Hobbes on consent, conquest, and rebellion Notes for March 1

Main points

We started off with some remarks about the role of consent and social contracts in Hobbes’s theory. We spent the bulk of our time discussing his contention that a government formed by conquest is just as legitimate as one formed through the idealized process described in chapter 18. We ended with a short remark about rebellion.


Hobbes’s arguments for absolutism turn on his formulation of the social contract. According to that, subjects would surrender their right to govern themselves and authorize all of the sovereign’s actions (or, at least, all of the sovereign’s actions relevant for peace and security). The latter clause means that nothing the sovereign does to a subject would be unjust.

But why would people agree to give the sovereign such sweeping powers? Hobbes’s argument has to be that this is the only way to form a stable society. But historical experience suggests otherwise: you can have a stable society in which the government is forbidden to violate human rights. Since that is so, it’s hard to see how Hobbes can argue for his absolutist conclusions.

I said that the idea of consent does at least three things for Hobbes. I then said that I thought it was unlikely that all three things could be accomplished through a literal contract. We talked a bit about how the US Constitution works for our state. What I took from our discussion is that the Constitution accomplishes the three things I mentioned even though it could not plausibly be described as a social contract.

Of course, I don’t have a more positive explanation of how exactly this works. Why do we voluntarily comply with the government under the Constitution? Why do we think we’re obliged to obey its rules and that it exercises legitimate power rather than mere force? We are fortunate to find these questions a bit mysterious because we can take stable government for granted.


Hobbes maintained that governments formed through conquest are just as legitimate as those formed through the democratic, idealized process described in chapter 18. This is his answer to Diamond’s charge that the social contract theorists ignore reality. I think Hobbes thought that the commonwealth by acquisition, as described in chapter 20, was the realistic story. His point was to try to persuade people that the realistic state was just as legitimate as the ideal one. Both claim the same powers and both originate in fear of death.

Sam and Nathaniel weren’t persuaded. They said there’s a big difference between agreeing to obey someone who threatens you and agreeing to appoint someone to be a leader to escape a bad situation. Michael and others were more sympathetic to Hobbes’s point. It was a great discussion, with each side making good points.

It seems to me that Sam and Nathaniel’s strongest point concerned obligation. They thought you would be allowed to go back on anything you promise to someone who threatens you. Nathaniel pointed out that Hobbes himself had said something similar about torture in chapter 14, paragraph 30.

The strongest point on Michael’s side concerned what people are permitted to do. In particular, they are allowed to reach a settlement with a new government, even if it had violently defeated its predecessor. This was the position of people after the civil war in England: they were torn between loyalty to the monarchy and the fact that the monarch was in exile and the Army was in charge of the country. Hobbes thought he had shown why they were permitted to switch allegiances.


Hobbes has a curious back door for rebellion. He denied that there was a right of rebellion for ideological purposes: if you want your monarchy to be a democracy, tough. But he thought people had the right to resist the state with violence if it threatened their lives. Prisoners can resist their sentences and rebels who are not offered pardons can attempt to overthrow the state.

So Hobbes is in the position of saying that while the initial act that led to the state’s hostility might have been wrong, once a group finds itself in conflict with the state, it is allowed to fight on. Perhaps this is why some of his contemporaries branded Leviathan as a “rebel’s catechism.”** See Curley’s Introduction, p. xxxviii.


The handouts cover a few topics concerning liberty that we did not have time to discuss. Here’s what I was going to use them to say.

Chapter 21, paragraph 6 makes an odd claim: some people argue for “exemption from the law,” which, as Hobbes takes it, is an argument for returning to the state of nature. But surely no one had that in mind when they objected that the state infringed on their liberty. The points about exemptions from the law illustrate the kind of thing he had in mind in ch. 21, par. 6. The clergy claimed to be exempt from the law and some members of the nobility didn’t think the monarch had the power to make them pay taxes. That covers two of the three essential rights of sovereignty (ch. 14, par. 16). So, Hobbes’s point is, they perhaps unwittingly were demanding exemptions from the law that would return everyone to the state of nature.

The second point on the handout concerns democracy. In his early political writing, Hobbes had written some things about democracy that he seems to have withdrawn in chapter 21, paragraphs 8–9. Some scholars maintain that he wasn’t saying anything nice about democracy in the earlier work but that he was trying to scare members of the nobility who made a big deal about their liberty under the king. They say the point was that liberty leads to democracy which the nobility would, presumably, dislike. In any event, the relevant passages are all there for you to look at yourselves.

Finally, the Speech to Parliament, 21 March 1610 is from King James I. James was the father of Charles I, the king who lost the civil war and was beheaded by the victorious parliament. If you compare what James says about the power of kings with what Hobbes says in chapter 21, paragraph 19, you’ll find that Hobbes has a more expansive understanding of the monarch’s powers.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted March 1, 2010.
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