Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XX

The people of Israel demand a king. “First Book of Samuel Chapter 8-2” by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Hobbes shifts briefly from his discussion of a “commonwealth by institution” to the nature of a “commonwealth by acquisition,” which is

that where the sovereign power is acquired by force; and it is acquired by force when men singly (or many together by plurality of voices) for fear of death or bonds do authorize all the actions of that man or assembly that hath their lives and liberty in his power. (XX.1)

In other words, conquest does not de-legitimize sovereignty. Both a commonwealth created by institution and a commonwealth created by acquisition are founded as a result of fear. The only difference is that in the former what is feared is the other residents of the state of nature, while in the latter what is feared is the one given the sovereignty. That fear is the reason for the founding does not in any way negate the founding itself—unless of course that fear doesn’t go away after the institution of the sovereign, but that is true of commonwealth by institution as well.

From the sovereign’s perspective, it likewise doesn’t matter what the reasons were for the original covenant. The sovereign of an acquired commonwealth has all the same powers and privileges that one has in an instituted commonwealth. Hobbes uses this point as a hinge to turn to the discussion of the relationship between the family and the state. Both appear to be in a sense sovereignty by acquisition, or what Hobbes calls “dominion.” But there are some differences that set the two apart in important ways.

Sovereignty over children is tied to the reproductive act, but is still for Hobbes a question of consent—it “is not so derived from… generation as if therefore the parent had dominion over his child because he begat him, but from the child’s consent, either express or by other sufficient arguments declared” (XX.4). Yet Hobbes admits this is a difficulty given his view of consent and human relations. If all are equal in a state of nature, then men and women are completely equal and neither has claim to priority over the other or over the children. This in turn gives the child the position of having two sovereigns—the exact thing Hobbes wants to avoid in the state. Hobbes gets around this difficulty within the commonwealth through the civil law, which was of course mostly written by men and so generally favors fathers. In the state of nature, on the other hand, preference must be given to the mother because she alone can identify the father (if she so chooses). If she does so choose, the father and mother must contract between them to determine who has final sovereignty over the child—though even here the mother has the right to set the terms since the child relies on her alone to nurture it rather than to abort it. And you’ll notice at this point that we’ve moved on from the question of the child’s consent—Hobbes just doesn’t say when this happens.

The other kind of “sovereignty by acquisition” is conquest, or what “some writers call Despotical” (XX.10). This is the true master/servant relationship where one agrees to serve the other. Again, what Hobbes emphasizes here is consent:

It is not therefore the victory that giveth the right of dominion over the vanquished, but his own covenant. Nor is he obliged because he is conquered… but because he cometh in, and submitteth to the victor. (XX.11)

We always have the option of remaining in the state of war if we so prefer, and if we leave the state of war we can hardly blame the one we submit to for our submitting to him! This ultimately shows us the point of contact between the state and the family. It is not a causal connection, as Aristotle argued, but rather a connection of resemblance:

In sum, the rights and consequences of both paternal and despotical dominion are the very same with those of a sovereign by institution, and for the same reasons. (XX.14)

So a family might resemble a “little monarchy” (XX.15) if it is large enough, but it is neither the foundation for the commonwealth nor actually a commonwealth itself.

Where is Hobbes’s proof for his arguments here? Like any good Protestant, Hobbes turns to the pages of scripture. (Which is not to say that Hobbes is actually a good Protestant, as we’ll see in the third and fourth books of the Leviathan. His relationship to Protestantism is one of resemblance only…) Specifically, he turns to several passages that highlight the authority of those in power over temporal issues. For example, he takes the warning given by God through Samuel to the people of Israel concerning the tyranny a monarch would exercise over them and notes that the important part of that story is that the people consented to be ruled by an absolute sovereign (XX.16). After a number of other proof texts, Hobbes ends with a somewhat questionable exegesis of Genesis 3. He suggests that the true sin of Adam and Eve was to attempt to topple God from His rightful position as sovereign Lord over them. So far so good, this is just standard Christian doctrine. But Hobbes’s extension is that, when considered in conjunction with his other proof texts,

…it appeareth plainly, to my understanding, both from reason and Scripture, that the sovereign power… is as great as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a power men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetual war of every man against his neighbour, are much worse. The condition of man in this life shall never be without inconveniences; but there happeneth in no commonwealth any great inconvenience but what proceeds from the subject’s disobedience and breach of those covenants from which the commonwealth hath its being. (XX.18)

Just as we ought not to have rebelled against the utter Sovereignty of God in the Garden of Eden, so Hobbes argues we ought never to rebel against the sovereign of the commonwealth. Again, I hold that Hobbes’s theological point about sin is correct, but he misapplies it when he applies it to the state. Of course, inappropriately applying theological truth to the state is a common enough failing among Christians that perhaps we can give him some leeway here…

Should we be dissuaded by the fact that no state has ever managed to create Hobbes’s “mortal god” and that they all either get conquered or succumb to internal decay and civil war?

…an argument from the practice of men that have not sifted to the bottom, and with exact reason weighed the causes and nature of commonwealths, and suffer daily those miseries that proceed from the ignorance thereof, is invalid. For though in all places of the world men should lay the foundation of their houses on the sand, it could not thence be inferred, that so it ought to be. (XX.19)

Here, I think Hobbes is probably both right and wrong. It is certainly true that just because everyone has generally agreed on a point of philosophy is no proof that said point of philosophy is true. And yet, while the fact that no state has ever lasted forever might mean that everyone has gotten it wrong to date, it also might mean that it is in the nature of states to decay and that just getting the formula right will not offset the tendencies of human nature to sin and destruction.


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

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