Russell on Hobbes’s Leviathan


Here are the pages dedicated by Bertrand Russell to Thomas Hobbes philosophy.

(Here you can read his complete History of Western Philosophy)

Chapter VIII 

HOBBES (1588-1679) is a philosopher whom it is difficult to 
classify. He was an empiricist, like Locke, Berkeley, and 
Hume, but unlike them, he was an admirer of mathe- 
matical method, not only in pure mathematics, but in its appli- 
cations. His general outlook was inspired by Galileo rather than 
Bacon. From Descartes to Kant, Continental philosophy derived 
much of its conception of the nature of human knowledge from 
mathematics, but it regarded mathematics as known independently 
of experience. It was thus led, like Platonism, to minimize the part 
played by perception, and over-emphasize the part played by pure 
thought. English empiricism, on the other hand, was little in- 
fluenced by mathematics, and tended to have a wrong conception 
of scientific method. Hobbes had neither of these defects. It is 
not until our own day that we find any other philosophers who 
were empiricists and yet laid due stress on mathematics. In this 
respect, Hobbes 's merit is great. He has, however, grave defects, 
which make it impossible to place him quite in the first rank, lie 
is impatient of subtleties, and too much inclined to cut the 
Gordian knot. His solutions of problems are logical, but are 
attained by omitting awkward facts. He is vigorous, but crude; 
he wields the battle-axe better than the rapier. Nevertheless, his 
theory of the State deserves to be carefully considered, the more 
so as it is more modern than any previous theory, even that of 

Hobbes 's father was a vicar, who was ill-tempered and un- 
educated ; he lost his job by quarrelling with a neighbouring vicar 
at the church door. After this, Hobbes was brought up by an 
uncle. He acquired a good knowledge of the classics, and translated 
The Medea of Euripides into Latin iambics at the age of fourteen. 
(In later life, he boasted, justifiably, that though he abstained from 
quoting classical poets and orators, this was not from lack of 
familiarity with their works.) At fifteen, he went to Oxford, where 
they taught him scholastic logic and the philosophy of Aristotle. 
These were his bugbears in later life, and he maintained that he 
had profited little by his years at the university; indeed universities in general are constantly criticized in his writings. In the 
year 1610, when he was twenty-two years old, he became tutor to 
Lord Hardwick (afterwards second Earl of Devonshire), with 
whom he made the grand tour. It was at this time that he began 
to know the work oif Galileo and Kepler, which profoundly in- 
fluenced him. His pupil became his patron, and remained so 
until he died in 1628. Through him, Hobbes met Ben Jonson and 
Bacon and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and many other important 
men. After the death of the Earl of Devonshire, who left a young 
son, Hobbes lived for a time in Paris, where he began the study of 
Euclid; then he became tutor to his former pupil's son. With him 
he travelled to Italy, where he visited Galileo in 1636. In 1637 
he came back to England. 

The political opinions expressed in the Leviathan, which were 
Royalist in the extreme, had been held by Hobbes for a long time. 
When the Parliament of 1628 drew up the Petition of Right, he 
published a translation of Thucydides, with the expressed inten- 
tion of showing the evils of democracy. When the Long Parlia- 
ment met in 1640, and Laud and Strafford were sent to the Tower, 
Hobbes was terrified and fled to France. His book, De Give, 
written in 1641, though not published till 1647, sets forth essen- 
tially the same theory as that of the leviathan. It was not the 
actual occurrence of the Civil War that caused his opinions, 
but the prospect of it; naturally, however, his convictions were 
strengthened when his fears were realized. 

In Paris he was welcomed by many of the leading mathe- 
maticians and men of science. lie was one of those who saw 
Descartes* Meditation* before they were published, and wrote 
objections to them, which were printed by Descartes with his 
replies. He also soon had a large company of English Royalist 
refugees with whom to associate. For a time, from 1646 to 1648, 
he taught mathematics to the future Charles II. When, however, 
in 1651, he published the leviathan, it pleased no one. Its 
rationalism offended most of the refugees, and its bitter attacks 
on the Catholic Church offended the French Government. 
Hobbes therefore fled secretly to London, where he made sub- 
mission to Cromwell, and abstained from all political activity. 

He was not idle, however, either at this time or at any other 
during his long life. He had a controversy with Bishop Bramhall 
on free will ; he was himself a rigid dcterrninist. Over-estimating 
his own capacities as a geometer, he imagined that he had dis- 
covered how to square the circle; on this subject he very foolishly 
embarked on a controversy with Wallis, the professor of geometry 
at Oxford. Naturally the professor succeeded in making him 
look silly. 

At the Restoration, Hobbes was taken up by the less earnest of 
the king's friends, and by the king himself, who not only had 
Hobbes's portrait on his walls, but awarded him a pension of 
100 a year which, however, His Majesty forgot to pay. The 
Lord Chancellor Clarendon was shocked by the favour shown to 
a man suspected of atheism, and so was Parliament. After the 
Plague and the Great Fire, when people's superstitious fears were 
aroused, the House of Commons appointed a committee to inquire 
into atheistical writings, specially mentioning those of Ilobhcs. 
From this time onwards, he could not obtain leave in England to 
print anything on controversial subjects. Even his history of the 
Long Parliament, which he called Belieruoth, thowh it set u>rth 
the most orthodox doctrine, had to he printed ahr ad do(>Sj. The 
collected edition of his works in 1688 appeared in Amsterdam. In 
his eld age, his reputation abroad was n.uch greater than in 
England. To occupy his leisure, he v. rote, at eighty-four, an 
autobiography in Latin verse, and published, at eighty-seven, a 
translation of Homer. I cannot disc-over that he wrote any large 
books after the age of eighty-seven. 

We wiM m \\ consider the doctrines of the l^ei'iathan, upon 
which the fame of Hobbes mainly rests. 

He prochnas, at the very beginning of the book, his thorough- 
going materialism. Life, he says, is nothing but a motion ol" the 
limbs, and therefore automata have an artificial life. The common- 
wealth, which he calls Leviathan, is a creation of art, ai.d is in 
fact an artificial man. This is intended as more than an ana* >uy, 
and is worked out in some detail. The sovereignty is an artificial 
soul. The pacts and covenants by which "Leviathan" is first 
created take the place of God's fiat when He said "Let I's make 

The first part deals with man as an individual, and with such 
general philosophy as Hobbes deem* necessary. Sensations arc 
caused by the pressure of objects; colours, sounds, etc., are not 
in the objects. The qualities in objects that correspond to our 
sensations are motions. The first law of motion u* stated, and is immediately applied to psychology: imagination is a decaying 
sense, both being motions. Imagination when asleep is dreaming; 
the religions of the gentiles came of not distinguishing dreams 
from waking life. (The rash reader may apply the same argument 
to the Christian religion, but Hobbes is much too cautious to do 
so himself. 1 ) Belief that dreams are prophetic is a delusion; sa 
is the belief in witchcraft and in ghosts. 

The succession of our thoughts is not arbitrary, but governed 
by laws sometimes those of association, sometimes those 
depending upon a purpose in our thinking. (This is important as 
an application of determinism to psychology.) 

Hobbes, as might be expected, is an out-and-out nominalist. 
There is, he says, nothing universal but names, and without words 
we could not conceive any general ideas. Without language, there 
would be no truth or falsehood, for "true" and "false" are 
attributes of speech. 

He considers geometry the one genuine science so far created. 
Reasoning is of the nature of reckoning, and should start from 
definitions. But it is necessary to avoid self-contradictory notions 
in definitions, which is not usually done in philosophy. * 4 Incor- 
poreal substance," for instance, is nonsense. When it is objected 
that God is an incorporeal substance, Hobbes has two answers: 
first, that God is not an object of philosophy; second, that many 
philosophers have thought God corporeal. All error in general 
propositions, he says, conies from absurdity (i.e. self-contradic- 
tion); he gives as examples of absurdity the idea of free will, and 
of cheese having the accidents of bread. (We know that, according 
to the Catholic faith, the accidents of bread can inhere in a sub- 
stance that is not bread.) 

In this pannage Hobbes shows an old-fashioned rationalism. 
Kepler had arrived at a general proposition: "Planets go round 
the sun in ellipses"; but other \icws, such as those of Ptolemy, 
are not logically absurd. Hobbes has not appreciated the use of 
induction for arriving at general laws, in spite of his admiration 
for Kepler and Galileo. 

As against Plato, Hobbes holds that reason is not innate, but is 
developed by industry. 

He conies next to a consideration of the passions. "Endeavour" 
may be defined as a small beginning of motion ; if towards some- 
thing, it is desire, and if away from something it is aversion. Love 
is the same as desire, and hate is the same as aversion. We call 
a thing "good" when it is an object of desire, and "bad" when it 
is an object of aversion. (It will be observed that these definitions 
give no objectivity to "good 1 * and "bad"; if men differ in their 
desires, there is no theoretical method of adjusting their differ- 
ences.) There are definitions of various passions, mostly based on 
a competitive view of life; for instance, laughter is sudden glory. 
Fear of invisible power, if publicly allowed, is religion ; if not 
allowed, superstition. Thus the decision as to what is religion and 
what superstition rests with the legislator. Felicity involves con- 
tinual progress; it consists in prospering, not in having prospered ; 
there is no such thing as a static happiness excepting, of course, 
the joys of heaven, which surpass our comprehension. 

Will is nothing but the last appetite or aversion remaining in 
deli be radon. That is to say, will is not something different from 
desire and aversion, but merely the strongest in a case of conflict. 
This is connected, obviously, with Hobbes's denial of free will. 

Unlike most defenders of despotic government, Hobbes holds 
that all men are naturally equal. In a state of nature, before there 
is any government, every man desires to preserve his own liberty, 
but to acquire dominion over others; both these desires are 
dictated by the impulse to self-preservation. From their conflict 
arises a war of all against all, which makes life "nasty, brutish, 
and short." In a state of nature, there is no property, no justice 
or injustice; there is only war, and "force and fraud are, in war, 
the two cardinal virtues." 

The second part tells how men escape from these evils by com- 
bining into communities each subject to a central authority. This 
is represented as happening by means of a social contract. It is 
supposed that a number of people come together and agree to 
choose a sovereign, or a sovereign body, which shall exercise 
authority over them and put an end to the universal war. I do not 
think this "covenant" (as Hobbes usually calls it) is thought of as 
a definite historical event ; it is certainly irrelevant to the argument 
to think of it as such. It is an explanatory myth, used to explain 
why men submit, and should submit, to the limitations on personal 
freedom entailed in submission to authority. The purpose of the 
restraint men put upon themselves, says Hobbes, is aelf~prc*ervation from the universal war resulting from our love of liberty 
for ourselves and of dominion over others. 

Hobbes considers the question why men cannot co-operate like 
ants and bees. Bees in the same hive, he says, do not compete; they 
have no desire for honour; and they do not use reason to criticize 
the government. Their agreement is natural, but that of men can 
only be artificial, by covenant. The covenant must confer power 
on one man or one assembly, since otherwise it cannot be enforced. 
"Covenants, without the sword, are but words." (President 
Wilson unfortunately forgot this.) The covenant is not, as after- 
wards in Jxxrkc and Rousseau, between the citizens and the ruling 
power; it is a covenant made by the citizens with each other to 
obey such ruling power as the majority shall choose. When they 
have chosen, their political power is at an end. The minority is as 
much bound as the majority, since the covenant was to obey the 
government chosen by the majority. When the government has 
been chosen, the citizens lose all rights except such as the govern- 
ment may find it expedient to grant. There is no right of rebellion, 
because the ruler is not bound by any contract, whereas the 
subjects are. 

A multitude so united is called a commonwealth. This 
"Leviathan** is a mortal God. 

Hobbes prefers monarchy, but all his abstract arguments are 
equally applicable to all forms of government in which there is 
one supreme authority not limited by the legal rights of other 
bodies. He could tolerate Parliament alone, but not a system in 
which governmental power is shared between King and Parlia- 
ment. This is the exact antithesis to the views of Locke and 
Montesquieu. The Knglish Civil War occurred, says Hobbes, 
because power was divided between King, Lords, and Commons. 

The supreme power, whether a man or an assembly, is called 
the Sovereign. The powers of the sovereign, in Hobbes's system, 
are unlimited. He has the right of censorship over all expression 
of opinion. It is assumed that his main interest is the preservation 
of internal peace, and that therefore he will not use the power of 
censorship to suppress truth, for a doctrine repugnant to peace 
cannot be true (A singularly pragmatisf view!) The laws of pro- 
perty are to be entirely subject to the sovereign; for in a state of 
nature there is no property, and therefore property is created by 
government, which may control its creation as it pleases. 
It is admitted that the sovereign may be despotic, but even the 
worst despotism is better than anarchy. Moreover, in many points 
the interests of the sovereign are identical with those of his subjects. 
He is richer if they are richer, safer if they are law-abiding, and 
so on. Rebellion is wrong, both because it usually fails, and because, 
if it succeeds, it sets a bad example, and teaches others to rebel. 
The Aristotelian distinction between tyranny and monarchy is 
rejected; a "tyranny," according to Hobbes, is merely a monarchy 
that the speaker happens to dislike. 

Various reasons are given for preferring government by a 
monarch to government by an assembly. It is admitted that the 
monarch will usually follow his private interest when it conflicts 
with that of the public, but so will an assembly. A monarch may 
have favourites, but so may even* member of an assembly; 
therefore the total number of favourites is likely to be fewer 
under a monarchy. A monarch can hear advice from anybody 
secretly; an assembly can only hear advice from its own members, 
and that publicly. In an assembly, the chance absence of some 
may cause a different party to obtain the majority, and thus 
produce a change of policy. Moreover, if the assembly is divided 
against itself, the result may be civil war. For all these reasons, 
Hobbes concludes, a monarchy is best. 

Throughout the Leviathan, Hobbes never considers the possible 
effect of periodical elections in curbing the tendency of assemblies 
to sacrifice the public interest to the private interest of their 
members. He seems, in fact, to be thinking, not of democratically 
elected Parliaments, but of bodies like the Grand Council in 
Venice or the House of Lords in England. He conceives demo- 
cracy, in the manner of antiquity, as involving the direct partici- 
pation of every citizen in legislation and administration; at least, 
this seems to be his view. 

The part of the people, in Hnhhes's system, ends completely 
with the first choice of a sovereign. The succession is to be deter- 
mined by the sovereign, as was the practice in the Roman Kmpire 
when mutinies did not interfere. It is admitted that the sovereign 
will usually choose one of his own children, or a near relative if 
he has no children, but it is held that no law ought to prevent him 
from choosing otherwise. 

There is a chapter on the liberty of subjects, which begins with 
an admirably precise definition : Liberty is the absence of external 
impediments to motion. In this sense, liberty is consistent with 
necessity; for instance, water necessarily flows down hill when 
there are no impediments to its motion, and when, therefore, 
according to the definition, it is free. A man is free to do what he 
wills, but necessitated to do what God wills. All our volitions have 
causes, and are in this sense necessary. As for the liberty of 
subjects, they are free where the laws do not interfere ; this is no 
limitation of sovereignty, since the laws could interfere if the 
sovereign so decided. Subjects have no rights as against the 
sovereign, except what the sovereign voluntarily concedes. When 
David caused Uriah to be killed, he did no injury to Uriah, because 
Uriah was his subject; but he did an injury to God, because he 
was God's subject and was disobeying God's law. 

The ancient authors, with their praises of liberty, have led men, 
according to Hobbes, to favour tumults and seditions. He main- 
tains that, when they are rightly interpreted, the liberty they 
praised was that of sovereigns, i.e. liberty from foreign domina- 
tion. Internal resistance to sovereigns he condemns even when it 
might seem most justified. For example, he holds that St. Ambrose 
had no right to excommunicate the Emperor Theodosius after 
the massacre of Thessalonica. And he vehemently censures Pope 
Zachary for having helped to depose the last of the Merovingians 
in favour of I'cpin. 

He admits, however, one limitation on the duty of submission 
to sovereigns. The right of self-preservation he regards as absolute, 
and subjects have the right of self-defence, even against monarchs. 
This is logical, since he has made self-preservation the motive for 
instituting government. On this ground he holds (though with 
limitations) that a man has a right to refuse to fight when called 
upon by the government to do so. This is a right which no modern 
government concedes. A curious result of his egoistic ethic is 
that resistance to the sovereign is only justified in w^-defence; 
resistance in defence of another is always culpable. 

There is one other quite logical exception: a man has no duty 
to a sovereign who has not the power to protect him. This justified 
Hobbes 's submission to Cromwell while Charles II was in exile. 

There must, of course, be no such bodies as political parties or 
what we should now call trade unions. All teachers are to be 
ministers of the sovereign, and are to teach only what the sovereign 
thinks useful. The rights of property are only valid as against 
other subjects, not as against the sovereign. The sovereign has the 
right to regulate foreign trade. He is not subject to the civil law. 
His right to punish comes to him, not from any concept of justice, 
but because he retains the liberty that all men had in the state of 
nature, when no man could be blamed for inflicting injury on 

There is an interesting list of the reasons (other than foreign 
conquest) for the dissolution of commonwealths. These are : giving 
too little power to the sovereign; allowing private judgment in 
subjects; the theory that everything that is against conscience is 
sin; the belief in inspiration; the doctrine that the sovereign is 
subject to civil laws; the recognition of absolute private property; 
division of the sovereign power; imitation of the Greeks and 
Romans; separation of temporal and spiritual powers; refusing 
the power of taxation to the sovereign ; the popularity of potent 
subjects; and the liberty of disputing with the sovereign. Of all 
these, there were abundant instances in the then recent history 
of England and France. 

There should not, Hobbes thinks, be much difficulty in teaching 
people to believe in the rights of the sovereign, for have they not 
been taught to believe in Christianity, and even in transubstantia- 
tion, which is contrary to reason? There should be days set apart 
for learning the duty of submission. The instruction of the people 
depends upon right teaching in the universities, which must 
therefore be carefully supervised. There must be uniformity of 
worship, the religion being that ordained by the sovereign. 

Part II ends with the hope that some sovereign will read the 
book and make himself absolute a less chimerical hope than 
Plato's, that some king would turn philosopher. Monarchs are 
assured that the book is easy reading and quite interesting. 

Part III, "Of a Christian Commonwealth," explains that there 
is no universal Church, because the Church must depend upon 
the civil government. In each country, the king must he head of 
the Church; the Pope's overlordship and infallibility cannot be 
admitted. It argues, as might be expected, that a Christian who 
is a subject of a non-Christian sovereign should yield outwardly, 
for was not Naaman suffered to bow himself in the house of 

Part IV, "Of the Kingdom of Darkness,'* is mainly concerned 
with criticism of the Church of Rome, which Hobbes hates 
because it puts the spiritual power above the temporal. The rest 
of this part is an attack on "vain philosophy," by which Aristotle 
is usually meant. 

Let us now try to decide what we are to think of the Leviathan. 
The question is not easy, because the good and the bad in it are 
so closely intermingled. 

In politics, there are two different questions, one as to the best 
form of the State, the other as to its powers. The best form of 
State, according to Hobbes, is monarchy, but this is not the 
important part of his doctrine. The important part is his con- 
tention that the powers of the State should be absolute. This 
doctrine, or something like it, had grown up in Western Europe 
during the Renaissance and the Reformation. First, the feudal 
nobility were cowed by Louis XI, Edward IV, Ferdinand and 
Isabella, and their successors. Then the Reformation, in Pro- 
testant countries, enabled the lay government to get the better 
of the Church. Henry VIII wielded a power such as no earlier 
English king had enjoyed. But in France the Reformation, at first, 
had the opposite effect; between the Guises and the Huguenots, 
the kings were nearly powerless. Henry IV and Richelieu, not 
long before Hobbes wrote, had laid the foundations of the absolute 
monarchy which lasted in France till the Revolution. In Spain, 
Charles V had got the better of the Cortes, and Philip II was 
absolute except in relation to the Church. In England, however, 
the Puritans had undone the work of Henry VIII; their work 
suggested to I lobbcs that anarchy must result from resistance to 
the sovereign. 

liven' community is faced with two dangers, anarchy and 
despotism. The Puritans, especially the Independents, were most 
impressed by the danger of despotism. Ilobbes, on the contrary, 
having experienced the conflict of rival fanaticisms, was obsessed 
hy the fear of anarchy. The liberal philosophers who arose after 
the Restoration, and acquired control after 1688, realized both 
dangers; they disliked both Strafford and the Anabaptists. This 
led Locke to the doctrine of division of powers, and of checks 
and balances. In England there was a real division of powers so 
long as the King had influence; then Parliament became supreme, 
and ultimately the Cabinet. In America, there are still checks and 
balances in so far as Congress and the Supreme Court can resist 
the Administration. In (Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, the 
government has had even more power than Hobbes thought desir- 
able. On the whole, therefore, as regards the powers of the State, 
the world has gone as Hobbes wished, after a long liberal period 
during which, at least apparently, it was moving in the opposite 
direction. In spite of the outcome of the present war, it 
seems evident that the functions of the State must continue to 
increase, and that resistance to it must grow more and more 

The reason that Hobbes gives for supporting the State, namely 
that it is the only alternative to anarchy, is in the main a valid one. 
A State may, however, be so bad that temporary anarchy seems 
preferable to its continuance, as in France in 1789 and in Russia 
in 1917. Moreover, the tendency of every government towards 
tyranny cannot be kept in check unless governments have some 
fear of rebellion. Governments would be worse than they are if 
Hobbes 's submissive attitude were universally adopted by sub- 
jects. This is true in the political sphere, where governments will 
try, if they can, to make themselves personally irremovable ; it is 
true in the economic sphere, where they will try to enrich them- 
selves and their friends at the public expense; it is true in the 
intellectual sphere, where they will suppress every new discovery 
or doctrine that seems to menace their power. These are reasons 
for not thinking only of the risk of anarchy, but also of the danger 
of injustice and ossification that is bound up with omnipotence 
in government. 

The merits of Hobbes appear most clearly when he is contrasted 
with earlier political theorists. He is completely free from super- 
stition ; he does not argue from what happened to Adam and Eve 
at the time of the Fall. He is clear and logical; his ethics, right or 
wrong, is completely intelligible, and does not involve the use 
of any dubious concepts. Apart from Machiavelli, who is much 
more limited, he is the first really modern writer on political 
theory. Where he is wrong, he is wrong from over-simplification, 
not because the basis of his thought is unreal and fantastic. For 
this reason, he is still worth refuting. 

Without criticizing Hobbes's metaphysics or ethics, there are 
two points to make against him. The first is that he always con- 
siders the national interest as a whole, and assumes, tacitly, that 
the major interests of all citizens are the same. He does not realize 
the importance of the clash between different classes, which Marx 
makes the chief cause of social change. This is connected with the 
assumption that the interests of a monarch are roughly identical 
with those of his subjects. In time of war there is a unification of 
interests, especially if the war is fierce; but in time of peace the 
clash may be very great between the interests of one class and 
those of another. It is not by any means always true that, in such 
a situation, the best way to avert anarchy is to preach the absolute 
power of the sovereign. Some concession in the way of sharing 
power may be the only way to prevent civil war. This should have 
been obvious to I lobbes from the recent history of England. 

Another point in which Hobbes's doctrine is unduly limited is 
in regard to the relations between different States. There is not 
a word in Leviathan to suggest any relation between them except 
war and conquest, with occasional interludes. This follows, on 
his principles, from the absence of an international government, 
for the relations of States are still in a state of nature, which is 
that of a war of all against all. So long as there is international 
anarchy, it is by no means clear that increase of efficiency in the 
separate States is in the interest of mankind, since it increases 
the ferocity and destructiveness of war. Every argument that he 
adduces in favour of government, in so far as it is valid at all, is 
valid in favour of international government. So long as national 
States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve 
the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate 
States without having any means of preventing war is the road 
to universal destruction. 


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