Literature Study GuidesLeviathanPart 2 Chapters 17 19 Summary

Leviathan | Study Guide

Thomas Hobbes

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Leviathan | Part 2, Chapters 17–19 : Of Commonwealth | Summary



The natural laws Thomas Hobbes outlines in Part 1 are not, in fact, aligned with the natural passions of humans. Therefore, even when a moral philosophy is agreed upon and a contract is drawn up for self-protection, the natural human desire for power requires the additional assurance that the rules of the contract will be adhered to. Hobbes observes, for example, that a society can seem unified against a common enemy, but once the victory is won, that group of people will find points of contention among themselves and turn against one another. He contrasts this behavior with the natural cooperation of bees, pointing to those features in men that make such natural harmony impossible. They include men's constant competition with each other for dignity and honor, which gives rise to feelings of envy and hatred—the seeds of war. Also, as opposed to deriving satisfaction naturally from the common good, men take pleasure in comparing themselves to others and surpassing them in status. The mere existence of a spoken language among humans also contributes to their tendency toward controversy, and it is only by a covenant that people can agree with each other—whereas bees, he claims, are in agreement naturally.

Because humans are unable to agree to act justly in a state of complete freedom, they recognize the necessity for a common power to ensure their observance of the natural laws that will provide a safe and peaceful life. They must, therefore, cede power to the sovereign. Once the sovereign power is established, every subject must "Authorize all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own," to the end of living in peace and under protection.

Hobbes outlines 12 tenets necessary for the subjects of an established commonwealth:

  1. The subjects cannot change the form of the established government.
  2. The sovereign cannot forfeit his power, nor can the subjects be freed from their duty to the sovereign.
  3. The sovereign is declared by the majority, and if any in the minority disagrees, he must accept the majority's decision or be punished.
  4. Because in a commonwealth the subjects are the authors of the actions of their sovereign, the sovereign cannot be accused of injustice or injury by his subjects, even if he may commit iniquity.
  5. The sovereign may not be put to death or otherwise punished by his subjects.
  6. The sovereign has the authority to determine what doctrines or philosophies are necessary to ensure peace and the defense of his subjects.
  7. The sovereign has the authority to establish the rules of law governing the behavior and property of his subjects.
  8. The sovereign has the power to judge all controversies.
  9. The sovereign has the right to determine when to make war or peace with other nations, and he is the highest authority in the military.
  10. The sovereign has the authority to choose his own counselors, ministers, and magistrates.
  11. The sovereign may determine the rewards and punishments accorded to his subjects, in such a way as to encourage their service and discourage their disservice to the commonwealth.
  12. Because men are so naturally competitive and reluctant to praise each other, the sovereign must establish public laws of honor and use his power to distribute such titles of honor as he deems his subjects worthy.

Hobbes states, "A kingdom divided in itself cannot stand," and directly applies the idea to his own country. "If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England," he says, "that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never ... fallen into this civil war." In his descriptions of the three kinds of commonwealth, Hobbes makes clear his preference for a monarchy, with a single person possessing all power. He prefers this over democracy—with power residing in all the representatives of government—or aristocracy—where a smaller portion of the assembly holds the power. Hobbes considers the primary difference among these three to lie in their relative expediency in preserving peace. In this regard, he sees a monarchy as the most efficient because a single monarch can streamline the decision-making process, whether in appointing counselors, making policy, or choosing a successor.


It is clear in reading these chapters that the English Civil Wars (1642–51) are at the forefront of Thomas Hobbes's mind. His description of the imperatives of a commonwealth provides the vision of a clearly defined relationship between sovereign and subjects. The relation hinges on the following covenant of each man to every other: "I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my self, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorize all his Actions in like manner."

When Hobbes points out that "a monarch cannot disagree with himself ... but an assembly may; and that to such a height, as may produce a civil war," he reveals his ultimate objective: to restore peace to his homeland. Even though the book was met with much controversy upon its publication, Hobbes's goal in writing it was the elimination of controversy. His preference for a streamlined monarchy over more complex types of commonwealth seems rooted in this desire.

Hobbes's royalist leanings are clearly articulated throughout these chapters. However, much of what he writes here could—and would—be applied effectively to other forms of government, including America's democratic republic. Concepts adopted by the founders of the United States include the idea that people in their natural state are equal, that they have certain rights, and that they unite in a government in order to protect those rights. But there is an important distinction to be made regarding Hobbes's idea of representation. When he declares the monarch represents the people, it is not in the sense that an American senator represents the ideas of the people in his state, serving as their mouthpiece. Rather, by virtue of the social contract, any action the monarch takes to achieve peace is understood to be taken by his subjects as well.

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