Central Idea of Hobbes' "Leviathan"

The leviathan appears in ancient Semitic mythology and biblical texts as an aquatic beast, sometimes interpreted as a crocodile, whale or sea monster.
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Thomas Hobbes wrote "Leviathan," first published in 1651, after a decade in which England fought two civil wars, inspiring Hobbes to explore the role and shape of a sovereign state. He named this exploration after the formidable sea monster of Scripture; Hobbes uses the creature to illustrate the idea that a sovereign state dwarfs and overpowers individuals. Hobbes isn't arguing that the state is fearsome, however; his main argument is that centralized power protects individuals.

1 Human Nature

To argue that the state protects citizens, Hobbes must first identify the threat it intercepts. He begins "Leviathan" with a study of human nature. It's important to understand that in this essay "human nature" does not refer to a universal human condition that transcends cultural differences, but to the condition of humans without culture. In other words, "natural" here pertains to the primal and uncivilized. Hobbes reasons that man in his natural state cares only about his own survival and comfort. Not only is he indifferent to others' welfare, he regards them as rivals and enemies. Such a life, Hobbes famously concludes, is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes calls the nasty and brutish condition of primitive man "war" because it entails continual fear and an ever-present threat of violence.

2 Covenant

Hobbes notes that while facets of human nature produce war, people also naturally long for peace. By agreeing to forfeit some of their natural rights -- to "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as [they] would allow other men against [themselves]" -- community members can live in peace. Hobbes calls this agreement a covenant because it's a contract made in faith that every party will honor in the future.

3 Justice

"Covenants are in vain and but Empty words," Hobbes writes, unless all parties are required to keep their promise. Thus, covenants require the establishment of an external authority that can enforce the contract by punishing defaulters. This authority is a sovereign power: the state. It is Hobbes' leviathan. Like the leviathan, the state is gigantic, incorporating its citizens into one body politic. Also, like the leviathan, its scope and power vastly exceed that of any one individual.

4 Religion

Hobbes reveals more of the significance of his leviathan comparison when he calls the creature a "Mortall God." He recognizes that references to a higher power, particularly one that judges the rightness and wrongness of human behavior, will make readers think of religion. By selecting a "Mortall God" as a symbol, Hobbes underscores a crucial point of his essay: The sovereign power must be secular. Hobbes stresses that social contracts based on a mutual trust must be enforced according to a rational and single standard. Religious practices and individuals' consciences are too varied to serve this purpose.

  • 1 Leviathan; Thomas Hobbes
  • 2 Norton Anthology of English Literature; Stephen Greenblatt
  • 3 Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature; Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer
  • 4 Routledge Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses; Manfred Lurker

Lily Carroll works for a non-profit children's literacy organization. She has worked as a college composition instructor and ESL tutor. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Mills College in Oakland.