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on 25 June 2017
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on 15 March 2011
Being a free Kindle edition there is no introduction and no notes - but you do get the full text. The only difference from the original is that there are fewer capitals and italics. Hobbes used them for emphasis very much more than a modern writer would, and their pruning in this edition makes the text easier to read.

Modern political philosophy begins with Hobbes. Before Hobbes, writers for centuries had accepted the divine right of kings or did not think much about the origins of government. Hobbes provides reasons as to how and why men come together to form government. He starts with the assumption that that the organised state is a choice. The alternative is the "state of nature", where there is both a "right" of nature and "laws" of nature. Hobbes uses these terms in a very individual way. The "right of nature" is "the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power...for the preservation of his own Life". The "laws of nature" dictate that each person should seek to live with others in peace, and should only retain the right to as much liberty as he is willing to permit others. These "laws" are found by reason, and are utilitarian rather than moral. Hobbes is simply saying that if men think about their situation, reason tells them that giving up their natural rights in exchange for others doing likewise is the best means of self-preservation, even though it is contrary to human nature.

On human nature Hobbes is cynical. Reason suggests advantages stem from co-operation, but this is outweighed by instinct. Men are fundamentally competitive and selfish. They are also roughly equal in ability so no one person can impose his will on others, and so the most one can hope for is to protect oneself from others. Life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Men are therefore driven to create government via a pact with others to give up their natural rights to a sovereign authority, which may be either an individual or an oligarchy (Hobbes prefers the former). Hobbes uses the concept of a "social contract". It is not an historical event but a logical device to describe the ongoing basis of consent to government. Hobbes' view of human nature is such that he allocates absolute power to the sovereign. Limited government, he believed, is unworkable for men are too prone to division and selfishness, and "a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." Hobbes was influenced by the religious and political divisions preceding the English Civil War. Hobbes wishes the sovereign to have the power of censorship, including the ability to prevent discussion of religion because he believed that such discussion leads to conflict. Anybody seeking to preach a new religion should be treated as a criminal.

Is there an ultimate right of rebellion against the absolute ruler? The answer is to be found in the nature of the social contract. Men give up their natural right to self-preservation to a sovereign in order to to better achieve it. If a situation arises where the sovereign cannot ensure that safety then society is dissolved. Can any action by the sovereign be challenged? Yes, if a man is conscripted into military service (an obvious threat to life) in circumstances where the survival of the state is not threatened. If the survival of the state is threatened then so are the lives of its citizens, and in these circumstances the sovereign can impose conscription. Hobbes adds that even in this case a citizen should have the right to replace himself with a volunteer if one is available.

"Leviathan" is not an easy book, not helped by the fact that the English is that of a man born just 24 years after Shakespeare. However, it is an important work that makes a good study companion to Locke's "Second Treatise", which argues for limited government.
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on 6 May 2007
Why is this book important?

Hobbes stands at the end of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages which means that for centuries philosophy, religion and science had been one unified structure under the stewardship of the Church, in a World that stood at the centre of the universe beneath a God in his heaven,who provided and blessed kings and governments.

Suddenly, all these ideas and structures and certainties were in question, or blown apart with gunpowder: Hobbes wrote this during the English Civil War which resulted in the execution of a king by his people, something that would have been unthinkable beforehand.

Hobbes is a modern man, a pioneer, in the sense that he is trying to find what are the bases of knowlege and truth, and power and statecraft-and religion, and-ultimately-what it is to be human, and what sort of institutions would best represent human beings. This book is supposed to be about everything, in one volume! Which shows great self-confidence if nothing else.

It is not an easy read. If you are not familiar with Seventeenth Century English, you may find it hard going. I would recommend you buying the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Hobbes, or something similar, and reading it first, so as to acquire the leading ideas. This might help. It might help at first to dip in, rather than plough through in some kind of tear-stained marathon!

There is something in this book to offend everyone really, notably the chapter on the Pope, referring to him as King of the Fairies.

There is an interesting short biography of Hobbes in Aubrey's 'Brief Lives' which describes him singing every day to keep fit, and travelling with a special walking stick with an ink well fitted in the top, so that he could make notes if an idea struck him when he was out walking. Aubrey knew Hobbes personally.

The idea that power can rest upon distortions of the truth seems to have contemporary resonance, weapons of mass destruction etc.
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on 27 April 2017
I have often used Norton's Critical Editions before and have always found them to be a pinnacle of excellent scholarship. Flathman and Johnston's edition of Leviathan proved for me the first exception to the rule. The text itself is quite sparsely annotated - not at all to the standard you would expect from Norton - and in addition, the edition does not contain the whole of Hobbes' text! I quote from the preface: '[i]t is not necessary to read through the whole of Hobbes's Scriptural exegesis to understand the central points ha was making. Accordingly, we have deleted from this edition several chapters that are most likely to seem esoteric to modern readers, mainly from Part Three.' What on earth is that about??? If I want the short version, I'll read the Wikipedia article, thank you very much. In a scholarly edition, which does NOT have 'Abbreviated Text', 'Best Of', 'Major Works' or the like on the front cover, I expect to find the full text. Not good enough.
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on 13 March 2017
Fantastic introduction by Gaskin, very helpful to refer back to. The book itself is a classic and deserves to be read in its own right.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 February 2011
Modern political philosophy begins with Hobbes. Before Hobbes, writers for centuries had accepted the divine right of kings or did not think much about the origins of government, but Hobbes seeks reasons to justify the creation of government and obedience to government.

Hobbes supposes that the organized state is a choice. The alternative is the "state of nature", where there is both a "right of nature" and "laws of nature". Hobbes uses these terms in a highly individual way. The "right of nature" is "the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power...for the preservation of his own Life". In addition there are a number of "laws of nature". The first dictates that each person should seek to live with others in peace, and the second is that each person should only retain the right to as much liberty as he is willing to permit others. These (and other laws that follow from them) are found by reason and are utilitarian. Morality does not enter into it. Hobbes is simply saying that if men think about their situation, reason tells them that giving up their "rights of nature" in exchange for others doing likewise is the best means of self-preservation, even though it is contrary to human nature.

On human nature Hobbes is cynical. Reason that suggests advantages of co-operation, but this is outweighed by instinct. Men are fundamentally competitive and selfish. They are also roughly equal in ability so no one person or group can impose his will on others, and all can hope only to protect themselves from others. Life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hence men are driven to create government via a pact with all others to give up their "right of nature" to a sovereign authority, which may be either an individual or an oligarchy (Hobbes prefers the former). Hobbes uses the concept of a "social contract". It is not an historical event but a logical device to describe the ongoing basis of consent to government. Hobbes' view of human nature is such that he allocates absolute power to the sovereign. Limited government is unworkable for men are too prone to division and selfishness, and "a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." Hobbes was influenced by the divisive years before the English Civil War in which he lived. Among the ten rights Hobbes awards the sovereign the sixth is the power of censorship of opinions harmful to the state. This includes religion because Hobbes believes that discussion of religion leads to conflict. Anybody seeking to preach a new religion should be treated as a criminal. Had Hobbes lived a century later religion would have played little or no part in his thinking because he was not himself a religious man, and he was concerned with religion only because because it played a major role in politics in his lifetime.

Are there circumstances in which people are justified in breaking the law, and is there an ultimate right of rebellion? The answer is to be found in the nature of the social contract. Men give up their natural rights to self-preservation to a sovereign to better achieve them. If a situation arises where the sovereign cannot ensure that that preservation then society is dissolved. On obedience to specific laws Hobbes declares that the sovereign does not have the right of conscription (an obvious threat to life) unless the survival of the state is threatened, for that also threatens the lives of all citizens. Even in this case one has the right to put a volunteer in one's place, if one is available,

"Leviathan" is not likely to appeal to general readers. It is not an easy book, not helped by the fact that the English is that of a man born just 24 years after Shakespeare. It is read in full only by academics and the most enthusiastic (or masochistic?) of university students and others pursuing an interest in political philosophy. Those who prefer a version with modernized spelling should consider the edition edited by Gaskin.
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on 23 April 2005
Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) was born in England, a country that endured great political turmoil during his life. Having lived through that, Hobbes' main aim was to inquire into the basis of order. The question he asked himself was "What kind of political authority will prevent the return of chaos?". And the answer to that question is in this book, "Leviathan" (1651).
The Levianthan is the personification of total power, an authority without limits, created by men who realise that absolute power given to a powerfull ruler (or to an assembly) is their only way out of the dangers of the state of nature. The name that the author chose for his monarch is quite telling: the Leviathan is a sea monster that appears in the Bible and symbolizes power. This kind of monarch seems like an extreme solution for the problem of anarchy, but it is the only one that Hobbes found. Without the Leviathan, life is 'solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.'
Of course, this book includes many more things than those I have already mentioned. For instance, it explains quite well Hobbes opinion regarding human nature (man is naturally a wolf to men), the state of nature (perpetual war of all against all), the origin of political institutions and the relationship between reason and force (pacts without swords are merely words), among other things.
On the whole, I think this book is a classic of Political Philosophy, and I recommend it as such. Despite that, I think a word of caution is in order, so you will be prepared for what you will find when you tackle "Leviathan". Truth to be told, sometimes Hobbes' prose is too dry, and in some chapters you will need to plod through some rather arid pages. Moreover, this book isn't written in modern English, what makes it more difficult to understand. Those are the reasons why I give this book four stars instead of five...
Notwithstanding that, I believe that "Leviathan" is well-worth the effort of reading it, simply because it has some interesting concepts that you should be aware of, even if you don't agree with them. The only way to discuss in a level play field with someone who has totally different ideas is to understand his arguments thoroughly, even if his position seems thoroughly strange to you. I invite you to do that with Hobbes, reading "Leviathan".
Belen Alcat
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There are numerous books on Thomas Hobbes but this one by Noel Malcolm is masterly and comprehensive. It is based on an analysis of Hobbes surviving letters and papers.
The author also includes the shorter Latin version of his great work:'Leviathan' which Hobbes published in 1668 some 17 years after the English version was published.

Hobbes was born in 1588. His father was a cleric and an alcoholic. He wrote in his autobiography that:'fear and I were born twins together'. Fear is ever present in Leviathan. Hobbes
grapples in the book with the problem of life without political authority and life with it. Malcolm reminds us that when Hobbes wrote Leviathan Europe was riddled with political and religious strife. There were no tolerant, liberal, democracies with freedom of political expression and religious worship. Absolute monarchs were in charge all over Europe.

Hobbes description of life in the state of nature as 'solitary, poor, nasty,brutish and short' is well known.We would do well to remember that this is still true for some 30% of the world's population today.

As Malcolm points out Hobbes was hated by many in England. He was blamed for the Great Fire of 1666 and the plague of 1667. He was regarded by many as an atheist because he insisted, as a scientific materialist, that God was a physical God.

In Leviathan his central thesis is that life in the state of nature is unspeakably bad and in order to avoid the collapse of civil society into the state of nature we must submit ourselves to an all powerful absolute ruler or a sovereign assembly. Understandably this was greeted with anger and shock at the time. Less understandably was Lord Dacre's more recent analysis of Leviathan as leading to 'despotism'. But then Lord Dacre made other errors about writings that were far worse.

Today war, violence, revolution, and political instability are commonplace throughout the world. Hobbes was in fear of all of these. That is why he stresses the role of force in human affairs, recognising that it can be used for good and ill.

Leviathan is a brilliant philosophical tract that has never dated. Hobbes was a formidable thinker. When he died in 1679 aged 91 he had very few friends in his country of birth. Thanks to Noel Malcolm's magnificent work-all 2,355 pages of it-we should now be able to recognise more clearly that Hobbes suggested cure for the many ills of mankind bears close study.
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on 19 August 2016
I will only consider some chapters in this approach. The a priori position is that God is the origin of everything, that the Bible is absolutely true about the history of humanity and its “creation” and that the best order is that dictated by God’s law and order in which man is only free in the subjects and situations that have not been ruled out or regulated by God himself. This represents the situation in England in 1651 under the absolute rule of the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell and named the Commonwealth. But the value for modern human beings can only come if we get the ideas he espouses out of this religious axiom that is like a pillory to his thinking.

The introduction takes us directly into the subject. The general idea he states is that man is the central element of his thinking and this man is positioned in nature. We will have to clarify what he means by nature later on. The idea here is that man as an organism, as an architectural construction is the basis of any other construction that develops from man, that is developed by man. He thus identifies what he calls Leviathan, or the common-wealth or state, as being built on the model of our body and the concept of “sovereignty” is stated to be an “artificial soul.” This metaphor, because it is a metaphor, is even densified by comparing this Leviathan created by man to a simple machine or watch or clock, hence a complex mechanism created by man too. When we bring in the concept of God as the creator of man to his own image we feel a contradiction. Man creates Leviathan or a watch to his own image, not God’s, though this man who is the model of the creations we are speaking of is the image of God, hence Leviathan should be the image of the image of God. Yet Hobbes divides his discourse between nature that governs or should govern us in daily life, man and his civil dimension that organizes the common-wealth for peace and prosperity, and God and the religious principles that govern the ultimate human society and morality. We have the impression God is something added to the previous two levels of nature and man and that it is a sort of wrapping up that reminds us of the creative dimension of this God and of the superior ethical dimension of this God. But the whole discourse has to do with the reality of nature and the civil society organized in some common-wealth and state. In fact, we could consider this approach as very modern if we just set aside the divine supplement and we see that man is extending his own body and his own capabilities into everything he does or creates. In fact we have here the basic concept of the “extensions of man” developed by Marshall McLuhan.

I will then consider chapter 4 that deals with Speech. His starting point is that printing is not such a tremendous invention. He totally neglects the tremendous impact it had on education and all levels of social life, religion, politics, culture, and many others. This is surprising since his book is such an intervention in the field of politics and ethics that is bound to have an impact due to the number of copies that are going to be circulated. But instead of seeing what was caused by the printing press, he goes back in time (a typical and unscientific retrospective method) and considers that the invention of writing was a lot more important than printing. He traces alphabetical writing back to the Phoenicians, which is not false indeed, though that was not the invention of writing per se since there were non alphabetical writing systems before this one. This Phoenician invention reached us through the Greek alphabet. He has a good point there because Homo Sapiens started emerging 300,000 years ago and writing was only invented something like a little bit more than 5,000 years ago. He is right when he speaks of isolating the sounds of speech to represent them with letters that become some kind of conceptual written forms of the isolated sounds. We are here at the root of modern phonemics and phonetics.

He is more surprising by the fact that he still goes back to speech, oral speech. He sticks to the idea of the speech incentive and energy being given to Adam by God though God gave Adam the mission of naming everything, and he considers this speech invention as “the most noble and profitable invention.” In spite of his referring to the Babel Tower myth, he clearly states here speech is an invention of man himself using his “tongue, Palat, lips, and other organs of speech” to produce it, though God is the real “author of speech.” The objective is to “register thoughts.” We can see he is modern in a way since he connects speech to the body though he ignores the larynx and other elements in the body that were developed not for speech but for bipedal long distance fast running. What is important is that he sees the organs he names as the organs of speech implying they were developed to produce speech, which is not the case at all. At the same time speech is used by man to register thoughts for sure but were do these thoughts come from? And by what process are words and sentences with syntactic and paradigmatic architectures produced? It is quite obvious that his reference to God and the Babel Tower myth is nothing but a necessary reference in his society and the fact that God is the author of speech while man is the inventor of it shows we can just get God out and say that the necessity to have a common-wealth to permit the survival of the species requires some kind of communication and man being what he is he uses his physiological resources to produce and invent language, speech if you want. The “author” is the necessary social dimension of man’s life and survival when emerging several hundred thousand years ago. That’s what he could call a “Law of Nature” as we are going to see. God is only a name glued to it and I wonder if it was only opportunistic or really believed.

He is very modern on the uses of language: to register past or present thoughts, findings and the acquisition of arts (old meaning of crafts and artistic productions); to communicate knowledge to others; to give orders and instructions; for pleasure. His conception of speech is centered on “names”, both “proper” or “common universal.” And he reduces what we are (“wise” or “foolish”) to the meaning of the words we use, neglecting the fact that the mind (what we are, wise or foolish) is just like language, it is developed from experience, through experience and by the invention and use of language which develops in the same way through that process.

For him names can designate things, material or sensible and rational, hot or cold, moving or quiet. Then they can indicate the accidents or qualities we perceive in things, both concrete or abstract. And this is done through the properties of our own body. The eyes gives sight that perceives color that becomes our idea or fancy of it in the considered thing. The ears give hearing that perceives sound that becomes our idea, fancy or conception of it, from noise to music. His approach is very interpretative and not genetic. The final use of names, hence of speech, is to be the meta-language describing language itself. As he says names can be “general, universal, special or equivocal” and speeches can be “an affirmation, an interrogation, a commandment; a narration; a syllogism, a sermon, an oration and many others.” Here “speech” means either an utterance (sentence) or a discourse that can be one or several sentences. He even concludes that names are “inconstant” because they reflect the moods and states of mind of the speaker. All that is modern, refuses a frozen and congealed language but once again it is connected to circumstantial use, though there is no dialectic that would state the mind and language develop together one with the other, one development in the mind causing one development in language and vice versa. The approach then is very utilitarian: what we can use language for. That’s why he consider abuses of language which is one particular type of use and nothing else since the basic abuses of language are to say something that is a lie, hence not true, or to aggress and insult people.

If we turn to chapters 14 and 15 we come to the “Laws of Nature” that are in fact the central piece of this book. Let me list them with some comment. First he defines the “right of nature” which is the fact that an individual has the right to do anything he needs to do in order to defend his life. This is the survival instinct but exclusively at the level of the individual. This is important because he does not see the fact that the species per se has a survival instinct and that human beings cannot survive as a species if they do not organize their life collectively. In other words he misses the concept of survival instinct. Then he has to define his concept of “liberty” and it is for him “the absence of external impediments” which is a purely negative definition and he is going to show that such impediments are natural, implying there is no liberty, a conclusion he would absolutely refuse. He has to define the concept of “law” that he opposes to that of “right.” A law gives an obligation for him, whereas a right is a liberty for him. It sounds weird since a right is also established by society and its laws and regulations. He misses history that imposes onto people some limitations and opens to people some possible actions, hence some duties (have to do or have not to do) and some rights (can or may do). But this being said he can consider the laws of nature which are what the consideration of nature implies as for the organization of man’s life.

1- The first law of nature is that every man needs peace or otherwise it is a constant state of war for their individual survival (one against all).
2- The second law of nature is the reciprocal limitation of “the right to all things” to ensure peace. This is what he calls a covenant with the religious reference behind though these covenants are purely human and in no way divine. It is the simple observation that human beings ALWAYS live in groups of various types and even the individuals who live absolutely alone do so in reference to the groups they move out of and away from.
3- The third law of nature is that men have to perform their covenants. He comes then to a simple definition of “just” (what respects covenants) and “unjust” (what goes against covenants). Justice is then the keeping of covenants, hence and therefore the rule of reason. He states though there must be a coercive power to compel men equally to perform covenants. That is where the concept of common-wealth appears.
4- The fourth law of nature is gratitude.
5- The fifth law of nature is natural accommodation or complaisance.
6- The sixth law of nature is the facility to pardon.
7- The seventh law of nature is that in revenges man must respect only the future good.
8- The eighth law of nature is against men’s contumely contempt to one another.
9- The ninth law of nature is against pride.
10- The tenth law of nature is against arrogance.
11- The eleventh law of nature is equity, to proceed equally when dealing with various men.
12- The twelfth law of nature is the equal use by all of things that are common to all.
13- The thirteenth law of nature is “lot,” i.e. the priority of anything to first possession or possessor.
14- The fourteenth law of nature is Primogeniture and first seizing.
15- The fifteenth law of nature is about mediators.
16- The sixteenth law of nature is about one’s submission to arbitrament and arbitrators.
17- The seventeenth law of nature is the fact that no man can be his own judge
18- The eighteenth law of nature is No man can be a judge who has in himself a cause of partiality.
19- The nineteenth law of nature is about witnesses who are supposed to be as numerous as possible.

Hobbes adds a twentieth law of nature in his concluding remarks:

20- The twentieth law of nature is "that every man is bound by Nature, as much as in him lieth, to protect in Warre, the Authority, by which he is himself protected in time of Peace."

It is strange because it states clearly that the existing authority cannot be changed and that everyone is supposed to defend it if it is attacked. This is in full contradiction with the Puritan revolution that attacked the Authority of the King, though they will object that they represented the authority of Parliament that was under attack from the King, but then the Civil war was necessary since the supporters of each authority had the natural obligation to fight for it. What’s more it implies that the Puritan Common-wealth cannot be changed and that all people will have to fight if an attempt is done to change it. Historically this principle is de facto unacceptable. The restoration took place and later the Glorious Revolution took place and the Jacobites were declared illegal and traitors.

We have to point out these laws of nature are based on individualistic considerations. They are laws of nature governing every individual and the social and political facts are only the consequences of this first principle. The second remark is that they are deeply anti-historical. If these laws of nature are the basic covenant of all human commonwealths, if respecting or implementing the covenant is the only basis for justice and finally if “the laws of justice are eternal,” meaning the laws that are devised in application and continuation of the twenty laws of nature, the very essence of any covenant which is the only basis for justice, then there is no possible historical change, which is absurd. He even goes further and declares that “the science of these laws is true moral philosophy.” Such laws are not a science. They are only his own reasoning, hence at best a theory. True enough we are dealing with ethics and nothing else but ethics are not and cannot be “true” because they depend on too many personal choices that have nothing to do with truth, except that they are true at one particular moment in one particular situation for one particular person. And even when one of these ethical elements has been instated as a basic human right, for example the right to enter a same sex alliance, marriage or not, no one is forced to do it: it is a basic human right for those who choose to implement it for themselves. In other words gay marriage is not becoming compulsory for everyone just because it is considered today as a basic human right. Note in the same way that plain marriage of any type is not compulsory either though it is a basic human right.

Then his discussion of “liberty” reveals a lot about his own philosophy.

1- For him liberty is purely individualistic.

2- For him liberty is defined negatively: absence of opposition, “not hindered to do what he has a will to do.” Note here the “he” pronoun is also very meaningful: he does not consider women, just as he does not consider blacks (who are slaves in the colonies), or Indians (who are being slaughtered already in the colonies) or even the Irish who are being ruthlessly colonized) and probably a few more like all Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus.

3- For him it is based on the fear of the law as the incentive to liberty, since liberty and necessity are consistent and here comes his basic religious fundamentalism: man has to do what God wants him to do and man has not to do what God does not want him to do, and beyond these two obligations (to do and not to do) man can and may do what is not covered or included.

4- When he is dealing with the “liberty of subjects” he does not see the contradiction between “liberty” and “subject” (someone who is subjected to another, who submits to the authority of another), even when he asserts “the liberty of sovereigns.” The only important liberty he asserts is the liberty for any man to defend his own body and body’s integrity. This is the Habeas Corpus principle that will only be passed in Parliament in 1679. For him the liberty of subjects is in the silence of the law. This asserts the power of Judicature. This is the premise of what will become with Montesquieu judicial power. But he does not understand how it works: you are tried in a first level lower court. You can then appeal to an appeal court. You can finally appeal to some “supreme court” (House of Lords in England, Supreme Court in the USA) and their decision will edict a total ban on one activity, a total freedom to practice it, or an in-between regulated practice. The best example is abortion and how the US Supreme Court made history for the fifty states by ruling on an attempt to reduce the right to abort for women in Texas. (SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, Syllabus: WHOLE WOMAN’S HEALTH ET AL. v. HELLERSTEDT, COMMISSIONER, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICES, ET AL, CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT No. 15–274, Argued March 2, 2016—Decided June 27, 2016. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-274_p8k0.pdf, accessed August 19, 2016)

5- He concludes his book with a call for leniency from the Censors since “there is nothing in this whole Discourse, as far as I can perceive, contrary either to the Word of God, or to good Manners; or to the disturbance of the Publique Tranquillity. Therefore I think it may be profitably printed, and more profitably taught in the Universities.”

This book then is essential to prove the historicity of such concepts as “liberty,” “common-wealth,” including those I did not consider like “democracy,” “monarchy,” “aristocracy,” tyranny,” and “oligarchy” in the direct political field. In England per se we can see that some principles are becoming established: distance from the purely fundamentalist religious approach, the idea that any state organization and social organization are the results of covenants (what J.J. Rousseau will call one century later “social contracts”), the idea that any covenant is the result of some general historical rules that govern the survival of the human species, of any human group and of any human individual, and finally the idea that all human activities are governed by the ability of man to speak, communicate, imagine and create crafts, arts, and sciences. We could add religion that probably came as belief in the supernatural and in a higher level of determinism as soon as Homo Sapiens developed language that enabled him to start his trip on the road to conceptualization.

We are, within this Puritan Common-wealth, at a real round about in history. There are several roads emerging in front of us and choices are both free and determined by the context.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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on 10 March 2009
Though the roots of social contractarianism are in Plato's Crito (360 BC) and Hugo Grotius's De jure belli ac pacis (1625) ('On the Law of War and Peace'), it is in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) that they come together to form a cohesive and radical political theory. Leviathan is the first attempt to present politics as a science: Hobbes had been impressed with the self-evidential arguments of Euclid's geometry treatise Elements and wished to use similar didactic logic to develop his early writings on materialism and human nature to their full political conclusions. Thus in his Latin edition De Cive (1642) ('On the Citizen') he attempted to establish the foundations of political legitimacy and make sense of the political turmoil that would soon explode into the English Civil War. By the time the war had begun and ended De Cive had been translated into English and published as Leviathan.

Following from Euclid's principles, Hobbes starts from the simplest foundations of his philosophy. Leviathan begins with a discussion on materialism and how humans experience reality through 'bodies in motion' before gradually coming to discuss how men interact with one another in the now-infamous Hobbesian 'state of nature'. The state of nature is the bellum omnium contra omnes - "the war of all against all" - as men are fundamentally self-interested and wish to accumulate power and possessions even at the expense of other men. It is anarchy and, compelled by fear for their own lives and possessions, men form a social contract to protect themselves from one another. By this contract men give up their natural liberty to take and do what they want to an absolute sovereign who enforces peace. This sovereign may be a king, queen, aristocracy or parliament: for Hobbes the important thing is not that the sovereign is elected or representative but that they preserve peace by whatever means necessary. (This neat trick endeared Hobbes to both Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell during the years of the English Republic and King Charles II upon the return to monarchy).

The sovereign would be the Leviathan, named after the biblical sea monster, and would have absolute authority to enforce the peace of the social contract. Their authority is to create, establish, and enforce laws and they may censor the press, make war and peace with other nations and reward and punish citizens to secure the peace. Significantly, the sovereign cannot be held accountable for their actions as the contract means that men are complicit in everything the sovereign does and so share responsibility for the sovereign's actions. Moreover to be able to judge the sovereign you must be equal to it, and to have more than one sovereign would be a contradiction as each would undermine the authority of the other and both would become redundant.

Thus an absolute sovereign could only lose power if they failed to uphold their end of the contract by threatening the lives of contractors. This extensive power and lack of accountability was terrifying to many of Hobbes's contemporaries who attempted to rewrite the theory to include a right to rebellion against arbitrary government. Notably, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689) was written soon afterwards with these fears in mind.

Notoriously, Hobbes's political framework excluded religion. We suspect that he was an atheist though, probably out of expedience, he dedicates a whole section of Leviathan to Christianity and demonstrating why materialism and not theology should play the lead role in legitimising government and creating political obligations. He does this with a tidy side-step around the entire issue by declaring God to be sovereign of another realm and, until we reach that realm, men must remain sovereign on earth. Despite this effort the book was banned and burned, and Hobbes spent much of his remaining years defending himself against accusations of subversion and heresy.

It is important to note that Leviathan should not be read as a historical account of how sovereigns came to power, which is usually through conquest, usurpation or long-standing lineage. Instead, Leviathan is heuristic: a thought experiment into the consequences of removing existing sovereigns and a consideration of how we would re-establish governments with legitimacy. In this sense it is quite a conservative text. It attempts to discourage the removal of sovereigns and provides no real mechanism to do so as, by the time the Leviathan has become so despotic as to threaten your life, there is very little you can do to save yourself.

Hobbes was the first of the 'big three' social contract thinkers. He was followed by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who both tried to place much stricter limits on governments and make them more accountable to contractors. Nonetheless Hobbes's legacy lives on. His famous description of the state of nature being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" is a familiar phrase in the political lexicon, while Richard Tuck and Quentin Skinner continue the debate as to whether or not Hobbes's Leviathan is guaranteed to become an authoritarian despot or could be a benevolent autocrat. The book is significant on several counts: it dismisses the Divine Right of kings which had been the basis of monarchies for centuries; it was the first attempt to treat politics as a science which is dependent on logic and reason rather than rhetoric; and it was the wellspring of a whole tradition of political thought and counter-thought. Not only this, but Hobbes can be seen everywhere. The ruler that overextends himself to tyranny and loses sovereignty is seen in countless revolutions through history, while his state of nature is evident in lawless ghettoes around the world today.
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