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

Thomas Hobbes


(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.