Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XIX

Succession is the most difficult issue facing monarchy, according to Hobbes.


Having established our responsibility to the commonwealth, Hobbes now turns to two critical questions in the field of political science: what kinds of commonwealths might there be? And how does sovereignty pass to the next generation in a given commonwealth?

As for the types of commonwealth, Hobbes believes there are only three real-world possibilities:

When the representative [sovereign] 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 and Aristocracy. Other kind of commonwealth there can be none: for either one or more or all must have the sovereign power (which I have shown to be indivisible) entire. (XIX.1)

At this point, we might ask: what about all the other kinds of government we see mentioned in the pages of history books and political philosophy texts? What about oligarchy, or tyranny, or elective monarchy, or some such? Hobbes argues that all of these other kinds of government are really either variations on one of three basic types—”For they that are discontented under monarchy call it tyranny” (XIX.2)—or misunderstandings of who holds the sovereignty. An “elective kingdom,” for example, is perhaps not really a monarchy since the actual sovereignty resides with whoever elects the monarch, despite the fact that the popular perception is that the sovereignty resides with the king (XIX.10–13). Again, Hobbes is on to something here. If we want to know where the true power in the state resides, we need to trace it back to its ultimate source.

As a side-note, Hobbes reminds us of the danger of attempting to establish conflicting sovereignties in a single state. If a state has a king, it should not establish a parliament; and if it has a parliament it should not create an monarchy:

For that were to erect two sovereigns, and every man to have his person represented by two actors that by opposing one another must needs divide that power which (if men will live in peace) is indivisible, and thereby reduce the multitude into the condition of war, contrary to the end for which all sovereignty is instituted. (XIX.3)

Hobbes notes that competing sovereignties was the root of the English Civil War between the crown and the Parliament—an observation which is fairly accurate when it comes to explaining the causes of most civil conflicts in the Western world. So Hobbes would look at the American plans of federalism and separation of powers and say that to some extent we are playing with fire and opening ourselves up to the possibility of collapse back into the state of nature, whatever benefits we might get from trying to harness and put to work for the state the energy that results from the tension between competing sovereignties. And while twenty-first century observers would hardly argue that a state of nature is worse than an undivided sovereignty—who could argue that in the wake of the horrors of the twentieth century?—we still have to grant that there’s something to Hobbes’s point. We are creating a culture that turns citizens against each other in the name of different aspects of the state. We might decide that we prefer it that way, but we should at least be honest about the dangers of what we are doing.

Having classified the different kinds of government, like any good political scientist Hobbes now draws conclusions about which is preferable. While it may be unsurprising that Hobbes believes monarchy to be the best options, his reasons for doing so may not be what we would expect. So just why is monarchy preferable to democracy or aristocracy?

1) Monarchy unites the private interest with the public interest, to the effect that “where the public and private interest are most closely united, there is the public most advanced” (XIX.4). Because the king is the public interest, we can never expect him to work against what is good for the state. In nations where the people or a selection of the people makes up the government, the private interest is going to be set at odds with the public interest from time to time even under the best of circumstances.

2) The monarch can listen to whomever he pleases without regard to their background and experience; an assembly—whether composed of all citizens or only of a select number of citizens—will only hear those who have a right to come before it. The lowest plebeian can shout at the Emperor Hadrian as he rides by, but only the select few can address the Senate or the Comitia Curiata.

3) Problems with justice in the state are the problems of a single person in a monarchy; in a democracy or aristocracy the more people that are involved, the more private interests and passions begin to undermine the system. In the same way, the monarch might use his office to go after his enemies and reward his friends. But by virtue of being one man, only so much of that can go on in any one lifetime. Even if he executes an enemy and promotes a friend every day of the year, that (according to Hobbes) is still going to be far less than the cronyism that one finds in a government made up of many people.

4) Admittedly monarchy has a problem with succession in that from time to time the office will fall on an infant, which leaves the difficulty of having sovereignty exercised by regents and stand-ins. Hobbes will deal with the problem of succession in a monarchy shortly, here he goes on the offense and delivers what may as well be the tag line for the contemporary United States Congress:

On the other side, there is no great commonwealth the sovereignty whereof is in a great assembly which is not, as to consultations of peace, and war, and making of laws, in the same condition as if the government were in a child. For as a child wants the judgment to dissent from counsel given him… so an assembly wanteth the liberty to dissent from the counsel of the major part, be it good or bad. (XIX.9)

Why should we complain about the monarchy being held temporarily for a child by his tutors when the governing assembly itself is functionally a body of children?

Finally, we come to the problem of succession. Here at least democracies and aristocracies have the advantage over monarchy. As long as there is a citizen body, there is no problem of succession in a democracy—”therefore questions of the right of succession have in that form of government no place at all” (XIX.16). Likewise in an aristocracy, whenever one dies the other members can replace him by whatever method of doing so they’ve established. (That said, the problem of succession is a serious on in the United States Congress as well. See Ornstein and Mann’s Broken Branch for an excellent discussion of the issue.)

It is in monarchy that the problem of succession comes in. To solve this problem, Hobbes falls back on his idea of sovereignty—because the king is sovereign, he alone has the right to pick his successor. If the state holds that his successor must be elected or appointed, then the state isn’t really a monarchy in the first place—whoever does the electing/appointing is the one with the sovereignty and the king is in that case merely a representative of that body. This is especially critical, since if we simultaneously believe that the present king has sovereignty, but that on his death some other body has the right to pick his successor, we are functionally putting ourselves back into the state of nature:

For the death of him that hath the sovereign power in propriety leaves the multitude without any sovereign at all, that is, without any representative in whom they should be united and be capable of doing any one action at all; and therefore they are incapable of election of any new monarch, every man having equal right to submit himself to such as he thinks best able to protect him (or if he can, protect himself by his own sword, which is a return to confusion and to the condition of war of every man against every man, contrary to the end for which monarchy had its first institution). (XIX.18)

One can imagine the aneurism Hobbes would have experienced had he ever read the codification of this very thing in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

So just how is the king to pass on sovereignty to the next ruler? The primary means is through the spoken word. This trumps all other methods, though when it is lacking we may rely on custom or perceived preference. What matters at the end of the day is that the will of the sovereign is obeyed. Even if he gives the sovereignty to a foreign potentate, even if we loathe his choice of successor, we are obligated to respect the will of the people—this in fact is better for us:

It is not, therefore, any injury to the people for a monarch to dispose of the succession by will, though by the fault of many princes it hath been sometimes found inconvenient. (XIX.23)

And that, is perhaps the understatement of the Leviathan to date.


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

3 Responses to “Leviathan: II.XIX”

  1. gabe

    So Hobbes appears to equate a lack of unanimity with a state of war or nature as would the presence of competing spheres of power.
    Rather “clever” of him, don’t you think? Of course, he must do so to sustain his argument for Leviathan.
    Clearly, liberty is a second or third order value when compared to a cohesive and unified power.
    I suppose that is the inevitable result of hyperbolic argument – yes, hyperbole is what he is engaged in when he terms even minor dissent as equivalent to a state of war.
    Last post I indicated a preference for Madison; heck, I would even take the “consolidationist” Hamilton over dear old Hobbes.


    • Coyle Neal

      Yeah, you’re right that Hobbes is using hyperbole and preferring order to freedom, but it’s worth it to remember that he was writing in the middle of the English Civil War. It may not be unreasonable if, finding ourselves in the middle of such terrible circumstances, we come to the conclusion that we would rather have peace than whatever liberty we had started fighting for. Now, I don’t know that I would say that right now, but right now I’m sitting in an air-conditioned house with a cup of hot coffee, a full stomach, and a reasonably enjoyable day ahead of me. If all of those things were replaced with ten thousand screaming Cavaliers trying to destroy Parliament by killing me and all of my friends and family, well, my political beliefs might shift accordingly.

      For what it’s worth, I’d pick Hamilton over Madison in a bar fight any day… 🙂

      • gabe

        Luv’d it!!!!

        But I think Adams was a bigger and better drinker – he might prevail in the fight!

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