For the laws of nature—enjoining justice, fairness, modesty, mercy, and (in short) treating others as we want them to treat us—are in themselves contrary to our natural passions, unless some power frightens us into observing them. In the absence of such a power, our natural passions carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants without the sword are merely words, with no strength to secure a man at all. Every man has obeyed the laws of nature when he has wanted to, which is when he could do it safely; but if there is no power set up, or none that is strong enough for our security, no-one can safely abide by the laws; and in that case every man will and lawfully may rely on his own strength and skill to protect himself against all other men. In all places where men have lived in small families with no larger organized groupings, the trade of robber was so far from being regarded as against the law of nature that it was outright honored, so that the greater spoils someone gained by robbery, the greater was his honor. The only constraints on robbery came from the laws of honor, which enjoined robbers to abstain from cruelty and to let their victims keep their lives and their farm implements. These days cities and kingdoms (which are only greater families) do what small families used to do back then: for their own security they enlarge their dominions, on the basis of claims that they are in danger and in fear of invasion, or that assistance might be given to invaders by the country they are attacking. They try as hard as they can to subdue or weaken their neighbors, by open force and secret manoeuvres; and if they have no other means for their own security, they do this justly, and are honored for it in later years.
Nor can the joining together of a small number of men give them this security that everyone seeks; because when the numbers are small, a small addition on the one side or the other makes the advantage of strength so great that it suffices to carry the victory, and so it gives encouragement for an invasion. How many must we be, to be secure? That depends not on any particular number, but on comparison with the enemy we fear. We have enough if the enemy doesn’t outnumber us by so much that that would settle the outcome of a war between us, which would encourage the enemy to start one.
And however great the number, if their actions are directed according to their individual wants and beliefs, they can’t expect their actions to defend or protect them against a common enemy or against injuries from one another. For being drawn in different directions by their differing opinions concerning how best to use their strength, they hinder rather than help one another, and by quarreling among themselves they reduce their strength to nothing. When that happens they are easily subdued by a very few men who agree together; and when there’s no common enemy they make war on each other for their particular interests. For if we could suppose a great multitude of men to agree in the observation of justice and other laws of nature, without a common power to keep them all in awe, we might as well suppose all mankind to do the same; and then there would not be—and would not need to be—any civil government or commonwealth at all, because there would be peace without subjection.
For the security that men desire to last throughout their lifetimes, it’s not enough that they be governed and directed by one judgment for a limited time—e.g. for one battle, or one war. For in that case, even if they obtain a victory through their unanimous efforts against a foreign enemy, yet afterwards—when they have no common enemy, or when some of them regard as an enemy someone whom the others regard as a friend—the difference of their interests makes it certain that they will fall apart and once more come to be at war among themselves.
It’s true that certain living creatures, such as bees and ants, live sociably with one another (which is why Aristotle counts them among the ‘political’ creatures [Greek politike = ‘social’]), although each of them is steered only by its particular judgments and appetites, and they don’t have speech through which one might indicate to another what it thinks expedient for the common benefit. You may want to know why mankind can’t do the same. My answer to that has six parts.
- Men continually compete with one another for honor and dignity, which ants and bees do not; and that leads men, but not those other animals, to envy and hatred and finally war.
- Among those lower creatures, the common good of all is the same as the private good of each; and being naturally inclined to their private benefit, in procuring that they also procure the common benefit. But a man’s biggest pleasure in his own goods comes from their being greater than those of others!
- Bees and ants etc. don’t have the use of reason (as man does), and so they don’t see—and don’t think they see—any fault in how their common business is organized; whereas very many men think themselves wiser than the rest, and better equipped to govern the public. These men struggle to reform and innovate, one in this way and another in that, thereby bringing the commonwealth into distraction and civil war.
- These creatures, though they have some use of voice in making known to one another their desires and other affections, don’t have that skill with words through which some men represent good things to others in the guise of evil, and evil in the guise of good, and misrepresent how great various goods and evils are. These activities enable their practitioners to make men discontented, and to disturb their peace, whenever they feel like doing so.
- Creatures that lack reason don’t have the notion of being insulted or wronged as distinct from being physically damaged; so as long as they are at ease physically they are not offended with their fellows; whereas man is most troublesome when he is most at ease, for that is when he loves to show his wisdom and to control the actions of those who govern the commonwealth.
- The agreement of these creatures is natural, whereas men’s agreement is by covenant only, which is artificial; so it’s no wonder if something besides the covenant is needed to make their agreement constant and lasting, namely a common power to keep them in awe and direct their actions to the common benefit.
The only way to establish a common power that can defend them from the invasion of foreigners and the injuries of one another, and thereby make them secure enough to be able to nourish themselves and live contentedly through their own labors and the fruits of the earth, is to confer all their power and strength on one man, or one assembly of men, so as to turn all their wills by a majority vote into a single will. That is to say:
- to appoint one man or assembly of men to bear their person; and everyone
- to own and acknowledge himself to be the author of every act that he who bears their person performs or causes to be performed in matters concerning the common peace and safety, and all of them
- to submit their wills to his will, and
- their judgments to his judgment.
[Hobbes explains the key concepts of that sentence early in Chapter 16.] This is more than mere agreement or harmony; it is a real unity of them all. They are unified in that they constitute one single person, created through a covenant of every man with every other man, as though each man were to say to each of the others:
I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on condition that you surrender to him your right of governing yourself, and authorize all his actions in the same way.
[Rather than ‘you’ and ‘your’, Hobbes here uses ‘thou’ and ‘thy’—the second-person singular, rare in Leviathan—emphasizing the one-on-one nature of the covenant.] When this is done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth, in Latin Civitas. This is the method of creation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense. For by this authority that has been given to ‘this man’ by every individual man in the commonwealth, he has conferred on him the use of so much power and strength that people’s fear of it enables him to harmonize and control the wills of them all, to the end of peace at home and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. He is the essence of the commonwealth, which can be defined thus:
A commonwealth is one person of whose acts a great multitude of people have made themselves the authors (each of them an author), doing this by mutual covenants with one another, so that the commonwealth may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think appropriate, for their peace and common defense.
He who carries this person is called SOVEREIGN, and said to have ‘sovereign power’, and all the others are his SUBJECTS.
Sovereign power can be attained in two ways. One is by natural force, as when a man makes his children submit themselves and their children to his government, by being able to destroy them if they refuse, or subdues his enemies to his will by war, sparing their lives on condition that they submit their wills to his government. The other is when men agree among themselves to submit to some one man or assembly of men, doing this voluntarily in the confidence that this man or assembly will protect them against all others. This latter, may be called a political commonwealth, or commonwealth by institution, and the former a commonwealth by acquisition. I shall speak first of a commonwealth by institution, turning to commonwealth by acquisition in chapter 20.
Chapter 18. The rights of sovereigns by institution
A commonwealth is said to be ‘instituted’ when a multitude of men agree and covenant—each one with each other—that
When some man or assembly of men is chosen by majority vote to present the person of them all (i.e. to be their representative), each of them will authorize all the actions and judgments of that man or assembly of men as though they were his own, doing this for the purpose of living peacefully among themselves and being protected against other men. This binds those who did not vote for this representative, as well as those who did. For unless the votes are all understood to be included in the majority of votes, they have come together in vain, and contrary to the end that each proposed for himself, namely the peace and protection of them all.
From the form of the institution are derived all the power and all the rights of the one having supreme power, as well as the duties of all the citizens. I shall discuss these rights, powers, and duties under twelve headings.
First, because the people make a covenant, it is to be understood they aren’t obliged by any previous covenant to do anything conflicting with this new one. Consequently those who have already instituted a commonwealth, being thereby bound by a covenant to own the actions and judgments of one sovereign, cannot lawfully get together to make a new covenant to be obedient to someone else, in any respect at all, without their sovereign’s permission. So those who are subject to a monarch can’t without his leave throw off monarchy and return to the confusion of a disunited multitude, or transfer their person from him who now bears it to some other man or other assembly of men; for they are bound, each of them to each of the others, to own and be the proclaimed author of everything that their existing sovereign does and judges fit to be done; so that any one man dissenting, all the rest should break their covenant made to that man, which is injustice [from the semi-colon to the end, those words are Hobbes’s]. And they have also—every man of them—given the sovereignty to him who bears their person; so if they depose him they take from him something that is his, and that again is injustice. Furthermore, if anyone who tries to depose his sovereign is killed or punished for this by the sovereign, he is an author of his own punishment, because the covenant makes him an author of everything his sovereign does; and since it is injustice for a man to do anything for which he may be punished by his own authority, his attempt to depose his sovereign is unjust for that reason also.
Some men have claimed to base their disobedience to their sovereign on a new covenant that they have made not with men but with God; and this also is unjust, for there’s no covenant with God except through the mediation of somebody who represents God’s person, and the only one who does that is God’s lieutenant, who has the sovereignty under God. But this claim of a covenant with God is so obviously a lie, even in the claimant’s own consciences, that it is the act of a disposition that is not only unjust but also vile and unmanly.
Secondly, what gives the sovereign a right to bear the person of all his subjects is a covenant that they make with one another, and not a covenant between him and any of them; there can’t be a breach of covenant on his part; and consequently none of his subjects can be freed from subjection by a claim that the sovereign has forfeited his right to govern by breaking his covenant with his subject(s). It is obvious that the sovereign makes no covenant with his subjects on the way to becoming sovereign. To see why this is true, suppose that it isn’t, and for ease of exposition suppose that you are one of the subjects. In that case the sovereign must either make a covenant with the whole multitude as the other party, or make a separate covenant with each man, including one with you. But it can’t be with the whole as one party, because at this point they are not one person; and if he makes as many separate covenants as there are men, those covenants become void after he becomes sovereign. Why? Because any act of the sovereign’s that you (for example) can claim to be a breach of your covenant with him is an act of yours and of everyone else’s, because it was done by the sovereign, and thus was done in the person, and by the right, of every individual subject including you.
Besides, if one or more of the subjects claims a breach of the covenant made by the sovereign in his becoming sovereign, and one or more other subjects contend that there was no such breach (or indeed if only the sovereign himself contends this), there’s no judge to decide the controversy, so it returns to the sword again, and every man regains the right of protecting himself by his own strength, contrary to the design they had in the institution of the commonwealth. . . . The opinion that any monarch receives his power by covenant—i.e. on some condition—comes from a failure to grasp this easy truth:
Because covenants are merely words and breath, they have no force to oblige, contain, constrain, or protect any man, except whatever force comes from the public sword—i.e. from the untied hands of that man or assembly of men that has the sovereignty, whose actions all the subjects take responsibility for, and are performed by the strength of them all, united in their sovereign.
When an assembly of men is made sovereign, nobody imagines this to have happened through any such covenant; for no man is so stupid as to say, for example, that the people of Rome made a covenant with the Romans to hold the sovereignty on such and such conditions, the nonperformance of which would entitle the Romans to depose the Roman people! Why don’t men see that the basic principles of a monarchy are the same as those of a popular government? They are led away from seeing this by the ambition of people who are kinder to the government of an assembly than to that of a monarchy, because they can hope to participate in the former, but despair of enjoying the latter.
Thirdly, because the majority have by consenting voices declared a sovereign, someone who dissented must now go along with the others, i.e. be contented to accept all the actions the sovereign shall do; and if he doesn’t, he may justly be destroyed by the others. For if he voluntarily entered into the congregation of those who came together to consider instituting a sovereign, he thereby sufficiently declared his willingness to accept what the majority should decide on (and therefore tacitly covenanted to do so); so if he then refuses to accept it, or protests against any of their decrees, he is acting contrary to his tacit covenant, and therefore unjustly. Furthermore: whether or not he enters into the congregation, and whether or not his consent is asked, he must either submit to the majority’s decrees or be left in the condition of war he was in before, in which he can without injustice be destroyed by any man at all.
Fourthly, because every subject is by this institution of the commonwealth the author of all the actions and judgments of the sovereign, it follows that nothing the sovereign does can wrong any of his subjects, nor ought any of them to accuse him of injustice. For someone who acts by the authority of someone else can’t in acting wrong the person by whose authority he acts; but according to this institution of a commonwealth, every individual man is an author of everything the sovereign does; so someone who complains of being wronged by his sovereign complains about something of which he himself is an author; so he oughtn’t to accuse anyone but himself—and indeed he oughtn’t even to accuse himself of wronging himself, because to wrong one’s self is impossible. [Throughout this paragraph up to this point, ‘wrong’ replaces Hobbes’s ‘injury’.] It’s true that those who have sovereign power may commit iniquity [= ‘do wicked things’], but not injustice or injury in the proper meaning of that term.
Fifthly, following from the preceding point: no man who has sovereign power can justly be put to death or punished in any other way by his subjects. For seeing that every subject is an author of the actions of his sovereign, if he punishes the sovereign he punishes someone else for actions committed by himself.
And because the goal of this institution is the peace and defence of them all, and whoever has a right to the goal has a right to the means to it, the man or assembly that has the sovereignty has the right to be judge both of the means to peace and defence, and also of the hindrances and disturbances of peace and defence; and to do whatever he thinks is needed, both beforehand for preserving of peace and security by prevention of discord at home and hostility from abroad, and for the recovery of peace and security after they have been lost. And therefore,
Sixthly, it is for the sovereignty [= ‘the man or assembly of men to whom the sovereignty has been given’] to be the judge
- of what opinions and doctrines are threats to peace and what ones tend to support it; and consequently of
- which men are to be trusted to speak to multitudes of people,
- on what occasions, and
- how far they should be allowed to go; and
- of who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they are published.
For the actions of men come from their opinions, and the way to govern men’s actions in the interests of peace and harmony is to govern their opinions. When we are considering doctrines, nothing ought to be taken account of but truth; but this doesn’t conflict with regulating doctrines on grounds having to do with peace. For a doctrine that is harmful to peace can’t be true, any more than peace and harmony can be against the law of nature. It’s true that in a commonwealth where the negligence or incompetence of governors and teachers has allowed false doctrines to become generally believed, the contrary truths may be generally found to be offensive. But even the most sudden and rough bustling in of a new truth never breaks the peace, but only sometimes awakens the war. I said ‘awakens’ the war, not ‘starts’ it. For men who are so slackly governed that they dare take up arms to defend or introduce an opinion are at war already; their state is not peace, but only a cessation of arms through mutual fear, and they live continually on the fringe of a battlefield, so to speak. So he who has the sovereign power must be the judge—or establish others as judges—of opinions and doctrines, this being necessary for peace and the avoidance of discord and civil war.
Seventhly, the sovereignty has the whole power of prescribing the rules that let every man know what goods he may enjoy, and what actions he may perform, without being troubled by any of his fellow-subjects; and this is what men call ‘property’ [Hobbes writes ‘propriety’]. Before the establishment of sovereign power (as I have already shown), all men had a right to all things, a state of affairs which necessarily causes war; and therefore this system of property, being necessary for peace and dependent on sovereign power, is one of the things done by sovereign power in the interests of public peace. These rules of property (or meum and tuum [Latin for ‘mine’ and ‘yours’]) and of good, bad, lawful, and unlawful in the actions of subjects, are the civil laws, i.e. the laws of each individual commonwealth. . . .
Eighthly, the sovereignty alone has the right of judging, i.e. of hearing and deciding any controversies that may arise concerning law (civil or natural) or concerning fact. For if controversies are not decided, one subject has no protection against being wronged by another, the laws concerning meum and tuum have no effect, and every man retains—because of the natural and inevitable desire for his own preservation—the right to protect himself by his own private strength, which is the condition of war, and is contrary to the purpose for which every commonwealth is instituted.
Ninthly, the sovereignty alone has the right to make war and peace with other nations, and commonwealths, i.e. the right to judge when war is for the public good, to decide what size of military forces are to be assembled for that purpose and armed and paid for, and to tax the subjects to get money to defray the expenses of those forces. For the power by which the people are to be defended consists in their armies, and the strength of an army consists in the union of the soldiers’ strengths under one command; and it’s the instituted sovereign who has that command. Indeed, having command of the military is enough to make someone sovereign, without his being instituted as such in any other way. So whoever is appointed as general of an army, it’s always the sovereign power who is its supreme commander.
Tenthly, it is for the sovereignty to choose all counsellors, ministers, magistrates, and officers, in both peace and war. For seeing that the sovereign is charged with achieving the goal of the common peace and defence, he is understood to have the power to use whatever means he thinks most fit for this purpose.
Eleventhly, to the sovereign is committed [= ‘entrusted’] the power of rewarding with riches or honour, and of punishing with corporal punishment or fines or public disgrace, every subject according to the law the sovereign has already made; or if no relevant law has been made, according to his (the sovereign’s) judgment about what will conduce most to encouraging men to serve the commonwealth, or to deterring them from doing disservice to it.
Lastly, because of how highly men are naturally apt to value themselves, what respect they want from others, and how little they value other men—all of which continually gives rise to resentful envy, quarrels, side-taking, and eventually war, in which they destroy one another and lessen their strength against a common enemy—it’s necessary to have laws of honour, and a public rate [= ‘price-list’] stating the values of men who have deserved well of the commonwealth or may yet do so, and to put into someone’s hands the power to put those laws in execution. But I have already shown that not only the whole military power of the commonwealth, but also the judging of all controversies, is assigned to the sovereignty. So it’s the sovereign whose role it is to give titles of honour, and to appoint what order of place and dignity each man shall hold, and what signs of respect they shall give to one another in public or private meetings.
These are the rights that make the essence of sovereignty, and are the marks by which one can tell what man or assembly of men has the sovereign power. For these rights and powers can’t be shared and can’t be separated from one another. The sovereign may transfer to someone else the power to coin money, to dispose of the estate and persons of infant heirs, to have certain advantages in markets, or any other prerogative that is governed by particular laws, while still retaining the power to protect his subjects. But if he transfers the military it’s no use his retaining the power of judging, because he will have no way of enforcing the laws; or if he gives away the power of raising money, the military is useless; or if he gives away the control of doctrines, men will be frightened into rebellion by the fear of spirits. So if we consider any one of the rights I have discussed, we shall immediately see that it is necessary, because the holding of all the others without that one will have no effect on the conservation of peace and justice, the purpose for which all commonwealths are instituted. This division of powers that ought not to be divided was the topic when it was said that a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24); for a division into opposite armies can never happen unless this division of powers happens first. If a majority of people in England hadn’t come to think that these powers were divided between the king, the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people would never have been divided and fallen into this civil war—first over disagreements in politics, and then over disagreements about freedom of religion—a war that has so instructed men in this matter of sovereign rights that most people in England do now see that these rights are inseparable. This will be generally acknowledged when peace next returns, and it will continue to be acknowledged for as long as people remember their miseries in the war (though it won’t continue beyond that unless the common people come to be better taught than they have been until now!).
And because these rights are essential and inseparable, it necessarily follows that in whatever words any of them seem to be granted to someone other than the sovereign, the grant is void unless the sovereign power itself is explicitly renounced at the same time, and the title ‘sovereign’ is no longer given by the grantees to him who grants the rights in question; for when he has granted as much as he can, if we grant back or he retains the sovereignty itself, all the rights he has supposedly granted to someone else are restored to him, because they are inseparably attached to the sovereignty.
This great authority being indivisible, and inseparably assigned to the sovereignty, there is little basis for the opinion of those who say of sovereign kings that though they have greater power than every one of their subjects, they have less power than all their subjects together. For if by ‘all together’ they don’t mean the collective body as one person, then ‘all together’ and ‘every one’ mean the same, and what these people say is absurd. But if by ‘all together’ they understand them as one person (which person the sovereign bears), then the power of ‘all together’ is the same as the sovereign’s power, and so again what they say is absurd. They could see its absurdity well enough when the sovereign is an assembly of all the people, but they don’t see it when the sovereign is a monarch; yet the power of sovereignty is the same, whoever has it.
Just as the power of the sovereign ought to be greater than that of any or all the subjects, so should the sovereign’s honour. For the sovereignty is the fountain of honour. The dignities of lord, earl, duke, and prince are created by him. Just as servants in the presence of their master are equal, and without any honour at all, so are subjects in the presence of their sovereign. When they are out of his sight some may shine more than others, but in his presence they shine no more than do the stars in the presence of the sun.
But someone may object here that subjects are in a miserable situation because they are at the mercy of the lusts and other irregular passions of him who has (or of them who have) such unlimited power. Commonly those who live under a monarch think their troubles are the fault of monarchy, and those who live under the government of democracy or some other kind of sovereign assembly attribute all the inconvenience to that form of commonwealth (when really the sovereign power is the same in every form of commonwealth, as long as it is complete enough to protect the subjects). These complainers don’t bear in mind that the human condition can never be without some inconvenience or other, or that the greatest trouble that can possibly come to the populace in any form of government is almost nothing when compared with the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war, or with the dissolute condition of ungoverned men who are not subject to laws and to a coercive power to hold them back from robbery and revenge. Nor do they bear in mind that the greatest burdens laid on subjects by sovereign governors does not come from any pleasure or profit they can expect from damaging or weakening their subjects (in whose vigour consists their own strength and glory), but from the stubbornness of the subjects themselves, who are unwilling to contribute to their own defence, and so make it necessary for their governors to get what they can from them in taxes in time of peace, so that they may have the means to resist their enemies, or to get an advantage over them, if an occasion for this should suddenly present itself. For all men are provided by nature with notable microscopes (that is their passions and self-love) through which every little payment appears as a great grievance, but don’t have the telescopes (namely moral and political science) that would enable them to see far off the miseries that hang over them, which can’t be avoided without such payments.
Citation and Use
The reading was taken from the following work.
Thomas Hobbes. “On The Social Contract – The Originals: Classic Readings in Western Philosophy.” The Originals: Classic Readings in Western Philosophy, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/classicreadings/chapter/thomas-hobbes-on-the-social-contract/.
Use of this work is covered by Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.