Term Paper: Thomas Hobbes' Philosophy

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[. . .] " (Hobbes)

Hobbes asserted that by surrendering his judgment to the sovereign the subject was making the law of the commonwealth public conscience. The surrendering of judgment was essential to the power of the sovereign.

For if the subjects did not surrender their judgment everyone within the society would only be subject to their own conscience which may not serve the greater good and would with certainty render the sovereign powerless. If the sovereign was powerless he could not maintain peace and there would be no social contract.

The idea of the power of the sovereign is one reason why Hobbes believed that men must submit their will and judgment to the sovereign. According to the notes of Michael Green who is a professor at the University of Chicago, Hobbes held that the sovereign must have control in several areas.

First of all the sovereign can not treat the subject in a cruel or unjust manner. Green asserts that it would be impposible for a sovereign to treat a subject in this manner because "if the subjects could judge the sovereign and the sovereign the subjects, there would be no judge to decide who was right and that means that, in effect, there wouldn't be a sovereign." (Green)

In addition Green asserted that the sovereign must have a means to the end. Which means that sovereign must have total control over the subjects. The sovereign must also have control over property rights, declarations of war, punishment, rewards and the choosing of counselors. (Green)

In addition the sovereign must have the ability to raise money and power over militias. Finally the powers of the sovereign are indivisible and cannot be given away. Sovereigns cannot consent to have fewer powers than those necessary. (Green)

Green's analysis contends that the power of the sovereign rest in the ability of the subjects to surrender their will and the ability of the sovereign to do whatever necessary to retain this power. If the sovereign is unable to manage the power bestowed upon him by the subjects then the commonwealth will cease to exist. Once again this would destroy the social contract and eliminate the peace that the contract is supposed to provide.

Hobbes summed up his beliefs about the surrendering of the will and judgment with these words,

It is manifest therefore that the right which the commonwealth (that is, he, or they that represent it) hath to punish, is not grounded on any concession, or gift of the subjects. But I have also showed formerly, that before the institution of commonwealth, every man had a right to every thing, and to do whatsoever he thought necessary to his own preservation; subduing, hurting, or killing any man in order thereunto. And this is the foundation of that right of punishing, which is exercised in every commonwealth. For the subjects did not give the sovereign that right; but only in laying down theirs, strengthened him to use his own, as he should think fit, for the preservation of them all: so that it was not given, but left to him, and to him only; and (excepting the limits set him by natural law) as entire, as in the condition of mere nature, and of war of every one against his neighbour. (Hobbes)

Hobbes believed that above all human beings wanted peace of mind and wanted to live in a society where peace was ensured by the sovereign. His philosophy held that the only way to keep people from being in the constant condition whereby they hurt and killed one another was to create a society in which the subjects' right to govern themselves was given to a sovereign. In order to give the sovereign the power that is needed to govern such a commonwealth the subjects would have to surrender their will and judgment to the sovereign.

Opinions of Hobbes Theory

Hobbes ideal of a social contract is bold yet contradictory. On the one hand he thinks that human beings are rational but on the other hand he feels that they need a sovereign to maintain order. Well if human beings are so rational why would they give all their power to a single person who then has complete control over the commonwealth? It seems that the rationality of human beings would lead them to understand that there is no way that a single person or a group of people can maintain complete peace and harmony within a society. (Green) This would be impossible because there will always be people within a society that are irrational, how then will the sovereign ensure the peace of the subjects and if he can't ensure the peace of the subjects how can there be a social contract.(Green)

He also asserted that human beings only had the capacity to be rational if they were governed; which directly contradicts Hobbes idea that people are naturally rational. Hobbes believed that men were dangerous if they were left to their own devices and that they would inevitably destroy one another but somehow if they had a sovereign these men would somehow gain rationality and be able to obey a sovereign.

Additionally Hobbes theory is based on the assumption that the sovereign will treat the people with respect and not take advantage of the power that they have been granted. If in fact the sovereign does take advantage of the subjects and causes disorder which disrupts the peace of the commonwealth then the people may end up back in a condition of war because according to Hobbes people will do whatever it takes to maintain peace even if that means going to war. In this case the whole idea of a sovereign becomes circumspect.

Finally Hobbes seems to have the idea that if a sovereign was appointed the society would no longer have problems. He seemed to ignore all the problems that would result from one person or group of people that had so much power. The history of politics has taught us that if one person or group of people is given too much power in a society the society can be held captive and denied basic freedoms. This has been a very apparent problem in countries such as Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are place where a person or faction was granted power and abused what they were given. In the case of the philosophy of Hobbes the subjects of the commonwealth may be totally unaware of the intentions of the sovereign.

Another major issue with Hobbes is the fact that he believes that the actions of the individuals in the commonwealth are the responsibility of the sovereign rather than the individual. Hobbes contends that even if the actions that an individual conducts are unlawful they will not have to take responsibility for the things that they do. This is the most troubling aspect of Hobbes philosophy because it means that a sovereign power can instruct an individual to do something that is detrimental to other people and that individual will not be held accountable for the things that they do because they would have done it on behalf of their country.


The purpose of this discussion was to explore the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. In particular we discussed why Hobbes insisted that men surrender their will and judgment to a sovereign. We discovered that Hobbes was a social contract theorist that believed that men were rational but only if they were governed by a sovereign who was all powerful.

He also believed that men would do anything to preserve their lives even if it meant that they had to relinquish their right to govern themselves.

We found that the reason why Hobbes insisted that men surrender their will and judgment was so that the sovereign would have the power that they needed to govern the commonwealth. This power could only be given to the sovereign if the subjects would agree to surrender their will and judgment. We also found that Hobbes insisted on the surrender of will and judgment to ensure that people return to their natural condition of war which would inevitably lead people to destroy one another. I hope that this has provided a thorough review of why Hobbes insists that men must surrender their will and judgment to a sovereign.


Green, Michael. The Social Contract. http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mgreen/HobbesW01/Notes/Class/jSocCon.html

Hobbes, Thomas," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002

http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan taken from the book Social and Political Philosophy. ed. Sommerville, J. And Santoni E. 1963

Hodges, Miles. The European Enlightenment. http://www.newgenevacenter.org/west/enlightenment2.htm [END OF PREVIEW]

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