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Hobbes Leviathan Summary

The full name of the book is Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? But it can be quite a mouthful. So in order to save some time, it’s more commonly referred to as just “Leviathan.”

In its essence, the book Leviathan is one of the first pieces that covered the questions of societal contract and forms of power. It is important to understand that the backdrop for the Leviathan book was the English Civil war. This makes the question of the state of nature Hobbes raises a natural reflection of its time.

The author, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, argues for the benefits of sovereign rule. Despite all its flaws, he considers it a necessary form of government over human society. A strong ruling hand to combat the chaos and brutality of human nature (which at that point in time manifested in the Civil War).

It can be quite a difficult read considering how long ago it was written and the need to constantly reference the whole historical context. But ultimately, it gives extremely valuable insight into the mind of political philosophers of the time.

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Analysis of the Leviathan Characters

Even though the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes deals with abstract topics, they are still delivered through a range of characters. Leviathan cast includes such influential characters as Aristotle, God, Moses, and a whole variety of both fictional and historical figures.

All of them play their own part in the formation of Hobbes’ philosophy and represent vital aspects of the world’s and humanity’s nature. It is important to mention them all when working on a Leviathan Thomas Hobbes Summary.

Aristotle

The first character worth mentioning is Aristotle. Hobbes uses the character of Aristotle as a representative of certain philosophical ideas. For example, he clashes with the idea of humans being naturally social and humanistic and the notion of democracy as the most desirable form of government. 

According to Hobbes, humans are naturally egotistical and cruel, necessitating a strong hand of a monarch to control them.

God

God is, of course, a representation of ultimate power. He rules the people single-handedly and thus is an example of how power should be structured on Earth. While his power is absolute, Hobbes goes on to say that until his dominion is reestablished during the second coming of Christ, people should follow the rule of civil monarchs.

Via this character, Hobbes explores religion from his unconventional personal standpoint. While he doesn’t support traditional religious practices, the author does recognize the existence of a higher power.

Moses

In Leviathan, Moses appears as a medium between God and humankind. Hobbes considers him the true prophet. And even though Moses doesn’t communicate with God directly, he is still seen as channeling His will. This, in turn, allows for some sort of divine authority and the power to guide humanity.

Hobbes also briefly touches on the subject of Israelites and their specific case of accepting God’s authority over that of any civil monarch. He calls their case “peculiar,” as it indeed is.

Leviathan
Credits: Getty Images

Cardinal Bellarmine

Robert Bellarmine was a historical figure that lived in the 17th century. Hobbes uses him and his works as another impersonation of a point to argue against. According to cardinal Bellarmine, the pope’s word is absolute, and his authority over all Christians should never be questioned.

This idea stems from popes being considered the highest representatives of God on Earth. However, Hobbes denies them this notion of infallible authority and argues in favor of civil monarchs over religious rulers.

Christ

Christ obviously plays an important role in Hobbes’ vision of the eternal kingdom of God. Hobbes is convinced that it is Christ that will rule this new world after his second coming with his authority second only to God himself. 

The precursors to being granted eternal life and being accepted into the eternal kingdom take root in Hobbes’ religious beliefs. Repentance and acceptance of Christ as their savior are essential for those who wish to enter.

Cicero

Cicero (as in the ancient philosopher born in Rome) and his worldviews play a supporting role in Hobbes' criticism of the Roman Catholic church. Cicero is mentioned in regard to his idea of a justice system where a judge considers the benefit criminals got from their unlawful actions.

Hobbes translates this into his worldview, drawing parallels from the actions of the church always benefitting its head - the pope.

Elizabeth I

The character of Elizabeth I clearly refers to the ruler of England in the second half of the 16th century. Hobbes takes her story as an example of a conflict between the religious authority of a pope and the civil authority of a monarch. 

Elizabeth I undermined the power of the church and was declared an illegitimate ruler and excommunicated for this. Hobbes questions the pope’s authority in such matters and states that these are the people who imbue the ruler with their power and not the church.

Francis Godolphin

Francis Godolphin is a cornerstone person in the creation of the Leviathan. Hobbes decided to dedicate his entire writing to him. He was very close friends with Francis’ sister and thought Francis represented the values of a true royalist. 

Francis Godolphin died during the English Civil War. However, his dedication to his values was enough for Hobbes to immortalize him in the dedication of the Leviathan book.

Sidney Godolphin

As already mentioned, Sidney Godolphin was very close friends with Hobbes. It is largely through their friendship Hobbes got the chance to follow the story of Sidney’s brother Francis and cultivate admiration for him. 

Hobbes shared a diehard royalist worldview with Sidney. This worldview became the cornerstone of the entire Leviathan book. Francis’ influence on Hobbes through the medium of his sister Sidney is undeniable. It’s hard to tell whether the book would even exist without those two.

hobbes book
Frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, published 1651

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot, being a pretty important character in the story of Christ, is only briefly mentioned by Hobbes. He appears only in passing when Hobbes quotes Luke 22:4, which tells us about Judas’ betrayal. 

Hobbes goes on to tell us that the betrayal was caused by a certain abstract influence (Satan) rather than someone specific. In this particular case, he seems to be clearly separating the physical and the spiritual aspects of human nature.

Matthias

Matthias is one of the New Testament Apostles. It is written in the book that he was selected not by Christ but by people. And this presents a problem for Hobbes and his thesis on the imperfect human representation of divine authority. 

Hobbes claims that Matthias is an example of a flawed system. A person can not possibly give him the same status as received by those that were chosen by Christ directly. This translates into popes, their decisions, and their power.

Paul

Apostle Paul has a similar background to that of Matthias in that he was also appointed by people and not by Christ himself. This makes Hobbes raise similar issues with this character, drawing parallels with the heads of the clergy. 

Despite that, Hobbes frequently quotes Paul and his teachings. He recognizes some and refutes others, but the main theme of his use for this character seems to be the same as with Matthias.

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Of Man: Leviathan Thomas Hobbes Summary

The first part of Hobbes’ Leviathan is dedicated to his understanding of humans and their basic nature. The theses that are outlined in this part serve as a foundation for the rest of the book. They can be seen here and there, supporting further arguments.

His understanding of human nature is that it’s leaning towards “evil” by definition. Human beings seek peace yet can not achieve it without a strong guiding hand. They do not seek union and can not individually act for the good of civil society.

Of Commonwealth: Hobbes Leviathan Summary

Throughout the second part, Hobbes goes on to discuss the forms of government that could be used to unite people and bring them to peace. When it comes to Hobbes Leviathan summary we can list three forms of government - monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. 

Naturally, as a staunch royalist, he tries to make a case for democracy as being the most efficient form of government. It is rather interesting to note that he also denies other possible options beyond the three listed.

Of a Christian Commonwealth: Leviathan Thomas Hobbes Summary

In the third part, Hobbes makes a pointed attack on religion and its representation as it was known in his time. He questions the validity of holy texts, making a point in trying to discern which ones we should trust and follow.

At the same time, he doesn’t outright refute the influence of true religion on human life. But instead of relying on the guidance of the church, he makes a case for giving this responsibility to the civil rulers.

Of the Kingdom of Darkness: Hobbes Leviathan Summary

Finally, in the last part of his book, Hobbes deals with “the Kingdom of Darkness.” In Hobbes Leviathan summary we can define it not as something physical but rather as a representation of an abstract essence that is in opposition to the light of the Scripture. 

He writes that it is the misinterpretation of the Holy texts, the mixing of unorthodox traditions and religions with Christianity that makes people stray away from the light.

Hobbes concludes by identifying those who, in his opinion, benefit the most from such a situation. Unsurprisingly, it’s the church and its representatives.

common wealth leviathan
Frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, published 1651

Analysis of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

The Leviathan book is, without a doubt, a more than an interesting specimen of a school of philosophical thought of its time. The issues of a state of nature Hobbes discusses within his work are still more than relevant today. Even though some of them can’t be translated directly into the modern world (like, for example, the conflict between religious and civil authority), you can still draw parallels and take some notes.

Although Leviathan itself poses some pretty solid and interesting ideas, it is easy to see that most of them have been severely influenced, if not outright distorted, by passing through the prism of the author’s subjective worldview. This is especially evident when he discusses the pros and cons of governing systems Hobbes mentions.

While it is evident that he doesn’t feel very welcoming of the authority exerted by the church officials during his historical time frame, he fails to recognize that civil rulers are prone to many of the same issues as religious ones. His solutions conflate the two into a single system while simultaneously separating their spheres of influence.

This fact, as well as the quirks of the author’s lifetime, should definitely be taken into account during the Leviathan analysis. Adopting an objective view can help filter out some of the hypocritical inconsistencies in Hobbes’ work. This is especially important if you are planning on writing an academic paper on his book.

Overall, it’s definitely worth working through. It is unlikely to be a breeze of a read. But it can provide vital context for any scholar of 17th-century philosophy as well as the historical backdrop of that particular time frame.

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Thomas Hobbes Leviathan Main Ideas and Themes

There are plenty of interlinked ideas that can be found in Leviathan Thomas Hobbes summary. But the main two are definitely the case for monarchy and criticism of the church. It is easy to see that the cultivation of both ideas was caused directly by the events the author had to live through. 

With the brutality and anarchy of the civil war, he opposes the stability and order of a monarchy. There’s also the decadence of the church that he attempts to remove from the equation altogether as an unnecessary medium between people and God.


Sources:

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy
  2. Inquiries Journal: Hobbes’ Leviathan and Views on the Origins of Civil Government: Conservatism by Covenant by Katherine J. Wolfenden