by Thomas Hobbes

Other authorsC. B. Macpherson
Paper Book, 1985



Call number

CF 4504 L664



Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1985


Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan , from 1651, is one of the first and most influential arguments towards social contract. Written in the midst of the English Civil War, it concerns the structure of government and society and argues for strong central governance and the rule of an absolute sovereign as the way to avoid civil war and chaos.

Media reviews

*Malmesburyn ateisti suomeksi* Liberaalin markkinatalousjärjestelmän syntyä ja olemusta koskevat pohdinnat ovat suomalaisessa keskustelussa viime aikoina lisääntyneet. Mikäli Englantia voidaan 1600-luvulta lähtien pitää modernin, porvarillisen Euroopan pioneerimaana suhteellisen joustavan
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sosiaalisen rakenteensa sekä poliittisen ja taloudellisen kehityksensä osalta, on englantilaisen poliittisen ajattelun klassikoiden suomentaminen erityisen ajankohtaista. Tuomo Ahon suomennos Thomas Hobbesin Leviathan-teoksesta on suuri kulttuuriteko vielä kolme ja puoli vuosisataa alkuteoksen ilmestymisen jälkeen jo siksi, että Hobbes ottaa kantaa ihmistä, ihmisyhteisöjä ja ylipäätään olemassaoloa koskeviin kysymyksiin tavalla, joka on yhtä ajankohtainen nykyihmiselle kuin se oli Hobbesin aikalaisille.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member thcson
The editor of my edition of Leviathan begins by stating that this work is more often quoted than thoroughly read. I'm not surprised by that since the political philosophy which made this book a classic actually amounts to just 150 out of a total of 500 pages. Hobbes dedicates the beginning of the
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book to making exact definitions for a "scientific" language of society. These are interesting only for their naivety. The second half of the book has even less appeal, as he spends hundreds of pages on interpreting the meaning of obscure biblical passages. It certainly makes this book feel more antiquated than Plato or Aristotle ever did. But sandwiched between these two parts is Hobbes' fascinating political argument, which should of course be read by anyone who wonders why states are necessary.
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LibraryThing member RandyStafford
My reactions to reading this book in 1994.

It took almost two months to plow through this book, but I’m not sorry I did.

Like most “great books”, the things I heard about it were rather simplistic and one-faceted. The actual book was more complex than I expected. I expected a detailed
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argument in favor of absolute rule, justified by divine right, by a king. Like some of the writings of Cicero, Hobbes, writing at the time of the political upheaval of the English Civil War (Cicero also wrote in a time of civil war), displays a strong desire for strong government to bring about tranquility. But Hobbes is up to much more than just an essay on why the Stuarts should have absolute power.

As Oakeshott says in his introduction, Hobbes was fascinated by geometry and it shows in the first part – “Of Man” – in which he develops a rather medieaval (in the sense of human consciousness being described as a series of internal “motions” caused by external objects) theory of psychology. Hobbes, in a style reminescent of a geometrical proof, starts out by defining certain human traits and emotions then constructs, using these definitions, theorems of human psychology. Hobbes view of man is realistic. He sees him as neither purely a creature of emotion (though he dedicates much time to exploring this aspect of humanity) or reason. He sees wisdom and rationality arising from human attempts to predict the future based on experience.

The book ends with some surly, sarcastic – but convincing – attacks on key elements of Catholic theology – the immortal soul, eternal torment in hell, purgatory. There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of ghosts – which Hobbes briefly deals with along with demon possession – as pertaining to purgatory, and the arguments about both that were going on at this time, and the trinity. He also takes a shot at the idea of the temporal rule of the Catholic Church over sovereigns. (Some of this is covered under the last section called “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”.)

Still, much of the book is Hobbes’ argument not only for an absolute sovereign (whether a king – which he prefers – or committee or assembly) but an absolute theocracy with religion and politics absolutely melded. Hobbes, according to the introduction, gets accussed of immorality. I don’t think Hobbes was amoral or immoral but his philosophy is extremely pragmatic. Hobbes, as the starting point of his philosophy (and this is extended, by contract, to the Leviathan of the state), sees a man as having the right to whatever he desires. The problem – of course – is that a man does not exist, mankind does and each man competes with the other for “honor, riches, and authority”. Hobbes says that man’s life, in a state of nature without government, is, to use his most famous phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. That in nature every man is at war with every other man, that no society, no art, no science, no letters exist, only continual fear. As Hobbes rightly notes, this state of anarchy is so intolerable that even the most primitive tribe has some form of government.

However, I think there are a couple of minor flaws to his vision of man’s competition. First, each person has different notions of “honor, riches, and authority”, each niche, each subtle variation in the term “riches”, “honor”, and “authority” can be occuppied by a different person. Second, Hobbes seems to postulate a zero-sum society where one person’s gain is another’s loss. This flies in the face of economic history. Still, Hobbes’ point, that commerce, trade, and economic security can’t exist in such conditions, is true. Hobbes’ ultimate statement – that all religious and political authority must be invested in the Leviathan (the artificial body of the state with the government as its head) to prevent this natural state of war and foster civilization – is understandable given the civil and religious conflicts of English society at the time.

However, Hobbes bluntly reaches several conclusions that would make a libertarian wince. Subjects have no right to attempt changing their government. The sovereign cannot forfeit his power. The laws of the commonwealth do not apply to the sovereign. Dissent is not allowed. The sovereign’s power is not limited. Hobbes hates separation of powers too. Hobbes acknowledges that this is a recipe for tyranny. Hobbes even denies the right of dissent based on religious conscience. He demands the outward form of obedience to whatever the sovereign mandates religiously. You can believe, according to him, whatever you want, and God will judge you accordingly, but even God expects absolute obedience. Hobbes says that government wanting power is always much worse than too much power. He blithely adds that the government is always concerned with its subjects' welfare because it is a component of their welfare. He is also quaintly naïve when he says that the sovereign will grant his subjects much freedom because there are many areas he will not seek to regulate. Obviously, he didn’t forsee the regulatory zeal of the modern Leviathan.

Still, Hobbes (at least in my very uneducated opinion) seems to straddle not only an authoritarian tradition but a libertarian one. He says that “force and fraud” are the cardinal virtues of war. Presumably that includes the war of man with every other man that occurs in nature. Government is instituted to eliminate this warfare. Interestingly, libertarians view government’s sole legitimate function as preventing “force and fraud”. In other words, like Hobbes, they wish to quell warfare in the state of nature. Libertarians base much of their philosophy on the use of contracts, and Hobbes bases his philosophy on that too. The subject, to avoid the unpleasant state of man in nature, voluntarily gives up his rights and will to a sovereign that promises security from violence. Much of the book is a detailed explication of this idea in its various political and religious implications. However, though Hobbes is about as an extreme advocate of governmental power as there is, he says a subject can – with justice (which, in Hobbes’ terms, means without violating the contract the subject forms with his sovereign) – resist a sovereign’s attempt to kill him. The whole point of the contract, Hobbes argues, is for the subject to avoid death. A subject can also justly refuse to kill himself, testify against themselves, or defend their life (even if they are criminals who have committed an unjust act the state seeks to punish) against the sovereign. While Hobbes views every action of the sovereign authorized by the subject via contract to get security, he points out that logically the contract is void when the subject’s life is at stake.
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LibraryThing member jarlalex
In the 1640s, Europe was littered with wars, most of them pertinent to who ought to be in charge. The continent saw the last decade of the Thirty Years’ War, whose major impacts were reaffirming state sovereignty and killing an unprecedented number of people. Britain was itself embroiled in an
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on-and-off civil war, intending to settle a more philosophical debate over whether the king was answerable to parliament or vice versa; a substantial number of Britons died in the process. It was with this background that Thomas Hobbes, a royalist safely living in Paris, wrote his seminal work Leviathan.

Named for a (presumably) mythical sea beast, the work considers the nature of man, the state, their interactions with faith, and knowledge. Human thought, he argues, comes in several flavours: Sense, Imagination (or, decaying sense), Reason, and Science. People combine these in order that they might “obtain some future apparent good,” and he describes a variety of acts that build (or destroy) honour, and therefore reputation, and therefore power in people; and people seek power ad infinitum.
There’s just one problem with that desire: the natural condition is one of perpetual war of all versus all; referencing Thucydides, he believes that life on its own is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, sensing that to be unpleasant, peoples came together to create a “commonwealth,” which can (through fear of punishment) compel good behaviour – acquiescence to the laws of nature, adherence to contracts, etc. Considering three varieties of commonwealth – Monarchy, Democracy, and Aristocracy – he finds the former alone has the capacity to make conclusive, learned, reasoned, decisions; and therefore despite its “inconveniences” is far superior.

To a large extent, however, this ‘finding’ isn’t so much reasoned as empirical; nearly any observer, in the same context, would have come to the same conclusion. Not only was the entire known world governed by a monarch of one form or another, but historical attempts to create either democratic or aristocratic governments had all met failure. Famously, democratic Athens was conquered by monarchic Sparta; the Roman Republic dissolved into the Roman Empire. As Hobbes was writing, the Polish sejm (an aristocratic assembly) had become so ineffective that Poland was conquered by its neighbours. And, most immediately to Hobbes, the English Parliament, having won the civil war, was disintegrating in to factionalism.

One would be remiss, however, to overlook one additional factor: His exile notwithstanding, Hobbes was on the king’s payroll in the 1640s, and worked directly with the future King Charles II. His salary beholden to a strong believer in the divine right of kings, any argument against monarchical supremacy – especially in light of the parliamentary uprising – could come with dire economic consequences. “Taking of the sword out of the hand of the sovereign” is “contrary to the peace and safety of the people.”
Yet in the centuries since, it’s been shown that assemblies – whether of the entire population or a subset of it – can govern effectively and sustainably. Less than a decade after Hobbes’ death, the Glorious Revolution made England a constitutional monarchy; a century after that, a collective of wayward colonies shucked even the pretense of the crown, and has persisted for centuries even in the face of war, civil strife, and disagreement. Meanwhile, ‘monarchically’ ruled countries have risen and fallen around the world.

Hobbes believes that the human mind is incapable of understanding infinity; for this reason, he argues, we have anthropomorphized God as a vehicle with which to conceptualize that which we cannot… and in fact states that presuming the whereabouts of God is idolatrous (since idols are finite and God is not). He points out that God can speak to mankind either directly or indirectly (i.e. through prophets); but in the latter case, how does one distinguish a prophet from a liar? Or from misinterpreting the scriptures?

It seems that his answer neglects to include a useful answer (and, to be fair, it’s no easy task) – but the important point is to establish that laws temporal and spiritual must be enforced by the sovereign to ensure the success of the commonwealth. He delicately implies that the pope’s authority is derived from a misinterpretation of scripture – Charles I was protestant, after all, and Hobbes (like the contemporaneous Treaty of Westphalia) obligingly grants the sovereign power over religious activity. At the same time, though, his views on religion were somewhat unorthodox, and later accusations of heresy would inhibit publication of his later works.
Notwithstanding that his driving interest in Leviathan was relatively immediate, Hobbes’ view of man and of government would come to influence the Continental Congress. Both the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1789) expressly enumerate the purpose of government and stress the importance of establishing and maintaining peace. The responsibilities accorded to governments are, with a few exceptions, not far removed from the rights of sovereigns enumerated; although his positions supporting governmental infallibility, and opposing free expression and separation of powers were rejected.

It seems clear that Hobbes isn’t so much a philosopher or thinker, as he is an observer of history and current affairs. Any Englishman, writing a comprehensive book on government in the 1640s, could reasonably be expected to have emphasized the same points and arrived at the same conclusions. This does not, however, render the text meaningless. On the contrary, it provides a unique perspective on how government itself was viewed at a pivotal moment in British history – perhaps the first moment that people much thought about it. (Most citizens, after all, will not much concern themselves over whether this or that nobleman is the king.)

Hobbes’ desire to affiliate with the ‘winning side’ in the English Civil War was ultimately successful; the Cromwell regime judged him to be of no threat (perhaps because he cleverly defined ‘monarchy’ in such a way to include the new Lord Protector), and the restored Charles II later granted him a pension. But his wish to shape politics failed. The crown answered to Parliament after 1688, and the American Declaration of Independence made demands on the king that would have been unthinkable a century before. By inspiring, even in a few, the idea that government – a finite entity – could be defined, Leviathan was paramount to the development of modern political existence.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is not an easy recreational read, but there is much to enjoy.
Hobbes writing is wonderful - short and direct, he makes his arguments sing! Strong and opinionated - he must have been wonderful company in real life. But also an arch old conservative - we find him arguing in the end of Part 2
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that the remedy for discontent with the political order is that the people should be taught to not want change!
Parts of the book are just a joy to read - Chapter 13 on people living in a "state of nature", i.e. outside of a political commonwealth, is short, sharp and persuasive. This is also the source of the famous quote of life outside a commonwealth as "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short". But in others he deploys his skills to argue for the indefensible: he suggests that the people have a covenant with their monarch, but not the other way round, and even, remarkably, that the people are authors of the actions of a monarch, and thus have no cause for complaint at any action taken by the monarch!
I read an edition with current spelling, but I also referred to a text of the original. I found it amazing that the English in use in 1651 is so accessible today, whereas Shakespeare, from two generations earlier, is at times a struggle. Of course, one is written in academic terms while the other is vernacular, but it is striking how stable the language has become over 350 years.
Read August 2014.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
This book was revolutionary for its time but doesn't hold up well to modern-day philosophical scrutiny. Convinced that men were by nature evil, Hobbes argued that the best system of government was a benevolent dictator backed by a powerful army but he doesn't seem to recognize that power corrupts
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and benevolent dictators are hard to come by.
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LibraryThing member Vercingetorix
Not to sound too flippant, but I think this book is probably worth reading solely for exceprts such as these:

"The Papacy, is no other, than the Ghost of the deceased Romane Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof..."

"The Ecclesiastiques are the Spirituall men, and Ghostly Fathers. The
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Fairies are Spirits, and Ghosts. Fairies and Ghosts inhabite Darknesse, Solitudes, and Graves. The Ecclesiastiques walke in Obscurity of Doctrine, in Monasteries, Churches, and Churchyards."

Both from The Kingdome of Darknesse
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LibraryThing member Kade
Most of the bulk of The Leviathan is spent slowly and methodically building and explaining Hobbes' cynical opinion of the state of nature. This is partially why the Leviathan is antiquated today, because we don't deal with states of nature, nobody except anarchists deny the need for government.
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However in terms of a political science treatise it's effective in establishing the roots and general purpose of government. Whereas The Prince reads as an advisory manual for would-be Kings and is therefore completely anachronistic, The Leviathan is still an effective justification for government. If you already buy that the state of nature is an unacceptable way to live, skip the first (and larger) part of the Leviathan and simply read Hobbes' solution to the problem. Must-have for political scientists.
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LibraryThing member chriszodrow
A necessary but unpleasant read. The dilated statist mind has a tentative justification here.
LibraryThing member mattries37315
To raise from his short, brutish existence man willing give up his freedom and rights to protect himself if others do the same to one strong man who promises to protect them. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan revolves around this idea but leading up to it and expounding upon it is a surprising amount of
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insight of both political and religious thought.

Hobbes’ work is divided into four parts with the first, “Of Man”, covering human nature and why men form governments not for the greater good as other postulate but to protect themselves and their stuff. Hobbes essentially says that men give up their freedom to the government to be protected from other men so they can keep their life and possessions that they can add to. In the second part, “Of Commonwealth”, Hobbes argues that the perfect government is under one absolute sovereign—whether a monarch or legislative body—that will control all aspects of the government with the aim to preserve the persons of the governed by any means necessary and that the govern must obey the sovereign in all aspects of life including in religion and taxation, the later must be used to support those unable to maintain themselves. In part three, “Of a Christian Commonwealth”, Hobbes discusses how a Christian commonwealth should be governed and essentially says that the civil power is the final arbiter of all spiritual revelation and thus the religious power is subordinate to the sovereign as seen in the Holy Scriptures. In the final part, “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”, Hobbes turns his focus towards ignorance of the true light of knowledge and its causes which stem from religious deceivers through four things—misinterpretation, demonology and saints, the mixing of religion with erroneous Greek philosophy, and mixing of these false doctrines and traditions with feigned history. Hobbes blames all the churches and churchmen for these causes as they are the beneficiaries at the expense of the civil power which endangers the commonwealth and the preservation of every man in them.

As one of the earliest and most influential works on social contract theory, Hobbes’ political ideas are often cited and quoted. However, the fact that almost half the work is a religious discourse was a surprise and insightful. That Hobbes discredited church-led states was gratifying, though he then recommended state control of religion was a disappointment but not surprising given the theme of his work. Besides his views on the church-state relationship, Hobbes’ work is primary to understanding how the political thought of today began and how his contemporaries and those that followed him reacted to his views.

Leviathan is Thomas Hobbes’ magnum opus of political thought and has been influential for centuries, whether one agrees with his conclusions or vehemently disagrees.
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LibraryThing member Paul_S
Interesting as a historical document but not very informative of thought provoking any more. The main concern of the book are the sources of laws and authority, there being mostly three: natural law (tautological rambling about common sense), state law given by the monarch (given as an axiom more
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or less), and lastly given by the Christian god (so self evident it needs no explanation). Arguments like this don't really impress any more. God's law is the one that occupies most of the book and the author has a go at the church and explains how church must be subordinate to the monarch (not exactly original thought by that time).

The book is by volume mostly about scripture interpretation and running of the church. The moment when he finally badmouths other religions and ridicules them (including Judaism) is priceless. I've seen sacks of potatoes with more self awareness and tendency for introspection.
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LibraryThing member Donovan
Actually, Hobbes' words were 'nasty, brutish, and short.' Leviathan is a great book, but what I find amazing about it is not Hobbes' insights into humans or politics-the continuation of our reliance upon Hobbes to explain state power seems much more the point. Hobbes was one of the first to
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understand fear as the basis for government, and this has remained, unfortunately, a prevalent view. Read this book, but critically and as a historically great work.
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LibraryThing member Diwanna
I had a bit of trouble reading this book because of the archaic language. I did glean quite a bit of good info from it regarding Hobbes theories on religion, morality, and politics. It's a must read, but take your time.
LibraryThing member vegetarian
I first read this as an undergraduate in political science, then we read it again in a second social philosophy course (where a chapter had been assigned for my first social philosophy course).
LibraryThing member axelp
"He that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but Man-kind: which though it be hard to do, harder than to learn any Language, or Science; yet when I shall have set down my own reading orderly, and perspicuously, the pains left another, will be onely
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to consider if he also find not the same in himself."
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LibraryThing member JVioland
One of the best political treatises ever written. Very lucid arguments to justify an all-powerful state. I loved reading this book again.
LibraryThing member jpsnow
Hobbe's work is more completely titled "The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil." There is a lot of depth in this work and my weak attempt here is meant more to reinforce the reading within my own mind than to actually convey the entire meaning of Hobbe's great work.
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Hobbes is among the first in a series of thinkers to contemplate the meaning of life, politics, religion, and humanity in order to put them into some logical context. He does a perfect job of building small parts of his argument and then combining them to make a completely powerful major point. The natural role of the sovereign, obedience to the sovereign, and the endorsement of all of this by God are principal points in Hobbes argument. Later thinkers such as Locke and Rouseau later allowed for the citizenry to break the contract with the sovereign but Hobbes does not allow for that in any way. Much of Hobbe's logic is also based on the scientific discoveries taking place during the time. As part of his debunking other philosophies, he mentions the assertion by Aristotle that all things emit a "visible species," which was then known to be untrue.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Listened to this in audio form and found it a little hard to follow in places.
LibraryThing member heidilove
A meaningful look into the thoughts and context of the man who gave us the phrase that life is hard brutish and short.


Original publication date


Physical description

728 p.; 18 cm


0140431950 / 9780140431957
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