Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651) is a treatise by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) on the origin, nature, and forms of a commonwealth, and is an explanation of the functions of a commonwealth in protecting human liberty and in providing security for its people. Hobbes discusses the relation between a sovereign power and the subjects who are ruled by that sovereign power. Hobbes also describes the relation between civil and natural laws and the relation between civil and ecclesiastical forms of sovereignty.
Hobbes uses the term "Leviathan" to refer to a government which unifies the collective will of many individuals and which unites them under the authority of a sovereign power. Hobbes was inspired to use the term "Leviathan" by the Biblical description in the Book of Job, Chapter 41 of a huge sea-creature possessing tremendous strength and power. For Hobbes, a civil commonwealth is like a Leviathan in its vast size and strength, because it may unify the collective will of many people. A Leviathan is able to enforce and administer natural and civil laws, because it embodies the power of many individuals who have by mutual agreement made themselves its subjects.
The Leviathan is divided into four parts: "Of Man," "Of Commonwealth," "Of a Christian Commonwealth," and "Of the Kingdom of Darkness."
Part 1 is concerned with the nature of human reason. Hobbes describes how reason may provide scientific knowledge of the laws of nature. Hobbes maintains that the science of these laws is the only valid foundation of moral and political philosophy.
Part 2 is concerned with the rights and powers of a sovereign, and with the rights and duties of the subjects of a commonwealth. Hobbes also examines the nature of civil liberty, the powers and duties of the ministers of a sovereign, and the functions of the legal and judicial systems of a commonwealth.
Part 3 is concerned with the relation between civil and religious law, and with the relation between a civil commonwealth and a religious commonwealth. Hobbes argues for the theory that a religious commonwealth may be a kingdom of God.
Part 4 is concerned with the forms of error which may be caused by misunderstanding the meaning of religious doctrine or misinterpreting the meaning of scriptures. Hobbes explains how these forms of error may subvert the aims of a religious commonwealth.
According to Hobbes, all ideas are derived from sensory experience, and nothing can be an object of thought without having been an object of sensation. Memory and imagination depend on previous sensory experience of an external body (or object). We cannot imagine or remember an external body (or object) without already having had a sensory experience of all or part of that external body (or object).
Speech may be used to express our ideas or thoughts verbally. Misuses of speech may occur when the meaning of words cannot be clearly understood because of their vagueness, deceptiveness, or ambiguity. According to Hobbes, speech may enable us to assign names to causes and effects, and may enable us to discuss the consequences of things. A 'proper' name is a name which refers to only one thing, while a 'common' name is a name which refers to many things. A 'universal' name is a name which refers to everything in a particular category.
Hobbes describes reasoning as a process of calculating the consequences of names which are used to refer to objects. Error is a form of incorrect reasoning, and is an act of miscalculating either the conditions for or the consequences of the names which are used to refer to objects. Science is a method of reasoning which provides knowledge of the consequences of the names which are used to refer to objects.
Hobbes argues that scientific knowledge is not absolute knowledge, but that it is a conditional knowledge which depends on the relations between causes and effects. Knowledge may be described as either: 1) absolute (unconditional) knowledge, or 2) scientific (conditional) knowledge. Sensation and memory provide absolute knowledge (or knowledge of fact), while reasoning provides conditional knowledge (or knowledge of consequences).
Hobbes divides philosophy into: 1) natural philosophy, and 2) politics and social philosophy. Natural philosophy is concerned with the consequences of physical phenomena, while social philosophy is concerned with the consequences of social phenomena. Natural history is determined by the facts of nature, while social history is determined by the facts of social discourse or action.
Human nature may be a subject for philosophical inquiry. According to Hobbes, human beings are naturally selfish, and are therefore always in a state of conflict or 'war' with each other, unless they are forced to obey a sovereign authority or governing power. In the natural state of 'war' between human beings, in which there is no sovereign authority to regulate competing interests, there is no legal power to determine right or wrong. However, each person has a natural right to protect himself or herself from harm or injury. Thus, Hobbes argues that there are fundamental laws of nature which are necessary to avoid the state of 'war.'
The first two laws of nature are the most fundamental laws. These natural laws may be known by reasoning. The other natural laws are derived from the first two laws.
Hobbes argues that the first law of nature is that each person should seek to live with others in peace. The second law of nature is that each person should only retain the right to as much liberty as he or she is willing to allow to others.
Hobbes explains that the right to liberty or to property may be transferred from one person to another by means of a legal contract. The terms of a contract may be enforced by a civil authority, but if there is no civil authority, then the terms of a contract may be enforced by some other power, such as by the swearing of an oath.
Hobbes claims that the third law of nature is that each person should abide by the terms of any valid contract which is made with another person. Violation of the terms of a valid contract by a person who has agreed to the terms of that contract may constitute an act of injustice toward those who have abided by the terms of that contract.
According to Hobbes, a coercive power or sovereign authority is necessary in order to ensure that if people agree to a contract with each other they will then abide by the terms of that contract. Hobbes argues that if people remain in the natural condition of 'war,' and if there is no coercive power to govern them, then every person will become an enemy of every other person. Thus, a sovereign authority (or commonwealth) must be instituted in order to defend the rights of individuals, and in order to protect individuals from being victimized by the selfish desires of other individuals.
Hobbes explains that the third law of nature is also a source of justice for society, in that covenants and contracts between people must be honored if a stable system of government is to be established.
The other laws of nature demonstrate how peace and justice are to be achieved in society. The fourth law of nature is that each person who benefits from the good will of another person should respond appropriately to that person’s good will, and should not act in such a way as to cause that person to regret having acted in good will. The fifth law of nature is that each person should reasonably try to accommodate himself or herself to other persons.The sixth law of nature is that each person should pardon the mistakes of other persons who have repented for their mistakes. The seventh law of nature is that the punishment of those who have committed acts of injustice should be administered in a manner that is fair and evenhanded, and should not be administered in a manner that is cruel or arbitrary. The eighth law of nature is that people should not express hatred or contempt for each other. The ninth law of nature is that people should treat each other as equals. The tenth law of nature is that each person should have an equal right to liberty and to well-being. The eleventh law of nature is that judgments regarding the rights of individuals should be fair and impartial. The twelth law of nature is that resources should be shared equally among all those who have a right to use them. The thirteenth law of nature is that resources which cannot be shared or divided among all those who have a right to use them should be made available by a fair and equitable method, such as a lottery. The fourteenth law of nature is that a lottery to distribute resources may be either natural (when it is in favor of whoever had first possession of those resources) or arbitrary (when the rules of the lottery are agreed upon by all the participants). The fifteenth law of nature is that safe conduct should be given to any mediators who are attempting to negotiate a treaty of peace between opponents in a dispute. The sixteenth law of nature is that people who are unable to resolve a dispute between themselves should submit their arguments to the judgment of an arbitrator. The seventeenth law of nature is that in order for arbitration to be fair, the arbitrator of a dispute should not a participant in the dispute. The eighteenth law of nature is that in order for arbitration to be fair, the arbitrator of a dispute should be able to be fair and impartial, and should not have any reason to favor one participant over another. The nineteenth law of nature is that in order for arbitration to be fair, the arbitrator of a dispute must also be fair and impartial in trying to resolve controversies about facts.
The laws of nature may be summarized by the precept: 'Act toward others in a manner in which you would want them to act toward you.' However, this precept is presented in a negative form by Hobbes, who argues that the precept: 'Do not act toward others in a manner in which you would not want them to act toward you' is the most intelligible method of evaluating moral conduct.1
Hobbes argues that the laws of nature are rules of reason which are contrary to the natural instincts of human beings. The laws of nature must be enforced by some coercive power, if justice and harmony are to be attained in society. Thus, the purpose of establishing a commonwealth is to protect the rights of all individuals, and to prevent a state of conflict or 'war.' A commonwealth (or Leviathan) is a common power to which all individuals submit themselves, and under which they agree to obey a sovereign who protects their rights, and who defends their common interests. The sovereign represents an absolute power and unlimited authority. The sovereign may decide on any measures that are necessary to preserve peace, and may take any action that is necessary to preserve the security of the commonwealth.
According to Hobbes, a sovereign may settle any disputes between his or her subjects. A sovereign may decide the property rights of his or her subjects. A sovereign may make peace with, or may wage war against, other nations. A sovereign may reward or punish his or her subjects, according to the laws of the commonwealth.
The sovereign power of a commonwealth may be exercised by a monarch, by a council, or by an assembly of elected representatives. Thus, the political structure of a commonwealth may consist of a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. These three kinds of commonwealth may provide security and protection for their subjects, or may degenerate into tyranny, oligarchy, or anarchy.
Hobbes argues that the rights of the subjects of a commonwealth include the right to provide food, clothing, and shelter for themselves, and the right to protect themselves from harm or injury. The rights of subjects also include the right to engage in lawful commerce, the right to educate their children, the right to legal protection of their health and safety, the right to legal protection of their property, and the right to do other things which are not forbidden by the laws of the commonwealth.
Disputes between a sovereign and his or her subjects concerning the ownership of land or property, the payment of debts, the obligation to provide public services, the obligation to perform public duty, or the penalty for a breach of duty may be resolved by a court of law which has been established for the purpose of arbitration.
According to Hobbes, if a sovereign is no longer able to provide safety for his or her subjects, and can no longer protect them from the state of 'war,' then the subjects are no longer obligated to obey the sovereign. If sovereignty is voluntarily relinquished by a sovereign, or if the sovereign has no successor, then his or her subjects return to a state of absolute liberty, which inevitably leads to a state of ‘war’ unless a new political commonwealth is established.
Hobbes explains that a commonwealth may include public and private institutions, which may regulate various aspects of public and private life. Public officials may be appointed by a sovereign to administer various departments of government and to supervise such areas of government policy as the economy, foreign policy, the military, public education, and the legal system.
A commonwealth may enact laws to regulate commerce and exchange of property. Hobbes claims that the sovereign of a commonwealth is not subject to civil laws, because these laws are subject to the will of the sovereign. However, the power of a sovereign obliges his or her subjects to obey civil laws, because the subjects of a commonwealth would be exposed to the danger of 'war' unless they were protected by the sovereign.
Hobbes also claims that if there is a question about the interpretation of a particular law, then the interpretation of the law may be determined by a sovereign, or by someone whom the sovereign has appointed. This is the case when there is a question about either civil or natural law.
According to Hobbes, natural law may be revealed by civil law, and civil law may be revealed by natural law. However, natural and civil law may differ in whether or not they may be changed by a sovereign. In contrast to civil law, natural law is immutable and is the eternal law of God. Natural law may be known by reasoning, but judgments concerning civil law may depend on both the ability to reason and the ability to interpret natural law.
Hobbes says that civil law is written, and that natural law is unwritten.2 He also contends that ignorance of the laws of nature is not an excuse for disobeying them, because these laws may be known by anyone who is capable of clear reasoning, and because the laws of nature may be summarized by the precept: 'Do not act toward others in a manner in which you would not want them to act toward you.'3 Hobbes also argues that ignorance of civil law may be an excuse for breaking a law only if the law is unclear or equivocal. In other cases in which a law is clear and unequivocal, ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law.
Hobbes declares that natural laws are also moral laws. These laws include: equity, justice, mercy, humility, and the other moral virtues.4 These moral laws are also referred by Hobbes as 'divine laws.' The laws of the kingdom of God are divine laws, which may be known by reason, by revelation, and by faith. According to Hobbes, the kingdom of God is a commonwealth where God is Sovereign, and where God reigns eternally. Obedience to divine law, and faith in God are all that is necessary to be saved from pain and sorrow, from sin and death. Thus, an eternally perfect and spiritual commonwealth may be found in the kingdom of God.
1Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 104.
2Ibid., p. 177.
3Ibid., p. 194.
4Ibid., p. 238.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by J.C.A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.