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Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.
Hobbes – II: Leviathan and the Making of the Sovereign
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the second lecture on Hobbes. In the previous lecture,
we have discussed Hobbes’s conception of human nature. And how to understand human
nature and his behaviour in a more scientific manner with the materialistic conception of
human being and human nature. This understanding of human nature was necessary for
Hobbes to develop a more sophisticated or scientific understanding of a sovereign which
exercise absolute power over their subject.
The theorization of politics in Hobbes was rooted in this understanding of human nature and
a very materialistic understanding of human nature. He was not having any moral or ethical
presupposition about the good or bad conduct of the human being. But he reduced human
beings to a kind of scientific objective definition like any other material objects in the
So, driven by the Euclidean theory of Geometry, the major premises in Hobbesian political
philosophy was based on the scientific understanding or definition of the parts which
constituted the Commonwealth or sovereign. In the previous lecture, we have discussed how
Hobbes defined the human being as a matter in motion with a bundle of desire and aversion.
So, the movement of human beings or his behaviour was a voluntary act or endeavours can
be understood scientifically.
When we look at this dominant passion or desire in the individual, to gratify their ego, to
constantly seek fulfilment of their desire, and all voluntary acts or endeavours of human
being, as a matter in motion is towards the fulfilment of desire. And the fulfilment of desire is
the source of happiness, according to Hobbes, that we have discussed in the previous lecture.
Today, we are going to focus on his idea of sovereign and why sovereign should exercise
And to understand that we need to understand what he calls the ‘state of nature’. In the
lecture today, we will focus more on the idea of the sovereign, how it is constituted through
covenant or social contract. But before that, we will understand this hypothetical construct in
Hobbesian political theory that is of the ‘state of nature’. And this becomes then the basis of any argument or discussion on politics in contemporary times. Thus, the legitimacy of all the
rule or government even today is based on the consent of people.
And we will see that how we can trace the roots of such thinking about the legitimacy in this
social contract tradition of which Hobbes was the founder. So, we are going to discuss this
‘state of nature’ and the covenant, and how the sovereign should exercise absolute power, and
in what condition, human beings have the right to revolt against the sovereign. This we are
going to discuss in today's lecture.
In the following lecture, that is the third or concluding lecture on Hobbes, we will focus
particularly on his theory of political obligation. That is why we should obey the sovereign.
And then, we will conclude our discussion on Hobbes by critically assessing Hobbes’s
political philosophy in the light of newer interpretation. Let us start with this idea of
sovereign and ‘state of nature’ and what drives Hobbes to develop this absolutist authority.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:13)
So, the immediate or central concern in Hobbes, like in many other previous thinkers we have
discussed was to devise a theory of politics that would help establish peace and order in
society. And that establishment of peace and order would make civic life possible. For the
individual to lead a happy or a prosperous life, there must be peace and order in society.
In the absence of peace and order, there is no possibility of living one's life happily or
pursues something which one considers as just or good. Hobbes in that sense shared this
consent with many other philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or Machiavelli, as we have discussed that the central premise or concern in their political theory or philosophy is to
establish an order.
And that concern is there in Hobbes. However, there is a kind of distinct where the
participation of everyone in the political or public life is required, say in Aristotle and Plato.
But for Hobbes, human beings are perfectly okay or justified in living their private life or
civic life that is different from the public and political life of the state or sovereign.
Nonetheless, the concern that Hobbes had was similar to another political philosopher. That
is how to establish peace and order in society. And he regarded that only a sovereign had
absolute power. So, there was no division of power. There was no kind of mixed rule or a
mixed constitution or a mixed government. It had to be one singular body, might be of one
body or a group of body, or person. But that body had to have a kind of indivisible or
absolute power over their subject to establish peace and order in society.
He regarded that a sovereign with absolute power could establish peace and order. And this
sovereign was then not a given body, or not justify its existence on some other premises.
People would come together and form this sovereign through the contract, through a
covenant. In that sense, the sovereign was an artificial construct through the covenant or
contract among the people.
And these people were a kind of radical conception of people, where the life of everyone was
of equal birth, and they were all equal participants informing or constituting this sovereign.
There was a kind of movement or logical progression in Hobbesian thinking from human
nature to the ‘state of nature’ and the formation of the sovereign. So, the sovereign body was
not a kind of given natural entity, to which we must abide by or submit ourselves to. But it
was something which was created.
And this artificial construct was the precondition for the civic life that would ensure peace
and prosperity in the society. So, this agency or involvement of human beings, in the
construction of the sovereign, was a radical departure from the previous thinking about the
politics. So, why should we obey the government? Because the government was something
which we have constituted, given consent to, and that consent was the basis of legitimacy of
the government even today.
In that sense, Hobbesian political philosophy in the true sense was not just logical and
scientific. But also, a very objective or unambiguous explanation of political authority which was the construct of human beings, not God representation or any kind of divine origin. So,
this sovereign was absolute and necessary for establishing peace and order in society. It was
an artificial construct. This was the greatest gift of human nature.
So, even when we are envy, we compete with each other, and there is a war of each against
all. Yet, there are some unique traits in an individual which enables them to construct
something like the sovereign that would establish peace and order. And thereby, to preserve
the life of the individual and enable them the condition to flourish in trade, business,
commerce, art, science and philosophy.
In that sense, this artificial construct of the sovereign in Hobbesian thinking also gave us a
sense, where the human nature for a human being was not all bad or evil, as there was in
Machiavelli's account. He regarded human beings capable of constructing something as good
as sovereign which would create the conditions for peace and order for everyone to flourish
in their personal life. So, this sovereign was the artificial construct that represented the
multitude of free and equal subjects who came together to constitute it.
And this terminology of free and equal subjects and the voice of multitude was represented in
one voice of the sovereign. The existence of the sovereign was first dependent on the people
coming together and constituting it through a covenant. And it was representative of these
multiple voices, the multitude of voices, and that is very unique in Hobbesian political
philosophy. Now, this sovereign, thus constituted could be in the form of one man or an
assembly of men or a group of men.
When you have the individuals capable enough to regulate their insatiable desire and to live
peacefully through mutual coexistence or in relative peace. Then there is no need for any
authority. So, some kind of anarchist thinking is also possible, when the individual behaviour
can be regulated by themselves through their rational, moral sense of modesty or temperance.
However, human beings constantly tried to fulfil their desire, and their desire is at conflict
with other’s desire. There is a need for someone who can arbitrate between these conflicts,
and therefore there is a need of the sovereign. So, the sovereign could be of one person or a
group of person or the assembly of person. But as a sovereign body, it must represent the will
of the multitude. Thus, the existence and legitimacy of this sovereign were to represent the
will of the multitude. All the voices of people are legitimately authoritative represented in the person of the
sovereign. Therefore, we must obey the sovereign. Because it is our construct. And also, it
represents our will. So, why we should obey the sovereign, we are going to discuss in the
next lecture. He gives very logical reasoning for why we should obey the sovereign. So, the
sovereign authority that Hobbes was envisaging is both absolute and indivisible.
So, the power or authority that sovereign exercised over the subject was indivisible. It could
not be shared by different groups. There might be the counsellor, other institution. But the
sovereign was not bound to follow their concern, whereas everyone else was bound to obey
the command of the sovereign. Thus, the laws and legitimacy of laws and without any
confusion law is having the force. That means, if one does not follow the law, there would be
a coercive apparatus, which will force that individual to abide by the law.
The justification that we have in Hobbesian understanding is that the sovereign as the
representative of the people and their voice knows what is good for them. And in that spirit,
the command of the sovereign is the law. So, what is the law? This is what the sovereign says
is the law. And everyone should obey that law. Because sovereign which is the representative
of the people says so. Thus, there is no confusion about what is the law, what is the correct
law. It is something which sovereign says or the commands of the sovereign.
This authority of the sovereign is thus absolute or indivisible in a sense, it does not get
divided into like in present three organs of the state, legislature, executive and judiciary. In
Hobbesian conception, this Leviathan or sovereign exercise all the power in one body or the
group of the body. And once, that body is constituted, everyone should abide by the
command of that body which is sovereign.
So, the primary responsibility of the sovereign is to create and maintain peace. And this you
can connect with the prevailing condition in English society of Civil War or the factionalism
between the royalist and parliamentarians on the one hand, and the temporal power or the
monarchy on the one hand. And the religious authority on the other. This was a kind of
turbulent time, where Hobbes was arguing about how to restore or establish peace and to
The first or primary responsibility of the sovereign was to create and maintain peace. Thus, to
protect the life and liberty of the individual subject. Hobbes was very wary or apprehensive
about the political turmoil and instability which continuously posed a threat to the life of the individual. He argued that life in the absence of a common authority would be as miserable as
in the ‘state of nature’, where each is at war with everyone else.
In the absence of a common authority that has absolute power or indivisible power, life
would be miserable. The reason being there would be constant war or threat to everyone's life
and everyone would all the time were concerned about the preservation of their life. And if
they devote all their energy or endeavour to protect their life, there was no scope of trade,
business, industry, philosophy, art and science. In other words, civic life would become
Therefore, there was a need for the sovereign with absolute power. Hobbes regarded
sovereign authority as a precondition for social and economic prosperity for the individual
and society. So, Hobbes and other social-contract tradition theorists had provided a theory of
a state which was very different, if you recall Machiavellian understanding of principality or
the prince, or in Aristotle or Plato.
In the social-contract tradition, we have a theory of a state which pave the way for natural
rights and a universal language of politics. What is the legitimacy of the state? What is the
responsibility of the state? Why we should obey the state? It becomes the basic tenets of
political discussions in the modern world and we can trace it in this social-contract traditions.
The state has its legitimacy, not because it's representative of the divine will on the earth. But
people themselves create this artificial body, state, or sovereign.
And we will see how within social-contract traditions, there is a difference between Hobbes,
Locke and Rousseau. Nonetheless, they all argue this is an artificial corporate legal entity to
create the condition for individuals to lead their life, a happy, prosperous, stable life, without
coercion or any threat to their personal life and liberty. Thus, the state exists to protect
And if you recall, the fundamental responsibility of a modern state is to maintain law and
order. That means, there should not be arbitrary violence or coercive, or violent, arbitrary
actions among the individuals, if there is such prevalent violence or violation of contracts.
Then you have the authority of the state to arbitrate and to enforce the law. So, the
fundamental task of the modern state is to understand about maintaining law and order. And that maintenance of law and order enables the individual to pursue their interest, desire
and thereby leads to prosperity in all walks of life. So, this kind of understanding about the
state and the politics, you have in the social-contract tradition. They provide this natural
rights that even the state cannot take away certain rights which you call the fundamental
rights. So, the very existence of a state is to protect individual rights.
And there is a complex debate on what are those rights. There are moral rights, natural rights,
legal rights, or fundamental rights. But this very discourse of right which is inalienable, a
state must protect is something that we can trace to this natural law tradition or natural rights
tradition, beginning with the social-contract tradition. So, the idea that the authority of the
state does not rest on divine right. But the consent. All forms of authority have its legitimacy.
Why certain institution or public institution, and its command or instruction, we must obey?
Because it has legitimacy.
And legitimacy rest not on some divine right. But on the consent that we have given. And
once, we have given the consent, then it represents our will. That means, we authorize them
to exercise certain power. And in such condition, if they ask us to behave or do in a certain,
act in a certain manner, we must obey it. That is the consent which is very crucial to
understand the legitimacy or existence of any state and authority in modern politics or in the
modern state, which you can trace to this social-contract tradition.
Thus, the state and its existence are not because of the divine right or any given rights. But
because the human beings as free and equal member coming together to construct this legal
corporate entity. The governed had certain inalienable rights. And the existence of a state was
to protect those rights. These maxims formed a new basis of political discourse in the modern
world which we can trace to this social-contract tradition.(Refer Slide Time: 23:05)
Now, let us move on to discuss Hobbes’s idea of ‘state of nature’. And this ‘state of nature’,
you should not assume as something real, actual or given kind of status of human livings. It is
just a kind of hypothetical, ahistorical and theoretical account. So, this idea of ‘state of
nature’, Hobbes constructed in support of his conception of the absolute power of the
sovereign or absolute authority of the sovereign.
So, this was a hypothetical, ahistorical, not historical, there was no given manifestation of
such kind of life. It was a kind of theoretical construct in support of Hobbes conception of the
absolute power of the sovereign. Hobbes provided this hypothetical ahistorical and theoretical
account of ‘state of nature’ before presenting his account of the construct of commonwealth
or civil authority with absolute or indivisible power.
It was not an actual primitive stage of living. So, if you think of hunting and gathering kind of
society, that was the stages of human life, the Hobbesian conception of ‘state of nature’ was
different from that kind of historical understanding of human life. It was a hypothetical
construct. How human being would behave in a condition, where there is no civil authority,
there is no authority to arbitrate among the citizens or the individuals? And what kind of life
would be there?
Will, there be happiness or stability, and if not, why we should create something which will
provide us with those conditions of life that will enable us to pursue our desire or to pursue
our private life? So, it is not an actual primitive stage of living. Hobbes deployed this idea of the ‘state of nature’ to describe the miserable condition of the lives of human beings in the
absence of a competent authority.
So, this hypothetical and theoretical construct was based on this idea of how human beings as
a matter in motion, having constant desire and desire was not something seen as bad. It was
necessary for living. But if it is not regulated, if it is not controlled, then it would lead to
chaos, anarchy, conflict and war of each against all. So, how this human being as a matter in
motion, would behave in the absence of a civil or competent authority that Hobbes called as
‘state of nature’.
It is not the actual or real historical stage of life or primitive lives of the individual. It was
merely a kind of hypothetical understanding of human beings, as a matter in motion,
behaving in the condition of absence of any competent civil authority. So, he used the ‘state
of nature’. The idea of ‘state of nature’ was the basis for justification of the absolute power of
the sovereign which we will discuss after this discussion on the state of nature.
Hobbesian state of nature was a perpetual state of war. It was a war as if every man against
every man. So, this perpetual state of war was of everyone against everyone else. Because
there was a threat to everyone else life. All the endeavours or voluntary actions of the
individual was guided towards the preservation of life. And everyone was right in doing
everything that helped him or her to protect his/her life.
That is the natural right or understanding of natural right that all human beings have equal
worth. Their life had a similar value and they all were equally justified in doing everything
that helped them protect their life. Now, everyone else, if they tried to do everything else,
then there was a constant flux. There was a kind of constant uncertainty. There was a mutual
sense of distrust or insecurity from each other. Now, there would be a perpetual war, where
everyone would be constantly trying to outperform with others in securing their life.
And that will lead to a kind of power for the sake of power, you constantly try to acquire
more power without ever getting the sense of security. Because of the ‘state of nature’, and
the absence of competent civil authority. But when you provided the order and the security by
the state or sovereign, then you can behave decently, in a civil justified rational manner. But
in the absence of that, there would be a kind of perpetual war of each against all. So, this description of ‘state of nature’ followed from his characterization of the human being
like a bundle of desire and aversion which you can recall from the previous lecture. And their
dominant traits are the source of this perpetual conflicts and war of each against all are,
basically these three things. One is a competition for power. The second is a mutual sense of
insecurity or fear of life from violent and sudden death. And excessive pride or what he calls
Why in the ‘state of nature’, there was a kind of perpetual war? Because there would be
competition among everyone to exercise or accumulate as much power as he, she can,
exercising his ability, weight, rational or sense of perception. Now, this competition led to
constant envy among each other. And there will be no finality or ceasing of this constant
search for more power. And that will lead to, so suppose let us take it this way, if you have
few individuals or one individual constantly trying to accumulate power, that is okay.
But if everyone else tries to acquire more power, it will naturally lead to conflict. It will
naturally lead to envy and war. Second, if there is a kind of mutual sense of insecurity of life,
then the individual will do anything treacherous or not, just or unjust, desirable and
undesirable to protect his or her life. There is a kind of absence of trust that leads to a sense
of mutual insecurity, where everyone sees everyone else as a kind of enemy or as a kind of
envy or a rival.
And now, they will do everything treacherous or treacherous, lawful or unlawful, just or
unjust that helps them the preservation of life. And the second is the human beings which is a
self-seeking creature and constantly, seek honour or glory which he calls the vain glory that
will lead to insatiable desire, to accumulate power for the sake of power. That will lead to a
sense of honour among the similarly competing groups of individuals. Now, in that condition,
there will be always the attempt by others to outperform the others.
These three things of competition for power, the mutual sense of insecurity, and a threat to
life and death through the violence or sudden attacks or conflicts or war. Finally, a sense of
vain glory. A sense of insatiable desire for honour from the mutually competitive, equal
citizens and subjects led to a state of war or perpetual state of war of each against all. So, the
state of nature created a condition, a miserable condition of life that makes any kind of civic
and peaceful life impossible. In the absence of civil and peaceful life, there could be no industry, cultivations, arts and
science. Life itself would be of constant fear, an ever-present threat of violent death and life
of man would be the famous word of human beings in the ‘state of nature’, ‘solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short.’ That is the characterization of life in the ‘state of nature’ according
to Hobbes, where there was a constant fear of death from violent actions or sudden death.
People would not invest in long-term industries such as farming, business, or cultivation of
science, or philosophy. Because there was uncertainty. And the primary fear was that of life.
All the endeavours of human beings would be channelized towards the preservation of life
and there would be less focus on the cultivation of science, arts, industries, and farming. So,
life would be a miserable life which would not allow the individuals to lead a civil and
private life in the absence of common civil authority.
(Refer Slide Time: 33:53)
However, in the ‘state of nature’, Hobbes recognized certain natural law and certain rights of
the individual which were natural and inalienable rights, and the sovereign and its existence
were premised on this necessity or requirement, to protect those rights or to respect those
natural laws. Hobbes did not present only the negative character of human beings, as we have
seen in Machiavelli or Christian theology that man is a fallen being, and the redemption
depends on the god and submission to the will of god.
Similarly, in Machiavelli, human nature was necessarily wicked. And if the human natures
were wicked, how a prince could establish order. In Hobbes, there was a kind of
understanding, where human beings were capable of creating something as good as sovereign, and the artificial construct. That gave us a sense that human beings also calculate
the consequences of their action, and in what ways, one could preserve one's life in the long
term. That led them to create this artificial construct which we call Leviathan or sovereign or
the civic authority.
Hobbes did not present only the negative characters of human beings, as it was in
Machiavelli's account. In the ‘state of nature’, human beings did have sense or reason to
deliberate upon the actions and consequences of those actions. Human beings were passion
driven by their desire and aversion to some things which displease or force them to behave in
a particular manner. That means anything that brings displeasure to them, they will be averse
to that kind of action.
So, human beings as a bundle of desire and aversion would gradually develop this sense of
their action. They would calculate the consequences of their action which led to the
preservation of their life and lead to its threat or destruction of their life. And they would preempt any actions that could be a threat to their life. This understanding of human being as
having a sense or the reason to deliberate upon the actions and consequences of that action
was there in the ‘state of nature’, as well.
For Hobbes, men could be good or bad, depending upon their desire and passion, and the
circumstances of living. In the ‘state of nature’, in the absence of a common authority, even
the good men or honest men would behave unjustly to protect his or her life. So, it is not that
human beings are innately good or bad. They could be good and bad, depending upon the
circumstances. Thus, if you have the circumstances of life, where civil authority or the
sovereign will provide the condition of peace and order, the human being will behave
But in the absence of such authority, human beings would do everything that helped them to
preserve their life. So, that is the kind of understanding that Hobbes had about men who
could be good and bad depending upon their desire, passion and the circumstances of living.
Human beings, according to Hobbes were rational, innocent and moderate, too. They would
behave peacefully or in a just manner under the command of civil authority.
However, it is the absence of such authority in the ‘state of nature’, and constant threat to
their life from violent and sudden deaths that make them do everything under their command
or power to preserve their life. That is how he saw life in the ‘state of nature’ and defines human beings do rational and having some sense of what is desirable and what helps them in
the preservation of life. Yet they would behave unjustly or any manner that is possible under
their power or command to preserve their life. Because no authority would guarantee them
peace or protection of their life.
Thus, eventually, people develop an understanding of the need for laws and authority.
Because the life of human beings in the ‘state of nature’ was miserable. There was a
perpetual war of each against all and yet they had some sense or rationality or rational
calculation of their actions. And they then develop a kind of common understanding of the
desire of law and authority which would provide them with the peace, stability or order.
So, they developed an understanding of the need for laws and authority through rational
deliberation. And these were based on certain natural laws. The first law of nature was based
on the idea of seeking peace and order. And the rights that individual had followed from this.
Human beings should seek peace and order. However, in the absence of that peace and order,
everyone had a natural right to do everything to preserve his life or liberty or preserve his or
her life. Thus, that natural rights, Hobbes gave even when the sovereign was constituting.
He described many other types of natural laws such as each life is of equal birth. In the ‘state
of nature’, there was no hierarchy between the monarch or common layman or aristocrat. All
of them had a similar equal world. Each one should treat others in the same manner as he
wanted to be treated by them. One must obey the terms of contract and covenant. And man
has the right to defend himself and cannot be forced to be a judge in his case.
Thus, the natural right justice that we have even in a modern democracy, where even the
accused of the worst crime has the natural right to defend himself. He cannot be forced to be
witness or judge of his crime. So, it has to be proved beyond doubt through evidence, to
punish a person, even when that person has committed the heinous crime. There is this kind
of natural right to given to the individuals are something that we have in this social-contract
And the discussion on natural laws and natural rights, and the whole idea of laws, justice, and
the state, you have in the modern world can be traced back to this social-contract tradition.
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