Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XVII

“Provide for the Common Defense,” bas relief from the front of the Greenbelt Community Building, Maryland


To misquote a question from the catechism, what is the chief end of the state?

The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves in which we see them live in commonwealths is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent… to the natural passions of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters. (XVII.1)

The goal of the state at the end of the day is not Plato’s justice, Aristotle’s happiness, or even Aquinas’s holiness: the telos of the state is nothing more than mere survival. The state provides that personal safety which the natural law can only point to—those laws we see at work in nature having no power of enforcement within themselves. In the same way, “covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” (XVII.2). Where there is no state, the best we should expect to see is family set against family in a survival of the fittest. In this state of nature all of us know the laws of nature and all of us honor those who most violate natural laws in defense of their own little units. If we want evidence of this bleak view, Hobbes points us to international affairs. The state of nature is international relations writ small.

Even the banding together of these family units into tribes provides no real safety, since it generates a tempting target for enemies without giving the people in these tribes any actual confidence in their own ability to resist. And even if these tribes join together into a multitude, if it lacks strong and constant leadership it receives no security from the violence of a state of war. (We should note that Hobbes has loosely followed the structure here used by Aristotle in book 1 of the Politics, albeit to a very different conclusion.) And this central leadership is what is key in the state, rather than any specific number of people:

The multitude sufficient to confide in for our security is not determined by any certain number, but by comparison with the enemy we fear… And be there never so great a multitude, yet if their actions be directed according to their particular judgments and particular appetites, they can expect thereby no defence, nor protection, neither against a common enemy, nor against the injuries of one another. (XVII.3–4)

Those who think this is too bleak a picture of man and believe that people are basically good and willing to work together have not sufficiently taken reality into account:

For if we could suppose a great multitude of men to consent in the observation of justice and other laws of nature without a common power to keep them all in awe, we might as well suppose all mankind to do the same; and then there neither would be, nor need to be, any civil government or commonwealth at all, because there would be peace without subjection. (XVII.4)

And whatever we think of how he gets there, Hobbes is surely right in his conclusion. There never has been and never will be a book called “The History of All the Places Where Government Has Utterly Collapsed and People Got Along Well with Each Other Anyway.”

In paragraphs six through twelve, Hobbes gives an interesting response to the objection raised by Aristotle (though not, of course, in response to the arguments of the Leviathan): what about the bees and the ants? Don’t they have political societies that arise spontaneously from within each of the individuals and that require no external coercion to force compliance? Though Hobbes does not use the word, each of his six objections comes down to one characteristic that human beings have at their core that bees and ants appear not to possess: sin. Whatever reason, speech, and instinct these animals have are put to work for the common good without complaint or objection. With people, it is exactly the opposite—so much so that we must be compelled to unite with each other into an artificial and external covenant with sufficient “common power to keep them in awe,” whereas animals work together by nature (XVII.12).

So where does this state that keeps us so safe come from? For that matter, what is a state? Until now Hobbes has said much about covenants, but nothing about the commonwealth itself:

The multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth… This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that by terror thereof he is enabled to conform the wills of them all to peace at home and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the essence of the commonwealth, which (to define it) is one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence. (XVII.13)

The state is the gathering of the wills into one organism, which then contains all the might of those combined wills and the right to direct them in the way it deems will best preserve the safety and peace of all.

Such a state is born when individuals covenant together to form the Leviathan. Hobbes is clear that this covenanting is a willing action that results in a “real unity,” just as much as if everyone in the state had said:

I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. (XVII.13)

Thus the individuals who join the commonwealth become “subjects,” while the person or body of people who receives these given-up rights becomes the sovereign. In reality, of course, few if any ever actually make a statement like that cited above. What usually happens is either that a state is created voluntarily by men, or men are violently seized by a greater power and subjected—the latter Hobbes calls “commonwealth by acquisition,” the former “commonwealth by institution” (XVII.15). He will have something to say about each of these, but focuses most of the rest of part II on commonwealth by institution.

No doubt these definitions are jarring to modern Americans. We like to think that our commonwealth was instituted so that we would not have a “sovereign” and so that we would never be “subjects.” And while we do think of the “common defense” as a part of the role of government, we also hold that it has responsibilities to pursue other goals as well that are perhaps just as central: promoting the general welfare or securing the blessings of liberty, for example. Hobbes, however, would say that we have misunderstood the basic purpose of government. And I think on some level he is correct, even if I’m still not comfortable with the thought. We can and should talk about the role of the state in pursuing justice and virtue and prosperity and the other goods of human life that we care about. I’d even go as far as Aristotle and say that the state can be necessary to mankind’s pursuit of some aspects of these ends. But, we have to ask ourselves whether the state can truly pursue any other goal if it is failing to provide for the basic safety of its citizens? If the state’s ability to defend its people collapses, how much are the citizens of that state going to care about the pursuit of justice? If the state cannot successfully stop murderers or protect the integrity of its own borders, how long will the citizen body be concerned with the quality of its welfare programs? For that matter, how long can such programs expect to continue in the first place if basic safety has collapsed? And if all of these questions are pointing to a central truth about government, then aren’t we just back to Hobbes being correct about the basic function of the commonwealth?


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

2 Responses to “Leviathan: II.XVII”

  1. gabe


    While Hobbes may be correct in asserting that the basic purpose of the commonwealth is to provide physical defense, it does not necessarily follow (other than to Hobbes) that this is the *primary* obligation of the state.
    The old Soviet regime actually provided for its own security quite well – would anyone other than an old Stalinist assert that it achieved the primary objective of the state – would any of its people?
    In this sense I think Machiavelli has a somewhat better take on the state and the limits of its authority than does Hobbes.

    Yet, the question before us (although found in the interstices) is: where do we stand? We can not or choose not to protect the citizenry against all sorts of miscreants, refuse to protect our borders AND YET we more closely resemble Hobbes Leviathan in terms of the extended reach of the Federal Government (AND State governments BTW) than other states that do a better job of protecting their borders and combatting criminal activity.

    I’ll take Madison with a little bit of government assisted virtue in the citizenry (presently absent of course), thank you – yet still a possibility.

    take care

    • Coyle Neal

      Hey gabe,

      I’m with you on preferring Madison to most things. It would be interesting to see what Hobbes thought about something like the old USSR. I think he would have said that when the state is throwing its own citizens in the gulag, it’s violating the covenant and not protecting them (even if it’s otherwise good at catching murderers).
      Still, you’ve got a good point. We increasingly reflect the worst aspects of Hobbes’ leviathan even as we increasingly sacrifice the benefits we should be getting. The question then of course is at what point has the sovereign destroyed the social covenant such that we need a new one? I don’t think we’re there, but it’s still a line that needs to be drawn. Which might take us back to Madison as a guide…

      Excellent comment, as usual!


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