Hobbes on the Social Compact

Last week, we took an initial glance at Thomas Hobbes, looking at his place in history and basic worldview, one he developed based on the emerging scientific outlook of his day. It is important to note that, while his outlook reflects the beginning of the modern world, Hobbes is not a modern person. (One of the benefits of the kind of walk through the history of ideas that we are taking in these blogs is that one sees not the sharp breaks in historical outlook that often reflected in textbooks and other historical summaries, but the gradual development of new ways of thinking.) [1] Hobbes is an early example of the kind of mechanistic materialism that further developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. As mentioned in the last blog, Hobbes worldview is no longer fully adequate given the emergence of relativity and quantum theory in the 20th Century.

This week, we will look at Hobbes version of the Social Compact theory, a theme that we will touch on again in Locke, who was more instrumental in the thought of the drafters of the American Constitution. Before launching off into this examination, a bit more biographical information is helpful. Hobbes lived during the reign of the Stewart kings, and was impacted by the Cromwellian revolution. Politically, Hobbes was a Royalist and defended the Stewart Monarchy in his writings. As Charles I and Parliament moved in the direction of Civil War, Hobbes left England for Paris and the Continent. While in exile, he tutored the young Charles II. While in exile, Hobbes presented the Leviathan to Charles II.

Remembering that Cromwell was a Protestant and the Stewart Kings were aligned with the more traditional Catholic Christian faith, the conflict impacted his views on both religion and politics. Hobbes was deeply concerned about the religious wars of his day, and this impacted his view of religion. One of his main motives in writing was to defend monarchy. [2] Therefore, his version of Social Compact theory is what might be called, “Monarchist.” Nevertheless, since he did consent to live under Cromwell and his son, he is also concerned to defend his own actions.

The Social Compact

Hobbes is an originator of the modern Social Compact theory of government, but his version of the theory is not in any way democratic. Hobbes begins his analysis of Social Compact theory in Leviathan as follows:

A commonwealth is said to be instituted when a multitude of men to agree and covenant, every one, that to whatever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all, that is to be their representative; every one, as well as he who voted for it, as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgements of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably among themselves, and be protected against other men. [3]

There are several aspects of this definition that are important to unpack, because Hobbes theory, as fully developed is somewhat different from the theory as it finally impacted the American Constitution.

First, note that Hobbes defines a commonwealth without any reference to history or to existing institutions, such as the family and clan. The individualism of the modern world view is fully present. A commonwealth is formed by individuals, not by existing social units. Once formed, a commonwealth binds individuals, both those who approved of its formation and those who opposed it. The full implications of Hobbes thought only becomes apparent later when he reveals that a “compact” can be made whenever the conquered submit to the rule of a conqueror. The mere act of submission violence is enough to establish the state. Hobbes goes on to say that once formed, the “subjects” have no legal right to change their form of government. [4]

Second, this submission authorizes all the actions of the person or persons who are authorized by the formation of the commonwealth to act on behalf of the state. In other words, once sovereignty has been granted, whether by assent or submission, the state may act without restraint, and no action of the sovereign breaches the compact by which the commonwealth was formed. [5] In fact, the sovereign, once established can to anything without the subjects having any right to object to injustice. [6] If the reader has not already figured this out, Hobbes is a totalitarian. There are no moral constraints on what a sovereign can do. [7]

Finally, Hobbes theory of sovereignty leads him to the position that the sovereign is the sole judge of what policies are required to create social peace, what should be taught, what laws and rules should be instituted, what decisions should be made by courts, issues of war and peace, the choice of ministers, counselors and civil servants, who and how persons should be rewarded and punished, and all other aspects of government. [8] The historic notion of balancing governmental powers to restrain the sovereign is absent in his absolutist vision.

Formation of the Commonwealth

Hobbes indicates two methods by which a commonwealth can be established: Force and Institution. [9] One would think that a “social compact theory” would require the second means be used since “compacts” require some kind of consent, but that would be a mistake. According to Hobbes, the legitimacy and rights of the sovereign are identical by whatever means sovereignty is acquired. Hobbes also distinguishes between acquiring sovereignty by right of birth and/or conquest. [10] (In Hobbes day, these were the two most common means of acquiring sovereignty.) Once again, in either situation, the sovereign possesses all the rights of sovereignty. Whether by choice, birth, or conquest, the rights are the same.

It might be time to ask a question, “How in the world could there be a compact which is made by force?” Here we have recourse to Hobbes’ view of the world and of human nature: It does not matter how sovereignty is acquired because in each case the cause is fear. People fear social chaos, so they democratically agree to a government. People fear a king, so they accept an heir to power. People fear a conqueror, so they consent to the rule of a despot. People fear the absence of social order, so the rule of an elite is legitimate. In the end for Hobbes, all government is based on the power of those who rule to impose that rule on others.

Dangers and Fallacies of Hobbes Theory

It does not take much thought to understand just how dangerous Hobbes theory is and why dictators and others have found it so appealing: It is a thoroughly nihilistic theory that can be used to justify any action, however violent, deceitful, or decadent so long as the attempt is successful. Once successful, the sovereign is legitimate irrespective of how sovereignty is acquired. His thinking is a far distance away from what might be called the classical political thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, and the like.

Is Hobbes correct? Is it correct to see power as the only reality and fear as the only motivator in human government? I believe that the answer is “No.” While fear is a powerful motivator in human affairs, and one cannot underestimate its force, people are also motivated by love of their family and friends, by social bonds within communities of all types, by the desire to exercise their mental and moral powers, by a desire to improve their situation, by the creative desire to improve the world, and by a host of other motives that are not reducible to fear of social chaos. Human beings sense invisible realities like justice, freedom, and social good that they seek and which motivate their actions. The reduction of politics to power and the acquisition of power to an end not to be critiqued by resort to moral and other values is simply less than fully human.

In prior blogs, I have reviewed the classical division between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and their decadent forms: despotism, oligarchy, and mob rule. For Hobbes, the latter are simply names human beings apply to things they subjectively and without other grounds do not like. In other words, the words despotism, oligarchy and mob rule do not refer to a moral reality beyond themselves. Thus, Hobbes says:

There be other names of government, in the histories, and books of policy; such as tyranny, and oligarchy: but these are not names of other forms of government but of the same form misliked. For they that are discontented under monarchy call it tyranny; they that are displeased under an aristocracy call it oligarchy; so also, they that find themselves aggrieved under democracy call it anarchy.” [11]

Here we see the impact of Hobbes radical nominalism at work and in the process creating a nihilistic vision of human political life. One who abuses power as tyrant, oligarch, or leader of a mob is not at odds with an invisible moral order which can be discovered by a community of citizens and rulers seeking a just and fair polity. There is no such thing. There is only desire and the search for power. Moral objections are nothing more than statements of personal preference.

This view of Hobbes, however, flies in the face of both human history and human experience. Human beings do in fact judge their leaders, and their judgements are not merely subjective. Would Nazi Germany have been a just polity and not a tyranny if it had only won the Second World War and there was no one left to complain? Was Stalinist Russia not a tyranny despite its claims to the contrary? Were not critics of both systems such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in fact in contact with a moral reality when they condemned the actions of these governments and not just expressing personal dislike? Human beings do in fact judge governments, and when we do so, we make recourse to a reality that is real, though invisible and not available to those who refuse to seek it.


I am going to spend one more week on Hobbes, for Hobbes political philosophy, flawed as it is, is still a powerful guide of modern political life, as we see it played out around us every day. On the left and right of modern society there has been a loss of faith in democracy and in the values of Western societies, given philosophical legitimacy by a development of the world-view and politics of Hobbes. Next week, we will begin by looking at Hobbes definition of liberty and the ways in which this definition is used to undergird his vision.

One final and personal word this week. I am not writing these blogs out of an abstract interest in political philosophy, but out of a concern for the way in which Western society is developing. As opposed to Hobbes politics of “the war of all against all” I suggest a politics of community and of human concern for others as well as self. As opposed to the tactics of “the war of all against all” I suggest dialogue about serious social problems. As opposed to the proud idea that my group has the correct answers to the state of our society and when in power should enact them, in humility I propose the idea that none of us have a complete understanding of the issues we face, and we need each other’s idea and approaches. As opposed to the notion that we need the power to enforce a solution to the problems we face, I propose that we need the wisdom to compromise to make the problems better as we seek a more just society.



[1] For example, I have in my library a book in which Machiavelli and Hobbes are put together in one volume. As this blog has mentioned in the past, there are similarities between Machiavelli and Hobbes, and both represent a movement away from Renaissance and Reformation ways of thinking, yet Machiavelli is almost a quasi-Renaissance thinker, while in Hobbes one sees the modern world emerging with a new way of looking at the world.

[2] An orderly account of Hobbes life is beyond this blog. Hobbes did return to England and lived through the rule of Cromwell and his son. His submission to Cromwell did not sit well with Charles II and the Royalist faction when Charles returned to power in 1660. Charles defended his old tutor but did not permit the publication of his history of the English Revolution or to reprint Leviathan. See, Great Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes https://thegreatthinkers.org/hobbes/biography/ (downloaded January 6, 2021).

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 134. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan.

[4] Id, at 134.

[5] Id, at 135.

[6] Id, at 136.

[7] In fact, Hobbes holds that a sovereign cannot be punished for any act, a position that flows from his doctrine that no action of a sovereign can be claimed to be unjust. Id, at 137.

[8] Id, 137-139.

[9] Id, at 151.

[10] Id, at 153.

[11] Id, at 142.

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