Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

7. Politics: the commonwealth

The answer to the problems of life in the state of nature is an agreement by most in it to delegate their right of nature to a person, or body of persons, empowered to secure the many against physical attack and against the severe deprivations of the state of nature. That person or body of persons is empowered by a collective submission of the wills of the many to the will of the one or few. The many agree to be guided in their behaviour by the laws of a sovereign, on the understanding that this is a more effective way of securing their safety than individual action in the state of nature. The many lend their wills to the sovereign both as potential enforcers of the law against lawbreakers and as an army of defence against foreign invasion. They lend their wills by doing only what is permitted by the sovereign’s law and refraining from what the law prohibits. The law in turn expresses the sovereign’s judgment regarding who should own what, who should teach what, how trade may be conducted, how wars should be waged, who should be punished and by what method of punishment, and who should be rewarded and the scale of the reward given.

The sovereign’s judgment prevails because it, uniquely in the commonwealth, is still allied to a right of nature. Everyone who is subject to the sovereign thereby delegates their right of nature to the sovereign, but not in return for any forfeit or transfer of right by the sovereign himself. It is true that the commonwealth dissolves–that the obligation not to retract the right of nature lapses – if the sovereign is not able to secure the many against life-threatening incursion. But short of a reversion to the state of nature, the state in the person of the sovereign has a claim to expect the compliance of the many. The many owe it to one another to comply, because they agree between themselves to be law-abiding in return for safety if everyone else is law-abiding. They also owe it to the sovereign, at least for the time that he succeeds in making and keeping the peace, because they voluntarily and publicly submit to the sovereign, signifying to him that they will do what he decrees should be done for their safety.

Hobbes’ idea that the sovereign’s law can justly reach into every sector of public life had clear application to the questions being debated during the Civil War period in England. Those who complained that it was wrong for Charles I to appropriate property, to billet troops at will, to raise taxes without the consent of parliament, were given a theory that legitimized those actions. According to the theory, the limitations on a king’s powers indicate that a state of nature, with its potential for open war, still prevails. Either the powers of government are separated (in which case the contention between, say, king and parliament reproduces the contention between individuals in the pre-political condition), or else the powers of government are not separated, but are limited by the rights of the subjects (in which case the right of nature has not really been transferred, and people are still liable to prefer their own judgment about what is best for them to the judgment that they have agreed to be guided by, with the same potential for slaughter).

Hobbes’ theory permits the sovereign to regulate public life very stringently, but his message to sovereigns – there is no doubt that Leviathan in particular was intended to be read by heads of state – was not that it was wise to regulate public life very stringently. To begin with, there were limits to what laws could do: belief could not be commanded, so a certain tolerance of freedom of thought was inevitable. Again, people could not be expected to risk their lives in order to obey the law, as that would leave them no better off in the state than outside it. So laws that impoverished people to such an extent that they were starving, having to steal in order to live, were ill-conceived. Likewise forced military service, if it were likely to lead to death, might reasonably be seen as unacceptable according to the terms of Hobbes’ social contract. Even a regime of law that secured most people from theft and common assault, but that confiscated all income above a measly minimum, could be seen as a failure by the sovereign to come up with what the many bargained for in entering the state. What the many bargain for is safety and, as Hobbes explains in chapter 30 of Leviathan, ‘safety’ signifies more than a ‘bare preservation’: it means a modicum of wellbeing over and above survival.

The arguments from prudence against overregulation by the sovereign are also arguments against iniquitous practice by the sovereign. Hobbes distinguishes between iniquity and injustice. The sovereign does no injustice to his subjects if he decides to claim as his own all the land in a particular county or all the houses in a village: in creating the sovereign, his subjects give him the power to decree who is the owner of what. For all that, the sovereign may act iniquitously in the sense that he allows his own appetites and interests to count for more than those of anyone else, and so makes himself, for selfish reasons, the owner of more land than anyone else. There is a law of nature against iniquity, and therefore a law that decrees that the sovereign has to try to be equitable. But efforts are one thing; actual behaviour is another. The law of nature is not binding on the sovereign’s behaviour, since he retains the right of nature and is authoritative about what to do for the best. If, in his opinion, it is for the best to behave iniquitously, then no other free agent, still less one of his subjects, can blame him for behaving accordingly. But the fact that his iniquitous acts are in this sense blameless does not mean that they are wise. If appropriating everyone’s land makes people rebellious, albeit unjustly rebellious, then appropriating other people’s land may have greater costs than benefits: it is subversive of the sovereign’s power, which depends on the willingness of others to obey him.

Regarding the practice of religion, the relationship between church and state is a central preoccupation of Leviathan. Hobbes insists there that it is for the sovereign to decide whether people can join together for purposes of worship – that is, whether a given church can lawfully exist in the commonwealth. And he appears not to have been in favour of the establishment of a plurality of churches:

But seeing a Common-wealth is but one Person, it ought also to exhibite to God but one Worship; which then it doth, when it commandeth it to be exhibited by Private men, Publiquely. And this is Publique Worship; the property whereof, is to be Uniforme: For those actions that are done differently, by different men, cannot be said to be a Publique Worship. And therefore, where many sorts of Worship be allowed, proceeding from the different Religions of Private men, it cannot be said there is any Publique Worship, nor that the Commonwealth is of any Religion at all.

(Hobbes [1651] 1839 III: 354)

He goes on to say that ‘whereas there be an infinite number of Actions and Gestures, of an indifferent nature; such of them as the Common-wealth shall ordain to be Publiquely and Universally in use, as signes of Honour, and part of Gods Worship, are to be taken and used for such by the Subjects’. It is hard to gather from these passages even tacit approval for a pluralistic form of national religious life. On the contrary, it is strongly implied that unless all members of the commonwealth worship in the same way, it will be doubtful not merely which religion the commonwealth observes but whether it observes any. It is as if Hobbes thinks that in a babble of different religious rites there will be no clear sign of honour from the commonwealth to God. For a clear signal to be sent, the same thing must be transmitted by everyone in the commonwealth. This ‘clear-signal’ justification for uniformity is not as anti-tolerationist as a justification that holds that all but the appointed religious rites are idolatrous, but it lends support all the same to a highly restrictive form of public religious worship.

As chapter 12 of Leviathan shows, Hobbes was aware that people living together but worshipping differently could ridicule or belittle one another’s ceremonies and come into conflict. This is another reason for the secular authority to regulate public worship. It is also a reason for worshippers to take religious ceremony out of the public arena altogether, and preserve their differences in private. Hobbes has no quarrel with this sort of privatization of religious practice, so long as it is thoroughgoing: driving it out of the public arena means driving it well out. To obviate regulation, worship must be not only be private (that is, practised openly by a private person) but practised by a private person in secret. As Hobbes says in chapter 31 of Leviathan, private worship ‘when secret, is Free; but in the sight of the multitude, it is never without some restraint, either from the Laws, or the opinion of men, which is contrary to the nature of Liberty’.

Not only actions required by religious rites can be driven underground if they might disturb the peace; freedom of action in matters indifferent to religion can also be open to regulation, as chapter 31 of Leviathan makes clear. Arguably it is indifferent whether prayers are said in Latin or in English; arguably it is indifferent whether services are conducted by married or by celibate men; but notoriously, these are things that people look askance at or insist upon, and about which they can come to blows. For this reason, if for no other, there is a reason for the sovereign to declare what the language shall be, and who shall preside at services.

What is in the sight of the multitude and in the control of the religious is one thing; what is out of sight and uncontrollable is another: ‘Internal faith is in its own nature invisible, and consequently exempted from all humane jurisdiction’, Hobbes says in chapter 42 of Leviathan. Humane jurisdiction is not just secular jurisdiction, but also that of a body charged by a church with the inquisition of believers. Beliefs in general are not subject to the will he says in De Politico Corpore, a pirated edition of part two of the Elements of Law (1839 IV: 339). And although salvation depends on believing some things and not others, it is hard to be sure which things have to be believed beyond an uncontroversial minimum. For all of these reasons Hobbes is against the policing of religious belief, and against preferment for any one creed. It is in connection with the policing of belief rather than religious practice that his views come close to those of Independents, who in seventeenth-century England favoured a relatively loose, relatively tolerant organization of religious life, in particular a life outside a unitary Church of England. For when he appears in Leviathan (chapter 47) to side with the Independents in the Primitive church it is over each person deciding whose preaching to follow, not over many different religions being openly practised ([1651] 1839 III: 695). And in countenancing a variety of religious persuasions Hobbes is not so much showing tolerance as denying the importance to civil order of what goes on below the threshold of visible action.

Citing this article:
Sorell, Tom. Politics: the commonwealth. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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