From 1642 to 1651, England was engaged in a great civil war that temporarily nullified the British monarchy. In the midst of this chaos, Thomas Hobbes crafted Leviathan. In this seminal work, Hobbes defines a commonwealth, a government founded on the mutual agreement of its citizens, and defined by a social contract.
Hobbes called this government framework “Leviathan,” likening it to the biblical sea monster from the book of Job. In Hobbes view, a commonwealth is a living creature, an all-powerful union of its members. The head of this creature is the sovereign, the representative leader of the entire community. Hobbes allowed for this leader to be a single monarch or a set of men meeting in congress. But in either case, the sovereign’s power over it citizens was absolute, a necessary requirement to enforce the social contract.
Leviathan appears in three major sections. The first part discusses Man and his nature. Although Hobbes is dead serious in all of his descriptions, I couldn’t help laughing at the crazy biological and medical concepts that he puts forth as facts. From Hobbes’ seventeenth century standpoint, the human body is a machine that reacts to stimuli coming into it through the five senses. External elements such as light and words push on the body’s senses, and continue to move through an elaborate system of tubes and vessels, until they reach the brain and other target organs. But they don’t stop there. When you dream at night, you are experiencing the continued movement of previously perceived events that impacted your senses. It’s all very mechanistic.
Hobbes’ purpose in explaining these systems is to show the essence of mankind: his desires and appetites, his reflections of good and evil, and most importantly, his rights as an individual. Some of these rights are inalienable—they cannot be given up—but others can be deferred to a commonwealth, an idea that leads to the second section of the book.
Since the commonwealth—Leviathan—is a creature, it has rights just like man does, although these rights are passed on from those in the commonwealth. These rights culminate in a strong sovereign who acts on behalf of the citizens to define laws, enforce contracts, mediate justice, issue rewards and punishments, and carry out peace and war. Because of the need to enforce the rules of society, the power of the sovereign is absolute; he can do no wrong and he cannot be corrected or arrested. He has the power of life and death over his citizens, although he cannot take away an inalienable right from any citizen.
In the third major section, Hobbes defines a Christian commonwealth, one where all of the citizens accept the Christian doctrines, and its leaders perform both governmental and ecclesiastical duties. In Leviathan, there is no separation of church and state, although there may have been a separation of church and Hobbes, since many of his beliefs were clearly heretical.
Some of the book’s key themes were incorporated into America’s founding documents. The idea natural rights—including rights that cannot be taken away—appear in The Declaration of Independence. Other ideas were not so lucky. As in Plato’s Republic, the society defined in Leviathan is somewhat utopian. Although Hobbes allows for representative leadership in the form of a congress, his descriptions most closely match those of a single king, and a slightly tyrannical one at that. One of the key rights that Leviathan has is that its form of government, once established, cannot be changed by the will of the people, an idea rejected in both the Declaration and in the American Constitution that followed it.
For those interested in the ideas that shaped the modern West, Leviathan is an essential read. If you can get past the medical malpractice and the pre-Webster spelling rules, you will find a treasure of important ideas about your rights, and the rights of all societies.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.