Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

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Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

Above anything else, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is a creation story and an investigation of human nature. The story begins in a time of chaos and death and through a journey of human development culminates in the establishment of a sustainable and rational society—the commonwealth—led by a sovereign. At a first casual glance, Hobbes’ reasoning of the transformation from the state of nature to the commonwealth is not airtight. A few possible objections can be quickly spotted: the contradictions of natural law with suicide and the civil law to honor even harmful covenants. Hobbes deals with some of these issues and seems to ignore others, but he does address in detail the most significant objection to his theory: the unlimited and unchecked power given to the sovereign. The establishment of the commonwealth culminates in a covenant that grants the sovereign absolute power in enforcing the civil laws of the state, but also guarantees the sovereign’s status as above the law. How does this ensure peace and survival, as is the point of the commonwealth? Hobbes provides many convincing reasons why it would be difficult, counterproductive, and impossible for the sovereign to not be above the law, but in the end, disorder and chaos are worse than any tyranny.

Before examining how Hobbes makes this point, the entire transformation from the state of nature to the commonwealth must be understood. Hobbes begins Leviathan not with an explicit definition or description of the state of nature, but rather with a discussion of human nature. He begins appropriately by addressing man’s thoughts and defining them as a “representation or appearance…[of] an object…the original of them all is what which we call Sense.” (Hob...

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...d seek peace. In establishing a covenant and instituting a sovereign, men give up the rights they possessed in the state of nature, as well as the right to live without tyranny. However for Hobbes, those sacrifices are overshadowed by what is gained by living under a truly absolute sovereign. A sovereign, corrupt or not, guarantees order and prevents chaos and death. Those are, word for word, the reasons the social contract was initially established and therefore fully justify the creation of an absolute sovereign. Thomas Hobbes, who wrote Leviathan during the English Civil Wars, looked out his window at chaos and decided that survival should be pursued at all costs.

[1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Edwin Curley. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.:

Cambridge, 1994.

[2] All text citations for Leviathan will be given in the format of “chapter.paragraph”.

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