Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XVIII

“Black block” by sasho. Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Wikimedia Commons.


Having established the role of society in keeping its members safe from each other, Hobbes gives us no wiggle room when it comes to our obligations to that society in turn:

A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree and covenant, every one with every one, that to whatsoever man or assembly of men shall be given by the major part the right to present the person of them all (that is to say, to be their representative) every one, as well he that voted for it as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgments of that man or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves and be protected against other men. (XVIII.1)

We see in this paragraph a number of conclusions about the nature of the state. And while the conclusions Hobbes goes on to draw may or may not necessarily follow, at least here we can see a few things that have largely become presuppositions in discussions about politics:

1) The state is an artificial creation;
2) The state involves the transfer of power and right from the multitude to the few;
3) All within the state are obligated to obey the decisions of that government;
4) The end of the state is the protection of its citizens.

We don’t have time to work out each of these in detail or to put them in their proper context in the development of the state in the West, but it’s worth noting that at no point here is Hobbes necessarily out of line with previous political thinkers. This will, of course, quickly change as his argument progresses, but in this initial stage we can see echoes of Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and Augustine’s City of God.

Having defined the state, Hobbes argues that there are a number of conclusions that follow concerning the “sovereign” established by this act of covenanting that creates the commonwealth. In the first place, he argues that

they that have already instituted a commonwealth, being thereby bound by covenant to own the actions and judgments of one, cannot lawfully make a new covenant amongst themselves to be obedient to any other, in any thing whatsoever, without his permission. (XVIII.3)

In other words, once we the people have created a state, there are no take-backs. We cannot decide we don’t like the current holders of sovereign power and replace it, at least not without the permission of that power. Which raises the question: what if the individual or institution that holds sovereign power agrees that there needs to be hope and change? What if the king or the Congress grant the people permission to adjust the social covenant?

there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign; and consequently none of his subjects, by any pretence of forfeiture, can be freed from his subjection. (XVIII.4)

The sovereign is created when the people covenant together to invest him with power. But because he is not a part of that original covenanting, his assent to break it is meaningless and so cannot be given. And yet, because the subjects have covenanted together, they likewise cannot break faith with the sovereign they have created. It is out of this circularity that Hobbes’s “Mortal God” arises. Any attempt to break this circularity returns men to the state of nature, and so must be declared void. Again, we may not agree with Hobbes here (I certainly don’t), but hopefully we can see how his reasoning unfolds.

[If all of this language of “covenant” is new to you, Hobbes is stealing—wrongly, in my opinion—a term from Puritan theology and applying it to the political sphere. For a basic overview of the theology, the best introduction is the short work The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology by Geerhardus Vos. For this doctrine in its historical setting during Hobbes’s time, see Edmund Morgan’s Puritan Political Ideas or Daniel Elazar’s Covenant and Commonwealth: From Christian Separation through the Protestant Reformation.]

As a good American, I am compelled to ask: what about those who disagree and vote against the original covenant? Moreover, what about those who don’t even show up to the vote in the first place?

because the major part hath by consenting voices declared a sovereign, he that dissented must now consent with the rest… or else justly be destroyed by the rest… And whether he be of the congregation or not, and whether his consent be asked or not, he must either submit to their decrees or be left in the condition of war he was in before, wherein he might without injustice be destroyed by any man whatsoever. (XVIII.5)

So if I have a complaint about the American system, “I don’t agree with it” or “I wasn’t even born when it was founded” simply aren’t legitimate complaints. My choices are to submit to the system or so remove myself from it that I re-enter a state of nature and can be killed by any and all without fear of reprisal. And again, I think even if we ultimately reject Hobbes’s argument, we can see what he is getting at. If I truly remove myself from the society and reject every aspect of its authority and sovereignty, any attack on my person can only be responded to with whatever power I have by and in myself. Which of course is very small and limited—I’ve lost the right to appeal to the rules of society for justice and so have no recourse other than the law of the jungle. That includes attacks on me by society itself. If I reject society and then society crushes me, I have no one left to call on for defense and no one to blame for that circumstance but myself.

At this point, Hobbes shifts from discussing the bottom-up relationship between the subjects and the sovereign to a top-down view of what the sovereign may or may not (but mostly “may”) do to his subjects. What kinds of powers does he have, and how may he exercise them? The remainder of this chapter is, if nothing else, useful as a guide for examining a society and determining who or what possesses the sovereignty in the state. If we want to know who the subjects are and who the sovereign is, we may look at the following characteristics and conclude that whoever exercises these powers is the sovereign, and whoever they are exercised on are the subjects:

1) The sovereign can do no wrong. Subjects may err and be punished, but the sovereign by definition is carrying out the will of the people and so “whatsoever he doth, it can be no injury to any of his subjects, nor ought he to be by any of them accused of injustice” (XVIII.6).
2) The sovereign has the final say in all matters of policy, especially those concerning public safety and national defense. This includes the method of prosecuting wars… “he that hath the sovereign power is always generalissimo” (XVIII.12).
3) The sovereign has the final say over all matters of public education and censorship. This is an especially important function, since according to Hobbes it is the introduction of new ideas defended by zealots that violates the established peace and drives a commonwealth back into a state of war. On the other hand, being governed by truth is critical for the stability of society, since “in the well-governing of opinions consisteth the well-governing of men’s actions” (XVIII.9).
4) The sovereign has the final authority over all law, both in its being passed and in its being adjudicated. The sovereign is to establish, enforce, and interpret the civil law in matters of both procedure and fact.
5) The sovereign controls the creation and appointment of all government officials.
6) The sovereign dispenses all rewards and punishments of the state. Punishments I think we can understand, but the idea of rewards from the state is an interesting one to try to track as modern Americans. Aside from things like tax breaks for charities and churches (assuming we’ve still got those by the time this blog post is published) and rewards for those in the military, we don’t have a whole lot by way of national public recognitions. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the occasional nod in a State of the Union Address are barely on the periphery of most Americans’ attention.

Overall, “These are the rights which make the essence of sovereignty, and which are the marks whereby a man may discern in what man, or assembly of men, the sovereign power is placed and resideth” (XVIII.16).

The sovereign is that person or institution which exercises these powers and which must be respected by the subjects of the state. These are the powers which at the end of the day may not be separated from the person or institution of the sovereign, since they are the powers that enable him to perform his basic function—protecting the people. And so while some functions of governing (coining money, for example) may certainly be distributed to another institution or person, passing off these core powers is at best illegitimate, and at worst sowing the seeds of civil war. For example, Hobbes points out that if the sovereign farms out national defense to local militias, he will see his ability to enforce the law begin to slip away as well. Or, if he grants the power to censor public education, charlatans will begin to lead people into rebellion. Hobbes argues quite reasonably that

If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided and fallen into this civil war. (XVIII.16)

And if we say that we don’t want to be subjects of an all-powerful centralized government, and that such is little better than slavery, Hobbes is quick to remind us that the worst a powerful centralized government can do to us is infinitely preferable to the best “of the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war” (XVIII.20). The fact that we push back against this just shows our own limitations and biases as human beings:

For all men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses (that is their passions and self-love), through which every little payment appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses (namely moral and civil science), to see afar off the miseries that hang over them, and cannot without such payments be avoided. (XVIII.20)

And again, Hobbes is surely right at least in this limited point. All of us are experts at seeing how we are suffering in small ways right now under the oppressive tyranny of those evil Democrats/Republicans. In our struggle to resist the tyranny of the immediate by any means necessary, few of us can see the long-term effects of undermining the foundations of the state and throwing ourselves into the horrors of anarchy or the destruction of a new civil war. And while I don’t think anyone in the twenty-first century can say that the existence of government is always better than the alternative, we should at least hesitate a bit before automatically condemning those structures which preserve some modicum of peace between men—even when those structures are in the hands of our political enemies and causing us grief personally.


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

3 Responses to “Leviathan: II.XVIII”

  1. gabe


    Recall the question you posed in your response to me in the last “episode” – What would Hobbes think of the USSR?

    Clearly he would have no problem with it if by (his) definition the sovereign can do no wrong and his assertion that once Englishmen (foolishly according to Hobbes) conceived of “separation of powers” , civil war and turmoil ensued. This would seem to place him squarely in the camp of those who supported the Caesars, Tsars, and current day dictators. All power – all just power – resides in the sovereign who not only has a DUTY to create law, he must also execute or dispense with it as the Sovereign sees fit.
    Sound familiar.

    Yet, you are correct in your ending paragraph. all too often we see some minor blemish and we seek to “re-construct” an otherwise fine edifice.
    I often think that philosophers, lawyers and yes, academics, would do well to practice a craft. There is a certain wisdom that comes from, say, carpentry, where one may accept that a minor blemish to a piece (or a deck, gazebo, etc.) is clearly preferable to tearing the whole structure apart.
    As my “crafty” friends and I like to say, “If the flaw offends thee, remove thyself to a vantage point that is not so offensive!” The deck will stand – it is functional.

    take care

    • Coyle Neal

      You’re absolutely right that folks in the humanities need to do something with their hands too. (I have the benefit of having grown up on a ranch, so I can check that box.) At least then if you want to tinker with something, you’ve got some experience doing so…

      In terms of the Hobbes vs. the USSR, you’ve got a good point. Though again I’d suggest that, broad as his lines are, Hobbes did say that if the sovereign recreated the state of war, he had gone beyond the limits of legitimate sovereignty and given the people the right to rebel. Would Hobbes have said the USSR crossed that line? Was the Gulag a legitimate exercise of sovereign power, or was it a place where the state of war reigned, and the citizens held there had every right to take up arms against their captors? I suspect it would be the latter, but again you’re right to point out that Hobbes gives a truly unbelievable amount of leeway to the government. Maybe, being English, he assumes a level of restraint and propriety that your average American just can’t fathom.

      • gabe


        You do raise a very good and interesting point, re: Hobbes English sentiment / tradition. I think it is quite probable that was the case.

        In fact, one can witness it in todays world. whenever I hear a Progressive expound upon “peace and love, etc” and how this should dictate diplomacy, I can not help but think that they do this in major part because they believe (quite wrongly) that the rest of the world is populated by similarly situated middle class contented and morally sophisticated folks.
        Or when a Libertarian proselytizes for open borders on the flimsiest of expectations that all “world citizens” are approximately equal and share our traditions / culture.

        Yikes, we are in trouble!

        Seeya – am going to go out and enjoy the rain (first in 3 months) Yippeee!!!!

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