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Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: Summary, Quotes & Analysis

Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: Summary, Quotes & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Book 1: Of Man
  • 1:42 Book 2: Of a Commonwealth
  • 2:54 Book 3: Of a Christian…
  • 3:17 Book 4: Of the Kingdom…
  • 4:24 Analysis of Leviathan
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Thomas Hobbes, in his treatise Leviathan, discussed what he believes are the downfalls of government, and how humans can achieve the perfect commonwealth. This lesson will summarize it and offer some quotes and analysis.

Book 1: Of Man

If you lived through a civil war in your country, you might have some opinions about what caused it and how to avoid it in the future. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes did, and he wrote them all down.

Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, commonly called Leviathan, is a 1651 book by Thomas Hobbes. Written during the English Civil War, Hobbes' book is a call for a strong, undivided government. Let's take a closer look.

Book 1 is focused on the nature of humans. Hobbes explains that nothing about humans is divine or even intelligent, and terms like 'good' and 'evil' are meaningless. Human psychology has nothing to do with morality. Rather than morality, Hobbes believed humans are driven by fear of death.

Hobbes describes the absence of government as anarchy. In this 'state of nature,' as Hobbes calls it, men are constantly at war. There can be no invention or industry, no crops, no knowledge, no arts, and no society. Political systems arise from the desire to avoid death.

Hobbes then discusses 19 laws of nature. The first law is that humans seek peace. The second law states that people should start a commonwealth and quit the state of nature. Hobbes stresses the importance of seeking peace, which can really only be done through a commonwealth:

'For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.'

He lists 17 more laws, leading to a conclusion that humans should have a sovereign to represent them.

Book 2: Of Commonwealth

In the second section, Hobbes lists the rights of a sovereign who represents his people, and then discusses the three types of commonwealths: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the democracy. The difference between them, Hobbes says, is in the type of sovereign, and whether it is in one man (monarchy), a group of men (aristocracy), or all the men (democracy). He very explicitly adds that these are the only types of government that can exist.

Hobbes believes that a monarchy is the best form of government .'... the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.' Hobbes is describing the state of nature here. He believes that without a sovereign government, life is not really worth living and people are no better than beasts.

Then, Hobbes turns the discussion to religion. A sovereign should impress religion upon the people. If not, there will be discord. Freedom of religion will lead to fighting and civil war, as it had in England.

Hobbes ends Book 2 with a discussion of taxes. Taxes, he says, should always be equal. He thinks that the commonwealth should care for those who cannot care for themselves, and the money for this should come from taxes.

Book 3: Of a Christian Common-Wealth

Hobbes begins the third section with an attack on religious writings. He restates that it is up to the government to provide religion to the people. He believes that all sovereigns should rule as Christians not because of divine right but because it will make them good leaders of their people.

Hobbes states and then refutes a number of religious arguments in this book, proving that he is very familiar with religion.

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