Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XXXI

“Ancient of Days,” by William Blake.


Hobbes’s discussion of the civil state ends with its relationship to the “Kingdom of God.” Appropriately, this is the point of transition in the Leviathan from political philosophy proper to a sort-of grab-bag of philosophy and theology that makes up the rest of the book. Hobbes’s goal here is to defend and support his earlier claims that his ideas are not at odds with the principles found in scripture. Specifically, we need to know that we are not inappropriately transferring allegiance to the civil state that should be given only to God. This, in turn, means that we need to understand the nature of God’s sovereignty and His kingdom (XXXI.1).

While Hobbes doesn’t follow exactly the same pattern he had outlined in his discussion of the civil state, we can still see the same general ideas at work. He provides briefly in this chapter (and in great detail in the remainder of the text) a discussion of the nature of the individual subjects of the kingdom, how they interact with each other and with the world, the nature of the Sovereign Himself and His sovereignty, the laws that He establishes, and the obedience that we owe.

The subjects of the Kingdom of God are believers:

Whether men will or not, they must be subject always to the divine power. By denying the existence or providence of God, men may shake off their ease, but not their yoke… For he only is properly said to reign that governs his subjects by his word, and by promise of rewards to those that obey it, and by threatening them with punishment that obey it not. Subjects, therefore, in the kingdom of God are not bodies inanimate, nor creatures irrational… nor atheists, nor they that believe not that God has any care of the actions of mankind [deists]… They, therefore, that believe there is a God that governeth the world, and hath given precepts, and propounded rewards and punishments to mankind, are God’s subjects; all the rest are to be understood as enemies. (XXXI.2)

This is very close to Augustine’s view of the City of God, and had we this passage in isolation there could be little doubt as to Hobbes’s orthodoxy.

The means by which God governs His kingdom is the same by which mankind interacts with the world: speech. Specifically, Hobbes argues that God speaks to man in three ways, through three types of words, to be received by three kinds of hearing:

Manner of Speech

Type of Word Kind of Hearing

Natural Reason


Right Reason



“Sense Supernatural”

Prophetic Voice Prophetic


Hobbes dismisses some aspects of the faith as “sensible” revelation—here we might think of the visions of the mystics or the feeling that some Christians have of being led by the Holy Spirit in particular circumstances. Such feelings may or may not be genuine, but they are not authoritative for the body of mankind and so need not distract us here.

Likewise Hobbes dismisses the “prophetic” type of revelation, since the only kingdom directly ruled in that manner was Old Testament Israel, which is now defunct with the arrival of the New Covenant. This leaves us with the Kingdom of God as revealed through reason, by reason, and interpreted rationally. In other words, we are left with exactly what Hobbes tried to establish in book I.

God’s sovereignty, His right to rule and to punish as He sees fit, “is to be derived not from his creating [men]… but from his irresistible power” (XXXI.5). We covenant to escape the state of nature because no one person there has sufficient power to protect himself from others. God, however, does have not only that power but the power to destroy all people on a whim. If such a human being existed, would we not rush to that person for protection and safety in the state of nature and make them our sovereign? We see this when it appears that God exercises His power arbitrarily, from our perspective at least. Job, for example, was afflicted by God not because of any sin on his part (at least not directly—no one would argue that Job was generally sinless) but as an exercise of God’s power. We see this in God’s response to Job’s complaint.

None of this is necessarily to say that God is only power. Hobbes’s point is that when thinking about the Kingdom of God, we must begin with God’s power as the base of His sovereignty. God does have other attributes, including (my numbering, not Hobbes’s; XXXI.14–28):

1) Existence;
2) Aseity;
3) Providential care for the world;
4) Infinitude;
5) Transcendence;
6) Omnipresence;
7) Unity;
8) Imperturbability;
9) Omniscience;
10) Glory.

He that will attribute to God nothing but what is warranted by natural reason must either use such negative attributes… or superlatives… or indefinite… and in such sense as if he meant not to declare what he is… but how much we admire him, and how ready we would be to obey him… (XXXI.28)

How then is that power used? What laws does God establish that are accessible to all mankind “by their natural reason only, without other word of God, touching the honour and worship of the Divine Majesty” (XXXI.7)? Hobbes argues that reason dictates that we ought to honor and worship God externally and internally, publicly and privately, in accordance with established custom and spontaneously (“as the Spirit moves,” some might say), and by word and action (XXXI.8–12). The focus of all our worship, however, is ultimately on God’s power,

For where a man seeth another worshipped, he supposeth him powerful, and is the readier to obey him, which makes his power greater. (XXXI.13)

This is not true in reverse when it comes to God, for God is not made more powerful by our worship. Rather we are made better by our worship of God when He receives what is due Him without any addition to His character. When we fulfill our obligations as subjects to these laws—when we pray, give thanks, praise, glorify, and especially obey—we do not make God a greater sovereign in the world, we only make Him more central in our own lives (XXXI.29–36).

What our obedience looks like in the real world is a combination of the absolute dictates of reason and the flexible varieties of local practice and experience. The unifying point is going to be the sovereignty of God, but the varieties of customs in worship will be many and should not be spoken of too dogmatically. Likewise, we don’t need to get too worked up about violations of the absolute dictates of reason, since God has put in place natural punishments that tend to work themselves out: “…it comes to pass that intemperance is naturally punished with diseases…” etc. (XXXI.40).

Clearly Hobbes’s discussion of religion in this chapter is deficient in terms of Christian theology. There is no mention of Christ at all in his doctrines and no place for scripture other than as the occasional proof-text. But that’s also not the point. We need to keep in mind that Hobbes is attempting to articulate what any reasonable person—Christian or not—will discover through the exercise of reason about God and what He wants from the world. And as far as that goes, I suspect that Hobbes is as right as anyone. I do believe you could come to an understanding that there is some sort of powerful sovereign God that you should obey without ever cracking open a religious text; and I do not necessarily believe that anyone could ever come through reason alone to ideas like the Incarnation or substitutionary atonement or what have you. So again, I think Hobbes is probably on pretty safe ground.

With that said, I don’t know that his arguments necessarily hold any water in the modern world. A simple modern response to “natural reason says that there’s a God and you should worship Him” is “mine doesn’t say that.” To this, there can be no Hobbsean answer.

Concluding book II, Hobbes despairs that all his brilliant hard work might end up being “as useless as the commonwealth of Plato,” who also knew that the problems of government would not be fixed until “sovereigns be philosophers” (XXXI.41). But, perhaps some day this book will

fall into the hands of a sovereign who will consider it himself (for it is short, and I think clear), without the help of any interested or envious interpreter, and by exercise of entire sovereignty in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation into the utility of practice. (XXXI.41)

And that should leave us at the end of book II with exactly the right tension. We should hope that more people take up and read Hobbes; we should not hope that such people are powerful political figures looking for inspiration from a how-to guide.


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

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