Enlightenment philosophy: Thomas Hobbes on Liberty


LIBERTY is absence of impediments to motion. It is consistent with fear, also with necessity; for a voluntary act is yet necessary as having a cause which is a link in a chain of causes up to the First Cause, which is God. But men have created artificial impediments or bonds called laws. The liberty of the subject lies only in such things as the sovereign has pretermitted, for he hath power to regulate all, even life and death, at his own will. The liberty praised in Rome and Athens was the liberty of the commonwealth as against other commonwealths.

The subject has liberty to disobey the sovereign's command if it contravene the law that the right of self-preservation cannot be abrogated, unless it be to endanger himself for the preservation of the commonwealth, as with soldiers. The subjects' obligation of obedience lasts so long as the sovereign's power of defending them, that being the purpose of his being made sovereign.

By systems I mean numbers of men joined in one interest. These are political, constituted by law; and private, permitted or forbidden by law. All, except a commonwealth, are subordinate to the commonwealth, and have not the character of sovereignty. The rights of governing bodies are only those expressly conceded by law, either generally or to them specifically. Systems in the commonwealth correspond to muscles in the natural body.

The nourishment of the commonwealth is its commodities or products, the distribution of which must be at the will of the sovereign, whether of land or of commodities, exchanged internally or trafficked abroad.

The procreation, or children, of a commonwealth are its 'plantations,' or 'colonies,' which may be commonwealths themselves, as children emancipated, or remain parts of the commonwealth.

By civil laws I mean those laws that men are bound to obey as members of any commonwealth. The sovereign is the sole legislator, and is not subject to the laws which he can repeal at pleasure. The civil laws are the laws of nature expressed as commands of the commonwealth, or the will of the sovereign so expressed; whatever is not the law of nature must be expressly made known and published. Both the law of nature and written law require interpretation, which is by sentence of the judge constituted by sovereign authority.

An intention of breaking the law is a sin; issuing in a breach of the law it is crime. Violation of the laws of nature is always and everywhere sin; it is crime only when a violation of the laws of a commonwealth. Unavoidable ignorance of a law is a complete excuse for breaking it, but ignorance due to lack of diligence is not unavoidable. Terror of present death, or the order of the sovereign, is a complete excuse. And many circumstances may serve as extenuation.

A punishment is an evil inflicted by public authority on him that hath done or omitted that which is said to be by the same authority a transgression of the law, to the end that the will of men may thereby be the better disposed to obedience. Now, this right of punishment is not transferred by the subjects to the sovereign, since they cannot surrender their right of self-defence against violence. But as all before had the natural right of hurting others, that right is left by the covenant to the sovereign alone, strengthened by the resignation thereof by the rest.

Punishments inflicted by man are 'corporal' or 'pecuniary,' or 'ignominy,' or 'imprisonment,' or 'exile,' or mixed of these. Corporal are capital, with or without torment, and less than capital. Pecuniary includes deprivation not only of money, but also of lands or other saleable goods; but such deprivation, if it is by way of compensation to the person injured, is not really punishment. Imprisonment, when it is only for the custody of a person accused, is not punishment. Exile is not so much a punishment as a command or permission to escape punishment, except when accompanied by deprivation of goods.

Infirmities of a commonwealth arise--from the first institution, when the sovereign has not assumed sufficient power; from such doctrines as that each man privately is the judge of good or evil actions, or sins if he obey the commonwealth against his 'conscience'; that the sovereign is subject to the civil laws; that private property excludes sovereign rights; that sovereign power may be divided, which is the worst of all; and from other causes, as of money grudged for wars, monopolies, over-potent subjects or corporations, insatiable desire of dominion. But when a country is conquered, that is the dissolution of the commonwealth.

Of the sovereign's duties the first is to surrender none of his powers, and the second to see that they be known, to which end, and the understanding of it, the people must be rightly instructed. Further, that he administer justice equally to all people, and impose equal taxes, and make good laws (I say good, not just, since no law can be unjust), and choose good counsellors.

Subjects owe simple obedience to the sovereign in all things whatsoever, except what is contrary to the laws of God. Therefore, it remains here to speak of the kingdom of God, Whose subjects are they that believe in Him. God declareth His laws either by natural reason, or by revelation, or by the voice of prophets. He is necessarily sovereign, for the one reason that He is omnipotent.


OF God speaking by the voice of a prophet are two signs: that the prophet worketh miracles, and that he teacheth no other religion than that established. These two must go together. And since miracles have ceased, it is clear that God no longer speaks by prophets.

But He hath revealed Himself in Scripture--that is, in those books which are in the canon ordained. But whether their authority be derived from the civil sovereignty or is of a universal church to which all sovereigns are subordinate is another question. It may be seen, however, from Scripture that the kingdom of God therein spoken of is a civil kingdom, which is that kingdom of God by Christ which was interrupted by the revolt of the Israelites and the election of Saul.

A church is a term used in many senses, but in one only can it be treated as a person having power to will, command, or do any action whatever. And according to this sense I define a church to be 'a company of men professing Christian religion, united in the person of one sovereign at whose command they ought to assemble, and without whose authority they ought not to assemble.' It follows that a church that is assembled in any commonwealth that hath forbidden them to assemble is an unlawful assembly.

There are Christians in the dominions of several princes and states; but every one of them is subject to that commonwealth of which he is himself a member, and consequently cannot be subject to the commands of any other person. There is therefore no such universal church as all are bound to obey.

The original covenant with Abraham gave him the sole right, which is the inheritance of every sovereign, to punish any subject who should pretend to a private vision for the countenancing of any doctrine which Abraham should forbid. This covenant established that kingdom of God which was interrupted by the secular kingdom of Saul. The coming of Christ was to restore that kingdom by a new covenant; which kingdom was to be in another world after the Resurrection. The power ecclesiastical was left by Him to the apostles, but manifestly not a coercive power on earth, as Christ's own power on earth was not.

Christ, therefore, by His coming did not withdraw any of the power from civil sovereigns, and if they do commit the government of their subjects in matter of religion to the Pope, he holdeth that charge not as being above the civil sovereign, but by his authority.

But as for disagreement between the laws of God and the civil laws of the sovereign, the laws of God, which must in no wise be disobeyed, are those which are necessary to salvation; and these are summed up in the will to obey the law of God and the belief that Jesus is the Christ. But the private man may not set up to judge whether the ordinance of the sovereign be against the law of God or whether the doctrine which he imposeth consist with the belief that Jesus is the Christ.

But in the Scripture there is mention also of another power, the kingdom of Satan, 'the prince of the powers of the air,' which is a confederacy of deceivers that, to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavours by dark and erroneous doctrines to extinguish in them the light both of nature and of the Gospel, and so to dis-prepare them for the kingdom of God to come.'

And such darkness is wrought first by abusing the light of the Scriptures so that we know them not; secondly by introducing the demonology of the heathen poets; thirdly, by mixing with the Scripture divers relics of the religion and much of the erroneous philosophy of the Greeks; and, fourthly, by mingling with these false or uncertain traditions and feigned or uncertain history.

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