Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is commonly considered a handbook for tyrants. A superficial reading of the book will lead one to conclude that Hobbes’s Sovereign is all-powerful and that the citizens of the Commonwealth have no freedom. This view has been criticized by many academics, who argue that Hobbes’s doctrine does not embrace tyranny, and have even labelled Leviathan a ‘Rebel’s Cathecism’. It is my purpose in this writeup to undermine this fashionable view. I argue that Hobbes does indeed advocate tyranny in Leviathan.
Some commentators (most notably Warrender in his The Political Philosophy of Hobbes) have argued that the Sovereign is constrained by the Laws of Nature (see end of writeup for terminology). However, this is clearly untrue since Hobbes explicitly states that the Laws of Nature are not obligatory in the State of Nature. They are only binding when the Sovereign commands them to be. And since the Sovereign does not himself have a sovereign, there is no one but himself to enforce compliance with the laws of nature on himself. And even if he does this, he can always change his mind. The laws of nature are not a check on the Sovereign's tyranny.
Some (notably Warrender) have argued that since the sovereign is responsible to God, God restrains the sovereign's actions. However, the sovereign is the only one authorized to interpret Scripture in the Commonwealth and also the only one who can dictate what the will of God is. So the sovereign can always say that he is acting with authorization from God. Of course, if he believes in God, he risks God's wrath in this life or the next. However, it is clear from the history of Europe that this is hardly a sufficient incentive for a monarch to act in accordance to Christian doctrine. And if the sovereign is an atheist, even this minor incentive is not effective. God does not restrict the sovereign's tyranny.
Much has been made of the fact that Hobbes advises the Sovereign to act in ways which are conducive of political stability. Thus, the Commonwealth, for all the theoretical power of the Sovereign, would not in actuality be a tyranny. This, however, assumes that the Sovereign is a wise leader, and heeds Hobbes's advice. This is highly dubious. If we consider the actual history of Europe, we see that absolute monarchs have often lavished their funds on endless wars abroad and luxury at home, oblivious to the interests of their subjects. The paradigm case would be Louis XIV. Another interesting example would be Peter the Great of Russia. Peter the Great achieved great progress in a very backward society, but the price was terrible - decades of war, and tens of thousands of lives lost in the construction of St. Petersburg. Hobbes would see no fault in this, since he is an advocate of tyranny.
There are also textual passages in Leviathan that suggest that Hobbes actually thought the sovereign would not be the enlightened monarch his apologists have described. I quote from Leviathan:
And though he be careful in his politique Person to procure the common interest; yet he is more, or no lesse careful to procure the private good of himselfe, his family, kindred and friends; and for the most part, if the publique interest chance to crosse the private, he preferrs the private: for the Passions of men, are commonly more potent than their Reason. (Leviathan, Part II, Chapter 19, p. 131.)
Thus, even if the monarch was aware of Hobbes's advice, and knew what he should do to further the interests of his subjects, there is no guarantee that he would act in this way. If the monarch's passions were stronger than his reason, as Hobbes asserts, the monarch might well act against the interests of the people. The danger in Hobbes's system is that there is nothing to constrain the sovereign. He may do anything whatsoever even on a whim. A further quote illustrates this.
It is true, that a Soveraign Monarch ... may ordain the doing of many things in pursuit of their Passions, contrary to their own consciences, which is a breach of trust, and of the Law of Nature; but this is not enough to authorise any subject, either to make warre upon, or so much accuse of Injustice, or any way to speak evill of their Soveraign; because they have authorised all his actions, and in bestowing the Soveraign Power made them their own. (Leviathan, Part II, Chapter 24, p. 172)
It is absolutely crucial that for Hobbes, the Sovereign remains in the State of Nature vis-à-vis his subjects after the institution of the Commonwealth. This means that the Sovereign retains his Right of Nature, which means
... the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto. (Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 14, p. 91)
The Right of Nature has absolutely no constraints. Someone with the Right of Nature can do anything whatsoever, including killing, enslaving or torturing others if he thinks that this will further his self-preservation. The following quote illustrates this starkly:
...in such a condition (the State of Nature), every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body. (Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 14, p. 91)
In the same way, the Sovereign is free to do anything that he likes to his subjects. It should be remembered, of course, that the subjects retain the right of self-defence in the Commonwealth. But in practice this is a rather academic matter - the subject’s right of self-defence in no way limits the Sovereign's right to kill, torture or imprison him. Hobbes illustrates the triviality of the right of self defence himself by using the case of the prisoner condemned to death as an example of that right. There is no way that a single prisoner's rebellion against his captors could succeed. The only thing he has is himself, wheareas the guards are backed by the whole coercive apparatus of the early modern state. Obviously, this is even more starkly clear in the modern state. Whether the prisoner - or whoever else is facing death at the hands of the Commonwealth - tries to resist or not is ultimately of no consequence. He ends up dead.
Perhaps the prudent sovereign will not kill and torture his subjects for his amusement, though it is entirely within his rights to do so. However, 20th century history has demonstrated that individuals in power are capable of extreme brutality. There is nothing in Hobbes's theory to condemn the mass-murder of Jews and other minorities by Hitler or the purges of Stalin. In his paranoia, Stalin probably thought it was in his interest and the interest of the Soviet state to kill millions of its citizens. Since, according to Hobbes, the sovereign should act in ways that he thinks will further his own interests and the interests of his subjects, we reach the extremely perverse conclusion that Stalin was entirely justified in committing mass murder. If such an appalling conclusion can be made from a theory, it suggests that there is something very disturbing and indeed wrong with the theory itself. And there is absolutely no doubt that Hobbes's theory is an endorsement of tyranny.
It might be going too far to say that Hobbes is endorsing genocide. Mass murder on a 20th century scale was scarcely possible, let alone imaginable in the 17th century. But Hobbes did make a similar conclusion in his own time - that it would have been justified to kill ten thousand clerics to avoid the English Civil War. Whether this would actually have worked and thus avoided the war is irrelevant here. What is important is that Hobbes is granting the Sovereign the right to massacre his subjects if he wants to. Compared to this, Hobbes's sensible advice to the Sovereign pales in comparison. There is no doubt that Hobbes is an advocate of tyranny.
In conclusion, I think it is worth quoting Charles Tarlton's excellent article.
Hobbes was fond of posing the stark alternatives of unlimited authority and the state of nature, to frighten us back into our chains. But if authority is necessarily as he described it, then maybe anarchy (and) disorganization ... are really no worse." ("The despotical doctrine of Hobbes", p. 89)
State of Nature:
the state of mankind when there is no Sovereign, I.e. when there is no state. According to Hobbes, the State of Nature is a state of war of every man against every man. Because the State of Nature is so miserable, the Commonwealth needs to be established
Laws of Nature:
rules which are conducive of peace. Laws in the sense that since all people desire peace, they are compelled by the Laws of Nature which promote peace.
Right of Nature:
in the State of Nature, everyone has a right to everything. This is the Right of Nature.
the absolute leader of Hobbes’s state. The state is formed when everyone in the State of Nature gives up their Right of Nature. The Sovereign, however, keeps his Right of Nature, and is thus able to rule without constraint.
All these terms need their own nodes. I have only attempted to provide a very limited sketch of them to help understand the writeup.
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan.
Tarlton, Charles, ‘The despotical doctrine of Hobbes, Part I’ in History of Political Thought
22 4 (2001), pp. 587-618.
Tarlton, Charles, 'The despotical doctrine of Hobbes, Part II' in History of Political Thought
23 1 (2002), pp. 61-89.
Parkin, Dr. John, lectures on Thomas Hobbes, University of York