Hobbes on sovereignty Notes for March 10

Main points

Hobbes is known as an absolutist: he maintained that the sovereign has absolute power. But what does that mean? And what are his arguments for absolutism?

Chapter 18 lays out the rights of sovereigns and duties of subjects. I split these into two categories: those that concern revolutionary change and those that concern the ordinary operations of the state.

I argued that Hobbes’s “absolutism” concerning the first category is perfectly sensible. Then I confessed that I have trouble assessing the second category. I’ll explain what I mean below.

What is the argument of ch. 18?

Chapter 18 is devoted to showing that there is a kind of contradiction between two things:

  1. wanting to have a stable, peaceful society governed by an effective sovereign.
  2. contradicting anything listed in chapter 18, that is, either denying the sovereign any of the rights listed there (especially the three listed in the next section) or giving subjects rights not listed there.

In Hobbes’s opinion, that was exactly the combination of attitudes held by a crucial part of the governing classes in England that led to the Civil War. For instance, some of them thought they could have the state while limiting its powers to raise taxes: they reserved that power for Parliament, where they were pre-eminent.

Who or what is the sovereign?

There are two ways of identifying the sovereign. The sovereign in a society is a person or body of persons who:

  1. has been given the right of governing through the social contract. (Lev. ch. 17, par. 13).
  2. has the three “marks” of sovereignty, namely, control of the military, ability to raise money, and control of religious doctrines. (Lev. ch. 18, par. 16).

Obviously, these can come apart. Someone who hasn’t been given the right of governing in the social contract may seize the three essential rights of sovereignty. In fact, that is exactly what happened in the civil war, according to Hobbes. If you read his history of the war, Behemoth you’ll see a distinction between the de facto sovereign and the de jure sovereign which correspond to the first and second ways of identifying the sovereign. When King Charles I was captured, he remained the de jure sovereignty while the army was the de facto sovereign.

Absolutism and revolution

Hobbes is an absolutist in the sense that there is no right to revolution on ideological grounds. There are rights to violently resist the state in order to save one’s own life. But no one has the right to overthrow the sovereign and install a new one or to change the form of the state from, say, monarchy to aristocracy.

I think that this is a sensible form of absolutism. We have states for the purpose of resolving ideological conflicts. We want them resolved through the state rather than through violence.

I said that I didn’t think there are any states that recognize a right of rebellion. Rob, however, found four of the states in the United States have a right of revolution written into their constitutions. But I have to confess that I have a lot of trouble understanding what they mean. Does that mean that if I decide I don’t like the state I can seek its overthrow? If that’s my attitude, why do I care that the constitution allows me to do so? And if I can’t convince my fellow citizens to join in, aren’t they allowed to try to maintain the present state constitution? If so, then what does my constitutional right to rebellion amount to?** I assume that no constitution requires surrender to whatever set of rebellious cranks happens to pick up its guns. In any event, I was thinking about sovereign states, like the federal government. As we learned in the nineteenth century, it does not recognize a right to rebellion or even the less drastic move of secession.

Absolutism in the ordinary operations of the state

The forms of absolutism that seem more objectionable concern the ordinary operations of the state and especially the relations between sovereigns and subjects. Hobbes claims that sovereigns can never forfeit their right to rule and that they cannot treat subjects unjustly, no matter what they do.

These arguments depend on two fine points in the formulation of the social contract.

  1. the contract is among the future subjects, who then give the sovereign power as a gift, with no conditions.
  2. the future subjects authorize all of the sovereign’s actions.

But Hobbes did not explain why the social contract has to work that way and there are good reasons why people might want to put conditions on the sovereign’s power or, at least, withhold their authorization from some of his actions.

For example, it’s hard to see why Uriah would have authorized David to take his wife. And not even Hobbes maintained that Uriah would have owned David’s sin against God (Lev. ch. 21, par. 7).

Ranging farther afield, would a Christian subject really authorize an infidel ruler’s religious practices? Hobbes himself said that if a sovereign compels a subject to deny the true God, “the action is not his, but his sovereign’s,” provided the subject does not truly believe what he is saying (Lev. ch. 42, par. 11).†† See also Lev. ch. 43, par. 22–3.

Finally, Hobbes described the subjects as agreeing to authorize only the sovereign’s actions that “concern the common peace and security” (Lev. ch. 17, par. 13).

So how did he arrive at those two “fine points”? I think he was doubted there could be an institution that would have two qualities:

  1. it would be powerful enough to enforce any conditions or limits on the sovereign’s power.
  2. it would not be used by those who seek to capture the sovereign’s power for themselves.

In other words, the problem, as he saw it, isn’t with having logical limits on the sovereign’s power. The problem lies in developing the political institutions that would enforce those limits without causing civil war.‡‡ Is this a way out of the infidel sovereign problem? You don’t need a human institution to tell whether the subject really meant it or not. God will know.


I find it difficult to say what I think of Hobbes’s arguments concerning the ordinary operations of the state. My trouble concerns applying what he means by “sovereign” to the institutions of a state that I’m familiar with.

If “sovereign” means something like “the government”, then I can see his point. The government does have to have at least two of the essential marks of sovereignty.§§ Control of doctrines is dispensable, in our historical circumstances, at least. And there isn’t a third party outside the government that passes judgment on the government. If you want a judge, you have to go to the state-appointed one.

But if “sovereign” refers to a particular part of the government, then Hobbes’s arguments look weak. The US government has three branches, each of which can check or limit the others in various ways. It seems a stable enough system.

So what did Hobbes mean? I’m not sure that he always clearly meant one or the other. The states he was familiar with were different from the ones we’re familiar with. So it isn’t easy for me to translate his thoughts across historical time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted March 19, 2008.
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