Kamil asked:

Explain Hobbes justification for a government with absolute authority. Do you think that his call for an absolute government is merited? Relate your arguments with present day examples.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Politically, Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679) favoured Absolute Monarchy. Before and up to the first English Revolution, he supported the monarchical forces of Charles Stuart against the revolutionary Parliamentary forces. This support was in part, influenced by his philosophical views, especially his view of human nature. These views were expressed in his book Leviathan (1651).

Essentially, without a government with absolute powers, anarchy will ensue. Perhaps Hobbes’ argument finds support in examples of those states around the world where, following the collapse of a central government and state, a condition of war ensues. From Sierra Leone, to Afghanistan, Iraq, to Libya, a war of each against each, tribe against tribe, warlord against warlord ensues. Without going into the contentious issue of the causes of such situations, here, in lieu of the previous, central rule of law, we have the rule of the strongest, or the most cunning, the most powerful: a de facto basis for ruling and not one based in right or law. Further, the rule of the strongest is continually challenged by alternative power or powers at all levels – regional and national. There is no stable condition of Peace but of continual war. Hobbes would perhaps not have been surprised by this as his Political Philosophy predicts it.

Condition of War, Covenant and Commonwealth

Prior to State Government or ‘Common Power’ as Hobbes terms it, men do not live in a condition of Peace and security but in the very opposite. Men are so competitive and aggressive that it is a condition of War. It is characterised as:

“…continuall feare and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” (Ch 13. Leviathan).

Men have to rely on their own strength, wit, cunning in order to survive and can use any means to this end. Contrary to those who maintain that men are naturally good, capable of peaceful living and being guided by conscience alone, Hobbes argues that if men could follow and obey conscience or Natural Law/Reason as he terms it, they would have done so and Government would have no raison d’etre to exist. That it does exist is evidence that Men cannot live in Peace without a ‘common power’ to keep them all in order.

At some point, men tire of living in this precarious condition of War. The fear of death and the absence of security to live and prosper in peace makes them seek a political society of order, peace and security. They congregate to mutually create a contract or Covenant. This gives one of their number Power to end the condition of War and who, they will unconditionally obey. Their power of self-government and self-protection operational in the condition of War ceases, as it has all been covenanted to a single Sovereign Power. Hobbes cites the Covenant in the following words:

“I authorise and give up my right of governing myself, to this man or to this Assembly of men, on this condition that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in the like manner.” (Ch 17. Ibid)

Once the Covenant is made, men leave the condition of War to enter political society ruled by the Absolute Monarch and termed the Commonwealth. Notice that the Covenant is made mutually between men themselves and not between the Government and governed as with other Social Contract Theorists such as John Locke or Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Monarch is Sovereign and legitimate Power lies with him and not the People. The reason for the existence of ordered, peaceful and secure commonwealth lies with the Monarch and his actions. He is the legitimate foundation of and for the commonwealth. Neither is the Sovereign Power bound or accountable to the People, as he has not made the covenant with them but they with him. They have agreed to become his subjects.

Absolute Power

The Sovereign Power provides Peace and Security from internal and external threats. To this end, he has absolute Power(s), which Subjects must obey. Absolute power is required as limited, constitutional power would permit spaces for the re-emergence of the state of war; as human nature compels men to be competitive, it would naturally fill those spaces as it were. Absolute power does not permit such spaces to emerge, as it is what would now be termed totalitarian. (See Chapter 29 Leviathan).Further, as men have created the Absolute Monarch, by this act they have given assent to any act or action he does or, to any law he makes. As the above quote states, men, by the act of the Covenant, did ‘authorise all his actions’ (ibid). So in obeying the Absolute Monarch, the subjects are obeying themselves.

The Absolute Monarch makes all decrees, Laws in the Commonwealth and appoints magistrates and other officers of State to implement and administer them. Laws and decrees are concerned with many things but driven by the end of maintaining Peace and Security in the Commonwealth. It is up to the Monarch to judge upon the means and methods to keep the Peace and against whom and what. Doctrines and opinions are regulated, permitted or censored in the interest of Peace and Security as decided by the Monarch.

Privileges can be granted to Subjects such as Property, trade and exchange, of Combining in systems but these are contingent. Contingent because they depend for their existence upon the Absolute Monarch and as such, can be revoked. Obviously, if they could not be revoked, the Monarch would not be Absolute and other powers would exist apart from and beyond Him. Scope would then exist to challenge the Monarch leading to the re-emergence of the condition of War.

Unnervingly, Hobbes writes that the Monarch even has the power to execute innocent subjects if deemed necessary. This would not be an injustice or injury against the subject but only against Natural Law and God.

Aristotle once wrote that no man could be happy on the rack. Perhaps it could also be added, living in an Absolute Monarchy as described by Hobbes. Why did Hobbes favour such a draconian and extreme Political Philosophy? It actually seems preferable to live in the condition of War than in what appears to be an equally precarious Commonwealth ruled as it is by the arbitrary whim of the Monarch perhaps better described as a Tyrant. Yet Hobbes argues that this is a legitimate political society and one that follows upon the natural condition of men in absence of a common power. As Hobbes’ political conclusions follow upon his premises about human nature, it is to this human nature that we now proceed.

Human Nature

Hobbes was acquainted with the leading thinkers of his age such as Galileo. Galileo formulated the Law of Inertia. Contrary to the Aristotelian view of the universe which held that all things are in or seek repose, the law of inertia states that objects will exist in motion unless hindered or prevented by something else. For Hobbes, this law provided an understanding of human actions and of the society he observed around him. Human beings are naturally in motion unless hindered by other human beings.

Stimulation causes motion in the senses. From the senses arise voluntary motions or appetites. Appetites are either toward something (appetite, desire) or away from something (aversion). This motion is termed Endeavour. Endeavour is the very motion of human beings – it is what we are according to Hobbes. A man can no more cease having appetites and aversions than cease to live. Felicity is the state of having appetites and aversions satisfied. Human endeavour is for the procuring and assuring of felicity and this requires Power.

“The Power of a man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good. And it is either Original or instrumental.” (Ch 10. Ibid)

Power is natural (Strength, Wit,) and Instrumental (Riches, Reputation, Friends). Continuous appetites and the Power required to procure and assure their satisfaction is ‘the general inclination of mankind’ t is:

“…a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is (not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power but) because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.” (Ch 11. Ibid)

Constantly endeavouring men utilise their Power to satisfy their appetites. The procuring and assuring of things for their felicity leads to conflict with other men and what they possess. This conflict leads inexorably to the condition of War as stated above. Here ‘such a warre as is of everyman against every man’. Success depends on might and wits – of how much natural and instrumental Power one can command. Might is right. Hobbes famously describes human life in this condition as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. As we have seen, the only solution Hobbes concluded, was for Absolute Monarchy with corresponding Absolute powers necessary to contain human nature and prevent its degeneration into the condition of war. This conclusion relies heavily on a conception of human nature. Refute this and Hobbes’ political conclusions will not follow.

Criticisms of the Hobbesian conception of Human Nature

Firstly, if power comes into conflict with the power of others, the more powerful can subdue the weaker or, the weaker can acquiesce to the Powerful. There would be no state of war but the rule of the most powerful. Further, Power and appetites can be sublimated.

Expression of appetites and Power can change state. For instance, anger can be sublimated from its crude state into articulation (as in Political understanding and activism). Again, the human infant cries to be fed by its mother. Such crude crying is sublimated (by parental, social education and socialisation over time) into independent acquisition of food and communication of desires. Whilst all humans have the appetite of hunger, few of us enter hunting parties to acquire food as our ancestors did. We are more likely to shop at a supermarket. Thus Power, the means by which appetites are satisfied, is dependent upon social context for its expression. Thus contrary to Hobbes’ reductive and crude understanding of Power, Power does not of necessity result in conflict. For the way it is expressed is dependent upon social factors which mediate and mould it.

Secondly, there appears to be a causal determinism in Hobbes’ formulation. A causes B and B causes C and so on. Rather like a snooker ball determined in its motion by a previous snooker ball and that snooker ball determined to motion by the cause of the cue; so appetites cause Power to secure and assure their satisfaction. Reducing Human beings to the status of snooker balls is fallacious. Human beings possess consciousness – they are conscious of themselves, others and the world they are in. Deliberation and understanding can alter behaviour. So Appetites and the Power to secure them are altered by conscious understanding etc. Again, understanding, deliberation, consciousness do not exist in splendid isolation but are contextualised in a definite social and historical environment.

Thirdly, I perceive a tension in what Hobbes writes about appetites and Power. Either they are alterable or they are not. Power is inherently insatiable coming into conflict with other powers. The unfettered expression of appetites leads to the natural condition of men, which is war. Yet as Hobbes writes that the fear of death makes men form the Commonwealth. In the Commonwealth, the fear of the Absolute Monarch makes men alter their appetites and expression by power; this prevents the condition of War from re-emerging. Both counts implicitly mean that social factors can alter men’s behaviour contrary the view that insatiable appetites and Power are inherent to human nature and immutable. That appetites and Power can be redirected is due to the process of sublimation mentioned above. If appetites and Power were unalterable, then any attempt at forming a Commonwealth would continually be frustrated by the actions of men. There would be a permanent condition of War. And this is contrary to what Hobbes writes.

Fourthly, I believe that Hobbes’ hypothesis about the natural condition of men being that of a condition of war can be falsified. Even in his writings, Hobbes states that not all men come into conflict with each other. This contradicts the claim that all men are compelled to conflict by appetites and power. He also describes the condition of war as not permanent actual battle but the continuous possibility of conflict. Thus, for times at least, men live in the absence of war. Moreover, external evidence such as that provided by anthropology seem to point towards human individuals as social and co-operative beings. Conflict existed between clans, tribes but not between individuals as Hobbes claims.

Fifthly, if the condition of War is of each against each, then any form of social co-operation is impossible. But co-operation is precisely what is required in the performance of the Covenant. The possibility for the making of the Covenant requires the peace and co-operation of men with men prior to the setting up of the Commonwealth. This is supposed to be impossible. So paradoxically, there is either a Covenant made prior to the Covenant made (in order to ensure peace and security for the making of the Covenant) ad infinitum. Or, the Covenant could never be made; a prospect Hobbes doesn’t want, as it would undermine the whole argument of the Leviathan. Or, people can actually co-operate for given ends prior to and perhaps without the need of a Covenant and the Absolute Monarchy it entails. This last possibility would contradict Hobbes arguments for human nature and the act of Covenant thus undermining his whole Political Philosophy. But it is one, which seems integral to Hobbes argument.

Sixthly, as Hobbes writes, Power is instrumental in satisfying appetites. This is the endeavour of a single human being. So Power could be made even greater by the combination of men in pursuit of a common goal. The greater the Power, the more chances of appetites being satisfied. If, as Hobbes writes, Power and the satisfaction of appetites (or felicity) is that which motivates a man, then how much greater would be the Power and consequent satisfaction of appetites achieved by co-operation between men. How much weaker would be the isolated man in competition with all other men. So even on Hobbes’ own terms, co-operation seems more productive than competition or than coercion by the Monarch. The success of co-operation would bind men together more effectively than either – for their appetites will be satisfied and this is what their nature demands

Moreover, co-operation seems to follow from Hobbes description of Human nature – as seeking power. This conclusion using Hobbes’ own premises contradicts his own conclusion of human nature leading to the condition of being at war with each other. For co-operation is just as natural a human condition as competition.

Finally, Hobbes argues that the Commonwealth of the Absolute Monarch is preferable to the condition of War. But as Hobbes proposes, men’s nature is such that it leads to War, and then this must apply to the Monarch as much to every other single human being. If so, the Monarch will be at war with his subjects. A state of Monarchical terrorism will replace the condition of war. Thinking and feeling people rarely prefer tyrannies to their alternatives. Although Hobbes maintains his Absolute Monarch is a legitimate conclusion following the philosophical argument in the Leviathan, practically it would be a tyranny, it would be unworkable and, it would share the same end as all Absolute Monarchies have in history. It would be subject to rebellion and overthrow.


Kamil, Hobbes’ political solution of Absolute Monarchy follows from his conception of human nature. Yet as written above, I believe this conception is flawed. Although it might be correct to state that for whatever the reason or cause, some human beings are selfish, competitive and aggressive, it is not correct logically or empirically to further describe all human beings as such. Therefore any political philosophy, such as right wing libertarianism, as free market capitalism, which propose that its politics follow from such human nature, is mistaken.