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The limitations of the Leviathan

October 10, 2010

Hobbes' Leviathan, graced with a monarchal figure above all.

When I was reading the Leviathan, I found a great appreciation for Hobbes and his way of creating a need for government. Hobbes sets up this necessity by first going through the similarities and differences of man. The general underlying derivative of all men is, according to Hobbes, “a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (p. 149). And the differences every person possesses, that makes him/her unique from the rest of society are personal passions and varying ignorance.

After describing the similarities and differences of man, Hobbes describes the primal “state of nature”, “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” P. 159). The way Hobbes describes the natural inclinations of man is very primitive. We do what we want and think only of ourselves. To remedy these tendencies of man, that makes mankind no different than beasts, Hobbes introduces the social contract. The social contract is a contract men sign that holds every one accountable and works to keep peace, man’s primary goal (it preserves our most treasured possession, life).

In the social contract, Hobbes proceeds to introduce a head figure in his argument for government, the sovereign. The sovereign is someone that is authorized by the people to act on the people’s best interests. “A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree, and covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all, (that is to say, to be their representative;)” (p. 175). This is where I believe the Leviathan begins to reach a certain limitation.

This sovereign is given power by the people, and therefore whatever he does is endorsed by the citizens of the social contract. If this sovereign is to act based on the needs and desires of the people, what happens if the people disagree? To highlight my point, I will use an example that was brought up in my discussion section. If half the people want vanilla ice cream and the other chocolate, and the sovereign can only choose one, which will he choose? Perhaps he’ll choose chocolate, but then he’s ignoring the personal passions of the vanilla lovers. Does he choose whichever one he would rather eat? If so, Hobbes’ sovereign becomes a monarch (this isn’t a bad thing, just a description of what the Leviathan could lead to). If the sovereign does a tally and sees that a few more people in society like vanilla and purchases vanilla, the sovereign is acting democratically.

This simple problem of a discrepancy amongst men has driven the sovereign to dance between the lines of monarchy and democracy–two completely different types of government, based on his choice. These discrepancies will always occur in mankind due to personal choice and passion, something Hobbes recognized and described in his analysis of mankind. For this reason, I feel the Leviathan establishes for government and begins to describe a sufficient one with the idea of an authorized sovereign. However, I find the Leviathan too general when it comes to its application in real-life situations.

  1. andrewjclark permalink
    October 15, 2010 7:23 PM

    Wouldn’t Hobbes’ sovereign allow them to eat whatever ice cream they want? As long as the ice cream eaters’ don’t get too out of hand with their dessert and they make sure they don’t throw the ice cream at the sovereign while he is protecting them!

  2. matteric9 permalink
    October 15, 2010 8:59 PM

    I would have to agree with the andrewjclark. The primary goal of the sovereign is to keep the people in his sovereign protected! The kind of ice cream the people in the sovereign eat does not strike me as a concern to the sovereign. In fact, the sovereign exists because the majority has consented to his rule; the minority have agreed to abide by this arrangement and must then assent to the sovereign’s actions. Also, every subject is author of the acts of the sovereign: hence the sovereign cannot injure any of his subjects, and cannot be accused of injustice. Therefore, since the subjects in the commonwealth are the author of the sovereigns actions, whatever he decides to do will inadvertently be their own actions.

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