Leviathan and Civil Disobedience

On beginning this blog post, I think I should change the name of the blog to “The Studies of Devin Stevens.” It’s a more accurate title regarding some of the posts. But oh well. In this post, I want to focus on two pieces of classical political theory: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849). I became interested in political theory when I studied the French Revolution last year. It seemed reasonable to me that I needed to study what past thinkers have written on politics in order to get an idea of what was going through some of the minds of Frenchmen during the revolution. It’s not enough to know WHAT people did but WHY. Why do people feel the need to try and change their world? What inspires them, what have they learned in the past that may have spurred them to action? It seemed logical to read what has been written on politics so I could have a chance to understand political history. Though Thoreau is after the French Revolution, his thoughts are still useful regarding government.

First, we begin with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. As I did with my post on Marine Biology, I’ll list some key concepts I learned while studying the book. I’ll do the same with Thoreau’s essay. This is just to give me a kind of mental portrait of what I’ve learned so that I can refer to it later as a reference. But hopefully it’ll spur you to think about politics. They’re intriguing texts to say the least, though there are still many other writers to consider.


– For fear of losing power, and since their corrupt desires are allowed free rein and go unpunished, people will always violate the basic rights of others. Therefore, government, law and order are needed. Otherwise, there can only be hopeless civil war.

-According to W.G. Pogson, Hobbes was accused of atheism after his book was published because he explained the world in materialistic terms, which usually slighted theocentric views of nature. Yet this seems strange to me, personally, seeing as he goes out of his way to describe a Christian commonwealth. Hobbes compares government to the human body, noting how each part of a society serves the interests and needs of the other, just as organs work together to sustain health.

-Again, Pogson: one of the reasons government is possible is because humans invented speech, the ability to communicate with each other. Communication must always be based on clear definitions and concepts. Hobbes didn’t think reason was innate in human nature but was made by mankind to pursue peace. Furthermore, what is “Truth” is created by men who agree with each other rather than God. Again, somewhat disputable since he seems to give God credit for several things throughout the text. Yet the reasoning disturbingly resembles totalitarian thinking; ‘truth is what we say it is!’

-If a ruler is to be effective in any true capacity, he must understand all he can about human nature.

-People are more equal than they may think. Weak people can overpower the strong through cunning, and the pride of people can content their minds when they’re envious of others who seem better than themselves. Therefore, equality is not an empty abstract, at least to Hobbes.

-The law of nature is the liberty each person has to use his own power for the preservation of his life. Liberty is the absence of external impediments that would hinder a person from doing so. Law determines what a person has a right to do.

-A contract or covenant is a promise from one person to another, that if they do something good for them, then they will return their good with good likewise. A covenant where self-defense is not possible is void, and no man is obliged to condemn himself. An oath is where a person says that if they do not do what they promise, then God will punish them for their disobedience.

-Injustice is the failure to perform one’s covenant to another. Fear of punishment from the government is needed to compel people to perform their promises.

-Other natural laws include gratitude, being a sociable and accommodating citizen, forgiving offenders if they repent from their wrongs, that in executing revenge, people should consider the positive results that follow rather than the greatness of the evil being punished, thereby instructing others to behave likewise. Also, one should not live with hatred toward another, one should acknowledge another to be his equal by Nature, one should have equity and fairness in judging others, and one should fairly divide things in common as much as is possible. You could sum it all up with the Golden Rule: Do not to another which you would not have done to yourself.

– Leviathan refers to the “mortal god,” the commonwealth, whereby a sovereign authority is given supreme Power and Strength through a covenant between the subjects (or rather, the representatives of the subjects) and the ruler himself, to ensure peace at home and protection from foreign powers. Because the ruler represents the people, the people cannot challenge his institutions or actions without condemning themselves, thereby constituting injustice.

– The sovereign has the authority to judge what is necessary for his subjects, what laws are to be issued, whether to create war or peace, regulate the economy, reward and punish subjects, and to elect judges to decide controversies and disputes. One may say that such power is too much for one man, but Hobbes argues that since the people are the ‘source’ of the sovereign’s power, then he is not a tyrannous entity in and of himself. He would be powerless to be despotic if the people were not behind him. Governors enjoy being a help to their people and not a burden.

-When the sovereign power is one person, it’s a Monarchy, if a few, then it’s an Aristocracy. If by many people then it’s a Democracy. When people are dissatisfied with government, notes Hobbes, then they say that Monarchy is tyranny, aristocracy is oligarchy, and democracy is anarchy.

-The Bible has been used to justify government based on Jesus’s exhortation to ‘give unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s,’ and the apostle Paul’s warning to obey princes and those in authority over them. You could say the government is an extention of parents ruling over their children.

-The subjects have liberty only in so far as the Sovereign’s authority allows it. Interestingly though, a man does not have to kill himself because the Sovereign says so. He also doesn’t have to not resist others who hurt him simply because the Sovereign says so. (This seems to be a contradiction in Hobbes’s philosophy; even though the subjects shouldn’t question the Sovereign’s authority, they CAN do so in these cases? Maybe he was willing to concede exceptions to his ideas…). The right to self-defense seems to supercede authority.

-The subject has the right to do something that the law is silent on.

-A public minister is a person employed by the Sovereign to represent the Sovereign. Sometimes this is the case when the Sovereign is just a kid and needs an adult for supervision and advice. Like the king, the minister is in charge of the nation’s economy, militia, the judicature, and rewarding and punishing evildoers.

-A good counselor should have interests consistent with him whom he counsels, appeal to Truth rather than obscure, confused, and unrealistic references, and when he gives advice, he should be well versed in what he advises. If he’s talking about economics, he should know and understand economics. He should also be aware of treaties and transactions of state.

-Civil laws are laws written or spoken, which subjects are to observe in the commonwealth regarding right and wrong. The Sovereign is the legislator of civil law and is not subject to obey them because he can repeal those laws that trouble him. He can obey them if he wishes. Laws can never be against reason, nor the laws of nature. The interpretations of the law are also dependent on the Sovereign.

-A charter is a law that only applies to a certain group of people.

-Judges appointed by the sovereign should be as impartial as possible, unprejudiced to one person or another, not given to bribes, and have good attention regarding what he hears and good memory to retain it. The king depends on his elected officials to do his bidding. He literally cannot do everything by himself.

-Ignorance, poor reasoning, presumption due to riches, or a false sense of security, and false teachings often incite others to commit crimes against the commonwealth and the king. Fear is a double-edged sword; it can inspire people to keep laws or break them. A punishment is, to Hobbes, an evil inflicted by public authority to one who has transgressed the Law so that others may thereafter be better disposed towards obedience.

-Different kinds of punishment include exile, imprisonment, publicly stripping people of badges and titles to their shame, and capital punishment (punishment by death).

-Universities should teach people to obey the sovereign power. Taxes are imposed on subjects in the name of paying authorities to take care of them.

-A commander of an army should be industrious, valiant, affable, liberal, and fortunate.

– There are several things that can threaten the well-being of a commonwealth. Sometimes rulers are not as firm in their authority when they should be, leaving people vulnerable to war within and from without. Some may say that they should obey their conscience, their own judgment of good and evil and not the Sovereign’s if his authority should contradict it. Hobbes’s response to this is that the conscience may be misleading, and that by disobeying the laws of a commonwealth, which represent the ‘public conscience’ the subject pledged himself to when they ‘made a covenant’ with the King, he commits a grave injustice in his disobedience. Trying to dissolve or separate the powers of a commonwealth could also cause disorder and chaos, unlike what America’s founding fathers thought.


A person should never obey the government if its authority contradicts the individual’s conscience. Because government often becomes despotic long before the people can effectively change it, it is better to have no government at all. Government policies often impede on economics and education.

-Law cannot make a man less unjust, it can only forbid. An undue respect for the law can produce horrible results, such as soldiers marching out to fight an unjust war which they personally agree is unjust. They are mindless slaves with no regard to right or wrong, puppets of those in authority.

-People may, in opinion, oppose a policy, but they don’t do anything practical to stop it, according to Thoreau’s investigations of American society. Voting doesn’t effect a solution. It’s just an expression of a desire for change. If you support an evil politician, you also share in his corruption.

-The State can only appeal to force and not conscience. It pushes people to obey through threat of punishment only.

-Being accustomed to obeying corrupt government and civil order, our consciences become dull and we no longer live moral lives. A person should not be primarily responsible to society but to the self. Until the State recognizes this, there will never be true justice.


One thought on “Leviathan and Civil Disobedience

  1. Pingback: Leviathan and Civil Disobedience | The World According to Devin Stevens

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