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

by Thomas Hobbes

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How important is Hobbes' concept of government as a social contract in Leviathan?

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According to Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, the natural state of man is warfare, which makes life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This was a consequence of the basic equality of men in faculties, as well as their ambitions and mutual mistrust. But just as inherent in men as these characteristics was a desire for self-preservation, and so men entered into a social contract to create a government that would impose laws that would be the basis for civil society:

The first law of nature is to seek the peace and follow it. The second, a necessary means to the first, isthat a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth as for Peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this [natural] right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himselfe.

People must be willing to have the same restraints imposed on them that they would like to impose on everyone else. In return, Hobbes argued, the people agreed not to interfere with this sovereign power in the execution of its duties, which, after all, consisted of protecting them from each other. As long as the sovereign protected them, they were obligated to obey. From the natural state of man, then, Hobbes deduces a scientific origin for government, founded on an agreement between the ruler and the ruled. This scientific, and largely naturalistic view of society led to accusations of atheism. He has also been vilified for his apparent endorsement of an absolute sovereign, though his writings must be considered in the context of the chaos of the English Civil War, which was when they were written. By supporting absolute monarchy, but not, as some of his contemporaries did, by divine right, he managed to anger defenders of absolute and constitutional government.

For these reasons, Hobbes' concept of government as a social construct in Leviathan was radical for the time, but also a good reflection of the state of England at the time he wrote it. 

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