An Analysis of Leviathan (chapters 17-31) by Thomas Hobbes and Its Relevance to an Understanding of American Government Today

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Unlike other authors, Hobbes departs from the philosophy of contract theorists such as Rousseau and Locke, who firmly argued for the creation of monarchies. They both accept, however, that humans create a government to defend themselves, but they disagree about the form of government that offers the best security. Hobbes believes that democracy is the worst system of government, while Locke and Rousseau believe that democracies are not just the safest choice, but also the justest. Despite presenting logical proof to assert his argument, Hobbes was evidently influenced by his historical studies about the Roman empires collapsed due to constant struggles between the elected officials and the citizenry.


Nonetheless, Hobbes’ arguments in these chapters have significantly influenced modern versions of democracy. Of critical importance, Hobbes introduces the aspect of representation, which is essential in the contemporary era where states have become too large to function as pure democracies. This ideology is a core component of any functioning democracy. Similarly, the leviathan described by Hobbes that enjoys absolute power over and above its citizenry is perceived as a representative of the individuals in the commonwealth. Regardless of the form of government either a pure monarchy or not, citizens have to offer their consent to reside under a leviathan. However, Hobbes’ description of consent raises several debates, especially concerning how it is applied to children or people conquered through armed conflict and war (Hobbes 68-71). Hobbes espouses that children cannot offer consent to their parents just because they are born to them, but only when their faculties are developed. Hobbes continues to state that children aged eleven years have the knowledge to comprehend the challenges of leaving their households and family to provide for them, but if they are unable to provide for themselves, they are left with no alternatives. This is an evident that people used to form the states since they were not able to defend themselves on their own, which is the duty given to the government.

Hobbes also takes into consideration objections to his perceptions about the need for a Commonwealth. He provides an analogy of bees and ants that seem to live together in harmony without any creation of a state or society. The question is why men are not able to live in a similar manner, and yet they are also animals. Hobbes justifies his argument by offering several reasons that prohibit men from living like ants and bees (Hobbes 159-161). First and foremost, men are not similar to other animals; they are rational beings that always desire to cheat to enhance their position in society. Secondly, animals are not blessed with speech, and hence they do not have the capacity to mislead each other about their desires and wants. Thirdly, animals in most occasions tend to agree with one another, but humans rarely agree with each other. The reason is that humans are born competitive in nature.

Moreover, Hobbes postulates that the only instance when a subject is justified to disobey the sovereign state is when the government is no longer able or willing to protect its subjects. This opens Hobbes ideology to relativism. The question is at which point it can be comprehended that the government has failed to protect the interests of its citizens. If governments are not able to protect their citizens, it implies that people are living without states, and hence they are reduced to a stateless nature in which there exists no sovereign authority to disobey (Hobbes 193-197). Alternatively, if individuals are encouraged to disobey the sovereign from the onset, it implies that the Commonwealth is very close to collapsing, which places the degree of state protection in a subjective position.

The main reason that Hobbes uses to justify the functions of the commonwealth such as using secret counsel rather than counsel by an assembly is that these measures are a prerequisite to maintain and sustain the absolute power of the sovereign. In the absence of absolute power, the government could be adversely weakened exposing the citizenry to the risk of being engulfed in a civil war. Nonetheless, Hobbes does not offer a viable justification as to why a lack of absolute power and authority would lead the society to degenerate into instability. This argument is based on physiological rather than philosophical justifications. Hobbes argues that men are innately fallible, which implies the higher the number of people involved in making decisions, the greater the extent of fallibility (Hobbes 228-231). However, Rousseau rejects this notion by arguing the human nature is never static since it often changes with time. It implies if men are progressive and form better associations with other humans, this implies that an absolute monarch would not be the best form of government.

Despite elaborate discussions about the associations that exist between subjects as well as between the sovereign and subjects, very little is mentioned of relationships between commonwealths. Hobbes believes that once subjects go beyond the commonwealth, they are outside justice. It suggests that inter-state associations would also be chaotic and war-like. As a result of the lack of right and wrong, justice and injustice within the relations of men, a state of perpetual war should exist among states (Hobbes 192-196). Because of the lack of a social contract among governments, there can be no existence of international law. If such a treaty were to exist, it would require an international body with the authority and power to impose punishment to those who digress from the social contract.

Various scholars have argued that the American government system and structure is a result of numerous ideologies borrowed from enlightenment thinkers that lived during the 17th and 18th centuries. Among these scholars and thinkers was Thomas Hobbes. Even though some of Hobbes arguments are contrary to the principles governing the American government such as the emphasis on the absolute power of the Commonwealth over its subjects, most features are consistent with the aspirations contained in the nation’s founding documents. Most of Hobbes ideas about social contracts, natural liberties, and equality significantly inspired the drafters of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Bolick 161-165). However, some of Hobbes’ ideology was not incorporated into the American philosophy of government and independence, but were introduced after the civil war.

When Hobbes was contemplating how life would be in the absence of government, his conclusion was that it would be a brutish, nasty, and short experience. Hobbes believed that people would constantly be fighting against each other to satisfy their self-interests, which would lead them to attack one another. From this pessimistic perspective originates that foundation of the American system of governance anchored on Hobbes ideology of the social compact. Hobbes espoused that to enforce the law and prevent the state from drifting into anarchy; citizens often consent to the establishment of a government. This notion is embedded in the preamble to the U. S. Constitution, which states that the American people are creating a government to foster domestic tranquility and facilitate the general welfare (Bolick 170-172).

The Declaration of Independence emphasizes the point that all men are created equal and bequeathed with certain unalienable rights (Tanner 209-211). Even though this premise is also featured in the works of John Locke, Hobbes also made significant contributions to the notion of natural liberties. Hobbes espoused that all subjects within the Commonwealth had the right to defend their property and themselves, as well as overthrow a government that could no longer offer them protection. This is the anchoring principle behind the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the US as a sovereign nation. Additionally, the second amendment states that a regulated army is crucial to the security of a free nation which agrees with Hobbes perceptions about self-defense.

Hobbes perceptions about a world that had no government had one significant advantage that all men were inherently equal. Arguably, their equity in capabilities was attributed to making life terrible since no single individual could have the ability to rise above the others. In Hobbes’ perspective, equality required protection, and hence the American government evolved to significantly embrace the notion of equality (Bennett and Bennett 135). For instance, the adoption of the fourteenth amendment after the American civil war prohibited any jurisdiction restricting or denying any American equality before the law. Previously, the Declaration of Independence that espoused that all men are created equal offered only a conceptual framework of entrenching equality in government.


According to Hobbes, the gravitation towards self-perseveration is a natural instinct that ought to be the foundation of governing principles. In the US government, this principle is first cited in the Declaration of Independence that all men have a right to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness. Even though this statement has some influence from Lockean ideology, the specific mention of life is derived from the Hobbesian school of thought. Hobbes believed that the preservation of one’s life was sacrosanct. The 14th amendment to the US Constitution explicitly restricts any state from denying any person of his life, property, and liberty without following the due process of the law. It effectively enshrines Hobbesian ideology into the US governance system.

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Works Cited

Bennett, Linda L. M, and Stephen E. Bennett. Living with Leviathan: Americans Coming to Terms with Big Government. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1990. Print.

Bolick, Clint. Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Liberty. Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2004. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Parts I and Ii-Revised Edition. Ed by Martinich, A. P., and Brian Battiste. Buffalo, New York: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.

Tanner, Michael D. Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution. Washington, D.C: Cato Institute, 2007. Print.

August 26, 2022


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