Background on absolutism

Notes for March 27

Main points

We’re moving into Hobbes’s political theory. The goal of today’s class was to put that theory into context.


Chapter 18 has quite a few twisty arguments meant to establish the sovereign’s absolute power. Our survey of other absolutist positions should help us to see what he was trying to accomplish.

One point I want to make concerns the relationship between the two versions of the social contract, the commonwealth by institution (chapter 18) and the commonwealth by acquisition (chapter 20). The commonwealth by institution comes first, but I think that’s misleading. I don’t believe Hobbes regarded that as a realistic account of the origins of the state. I think his point was that an absolutist state would emerge from an unrealistically idealized version of the social contract. So he thought he could show that absolute government is not just the product of conquest, such as it is in the commonwealth by acquisition. It would emerge from freely given consent as well.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 27, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar