Thomas Hobbes: The Leviathan, decoded


Every man is weak while he is asleep. Certainly, some men are stronger or smarter than others but no man is so strong or so smart that he can never be outsmarted or defeated. The weak and the dumb can band together to defeat even the most powerful individuals. Therefore, people are close enough to equal.

Since all people know that they are equal, all people aspire to the same things. If two people aspire to the same thing and it cannot be shared, they become enemies. Even the smallest possessions or positions will lead others to be jealous enough to kill or enslave.

Where there is no supreme power, there is no pleasure in the company of men.

Whenever men live without a supreme power ruling over them, they are in a state of war. It is a war of all against all. There is more to war than merely fighting: war is a state of mind when anything goes. When there is not peace, there is complete war.

In this kind of war, the war of man against man, there is no reason to develop industry, farming, or exploration. There is no reason to build or invest. There is no scholarship. There is only fear and the threat of violent death. The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

There is also no justice or injustice. Nobody pays attention to right or wrong; in fact, only fraud and force are virtues. Everyone fights to hold on to something for a little while.

Men want peace because they fear death, desire security, and hope to keep what they earn. Reason, however, can give us articles of peace, called laws of nature, to which we can all agree. I will speak about them next.


Natural justice is the freedom of each person to preserve her own life, and to do the things required to stay alive.

Laws are not rights. The difference between a right and a law is this: rights allow the freedom to do or not to do. Laws require adherence or action. Laws and rights are like obligations and liberties. This is a law: No person can destroy herself or take away the things that keep her alive. This is a right: each person has the right to stay alive.

And because a person at war can make use of absolutely everything to preserve her own life, in a state of war, everyone has rights to everything, even to another’s life or body. For as long as we are at war with one another, there is no security, even for the wise and strong. It is, therefore, a universal rule of reason that every person should work for peace as long as she has a chance of obtaining it. If she has no chance, then she is free to do what he must. The first law of nature, then, is this: seek peace and follow it. The first right of nature is this: do all you can to defend yourself.

The second law of nature is derived from the first: a person must be willing (when others are too) to end a war. She must also be willing to waive her right to all things and be happy with only as many rights as she would allow others to have. Of course, as long as one person is unwilling to embrace peace, there is no reason for anyone to do so; otherwise the holdout would become a hawk among doves. Nonetheless, it is the law of the gospel: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When others are willing to lay down their rights, we all must be willing.

People give up their rights out of self-interest, not kindness. We might give one right away to get another in exchange. We give up rights voluntarily, and all voluntary rights are done out of self-interest.

A contract is when parties mutually transfer rights.

If two people make promises for the future while in the state of nature (i.e. war), the contract is void. But if there is a common power that can prevail over them both, then the contract holds. In war, though, nobody can expect to be repaid, since promises are just empty words.

But when there is a government, where there a power set up to restrain those people that would lie and cheat, there is no reasonable fear of being betrayed.

Covenants entered into by fear in the state of war are binding. If I promise to pay a ransom, I must keep my promise. It is a contract like any other. Unless there is a new cause of fear that would renew the war, I must keep my promise. Even when there is a government, I am bound to pay debts accrued in fear, at least until the legitimate law exonerates me. A contract is a contract.

An earlier contract trumps a later contract. The same right cannot be given away twice.

It is impossible to promise to not defend oneself. I can’t say “I swear on my life”, because when the time comes for you to kill me, I’ll take my chances with resisting (where at least I have a chance), instead of letting you kill me (when I would obviously have none).

Similarly, I cannot admit to being guilty of a crime unless I will be entirely pardoned. I can never be obliged to admit to force being used on me. Likewise, the testimony given under torture cannot be trusted. The tortured are trying to preserve their lives and end their misery.

There are only two reasons a person keeps her word: fear and pride. Pride cannot be relied on, especially when it comes to people who pursue wealth, power and pleasure, which is to say, most of us. Fear is the only guarantor of performance, and there are two things people generally fear: God and punishment. God is more powerful, but punishment is more persuasive.


People love to be free and to dominate others. They only restrict themselves with a government to preserve their lives and live more happily.

The only way to erect a government is to give all their power and strength to one person or assembly. Each person must renounce her independence and acknowledge that the king, when he acts, will be acting on her behalf. Every time the king acts to preserve the common peace, every person must submit her will to him. This is more than just consenting or agreeing; the populace must unite their wills in one person, saying “I will let him govern me if you let him govern you”. Uniting like this creates a community or civilization. This is how we get a leviathan, a mortal god to whom we owe our peace. The Leviathan must have so much power that he strikes terror into enemies abroad and at home.

There are only two ways a king gets made: by consent and by force. Some will agree to have a king lead them. Others will be conquered by him. First, I will discuss commonwealth by consent.


There are three types of government; monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. A monarchy is when one person has all the power, a democracy is when all people have power, and an aristocracy is when a few do. There cannot be other kinds of government, obviously.

The biggest difference, though, is not in the power, but in the likelihood of peace and security.


It seems to me that the power of the government, whether it is a king or an assembly, is as great as can be imagined. Obviously, it is possible to imagine that the government may abuse this power, and many evil consequences will result. The absence of this power is much worse, however. Without government, we are returned to war of man against man. Any life has inconveniences, and any commonwealth has them too. But the inconveniences in a commonwealth come from the subjects’ disobedience. And anyone who thinks the power of a king is great should consider this: to get rid of a king, you need a power even greater than a king.


There are some things that no person can be compelled to do, even by the leviathan. Men are, after all, born equal.

The sovereign cannot justly ask a man to kill, wound, or maim himself, or to abstain from resisting assault. As I showed earlier, nobody can be made promise not to harm himself.

Likewise, nobody can be made to incriminate herself, and for the same reason.

Nobody has the right to resist the law to defend another person, even if that person is innocent. But if a group of rebels had unjustly resisted the authority of the government, then they have the right to now defend themselves and each other. While it was unjust to resist in the first place, once the first crime has been committed, there is no further crime in attempting to preserve one’s own life.

As for the other freedoms: they depend on the silence of the law. Where there is no law, there is freedom, to do or to not do. Therefore, in some places, there is more freedom, and in some places less.

If there is a conflict between a citizen and her king, she may take the king to court as if he were any other citizen, and in front of the same judges other citizens face. She is sure to lose, however. If the conflict is because the citizen does not agree with an existing law, then the citizen is clearly wrong. All citizens must abide by the law. If the sovereign used force and not law, then he did so with the authority of all citizens, and she that brings an action against him is really suing herself.

Citizens are obligated to obey the sovereign for as long, and no longer, than the king protects them. When he no longer can, their obligations to him are relinquished.