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

by Thomas Hobbes
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Does Hobbes's view of the state of nature apply to 2020? Do we need a Leviathan? If so, why and what form should this Leviathan take? If not, how can we adequately confront today's challenges without a Leviathan?

One could reasonably argue that Hobbes's view of the state of nature partially applies to 2020. If there were no governmental institutions in place, then it's likely that there would be the kind of anarchy and disorder that Hobbes identifies as characteristic of the state of nature. On the other hand, one could also argue that a Leviathan in this day and age is unnecessary. We can adequately confront today's challenges by improving democracy.

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In answering this question, it's important to acknowledge at the outset that the transition from the state of nature to a society governed by an absolute sovereign so vividly painted by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan is intended to be hypothetical.

This means that Hobbes isn't suggesting for one moment that there was ever a time in human history when people living in a society riven by internecine warfare and bloodshed came together and placed absolute power in the hands of a sovereign in order to establish law and order. He's simply putting forward a hypothesis that he believes provides a more realistic account of the psychological motivations that drive human beings to establish institutions of government.

Nonetheless, Hobbes's picture of the state of nature prior to the establishment of a sovereign power is sufficiently realistic to give us a reasonably accurate insight into what could conceivably happen in the absence of government.

Societies without government may not necessarily descend into the kind of bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of all against all, that Hobbes sees as the defining feature of the state of nature. Even so, one can reasonably surmise that without some kind of sovereign power, society would be a good deal less stable and more unsafe than it is at present.

If one wishes to see a real-life illustration of this, one can do a lot worse than to look at the recent history of Somalia in East Africa. Since warlords overthrew the president in 1991, the nation has become a fragile state, a country in which there is no sovereign power to speak of. If Hobbes were alive today he'd undoubtedly regard Somalia as the prime example of a state of nature desperately in need of an all-powerful sovereign.

Having said that, it's not necessarily the case that the kind of sovereign that Hobbes recommends—an absolute sovereign with virtually untrammeled power—would be able to restore law and order to Somalia or other real-life examples of failed states.

Why? Well, let us remember that Hobbes's state of nature only ends after the people come together and rationally decide to entrust their power to an absolute sovereign. And yet there's no sign whatsoever that anything of this kind could ever happen in a state like Somalia, where warring factions are constantly at each other's throats.

This is undoubtedly one of the weak points of Hobbes's theory; it isn't immediately apparent why men in a state of permanent conflict would suddenly choose to come together and agree among themselves to step outside a state of anarchy and establish institutions of government. Even allowing for the fact that Hobbes's account is, as we've seen, hypothetical, it still seems to come up short in terms of its evaluation of humans as rational actors when it comes to political society.

Leaders of populist movements see themselves in a quasi-Hobbesian light, imposing order and stability on societies which they believe to be threatened by chaos and anarchy. They may not be the kind of absolute sovereigns that Hobbes recommends in Leviathan, but that's certainly not for the want of trying.

One could argue, as many have done, that the appropriate response to the challenges of populism is to improve the quality of democratic institutions, to make them more responsive to people's needs. Over time, so the argument runs, such measures would increase confidence in liberal-democracy, making it much less likely that disillusioned masses will look towards populist parties to solve their problems.

If we accept this argument, then it would appear that Hobbes, insofar as he endorses the establishment of an all-powerful absolute sovereign, is part of the problem of contemporary democracy, rather than the solution.

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