Hobbes and Absolute Sovereignty

Hobbes and Absolute Sovereignty

Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679

Rubric: This essay sets out a critical interpretation, in the light of modern scholarship, of the cardinal arguments used by Thomas Hobbes to under gird his concept of absolute sovereignty [1].


A state is sovereign when its magistrate owes allegiance to no superior power, and he or she is supreme within the legal order of the state. It may be assumed that in every human society where there is a system of law there is also to be found, latent beneath the variety of political forms, in a democracy as much as in a absolute monarchy, a simple relationship between subjects rendering habitual obedience, and a sovereign who renders obedience to none. This vertical structure, of sovereign and subjects, according to this theory, is analogous to the backbone of a man. The structure constitutes an essential part of any human society which possesses a system of law, as the backbone comprises an essential part of the man.

Where this structure is present we may legitimately speak of human society, together with its sovereign, as a single independent state, and we may also speak of its law. Where this structure is absent we cannot legitimately apply those expressions, because the relation of the sovereign to the subjects constitutes, according to this theory, part of the very meaning of those expressions [2].

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Thomas Hobbes’ theory of government

Hobbes expressed a clear personal confidence in his position as the ‘author or originator of an authentic political science’. It was in De Cive, published in 1647, that he made a preliminary and tentative claim to have discovered a way of ‘rationalising enquiry into political behaviour,; and that he had also created a ‘new science’ — a science of politics [3]. Hobbes began his study of civil government by investigating its central subject, the human being as a natural and social animal, and then proceeded to define its origin, generation and form. It seemed to him that everything is to be understood by its constitutive causes. The mechanical analogy, contra the traditional organic and theological concepts of the state, became for Hobbes both apposite and inevitable. Civic conflict was leading to disaggregation of the contemporary 17th century English state, demonstrating to him that the sanctions which held it together were neither eternal nor ‘natural.’ [4, 5, 6].

Hobbes was primarily intent on the creation of an impartial, theoretical science of government, ‘stressing the priority of truth above the delights of rhetoric or the utility of propaganda [6]. He focuses his attention on basic principles rather than changing institutions or forms of government. Leviathan can therefore be seen as a political creature or persona and that creature can exhibit aristocratic, republican, monarchical or, even, democratic features [8].

Thomas Hobbes and his denial of the doctrine of right reason.

Hobbes’s first argument in favour of the doctrine of absolute sovereignty is essentially the argument against right reason ?described as the vision and the heart of Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy [9]. His doctrine of absolute sovereignty is derived primarily from the negation of this doctrine, and almost everything that we can discover in his notion of sovereignty can be found in his negation of this argument. An argument that leads to his conclusion that it is essential for the sovereign to be absolute, and to possess effective enforcement or coercive powers.

Hobbes is principally concerned with the fundamental problem of human life in the commonwealth, and the manner in which conflict arises from those numerous, plans, projects and desires, which lead to the individuals action, and which are usually at variance, one with another. He sets out to establish that, if each individual were to be allowed the liberty to follow his own conscience, then in the presence of a diversity of such consciences, without constraint or discipline, peace and harmony in the commonwealth would be short lived, due to an all pervasive tendency to disagreement, and the concomitant danger of civil disobedience [10].

The problems, created by men living in a civil society, do not merely derive from conflicts of interest or the clash of passions but, according to Hobbes, derive, more fundamentally, from a diversity of consciences and the unrestrained exercise of individual judgement which, in effect, makes common action highly uncertain or virtually impossible. Where it is impossible to obtain a unanimity of wills and agreement, in which a common policy cannot be determined, then, Hobbes informs us, the artificial will or the artificial person is in need of creation and acceptance, because it is the sovereign power — the artificial person — that effectively constitutes the state.

This is a point of critical significance in Hobbes’s political philosophy. He was primarily concerned with the problems of union and unity within the commonwealth, with the construction of such a unity, and the possibility of common action that is a product of that unity. The absence of unanimity in decision making, and unresolvable conflicts of interest, frustrate and militate against a natural unity and, therefore, in the event of open conflict, jeopardise the lives and the welfare of the subjects [11]. Within civil society common action becomes essential, despite individual projects and disagreements, if the subjects of that society are to enjoy a peaceful and harmonious common life. A civil society, or commonwealth, must have a clearly defined and unambiguous decision-making procedure, which can arrive at definite decisions, and then initiate common action — despite a divergence of consciences and a lack of -unanimity. That is primarily the focal point of Hobbes’s concern, and is central to his concept of sovereignty [12].

Those who are aggressively and belligerently dedicated to their own self-interest or self-preservation, may not necessarily constitute the principal threat to peace and harmony in the commonwealth. Those who are normally honest, intelligent and decent may represent an even greater threat to civil stability, because they believe they have right on their side and they may, therefore, be even more tenacious in fighting for what they want, and negating the legitimate demands of others. it is for this reason that the latter may be less inclined, than the former, to enter into a calculation of the costs and benefits of common action, because they believe that they occupy the moral high ground’. A position which their consciences will not allow them to surrender.

The latter often constitute a more serious threat, not because they are fundamentally nasty or brutish, but because they are certain that they are the custodians of the truth, and they can, therefore, often become the greatest threat to peace and harmony in the commonwealth for that very reason. Hobbes was clearly aware of this aspect of the human condition — human beings as active participants in civil society — and he, therefore, regarded this as one of the most serious practical problems, demanding resolution by those responsible for civil government, and the rule of law [13].

Hobbes’s principal claim is that any appeal to right reason comprises a completely inadequate basis for the resolution of disputes, because if disputes are about what the truth actually is, then any appeal to right reason or the truth, is essentially inconclusive and, therefore, self-defeating. Ideally, concern for the truth or right reason should be accepted as a governing principle, but this will not resolve disputes, successfully or peacefully, in those circumstances in which people adopt entrenched and irreconcilable positions, because that is precisely the route to internecine conflict and physical violence — ‘the state of war, of all against all.’ The truth and right reason do not bear clearly identifiable insignia, enabling them to be identified without ambiguity or uncertainty.

Artificial right reason introduces a public level of judgement that takes precedence over judgements that are merely private in character. Hence, artificial right reason effectively avoids those problems which derive from, and have their source in, private judgements. Hobbes makes it quite clear that the decision-making procedure — the arbitrator — must be selected on a fair and reasonable basis and by mutual agreement. There can be no prior requirement that either the procedure or arbitrator should always get things right or produce the correct answer [14]. The sovereign does not provide the kind of certainty needed to ensure that his judgement will always coincide with the truth. Any sovereign, or any arbitrator, can make a mistake but the judgement made, in particular circumstances, stands nevertheless, ‘not because it is his private Sentence; but because he giveth it by Authority of the Sovereign … which is Law” [15].

Hobbes certainly does not totally preclude dissent and, indeed, he emphasises that any decision made by the sovereign must be fair and just. But once a decision has been made it is binding, and active civil disobedience thereafter is prohibited. Our private judgement may be in fundamental disagreement with the decision; we may believe that it is essentially wrong; that it runs counter to the best interests of the commonwealth; but, nevertheless, we have a contractual obligation to obey, or face the consequences of the punishment power exercised by the sovereign.

Hobbes’ ‘regress, argument for the absolute sovereign

Hobbes characterises the natural, hypothetical, state of man as one in which deadly human conflict is endemic. A state in which continuous internecine conflict and violence exist, as each man seeks to preserve his life and property from the depredations of others — ‘the state of war of all against all 1. His sole and unique remedy for that condition — seen as an eradicable human characteristic in the state of nature — is to be found deeply embedded in a powerful logical, argument in which he supports the concept of absolute sovereignty, as a necessary and sufficient condition, for the formation of a genuine political union [16]. Hobbes advises us that, if there is a power that is limited within a peaceful and harmonious commonwealth, then it must be limited by a greater power. And, he argues, that the search for the greatest power in the commonwealth ?the sovereign power — will be realised when we come to an ultimate power, that effectively limits all others, but which is unlimited in its own right. In essence, Hobbes claims, a government comes into existence only with the appointment or institution of a ruler with absolute power — a power that effectively transcends all others, and over which there is no appeal.

His argument sets out to demonstrate that civil society can be truly unified only when the state incorporates a single validating authority — a single human decision-maker — beyond which no subject can appeal. It is claimed that Hobbes is possibly in error in this respect, because he apparently fails to recognize that the final decision-maker need not be a single human being, but could comprise a group of decision makers, such as a parliament with a set of clearly entrenched rules or laws. However, Hampton is of a contrary opinion; she claims that Hobbes does not explicitly recognize, in his political writings, a divided sovereignty or a government with a human ruler constitutionally limited by laws that are terminus ultimus.

The regress argument successfully justifies absolute sovereignty only insofar as it includes a vitally important theorem: ‘Because human beings are unable to establish any substantial co-operation among themselves and, in particular, are unable to agree on any rules of private property, no law or set of laws can be the final decider in a political regime. And this means that a human being or an assembly of human beings must act in this capacity’ [17]. Hobbes simply denies, in Leviathan 26-21, that a state can rest on a set of ultimate moral rules that serve to limit the ruler’s power, and act as the ultimate authority in that political regime. He argues that the hypothetical laws of nature are not strong enough, to act as final determinants in a civil society, because they are not specific enough to act as definitive and precise guides for the government of a commonwealths {18, 19]. Hobbes also repudiates contemporary and modern theorists who claim that it is possible to organise a state based on a constitution, or a set of ‘higher laws’, that regulate and define the power of government and its officials. In Leviathan 29,9 Hobbes claims that such a constitution is impossible [20].

Hobbes assumption is that human disagreement is all pervasive; that the subjects of a commonwealth are incapable of reaching a unified interpretation of a constitution and, therefore, an adjudicator will be needed to interpret the constitution for them. This means that the adjudicator will effectively become the sovereign, because the power to reach a final binding decision will be located in him. He claims that if the adjudicator is subordinate to a higher authority, then that authority will effectively become the sovereign — hence the regress is generated.

Those who advocated a government, with sovereignty divided among different branches, were also repudiated by Hobbes in the following terms: ‘For what is to divide the Power of a Commonwealth but to dissolve it; for Powers divided mutually destroy each other.’ (Leviathan, 29, 12) Once again we witness Hobbes maintaining that what destroys this kind of constitutional arrangement is the impossibility of agreement as to the interpretation or enforcement of moral rules or principles ?whatever their character. According to him there are two reasons why such a commonwealth will disaggregate. The first is due to a recognition that people, who are exclusively guided or motivated by egocentric and selfish tendencies, will not suddenly lose those tendencies as they enter civil society. On the contrary they may be expected to enlarge their wealth and jurisdiction, not necessarily because they desire more power, but because it will provide them with some protection from the depredations of others. Civil war will, therefore, inevitably follow.

Finally, Hobbes dismisses those who maintain that the ruler’s power can be limited by a contract between the sovereign and the people. He claims that this will merely lead inevitably to disorder and war, and will certainly not lead to a peaceful order and good government [21]. Hobbes clearly realises that if a contractual relationship exists between a sovereign and his subjects, then it becomes essential to establish higher laws to regulate the ruler’s actions, and the subjects then have the right of interpretation or review. But it is not possible to guarantee a uniformity of agreement in the determination of the sovereign’s performance; whether or not he is acting in accordance with the goals and objectives duly authorised by the subjects. Failure to agree will lead inevitably to quarrels and infighting and, in his opinion, to warfare and a return to the conditions that obtain in the state of nature.


Those who are opposed to Hobbes’s concept of absolute sovereignty, both contemporary and modern, are legion. But the sheer number of his opponents does not necessarily mean that he is entirely in error. However, the numerical weight and the prestige of his adversaries must create serious doubt in one’s mind as to the validity of his thesis. His contribution to the philosophy of politics and government, and his reputation and importance as an original political thinker, particularly in the English speaking world, remains undiminished.

Hampton, in her critique of Hobbes’s social contract argument, does not attack the truth of Hobbes’s premisses but she does challenge the soundness of his arguments, and their validity .22 Her contention is that Hobbes’s social contract argument is invalid for the reasons summarised below. Hampton claims that his argument cannot show that people, as he describes them, would institute what he defines as an absolute sovereign.’

First, the creation of an absolute sovereign, according to Hobbes, is necessary to secure peace and harmony in civil society or the commonwealth. The sovereign is defined as one who is the absolute master of all his subjects, and that he is the final arbiter of all questions in the commonwealth. The sovereign decides whether or not he, or his successor, will continue in power — a power that will be permanent.

Second, the subjects in the commonwealth empower a ruler by accepting and obeying his punishment commands. Their obedience, which they decide, must therefore, and of necessity, be in their best interests and their welfare.

Third, from the second premiss we can see that the sovereign who is created by the people, as subjects, does not decide for them the fundamental questions of acceptance of, and obedience to, his commands — including his punishment commands.

Fourth, it therefore follows from the third premiss that the ruler only holds power as long as his subjects obey his punishment commands. The sovereign does not determine the question of obedience to his commands, because that is ultimately a question the subjects determine for themselves, based on their assessment of their best interests and welfare. It therefore follows that the very existence of the sovereign, which is dependent on obedience to his commands, is ultimately determined by the people as subjects.

Fifth, it follows, therefore, from the third and fourth premisses, that the subjects cannot create a sovereign who meets the definition given in the first proposition — that is a ruler who decides all questions in the commonwealth and whose reign is absolute and permanent. Hence, it does not follow that peace and harmony in civil society can be secured and guaranteed by the adoption of Hobbes’s schema.


[1] The essay draws on the text of the Leviathan originally published in April 1651, and on the works of R E Ewin, Virtue and Rights The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, 1991, and Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, 1986, in addition to an intellectual and well respected biography entitled The Golden Lands of Thomas Hobbes, written by Miriam M Reik, and originally published in 1938.

[2] H L A Hart, 1994, p.50

[3] The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, I, ix.

[4] Reik, 1977, pp. 82-87

[5] ‘For as in a watch, or some such small engine, the matter, figures and motion of the wheels cannot well be known, except it be taken insunder and viewed in parts; so to make a more curious search into the rights of states and duties of subjects, it is necessary, I say, not to take them insunder, but yet they be so considered as if they were dissolved… I The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, I, p. xiv

[6] ‘The laws of motion in nature comprise the art by which God created and rules the world, and they find their analogy in man, whose principle of motion is the will. But will has rules of its own and Hobbes, therefore, also explored the elements of psychology. Finally, man imitated God by creating an artificial body — the state — in the image of himself, the motions of which are guided by civic, not natural law. So Hobbes added the moral sciences and jurisprudence to his studies, considering in them the motions which generate civil society.’ Reik, 1977, pp.16-17

[7] Reik, 1977, ibid., p.38

[8] ibid., p.100

[9] Tuck, 1989, pp. 57-58.

[10] Hart, 1994, 2.5.2 & Ewin, 1991, p.27

[11] Ewin, 1991, p.56, Note 9

[12] ibid., p.29

[13] ibid., p.29

[14] ‘Nor doth he covenant so much, as his sentence shall be just; for that were to make the parties judges of the sentence, whereby controversie would remain still undecided, … ‘No one mans Reason, nor the Reason of any number of men, makes the certainties’ The Elements of Law 1.17.7

[15] Leviathan, Chapter 26

[16] Hampton, 1986, p.98

[17] ibid., p.99

[18] All Laws, written, and unwritten, have need of Interpretation. The unwritten Law of Nature, though it be easy to such, as without partiality, and passion, make use of their naturall reason, and therefore leave the violators thereof without excuse; yet considering there be few, perhaps none, that in some cases are not blinded by self love, or some other passion, it is now become of all Laws the most obscure; and has consequently the greatest need of able Interpreters. Leviathan, 26,21

[19]’The theoretical significance of Hobbes’ contention is to point out that any theory resting the foundations of the state on natural law must inevitably run aground on the shoals of subjectivity if the interpretation of natural law is ultimately allowed to become a multitude of private judgements, for no civil code coincides entirely with everyone’s notion of the content of natural law.’ Reik, 1977, p.107

[20] ‘to be subject to the Lawes, is to be subject to the Common-wealth, that is to the Soveraign Representative, that is, to himselfe; which is not subjection, but freedom from the Lawes. Which errour, because it setteth the Lawes above the Soveraign, setteth also a Judge above him, and a power to punish him; which is to make a new Soveraign; and again for the same reason a third, to punish the second; and so on continually without end, to the Confusion, and Dissolution of the Common-wealth. I Leviathan, 29,9

[21] if any one, or more of them, pretend a breach of Covenant made by the Soveraign at his Institution; and others, or one other of his Subjects, or himselfe alone, pretend there was no such breach, there is in this case, no Judge, to decide the controvosie: it returns therefore to the Sword again; and every man recovereth the right of Protecting himself by his own strength contrary to the designe they had in he Institution-‘ Leviathan, 18, 4

[22] Hampton, 1986, p.189


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