Political Philosophy Spring 2024

The Liberty of Subjects


Chapter 21 and chapter 28 each concern the relationship between sovereigns and their subjects. Chapter 21 is about what rights subjects have against their sovereigns while chapter 28 is about the most important right that sovereigns have against their subjects.

As you might expect, the use of force is the most important topic in relations between subjects and sovereigns. Chapter 21 has important statements about the subjects’ rights to resist punishment and other orders by the sovereign while chapter 28 is about the sovereign’s right to punish.

We will talk about these topics:

  1. Why Hobbes thinks some rights are inalienable (meaning they cannot be surrendered).
  2. Some of the cases of the “true liberties” of subject; namely, cases in which subjects retain the liberty right to ignore the law.
  3. When the state is dissolved and the subjects regain their unlimited liberty rights.
  4. Why Hobbes thinks sovereigns cannot treat their subjects unjustly.

The inalienable right to self-defense

Look closely at a passage from chapter 14, paragraph 8 (14.29 is relevant too, I should add). Here, Hobbes argues that no one can give up the right to defend themselves against force.

Whensoever a man transferreth his right, or renounceth it; it is either in consideration of some right reciprocally transferred to himself; or for some other good he hopeth for thereby. For it is a voluntary act: and of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself. And therefore there be some rights, which no man can be understood by any words, or other signs, to have abandoned, or transferred.

As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them, that assault him by force, to take away his life; because he cannot be understood to aim thereby, at any good to himself. The same may be said of wounds, and chains, and imprisonment; both because there is no benefit consequent to such patience; as there is to the patience of suffering another to be wounded, or imprisoned: as also because a man cannot tell, when he seeth men proceed against him by violence, whether they intend his death or not.

And lastly the motive, and end for which this renouncing, and transferring of right is introduced, is nothing else but the security of a man’s person, in his life, and in the means of so preserving life, as not to be weary of it. And therefore if a man by words, or other signs, seem to despoil himself of the end, for which those signs were intended; he is not to be understood as if he meant it, or that it was his will; but that he was ignorant of how such words and actions were to be interpreted. (Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. 14 par. 8)

Here is the argument.

  1. Rights can be surrendered only by a voluntary action.
  2. An action is not voluntary if it does not aim at some good for oneself.
  3. No one can be understood to aim at some good for himself by giving up the right to resist punishment.
  4. Therefore, no one can be understood as voluntarily giving up the right to resist punishment.
  5. Therefore, no one can surrender the right to resist punishment.1

Which of this argument’s premises might be the weakest?

Injustice between sovereign and subject

The seventh paragraph of chapter 21 is infamous. In it, Hobbes says that a sovereign can kill a subject who has done nothing wrong without treating that subject unjustly. Yikes!

The liberty of a subject, lieth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted: such as is the liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like.

Nevertheless we are not to understand, that by such liberty, the sovereign power of life and death, is either abolished, or limited. For it has been already shown, that nothing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice, or injury; because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth; so that he never wanteth right to any thing, otherwise, than as he himself is the subject of God, and bound thereby to observe the laws of nature.

And therefore it may, and doth often happen in commonwealths, that a subject may be put to death, by the command of the sovereign power; and yet neither do the other wrong: as when Jephtha caused his daughter to be sacrificed: in which, and the like cases, he that so dieth, had liberty to do the action, for which he is nevertheless, without injury put to death. And the same holdeth also in a sovereign prince, that putteth to death an innocent subject. For though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity, (as was the killing of Uriah, by David;) yet it was not an injury to Uriah; but to God. Not to Uriah, because the right to do what he pleased, was given him by Uriah himself: and yet to God, because David was God’s subject; and prohibited all iniquity by the law of nature. Which distinction, David himself, when he repented the fact, evidently confirmed, saying, To thee only have I sinned.

In the same manner, the people of Athens, when they banished the most potent of their commonwealth for ten years, thought they committed no injustice; and yet they never questioned what crime he had done; but what hurt he would do: nay they commanded the banishment of they knew not whom; and every citizen bringing his oystershell into the market place, written with the name of him he desired should be banished, without at all accusing him, sometimes banished an Aristides, for his reputation of justice; and sometimes a scurrilous jester, as Hyperbolus, to make a jest of it. And yet a man cannot say, the sovereign people of Athens wanted right to banish them; or an Athenian the liberty to jest, or to be just. (Hobbes, Leviathan chap. 21, pars. 6-7)

The argument relies on the idea that the subjects authorized the sovereign’s actions in the social contract. Here is the argument.

  1. There is no such thing as an injustice against oneself.
  2. The subjects own the sovereign’s actions by virtue of having authorized the sovereign.
  3. Therefore the sovereign’s actions count as the subject’s own actions.
  4. Therefore, if the subjects accused the sovereign of injustice, that would be tantamount to the subjects accusing themselves of injustice.
  5. But that is impossible by the first premise.
  6. Therefore, the sovereign cannot injure the subjects. (Where “injure” means “treat unjustly.”)

So, for instance, when King David had Uriah the Hittite sent to the hottest part of the battle so he might die (I have the gory details at the bottom), what David did was an offense against God but not against Uriah. Because Uriah had authorized David’s actions, it was as if Uriah had ordered himself to the hottest part of the battle so he might die. And while that would have been an odd thing for Uriah to do to himself it would not have been an injustice towards himself because there is no such thing as an injustice towards yourself.

The true liberties

Hobbes surprisingly says that there are things a subject is permitted to do even in defiance of the law. Resisting punishment is one of them. Refusing military service is another, although there are some exceptions here: if you have signed up for the military or if your service is needed because the commonwealth is at risk, you can be obliged to serve.

Another interesting case concerns rebels. You aren’t allowed to begin a rebellion, but if one is already underway and you will be killed if you surrender, you will be allowed to continue to fight. That makes sense. If you’re allowed to resist punishment, why wouldn’t you be permitted to resist execution for rebellion?

Finally when the state no longer provides protection the subjects are free from obligations to obey it.

This was a touchy issue for people who had supported the royalist side in the civil war but were stuck in England after the Parliamentary side won. They were being faced with a choice of pledging allegiance to the new government or having their estates confiscated. Hobbes’s doctrine implied that their obligations to the monarchy had been dissolved and that they were free to sign on with the new order.

Main points

These are the things you should know or have an opinion about after today’s class.

  1. Why the right to defend your life cannot be surrendered.
  2. Hobbes’s reasons for thinking that sovereigns cannot be unjust to subjects.
  3. What happens to the subjects’ obligations to the state when the state cannot provide protection.

David and Uriah

This story is used over and over to excuse bad behavior by politicians and not just in Hobbes’s time.

From the second book of Kings, Authorized Version (a.k.a. the King James version).

11:2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

11:3 And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? 11:4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.

11:5 And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child.

11:6 And David sent to Joab, saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite. And Joab sent Uriah to David.

11:7 And when Uriah was come unto him, David demanded of him how Joab did, and how the people did, and how the war prospered.

11:8 And David said to Uriah, Go down to thy house, and wash thy feet. And Uriah departed out of the king’s house, and there followed him a mess of meat from the king.

11:9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and went not down to his house.

11:10 And when they had told David, saying, Uriah went not down unto his house, David said unto Uriah, Camest thou not from thy journey? why then didst thou not go down unto thine house? 11:11 And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.

11:12 And David said to Uriah, Tarry here to day also, and to morrow I will let thee depart. So Uriah abode in Jerusalem that day, and the morrow.

11:13 And when David had called him, he did eat and drink before him; and he made him drunk: and at even he went out to lie on his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house.

11:14 And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.

11:15 And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.

11:16 And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were.

11:17 And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab: and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.

11:18 Then Joab sent and told David all the things concerning the war; 11:19 And charged the messenger, saying, When thou hast made an end of telling the matters of the war unto the king, 11:20 And if so be that the king’s wrath arise, and he say unto thee, Wherefore approached ye so nigh unto the city when ye did fight? knew ye not that they would shoot from the wall? 11:21 Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? did not a woman cast a piece of a millstone upon him from the wall, that he died in Thebez? why went ye nigh the wall? then say thou, Thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:22 So the messenger went, and came and shewed David all that Joab had sent him for.

11:23 And the messenger said unto David, Surely the men prevailed against us, and came out unto us into the field, and we were upon them even unto the entering of the gate.

11:24 And the shooters shot from off the wall upon thy servants; and some of the king’s servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:25 Then David said unto the messenger, Thus shalt thou say unto Joab, Let not this thing displease thee, for the sword devoureth one as well as another: make thy battle more strong against the city, and overthrow it: and encourage thou him.

11:26 And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband.

11:27 And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.

12:1 And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

12:2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: 12:3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

12:4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

12:5 And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: 12:6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; 12:8 And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

12:9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

12:10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.

12:11 Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

12:12 For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

12:13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.

12:14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

12:15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.

12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.

12:17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.

12:18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? 12:19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.

12:20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.

12:21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.

12:22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? 12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

12:24 And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.


Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

  1. If you are thinking that the conclusion ought to be “no one can be understood to surrender the right to punishment,” I am with you. Hobbes switches between statements about voluntary actions and statements about what can be understood to be voluntary actions.↩︎