- Leviathan by Hobbes


The 17th century continued to move away from faith-based reasoning and medieval models such as scholasticism. Instead, philosophical systems such as rationalism and empiricism were chosen. Philosophical liberalism also led to an interest in political philosophy.

Thomas Hobbes saw politics as a secular discipline, separate from the scholastic Aristotelian theology and metaphysics. He had a pessimistic view of humanity as self-centred and competitive rather than benevolent. His influences were rooted in the deterministic science of the time (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke...) and the certainties of mathematics. He visited Galileo and came back convinced that the physical world could be systematized using the new science of dynamics, including the human body and mind and all of civil society.

His masterpiece Leviathan (1651) presented his model of the founding of legitimate states and governments based on theories of social contract. It was written during the English Civil War (1642-1651) a struggle for power between Parliament and the King. As a monarchist Hobbes was concerned with demonstrating the need for a strong central authority and avoiding civil conflict. In Leviathan he developed ideas already expressed in his De Cive (1642). The religious context was also of opposition between Catholics and Protestants.

He postulated that life without government would be like a state of nature that would lead to conflict and poverty. To avoid this state of war and insecurity, humans enter into a 'social contract' and establish a civil society. Everyone should give up their natural rights since protection by authority, despite abuses of power, are the price of peace (although in exceptional cases rebellion may occur). He rejected Locke's separation of powers arguing that the Sovereign must control the civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

His ethics were based on adapting to the situation: if there is no political authority, you have to manage yourself; if there is a political authority, your duty is to obey it. (The former is exactly what Hobbes did when the British monarchy Charles I lost the civil war - save himself by fleeing to Paris.)


Leviathan is composed of 4 books. In the Introduction Hobbes describes his idea for a political organisation of society through a social contract called the commonwealth. It stipulates that the subjects of a State freely surrender certain rights to figures in authority to gain internal peace and protection from invasion. The author argues that without this contract there will be continual war within the State. His metaphor of the body politic is Leviathan, a human body with the sovereign as its head (see header image). The name derives from a monstrous Biblical creature in Job 41 and Hobbes' writings aim to prove that this monster is necessary to maintain peace and prevent civil war.

Book 1 "Of Man" is the philosophical base for the work and the other books elaborate on its ideas. Hobbes argues that human nature can be understood through materialist principles. Mankind's nature is said to be violent and full of fear. It pits man against man in a competitive destruction. To escape their own nature humanity searches for peace and to enable this Hobbes proposes Leviathan and a social contract.

Book 2 "Of Common-wealth" describes the building of Leviathan detailing the rights of sovereigns and subjects and its legislation. There are three types of commonwealth >

"The difference of Commonwealths consists in the difference of the sovereign, or the person representative of all and every one of the multitude . . . When the representative is one man, then is the Commonwealth a monarchy; when an assembly of all that will come together, then it is a democracy, or popular Commonwealth; when an assembly of a part only, then it is called an aristocracy."

Hobbes prefers monarchies since there is only one master. 

Book 3 "Of a Christian Common-wealth" deals with the religious system of the commonwealth and the comparison of Hobbesian philosophy with Christian doctrine and religion in Leviathan. He traces Judeo-Christian history to demonstrate the tradition of living under sovereigns to whom God expected obedience. The Pope is considered as sovereign only in preaching and instruction but not in other dominions. Thus, concludes Hobbes, obedience to God and to the sovereign are not contradictory since the king's laws are also God's.

Book 4 "Of the Kingdom of Darkness" argues that Leviathan politics is compatible with a Christian commonwealth. However the author is very critical of the Catholic Church which he says is a cover so that the Pope and bishops can seize power from civil sovereigns. This idea harks back to the beginning of the Anglican church by Henry VIII who renounced Catholicism and obedience to the Pope.

The argument in Leviathan is modelled on the geometric proofs used by Galileo which base the whole on first principles and each conclusion on the previous step. This is Hobbes' endeavour to construct a philosophy as irrefutable as geometry.



The commonwealth is compared to an artificial man, power in a human image. The right to make laws, sovereignty, is artificial, too. 

NATURE (the art whereby God has made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal . . . For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.

Commonwealths should work through following the rights and duties of rulers and subjects. However, he broadens the definition of the sovereign by stating that the King does not necessarily have the right to make laws. The sovereign is also defined as the representative of all the people and derives his power from this.

Commonwealths are weakened as is a human being and they can die, too. Reason and law are the lifeblood of the State and disorder occurs when they are not respected. (As Hobbes is writing during a Civil War it is left to readers to interpret whether Cromwell's commonwealth or King Charles I's monarchy is responsible for poor government. However, he does state that subjects no longer owe loyalty to a defeated commonwealth and mentions the execution of the King, yet underlines that the new Cromwellian commonwealth could die, too. (Is he playing both sides of the civil conflict?)

"Lastly, when in a war, foreign or intestine, the enemies get a final victory so as the forces of the Commonwealth keeping the field no longer, there is no further protection of subjects in their loyalty, then is the Commonwealth dissolved, and every man at liberty to protect himself by such courses as his own discretion shall suggest unto him. For the sovereign is the public soul, giving life and motion to the Commonwealth, which expiring, the members are governed by it no more than the carcass of a man by his departed, though immortal, soul."


Commonwealth is based on human reason and Hobbes describes how thought and knowledge are acquired. His political allusion to Christ's betrayal compares with the betrayal of King Charles and he defines it as treason for personal gain.

"For in a discourse of our present civil war, what could seem more impertinent than to ask, as one did, what was the value of a Roman penny? Yet the coherence to me was manifest enough. For the thought of the war introduced the thought of the delivering up the King to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for thought is quick."

Reason is also affected by language which separates us from the animals and creates order. 

"But the most noble and profitable invention of all other was that of speech, consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion; whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither Commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves."

He also draws the limitations of reason saying that it cannot conclude in absolute knowledge and that beliefs are opinions. He casts doubts on the Church's authority arguing that faith in the Church's beliefs is faith in men.

"And consequently, when we believe that the Scriptures are the word of God, having no immediate revelation from God Himself, our belief, faith, and trust is in the Church; whose word we take, and acquiesce therein . . . So that it is evident, that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason, than what is drawn from authority of men only, and their writings, whether they be sent from God or not, is faith in men only."

Human Nature

The fight for power is one part of human nature. This includes influencing others through compulsion or in subtler ways through reason. Power is also portrayed as a natural gravitational force whereby power demands more power.

"Natural power is the eminence of the faculties of body, or mind: as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility. Instrumental are those powers which, acquired by these, or by fortune, are means and instruments to acquire more: as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God, which men call good luck. For the nature of power, is, in this point, like to fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy bodies, which, the further they go, make still the more haste."

Hobbes assumes that men naturally want to increase their power. He attributes this to greed and also insecurity to the extent of killing for power. He also believes that humans are selfish and will fight for their own interests before those of society.

"So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which hath present, without the acquisition of more. . . Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power inclines to contention, enmity, and war, because the way of one competitor to the attaining of his desire is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other."

Hobbes believes that human nature requires a powerful force to guide it in order to maintain peace and avoid chaos. He bases this argument on the history of civilisation and its achievements by appealing to human fears.

"Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war is of every man against every man . . . In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The Laws of Nature

According to Hobbes the laws of nature are based on reason. One of the laws of Nature is that nature seeks peace. This contradicts his belief that human nature is drawn to war. The second law is that we have the right to defend ourselves.

"And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule contains the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves."

Humans choose their own laws but in Book 2 he draws an image of how laws work. Each man in the image is chained to the mouth of the sovereign by a series of laws. For Hobbes laws are stable not because they are unbreakable but because fear of breaking them is established to assert the power of the State.

"But as men, for the attaining of peace and conservation of themselves thereby, have made an artificial man, which we call a Commonwealth; so also have they made artificial chains, called civil laws, which they themselves, by mutual covenants, have fastened at one end to the lips of that man, or assembly, to whom they have given the sovereign power, and at the other to their own ears. These bonds, in their own nature but weak, may nevertheless be made to hold, by the danger, though not the difficulty of breaking them."

Civil laws and the kingdom of God are explained as different. Natural laws are attributed to God and they are valid under any style of government. They have naturally bad outcomes when disobeyed. However he seems to admit that the civil rebellion in England was due to injustice and poor governance. He also implies that sovereigns are subject to God's laws. (Once again is Hobbes playing both sides?)

"Having thus briefly spoken of the natural kingdom of God, and His natural laws, I will add only to this chapter a short declaration of His natural punishments . . . And hereby it comes to pass that intemperance is naturally punished with diseases; rashness, with mischances; injustice, with the violence of enemies; pride, with ruin; cowardice, with oppression; negligent government of princes, and rebellion, with slaughter."

In Book 4, "Of the Kingdom of Darkness" Hobbes sustains that the Pope and canon law are higher than sovereigns. He also criticises Presbyterians for trying to establish their forms of Protestantism on English laws. In 1660 Britain saw the restoration of a Protestant monarchy and Hobbes was allowed to return from his exile in France.

Thinking as Mathematical Calculation

Hobbes' influences in philosophical thinking were based on the deterministic sciences of his time led by Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke and others. After a visit to Galileo he returned with the conviction that the physical world, society and the human body and mind could be understood as a system using the science of dynamics. 

Hobbes promoted a mechanistic scientific, approach to knowledge which was in the tradition of the Royal Society, founded in 1660. He argued that our senses detected only material objects and so we can only perceive the world materially. Mathematical certainties would lead to correct conclusions about humans and their society. He argued that viewing all as material was a denial of the existence of the immaterial soul and intellect. 

Hobbes held to the  metaphor that thinking was a numerical calculation. This metaphor appears to have begun with the Greeks, particularly Pythagoras, who viewed mathematics as the essence of nature. It was also held by many in the Enlightenment, including Descartes who relied on it to reason. Hobbes explained it thus:

"Reason, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning - that is, adding and subtracting - of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thought."

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