Leviathan Summary and Analysis of Book II: Chapters 17-21


Having analyzed man in Book I, and in particular how man is compelled to enter into society (that is, through fear), Hobbes turns to a form of artificial man established through a covenant, namely, a commonwealth. As stated before, in order for a covenant to be valid a common power or a sovereign authority must enforce the terms of the contract, for "covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all." Such an authority is then established when a group of men say, "I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of man...on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him." This sovereign power, or Leviathan, is "One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutual Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence."

This sovereign is imbued with the powers of all who agree to the covenant, and all the actions of this sovereign are the actions of its subjects. The subjects are then the author of any and all actions undertaken by the sovereign. All the liberties that man once enjoyed in the state of nature are transferred to the sovereign, whose duty it is to ensure the preservation of itself, and hence, of its subjects, by any means necessary. The only exception is the right to self-preservation, since that can never be given up completely, and was the initial reason for establishing the commonwealth. Instead, men grant their various means towards self-preservation, like attacking ones neighbors and generally infringing on others' self-preservation, to the sovereign.

A sovereign can attain power in two ways: 1) through natural force, or acquisition, when power is used to force someone to submit to the sovereign; or 2) through mutual covenant, or institution, when people voluntarily agree to subject themselves to a sovereign power. An example of the former is parental control over children, where a parent might threaten to punish their child unless they obey them; and an example of the latter is the transition from a state of nature to a commonwealth.

As for the specific rights of the commonwealth by institution, the first and foremost among them is that the subjects cannot change the sovereign without the sovereign's permission. Doing so would be to break one's obligations under the covenant, which is to commit an injustice. The second right is that the sovereign cannot ever forfeit its own power. To do so would be analogous to committing suicide, since this would be to act against the self-preservation of the artificial man that is the sovereign, and would also send the subjects back to a state of war.

Thirdly, to protest against the sovereign is unjust, since in instituting the sovereign one binds oneself to its actions, and makes oneself the author of any of its acts. To protest against this would be to protest against the initial covenant. Fourthly, a sovereign is incapable of injustice against his subjects. This is because the covenant that establishes the sovereign is not a contract between the sovereign and the subjects, but between the subjects themselves. After all, the sovereign is a creation of this covenant. Anything done by it is done with the authority of all who agreed upon the covenant, and hence, is just. Accusing the sovereign of injustice is accusing yourself of injustice.

From these four main rights of the sovereign Hobbes derives several others-for example, that the sovereign is the judge of what is necessary to ensure peace, and the sovereign has a right to choose ministers and distribute rewards and punishments to its subjects-but his main point is that the sovereign has absolute authority over its subjects. To take away any of these rights is to take away the sovereign itself. To the objection that given such a sovereign a subject lives in a miserable state of being, Hobbes responds that regardless of how bad this may seem, it is far better than the continual civil war that characterizes the state of nature without this sovereign. As he will argue later, the absolute power of the sovereign is necessary for maintaining peace, and taking away any of these rights will result in the collapse of the commonwealth.

Of a commonwealth by institution, there are three (and only 3) different forms the commonwealth can take: 1) monarchy, where the sovereign is one natural person; 2) democracy, where the sovereign is a popular assembly drawn from all natural persons; and 3) aristocracy, where the sovereign is an assembly or body drawn up from select natural persons. In contrast to the scholastics who saw some form of democracy as the ideal type of government, Hobbes argued that a monarchy is the best form of commonwealth for four main reasons.

First, since humans will always choose the private over the public good, the best way to ensure peace when choosing a sovereign is to have these united. In a democracy and aristocracy the private goods outweigh public ones, which only encourages infighting and corruption within government. In contrast, in a monarchy public and private goods are united, since "no King can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure; whose Subjects are either poore, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissention, to maintain a war against their enemies." Second, you can have secret counsel in a monarchy, whereas in a democracy or aristocracy you cannot. (As Hobbes will later argue, one gets better advice through secret counsel, since one is not apt to use rhetorical tricks or generally perform in front of the pubic at the expense at truth.) Third, a monarchy is more consistent. Since the monarch is one person and humans are not perfectly consistent, the commonwealth changes only as human nature dictates. In a democracy and aristocracy, because more natural bodies compose the sovereign, the commonwealth is more subject to human inconsistency as well as the inconsistency that comes from a change in the makeup of the sovereign, which happens with each election cycle or new member of the aristocracy. Lastly, in a monarchy there is no infighting or warring factions caused by envy, self-interest, or any other human imperfections.

Obviously not all commonwealths are founded by agreement through sovereignty by institution - after all, once a commonwealth is established people have children who then become subjects - so the question remains whether what has been said above applies to a commonwealth by acquisition. The main difference between a sovereign by institution and by acquisition is that the latter is chosen out of fear rather than consent. Establishing sovereignty in this way may seem illegitimate, as Hobbes previously said a covenant made out of fear or coercion is void. Yet the covenant that established a sovereign by institution is also made out of fear, namely, the fear of other human beings. Thus, to say a covenant is illegitimate due to the mere presence of fear makes both forms of all forms commonwealth impossible. Not only this, when but sovereignty by acquisition is established after conquering lands, those who are conquered do in fact have a choice as to whether they agree to the terms of the covenant. Their fear of the sovereign may be greater than the fear the original subjects had when establishing the commonwealth, but these annexed subjects still have a choice. Thus, the rights and duties of the sovereign are equal whether the commonwealth be established through acquisition or institution.

Hobbes' furthers his argument that sovereignty established by force (acquisition) carries the same rights as when it is established by agreement (institution) in his treatment of dominion. A sovereign's dominion can be acquired in two ways: 1) through generation, or paternal dominion; and 2) through conquest, or despotical dominion. Just like a family, paternal dominion is not automatic, meaning that a child does not obey his parents just because they gave birth to him. Rather, at some age when his reasoning capacities have matured enough, he implicitly agrees to their dominion in exchange for nourishment. The same goes for new generations becoming subjects of the sovereign. Similarly, despotical dominion is not automatic, and those who are conquered in a war do not become subjects of the commonwealth by virtue of being vanquished. They agree to the terms of the covenant to avoid being killed or enslaved.

Hence, the rights of subjects gained through paternal or despotical dominion are the same, and additionally, in both of these cases the sovereign has the same rights and duties as it does under a commonwealth through acquisition or institution. In essence, this follows from the fact that in all of these cases, one agrees to a covenant out of the need for self-preservation. Again, while the rights of the sovereign may seem overbearing, Hobbes believes the benefits of subjecting to a sovereign far outweigh the costs of not doing so: "though of so unlimited Power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetual war of every man against his neighbor, are much worse."

While it may seem that the absolute power of the sovereign Hobbes depicts leaves the subject with little or no freedom, Hobbes argues that this is not the case. Liberty, according to Hobbes, is "the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean external Impediments of motion)," and a free man "is he, that in doing those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to do." A man who is chained is not free to act, since there are physical impediments to his actions. What follows from this definition of freedom is that fear and liberty can coexist. To use Hobbes' example, a man who throws something overboard for fear of the ship sinking does so freely. Such is also the case for actions done out of the fear of laws and their punishments. Just as the sovereign is an artificial man, civil laws are artificial chains (and also ones created by the subjects in establishing a covenant). You are free to disobey the laws or the sovereign, and when you choose to obey these you do so freely, since the unlimited power of the sovereign is consistent with the liberty of its subjects.

With all that has been said about the power of the sovereign, what liberties do the subjects enjoy? The amount of liberty subjects enjoy does not differ from one form of government to the other, and there are three absolute liberties that all subjects in any government have, all of which derive from the laws of nature (self-preservation): 1) to defend oneself; 2) to refuse to hurt oneself; 3) to refuse to accuse oneself of a crime. All other liberties depend on the sovereign and the terms of the covenant that established the commonwealth.

In all cases, a subject cannot rightfully complain about a punishment handed down by the sovereign, since the sovereign is merely enforcing the laws established in a covenant to which the subject agreed. As Hobbes has argued, a sovereign cannot commit an injustice to one of its subjects, and the subject never has the authority to overthrow the sovereign. Not only this, but the sovereign also does not have the right to forfeit its power. This means that the only time when subjects are absolved of the duty to obey the sovereign is when the commonwealth collapses and the sovereign can no longer protect them. In other words, once the benefit of establishing the covenant is no longer present (namely, self-preservation), the covenant becomes void.


The point of departure for other contract theorists such as Locke and Rousseau is Hobbes' advocacy of monarchy. All three philosophers agree that man sets up a government for their own protection, but they disagree about what form of government best serves this purpose. For Hobbes a democracy is the worst of all possible options, whereas for Locke and Rousseau a democracy is not only the best option, but the most just. Although Hobbes offers logical proof to back up his claims, he was obviously shaped by his historical studies - in particularly, of the Greeks and Romans - and believed these ancient democracies' demises followed from citizens and elected officials constantly quibbling with one another.

Despite this, Hobbes' arguments in these chapters have had a profound impact on modern democracy. In particular he introduces the concept of representation, and in the modern world where states are too large to function as direct democracies, this idea is a key component of any functioning democracy. Even the Leviathan that Hobbes describes, with its absolute power over all its subjects, is a representative of all the people in the commonwealth.

Absolute monarch or not, a subject must still consent to live under the Leviathan. Yet Hobbes' description of consent may seem somewhat problematic, particularly when applied to children or the vanquished of war. With regard to children, while Hobbes does say that they are not automatically subjects of their parents just because they were born, saying they consent when their rational faculties are fully developed leaves open the question of whether they can fully consent until their physical faculties are fully developed. An eleven-year old boy may understand the consequences of leaving his family to fend for himself well enough, but if he cannot physically fend for himself there is no alternative. Hobbes might answer that the child is still "free" to opt out of his family since he is not physically shackled to his parents, and even in the original contract people agreed to form a state precisely because they could not physically defend themselves.

In these chapters Hobbes considers an objection to his argument about the necessity of a commonwealth. If one looks around at other animals, he specifically notes ants and bees, they appear to live harmoniously with one another without any sort of state or society. If they can do so, why can't men, who after all, are animals themselves? Hobbes offers several reasons why men cannot live in this way, the main one being that men, unlike animals, are rational creatures. If we lived in some pre-societal harmony with others reason would lead us to devise ways to cheat and make ourselves better off than others. Animals, furthermore, don't possess speech, and so are not able to mislead one another about their wants and desires (another form of cheating). Hobbes also claims that animals naturally agree with one another while humans do not, which is essentially begging the question of why this is so. Basically, this is because human nature is competitive, and to those who disagree with this, Hobbes suggests they look inside themselves and at civil wars for evidence.

Lastly, Hobbes argues that the only possible circumstance in which a subject is justified in disobeying the sovereign is when the commonwealth no longer protects its subjects. This seems to invite a certain degree of relativism into Hobbes argument: at what specific point in a commonwealth's life can it be said to no longer protect its subjects? If a commonwealth is no longer able to protect its subjects, that would mean that one is living without a state, and thus, being reduced to a state of nature, there is no sovereign to disobey. On the other hand, if you encourage people to disobey a sovereign "right before" it seems like the commonwealth is about to collapse, this makes the measure of a state's protection dangerously subjective.