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.

Civitas and coronavirus

Civitas recently published a paper entitled Is Coronavirus unprecedented? It’s a good question. The review is subtitled A brief history of the medicalisation of life, and the first six chapters offer a fascinating account of how disease in general and epidemics in particular, have been perceived from the 4th century BC onwards. Evidence includes accounts from Thucydides, Bede, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Defoe and Camus, describing epidemics such as typhus, bubonic plague, smallpox and cholera. The review encompasses models of medicine, citing Hippocrates, Lucretius, Galen, Chaucer, Bacon and Hobbes. The authors also examine the outcomes of attempts to prevent the spread of disease, such as the forced isolation of infected communities.

The lessons the authors seem to want us to learn are that pandemics are “part and parcel of human existence” (p.19); that the “startled overreaction” of governments to the current Coronavirus pandemic is a result of the “exaggerated pursuit of national health” (vii) and the medicalisation of modern life; and that measures to prevent the spread of pandemics often do more harm than good, There’s some truth in all of those conclusions, but the authors arrive at them only by overlooking several important factors. Let’s take each conclusion in turn.

pandemics are part and parcel of human existence
Until relatively recently, that was true. And people accepted it, but only because there was no alternative; as the authors point out “whether populations grew or shrank had little to do with medicine despite its best efforts” (p.39). But the acceptance of pandemics as a fact of life was a reluctant one, as indicated by historic responses to plagues. Infected individuals, households or communities were isolated, some people turned to strict religious observance, some fled from cities to the country if they could, and if they couldn’t, they’d often abandon themselves to a “‘shameful and disordered life’” (p.12). Plagues, although part and parcel of life, were seen as a scourge.

In recent decades things have changed. In the last 30 years smallpox has been eradicated and progress is being made towards eradicating polio, malaria, syphilis, measles, rubella and rabies. Most people, throughout history, would probably have seen that as a good thing.

the ‘exaggerated pursuit of national health’ and the medicalisation of modern life
Has the attempt to eradicate some diseases led to the medicalisation of modern life? ‘Medicalisation’ of normal life does occur, notably in respect of responses to adverse life events or poor living conditions. People who feel sad or anxious are often considered to have ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, and to require medication, when they’re actually experiencing a normal response to circumstances. But doctors can’t always tell whether or not those people will recover spontaneously given time, and often medicate because they don’t have time to diagnose properly in a 10 minute appointment, support services have long waiting lists, and dealing with environmental causes is beyond their remit; at least medication can help patients get on with their lives in the meantime.

But a viral infection doesn’t need to be ‘medicalised’ to damage health – it does so regardless of how people categorise it. And medical knowledge about its infectivity, symptoms, and how to treat them is essential to governments making socio-economic decisions.

The authors seem to see the possibility of eradicating diseases as naively utopian, and as opening the door to authoritarianism: “After 1945, WHO programmes of disease eradication reinforced the authority of science and the medicalisation of life” (p.36). This prompts a rather odd conclusion: “Whether populations grew or shrank …changed utterly after 1945, and in not very well-understood ways” (p.39). On the contrary, the ways in which it changed are very well understood, but have been explored in fields other than theology and political science – the author’s specialisms.

measures to prevent the spread of pandemics often do more harm than good
The review points out that the cordons sanitaires put in place to isolate infected communities and prevent plague spreading, often caused additional problems. Trade ceased and food shortages occurred, triggering civil unrest. If the cordon were policed by the military following a time of conflict, the unrest could also be political (p.27). Isolation measures undoubtedly cause harm and do economic damage. But the authors blithely overlook the catastrophic damage caused by not isolating infected people. The disruption to normal life resulting from widespread death, sickness, and long-term health problems in survivors during a pandemic has been enormous.

The authors see Coronavirus as a “mild contagion” (p.34), and claim “governments embraced an epidemiological prediction of death rates of 1 per cent of the West’s population unless they locked down the economy, quarantined households and suspended all non-essential activity.” (p.viii)

That’s not the case. The mortality rate for Coronavirus was estimated at 1% if nothing were done to prevent it. Lockdown wasn’t the only option. If Exercise Cygnus had been properly carried out in 2016, and national and local plans put in place for responding to a highly contagious virulent infection, the UK could have had the capacity to test and trace, and to manufacture sufficient PPE, so lockdown could have been avoided entirely. But that didn’t happen, probably because in 2016 the UK government was focussed on Brexit rather than public health. The findings of Exercise Cygnus were classified, but were leaked by The Guardian in May 2020. The report indicated that the UK was poorly prepared for a serious epidemic. Lockdown was necessary only where countries lacked test and trace capability. Describing the pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is a convenient way of distracting attention from that.

It’s also worth noting the review doesn’t mention the Asian flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, after the formation of the NHS. In the UK, life for those uninfected carried on much as usual (although this Lancet article shows a typist wearing a mask).

There were reasons for the nation just carrying on. In the 1950s and 1960s, epidemics were the norm. There were annual outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and chicken pox. There were sporadic outbreaks of smallpox and diphtheria. Intensive care facilities were relatively basic so only a limited number of people would have benefited from hospital admission. In the 1957 Asian flu epidemic, the death rate was estimated at 0.3%, less than a third of the rate for Covid-19, but there were significant economic consequences. Factories, offices and mines closed, and sickness benefit payments amounted to £10m.

Even Alex Tabbarok, a libertarian economist, cites the growth rate the US economy in 1957 following the Asian flu pandemic as -4% in the last quarter and -10% in the first quarter of 1958. But as he points out, many references to this recession don’t even mention the pandemic as a contributory cause.


Pandemics have indeed been part and parcel of human existence, and will continue to be. However virulent or infective they are, they have a devastating effect on human wellbeing, by their impact on mortality rates, health or the economy. We have the technology and knowledge to minimise that damage, as happened in the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002-4, and in several outbreaks of Ebola since it was first identified in 1976.

Inadequate preparation was identified as a cause for the damage caused by the 1957 flu epidemic and inadequate preparation was directly responsible for the lockdown put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The authors refer to the “anxious insecurity” they claim has been caused by the “medicalisation of life” (p.39) but overlook the anxious insecurity, panic, grief, and economic devastation caused by disease that dogged human beings until the advent of modern medicine.

The authors of this report do something that I’ve seen increasingly recently. They begin with a belief, cite evidence that supports their belief, and overlook evidence to the contrary from relevant fields – in this case biology, medicine and economics. Another case of policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.


Jones, DM & Webb, E (2020). Is Coronavirus unprecedented? A brief history of the medicalisation of life. Civitas.