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Hobbes's Leviathan

Published in 1651, in the midst of England's civil war, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan helped shape western political thinking. To protect us from inevitable anarchy, Hobbes argued, we need a leader and protector, whose position is governed by a contract with the people

Hobbes's Leviathan, 1651

Hobbes: Leviathan, 1651
Egerton 1910
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

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Who was Hobbes?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a philosopher and royalist, educated at Oxford. In his travels round Europe, often living in near Paris, he picked up a wide education in the artistic, scientific and philosophical thinking of the day. He worked as a tutor to the noble and wealthy, but not until his 40s did he start working in earnest on his own philosophical theories. Hobbes wrote many books and contributed to many academic fields, but his 1651 book Leviathan is the one he is remembered for.

What does Leviathan say about politics and society?

Hobbes proposed that the natural basic state of humankind is one of anarchy, with the strong dominating the weak. Life for most, he said, was "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short". Therefore, our one natural right is of self-preservation.

In order to remove that basic fear between individuals or groups, Hobbes suggested that people would "contract" with a protector as their sovereign. Under this social contract, individuals give up all rights, while those of the protector are absolute. He did not, though, believe in divine right. Hobbes's key point was that the protector was there by specific agreement with their subjects.

What's the story behind the cover illustration?

The famous cover engraving provided Leviathan with an enduringly striking image. A crowned giant emerges from the landscape, clutching a sword (a symbol of earthly power) and a crosier (a symbol of church power). The torso and arms of the colossus are composed of over three hundred humans, showing how the people are represented by their contracted leader, who draws his strength from their collective agreement. Underneath is a quote from the Book of Job: "Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei" ('There is no power on earth to be compared with him'), linking the figure to the Biblical monster, mentioned in Job, that Hobbes's book is named after.

Was it a product of the Civil War?

Not directly. When he fled to Paris at the start of the War in 1642, he had already conceived many of the ideas in Leviathan.

However, the issues he discusses were a matter of hot debate at the time. In the conflict between Parliament and Charles I, thoughts about a formal constitution raised questions about the rights of the individual. Initially these concentrated on who was allowed to vote, but the Agreement of the People in 1649 also raised such issues as the freedom of worship, the fairness of trials and punishment, and equality under the law.

What happened after the Restoration?

During the years of the Republic and after the Restoration of the monarchy, others considered the true nature of an individual's rights and freedoms, but it was not until after the Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights that thinkers felt sufficiently free to express their views without fear of persecution. Their ideas contributed to a growing understanding of political and human rights that would one day see a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite the Restoration of the monarchy, the Age of Enlightenment had yet to dawn, and those who promoted their ideas about rights and freedoms would find their lives in danger. Their thoughts, though, contributed to the understanding about the very nature of rights and their place in society.

What impact did Leviathan have?

Hobbes's concept of a social contract was taken up by others who developed it in another direction, such as Algernon Sidney, and most notably by John Locke, author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Leviathan is now recognised as a cornerstone of western political philosophy, particularly in its ideas of a 'social contract' between ruler and ruled.

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