Does Hobbes give the sovereign too much power?

“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or State (in Latin, Civitas), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body (…)."[1]
Thomas Hobbes is certainly one of the most controversial and frequently contested political philosophers of modern times. Although Hobbes is sometimes called “the founder of the twentieth-century totalitarianism”, Kleinerman believes him to be “a founder of liberalism”[2]. This distinction clearly shows how disparate reactions to Hobbes’s theory may be found among the political philosophers. He undoubtedly left a significant mark on modern understanding of political theory and the highly debatable issues of political power, system of governance or the human nature.
A large part of modern political philosophy is, to a certain degree, a response to or a critique of Hobbes’s works. Even the twentieth century political theorists, like Gauthier, Kleinerman, Van Mill and others[3], still occupy themselves largely with readings of Thomas Hobbes. In fact, the twentieth century witnessed a distinctive and exceptional increase in scholarship on Hobbes’s Leviathan and his political philosophy in general. Their critique will hereby play a significant role in assessing the question of attribution of power to the sovereign in Hobbes’s Leviathan; be it rightly absolute and inseparable, and thus perhaps authoritarian/totalitarian or rather more liberal and deradicalised.
The aim of this essay is to indicate that Hobbes rightly equips the sovereign with absolute power thus enabling him to provide the society with security essential to their liberty. Hobbes’s understanding of power and its undivided concentration in the hands of the sovereign seem to stem, as a somewhat logical consequence, from his notion of ever self-interested human nature that in Hobbes’s opinion, according to George Kateb, always drives people to “self-intoxicated zeal, bigotry, and persecution”[4], which consequently hinder the conditions of “commodious living”[5]. This notion will be discussed in the first chapter of this essay, as it appears to be of fundamental importance to our understanding of power within Hobbes’s state.
The conception of “necessity of absolutism” and “its inevitability” will also be discussed here, particularly with reference to various attempts to liberalise and undemonise Hobbes’s political theory of absolutism[6]. The sovereign’s disposition to dominance over his people becomes Hobbes’s foundation of a political society, fundamentally endeavouring to achieve the common salus populi (the welfare of the people)[7]. Having established the basis for Hobbes’s understanding of human nature and the ubiquitous need for sovereign’s absolute power in order to guarantee secure living of his subjects, various forms of political power will be assessed. Hence, issues of sovereign’s absolute right to censor civil education, curb the freedoms of speech, opinion, public worship, and association as well as sovereign’s property rights will be discussed.
Van Mill seems to rightly note that:
“Perhaps the most enduring criticism of Hobbes’s political philosophy is that it provides for an absolute sovereign that poses a great threat to individual freedom.”[8]
This absolutism however, quite apparently stems from Hobbes’s understanding of human nature. Nature that is primarily oriented towards self-satisfaction and achieving people’s egoistic and narcissistic needs. Natural man, according to Hobbes, is fundamentally preoccupied with his self and ergo, all his actions stem from realisation of his needs and the probability of achieving them. This subsequently epitomises, what Kleinerman calls, “the novelty of Hobbes’s individualism”[9]. In his opinion, society propagated by Hobbes, is based on an individual human being with his needs and desires, rather than a mass of people. Hobbes even states that “so long as a man is in the condition of mere nature (…) private appetite is the measure of good and evil”[10], thus clearly stressing the significance of the individual.
Humans naturally seek to achieve their goals by maximising their power. Their drive for power seems to be the most basic human need, or what Hobbes calls “the general inclination of mankind”[11]. He then famously states:
“A perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. (…) Everyone, those with moderate and those with immoderate desires, is necessary pulled into a constant competitive struggle for power over others, or at least to resist his powers being commanded by others”[12].
This very struggle for power eventually leads people to many disputes, or even worse, to violent crimes, as “the only way you can acquire power is to master the powers opposed to yours”[13]. Macpherson thus claims in his introduction to Leviathan, that “every man’s power resists and hinders the effects of other man’s power”[14]. This incompatibility of men’s desires for power and their “propensity of violence against one another”[15]; of which Kleinerman wrote in his essay on “Hobbes’s Liberal Absolutism”, and which emanates from activation of those human desires, inevitably leads to Hobbes’s “perpetual war of every man against his neighbour”[16]. Hence, “the state of nature would become a ‘state of war’, even worse, a war of ‘all against all’”. Nonetheless, one needs to also acknowledge that this understanding of human nature is very frequently disputed. George Croom Robertson is only one of the political philosophers that argue that the “picture of selfish and anarchic tendencies in man (…) [were] too plainly exaggerated by design” which, in fact, was a simple result of Hobbes’s “temperament, incapable of entering into the nobler sides of human nature”[17]. Hobbes’s understanding of human nature is, therefore attacked as incorrect and degrading. Rousseau famously opposed Hobbes’s ideas by saying that he falsely degraded humans to ‘herds of cattle, each of which has a master, who looks after it in order to devour it”[18].
Hobbes, though, consistently strives to apply scientific rules of logic to his writings and hence claims that human nature presupposes the existence of state power “without which human beings will lead miserable lives in a perpetual state of war”[19]. However, this state – being a bulwark of civil liberties, may only be realised, according to Hobbes, by total submission of people’s rights and liberties to an institution of absolute sovereign. That being the case, Hobbes does not call for tyranny or any totalitarian system of governance. Instead, some consider his absolutism to be a merely logical consequence. Van Mill indicates that “his statements on absolute sovereignty are about logical consistency rather than the advocacy of tyranny”[20]. Macpherson, on the other hand notes:
“(…) the step immediately preceding the demonstration of the need for a sovereign able to overawe every individual is the state of nature, or natural condition of mankind”[21].
Consequently, we can speak of quite evident link between the magnitude of sovereign’s power and the nature of the human being. In fact this very absolutism appears to guard against full realisation of that destructive nature. Given the established human nature that essentially drives us to obtain our self-interested goals through maximisation of our powers and consequently constitutes the sheer preeminent threat of social unrest and civil war, Van Mill states that “all rational people will agree that a state [with its powers and restraints over citizens] is necessary for any form of decent human life”[22].
Total and unequivocal transfer of rights and liberties of the people into the hands of the sovereign may well seem excessively authoritarian, however, we should not overlook, as John Austin notices, the “[apparent] hatred of misrule, which actually should have made us rank Hobbes ‘with the ablest and most zealous of [tyranny’s] foes”[23]. Hobbes does not call for absolute tyranny but rather government with sufficient powers to secure peaceful living of all the subjects and avert the predicament of the state of nature. According to Kleinerman,
“undivided sovereign absolutism follows most logically from his argument that every state should be committed first and foremost to the perpetuation of peace”[24].
Concentration of powers in the hands of an absolute monarch, according to Hobbes, is then believed to be the most efficient way of securing peace within the society, and is meant to serve precisely this particular purpose. Postulating for security and peace, as the basic foundation of society, becomes a supreme and overarching political goal of the state authorities[25]. The sovereign is bestowed with supreme powers having been contracted into the office to avert the “miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war”[26] and the state of nature, essentially characterised by eternal strive for power and the looming threats of violence. The notion of security as the basis of liberty seems to be inescapable here, as we are unable to enjoy any civil liberties whatsoever without first securing peace. Even Carl Schmitt, so fiercely engaged in seeking an antidote to liberal states in his attempt to legitimise his totalitarian state, fails not to allow himself to conclude: “The Leviathan thus becomes none other than a huge machine, a gigantic mechanism in the service of ensuring the physical preservation of those governed”[27].
Hence, given the purpose of attributing the sovereign with all the powers for the sake of our security and ensuring peace rather than exercising them in tyrannical ways, we may follow James Fitzjames Stephen in saying that “it becomes obvious enough that absolute power and sovereign power are much less formidable than they look”[28]. In fact, Van Mill reminds us that in his understanding of Hobbes, once the civil peace is established and the threat of war does not exist “the best way to maintain a peaceful commonwealth is to leave people alone unless they are transgressing laws that preserve peace”[29]. This idea is very closely related to Hobbes’s notion of civil freedom, which will be discussed now.
Hobbes is often criticised for curbing our civil liberties and inalienable rights by depriving us of them in favour of the absolute sovereign. His absolute system of governance is sometimes believed to be incompatible with any liberal society whatsoever. It is also claimed: “the concentration of power puts personal liberty in peril of arbitrary actions by officials”[30]. However, I would like to join David Van Mill in his argument “that the suggestion that Hobbes’s absolutism is incompatible with liberty is false”[31].
The notion of state’s commitment to peaceful and prosperous living logically derives from Hobbes’s individualism[32]. We all wish for more than just the preservation of our life but rather its betterment. That being the case, every individual aims for progress and improvement of his condition. Yet, it is also important to realise that the body of Hobbes’s Leviathan, or the “mortal God”[33] as he calls him in chapter …, is built up of all of its subjects. Therefore, salus populi (the welfare or good of the people) becomes inevitably the salus regis (the good of the sovereign). Hobbes took a very clear stand on this in De Cive:
“(…) all the duties of rulers are contained in this one sentence, the safety of the people is the supreme law (…). [H]e, who being placed in authority shall use his power otherwise than to the safety of the people, will act against the reason of peace, that is to say against the laws of nature (…) the city was not instituted for its own, but for the subject’s sake (…). [But] by safety must be understood, not the sole preservation of life in what condition soever, but in order to its happiness (…) to furnish their subjects abundantly, not only with the good things belonging to life, but also with those which advance delectation.[34]”
Therefore, quite apparently the subject is not bound by any law that does not act in the interest of his safety and the civil law may only limit natural liberty of people if the unrestrained condition of liberty poses a threat of harm to others[35]. Yet again, we can note a direct correlation between the way power is bestowed on the state and the nature of mankind. Hence, having realised human desire for commodious living, “the state exists for the sake of individual self-preservation and further to create the conditions in which human beings might flourish and live contentedly”[36]. Therefore, I would again stress after Van Mill, that it is “incorrect to imply that Hobbes’s sovereign is a great threat to liberty”[37] as the sovereign is issued with so much powers as solely necessary for people’s welfare.
Perhaps the fiercest debate arises whilst discussing Hobbes’s attitude towards censorship, as a way of enforcing sovereign’s dominance over the subjects. Given the experience of modern liberal societies, it seems even inconceivable to defend of Hobbes’s authoritarianism in the face of his postulates for censorship of speech, opinion, public worship etc. Hobbes certainly gained a lot of enemies that would definitely agree with Victoria Kahn’s opinion:
“(…) the ideal Hobbesian subject is the docile, effeminised political subject of an absolute sovereign (…) that leads to appropriate subordination and reverence rather than insubordination and emulation”[38].
However, indicating the imperative significance of the notion of peace and subjects welfare as the basis for civil liberty may shed a slightly different light on this debate.  Van Mill strongly states that “such powers are provided, and are to be used, for a specific purpose, namely to preserve peace”[39]. Following the earlier deliberations on Hobbesian use of power, it becomes explicit to me that he attempts to strike a balance between allowing the subjects to thrive in his industry and the preservation of necessary conditions of peace. Accordingly, he advances towards an interventionist state that at the same time refrains from being repressive[40]. Moreover, he strongly denies the use of force as the efficient mean of enforcing peace. Hobbes advocates education as the most effective method of promoting commodious living and civil security:
“It is therefore the duty of those who have the chief authority, to root those [ideas such as regicide] out of the minds of men, not by commanding, but by teaching; not by terror of penalties, but the perspicuity of reasons”[41].
Political power in Hobbesian state is necessarily concentrated in the institution of the sovereign. This notion is fundamentally related to the nature of mankind always striving for meeting his egoistic ends and maximisation of personal power. People’s realisation of futility of the state of nature leads them inevitably to organise a society in which the state or the sovereign claims absolute powers in order to secure peace and safe commodious living. It has been frequently claimed that the fact of propensity of violence and preeminent existence of threat necessitates the shift of personal powers onto the sovereign. The welfare of people and their security sometimes requires various restrictions of our civil liberties. However, without having secured a safe and prosperous living the subjects would not have the chance of experiencing those liberties at all. Here the need for absolute power emerges to be quite apparent. Nonetheless, as Van Mill stated in his article frequently cited in this essay: “political power is necessary but because of this it is also necessarily dangerous”[42].

Matthew Machowski © 2009

[1] Hobbes, Thomas (1985) Leviathan (New York, NY: Penguin Books), p. 81
[2] Kleinerman, Benjamin A. (2006) 'Hobbes’s Liberal Absolutism', American Political Science Assosiation, Philadelphia, Pensylvania, September (available at: <> [Accessed: 2 December 2008], p. 3
[3] For their scholarship on Hobbes see: Gauthier, David, “Hobbes’s Social Contract” in Christopher W. Morris, The Social Contract Theorists, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 59-73; Kleinerman, Benjamin A., “Hobbes’s Liberal Absolutism” (for full reference see bibliography); Gauthier, David P., The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969)
[4] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 16
[5] Hobbes 1985, op. cit., p. 188
[6] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 21
[7] Hobbes refers here to Cicero’s rule of: “Salus populi suprema lex esto”. ("The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law"). For reference see: Cicero, De Legibus, book III, part III, sub. VIII
[8] Van Mill, David 'Civil Liberty in Hobbes’s Commonwealth', Australian Journal of Political Science, 37:1, p. 21
[9] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 8; also see: Macpherson, CB (1985) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
[10] Hobbes 1985, op. cit., p. 216
[11] ibid., p. 37
[12] ibid., p. 161
[13] ibid., p. 266
[14] ibid, p. 35
[15] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 8
[16] Hobbes 1985, op. cit.
[17] Tarlton, Charles D (2001) 'The Despotical Doctrine of Hobbes, Part I: The Liberalization of Leviathan', History of Political Thought, 22:4, 587-618, p. 595
[18] ibid., p. 590
[19] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 8
[20] Van Mill, op. cit., p. 33
[21] Macpherson, op. cit., p. 19
[22] Van Mill, op. cit., p. 26
[23] Tarlton 2001, op. cit., p. 593
[24] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 4
[25] ibid., p. 6
[26] Hobbes 1985, op. cit., p. 238
[27] ibid., p. 9
[28] Tarlton, op. cit., p. 594
[29] Van Mill, op. cit., p. 32
[30] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 2
[31] Van Mill, op. cit., p. 23
[32] Kleinerman, op. cit., p. 4
[33] Hobbes 1985, op. cit., p. 227
[34] Hobbes, Thomas (1972) Men and Citizen (New York, NY: Doubleday), pp. 258-9
[35] Van Mill, op. cit, p. 32
[36] Kleinerman, op. cit, p. 8
[37] Van Mill, op. cit, p.21
[38] Van Mill, op. cit, p. 24
[39] ibid., p. 23
[40] ibid., p. 25
[41] Hobbes 1972, op. cit, pp. 262-3
[42] Van Mill, op. cit, p. 36


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