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Leviathan | Study Guide

Thomas Hobbes

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Leviathan | Part 2, Chapters 20–31 : Of Commonwealth | Summary



Thomas Hobbes examines the power structure in families—both natural and by contract—as a precursor to his discussion of the power structure within a commonwealth. He claims sovereign power naturally resides in the mother, but in a patriarchal society, this power is contracted to the father to ensure the family's protection. Similarly, the individual power of natural man is contracted to the sovereign for protection against a common enemy and to ensure the keeping of the peace within the commonwealth. This contracted sovereignty is then passed down through a family and therefore deemed "paternal" by Hobbes, as contrasted with "despotic" sovereignty, which is obtained by force, through conquest or victory in a war. Hobbes specifies it is not the victory itself that gives a sovereign dominion over the vanquished, but rather the implied consent of the vanquished through their surrender. He concludes his chapter on dominion with the assertion, "Sovereign power, whether placed in one man ... or in one assembly of men ... is as great as possibly men can be imagined to make it."

Hobbes defines liberty as "the absence of opposition," with opposition being any external impediment to motion. By this definition, even if a monarch is the sovereign, and even if there are laws and covenants in place, an unfettered person is still able to act freely, but there may be consequences to doing so. The civil laws, Hobbes says, are artificial chains that function because of the fear of consequences. A subject in a commonwealth has, according to Hobbes, three essential freedoms: (1) the liberty to defend himself, (2) the right to refuse to incriminate himself or do himself harm, and (3) the freedom to refuse to fight in a war.

The rest of Part 2 explains in detail the various systems that make the leviathan function. In his descriptions of these systems, Hobbes uses biological analogies to emphasize the extended metaphor of the body of the leviathan—a mythical sea serpent—as an image of the body politic. The monster is nourished by trade and by the resources of the land and its subjects, and the sovereign has executive power to establish the rules that govern these spheres. Hobbes outlines a code of law and corresponding punishments. The sovereign may select ministers and counselors to advise him and to make or enforce laws, but ultimately, he is the law and, therefore, does not have to abide by it as his subjects do. Despite its potential strengths, there can be threats to the body of the commonwealth, such as sedition and weak leadership.

After providing details about the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects, Hobbes concludes Part 2 with the admission that this vision for a commonwealth he has so painstakingly described in Leviathan has never actually existed in human history. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic, saying, "I recover some hope, that one time or other, this writing of mine, may fall into the hands of a sovereign, who will consider it himself."


The assertion that a mother is the natural seat of power in a family stands out in Thomas Hobbes's otherwise male-dominated Leviathan. Hobbes was, in fact, one of the first Western philosophers to include women as "persons" (as opposed to property, for example) in a covenant among persons. When he talks about the essential equality of people—which he bases on the fact that all people are equally able to dominate and be dominated—he includes women. The sovereign, as well, can be either male or female, and the only reason he gives for women consenting to give their power to men is in the context of a patriarchal society.

Hobbes's last words of Part 2—expressing the hope that one day a sovereign might consider his book and actually put these ideas into practice—make one wonder if he had a particular sovereign in mind. His fears about his own country's instability are surely the impetus for creating such a comprehensive doctrine, and its date of publication reinforces this suspicion. Some may disagree with Hobbes's claim that his book is "short" and "clear." In fact, most subjects—and even a few sovereigns—would likely struggle to comprehend fully the complexity of all that Hobbes prescribes for their respective roles.

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