Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil

by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The moral language utilized by Hobbes in his Leviathan was expressed by the precise vocabulary of geometry, empirical science, and physics. The mathematical and scientific study of politics adopted by Hobbes did not incorporate a value-free or ethically neutral perspective. Hobbes’s political ethical theory was grounded in a causal-mechanical and materialistic metaphysical theory. Hobbes’s mechanistic scientific model was explanatory of all existence, since the universe consisted of interconnected matter in motion. This complex political theory and set of ethical arguments were deduced from Hobbes’s pessimistic interpretation of human nature in the context of an original, or primitive, condition. It was in this highly unstable, anarchic, and violent state of nature that individuals competitively pursued their self-interests. Hobbes depicted with bleak realism “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The political ethics in Leviathan were justified primarily by the natural human egoistic motivation of fear of violent death, and secondarily by the passions for power and material possessions. Therefore, self-preservation was the most fundamental natural right and was the central reason for individuals to leave the state of nature and enter into commonwealths. Hobbes’s articulation of the normative egalitarian principle of universal natural rights was expressed in conjunction with his radical rejection of the principle of the divine right of kings. Hobbes’s rejection of moral objectivism was articulated in conjunction with his moral relativism, which claimed that the diverse corporeal natures of individuals were explanatory of the multiplicity of value judgments. Moral judgments were identified by a particular individual’s appetites and aversions, or mechanical movements toward or away from material objects. There was no summum bonum, or universal absolute common good, although the common evil to be avoided was violent death.

Hobbes expressed a political theory of authority that was justified by means of scientific, rational, and logical arguments, in lieu of traditional theories of political legitimacy based upon convention, theology, or the divine right of kings. Citizens of Hobbes’s prescribed commonwealth were bound by a social contract or by the superior power of the sovereign to obey all the government’s commands, regardless of the moral content of such commands or the intention of the sovereign. Hobbes’s core assumption of the natural insecurity of human life was linked to his prescription of an absolute monarchy or a highly centralized parliamentary body as the most desirable form of government.

Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In considering the “matter, forme, and power” of the commonwealth, or state, Thomas Hobbes does far more than describe governments as he finds them. His goal is to explain the origin of political institutions and to define their powers and right limits. To this end he draws an analogy between the art of nature, which produces humanity, and the art of humanity, productive of the commonwealth. In drawing the analogy he first explains humanity, giving to the description a thoroughly mechanistic bias. He then proceeds to explain the state as humanity’s artful creation, designed to put an end to the war of all against all.

The state, “that great Leviathan,” is but an “Artificial Man,” writes Hobbes. The sovereign is an artificial soul, the officers of the state are artificial joints, reward and punishment are nerves, and wealth and riches are strength. The people’s safety is the business of the artificial man; the laws are its reason and will; concord, its health; sedition, its sickness; and civil war, its death.

All human ideas originate in sense, according to Hobbes—that is, they are derived from sense impressions. All sensation is a result of external bodies pressing upon the sense organs. Imagination is “nothing but decaying sense,” the effect of sense impressions after the external body has ceased to press upon the organs. If one wants to emphasize the past cause of the impression, one calls the fading image a “memory” image. If one wants to emphasize the image as one not now related to any present cause, one calls it “fancy” or “imagination.”

Hobbes, led by his mechanistic psychology, denies content to such a term as “infinite.” He argues that when one says something is infinite one merely shows that one cannot conceive its boundaries. Consequently, such a term as “God” is used not to conceive any being but only to honor something incomprehensible.

Common names, such as “man,” “horse,” and “tree,” may be applied to a number of individual things, yet there is nothing universal but names. In making this claim Hobbes is denying the Platonic belief that individual objects share a certain common character, or universal, in virtue of which they are similar. According to Hobbes, then, reasoning is simply the manipulation—the addition and subtraction—of names.

The passions are the “interior beginnings of voluntary motions,” writes Hobbes. Given that Hobbes argues that everything can be understood in terms of bodies in motion, it is not surprising that even the emotions are, to him, simply motions inside the body. Motion toward something is desire; motion away, aversion. Hobbes defines the other passions in terms of these two basic motions.

After considering the intellectual virtues and defects, the two kinds of knowledge (knowledge of observed fact and the conditional knowledge of science), and the powers and manners of people, Hobbes turns his analytical mind to religion. Religion, he writes, is a human invention, the result of ignorance and fear. Religious power and dogma are used to serve the interests of the priests. Given these views, it is not surprising that Hobbes was constantly in trouble at home and abroad and was attacked from the pulpit for generations.

When Hobbes declares that people are by nature equal, he does so with no tone of ringing idealism. He means only that the differences among people are not so marked as are the similarities, and he means also that there is no natural sanction for one person’s assuming authority over another. People are similar, so sometimes two persons come to desire the same thing; if they cannot both enjoy the object of their desire, they become enemies and war over the object. According to Hobbes, fights have three principal causes: competition, diffidence, and glory. While people have no common power over them to keep them all in check, they are in “that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” There are many inconveniences to war, and the fact that in a state of war there is no injustice (since there is no natural law governing action) in no way makes that state of affairs satisfactory. In order to secure peace, people enter into certain agreements by which the people bring...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)