Leviathan

20.03.2015 |

Episode #10 of the course “Philosophical ideas that everyone should know”

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes published his book Leviathan in 1651. Leviathan is also the name of a sea monster that is referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible. Perhaps Hobbes named his book after this creature to show that his version of social order is a necessary evil.

Discouraged with the aftermath of the English Civil War, Hobbes creates a gloomy life view of people living in isolated conditions who are only interested in their own security and pleasure. These people are always fighting one another, so cooperation is impossible. Hobbes believes that the only way society can survive in these conditions is with “a common Power to keep them all in awe.” In this book, that is Leviathan.

Hobbes uses the name Leviathan to symbolize state power, and currently, the word refers to a state power that is overstepping its authority. To Hobbes, everyone has the instinct to act in their own personal interest, and it is also in the interest of all to cooperate. This combination is the only way we can change conditions of war and poverty. But changing conditions is hard because there is a cost to enforce interpersonal contracts. So how can anyone ensure contractual order? In Hobbes’s view, there is no way out of the violent cycle.

Signing a contract gives certain rights and obligations to all involved parties. The contract between citizen and state is a metaphor intended to explain the responsibility of citizens and the state in relation to each other. Hobbes suggests that people need some higher power to make them obey contracts. All citizens must curb their liberties to foster peace and cooperation. This is accomplished by putting someone in charge to enforce contracts. When citizens agree to give some up some of their sovereignty, then order can be brought to a hopeless society.


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