Though the name of Thomas Hobbes is not always in the mouth of modern political theorists, his notion of sovereignty is. Hobbes believed in the absolute, unlimited, unchallengeable authority of the sovereign. This is the basic notion of sovereignty still in use, the standard by which States are measured. Those which do not measure up are "half-sovereign," "semi-sovereign," or have only "limited sovereignty." This standard defines the ongoing theoretical conversations, which in turn provide the basis for justifying government action.
This notion of unlimited, indivisible sovereignty is not the exclusive invention or possession of Hobbes, but he is the one who most clearly and thoroughly articulated and championed it. Later theorists continued to accept the notion, even when they disagreed on the identity of the sovereign. Today, the concept remains the same, though the location of the sovereignty has shifted.
Much that Hobbes wrote, including his major errors, is assumed to be true and, therefore, perpetuated. His errors can best be seen by examining how he derived and defended his beliefs. He claimed that his concept came from Natural Law and Biblical Law. We need to consider his approach to each.

Hobbes and Natural Law
Natural Law is law that is embedded in Nature and discerned by man. Since two people watching the same event are capable of seeing different things and coming to different conclusion, the content of Natural Law depends upon the perception of the observer. As Hobbes noted in a different context, "All Lawes, written and unwritten, have need of Interpretation." 15
As with all cases of interpretation, interpreters often disagree. What is blatantly self-evident to one is self-induced delusion to another.
Hobbes defined a Law of Nature as "a Precept, or generall Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life..." 16 Hobbes' fundamental law of Nature, from which all others are derived, is that a man must do everything to save his own life. All other laws of Nature are deduced by reasoning from this fundamental law. Hobbes made several mistakes in reasoning in formulating his definition.
1. Hobbes misconstrued and overestimated the place of Reason.
Hobbes lived and labored under a powerful illusion concerning Reason. He was convinced that Reason was the ultimate determiner of Truth, "For he that Reasoneth aright in words he understandeth, can never conclude an Error." 17
Reason, however, must be given a starting point and must be given rules of procedure. It can never serve as its own starting point. Nor can it ever define the way it is to be used. Otherwise all reasoning becomes circular.
From different starting points, with the same rules of procedure, or from the same starting point, with different rules of procedure, the same person will reach different conclusions. With both different starting points and different rules of procedure, the same individual will reach even more varied conclusions.
Is it possible for reasonable people to disagree? Yes, because both Reason and those who use it have their limits. The information available from which to make a decision is always incomplete. Hobbes did not think it possible for reasonable people to disagree, "For all men by nature reason alike, and well, when they have good principles. For who is so stupid, as both to mistake in Geometry, and also to persist in it, when another detects his error to him?" 18
From culture to culture, and even from house to house, all men do not reason alike, and all men do not reason well, not even when they have good principles. Hobbes begs the question of whose reason shall determine which principles are good, and which are not.
In many respects, human Reason is the child of its time and its setting. It can be used to justify or condemn, to preserve or destroy. It is a servant of all kinds of motives.
The rhetorical question Hobbes raised provides an excellent illustration of the limits of Reason in life. Hobbes asked, "For who is so stupid, as both to mistake in Geometry, and also to persist in it, when another detects his error to him?" Unfortunately, one answer is "Hobbes himself."
Hobbes wrote other works besides Leviathan. "The De Corpore, the exposition of his scientific materialism, was published in 1653. Unfortunately, it contained a rash mathematical adventure. Hobbes claimed to have squared the circle, which drew him into a long and fierce controversy with the Savilian professor of mathematics at Oxford - Wallis. Hobbes was wrong from the beginning but he kept up the fight with pamphlet and counterpamphlet giving himself away more and more hopelessly as he went on till he was ninety years old. His love for geometry was greater than his knowledge." 19
Error and stubbornness appear to be common human attributes, perhaps even the result of some Natural Law. Hobbes is not alone, but error and stubbornness seem to be their strongest among those who pride themselves on their intelligence and knowledge.
2. Hobbes overextended the role of Science.
Hobbes was so enamored with Reason that he thought Science was the way to understand life. Science can be very helpful in understanding many things about life, but it is useless in understanding life itself.
Hobbes approached government as though he were a biologist studying a living being. He called human government "Leviathan" because he thought it should be understood as if it were a living creature. For example, he writes, "I shall speak of the parts Organicall, which are Publique Ministers." 20 Elsewhere he informs us "Of the Nutrition, and Procreation of a Common-wealth," 21 and its many other biological aspects.
There is no denying that there are living beings involved in government, but government itself is an inorganic, manufactured item. It is not an Artificial Man. It is not a Man at all.
In Tolstoy's analysis, Hobbes would have thrown in his lot with the Germans, for "...a German bases his self-assurance on an abstract idea: science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman's self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman's self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organized state in the world, and on the fact that, as an Englishman, he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully. But a German's self-assurance is the worst of all, more inflexible and repellent than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which is his own invention, but which for him is absolute truth." 22
3. Hobbes mischaracterized the nature of man.
"The Leviathan is based on the assumption that the first law of man's nature is to seek peace and that there is nothing for which it is worth while even to risk one's life." 23 Hobbes saw self-preservation as the foundation of all human relationships. He claimed that, by definition, every Law of Nature is a "Precept...by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life..." 24
Darwin and his followers would have no problem with that, and, on the surface, it does seem characteristic of many, if not most, people. Nonetheless, it is a false assumption. It is not characteristic of all people.
The act of self-sacrifice, for a variety of reasons, is a normative part of the human experience. Every culture exalts and honors those who have chosen to give their lives for the good of another, for the good of their family, for the good of their people, their country, or their cause. If there were a culture that did not, it would not exist for long. No one would fight to preserve it.
Contrary to Hobbes, self-preservation is not the highest value in decision making. Most people would say there are some things more important than their own individual lives, and that there are some things worse than their own individual death.
People risk death to establish and keep empires. Subject peoples risk death to escape them. Every combatant in every war has made a decision that life, i.e. personal self-preservation, is NOT the highest goal/value. Each combatant is willing to risk losing his life for some higher value - be it duty or booty, glory or honor, love of country, family, or liberty, or simply escape from punishment or boredom.
There may well be a sub-culture populated only by those who always place their own individual existence above all other considerations. Perhaps Hobbes has identified such a sub-culture in Leviathan, but it requires others outside its membership to die for its defense. Nevertheless, the defining characteristic that Hobbes claimed for all Natural Law is not true. The foundational assumption on which his entire notion of sovereignty rests is false.
Hobbes seems to have projected his observations of certain power elites on to all humanity. He seems to have done it in other cases as well: "So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death." 25 Are all men insatiably craving after power? While this may be true of Leviathan and his servants, where is the evidence that it is true of all mankind?
4. Hobbes distorted the nature of Government.
Hobbes claimed that individuals gave up the right to self-government when they voluntarily chose to associate themselves together. "The mutuall transferring of Right, is that which men call Contract." 26 Such a social contract, however, is an admitted fiction. It never happened, and it is unrelated to how people actually find themselves under the rule of a state.
As Hobbes observed in a more realistic moment, "there is scarce a Common-Wealth in the world whose beginnings can in conscience be justified." 27 Some people forced other people to obey them. Preferring the fiction to the reality, Hobbes justified all government action on the basis of what never happened. "Whatsoever is commanded by the Soveraign Power, is as to the Subject (though not alwayes in the sight of God) justified by the Command; for of such command every Subject is the Author." 28 In freely choosing the sovereign, each person had authorized him to do whatever he thought best.
Following the fictitious transfer of the right of self-government, "...the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a Common-Wealth, in latine Civitas. This is the Generation of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence." 29 "For by Art is created that great Leviathan...which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul... " 30
The state as an Artificial Man is also a legal fiction. Likewise Soveraignty as an Artificiall Soul. That is, these things are not true, even if the Law demands that people behave as though they were. The mandated myth, enforced by the police power of the state, includes the related concepts of social contract, personhood of the state, and sovereignty as soul.
The imposition of these legal fictions has consequences for those who must obey, and also for those who command. For those who must obey, it does not matter whether or not they believe these myths or want the government that rules over them. If they do not submit, they will be punished with loss of property, freedom, or life.
For those who command, these legal fictions ultimately put Leviathan's servants, in their official capacity, above the Law. So long as they are doing what the state says to do, they are not individually accountable for their actions. The actions are those of the Artificial Man, who is the god to be obeyed.
Many modern governments may find it necessary to eliminate individual accountability for officials so that they can function the way they do, but it is not necessary for every kind of government. For thousands of years, individuals in government were held personally accountable for their decisions and the results. This is still the case in various places in the world today. If the Artificial Man does not really exist, then the decision makers are personally accountable for their own decisions.
What would the will of the people be in this regard? Would it be that the Sovereign can do wrong? Or would it be that all officials be held personally accountable for their decisions involving finances, property, and people's lives?
Hobbes is again mistaken when he says that the state comes into existence for the protection and defence of the people. That may be a factor for some states, but it is certainly not true of all. Some come into being for the exploitation and destruction of the people. Those who rule through the state have many goals that do not include the welfare of the people.
5. Hobbes mischaracterized War and Peace.
"Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warrre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For Warre, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together; So the nature of War, consisteth not in actually fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace." 31
Hobbes makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of war in explaining that it is a condition of hostility and a disposition towards conflict, whether or not military battles are taking place. There is more to peace than the immediate absence of such battles. There must be something or someone who insures that absence.
Hobbes also knew of La Guerra Fria, the Cold War between Christendom and Islam, that was part of the centuries long conflict between irreconcilable world systems. There were times when the two sides were not actively slaughtering one another, but the conflict continued nevertheless. Yet despite Hobbes' contribution to our understanding or war, he also substantially misrepresents it.
1) It is not true that people can only be at peace when there is a common power ruling over them. People living under different sovereignties can be at peace with one another. Hobbes' representation of war and peace actually requires that there be only one sovereign Power, one Leviathan, ruling over all the earth.
2) Living under a common feared power does not mean that people are at peace. Sometimes that common power makes war on its own people or on part of the people. How many people have been terrorized or slaughtered by the very Power that ruled over them?
Human history is filled with such rulers and empires. The people who are forced to live under them have no peace. To call, for example, Stalin's reign between the two World Wars a time of peace is to turn peace into something that few would ever desire.
3) People who are being killed in such times of "peace" sometimes decide that war is the only way to protect life. In war, usually at least one side believes it is fighting to preserve life. Because Hobbes thought that saving one's life was the highest human value, he denied the genuine possibility of such war or revolution. "For it can never be that Warre shall preserve life, and Peace destroy it." 32 He denied the legitimacy of such common human reasoning and motives to the contrary.
Hobbes and Biblical Law
Hobbes called all men to submit to Leviathan, basing his appeal on Natural Law and Biblical Law. As an interpreter of the Law, he distorted what is observable in Nature. He did the same with what is contained in the Bible.
1. The Nature of Leviathan
Hobbes saw the sovereign as "that Mortall God" to whom all men owe an almost unlimited allegiance. There was only one limit that Hobbes saw to that allegiance, what was necessary to gain eternal life. "For if the command of the Civill Soveraign be such as that it may be obeyed without the forfeiture of life Eternall; not to obey it is unjust." 33
Hobbes called this Mortall God "Leviathan," a powerful creature that the Bible speaks of in several places. There are other places in the Bible that do not use the name, but clearly refer to the same being.
The Lord asks Job, "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? ...If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering." 34 The Septuagint, Syriac and Arabic versions do not give "Leviathan" as a name, but translate it as "dragon". 35
Different Biblical commentators, both before and after Hobbes, have seen Leviathan as representative of the rulers of the nations. Adam Clarke said of the Biblical references that, "These are used allegorically without doubt for great potentates, enemies and persecutors of the people of God...R(abbi). D(avid). Kimchi says, leviathan is a parable concerning the kings of the Gentiles..." 36 Hobbes saw much the same and thought that the name fit.
At some point, however, Leviathan, or the physical or spiritual rulers it represents, rebelled against the Lord. What awaits Leviathan is destruction from the hand of the Lord. "In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword - his fierce, great and powerful sword - Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea." 37
In the Book of Revelation, though the name Leviathan does not appear, there are clear references to this same being. From a great battle that takes place in heaven, "The great dragon was hurled down -that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him." 38
In the Bible, Leviathan represents Satan, the adversary of God. He is not to be obeyed or imitated.
Jesus said to his disciples, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant." 39 Throughout the Bible, the king is supposed to be a servant, not a master.
2. The Nature of Human Government
Hobbes presents 1 Sam.8:11 as saying, "This shall be the Right of the King...", followed by a list of wilful actions. 40 The word he translates as "Right" [mishpat] is rendered differently by virtually all other translators. Their translations say, "This shall be the way (or manner, or custom) of the King".
In context, God was not commending or defending the king to the people. He was rebuking the people for desiring to submit themselves to a king. As He had just told Samuel, "it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king." When they realized their sin, "The people all said to Samuel, 'Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.'" 42
The Bible says the source of all authority is God: "...there is no authority except that which God has established...." 43 Hobbes maintained that "all Lawes, written and unwritten, have their Authority, and force, from the Will of the Common-Wealth..." 44 The Biblical position is different. It could be paraphrased to be: "All Lawes, written and unwritten, have their Authority, and force, from the Will of God."
The Bible records that people often choose to reject God's authority and establish "authorities" of their own, but God does not authorize this. Psalm 2 describes how God will bring judgment on "the kings of the earth...and the rulers" who do not recognize His authority. Proverbs 16:12 says that "It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, for a throne is established on righteousness."
Hobbes turned things around. He made Leviathan the unchallengeable, supreme authority. He even extended this to religious and moral teaching. "There is therefore no other Government in this life, neither of State, nor Religion, but Temporall; nor teaching of any doctrine, lawfull to any Subject, which the Governour both of the State and of the Religion forbiddeth to be taught: And that Governor must be one..." 45 In other words, the one who governs the State must govern the Religion as well, and no one should teach any doctrine that the ruler of the State disapproves.
The Bible presents a world where all human authority is divided and limited. It was by not submitting to the religion of the land that Daniel found himself in the lions' den, and Peter and John found themselves in jail. When King Uzziah presumed authority to do what he wanted in the Temple, God struck him with leprosy and the priests kicked him out. 46
Prophets, priests, and people all rebuke and defy the governmental sovereign when he goes beyond the limits of his authority and transgresses the law of God. For example, King Ahab wanted the property of Naboth for his own use. "But Naboth replied, 'The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.'" 47 Ahab killed Naboth to get the land, and the Lord sent Elijah the prophet to rebuke and pronounce judgment on him. 48 The core of the prophetic ministry is to teach the very doctrines that the rulers have rejected.
Hobbes claimed that, "there is no place in the world where men are permitted to pretend other Commandements of God, than are declared for such by the Common-Wealth. Christian States punish those that revolt from Christian Religion, and all other States, those that set up any Religion by them forbidden." 49 Hobbes may have correctly observed the sovereigns of his day, but this is not what the Bible teaches.
There would never have been a "Christian Religion" if those who initially believed in it had not disobeyed the religious and state authorities. "It was, for instance, general medieval doctrine that all princely acts which go beyond the moral purpose of the state were null and void." 50 Likewise, the people of Israel were continually forbidden to live according to the religious practices of the nations where they might find themselves. Most of the Church has never recognized the unlimited authority of the state.
3. The Nature of Law
"To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice." 51 In Hobbes' recapitulation of the development of human society, there was no Law before individuals joined themselves into distinct governed societies.
In seeming contradiction, Hobbes went to great lengths to observe and explain the various Laws of Nature as laws which apply to all men, regardless of the place, time, or circumstances. That would include, presumably, even those living in their most natural state before the creation of any Artificial Man. But is the situation different after people form distinct societies with different sovereigns? Do they no longer have any Natural Law obligations to each other?
In a strictly Biblical context, the situation that most clearly corresponds to Hobbes' time of "warre of every man against every man," is that of Cain and Abel. There was no common human Power over them. They had not formed a compact, covenant, or contract. Was there therefore then no Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice? God clearly pronounces judgment on Cain for having done Wrong, for having committed Injustice. Murder, at least, was wrong from the very beginning.
Likewise it is clear in the Bible that there are other laws governing human behavior that apply to all men, whether or not they live under the same human authority. All people are said to live under the authority of God. All people are said to have been given in their hearts, or conscience if you will, a knowledge of these laws. It is for breaking these laws that people are found guilty before God.
In a related matter, Hobbes maintained that, "The Soveraign of a Common-wealth, be it an Assembly, or one Man, is not Subject to the Civill Lawes...." 52 This is a very anti-Biblical position. The Bible teaches that all people, including the king, are under the authority of the law. In fact, the kings of Israel were required to personally write a copy of the law and read it daily, so that they wouldn't succumb to the temptation of thinking they were above the law.
"When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel." 53
Hobbes believed in the absolute sovereignty of human government. In the Bible, only God's sovereignty is absolute. Each belief produces its own form of morality.

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(go back)
What is National Sovereignty?
Where Does Sovereignty Come From?

Hobbes Reconsidered
Realpolitik Morality

One World, One Sovereign
Notes & Bibliography