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The Concept of the 'Sovereign' in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

Niall is an Irish author who loves poetry, philosophy, and writing.

Hobbes' sovereignty theory

Hobbes' sovereignty theory

Hobbes' Concept of Sovereignty

Thomas Hobbes defines the natural ‘state of man’ [1] as one in which man desires ‘felicity’ [2] i.e., happiness. Felicity in itself has no single conception that is shared by all human beings, but more so, it is for the continual satisfaction in which individuals differ in their wants and desires. In the pursuit of felicity as it is conceived here, it is the natural state of man to exercise his right i.e. the ‘right of nature’, to attain or possess that which is solely for his own self-gratification. Without having a common conception of felicity in the state of nature, man evokes his own state of happiness as his own conscience dictates it to be. In this primitive state, there are no common rules for that which is right or that which is wrong. Problems arise when different individuals want the same thing; e.g. money, power, land etc. In situations such as these, the possibility of conflict manifesting itself is inevitable, and if considered to be an appropriate way, this act gives way to the use of violence as an appropriate way for any man to achieve his goals. In this way, the state of nature manifests itself as a ‘state of war'.

No Law Without a Lawmaker

In the state of man we find three principal causes of argument: ‘First, competition; second, diffidence; third, glory.’[3] Man competes against man for gain and possession, in diffidence for defence and constant success, and in glory for reputation and power. From these three perspectives, Hobbes concludes that ‘during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.’[4] In the state of nature, men are equal both in state of mind and body, but no one is immune to being brought down by others. Even by the weakest of men. In this pre-political state of man, the individual is solely dependent on his own physical and intellectual abilities for the sake of his self-preservation: ‘and the life of man; solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’[5] In this very bleak passage, Hobbes depicts that the greatest form of deprivation is the absence of civilisation and the benefits that derive from it. Of these benefits, it is namely that of peace, which is to be seen as an essential core in the construction of Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Only through the establishment of a commonwealth can the essence of civilisation be properly attained. In the natural state of war: ‘the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place.’[6] It is in man’s natural rights in the state of nature to seek the objects of his desire. With no distinctions of dominions or ‘what is mine?’ at all costs, man seeks to possess what he can get for himself. In doing so, he finds himself in a state of perpetual competition with his fellow opponents desiring the same things. In situations such as these, it would be in men’s best interests to liberate themselves from this savage, free-for-all of the state of nature in order to avoid head-on conflicts and the strong possibility of destroying each other. The only possible solution towards avoiding such conflict and the possible outbreak of civil war is to establish ‘a common power of fear.’[7] Without this ‘there is no law; where no law, no injustice.’[8] Until a lawmaker defines law, there can be no moral values within any form of society.

In the resolution of conflict, the fear of death is the key motive for establishing peace. With this in mind, Hobbes proposes that it is in our own self-interest to make a covenant or contract to preserve peace and respect human life. This, of course, would mean the abandonment of the state of nature. People would agree to trust the judgements of an agreed person or assembly of people, who in return, could offer a more secure and substantial way of living than that of the savage free-for-all of the state of nature. In order to ensure that all obey this covenant, Hobbes proposes ‘a strong sovereign’[9] to impose severe penalties on those who disobey the laws of the established covenants. The sovereign himself would enable people to freely trade, travel and form associations within limits. They would not only be protected from the threat of violent attacks but would be involved in political life primarily through obedience to the institution of the commonwealth Civitas[10], on which the sovereign power is conferred by the consent of the people assembled.

The Right of Nature; The Law of Nature

In the development of the commonwealth, Hobbes introduces the role of reason by defining the ‘Right of Nature’ jus natural [11] and the ‘Law of Nature’ lex naturalist. [12] He defines the Right of Nature as that of the liberty each one possesses to use his own power forself-preservation. By the concept of ‘liberty’ he means the non-existence of external restrictions in a man’s ability to acquire. The Law of Nature is defined as ‘a general rule, found out by reason’ [13], which forbids a man to act in any way, which may threaten or violate his own means for self-preservation. Through these two laws, man’s sense of insecurity, which arises out of this ‘natural right’, is overcome by the introduction of the ‘rule of reason’.[14]

With the development of the rules of reason, Hobbes states that the fundamental law of nature is the general rule of reason that ‘every man, ought to endeavour peace as far as he has the hope of obtaining it.’[15] If this is not possible, war should only be sought in the interest of man’s self-preservation. The second law is based on one of the values of the Christian Gospel, ‘whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them.’[16] As liberty causes war, it is essential that one gives up one’s own ‘rights’ with the intention of all others following suit, if the sovereign is to function properly. Here, Hobbes uses ‘rights’ in the sense of Liberty. For it is also in man’s natural passions to desire and attain peace. It is this rational pursuit of self-preservation through the establishment of peace that leads men to form commonwealths.

The Origin of the Sovereign

Within the establishment of commonwealths (by institution or acquisition), man’s main priority for his ownself-preservation and security can be found. In the case of a commonwealth existing by form of institution, a multitude of men subject themselves to a chosen sovereign out of fear of death. In giving up their natural right of liberty, by ‘covenant of every one, with everyone’[17], they subject themselves to the sovereign. This is also otherwise known as a ‘political commonwealth’[18], and in the Hobbesian mindset, a more structured way for man to proceed into the establishment of a civilised society. One in which envelops a greater degree of security and respect for human life.

If the commonwealth is formed by no means other than violence, then it has been formed by acquisition. In this fearful way, men subject themselves to a sovereign out of a fear [19] of the sovereign himself. In contrast to these two different kinds of commonwealth, the rights of the sovereign can never be affected: ‘The rights and consequences of sovereignty are the same in both.’[20] In the sovereign all are united in one person or assembly by mutual covenants with one another and are subject to his sovereign power (including the churches). They alone are the essence of all his actions. In the social contract, the Roman Catholic Church refused to associate itself with any form of state sovereignty. In doing this, the church separated itself from the state. In church doctrine, there can only be two supreme sovereigns; one being God, the immortal and supreme sovereign, and the other being the Pope. This meant that the Pope was party to no sovereign other than that of God, in whom all things were created.

Although the sovereign in himself is not a party to the covenant, his sovereignty derives from it. From this, there are no covenants between himself and his subjects. In the case of the sovereign being an individual or assembly of individuals, his power is absolute. All power of judgement and legislation are invested in him, as he has: ‘the right of making war and peace with other nations, and commonwealths; that is to say, of judging for the public good.’[21] The sovereign receives his power from those who are subject to him as he alone is the biggest terrorist who institutes fear as the basis of establishing peace at home and abroad. It is through fear of the sovereign that his subjects trust each other, for he fears no one. The sovereign can never be executed, not even by those who are subject to him. In doing so, one would indirectly punish another for one’s own irresponsible actions.

The Bleakness of Man's Natural State

Having discussed the Concept of the Sovereign in these three important areas, I feel that Hobbes paints a very bleak picture in describing man in what he believes to be his natural state. It would be of more significance to say that the natural state of man is one of good and evil. Man naturally progresses himself through his own natural ability in the light of his own self-awareness. And it is through his ability to do so that he gradually comes to an awareness of his self-ignorance. Although there is a strong necessity for law and order in any given form of society, there is also the need of awareness to that of the natural goodness of people: e.g., what good mother, having never conceived of the concept of sovereign power, would not lay down her own life for the sake of her child? As stated in the above discussion, man’s passions not only lead him to desire war but also of peace.

Yet, it is essential to acknowledge that Leviathan has to be one of the most influential pieces of political documentation ever written in the history of humankind. Later on, philosophers such as John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, in their own unique and personal ways, redeemed man from this pre-primitive state of brutal existence portrayed by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.


[1] In keeping with the original tone of Hobbes’ writings, allowances will be made for the use of non-inclusive language.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan in Michael L. Morgan, ed., Classics of Modern and Political Theory. (Cambridge;Hackett Publish Co., 1992) p.594

[3] Ibid. p.621

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p.622

[6] Ibid. p.623

[7] Ibid. p.641

[8] Ibid. p.623

[9] Ibid. p.641

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p.623

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p.642

[15] Ibid. p.623-4

[16] Ibid. p.624

[17] Ibid. p.642

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. p.628

[20] Ibid. p.641

[21] Ibid. p.645

© 2010 niallmarkey


Laura Ward on November 02, 2019:

Was this peer reviewed

Tery on January 07, 2019:

Really educative

Helped in writing my research paper

thank you

God Bless

bark on September 30, 2012:

its nice to learn this kind of idea