Hobbes’ Leviathan and the dangers of implicit assumptions

I’ve just read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan*.  All I knew about the book beforehand was Hobbes’ proposal that only a sovereign with absolute authority could prevent human life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’. This was puzzling because Hobbes lived through the English civil war, caused in large part by Charles I acting in an autocratic manner. Leviathan explains where Hobbes’ idea came from.

Hobbes was born near Malmesbury Wiltshire, during the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. His father, a clergyman, disappeared from the scene following an assault on a parishioner, and young Thomas was supported by his uncle, who provided him with a good education. Hobbes proved an able scholar, became fluent in Greek and Latin, enrolling at Oxford University in 1601, later transferring to Cambridge and graduating in 1608. He became a tutor to the Cavendish family, an association that was to last his whole life.  At the outbreak of civil war in 1640, Hobbes fled to Paris, where for a couple of years he tutored the future Charles II.


Leviathan, Or The Matter, Form, & Power Of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical And Civil was written following a serious illness, and published in 1651 while Hobbes was still in exile.  The title is taken from the book of Job 41.33-34; ‘Leviathan’ is the name of a sea-monster (28.27) “…upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.  He beholdeth all high things; he is a king over all the children of pride.”

For Hobbes, all truth is God’s truth.  In the past, God had revealed his truth directly “as one man speaketh to another” (35.3), but now there were only two sources – nature and holy Scripture (the Bible).  In Leviathan Hobbes explicitly uses both sources to make his case.

The book is in four sections:  Of Man, Of Commonwealth, Of A Christian Commonwealth, and Of The Kingdom of Darkness.  In the first, Hobbes attempts a systematic analysis of human nature. That forms the basis for his exploration in the next section of what a collective commonwealth or social contract could look like, based on “the principles of nature only” (32.1). He then moves on to truth revealed in the Bible.  ‘Of a Christian Commonwealth’ introduces the principles of “supernatural revelations of the will of God” (32.1).  ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’ covers the misinterpretation of Scripture, ‘vain philosophy’, ‘fabulous traditions’, and cui bono (who benefits).

Hobbes’ argument

Having set out the characteristics of human nature in ‘Of Man’ Hobbes argues the natural state of man is one of war (13.9).  The only remedy, he concludes in ‘Of Commonwealth’, is for people to surrender some of their liberty to a sovereign monarch or assembly with absolute power, who would then be able to best protect them (21.9).

In ‘Of A Christian Commonwealth’ Hobbes draws on evidence from the Bible. He points out “God not only reigned over all men naturally by his might; but also had peculiar subjects” (35.3).  God had made covenants with these peculiar (special) subjects; first with Adam, then Abraham and his descendants.  The covenant with Abraham was renewed when God gave Moses the Law.  A new covenant had been made through the death and resurrection of Jesus – this time with Christian believers.  

Hobbes argues that God is the true sovereign of his special peoples, but that “…by the Kingdom of God, is properly meant a Common-wealth, instituted (by the consent of those which were to be subject thereto) for their civil governmentGod was King, and the high priest was to be (after the death of Moses) his sole viceroy, or lieutenant” (35.7).  The Law of Moses was both ecclesiastical and civil and the high priest had both ecclesiastical and civil powers. God later allowed the powers to pass to a king, and Hobbes sees this structure of government continuing in the Christian era, despite God’s covenant changing substantially.

The evidence

Hobbes argues carefully, relies heavily on evidence, and counters common objections to his model of government.  But he frequently glosses over any evidence that contradicts his view.  Here are some examples…

From nature 

Hobbes was right that war had been a constant scourge throughout human history, and most people had led lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  Many wars had doubtless occurred because monarchs didn’t have enough power to keep their subjects safe. But Hobbes takes these observations to their logical conclusion, despite logical conclusions not being inevitable in real life. After all, there had been times of peace, regions that managed to escape war for long periods, and not everyone’s life had been nasty, brutish and short.  Hobbes himself had led a reasonably comfortable (if very eventful) life, dying at the ripe old age of 91.

From the Old Testament 

To justify his argument for a sovereign rather than a priest being God’s viceroy, Hobbes cites events described in I Samuel 8. Samuel had appointed his sons as judges, but they “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement”.  The elders of Israel complained to Samuel and said “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations”.  Samuel consulted God, then pointed out in detail the downside of having a king – essentially ‘he’ll take all your stuff’. But the elders persisted so God said “Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king”. 

Hobbes recognises the elders’ complaint about the corruption of Samuel’s sons was a pretext, when really they wanted a king “like all the nations”.  The children of Israel had form when it came to being like other nations; worshipping foreign gods, making graven images, building altars in high places, etc. You can almost hear God sighing as he lets his people have what they ask for. Hobbes is aware that the elders were deposing the high priest as God’s viceroy or lieutenant, but sees that as OK because God agrees, and glosses over the ‘like all the nations’ point.

From the New Testament 

Hobbes is aware that the new covenant with Christian believers raised big questions about ecclesiastical and civil government. He acknowledges that: the new Kingdom of God is a spiritual one and won’t become an earthly one until Jesus returns; Christian believers don’t all live in the same geographical area with the same laws and the same king; there are new biblical instructions for appointing church leaders; and the Roman Catholic church had both ecclesiastical and civil powers, but Hobbes recognised the authority of the Church of England (33.1). How does he resolve those tensions?

Hobbes maintains God is still king over all, still appoints earthly viceroys or lieutenants, and God’s law remains both ecclesiastical and civil.  (42.10).  Churches should follow biblical principles for their governance (including voting for church leaders), but the job of the church is to persuade people of the truth, not to coerce them (42.8-10).  And the Roman Catholic church is merely a church; sovereigns can consult the Pope on matters of religion, but then “the Pope is in that point subordinate to them” (42.80).

But to justify his model Hobbes cites biblical passages exhorting Christians to obey those in authority because they’re ordained by God (42.10).  For Hobbes “this obedience is simple” (20.16). But he overlooks corollary exhortations in the same passages; that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church, masters should treat their servants justly, and that the duty of those in authority is to promote good and prevent evil. Ironically, he also cites a response from Jesus to a question about authority that shows Jesus didn’t think obedience was at all simple.

The tribute question 

During Jesus’ life on earth, the inhabitants of Judea were required to pay taxes to the occupying Romans. The Pharisees and Herodians (supporters of Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler), seeking to “entangle him in his talk”  (Matthew 22.15), asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.  It was a trick question – Jesus knew either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have been the wrong answer. So he requests a tribute coin and asks whose image and superscription is on it.  The reply – “Caesar’s”. The coin was probably a Tiberian denarius, which bore abbreviations meaning “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. Highest Priest”

Jesus’ response “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s”, is sometimes interpreted as drawing a distinction between the secular and spiritual.  But for first century Jews, and for Hobbes, that distinction didn’t exist.  Jesus’ audience would have realised the significance of what he said; all things were God’s, so Caesar had power only because God permitted it.  On top of that, the coin carried the graven image of a man who claimed to be divine and a high priest – claims that amounted to blasphemy. Jesus was making the point that earthly rulers were also obliged to keep God’s law. But Hobbes doesn’t comment on the nuance of Jesus’ reply (20.16). 

Hobbes’ response to issues such as rulers doing evil, or ordering people to do evil or to deny their faith, is that faith is a private (internal) matter that no ruler can control.  And if you disobey the ruler for good reason, you take the consequences, but ultimately that doesn’t matter because you’re answerable to God and your reward will be in heaven (43.23). The reason Hobbes skirts round evidence that contradicts his model becomes apparent in the last section of the book – ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’.

Universities, Aristotle and evidence

Up to this point, I’d seen Hobbes as a rationalist/empiricist. After all, he’d met Galileo and Descartes, emphasised reason, dismissed superstition, and based his argument on a systematic evaluation of evidence. Like most of his contemporaries he also believed in God and in the truth of the Bible, but not uncritically – he was aware of the issues around the authority of Scripture (33). But reading ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’, it dawned on me I’d misunderstood Hobbes’ worldview.

Hobbes is scathing about his university education.  He’s also very critical of Aristotle.  Initially, I assumed Hobbes’ complaint was that Aristotle made errors, but the university accepted Aristotle’s teaching uncritically; he says it didn’t teach proper philosophy, but rather ‘Aristotelity’ (46.13).

The penny didn’t drop until Hobbes refers to “Aristotle, and other heathen philosophers” (46.32), even though he had previously complained the University taught Roman religion, Roman law, and the art of medicine, “and for the study of Philosophy it hath no otherwise place, then as a handmaid to the Roman Religion” (46.13). But Hobbes didn’t just think the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were wrong about some things – he thought they couldn’t be right because they were heathens

Implicit assumptions

When reasoning, we all start with assumptions. These are often implicit, either because we’re not fully aware of them, or we take it for granted that others share them.  I know from bitter experience that implicit assumptions can easily lead to wrong conclusions, or can result in disputes that could have been avoided had the assumptions on all sides been made explicit.  

Hobbes sees history as God’s plan unfolding, and his truth gradually being revealed. That plan included a new covenant with Christian believers, God appointing earthly rulers with ecclesiastical and civil powers, with the church subservient to those rulers.  Conveniently for Hobbes’ model, that’s exactly what had happened when Henry VIII had founded the Church of England in 1534.  Hobbes even views the Authorised version of the Bible as canonical because James I decided it was (33.1).   

Hobbes is critical of Aristotle because Aristotle’s religious beliefs (implicit assumptions) shaped his theories about the physical world – for example attributing the motion of inanimate objects to their inherent characteristics (46.24). And philosophers’ uncritical acceptance of Aristotle’s essentialism had led to absurd ideas about souls (46.15ff). 

But Hobbes had developed a blind spot when it came to the impact of his own religious beliefs on his thinking about government.  Hobbes’ conclusion that kings are divinely appointed, is based only on evidence that supports that conclusion.  And his belief in his conclusion means he repeatedly overlooks evidence that contradicts it. 

My implicit assumption that Hobbes’ worldview was a rational-empirical one, rather than one based on religious belief and confirmatory evidence only, was due to the opening chapters of Leviathan ticking the rational-empirical boxes.  I had to read a considerable amount of counter-evidence before it dawned on me I was wrong.  For me, Hobbes’ Leviathan has been an object lesson in checking implicit assumptions.

*I read the Oxford World Classics’ edition of Leviathan, edited by JAC Gaskin, and reissued in 2008. It follows Hobbes’ paragraph numbers and headings. You can also read the Project Gutenberg edition here. It has the paragraph headings, but not numbers. I also referred to the Authorised Version of the Bible ( first published in 1611), which Hobbes would have been familiar with.