University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1998
Ben Eggleston, Instructor
Philosophy 0320—CRN 01205: Social Philosophy (writing)
mailbox: CL 1001—office: CL 1428E
Mondays, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., in CL 340
office hours: Sundays and Mondays, 4:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Hobbes, Leviathan

I. Background Information

Thomas Hobbes was born in England in 1588 and witnessed growing conflict in his country in the first half of the seventeenth century. A royalist sympathizer in a time of increasing support for parliamentary supremacy, Hobbes fled to Paris in 1640. Full-fledged civil war began in 1642, and King Charles was beheaded in 1649 as Oliver Cromwell assumed power. Hobbes, horrified at the consequences of civil war, sought in his masterpiece Leviathan to explain how a sovereign with virtually unlimited power was the only solution to the problems of disorder that plagued England and to which any society was vulnerable. In 1651 Hobbes gave a manuscript copy of Leviathan to the executed monarch’s son (also a fugitive in Paris, but who in the Restoration of 1660 would become King Charles II), returned to England, and published his new work. He had to promise Cromwell that he would abstain from political activity, but Charles II rewarded Hobbes for his work with a generous pension. As well as being acutely relevant in its own time, Leviathan revolutionized political philosophy and inaugurated the modern era of that subject. Many think, even now, that it is the greatest work of political philosophy ever published.

In reading Leviathan, it’s useful to understand its structure. The first and second parts, “Of Man” and “Of Commonwealth,” present Hobbes’s purportedly scientific theory of the state. But as political philosophy up to Hobbes’s time had been dominated by religious thought, Hobbes knew his theory would be more persuasive to many of his contemporaries if he also proceeded from this more traditional perspective. Such is the purpose of the third and fourth parts, “Of a Christian Commonwealth” and “Of the Kingdom of Darkness,” whose influence in modern political philosophy has been minor in comparison to the lasting impact made by the innovative arguments of the first two parts.

for May 18:

II. Reading Assignment

III. Study Questions

  1. What metaphor does Hobbes use to characterize the commonwealth?
  2. What purpose does Hobbes say a commonwealth is intended to serve?
  3. According to Hobbes, what makes something good?
  4. What, in Hobbes’s view, makes an act voluntary? According to Hobbes, when a bank teller surrenders cash to an armed robber, can the teller claim that the surrender was not really voluntary, since the robber had a gun?
  5. What are the three “causes of quarrel” that Hobbes finds “in the nature of man”?
  6. What sort of situation counts as a state of war, for Hobbes? (Notice that by “state” in this context, we mean a condition or a situation, not a political entity.)
  7. What does Hobbes say is “worst of all” about a state of war?
  8. According to Hobbes, what’s unjust in a state of war? Why?
  9. What does Hobbes say are the “two cardinal virtues” in a state of war?
  10. What does Hobbes give as the first, or fundamental, law of nature?
  11. What does Hobbes say is the second law of nature?
  12. Hobbes mentions three rights that a person cannot abandon or transfer. What is the common thread running through these three rights?
  13. Under what circumstances is a covenant invalid, according to Hobbes?
  14. According to Hobbes, what is the main motive for keeping covenants?
  15. What is Hobbes’s definition of injustice?
  16. What does the character whom Hobbes calls “the fool” say? (Don’t quote directly; just paraphrase adequately but succinctly.)
  17. Does Hobbes agree with what this character says?

IV. Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945) (Hillman circulating B72 R961), particularly book III, chapter VIII: “Hobbes’s Leviathan” (pp. 546–57)
  2. Anthony Kenny, Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) (Hillman reference B72 O8 1994b), pp. 314–19
  3. C. B. Macpherson, “Introduction,” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin Books, 1968) (Hillman circulating JC153 H65 1972), pp. 9–63
  4. Edwin Curley, “Introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994) (Hillman circulating JC153 H65 1994), pp. viii–xlvii
  5. Richard Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) (Hillman circulating B1247 T8 1989)

V. Reaction-Paper Topics

If you want to write a reaction paper on this reading assignment, choose one of the following topics (or think of another topic and get me to approve it) and respond to it in a paper of about 2 pages. Your paper will be due at the beginning of class on May 18.

  1. chapter XIII, paragraphs 1–9: Hobbes famously says that life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (XIII.9). First, explain what this conclusion means: in what specific ways that Hobbes identifies is life in the state of nature so bad? Second, what are the causes of conflict in the state of nature that make life in the state of nature so bad?
  2. chapter XIV, paragraphs 11–33: The concept of covenant is crucial in Hobbes's theory, but there are, according to Hobbes, some limits on covenants. According to Hobbes, what covenants can’t be made, and what are some of the ways in which covenants that have been made can become invalid?
  3. chapter XV, paragraphs 4–5: Hobbes attributes to a character he calls “the fool” an objection to the third law of nature. What is the fool’s objection, and what is Hobbes’s reply?

VI. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. Who was Hobbes?
    1. an Englishman
    2. a mechanist
  2. “The Introduction”
    1. the state as an artificial man
    2. man as a kind of machine
  3. chapter VI: the good and the will
    1. ethical relativism
    2. voluntary conduct
  4. law
    1. positive law
      1. human positive law
      2. divine positive law
    2. natural law
  5. chapter XIII: the state of nature
    1. “causes of quarrel”
    2. the state of war
  6. game-theoretic models
    1. the prisoner’s dilemma
    2. the free-rider problem
  7. chapter XIV: laws of nature
    1. right of nature
    2. general idea of a law of nature
    3. first law of nature
    4. second law of nature
    5. inalienable rights
  8. chapter XV: the other seventeen laws of nature
    1. third law of nature
      1. the fool’s objection
      2. Hobbes’s reply
    2. the other sixteen laws of nature

for June 1:

VII. Reading Assignment

VIII. Study Questions

  1. What is the reason (“final cause, end, or design”) Hobbes gives for people to unite in a commonwealth?
  2. According to Hobbes, what is the only way to set up a commonwealth, and what does everyone have to give up in order for this to happen?
  3. What two ways of establishing sovereignty does Hobbes identify?
  4. Suppose that some of the subjects in a Hobbesian commonwealth were to accuse the sovereign of breaking his covenant with them, and claimed that he thereby forfeited his power. What would Hobbes have to say about their accusation?
  5. Why, according to Hobbes, is it impossible for the sovereign to commit injustice?
  6. What is Hobbes’s reply to the objection that such a powerful sovereign would be oppressive to live under?
  7. Hobbes thinks that because no person can give up the right to defend his or her body, a subject may sometimes, without injustice, disobey the sovereign. What are two of the cases that Hobbes mentions in which a subject may, without injustice, disobey the sovereign because he or she has not given up the right to defend his or her own body?
  8. If the sovereign suddenly dies without having names a successor to the sovereignty, would the subjects still be obligated to follow the sovereign’s laws? Why?

IX. Reaction-Paper Topics

If you want to write a reaction paper on this reading assignment, choose one of the following topics (or think of another topic and get me to approve it) and respond to it in a paper of about 2 pages. Your paper will be due at the beginning of class on June 1.

  1. chapter XVII, paragraphs 1–12: Hobbes says that commonwealths get formed because people want to obtain some security with which to remedy the perils of the state of nature. Why, according to Hobbes, is the formation of a commonwealth the only way for people to get along peacefully?
  2. chapter XVIII, paragraph 4: One of Hobbes’s most important claims is that sovereign power cannot be forfeited (i.e., lost by the sovereign due to some kind of misconduct). Explain the argument that Hobbes uses to establish this conclusion.
  3. chapter XXI, paragraphs 11–25: Hobbes lists many specific liberties that subjects always have, and also some circumstances in which all their obligations to the sovereign cease and they have general liberty. Using some helpful examples from these paragraphs, show that this is not just an arbitrary list of liberties or circumstances in which subjects have liberty, but rather several instances of a single underlying idea.

X. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. chapter XVII: the commonwealth
    1. the purpose of a commonwealth
    2. the generation of a commonwealth
  2. chapter XVIII: the sovereign’s conduct
    1. not limited by contract
    2. never unjust
  3. chapter XXI: the liberty of peoples and persons
    1. a free society
    2. specific liberties
    3. general liberty

XI. Suggestions for Further Reading

See the suggestions for further reading for May 18, above.

for June 8:

XII. Analysis-Paper Topics

If you want to write a analysis paper on this author, choose one of the following topics (or think of another topic and get me to approve it) and respond to it in a paper of about 6 pages. Your paper should conform to the instructions provided in “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper” and will be due at the beginning of class on June 8.

  1. Hobbes argues that people in the state of nature should form a commonwealth in which the sovereign has near-absolute power. Evaluate this claim by critically examining the steps used to establish it: Hobbes’s view of human nature and human motivation; why life in the state of nature would, as a result, be entirely unsatisfactory; how life under a sovereign with near-absolute power to be free of these inconveniences, and why giving near-absolute power to a sovereign wouldn’t be a cure worse than the disease. At each step in the argument, charitably represent Hobbes's view and evaluate its merits.
  2. Granting, for the sake of argument, Hobbes’s claim that people in the state of nature should form a commonwealth in which the sovereign has near-absolute power, evaluate Hobbes’s account of the formation of a commonwealth and the empowerment of a sovereign. In doing so, explain who the parties to the social contract are, what the terms of the contract are, and what rights are handed over to the sovereign. Give particular attention to Hobbes’s claim that the sovereign must not be a party to the social contract—in other words, that the sovereign must make no commitments (no matter how trivial) to the people as a condition of taking office. Is Hobbes right when he argues that any such commitment on the part of the sovereign would risk a return to the state of nature?