Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XXIII-XXV

Queen Victoria holding a Privy Council meeting, by Sir David Wilkie, 1838.


As in chapter XXII, in chapter XXIII Hobbes emphasizes the point that the sovereign may have ministers do the work of governing in his place. Generals, judges, teachers, and any others who are commissioned to do the work of a government are doing so with an authority granted to them directly by the sovereign. This of necessity means that we ought to respect and obey them, even if we do have legitimate recourse or appeal from unfavorable judgments. The only exception to this obligation to obey is to public servants who are employed in a strictly advisory role—they have no force of sovereignty behind their persons and can only make suggestions to the real government ministers.

Among the functions of these government figures will be the regulation of commerce (chapter XXIV) and the advising of the sovereign in their specific areas of authority (chapter XXV). Each of these functions is crucial to the life and health of the state, and each can be badly mishandled if not correctly understood.

First, we need to understand that trade is the lifeblood of the state:

The Nutrition of a commonwealth consisteth in the plenty and distribution of materials conducing to life; in concoction (or preparation); and (when concocted) in the conveyance of it, by convenient conduits, to the public use. (XXIV.1)

Few states are truly self-sufficient in any meaningful sense of the term, and so we rely on what we can produce at home combined with what we can gain by means of international trade to uphold the health of our state. This, in turn, requires that we properly understand the nature of both property and commerce.

In one sense, property is the root of commerce; but where Locke would tell us that it comes from our labor (well, our “labour” at any rate), Hobbes unsurprisingly argues that both property and commerce come from the sovereign:

The distribution of the materials of this nourishment is the constitution of mine, and thine, and his (that is to say, in one word, propriety), and belongeth in all kinds of commonwealth to the sovereign power. For where there is no commonwealth, there is… a perpetual war of every man against his neighbour; and therefore everything is his that getteth it, and keepeth it by force… (XXIV.5)

Whatever rules may be set up to govern trade and property, at the end of the day what the sovereign says goes—even if he undoes all of his former rules and reclaims all property to himself:

It is true that a sovereign monarch, or the greater part of a sovereign assembly, may ordain the doing of many things in pursuit of their passions, contrary to their own consciences, which is a breach of trust, and of the law of nature; but this is not enough to authorize any subject, either to make war upon, or so much as to accuse of injustice or any way to speak evil of, their sovereign… (XXIV.7)

We may place no limits on the sovereign when it comes to rules and laws concerning trade and property. As the wonderfully succinct sidebar says, “The Public is not to be dieted” (XXIV.8). It may very well be the case that the government of the commonwealth could get by on a pittance, or even on the revenues from a block of land set aside specifically for the purpose of providing funds for the public—

if there could be any representative conceived free from human passions and infirmities. But the nature of men being as it is, the setting forth of public land, or of any certain revenue for the commonwealth, is in vain… (XXIV.8)

None of this is to say that Hobbes is pushing toward a totalitarian state (not here, at any rate). Rather, he’s emphasizing the fact that our economies especially require the presence and activity of the sovereign in order to function properly. Whatever our libertarian friends might wish us to think, the fact remains that without the restraining force of government you and I will never be more certain of our ability to hold on to our property and do with it as we will than our personal physical might allows. And that’s just not much.

When it comes to advice, we really want to be sure that those providing it to the sovereign know what they’re talking about. Hobbes has already outlined the difference between government ministers with the power to command and those in a merely advisory role, here he repeats this distinction and outlines what makes a good adviser or “counselor.” He notes (correctly, I think) that those who are advisers to the state cannot be punished if the state chooses to take their bad advice—though of course we can punish someone for encouraging a citizen to break the law:

But if one subject giveth counsel to another to do any thing contrary to the laws, whether that counsel proceed from evil intention or from ignorance only, it is punishable by the commonwealth; because ignorance of the law is no good excuse, where every man is bound to take notice of the laws to which he is subject. (XXV.5)

Hobbes also wants to draw a distinction between being a legitimate public counselor and a demagogue. The latter will “exhort” rather than “counsel” in order to benefit themselves rather than the public good. Any positive public results that come from the efforts of a demagogue are, according to Hobbes, at best tangential. The good counselor, on the other hand, will display certain marks that set him apart, including:

  • He will attach his “ends and interest” with “the ends and interest of him he counselleth” (XXV.11). No disinterested and neutral third parties here, if you want to give advice to someone Hobbes would say you need to tie up your success with theirs.
  • He will be clear, brief, and honest when it comes to explaining what course of action he is arguing for and what the potential consequences of it will be. Long-winded speeches full of fancy phrases and big words are for those who don’t know what they’re talking about or who want to hide the truth (XXV.12).
  • He will stick to what he knows from personal experience and study—and when it comes to government, given the complexity and detail required to run a commonwealth, “we shall find it requires a great knowledge of the disposition of mankind, of the rights of government, and of the nature of equity, law, justice, and honour (not to be attained without study), and of the strength, commodities, places, both of their own country, and their neighbours, as also of the inclinations and designs of all nations that may any way annoy them” (XXV.13).
  • He will be restrained in giving advice about foreign policy unless he’s an expert concerning that nation and the history of our interactions with that nation (XXV.14).
  • He will give advice in person and as an individual, rather than as part of an assembly.

This last point is especially important to Hobbes, since at the end of the day advisers are just advisers and the final decision about public policy must be made by the sovereign. This means he needs all the good advice he can get, and it is the tendency of an assembly to swallow up the individual voices in the whole and so cost the sovereign the specialized wisdom that might be crucial to making the right decision.


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

3 Responses to “Leviathan: II.XXIII-XXV”

  1. gabe


    You must be a very NICE person with the ability to find the *hidden* good in almost anyone.
    Hobbes is distinctly, expressly and monumentally wrong about both his analysis and prescriptions for civil society.

    Take his first paragraph:
    “The only exception to this obligation to obey is to public servants who are employed in a strictly advisory role—they have no force of sovereignty behind their persons and can only make suggestions to the real government ministers.”

    Clearly today this is not the case with the advisory *opinions* offered by Admin Agencies (advisors) that have the force of law – in some cases, de jure, but more often de facto. However, if one goes back to Hobbes own time, we see that the *learned law* advisers to the Crown were perennially involved in a process / exposition of asserting and validating *increased* prerogative to / for the Crown. Does one not recognize that based upon this advise and the consequent action(s) of the Crown that this “advice” did not have the force of law? what if anything was the Glorious Revolution about – if not the prerogative (so-claimed) powers of the Crown?

    No, Hobbes is a permutation of Burke, who while recognizing the value of tradition AND the need to respect sovereign power (properly understood and exercise) realized that the Crown (and its advisors) could not only wrong (and often were) but could also be challenged.

    Hobbes seemed to live in fear of a new order that would automatically reduce civic associations to a “state of nature.” Clearly, he was overstating the case – and I suspect he NEEDED to do so in order for his grand scheme to have any consistency.

    What was Hobbes looking for – a Godhead(?) – with the *specialized wisdom* of Solomon?

    ain’t buying it or him!

    • Coyle Neal

      “You must be a very NICE person with the ability to find the *hidden* good in almost anyone.”

      I read this to my wife, and she laughed SO hard… 🙂
      No, I am not a nice person with that ability. But I think if we’re going to argue against someone, it needs to be against the very best possible interpretation of what they’re doing. (For example, all my conservative friends who rail against President Obama for being “evil” are simply wrong. He’s not evil, he’s incompetent, and there is a big difference between the two.)

      The same with Hobbes, I think he’s ultimately wrong, but I want to be sure that I’m responding to his strongest arguments and not his weakest ones.

      With that said, I suspect any further accusations of “niceness” will disappear once we get to Hobbes on the church.

      • gabe


        Glad to see that i brought some humor into the discussion and that your beloved was the beneficiary of it.

        Agreed with notion of “highlighting” the strong side of one’s argument – you are doing a fine job at it! _Ha!!!!!!

        Looking forward to Hobbes on the Church(es?).
        take care as always

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: