Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes

THE development of Hobbes's greatest and best-known work was materially affected by the political unrest with which he found England seething on his return to it in 1637. Analyzing the principles which underlay the dissensions, he found himself equally opposed to the theory of the divine right of kings and to the principles on which the Parliamentarians based their action. In the course of the following years he devoted himself to the construction of a science of politics and in 1651 he published Leviathan, or The Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. The work contains the most definite enunciation made up to that time of the doctrine of the social contract, which later took so different a shape in the hands of Rousseau.


NATURE hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body and mind that are born in them, that one man cannot in respect of these claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend. From this equality ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. Therefore, if two men desire the same thing which they cannot both enjoy they become enemies, and seek each the destruction of the other, each mistrusting the other. So men invade each other, first for gain, second for safety, and third for reputation.

Hence, while men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a state of war, every man against every man. In this state, notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place. Probably there never was actually such an universal condition; but we see it now among savage races and in the mutual relations of sovereigns. In this state of war, reason suggesteth articles of peace upon which men may agree; which articles are otherwise called the laws of nature.

The right 'of nature' is the right of self-preservation. 'Liberty' is the absence of impediments to the exercise of power. A 'law of nature' is a precept of reason forbidding a man to do what is destructive of his own life. In the state of nature every man has a 'right' to everything. Thus security comes only of the first fundamental law: 'To seek peace and follow it,' and 'by all means we can to defend ourselves.'

The second law follows: 'To lay down the right to everything, claiming only so much against others as we concede to others against ourselves.' This right being renounced or transferred, injustice is the revocation of that act. But since the object of a voluntary act is good to oneself, such renunciation is not valid if not good for oneself; hence a man cannot renounce the right of self-preservation.

The transferring of right, if not mutual, is free gift; if mutual, it is contract. When this is not simultaneous there is a covenant or pact. The covenant can become void only through some new fact arising after it was made. A covenant not to defend oneself against force by force is void per se.

The third law is: 'That men perform their covenants, made,' without which covenants are vain, and the state of war continues. The definition of injustice is 'the not-performance of a covenant.' No covenant is valid until there exists some power that can enforce the performance of it by penalties; that is, until there is a commonwealth. What is done to a man conformable to his own will signified to the doer is no injury to him.

The fourth law is that of 'gratitude'; that a man receiving a free gift endeavour that the giver may not suffer thereby. A fifth is 'complaisance'--that every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest. Others are pardon on repentance, and non-vindictiveness of punishment; and the common enjoyment--or, failing that, distribution by lot--of what cannot be equally divided.

Persons are either natural and actual, or fictitious and artificial, i.e. representing someone else, or even something els: as a church, a hospital, a bridge. When the representative has authority from the represented, we call the former the 'actor,' and the latter the 'author.' One person may artificially represent a multitude.

Now, men being in the state of nature may agree together; but there is no security, unless there be a power to enforce the covenant. Such a power can be created only if they agree together to confer all their own power on one man or one assembly; so that all the acts of such person or assembly have authority as from each one of them, and each one of them submits his individual will to that of such person or assembly. The multitude so united in one person is a commonwealth. This is the generation of that leviathan or mortal god to which, under the Immortal God, we owe our peace and defence.

He that carrieth this person is called 'sovereign,' and everyone beside is his 'subject.' This sovereign power may be attained either by natural force, 'acquisition,' or by voluntary 'institution.'

They that have instituted a commonwealth by covenant cannot make a new covenant contrary thereto without permission of the sovereign, since this is a breaking of their covenant with each other. On his part there is no covenant, so that breach of covenant by him cannot be pleaded as warranting abrogation of the covenant made. The sovereign cannot do the subjects injustice because, since he has their authority, what he does to them is done by their own will; so also they cannot punish him.

Since the sovereign was instituted for peace and defence, he controls the means to war and peace, and judges of opinions as conducing to peace or endangering it. He prescribes the rules of property, since in the state of nature there is no property; he has the right of adjudicature; of making war and peace with other commonwealths; of choosing all counsellors in peace and war; of rewarding and punishing, according to the law he has made, and of bestowing honour. Nay, if he grants away any of these powers the grant is null.

THE sovereignty may be in one man, or in a limited assembly, or in an assembly of all--monarchy, aristocracy, democracy; these three forms only, though when they are misliked they are called other names. In any case, the power of the sovereign is absolute, whether a monarch or an assembly. He is the representative of the commonwealth, not deputies who may be chosen to tender petitions.

The three forms differ not in the power of the sovereign, but in their advantageousness. In monarchy, the private interest of the sovereign must coincide with that of the commonwealth as a whole; much more so than in aristocracy or democracy. An assembly cannot receive counsel secretly; a monarchy has the benefit of a single will instead of conflicting wills. There is no government by the mixture of the types, e.g. an elective 'king' is not a sovereign, but a minister.

Men submit themselves to an instituted sovereign, for fear of each other; to an acquired sovereignty, for fear of the sovereign. Acquired sovereignty or dominion is either by generation (paternal) or by conquest. A family, however, does not amount to a commonwealth, unless it be so great that it may not be subdued by war. Acquired sovereignty is absolute, for the same reasons as instituted sovereignty.

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