Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.
Lecture No. 14
Hobbes – III: Political Obligation and Critical Assessment of his thought.
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the third lecture on Hobbes. In this concluding lecture, we are
going to discuss his ideas on political obligation. In the second part, we will focus on the critical
assessment of Hobbes in political thought. In the previous two lectures, if you recall, we have
discussed his views on human nature, ‘state of nature’, and how he developed a theory of sovereign
with absolute power without any scrutiny by the multitude.
This construction of sovereign exercise absolute power over the multitude that is the artificial
construct. That is to say, human beings who were free and equal constituted this sovereign through a
covenant. It was not based on the divine right theory of king or any given understanding of state and
sovereign power. Thus, the sovereign power of the state in Hobbes and political thought was based
on the covenant or contract of free and equal members. Therefore, this sovereign according to
Hobbes was an artificial construct.
And that is reflective of his understanding of human nature as not just evil or bad. But also have
some creative potentialities or enterprise to constitute something through their reflection, and reason
to create a condition for life that would enable the civic life of citizens possible.
In that sense for Hobbes in political theory, human beings were enterprising beings reflectively and
they used politics to construct in authority which would enable them to pursue their private interest
or private lives without any threat to their life and liberty. That is the whole purpose of Hobbes's
political theory and why we need absolute sovereignty that we have discussed in the previous
lecture. Today, we are going to focus on his idea of political obligation.(Refer Slide Time: 3:18)
As you recall that Hobbes in political thought or politics is based on a kind of materialistic
understanding. That is to say that for Hobbes human beings are like matter in motion. And his
conception of politics or sovereign or the making of the sovereign is based on this very materialistic
approach to the question of politics to the question of desire, aversion, and everything that moves.
So, in terms of the language that he deploys. The approach that he has is not a kind of a prior theory
or preconceived understanding of human nature or ethical behavior or the purpose of life to lead a
If you recall his idea of human nature that is a bundle of desire and this desire signified the life in an
individual. So long human beings are alive he or she will be guided by their desire and this desire is
siezeless. Human life is a constant pursuit of desire and avoiding something which gives pain to
their life. Now, how to create a condition where this kind of pursuit of human desire or fulfillment
of human desire is possible is the purpose or center of his construct of this idea of the absolutist
sovereign. Thus, Hobbes had developed his theory of politics based on the materialistic
understanding of human nature.
And his theory of absolute monarchy or sovereign was based on rigorous, scientific, and selfevident propositions that started from the human nature to ‘state of nature’ Finally, to the making of
a sovereign body through a covenant among the free and equal member. If you look at the artifacts
of Hobbes and political theory, there was a kind of logical sequence. And the root of such sequence
was how to create a condition where human beings could lead a happy life. And for him, happy life
was the pursuit of one’s desire without any threat to violent death or liberty.
In Hobbes, the concept of the absolutist sovereign was based on this hypothetical construct of this idea ‘state of nature’ where there was a kind of perpetual state of war each against the all. And there
was always a chance of violent death and to avoid that death and fear of death, human beings
created a civil authority that had absolute power over them. So, if you look at the logic or arguments
in Hobbes, it was a very convincing or compelling account of why we need an absolutist sovereign
and why we should obey the command of the sovereign.
So, to ensure the long term sustenance of political regimes, Hobbes, developed a compelling and
persuasive account of political obligation. And this political obligation, according to Hobbes, was
based on individual consent. When human beings as a free assent or equal member gave their
consent. Thus, the obligation of human beings or people to the sovereign was based on their consent
which they give individually by coming together in a contract. And through that contract, they
transferred their rights to the sovereign.
This obligation was not based on any conventional or religious explanation of the political regime.
So, if you recall in the earlier times or medieval times or Christian political discourse, the temporal
power or king was seen as the representative of god on earth. And if the whole public life or
collective life of the individual and the community was guided by the religious or theological
discourse, then the obligation came naturally by the fact that the king or monarch was the
representative of god.
And we should obey him without any questioning. So, there was a kind of subject relationship with
the temporal power or king. So, the individual as the subject should obey the monarch or king.
Because the king was the representative of god on the earth. And there was also a kind of
convention. Because we should obey the king or monarch. It was a convention. As a subject should
obey your king.
But Hobbes gave a radically different interpretation of political obligation, where the obligation that
individuals owe to the sovereign was not based on the convention or any religious understanding of
political authority. But it was based on the consent of the individual. That they gave through a
contract among the free and equal member. And that was the basis of a lot of discourse in modern
political science about individual rights why a state should protect those individual rights. How
these rights had been seen as right o life, liberty, property, and how it further developed into other
kinds of rights.
This understanding is a radical departure in political discourse which we see in Hobbes where he
defines political obligations based on individual consent. It explains in unambiguous terms and that
is another characteristic of Hobbes, where he does not give any subjective account of why we should do certain things in politics. Why we should obey? And when we should rebel against the
sovereign? His explanation of all these things was nearly mathematical or in unambiguous terms.
Thus, the language that Hobbes used was different from Aristotle, Plato, or Machiavelli which we
It explains in unambiguous terms why must we submit to the will of the sovereign and also why the
sovereign is not accountable for its acts to the people? So, the political obligation contains two sides
of the theory. One is why an individual should always obey the sovereign and the other side is why
the sovereign is not limited by the terms of the contract or not accountable to the people for its
actions. And the explanation that he gives is a kind of unambiguous without any kind of subjective
biases or interpretation of these terms.
We are going to discuss these explanations in a moment. But here, we need to understand that the
logic that he provided for the sovereign was not being accountable to the terms of the contract. It
was the idea that the sovereign was the result of covenant among the free individuals. So, the free
and equal members being party to the contract had obligation to obey the sovereign. But the
sovereign who was constituted or instituted by this contract was not a party to the contract. And if
he was not a party to the contract, then he could not be forced by the terms of the contract in the
covenant. It is a very logical and mathematical or unambiguous explanation of political obligation
that we have in Hobbes.
So, Hobbes's political obligation which we are going to discuss in the second part of the lecture is
subject to various kinds of interpretations. On the one hand, he gave certain inalienable rights to the
individuals certainly his right to preserve life or do everything that could prevent any threat to his
death or opportunity to exercise his liberty to the maximum. On the other hand, he created an
absolutist monarch that was a constant threat to individual life and liberty. That led to many kinds of
interpretations of Hobbes.
In his lifetime, many regarded him as an atheist. Because of his religious vies and certainly from the
Catholic Church and their authority, Hobbes was regarded as a heretic. So, as an atheist and heretic,
Hobbes had enemies in all the camps and this connected with our previous lecture. Particularly in
the first lecture, when we discussed the context of Hobbes. Where there was a kind of tension
between the monarch and the parliamentarians, the parliamentary forces claimed to represent the
interest of the emerging middle class or landlords and monarchs claiming to represent the interest of
And in between, there was a kind of Catholic Church where there were protests and atheist or Catholic ideas on the temporal power and religious war. How it leads to some kind of understanding
of how to provide legitimacy to the monarchy or absolutist regime. Nonetheless, when Hobbes was
developing his theory, all these three camps were at constant loggerheads and there was no settled
answer to these different positions about temporal power and authority. And how to ensure the
legitimacy of these authorities. So, what you have as a result was Hobbes considered as an atheist
and heretic who had enemies in all camps.
Thus, the royalist, parliamentarians, and Church in all these camps, Hobbes had enemies. In the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the focus was on the last two books of Leviathan that is ‘Of a
Christian commonwealth’ and ‘Of the kingdom of Darkness’. So, much of the interpretation in the
seventeenth and eighteenth-century focused on these last two parts of Hobbes, Leviathan. That is
where he discussed the Catholic Church or the ‘Christian commonwealth’ and the ‘Kingdom of
darkness’. That is how human or civic life was impossible in the absence of commonwealth or civic
So, much of the discussion or interpretation of Hobbes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century
was based on these two texts, where Hobbes was seen as a religious, atheist, or a heretic. However,
the nineteenth and twentieth-century interpretation of Hobbes was based on the first two books that
are ‘Of Man’, and ‘Of Commonwealth’. Where his defense of absolutist monarchy or sovereign was
antithetical to our modern democratic sensibilities. Now, we have a sense of authority, I state which
should be accountable to people. The power of the state should be separated among the three organs
of the state. For instance, the legislative, executive, or judiciary power. And these three organs
should be separated and independent from each other. That is the modern democratic sensibilities of
the state and its power.
However, when we read Hobbes, today, it appears that he was defending absolutist monarchy which
was very antithetical to the democratic sensibilities. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
Hobbes was regarded as religious or atheist, or heretic. Scholars who questioned the religious
authority or authority of the god. So, there was a kind of different interpretation of Hobbes and we
are going to discuss in the second part of the lecture, today. That how different thinkers had
interpreted Hobbes differently.
But certainly, Hobbes's contribution was in the idea of the individual as the basis of state or polity
and the existence of the state and polity was to protect the right to life and liberty of individuals.
And in protecting that life and liberty, he justified the absolutist individual sovereignty. And it had
its echo in many other theorists of sovereignty as well as the state was seen all-powerful within the
territory of the nation-state. Hobbes had numerous contributions in the field of modern political science and yet there was a kind
of difference in terms of interpretation of Hobbes as a political theorist, where he was a democrat or
an individualist or he was the supporter of the monarchy or absolutist sovereign.
(Refer Slide Time: 17.35)
Now, we will move on to his idea of political obligation, where it was regarded that Hobbes’s
greatest contribution to a systematic theory of politics was his unambiguous justification for
political obligation. And the theory of political obligation was different from Aristotelian or the
Platonic idea of politics or even Machiavellian conception of politics. There you have politics as a
domain, where individuals live their fullest life or realize their true potentiality. So, the guide for
political participation was the understanding that human beings could lead a truly happy life or
realize his true potentialities only in the life of a community or associational life with others.
But in Hobbes, we have a scientific and unambiguous explanation of political obligation, why we
should obey the state? And here, as I have said in the previous lecture, Hobbes’s understanding of
human life was life in private. A kind of passive life. It was very different from the Aristotelian
conception of being able to rule and being ruled in turn.
Here, it is okay for the individual to live a civil private life different from the public and political
life of the state, and as a private or civic citizen, why we should obey the sovereign? What is the
justification for political obligation? And why we should submit to the will of the sovereign? And
that explanation, Hobbes gave was a very radical departure from the earlier understanding of
Many scholars, however, Hobbes focussed more on his defense of absolutist sovereign or monarchy than his theory of political obligation but for many other scholars, the contribution of Hobbes to
political science is his unambiguous theory of political obligation. Hobbes’s primary concern was
on how to secure the obligation of the individuals based not on the idea of the divine right of the
king. But on the consent. So, there was a kind of voluntary action associated with his theory of
political obligation. Human beings obeyed the sovereign not because there was a divine right of the
king or a convention to obey the monarch. But because human beings were voluntary as free and
submitted to the will of the sovereign. Therefore, he must obey the sovereign.
For Hobbes, peace, and order needed to prevail in a society that enabled the civic life possible. That
the sovereign is said as an individual or it could be an assembly of individual, assembly of men
body or men. It might be in singular, in plural or Hobbes chose monarchy as preferable than the
assembly of the body or men. For Hobbes, the peace and order needed to prevail that the sovereign
was an individual body or assembly of men.
So, not only the absolute individual. But it was equally necessary that the subject or citizens obey
the command of the sovereign unconditionally and without any scrutiny. Thus, the individual
subject or citizen must submit to the will of the sovereign unconditionally. That means without any
scrutiny. Unlike the modern democratic state, where every action of the government or state is
subjected to public scrutiny.
In Hobbesian political theory, he denied such rights to the citizens. So, once they constituted the
sovereign, they had no right to question the acts of the sovereign. And they must submit to their will
unconditionally and without scrutiny. However, there was a debate among scholars about what is
the basis of this political obligation. So, scholars like Nagel and Watkins have argued that Hobbes
provided a prudent and materialistic explanation of political obligation. And this prudent and
materialist understanding or explanation of political obligation was based on the fact that human
beings would obey the sovereign because of fear. For Hobbes, fear was the driving force of human
action in a sense.
There was a fear of sudden death from violent action or war in the ‘state of nature’ that drives them
in the first place to create the authority which enabled the pursuit of private life or desire possible.
So, the fear was the guiding force or human action, in a sense in Hobbesian political theory. And
Nagel and Watkins argued that human beings would obey the sovereign not because of any moral
and ethical considerations. But because of their fear that if they do not follow the command of the
sovereign there will be coercive action against them.
One of the reasons you have to understand that in the ‘state of nature’, there was a sense of natural law or natural rights of the individual. But those laws and rights were not forcible in the absence of
absolutist authority or monarch. The existence of authority was a pre-condition for the realization of
any natural law or natural rights.
And therefore, Nagel and Watkins argued that human beings would obey the sovereign. Because of
fear as sovereign wields power and perceived power. It could punish those who disobey or
transgress his or their command. That means, the sovereign in singular or plural exercise certain
power and could punish those who transgress its command or violate the terms of the covenant. The
reason for human beings to obey the sovereign was based on this fear of sovereign that if they
transgress or violate the terms of the covenant, there was the sovereign authority that would punish
And second, there was a fear of going back to the violent ‘state of nature’ that is the perpetual state
war of each against the all. And human beings in their rational calculation of which action would
protect his life and put their lives in danger would realize that it was better to obey the sovereign
than going back to the ‘state of nature’ where there would be a constant threat to their life and
liberty. And they could not live peacefully or pursue industry, trade, and other life skills. So, the
realization of liberty was possible under the command of the sovereign. Thus, why they obey the
sovereign was because there was a threat that if they did not obey the contract or violate the terms
of the contract, there was the sovereign authority to punish them.
And second, if they do not obey the sovereign they may go back to the state of nature and the state
of nature is worse than the submission to the will of the sovereign. So, in that sense, you have a
very materialistic or prudent explanation of political obligation, according to Nagel and Watkins in
Hobbes. In contrast, however, other scholars have argued about the moral and rational basis of such
political obligation. So, it is not just because of the prudent consideration that human beings obey
the sovereign. But also because human beings are also reflective.
They have the creative energy to constitute something which will enable the larger life or the
peaceful life or the pursuit of trade, industries overall prosperity in the society possible. So, in
Hobbes and ‘state of nature’, we have discussed there is the argument that it is the condition of life
in the ‘state of nature’ that makes human beings behave nasty, brutish, and short. Human beings are
not essentially good or bad. They behaved in an immoral way or do all kinds of things to preserve
their life because of the condition of the ‘state of nature’.
But if they live in a situation where there is a civil authority, there is the monarch which controls or
the sword of the monarch or the coercive apprentice of their state is necessary for the implementation of the law. For the pursuit of private life or the pursuit of the desire of the
individual. So in Hobbes, you have a kind of positive or alternative understanding of human beings
which is neither essentially good nor essentially bad. As in Machiavelli, where human beings are
essentially wicked. And only the force can compel them to behave in a certain manner.
In contrast to this prudent or materialistic explanation, you have other scholars who argued about
the moral and rational basis of political obligation in Hobbes. That is, they must obey the sovereign
as they have submitted to the will of the sovereign voluntarily. As a free and equal member through
a covenant. So, the obligation of the individual to the sovereign is not based only on fear but on
their reflective moral consideration that as a free individual or equal member they have submitted to
the will of the sovereign through a contract.
And this contract has a moral obligation on them then to obey the sovereign. So, because of fear or
prudent consideration. But this reflective understanding or a rational understanding of human’s
moral obligation to the sovereign. Because the sovereign is representative of their will is constituted
by the covenant of free and equal member. Therefore, as a party to the contract, they have the moral
obligation to obey the sovereign.
In this way, the sovereign is the representative of the will of the multitude. So, once sovereign is
constituted through the covenant then this institutionalized form of a sovereign or the artificial
construct is representative of the will of the multitude. Therefore, the power that it exercises over
the multitude is authorized by the same multitude.
Through the covenant when they transfer the power, remember the terms of the covenant which we
discussed in the previous lecture that every individual transfer their rights to this body of sovereign
as in singular or in plural on the condition when other members in the society are also willing to
transfer their right to govern themselves to this body.
There is a kind of give and take among the party in the contract. So, once the sovereign is
constituted, the power it exercises over the multitude is authorized by the multitude themselves.
Therefore, they have a moral obligation to obey the sovereign which is representative of their will
and exercise power on their behalf. So, the power of the sovereign is therefore then authorized by
the people themselves.
And this is very true in the modern understanding of the republic. So, the authority of the
government or the state of power, its exercises are derived from the people. Thus, any modern
constitution, we the people of India or we the people of United States, so the power and authority is
sovereign or the state exercises in a modern democracy are legitimized or derived from people themselves
So, in Hobbes, you will have a similar explanation of the sovereign as a representative of the
multitude or the people and the power that it exercises is authorized by the same people. Therefore,
it has a moral obligation on the individual to obey the command of the sovereign.
(Refer Slide Time: 31:29)
Hobbes's theory of political obligation explains why the sovereign is not accountable to the people.
So, we have discussed so far that why an individual should obey the sovereign. There is a difference
in interpretation whether that political obligation is based on the prudent calculation of fear or it is a
moral obligation on the part of an individual. Nonetheless, human beings are supposed to have a
moral obligation that they must fulfill. Because the sovereign is their representative and the power it
exercises over them is authorized by the people. Therefore, human begins should obey the
sovereign in all the conditions without any scrutiny.
Hobbes also provided a systematic answer to the questions as to why the sovereign was not
accountable to the multitude or why the sovereign was not accountable to the people. He ensured
that obligation applied and binding only to the multitude who were party to the contract. But the
sovereign, not being a party to the contract was not limited in its exercise of power by the terms of
the contract to covenant. So, human beings should obey the sovereign. Because they were party to
the contract. But the sovereign was constituted by the covenant. They were not a party to the
covenant or contract. Therefore, in its exercise of power, the sovereign was not limited by the terms
of contract or covenant.
Therefore, the terms of the contract were binding on the people. But the sovereign did not have any such obligation to the term sovereign. So, once the sovereign was constituted, the sovereign knew
best how to protect order, how to maintain peace, and in the protection of order and peace, the
sovereign was free to do anything without any scrutiny by the people. Even the sovereign was not
limited by the terms of the contract. Hobbes laid out a solid foundation for the absolutist form of
He provided limitless and unchecked power to the sovereign and it was free to do what it deemed
with for the maintenance of order and preservation of peace which would provide the condition for
an individual to lead their civic life without any threat to life and liberty. Thus, the responsibility of
the sovereign was to maintain order and peace and to maintain order and peace the sovereign was
free to do anything without any public scrutiny. The sovereign was accountable, according to
Hobbes, to his conscience or god. Although Hobbes imagined a minimalist sovereign yet it was
always contrary in practice.
Hobbes thought that the sovereign was absolute and exercise limitless power would govern little
and leave maximum out of life for the individual to govern themselves. So, the only rule of the
sovereign was to maintain order and peace. Everything should be left for the individuals to lead
their life and pursue their desire that would lead to prosperity. That would lead to industry, trade,
business, and overall development of life peacefully without any threat to their life and liberty.
Hobbes imagined the sovereign would be minimalist. But this is contrary to the actual practices. All
sovereign and government would try to accumulate more power or unchecked or unaccountable
power. And he left a little scope for the individuals to question the acts of the sovereign. It was only
in the condition when the sovereign failed to defeat the emergence of an alternative rival group or
faction that an individual had the right according to Hobbes, to revolt against the sovereign. So,
there was no question of disobeying the sovereign. And no question of submitting the acts of the
sovereign to any public scrutiny.
It was only possible when the sovereign failed the primary responsibility of maintaining order and
peace that was checking or defeating the rise of any rival groups in the territory. So, when the states
or sovereign failed to do that then the individual had the right to replace the existing sovereign with
the one which could control the rival factions, rival groups and institute peace and order in the
society. Otherwise, human beings must submit to the will of the sovereign unconditionally and
without any scrutiny. According to Alan Ryan, it was based on the twin principles. First, for
Hobbes, nothing that the sovereign did be unjust. As the sovereign was representative of the will of
the multitude could not do wrong. All the actions that the sovereign committed was for the preservation of peace and order. And that is
the reason that of the state. So, the reason for the state was best known to the state, not to the people
or not to the government. Accordingly for Hobbes, the sovereign as representative of the multitude
could not do any wrong. There was no question of scrutinizing or holding the sovereign power
accountable. In fact, not obeying the sovereign would be injustice, according to Hobbes. Second,
people’s obligation to the sovereign was based on their own free will. Hence, they must abide by the
sovereign without any scrutiny. That is his theory of political obligation.
(Refer Slide Time: 37:50)
Now, we will move on to a critical assessment of Hobbes’s political thoughts. In Hobbes, we have
the new science and paradigm of politics that was much more systematic, unambiguous, and
materialistic. This you can see as a very different approach to politics than in Plato, Aristotle, and
Machiavelli. It was very systematic in the sense that the whole idea of the sovereign was based on
the understanding of human nature or ‘state of nature’. And why sovereign should have absolute
power was explained in a very systematic and materialistic manner or unambiguous term.
Thus, influenced by Euclidean geometry, Hobbes wanted the theory of politics to be based on a selfexplanatory proposition. Therefore, Hobbes claimed to be the first political scientist. Before them,
there was a kind of subjective contemplation or speculation about the political life of the individual
in the state or police. But Hobbes claimed to have a first systematic or scientific understanding of
politics. And this was based on his reading of Euclidean geometry which he considered as the
master science. Therefore, it played excessive importance in defining something.
Let us start with human nature which he defined as a matter in motion in pursuit of desire and
guided by aversion. That means, the human being as a matter in motion would constantly pursue desire and this desire was insatiable one after the other. So, this understanding and definition of
human nature were very materialistic and determini
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