, the soul has disappeared from the Leviathan, and it is merely a corpse. Sovereignty dissolves during civil war and also during an international war if the enemy is victorious. At the moment the Leviathan collapses, the subjects are thrust back into the state of nature, once again left to protect themselves with whatever powers they may against the powers of others.

To avoid this horrible outcome, Hobbes writes, it is necessary merely to follow the philosophy of his text and thereby obey the sovereign in all things that will facilitate the sovereign's ability to protect the commonwealth. Hobbes anticipates a possible objection, in that the commands of the sovereign may be contrary or repugnant to the laws of God. A subject must avoid civil punishment, but, in so doing, must also avoid divine punishment. So it is necessary to know the laws of God and to what extent they correspond to the laws of the sovereign. The natural laws of God are dictated by natural reason (which derives ultimately from God as the Prime Mover), and Hobbes has already demonstrated that natural laws are the foundation of the Leviathan. But God also ordains prophetical law, and the project of Book III of Leviathan is to apply Hobbes's philosophic method to the discernment of this prophetical law.


Hobbes's argument in Book II straddles the line between philosophical description (i.e. deduction) of a contractual commonwealth and political prescription (i.e. utopia) for the institution of the ideal society. This section of Hobbes's text is concerned with the details of sovereign administration and the structure of the Leviathanic legal system. When coupled with the previous section, it provides a blueprint for engineering a new political structure. Had Hobbes's text had its intended political effect--to inspire the reconstruction of the English nation--the plans for the architecture and the systems of the Leviathan have been thoroughly outlined.

While Hobbes repeatedly insists that he is deducing his conclusions through his geometric method, by fancifully imagining the hypothetical perfect government, he undermines his scientific (i.e. analytic) pretensions. It bears repeating that Hobbes's text is a mixed bag of genres and written forms. In these last chapters of Book II, Leviathan resembles the writings of governmental reform and political propaganda, reminiscent of the political pamphlets circulating in this period between the Civil Wars and the Restoration; yet these chapters also suggest the conventions of utopian romance.

However, in the next book, the genre of political utopia vanishes as Hobbes makes a violent shift to theology and Biblical exegesis. In its intermixing of genres, Leviathan is dialogic in the Bakhtinian sense, eclectically gathering and employing the conventions of various genres to build its own rhetorical structure. Consequently, Leviathan cannot be placed unambiguously within any single genre, for it is neither philosophy nor natural history nor political propaganda nor utopia nor tragedy nor epic nor theology, but rather all these at once, inventing its own generic space. Leviathan is outside of genre, while skillfully using genre for its own purposes.

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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.

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