Classics Review: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

leviathan kindle

 The Kindle edition I read.

Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil was one of my more difficult reading experiences, but well worth the effort. The text is not hard to understand; although dense, Hobbes’ writing is smooth as silk and interlaced with a subtle dry wit. I found the 17th century English to be an unexpected delight. For me the drollness of it is perfect for understated humor.

The difficult part is that I am highly resistant to the case  Hobbes is making: the case for a highly authoritarian form of government, preferably a hereditary monarchy. I have always hated the idea of authoritarian government let alone monarchy and after reading Leviathan I still don’t care for it. However I must admit I can see where Hobbes is coming from. This book demonstrated to me that, with intelligence, reasoning skills, and a dash of dry humor, you can make a strong case for pretty much anything.

Leviathan is considered by scholars to be the foundational work of modern political theory. Published in 1651, it was innovative, original, and it laid groundwork for the social science of politics and the framing of concepts such as “social contract”. Hobbes employs persuasive reason to explore the source and limits of state authority. It breaks down barriers of thought, punctures assumptions, and most of all dares to challenge the authority of the church. Yes, the authority of the church was challenged before Hobbes – e.g. Henry VIII, Martin Luther, and most, relevantly, Oliver Cromwell. But Hobbes goes further and explains point by point why the church does not have authority at all in this world and how it has misinterpreted scripture to its own advantage.

Hobbes was apparently a peace-loving soul and a gifted scholar. He was born in 1588 I’m Malmesbury, right about the time England was having the conflict with the Spanish Armada. There is a story is that he was born prematurely because his mother (whose name nobody knows) took fright when she heard about the approaching Armada. When he was very young, his clergyman father was disgraced by a fight with another vicar and was forced to leave the family. Thomas and his brother and sister ended up being raised by an unmarried uncle.


By John Michael Wright – National Portrait Gallery

Not much more is known about his childhood except that he received an excellent education and showed early signed of being a promising scholar. His first post-college jog was as a tutor for the son of a wealthy family named Cavindish. This family became his sponsor and protector throughout his life – and as his life included some violent political times, that protection may have preserved his life. He worked as a tutor off and on throughout his long life, even for a short time tutoring the Prince of Wales,  a gig that seems to have benefitted him in his old age when the Prince of Wales became King Charles II. In middle age he lived through the English Civil War in which Charles I was dethroned by the Oliver Cromwell party. Hobbes heard about the king’s beheading from an eye witness and was much upset by that event as well as the civil unrest and crazed violence of the period.

I have read differing accounts of how the English Civil War may or may not have inspired Hobbes to write Leviathan. From what I can discern he had already thought out much of his political theory years before the war broke out, writing several treatises on aspects of it, but perhaps the war, the loss of a good friend in the violence, and the beheading of the king intensified his efforts to get the book into print. The book, published in 1651, caused quite an uproar and offended pretty much all parties. That in itself is an indicator of a must-read!

You’d think at least the Royalists would love the book since it is an unapologetic defense of a powerful monarchy. But no. Apparently some of them wanted to kill the author. Some of the Royalists were Catholic and the book absolutely skewers the Catholic Church. Others were Anglican and the book is not flattering to them either. Also, despite his apparent support for monarchy, in an underhanded way Hobbes makes the point that the sovereign reigns only at the consent of the people and has certain obligations under the social contract. This was a big departure from the idea that the king’s authority comes straight from God – an idea known at the divine right of kings.

The idea of a social contract between the sovereign and the subjects had been around long before Hobbes, but he redefined it and presented a radical new theory about how it works in mechanistic terms and why it is necessary to the wellbeing of humanity. Hobbes calls the Government or state led by a sovereign a leviathan, a concept he got from the Book of Job, Chapter 41. He calls the leviathan state “an artificial man” with an artificial body, the sovereign being the head, that serves to protect humans from a much more horrible alternative: living in the state of nature. In explaining his idea of the state of nature, Hobbes writes the passage he is most famous for:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

You just can’t write a review of Leviathan without quoting that. Hobbes goes on for quite some time in this section explaining how in a state of nature humans live in a constant state of war or fear of war. Nothing is illegal and therefore life is a big free-for-all of taking and killing to benefit yourself and your tribe. He does not blame mankind for this. We can’t help what we are, but the sooner we face the fact that humans are incapable of living in happy peace without a strong government, the sooner we will be able to live happily within the necessities of the artificial world created by civil government.

The book has a scientific materialistic secular tone that continues to offend today. Hobbes says he cannot imagine anything really existing without a body or an objective existence. Dreams and ghosts are result of imagination deriving from a physical origin working on the internal parts of the brain. They have no reality. And yet the Catholic Church has found many ways to use supposed spiritual beings to control people and gain money. I am no materialist, but you cannot deny history. Hobbes make much of Jesus’ words “My kingdom is not of this world.”

In fact, half the book makes his case from biblical scriptures. Which is kind of funny, because scholars say Hobbes was either an atheist, an agnostic, or a deist. From my reading of Leviathan my guess is deist. I suppose the Bible had such a hold on the people of the time, that he wants to show that even the Bible supports his case. As a scholar he knows his Bible deeply and thoroughly, quoting extensively from both the Old and New Testaments. It’s a good thing I have read Tolstoy and Walter Wink, who show how the Bible supports civil disobedience and anarchy. Otherwise I might have fallen for Hobbe’s arguments. (Read widely folks. I am middle aged and my horizons are still widening with every book I read, and I know I have far to go before I can form any definite conclusion. I am beginning to think that such conclusion will have to wait until I have spent a couple thousand years in the great library in the sky.)

Leviathan is divided into three parts called Of Man, Of Commonwealth, and Of Christian Commonwealth. Part Three, the longest, is where Hobbes takes on the Catholic Church and religion in general, making full use of the Bible to make his case. He spends a lot of time explaining why the Pope and a state sovereign cannot share power. A leviathan cannot have two heads. But what if the king commands you to to do something against your conscience or the laws of your religion such as worship himself as as a god? Then, says Hobbes, worship the king as a god:

To pray to a King for such things as hee is able to doe for us, though we prostrate our selves before him, is but Civill Worship; because we acknowledge no other power in him, but humane; But voluntarily to pray unto him for fair weather, or for anything which God onely can do for us, is Divine Worship, and Idolotry. On the other side, if a King compel a man to it by the terrour of Death, or other great corporal punishment, it is not Idolatry; For Worship which the Soveraign commandeth bee done unto himself by the terrour of his Laws, is not a sign that he that obey etch him inwardly honour him as God, but that he is desirous to save himself from death, or from a miserable life.

The positive side of Hobbes is that he is all about the preservation of life. The goal of his civil arrangement is that as many people as possible might live a good long reasonably content life — avoid an early death after a nasty brutish life. He thinks living in and not rebelling against a strong state is the best way to make this happen.

There are exceptions – a very few reasons why someone might want to disobey their sovereign. For example:

If….a Pastor lawfully called to teach and direct others or any other, of whose knowledge there is great opinion, do externall honor to an Idol for fear; unless he make his feare, and unwillingnesse to it, as evident as the worship, he Scandalizeth his Brother by seeming to approve Idolatry.

So …. a religious leader might consider risking martyrdom by engaging in a little civil disobedience. But Hobbes goes on to say that for the average joe there is absolutely no good reason to risk bodily harm over a symbolic ceremony. I especially love the language in this book. You’ll notice there is no consistency in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation. And yet the style lends itself so well to subtle humor and sarcasm. Several times I found myself laughing aloud at words like “Scandalizeth.” It probably seems funnier to me than it did to Hobbes, although there is plenty of deliberate wit throughout the book.

NOTE: leviathan audioAlong with reading I listened to James Adam’s beautiful narration of Leviathan edition recorded by Blackstone Audio. I find with longer difficult books audio is huge help but you also need the text.

About JaneK

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Posted on August 8, 2016, in Reading Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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