Leviathan Summary and Analysis of Book II: Chapters 22-31


Having laid out the theoretical case for the absolute power of the sovereign, Hobbes devotes the rest of Book II to explaining in more detail how this commonwealth should function. Building upon the metaphor of the Leviathan as an artificial person, Hobbes shows how the commonwealth is organized around different "systems." Systems are groups of individuals joined together by a common interest, such as a town, or the most basic system in a commonwealth, a family. A regular or regulatory system has a representative of all its members, while an irregular system does not.

In the "political system" that is the commonwealth, the sovereign is the sole representative and has absolute power, so the representatives of these regulatory systems only have limited power. Such a representative can be a deputy or minister allotted a portion of the sovereign's domain, and is analogous to the nerves and tendons that make up the body. Public ministers, or those appointed by the sovereign, represent the sovereign in these smaller systems, and hence the subjects have a right to obey them accordingly. Public ministers can also serve as representatives of issue-specific systems rather than region specific ones. For example, there may ministers and appointees for the military, the treasury, civics, ambassadors, the judiciary, etc.

Just as a body needs nourishment, the commonwealth needs goods and resources to remain functioning and to maintain peace. The distribution of land and resources is decided by the sovereign, not by what subjects may wish for or claim to have had prior to the existence of the commonwealth. After all, property and resources are given meaning only within a commonwealth, since in a state of nature anyone can take anything from another at any time. Only once men give up their right to amass as much land and goods as they see fit through a covenant can one be said to "possess" anything. Other things relating to "nourishment" of the body, like imports and exports, rules regarding commerce and even monetary policy are set by the sovereign in such a way as to maintain the peace and security of the commonwealth.

In addition to public ministers, the sovereign can also employ private ministers, namely, counselors or advisors. While the advice these counselors gives the sovereign relates to the public, the sovereign has a right to hear counsel from such people in secret (that is, in private). Indeed, Hobbes argues that secret counsel is a far better type of counsel than one in which the sovereign's advisors testify to him in public, whether that be in front of other advisors or other subjects in general. Given human nature, such public counsel becomes not advice, but exhortation or dehortation, which involve inflaming the passions, using oratorical tricks, and other things done out of the counselor's interest rather than that of the counselee (in this case, the commonwealth). In fact, Hobbes believes that such public counsel strays so far from proper advice that it is better for the sovereign to act without any counselors than to employ counsel that is not strictly private and secret.

The advisors to the sovereign offer him counsel, which are recommendations the sovereign is in no way bound to follow. In contrast to counsel, a command carries with it obligation and duty. Law, in general, is a type of command between two or more men who are obliged to act in accordance with this law. Civil law "is to every Subject, those Rules, which the Common-wealth hath Commanded him, by Word, Writing, or other sufficient Sign of the Will, to make use of, for the Distinction of Right, and Wrong; that is to say, of what is contrary to the Rule." In other words, one is bound by civil laws not because one is a subject of any particular commonwealth, but of a commonwealth in general.

While the sovereign may appoint ministers to make laws or judges to enforce them, the sovereign is the ultimate legislator and judge. Following from this, the sovereign, even when the sovereign is an assembly, is not subject to civil laws, since when a covenant was initially made between subjects it established the sovereign as the law. Thus, to say the sovereign is bound to some law is like saying the sovereign is bound to itself, which is nonsense. Additionally, to subject the sovereign to civil laws presupposes another arbitrator or common power. Not only does this lack sense, since the sovereign does not make a covenant with the subjects, this also undermines the authority of the sovereign, and hence undermines its ability to protect its subjects.

Since civil laws come about through consensus, namely, through a covenant, it is imperative that the civil laws be known and understood so that they are properly enforced. Still, this does not mean that ignorance of or failure to communicate a law is an excuse for violating it. Civil laws are discoverable and can be known through reason, as civil laws have as their basis the laws of nature, the latter of which need not be published. This is not to say the civil laws and the laws of nature are the same thing, since in a state of nature there is no justice or injustice (as there is no common power). The laws of nature are "qualities that dispose men to peace, and obedience. When a Common-wealth is once settled, then they are actually Lawes, and not before."

All laws need interpretation, but that authority ultimately rests with the sovereign, not with legal scholars, lawyers, or philosophers. To put the power of interpretation elsewhere would be to undermine the sovereign's authority, and hence, undermine the peace of the commonwealth. This is not to say there can be no judges in a commonwealth. Indeed, laws can be both authorized and verified. The former comes from the sovereign, while the latter comes from judges. Just as ministers and counselors are appointed by the sovereign, so also are judges. According to Hobbes, a good judge is one that has a good understanding of the fundamental laws of nature, has contempt for riches, has an ability to look at things in an unbiased manner, and has both patience and a good memory.

In order to enforce the covenant, the sovereign must have the right to punish and reward certain acts. Accordingly, a crime is the act of doing something the law forbids, or failing to do something it commands. Crimes arise from three main sources: 1) a defect in understanding, or ignorance); 2) error in reasoning, or false opinion; and 3) sudden passion. This last source, sudden passion, Hobbes claims is the most common cause of crime. Yet of all of the specific passions that cause men to commit crimes, the passion that least often makes man violate the laws is fear. Fear, after all, is the basis for establishing a commonwealth, and it is the fear of punishment that keeps men acting justly in accordance with laws. When a crime is committed, this meets with a punishment, namely, an evil "inflicted by public authority...to the end that the will of men may thereby be better disposed to obedience." But where does the right to punish come from? After all, doesn't every man have the right to defend himself from harm?

When a person establishes a commonwealth this subject lays down his right to do whatever he sees fit for self-preservation - in other words, he lays down the absolute right of nature that drives men to harm each other - thus granting to the sovereign his right to self-preservation. Thus the sovereign attains absolute power to do anything necessary for the self-preservation of the commonwealth; this power includes inflicting punishment on those who commit crimes. Of course a subject could try to avoid punishment by "opting out" of the commonwealth, but this would put them back into the worst of all states, the chaotic state of nature, where laws and justice have no meaning, and the types of "evil" similar to punishments can occur at any time. Additionally, once a subject explicitly denies the authority of the commonwealth, any rules regarding punishment are moot, as these are reserved for subjects only. Hence, a subject that chooses to opt out of a commonwealth not only has to compete with the powers and wills of other humans in the state of nature, but the far stronger power and will of this commonwealth.

Continuing his analogy of the commonwealth as a body, Hobbes describes the various defects or "diseases" that make a commonwealth fail. First and foremost among these causes is the failure of the sovereign to rule with absolute power. When the sovereign defers to other bodies or assemblies (for example, the church), this leads to a power struggle, and eventually civil war, when the sovereign must retake some of these powers in order to preserve peace (which, Hobbes reasons, the sovereign must inevitably attempt at some point).

Seditious doctrines may also infect the body of the commonwealth, and in time weaken it to the point of collapse. Examples of such doctrines are: the judges of what is good and evil, just and unjust, are private subjects rather than public authority; importing or imitating doctrines of other nations; that one does not have to obey a law if it is contrary to one's conscience; and emulating the stories of revolt and regicide of the Greeks and Romans. Additionally, placing religion above civil laws, subjecting the sovereign to civil laws, dividing the sovereign between two monarchs or a monarch and an assembly, and anything that undercuts the absolute authority of the commonwealth infects the body like a disease and serves to weaken it.

These are all institutional weaknesses that Hobbes likens to a defect in birth in the body, but lack of proper nourishment can also bring about the collapse of a commonwealth. Namely, a lack of goods and resources, corruption and embezzlement of politicians, or the concentration of power or goods in one specific area of the state. Lastly, a human can be killed by external forces, such as if someone attacks or conquers him. Similarly, war between commonwealths can bring about the failure of the state when a commonwealth is conquered and the former subjects have the choice between returning to the state of nature or joining the commonwealth of their conquerors.

Hobbes devotes the penultimate chapter of Book II to the office of the sovereign, and offers advice on how this should function in order to avoid the collapse of the commonwealth. To begin with, the sovereign needs to keep the subject informed of the subject's obligations to the sovereign and the rights the sovereign enjoys. As has been already spelled out, the office of the sovereign exists to "procure the safety of the people," and to weaken the sovereign is thus to weaken the commonwealth as a whole. Subjects should not only be kept informed of their rights and duties, but should also understand the reasons for these, lest they be seduced into disobedience or rebellion. To accomplish this Hobbes advances the idea of civic instruction for all subjects in the commonwealth. In addition to civics, Hobbes says that laws should be applied by the sovereign equally. To do otherwise would be to upset certain segments of the population, and thus to incite factions and infighting. Generally, the sovereign should enforce good laws, that is to say, laws that are necessary for and further the well-being and safety of the populace.

Hobbes ends Book II by dealing with the question of whether obedience to the sovereign is compatible with obedience to God. For in the case that a civil law commands one to do something that one believes is contrary to a divine law, which authority is a subject to obey? After all, is one is confronted with the choice of obeying a civil law that will result in eternal damnation, the obvious choice would be to disobey the civil law. Not only do situations like these present moral dilemmas, practically speaking, their possibility undermines the authority of the sovereign.

To begin with, before jumping into the question of when one can disobey a civil law due to a divine obligation, one need to know the precisely what the divine laws are. According to Hobbes, divine laws are known to us through three sources: reason, revelation, and prophecy. The first of these are none other than moral philosophy, and are the civic laws we discover through sense and our own natural reason, which Hobbes has already discussed at length. The latter two law outside the bounds of natural reason, as they are known to us either through a supernatural revelation or through a prophet. These will be the focus on Book III, but Hobbes also argues that such divine laws concern both how men should act towards one another, and how men should act towards God. One need not worry about offending God through observing a civic law, since to worshiping God is a strictly internal act. If the sovereign commands you to renounce the existence of God that is only an external renunciation, and one which man can do while still having faith in God and properly worshiping him.


A common justification Hobbes uses in discussing the proper functions of the commonwealth, for example why secret counsel is preferable to counsel by assembly, is that such things are necessary to maintain the absolute power of the sovereign. Without this absolute power, the argument goes, the commonwealth could be weakened, and subjects run the risk of devolving into civil war. Yet in some regards Hobbes might not give sufficient justification for the main premise of this argument: that the absence of absolute authority leads to instability. The main rationale for this seems to be psychological rather than philosophical: men are inherently fallible, and the more people involved in decision-making the more this fallibility is compounded (a variation of the saying "too many chefs will spoil the broth"). In other words, human nature as it exists leads to the need for the absolute power of the sovereign. One critique Rousseau had of Hobbes was that human nature is not static, but can actually change over time. In this regard, if man "progresses" and becomes better-disposed towards other men, then perhaps an absolute monarchy is not the best form of government. Hobbes might reply that this is to attribute a social characteristic to man as he exists in a pre-social order, but as already noted, Rousseau did not believe Hobbes' state of nature was pre-social.

While Hobbes lengthily discusses relations between subjects and between subjects and the sovereign, there is very little in Leviathan about relations between commonwealths. In arguing that once a subject is outside the commonwealth he is also outside of justice implies that inter-state relations are also war-like and chaotic. Since there is no justice or injustice, right or wrong, in the state of nature between men, a state of nature and perpetual war must exist between states. In the absence of a social contract between commonwealths, there would be no such thing as international law. Even if there were to be treaties amongst commonwealths, in the absence of an international organization with the power to punish transgressors these agreements would have no validity.

One objection that Hobbes deals with in these chapters is that the type of state he describes is wholly impractical and has never existed in all of world history. Hobees admits this objection, but cleverly points out that perhaps the fact that no such states have existed is the reason why states keep dissolving into civil war. Additionally, he argues that his project is not historical. He is not scouring the annals of history in the hope of piecing together the elements of the best possible state. Hobbes is engaged in a philosophical study of the commonwealth, and uses careful reasoning and agreed-upon definitions to come up with a valid conclusion. Interestingly, Orbell and Rutherford did take Hobbes' argument and put it into practice by measuring the "leviathanness" of a state to compare it to the corresponding levels of violence and commodiousness of a state. In their study of 113 countries they found no practical support to the claim that the more Leviathan-esque a state is the more peaceful it is.

Additionally, some may say that the various obligations and reasons for obeying the sovereign are far too complex for subjects to understand. Having some sort of civil instruction may be helpful, but the overall project is so philosophically sophisticated that some people will likely not comprehend it; thus they might be encouraged to rebel against the sovereign. To this objection, again sounding like a true Enlightenment philosopher, Hobbes says that the only reason people do not or could not understand these things follows from lack of interest. He previously said that the differences in men's intellects comes from differences in their passions, so if they only devote sufficient time and energy to understanding Hobbes' project they will be able to do so. On top of this, Hobbes also makes a somewhat veiled criticism of religion in saying that if men can understand the complexities of religious thought - which he notes, often times runs contrary to reason - they can surely understand rational philosophic thought like his own.

Despite Hobbes dismissals of criticisms that his work may be impractical, he is not writing the book merely for philosophy's sake, or for the edification of a select group of academics. He has a decidedly practical project in mind, which he explicates at the end of book II: "I recover some hope, that one time or other, this writing of mine, may fall into the hands of a Sovereign, who will consider it himselfe, (for it is short, and I think clear) without the help of any interested, or envious interpreter; and by the exercise of entire Sovereignty, in protecting the Public teaching of it, convert this Truth of Speculation, into the Utility of Practice." One common commentary of Hobbes' Leviathan is that it was written primarily in response to the English Civil War. While Hobbes' work cannot be completely reduced to his context - especially since the Civil War began shortly after Leviathan's publication - quotes such as these show that he wrote his treatise not just for the edification of a select group of academics, but with a larger practical purpose in mind.