“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals..” (Hamlet Act. II Scene 2)

Angels“, “Gods“, “the beauty of the world“: is this what men actually are? If it were so, the societies we have built in time should have been able to express such perfection or at least some of them and we know it has not been so. If we were thus “noble in reason“, “infinite in faculty” the “piece of work” of creation, for what reason would we lock our doors at night? Thomas Hobbes believed that any idea of modern society should start from a realistic, rather than idealistic, analysis of the nature of man.

His vision of mankind, in fact, takes the form of a sort of anthropological pessimism where human beings are all dominated by passions, greed, vainglory and distrust. These are the conditions that throw humankind into a permanent state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural state of human life, the situation that exists whenever those natural passions are unrestrained. A war where every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; the “war of every man against every man.” The consequent total absence of collaboration cannot but make us miserable and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, rather than angels, it seems we act more like wolves: aggressive, violent, mean, selfish.

In such a world where everybody struggles to preserve his life and goods and where violence at the hands of others is the greatest fear, the only possibility to live in peace together for each individual is to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he chooses. It must a collective endeavor, of course, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same and he calls this collective renunciation: the “social contract.”Of course, how can it be trusted that everybody keeps his words? Hence; a system needs to be instituted, a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. The power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth is the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

“For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended” (Leviathan. Introduction)

Therefore; the Leviathan is but an artificial man, made in the image of its imperfect creator. The Sovereignty is its artificial Soul and gives life and motion to the whole body. The Joints are  the Magistrates and other Officers of Judicature and Execution ; Reward and Punishment which are fastened to the seat of the sovereignty are the Nerves, The Wealth and Riches are the Strength of all the particular members ; the Counsellors are the Memory; Equity and Lawes are an artificial Reason and Will; Concord, Health. By the way, as any other man, the Leviathan is vulnerable and it experiences Sickness if there is a Sedition and a Civil War brings it to Death. We can feel Hobbes fears in these last words, in fact, the Leviathan was published in 1651, few years after the Civil War which had ended with the trial and execution of Charles I.

By the way, the Leviathan must not necessarily be a king. Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy or even that republic made by Cromwell which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Just few questions: is Hobbes only a pessimist or did he get it right? Does only a Leviathan, whatever political form it takes, make us safely stay together and restrain our animal, aggressive nature? What would happen without such control? Well, just check  any social network and as its presence has not been clearly outlined yet, you will see millions of hungry wolves running wildly, free and happy to have found a place to unleash  their repressed nature at last.


9 thoughts on “Leviathan

  1. If the ideal state, whether a monarchy, a commonwealth or republic, is likened to a body (‘the body politic’ for example) then it makes sense that it looks to its constituent parts to maintain its health, so that an injury, an over-active immune system or even a canker is addressed before that threat overcomes the whole. It’s in its own interests that such parts coordinate to ensure continued health and not fight each other for resources or medical attention.

    But, as Arthur Koestler suggested, we are all holons, outward-looking as well as inward-looking. When departments, territories, nation states or confederations declare themselves the only prime good (‘America First’, or ‘Take Back Control’ in the case of Brexit, for instance) and deny co-operation and co-dependence valid principles, then they threaten not just other bodies but, ultimately, their own. Not to forget the environment that all exist in. Did Hobbes get it right in principle? I think so.

    • And so do I, Chris. Hobbes’s point of view particularly fits my current state of mind, which is pervaded by a gloomy political pessimism. By the way, it seems there is sparkle for what concerns Brexit, isn’t it?

      • Possibly. But when a government has over the two years since the EU referendum heavily invested in a policy of pursuing Brexit (remember “Brexit means Brexit”?), to concede now (in their benighted view) that a People’s Vote is a sensible way to proceed — in view of all the contraindications that EU withdrawal means disaster — must seem to them political suicide. But then, if a no-deal Brexit happens, national suicide will surely be the consequence. I remain pessimistic unless proved otherwise. 70,000 marchers notwithstanding.

  2. You can´t change human nature is my little take on this, and war is part of it, did I read correctly at the beginning that he or you, yes you, imply that if women were in charge of the world there were not be wars? I´ll just respond to my question


    You are the teacher Mrs. Tink. Show this to your highschool students by the way,
    I´m sure even kids like I was looking out the window or sleeping while history class,
    they´ll be attentive at this.

    I like history now, but not as a youngster so I guess you got to get their attention.

    If women ruled the world…. you already do, behind a great man there is a great woman,
    you know that saying, that is why you don´t marry me 😦

    Love ya Mrs. Tink. Great interesting read as always.

  3. Hobbes was an optimist . . . the idea of a social construct — while implemented in many forms — has (in my opinion) not been shown to have staying power beyond a relatively short lifespan. Were that not the case, we wouldn’t even be talking about the necessity for one.

    I don’t remember the source for my next question (it’s a common philosophical question but if there is no identified source, I’ll claim it as my own) . . . is an imperfect entity even capable of creating an entity both larger than itself and perfect (or even less imperfect)? I’m not speaking of physical size, but of ideas and function.

    I think not. I’m willing to submit to any evidence to the contrary but I point to the current state of affairs as evidence for my stance.

    As a counter, it has been argued that everything is a “work in progress” and hence that question may never be fully answered . . . but, again, that just proves my point.

    I might take a bit of an issue with the characterization of wolves. They are highly social animals and as far as individual packs go, highly structured and cooperative. Alas, they perhaps represent a closer example of our current social contract . . . fine within a given pack, but not so fine when competing for resources with other packs. And in that, they do parallel humans and human behavior. Under the strain of outside pressure (from Nature or Manmade) no social construct has ever lived up to its ideal. Often, you don’t even need outside pressure because the uneven application of justice eventually tears the construct apart from the inside. We’re currently watching that process in action all around the world.

    • The imperfection of the entity is the reason why man has alwayd lived recurrent historical cycles as the Italian philosopher Vico would say. We keep on swinging from one political system into another, but maybe this means being in “progress”.🙃

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