Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Amanda Ferguson, Dori Starnes
  • Author
    Amanda Ferguson

    Amanda has taught middle and high school social studies subjects for several years. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, with specialization in Secondary Social Studies Education, as well as a Bachelor's in Psychology.

  • Instructor
    Dori Starnes

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

Explore Thomas Hobbes’ ''Leviathan.'' Learn about Hobbes, read a summary, learn what "Leviathan" is about, understand its concepts, and read "Leviathan" quotes. Updated: 02/07/2022

Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan"

"The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil," or simply known as "Leviathan," was written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. "Leviathan" is a political, philosophical treatise on Hobbes' beliefs about government and its people. Hobbes' text has four main parts: the nature of man, the social contract, religion and the Christian faith/community, and the "kingdom of darkness." Hobbes authored arguably his most influential work "Leviathan" during the latter half of the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). Many elements of the text were inspired by the unrest and disagreements in England at the time between the Royalists and Parliamentarians.

Who Was Thomas Hobbes?

Thomas Hobbes was an English political philosopher who lived from 1588- 1679 and published various political, philosophical, and history texts. He was also a fairly established mathematician and translator of various texts. The young Hobbes was raised by his uncle and then attended the University of Oxford, after which he traveled Europe as a tutor for influential and powerful families. Hobbes met many prominent academics of his time during his travels abroad. Since he favored an absolute monarchy style of government, he was not well-received in England at the time, with the growing anti-royalist sentiments. The English Civil Wars broke out in 1642 between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. Hobbes left England for his safety during this time and spent much of this period in Paris. Circa 1640, he tutored future English King Charles II while in Paris and wrote "Leviathan" during his time there, as well. Charles I was executed in 1649 on parliamentarian charges of tyrannical and unlimited rule and failure to uphold the rights of the people. The close of the English Civil War saw a limiting of the monarchy and greater power for parliament. Hobbes made a return to England in 1651. Thomas Hobbes is considered one of the most influential political theorists and philosophers, and his work is still widely read and circulated in modern times.


Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, 1655

Image of a 1655 portrait of Thomas Hobbes


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.

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Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan:" Summary

As mentioned above, Thomas Hobbes' treatise "Leviathan" has four main parts/sections: the nature of man, the social contract, religion and the Christian faith/community, and the "kingdom of darkness." The overarching goal of the entire text is justification for an absolute monarchy style of government.

The four main parts of "Leviathan:"

  • Part 1: Includes Hobbes' beliefs about the nature of man and humankind and what he considers the "laws of nature." He affirms that man naturally wants to protect his property and possessions, life, etc., and lives in a state of self-preservation with the desire to maintain peace. Humans will war if they don't have what they desire, so Hobbes thought it best for people to have a powerful protector or governing body to oversee them and protect their interests. He thought our natural state is one of anarchy and persistent conflict if a higher power were not in ultimate authority or control; people cannot be trusted to rule over themselves.
  • Part 2: Relates to Hobbes' interpretation of the social contract, which is an agreement between a governing body and its people. Hobbes believed the best and most ideal form of government was a monarchy. A powerful and absolute monarchy could best provide protection and authority needed by men, according to Hobbes. He also thought a monarchy was the best way to protect people from both themselves and a large or foreign aggressor. People must give up some individual rights to their governing body in exchange for protection and preservation and avoid constant war and conflict. In addition, fairness in a state's legal system is needed to maintain law and order among people. Overall, in part two, Hobbes highlights the specific responsibilities of government and its people.
  • Part 3: Hobbes details the role and influence of religion and the Christian faith/community and how those relate to government. Hobbes believed there was no conflict between a governing body or divine authority, so the laws of the sovereign were viewed as compatible with those of God. This belief stems from his thought that since religion exists in a spiritual or supernatural realm, the laws of Earth can be separate and fully followed by man. Hobbes also believed that religion was natural for humans, as it calmed anxieties, but that the sovereign authority should control and dictate the religious beliefs of its people to prevent conflict. He thought Christianity was good for the people, so long as it was interpreted correctly.
  • Part 4: Discusses what Hobbes called the "kingdom of darkness," a metaphor for ignorance. Hobbes warned of various ideas and thought processes he believed would bring people to the "kingdom of darkness." He thought the teachings of Aristotle on questioning one's government should be avoided because they would cause conflict. In addition, Hobbes argued that the belief in demons or evil creatures, and the belief that God can be found in a church, should also be avoided because they would similarly lead to darkness/ignorance. The aforementioned basically means that Hobbes thought people were in danger of believing incorrect religious interpretations and ideas and that they should be careful in what they believed. Hobbes did not believe in Hell as most people interpreted during his time; instead, he thought people lived in it during the present and within their minds if they believed false doctrine and teachings. He believed a powerful governing body could help prevent or offset the "kingdom of darkness."


Title page from Leviathan, 1651.

Image of the title page from Leviathan, 1651


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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What were the main beliefs of Thomas Hobbes?

Thomas Hobbes believed the natural state of humans to be conflict and anarchy. He believed a powerful monarchy was the best form of government, as a monarchy could provide protection for its people.

What is the main idea of Leviathan?

The main theme of "Leviathan" included Hobbes' arguments/defense of a monarchy style government. There are four main parts of "Leviathan," which include: the nature of man, the social contract, the role of religion, and the "kingdom of darkness"/ignorance.

What was Hobbes's main point?

Hobbes stressed that men needed a powerful governing body for protection from themselves and outside forces. He thought a monarchy-style government was best to provide for the needs of men.

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