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Essay: Hobbes’ Leviathan – a combination of the two political structures

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  • Published: 20 July 2022*
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Machiavelli divides all states into principalities or republics: rule by one with absolute authority or rule by more than one. Calling into question this dual categorization of statehood, Hobbes crafted a new political model, the Leviathan, by combining concepts of both principality and republic into a new political structure. Concerning how the Leviathan differs from a ‘true’ principality or a ‘true’ republic, one must examine the similarities and differences of each political approach to governance and how the Leviathan’s characteristics bears resemblance to and diverges from each distinction. Hobbes’ Leviathan is neither a complete resemblance to either of Machiavelli’s state categories, but rather a duality of elements from both principality and republic, as its overriding objective is to enforce the social contract and prevent society from submerging into the state of nature.

The Leviathan state resembles a principality as it gives absolute power to one political body, the sovereign. Hobbes applies the Biblical statement,“‘a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand,’” to his own political context, stating that “if there have not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England…these powers divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided and fallen into this civil war…” (Hobbes, ch 18, pgs. 115-116). The ‘civil war’ Hobbes refers to concerns his negative view of humans as self-interested and glory-seeking. In Hobbes’ theory on the state of nature, he holds the fundamental belief that everyone is equal in terms of mentality and physicality, that “from this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends” (ch 8, pg. 75). This view and mentality amongst individuals creates “envy and hatred,” a competitive and corruptive drive for motivation, and self-recognition, making all individuals vulnerable to the constant threat of ‘war’ (ch 17, pg. 108). In order to “get [oneself] out of the miserable condition of war,” individuals submit their power, their will and judgement, to an outside power, the Leviathan, by exchanging their own rights for Leviathan’s protection and self-preservation—one curtails their liberty in order to secure it (ch 17, pg. 106). Given that humans are always power-hungry, the ‘miserable condition’ of the state of nature, and the unlikelihood that men will adhere to the laws of nature, Hobbes stresses the act of giving power to one body, the Leviathan, as a logical and necessary means to preserve oneself and limit the fear of ‘war.’ While the Leviathan operates as one political body in relation to that of a principality, its idea of sovereignty is rooted in the rule of the populace, thus acquiring characteristics of a republic. Hobbes, who imagines the state as a person, conceptualizes the sovereign himself as one representing others, the state in its totality. The Leviathan, which holds absolute authority over the ruled, derives sovereignty from the public who provide him with the opportunity to rule, their will and their liberty, and thus, one permits everything the sovereign does in their name. In that respect, the act of obeying the sovereign is merely an act of self-obedience in that individuals govern themselves through the medium of their agent, the Leviathan, a representative self government and to what Hobbes refers to, the “artificial” man (ch 16, pg. 101). Thus, while the formation of the Leviathan is of one political body, the Leviathan is also the product of the consent of the governed, sanction to uphold peace, security, and stability for the people.

Neither truly or entirely a principality or a republic, Hobbes views the Leviathan’s political form neutrally: a single person, a few, or the many. While he insists that its sovereign power remain absolute and undivided and that the sovereign has no direct duties to its subjects, Hobbes states that the sovereign has obligations to itself to rule according to its own self-preservation. Though the sovereign is still entirely bound by covenant to the people, it nonetheless ought to rule in a way that is in line with the “law[s] of nature” (ch 30, pg. 219). With that said, Hobbes’ theory of a common power is derived from the fact that the sovereign and only the sovereign is the source of law and he defines the relationship between law and justice in the following manner: “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” (ch 13, pg. 78). Here, Hobbes believes that there is no justice without law in the state of nature and that only within the Leviathan may one obtain rights and freedoms. In the state of nature, an individual can evaluate justice for oneself adhering to or abiding by the characteristics of a republic, yet when one relinquishes this individual principlist capability to the Leviathan, it is the Leviathan alone who can evaluate such justice. However, the purpose of this framework of law is not to impede individual will, but to facilitate judgment:

“For the use of laws (which are but rules authorized) is not to bind the people from all voluntary actions. It is not to bind them from voluntary actions but to direct and keep them in such motion as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness or indiscretion as hedges are set not to stop travelers but to keep them on their way.” (ch 30, pg. 229)

For Hobbes, it is harm when one takes the stance of a ‘true’ republican, allowing to judge freely for themselves what is right and wrong, as any questioning of the Leviathan leads to the breakdown of the commonwealth and inevitably a regression into the state of nature. The Leviathan, as one working force through the creation and enforcement of its own laws, aims to maintain order and facilitate the people’s free will and individual desires and, at the same time, adheres to the overall public good by allowing individuals to satisfy themselves to a certain extent provided that individuals’ actions do not cause physical or mental harm of others or oneself which leads to the state of war.

Overall, Hobbes’ Leviathan is neither strictly or ideally a principality or a republic, but a combination of the two political structures as “the only way to erect such a common power…is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will,” “which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person” (ch 17, pg. 109). Unlike either mode of order and governance, Hobbesian sovereign, not only enforces the rule of law or interprets it, but is also the originator of laws and implementer of justice: it is a paradox in and of itself that the sovereign can never act independently of the people nor act unjustly against them.

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