Leviathan | Thomas Hobbes, Marshall Missner (Editor), Crawford Brough Macpherson (Editor, Introduction)

Summary of: Leviathan
By: Thomas Hobbes, Marshall Missner (Editor), Crawford Brough Macpherson (Editor, Introduction)


Dive into the world of Leviathan, a groundbreaking work by Thomas Hobbes that delves into the complexities of human nature, power, and governance. Hobbes examines the ways in which our senses help us understand our environment and provides a framework for human reasoning. Unveiling the significance of language and logical sequencing, this book challenges us to consider our natural desire for power and control. As you delve into this summary, you’ll explore topics ranging from the foundations of social contracts and the importance of a strong, sovereign ruler, to the best forms of governance and the proper basis for laws.

The Power of Language

Language is crucial for understanding our world. It helps us to reason and put together patterns. Our senses work by being triggered by physical objects, and the words we use to describe our experiences are essential for accurate communication. The sequencing of words allows us to create patterns that help us determine cause and effect. By understanding correlations, we can predict outcomes and take actions to produce particular results.

Power, Desire, and Conflict

Language and cause-and-effect thinking give birth to desire, which drives humans to seek power. The resulting competition for power creates a cycle of violence and fear, leading to a constant state of war.

Our ability to understand cause and effect through language gives rise to the concept of desire, which ultimately drives human behavior. Desire is the fundamental motivation behind all human striving, and it is based on a basic need for power. Power can be understood as a person’s ability to acquire something they want, which can be natural or instrumental, like money, reputation, or an influential network.

However, the desire for power creates intense rivalries, inevitably leading to competition and, ultimately, conflict. When two people desire the same thing, competition is natural, and the fear of losing is acute on both sides. This sense of equality is based on the combination of our natural and instrumental powers, meaning that any person could potentially defeat another, even one who is physically stronger, through deceit or alliance.

This perpetual competition for power leads to a constant state of war, as everyone is both a potential ally and a potential enemy. The resulting cycle of violence and fear is the biggest threat to human society, and it is not easy to avoid. Yet, a better understanding of the driving forces behind human behavior could lead to strategies that diminish the need for power and the resulting conflict, ultimately creating a more peaceful and just world.

The Social Contract

Society can easily fall into perpetual conflict, but it is possible to maintain peace through a social contract. This contract requires individuals to give up the right to harm others to ensure their own safety. Trust is crucial, as each person must trust that their neighbors will do the same. Any departure from this covenant is unjust and can lead to chaos. To keep the social fabric intact, each individual must abide by the social contract and fit in with the norms of society. Homogeneity reduces suspicion and fear, allowing for a fair and functional society.

Leviathan: The Sovereign Body

Everyone must surrender some rights to a strong sovereign force for the entire society to feel secure. The leviathan is not necessarily a despotic or omnipotent ruler but rather a single body composed of every individual in the society. It is the head while the rest of the body is composed of ministers and militia. As such, the power of the leviathan cannot be divided. The commonwealth, which is vital to keeping the leviathan functioning, performs essential functions and nourishes the society. As people will only surrender their freedom to a secure power, a leviathan with the strength of all individuals can adequately fill this role.

The Best Form of Government

The three basic forms of government are aristocracy, democracy, and monarchy. While other terms like oligarchy or totalitarianism exist, they are not distinct forms but simply other names for the three basic governments. A government with an elected monarch called a president is a form of democracy, and a government in which a governor is appointed by a monarch functions essentially as a monarchy. Monarchy is the best form of government since a monarch can easily make decisions, act with consistency, and maintain the social contract, deterring conflict. Additionally, succession is easier in a monarchy since only one person needs to name a successor, reducing the risk of argument or conflict that could lead to war.

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