PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday February 26, 2003

[6.] The Creation of the Commonwealth: Leviathan.


[6.1.] Commonwealth by Institution (Leviathan Ch.17).


In previous lectures, we've seen three "laws of nature" described by Hobbes:

·         first law of nature: "to seek peace, and follow it"

·         second law of nature, "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as farforth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself." (ch. 14 ¶5, pp.404-405)

·         third law of nature, "that men perform their covenants made", i.e., that they abide by their agreements, i.e. that they act justly. (ch.15 ¶1, p.409)


Hobbes lists several more laws of nature in chapters 14 and 15. He then offers a single principle that summarizes all of them:

·         the sum of the laws of nature: "Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself" (ch.15 ¶35, p.414)


But of course, even though this principle is suggested by reason, men in the state of nature won't follow it, for two reasons:

·         "our natural passions" tend to pull us in the opposite direction. ("...the laws of nature ... are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like." ch.17, ¶2, p.415) [another echo of Hobbes' psychological egoism]

·         no individual has any assurance that anyone else will follow it, not even if they agree to follow it: covenants are invalid unless there is a power to enforce them. ("And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all." ch.17 ¶2, p.415)


So without some force or authority to ensure that men obey the laws of nature, men will not do so. ("Therefore notwithstanding the laws of nature ... if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men." ch.17 ¶2, pp.415-416)


In order to escape the state of nature, men make a covenant among themselves to transfer their Right of Nature to a single entity (a person or assembly of persons) who will thereby have the legitimate authority (authority) to (among other things) enforce covenants.


The final cause, end, or design of men, (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which we see them live in commonwealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shown), to, the natural passions of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants, and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters. (ch.17, ¶1, p.415, emphasis added)


The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another ... 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... ; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgments, to his judgment. if every man should say to every man, I authorise and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. (ch.17 ¶13, p.417)


The individual(s) to whom all others turn over their rights is the sovereign, and those turning over their rights are subjects. The sovereign...


is one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence. (ch.17 ¶13, p.417)


When the subjects have agreed amongst themselves to turn over their power to another (i.e. to create a sovereign by voluntarily transferring their natural rights), they create a commonwealth by institution (in contrast to a commonwealth by acquisition, when a sovereign takes power from them; Hobbes says more about this in ch.20). Such rulers are sovereigns by institution.



[6.2.] The Rights of Sovereigns by Institution (Leviathan Ch.18).[1]


1:The Social Covenant is an Alienation Contract.

The agreement that citizens make among themselves to transfer their natural rights to a sovereign is irrevocable -- they cannot rescind the agreement and take back authorityN from the ruler, even if all citizens want to do so. Once the agreement has been made, the ruler(s) thereafter has authorityN until he himself (or they themselves) voluntarily give it up. The sovereign becomes, not an agent of the people, to whom authorityN is loaned, but a master of the people, to whom authority is permanently transferred. This is true even if the people wish to change their minds about their covenant:


…they that have already instituted a commonwealth, being thereby bound by covenant, to own the actions, and judgments of one, cannot lawfully make a new covenant, amongst themselves, to be obedient to any other, in any thing whatsoever, without his permission. (ch.18 ¶3, p.418)


2:The Sovereign Cannot Breach the Covenant (Because it is Indirect).

The agreement according to which individuals transfer their power to a sovereign is an agreement among the individuals who transfer their power; it is not an agreement between those individuals and the sovereign. I.e., individuals transfer authority to the sovereign indirectly by making an agreement among themselves, rather than directly, by making an agreement directly with the sovereign.  One consequence of this is that the sovereign cannot act so as to breach the covenant -- this is because he wasn't a party to the covenant to begin with!


One reason Hobbes gives for thinking that the conferral of power is indirect is this: if the covenant were between the people and the sovereign, then in the case of a disagreement as to whether or not the sovereign has breached the covenant, there would be no one to arbitrate the disagreement -- in which case all would return to "the sword"-- the State of Nature would return:


…if any one, or more of them, pretend a breach of the covenant made by the sovereign at his institution; and others, or one other of his subjects, or himself alone, pretend there was no such breach, there is in this case, no judge to decide the controversy; it returns therefore to the sword again; and every man recovereth the right of protecting himself by his own strength, contrary to the design they had in the institution. (ch.18, ¶4, p.418)


3: The Sovereign Governs Everyone -- Even Those Who Dissented.

It doesn't matter if you were willingly a party to the social covenant-- even if you didn't want to lay down your rights, the sovereign still has authorityN over you.


4: The Sovereign is Incapable of Injustice Towards the People.

Because the people are all party to the covenant that grants the sovereign authorityN, they have all agreed that he can do whatever he chooses. So even if he acts to harm them, they themselves have granted him this absolute authority -- and no treatment that they subsequently suffer at his hands counts as unjust: "For he that doth any thing by authority from another, doth therein no injury to him by whose authority he acteth." (ch.18, ¶6, p.419)


5: Punishing or Killing the Sovereign Would Be Unjust.

Ultimately, the actions of the sovereign are the responsibility of the people; and so to punish him for actions he's committed would be punish someone other than the responsible party (viz. themselves).


6: Sovereigns Have the Right to Restrict Speech.

The sovereign has the right to maintain the peace, and sometimes it is necessary to restrict speech in order to do that.


Rights 7-11 are as follows: Sovereigns have the exclusive right to

·         Make All Laws Regarding Freedom of Action and Ownership

·         Judicial Power

·         Make War

·         Choose Public Officials

·         Reward or Punish Citizens

·         Convey Titles of Honor


Hobbes sums up the absolute power accorded to the sovereign in ch.20 (here he's describing the powers that accrue to both sovereigns by institution and sovereigns by acquisition):


His power cannot, without his consent, be transferred to another: he cannot forfeit it: he cannot be accused by any of his subjects, of injury; he cannot be punished by them; he is judge of what is necessary for peace; and judge of doctrines: he is sole legislator; and supreme judge of controversies; and of the times, and occasions of war, and peace: to him it belongeth to choose magistrates, counsellors, commanders, and all other officers, and ministers; and to determine of rewards, and punishments, honour, and order. (ch.20, ¶3, p.427)


...the sovereign power ... is as great, as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetual war of every man against his neighbour, are much worse. (ch.20, ¶18, p.430)


[1] This section is informed by Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy ch.2. I take the distinctions between alienation/agent contracts and direct/indirect contracts directly from Hampton.

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