Hobbes, Thomas

Leviathan

  • This summary of Leviathan includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Leviathan Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Leviathan by Hobbes, Thomas.

Thomas Hobbes’s political manifesto The Leviathan (1651) holds that a commonwealth with a social contract is the ideal way to govern a body of people. Hobbes argues that a sovereign power is best equipped to maintain peace and civic unity and that each of the nation’s citizens buys into a social contract that allows the sovereign power to act on behalf of safety and public defense. The central image of the philosophy is a leviathan or sea monster, with a body made of human constituents and a head representing the sovereign leader. According to Hobbes, this philosophy is the best in order to avoid civil war and maintain a unified nation. The manifesto is broken up into four sections, which build on this central idea.

“Of Man,” the first section of Hobbes’s manifesto, is the most detailed section of the book. In essence, he asserts that a nation is essentially a larger representation of one man – he refers to a nation as an “artificial man.” Hobbes argues that we live in a materialistic world, in which it is our sole purpose to use our sense and react to our environment. Because the environment and people around us are constantly moving and changing, we are driven to act. Hobbes introduces the “state of nature,” which is essentially the natural state of man without the rules of government – Hobbes posits that without laws governing behavior, there would be all-out war between men trying to destroy each other because, in the natural world, all creatures are pitted against each other in order to survive. All men are equal in a state of nature, but all men also live in fear of losing their lives. As such, the natural response men have to living in fear is to join a larger group or commonwealth of men, to provide self-protection from the dangerous world around them. By banding together into a commonwealth, all men are no longer equal, but the combined power of the state provides a greater sense of safety for those who agree to live within it. This commonwealth is the Leviathan.

In section two, “Of Common-wealth,” Hobbes details the obligations all citizens have to their nation-state or higher governing body. He makes the argument for monarchy as the ideal form of government. He believes that monarchy is the only government in which the commonwealth has the necessary power to adequately act and defend against invaders or dangerous outside forces. The obligation of the citizen, then, is to act according to the will of the sovereign power. If the citizen finds this life and these rules too oppressive, he has the right to leave – however, leaving means returning to a state of nature, which Hobbes argues is so dangerous that it’s not worth risking the dangers in order to be free.

In “Of a Christian Common-wealth,” Hobbes discusses the question of whether being obedient to a king or queen is the same as being obedient to a divine authority, such as God. In response to this, Hobbes argues that there should never be a conflict between obeying civil and divine laws. To Hobbes, God exists, but only supernaturally – in his view, God cannot speak to or interact with man, existing only on a supernatural plane. For this reason, man’s only true authority on earth is the sovereign power. The only obligation man has to God, in Hobbes’s view, is that he remains faithful to God and obeys all civil laws to demonstrate his subservience and willingness to accept the views of both civil and divine authority.

The final section, “The Kingdom of Darkness,” discusses the horrifying ramifications of not living life according to his idea of a social contract and an all-powerful commonwealth. By refusing to live by his own principles, Hobbes argues that man is not punished in the same way one is punished in hell, but, instead, his punishment is constant manipulation by those around him. Hobbes believes that this “darkness” is caused primarily by disobedience due to the belief that God interacts with men on Earth. He blames Catholicism, the papacy, and Aristotle’s idea of spirits and souls for this belief system that causes “spiritual darkness” and a lack of obedience to the commonwealth.

The Leviathan is a prominent work of political philosophy that is still studied today and considered one of the first arguments detailing social contract theory, or the idea that individuals must surrender some freedoms in order to be protected by and live a life of comfort within a nation-state. His work is frequently contrasted with Machiavelli’s The Prince. The book was written during the English Civil War, which likely influenced Hobbes’s belief that a strong nation is more important than the freedoms and individual views and beliefs of its citizens.