Hobbes’s Leviathan: A Critique of the Omnipotent Sovereign

BY ERIK KHZMALYAN 

For centuries, Thomas Hobbes’s pessimistic outlook on the state of nature has been one of the dominant theories in political philosophy. Hobbes vehemently argued that the state of nature is so violent and brutal that humans should do everything possible to avoid it—even if it requires giving up all of one’s individual freedoms and letting the sovereign take full control of everything. In the state of nature, Hobbes believed, humans have a natural desire to fight one another. Hobbes wrote, “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre as is of every man against every man.” Hence, Hobbes introduced the Leviathan, a biblical monster metaphorically represented as the state, ready to subdue the inherent pride and selfishness of its rebellious citizens in order to evade the possibility of the state of nature.

Hobbes articulated that humans are inherently selfish, power seeking, and have an intrinsic appetite for material possessions. Depicting human beings as fundamentally malevolent, Hobbes claimed that there would always be conflicts and clashes of interests resulting in violent deaths. Therefore, his primary solution was the idea of Commonwealth—a complex society formed by the citizenry led by a supreme ruler to repress violence.

the Hobbesian state of nature is absolutely erroneous.

While it is true to some extent that humans have an insatiable appetite for power, I shall argue that the assumption that sovereign with an absolute power is a safeguard against the Hobbesian state of nature is absolutely erroneous. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Hobbes’s sovereign might pose more threats to citizens than the state of nature he described. Consequently, Hobbes put too much faith in his sovereign and did not provide a proper solution to containing the violence that he believed existed in the state of nature.

Hobbes constructed his argument on a hypothetical state of nature which is in a condition of a perpetual anarchy. To overcome the misery of the state of nature, as mentioned above, Hobbes proposed a rather radical alternative—a central authority with unchallenged power that dictates the moral and legal laws of the society. In short, Hobbes’s sovereign, whether a man or an assembly, is the head of the state with an unlimited power.

The main error in Hobbes’s reasoning, as Bertrand Russel observes, is that he is too impatient to cut the Gordian knot. This is where Hobbes’s main shortcoming becomes evident—he tries to solve the problem of the state of nature in a forceful and radical way and fails to consider other solutions that might be better alternatives to the despot in total charge of the state.

Before identifying the problems with Hobbes’s sovereign it is essential to understand what his hypothetical Commonwealth looked like. In Leviathan, Hobbes provides a detailed description of his Commonwealth and recognizes the eminent role of the sovereign in inhibiting the citizens from falling back into the state of nature.

With the creation of the state, individuals get deprived of their freedoms for the sake of their self-preservation.

Being a rigid materialist, Hobbes believed that life is simply a motion of the limbs, therefore, automata have an artificial life. It follows from the latter point that Hobbes’s Commonwealth is an artificial entity—Leviathan is a creation of art. The creation of the state, according to Hobbes, happens as humans escape the evils of the state of nature to become subjects to a central authority. The formation of the state is artificial and citizens get together through a social contract. Hobbes argued that ultimately citizens agree to choose a sovereign body to end the universal war. With the creation of the state, individuals get deprived of their freedoms for the sake of their self-preservation. The final goal, Hobbes articulates, is to end the chaos that can be caused by our love of liberty and endless desire to dominate others.

Hobbes explains the reasons that make the state and the sovereign artificial. He claims that the human cooperation is not natural like the cooperation that exists between ants and bees. The latter, according to Hobbes, lack the reason to criticize the government and don’t have a natural inclination toward competition and honor. Hence, their agreement is natural unlike the one achieved between humans through covenant.

Hobbes’s artificial creation of the sovereign is known as a nominalist theory of the state. Hobbes’s nominalism concludes that without a proper political organization, humans that are in the same territory do not naturally make up the human community. This nominalist theory of the authority suggests that citizens give the sovereign the power to act in their names by transferring to him or her something intangible such as their power, will, rights, or even persons.

Hobbes’s Leviathan would embody justice and his or her decisions couldn’t be challenged or questioned by anyone.

As Hobbes vehemently argued, humans alarmed by anarchy choose to form a despotic government. After the formation of the Commonwealth, the sovereign is in charge of the property laws and more importantly the moral laws. Hobbes’s Leviathan would embody justice and his or her decisions couldn’t be challenged or questioned by anyone. Hobbes gave his sovereign an enormous amount of power—upon the sovereign there can be no constitutional checks.

It is important to recognize that Hobbes’s sovereign is permanent. This means that citizens cannot disobey or rebel by changing their allegiance. The only way that this would be possible is if the sovereign himself gives permission to breach the covenant. Moreover, the sovereign has the right to determine his successor without the permission of the citizenry. However, there are two rights that citizens cannot be deprived of. First, the citizens have the right to self-defense, as it is an indivisible part of the self-preservation. Secondly, the covenant can’t require the citizens to give up their rights to protect themselves—it can’t be abandoned by transferring it to the sovereign.

The sovereign, the supreme legislator, has an absolute monopoly over lawmaking. Citizens cannot blame the Leviathan for injustice because, Hobbes writes, that’s part of the covenant authorized by the citizens. Consequently, the sovereign is immune to punishment.

Nicholas II was a perfect epitome of Hobbes’s sovereign.

There are many problems regarding Hobbes’s radical alternative to anarchy. First and foremost, the state described by Hobbes can become so horrific as to make the state of anarchy more desirable for the citizens. Based on historic events, it’s fair to claim that Hobbes’s Commonwealth with its all-powerful sovereign is doomed to failure. The conditions under the Hobbesian sovereign can become so miserable that citizens will choose to rebel without even caring about the alternative—even if the alternative turns out to be disastrous too. For instance, there are several examples in history that put this point into perspective—such as the Russian Revolution of 1917. Life in Russia was so brutish under the “Russian Leviathan” Nicholas II that people chose to live in temporary anarchy. He and his entire family were assassinated by Communists. Nicholas II was a perfect epitome of Hobbes’s sovereign.

I argue that the world would be beyond miserable if it applied the Hobbesian submissive attitude universally. It has historically been true that governments without checks and balances shift towards unprecedented totalitarianism, which can be worse than Hobbesian state of anarchy. Since in Hobbes’s Commonwealth the sovereign does not have a fear of rebellion he or she will make himself or herself personally even more superior. The sovereign will enrich himself at the expense of his citizens. He will oppress any economic or intellectual ideas that might slightly challenge his authority. Again, conditions can become so unbearable under Hobbes’s sovereign that citizens will end up preferring temporary anarchy.

Another obvious shortcoming in Hobbes’s Commonwealth led by a supreme ruler is the assumption that, for some reason, all citizens have the same interests. Let’s assume after forming the Commonwealth the sovereign takes control and leads the state. Hobbes is so concerned with the danger of anarchy that he missed some of the nuances than can lead to chaos right after the formation of the state. It is unclear what made Hobbes believe that the interests of his sovereign would necessarily be identical with those of his citizens. Especially in times of war, citizens tend to have extremely varying opinions and interests and, as Bertrand Russell writes, during crises advocating for a submission to the absolute power is not the best way to avoid the anarchy. Moreover, Russell argues that it should have been obvious to Hobbes that the English Civil War could have been prevented if power had been shared in England.

To shed light on the evident flaw in Hobbes’s radical solution and to argue that his remedy can lead to counterproductive results, I will elaborate on a hypothetical example. Assume I’m the most prominent economist in the United States. I spend days thinking of the growing economic inequality and try coming up with a solution. By applying Hobbesian logic, I would abolish the capitalist system, establish a communist state, deprive the rich of their possessions and distribute it among the people. With this radical approach I would not only ruin America’s economy but also cause an international disorder. This example is not an over exaggeration since it perfectly illustrates Hobbes’s overly radical solution to anarchy, which is totalitarianism.

As mentioned above, the chances that the sovereign would lead to a situation akin to one it replaced are very high. After all, Hobbes’s sovereigns are “men from their very birth…” as he writes. Like all other men the sovereign would be primarily concerned with his survival and be worried about his security. In order to guarantee his own safety and make sure that his subjects are loyal and obedient, he would do anything necessary to eliminate potential rivals by destroying the organized opposition. Through these methods the sovereign wouldn’t be able to avoid the inevitable: he would create an atmosphere of fear and violence. Not the best alternative to the state of nature. If, according to Hobbes, human beings are inherently ferocious, they consequently are prone to making dubious moral judgments. Given Hobbes’s pessimistic account of men, one can argue that the sovereign chosen by the populace would reflect its citizenry. Hence, if Hobbes is right, the sovereign too, would more likely be violent, morally unjust, and selfish.

Hobbesian notion of a sovereign with a self-perpetuating power is not an essential element in maintaining a stable society.

Hobbes’s Leviathan, as I pointed out, has a self-perpetuating power. Hobbes was adamant that no state can function adequately without this attribute. The sovereign in Hobbes’s Commonwealth is destined to appoint his successors. Again, to show the evident exaggeration and radicalism in Hobbes’s vision of the self-perpetual power, it is essential to consider several historic events.

England, for instance, was governed effectively from 1689 on by a sovereign without the power of self-perpetuation. King William III did not have the right to choose his successor. Moreover, the members of parliament were forbidden to appoint their successors as well. This example proves that the Hobbesian notion of a sovereign with a self-perpetuating power is not an essential element in maintaining a stable society.

There are several factors that can lead to the downfall of Hobbes’s Commonwealth due to the unchecked power and political hubris of his sovereign. And this especially would become possible during military confrontations and other international disputes. Perhaps one of the best examples that illustrates how greedy and overconfident “Leviathans” can become is Napoleon, whose inflated ego led to disastrous outcomes.

Having conquered much of Europe, Napoleon targeted Russia. Due to the poor calculation and his extreme presumptuousness, Napoleon began losing 5000 men per day of his Grande Armee consisting of 400,000. The brutal Russian winter, desertion, starvation, and suicides were to cost Napoleon dearly. Eventually he had to abandon his own army in Poland and return to Paris. His retreat from Moscow became known as one of the greatest military disasters in history and, of course, enabled Napoleon’s gradual fall. France entered a new era of a political chaos.

Another important factor that is worth considering is that it is extremely speculative to claim that humans would be willing to exit the state of nature and immediately become subjects of some authoritarian despot. Since Hobbes argues that the sovereign has to be omnipotent and should control man’s personality and fate entirely, he will impose artificial regulations conflicting with man’s personal essence. A Hobbesian Commonwealth led by the sovereign doesn’t seem to be a reliable alternative for citizens to immediately prioritize it over anarchy.

As a citizen I would think twice before accepting Hobbes’s conditions under the omnipotent ruler. I’m going to go as far as to argue that I would probably consider remaining in the state of nature. One of the main problems that would make me rather hesitant in joining the Hobbesian Commonwealth is the fact that Hobbes identified the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice with the sovereign. To point out the obvious, what one man considers good another man finds evil. I believe some of the components of morality cannot be applied universally. Hobbes’s sovereign, as the ultimate source of “justice” and “goodness,” would eventually cause havoc by imposing his own perception of morality upon his citizenry.

The fundamental problem with Hobbes’s sovereign is that the he refuses to acknowledge those rights by demanding a complete subordination.

Under this absolutism put forward by Hobbes, justice and freedom not only would be extremely limited but also abolished. In a totalitarian system, the regime, in this case the sovereign, objectifies its citizens by stripping off their individual characters. Hobbes demands that citizens give up some of their inalienable rights which they possess simply because of being humans. Some of the natural rights that humans are granted from their birth are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The latter rights can’t be earned or distributed according to our abilities. The fundamental problem with Hobbes’s sovereign is that the he refuses to acknowledge those rights by demanding a complete subordination.

As I argued throughout this paper, Hobbes, by offering a solution to the state of nature, increases the likelihood of opening Pandora’s Box—that is, through his radical remedy of the omnipotent sovereign, Hobbes gave mankind a lot of new problems that perhaps he did not expect to occur.

After humans come together to create the Hobbesian Commonwealth and give the sovereign unlimited disposal over his subjects, it can be assumed that they are also expected to change their nature. The sovereign wants a new man who is obedient and refrains from rebelling. Hobbes, I believe, did not take into account the resistance that humans would eventually develop against the total control. Soon a conflict would arise between citizens having a disdain for the existing totalitarianism and the despot trying to enforce the new reality. And since the sovereign wouldn’t be able to control each citizen individually, he would have to rely on functionaries. The immediate result, I claim, would be the repression of the citizenry.

If Leviathan decides to torment and maltreat people in order to enforce his own moral and legal principles, a good portion of the population discontented by the devastating circumstances, would undoubtedly resort to violence in hopes of toppling him. The Hobbesian Commonwealth would soon find itself trapped in a civil war. History has set numerous examples when radicalized populations did indeed embrace temporary anarchy in order to overthrow their all-powerful sovereigns, and there are no good reasons to believe that Hobbes’s Commonwealth would be an exception.

Even Machiavelli recognized the importance of limiting the sovereign’s rule.

To advance this point further, it is important to examine Machiavelli’s political views on the sovereign. Like Hobbes, he advocated for a strong ruler who would effectively maintain the state’s strength. The ruler, Machiavelli argued, is better off when feared than loved, since love is something fickle that can’t be relied on. However, Machiavelli warned that the sovereigns should be rather cautious not to be hated by the populace. Sovereigns, according to Machiavelli, can avoid the possibility of being hated by the citizenry, for instance, by not meddling in people’s properties, and as he puts it, citizens will likely to forget their father’s death more quickly than the loss of their patrimony. A sovereign not in charge of people’s properties is the exact antithesis of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Even Machiavelli recognized the importance of limiting the sovereign’s rule.

Hobbes did not provide an adequate solution to the state of nature. He created a false choice between anarchy and despotism. The state he describes is similar to George Orwell’s dystopian society where the “Big Brother”—in Hobbes’s case the sovereign—has eradicated the elementary attributes of a free society. In his fictional society Orwell describes how the citizens transferred their individual loyalty, personal beliefs, and basic freedoms to the government. I highly doubt that most citizens would find the latter conditions more appealing than the ones in the state of nature.

Another argument that can be held against Hobbes’s idea of an all-powerful sovereign and the claim that the sovereign is a safeguard against universal war is the fact that Hobbes does not mention a single word about the relations between various Leviathans except war! If each society forms its own Commonwealth and chooses an omnipotent leader but still remains in the state of nature on an international level then it is right to conclude that wars would still be unavoidable. How should Leviathans behave in international anarchy? Based on Hobbesian reasoning, Leviathans would distrust each other and each of them would try to make his moral compass universal. This is a perfect recipe for perpetual wars ultimately paving a road to universal destruction.

Out of chaos rose Hitler—the new democratically elected leader of Germany who would soon become one of the notorious figures in human history.

To finalize my thoughts on a Hobbesian sovereign not being a proper solution to the state of nature I’ll point out one of the prime examples of the recent history—the rise of Hitler. After WWI Germany was paralyzed both economically and politically. The state was on the brink of social disaster as chaos and disorder became inseparable parts of the German society. Even the most moderate citizens embraced the idea of having a strong ruler who would end the turmoil in Germany. Out of chaos rose Hitler—the new democratically elected leader of Germany who would soon become one of the notorious figures in human history. In a nutshell, he ended the anarchy temporarily but eventually caused an unprecedented havoc. And this was mainly because his power was absolute, he was regarded as infallible, and eliminated the state’s opposition by harshly oppressing those who dared to disagree with him.

As I provided in my argument, Hobbes offers a radical alternative to the state of nature. His omnipotent sovereign is prone to creating a situation similar to one it endeavored to replace. By giving enormous power to his sovereign, Hobbes argued that it is the only option that citizens have in order to evade the war of the state of nature. As I articulated in this paper, that is not necessarily true. All-powerful rulers, if unchecked, are incredibly likely to create conditions that would make citizens prefer temporary anarchy.  Hobbes put too much faith in his sovereign believing that he would have the necessary moral and intellectual capacity to contain the endless violence of his subjects. He did not, however, consider the likelihood of citizens developing an aversion towards totalitarianism and resorting to violence to overthrow the abusive sovereign. Finally, even if the supreme ruler turned out to be someone impeccable, he wouldn’t be able to apply the same methods internationally, since all “Leviathans” would vigorously try making their moral and legal principles universal. And if that’s the case, the world would be in perpetual war and chaos.

Works Cited

Buchheim, Hans. “Life Under Totalitarian Rule.” Totalitarian Rule: Its Nature and Characteristics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1968. 38-55. Print.

David, Saul. “Napoleon’s Failure: For the Want of a Winter Horseshoe.” BBC.com. N.p., 9 Feb. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16929522>.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Leviathan. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The Online Literature Library. Web. 09 Dec. 2015. <http://literature.org/authors/hobbes-thomas/leviathan/chapter-13.html>.

John, Watkins W. N. “How the Sovereign Is Made.” Hobbes’s System of Ideas; a Study in the Political Significance of Philosophical Theories. London: Hutchinson, 1965. 157-62. Print.

Macpherson, C. B. “The Self-perpetuating Sovereign.” The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964. 90-95. Print.

McNeilly, F. S. “The Absolute Sovereign.” The Anatomy of Leviathan. New York: Macmillan, 1968. 231-40. Print.

Nicolo, Machiiavelli. “Concerning Cruelty And Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared.” Machiavelli: The Prince: Chapter XVII. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince17.htm>.

Russell, Bertrand. “Hobbes’s Leviathan.” A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. 546-57. Print.

About the Author 

Erik Khzmalyan holds a B.A. in Political Science from Southwest Minnesota State University. His research interests include Middle East Politics, American Foreign Policy, and Political Philosophy.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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