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Obligation and Sovereign Virtue in Hobbes's Leviathan


Debates regarding obligation in Hobbes have turned on either natural right or natural law interpretations. Both interpretations tend to take up the question of obligation from the perspective of teaching those who contend “for too great Liberty” “how to obey.” But Hobbes also has a second audience, and a second goal in mind: those who contend “for too much Authority” must be taught “how to govern.” From that perspective, a different discussion of obligation emerges. What is revealed is a contiguous set of reflections in Leviathan that pivot on the character of the sovereign and the citizens’ judgment thereof, all of which inform effective obligation and have little in common with received interpretations of obligation. It further reveals a relationship between the failure to manifest sovereign virtue and the natural punishment of pusillanimous and barbaric sovereigns. That is, it speaks to a sovereign virtue ethic in Leviathan.

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1 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan, vol. 2, The English and Latin Texts (i), ed. Malcolm Noel, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xi. 150. All citations to Leviathan are to Malcolm's edition and cited in the form volume:chapter. page.

2 Strauss Leo, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952); Hampton Jean, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Kavka Gregory S., Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Gauthier David P., The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Nagel Thomas, “Hobbes's Concept of Obligation,” Philosophical Review 68, no. 1 (1959): 6883 . Others have asserted that the right to self-preservation in Hobbes is far more robust than is generally afforded, and entails significant duties on the part of the sovereign. See Steinberger Peter J., “Hobbesian Resistance,” American Journal of Political Science 46, no. 4 (2002): 856–65; Curran Eleanor, Reclaiming the Rights of the Hobbesian Subject (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Steinberger's argument regarding Hobbes's “prudential advice to the ruler” (857) has affinities with the argument that I will develop here. Although they speak to different questions, both arguments lend general support to the other.

3 Watkins John W. N., Hobbes's System of Ideas (Aldershot: Gower, 1989).

4 Taylor A. E., “The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes,” Philosophy 13, no. 52 (October 1938): 406–24; Warrender Howard, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Martinich Aloysius P., The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Zagorin Perez, Hobbes and the Law of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

5 Warrender, Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 6.

6 Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 114; Warrender, Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 188–99; Bagby Laurie M. Johnson, Thomas Hobbes: Turning Point for Honor (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 125–35.

7 Skinner Quentin, “The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought,” Historical Journal 9, no. 3 (January 1966): 286317 ; Skinner Quentin, Visions of Politics: Hobbes and Civil Science, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Tuck Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), editorial introduction.

8 Hoekstra Kinch, “The de Facto Turn in Hobbes's Political Philosophy,” in Leviathan after 350 Years, ed. Sorell Tom and Foisneau Luc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 72. For a more recent account of this debate, see Malcolm Noel, Leviathan, vol. 1, Introduction, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6581 .

9 Hoekstra, “The de Facto Turn in Hobbes's Political Philosophy.” Hoekstra sets out a similar argument against John Deigh's argument for the independence of Hobbes's ethics and psychology in his Hobbes on Law, Nature, and Reason,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 41, no. 1 (2003): 111–20. For an alternative explanation, see Baumgold Deborah, “The Difficulties of Hobbes Interpretation,” Political Theory 36, no. 6 (2008): 827–55.

10 Leviathan, II:Epistle Dedicatory.

11 II:xxxi. 574.

12 II:Epistle Dedicatory.

13 II:xxxi. 574.

14 Hobbes is rarely considered a virtue theorist. Indeed, many hold that this is exactly what Hobbes was writing against. See, for example, Strauss, Political Philosophy of Hobbes; Johnson Bagby, Thomas Hobbes; McClure Christopher Scott, “War, Madness, and Death: The Paradox of Honor in Hobbes's Leviathan,” Journal of Politics 76, no. 1 (2014): 114–25. However, there is a strong case to be made that Hobbes was generally concerned with virtue. See Boonin-Vail David, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Ewin R. E., Virtues and Rights: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991); Skinner Quentin, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 11; on modesty, Cooper Julie E., “Vainglory, Modesty, and Political Agency in the Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes,” Review of Politics 72, no. 2 (2010): 241–69; on magnanimity, Corsa Andrew J., “Thomas Hobbes: Magnanimity, Felicity, and Justice,” Hobbes Studies 26, no. 2 (January, 2013): 130–51; Gert Bernard, “The Law of Nature as the Moral Law,” Hobbes Studies 1, no. 1 (1988): 2644 ; Gert, Hobbes: Prince of Peace (Cambridge: Polity, 2010). Boonin-Vail's is the most robust account of virtue ethics in Hobbes. It is curious that Boonin-Vail does not address the virtue of magnanimity and only fleetingly addresses the question of obligation, and that while Corsa does take up the question of magnanimity specifically, he does not mention sovereignty. These works generally concern the virtues of subjects, whereas my concern is the virtues of sovereigns specifically.

15 Hobbes's better-known version of the containment thesis is found later in Leviathan (II:xxvi. 418).

16 II:xii. 180.

17 Ibid. (italics added).

18 II:xii. 172.

19 II:xii. 182. There is clearly much more to say about the laws of nature in Hobbes. See, for example, Zagorin, Hobbes and the Law of Nature. But there is likewise much to be said on the limitations of the natural law interpretations; see Craig Leon Harold, The Platonian Leviathan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

20 I.e., purity, integrity, genuineness (an attribute of a person, not of a statement or expression) (OED, s.v. “sincerity”). Noted in II:180, editorial footnote am.

21 II:xii. 182.

22 Ibid. See also Tom Sorell, “The Burdensome Freedom of Sovereigns,” in Leviathan after 350 Years, ed. Sorell and Foisneau, 183–96.

23 II:xii. 182. Cf. Nagel, “Hobbes's Concept of Obligation,” 81: “Not once in Leviathan does he appeal to concern for others as a motive, but always to self-interest.”

24 On equity in Hobbes, see Zagorin, Hobbes and the Law of Nature, 84–98. Zagorin fails to note that the foundation of the commonwealth is based on the formalization of the iniquity, and more importantly that uncoerced equitable conduct is perhaps the most iniquitously distributed character trait of them all. Zagorin's admirable study also ends where many natural law arguments do, namely by presupposing an inherently motivational quality to reason to arrive at just conclusions without aid (ibid., 114). Hobbes may have held to such a motivational conception of reason in Elements and De Cive, though less so in Leviathan (see Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric). Note that this critique does not scuttle my argument, but simply means that equitable conduct is conditional on the charity (“free gift”) of sovereigns (or future sovereigns).

25 II:xii. 182.

26 As Gert writes, “although Hobbes talks about the laws of nature as prescribing the virtues, it is easier to think of them as proscribing the vices” (“Law of Nature as the Moral Law,” 43).

27 Sharon Lloyd has argued that the idea of reciprocity contains the normative seed of obligation in Hobbes, and that it is ultimately encompassed in the positive laws, implying that the positive laws are always legitimate “even when we correctly believe them to command immoral actions. This is so because our paramount duty is to hold ourselves to the standards we think it reasonable to impose on others, and our shared basic interests preclude our allowing as reasonable that people should insist on their private judgments in such matters” (Hobbes's Self-Effacing Natural Law Theory,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82, no. 3–4 [2001]: 286). My argument is largely in agreement with Lloyd's, save that I follow Hobbes in carving out an exception for eminent and magnanimous leaders.

28 The major problem with the claim that God's power gives prepolitical normativity to the natural laws is that whatever God is in the world, it must be represented by an agent. See Abizadeh Arash, “Representation of Hobbesian Sovereignty: Leviathan as Mythology,” in Hobbes Today: Insights for the 21st Century, ed. Lloyd S. A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 113–54.

29 II:xii. 182.

30 II:vi. 86.

31 II:xii. 182.

32 On the fiction of the state, see Skinner Quentin, “Hobbes and the Purely Artificial Person of the State,” Journal of Political Philosophy 7, no. 1 (1999): 129 .

33 II:xxvii. 476.

34 Ibid.

35 II:xii. 180.

36 On this topic, see Martinich, Two Gods of Leviathan, 297–98; Lloyd S. A., Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 283–87.

37 Leviathan, vol. 3, The English and Latin Texts (ii), ed. Malcolm Noel, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xlii. 784 (italics added).

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 See also Lloyd, “Hobbes's Self-Effacing Natural Law Theory,” 298–303.

41 III:xlv. 1034 (italics added).

42 II:Epistle Dedicatory. 4.

43 II:xlv. 1038.

44 Ibid. (italics added).

45 II:xv. 224.

46 II:xv. 222.

47 II:xlv. 1038.

48 III:xxxix. 734.

49 III:xlii. 812.

50 II:xlv. 1038.

51 III:xlv. 1038. For more on “Scandal given,” see III:1039, editorial footnote bn.

52 III:xlv. 1038.

53 II:xv. 226–28.

54 Ibid. (Latin edition).

55 Ibid..

56 III:xxxvi. 660. Or, as Hobbes writes elsewhere: “For they that see any strange, and unusuall ability, or defect in a mans mind; unlesse they see withall from what cause it may probably proceed, can hardly think it naturall; and if not naturall, they must needs thinke it supernaturall; and then what can it be, but that either God or the Divell is in him?” (II:viii. 118).

57 III:xlv. 1038.

58 II:vi. 86; xv. 242; III:xxxiv. 614; xlv. 1038. On the curious “fourness” of Leviathan, see Craig, The Platonian Leviathan, 340–46.

59 II:xv. 242.

60 III:xxxiv. 614 (margin heading).

61 Ibid.

62 II:xii. 180.

63 II:xxv. 410, xxvi. 424, xxix. 516, xxx. 550.

64 II:xxv. 410.

65 II:xxvi. 424.

66 Cf. Gert, “The Law of Nature as the Moral Law.”

67 II:xxix. 516.

68 II:xxx. 550. I omit the concluding phrase of this sentence (“but that they see him able absolutely to govern his own Family”) because it is misleading. Hobbes changed this in the Latin version of Leviathan, replacing this phrase (and the preceding and following phrases) with “to conciliate the citizens to him.”

69 Cf. “Reputation of power, is Power; because it draweth with it the adhaerence of those that need protection… . So is Reputation of love of a mans Country, (called Popularity,) for the same Reason” (II:x. 132).

70 II:xxx. 550.

71 II:xv. 242.

72 Strauss, Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 55. For a more recent account of magnanimity in Hobbes, see Corsa, “Thomas Hobbes: Magnanimity, Felicity, and Justice.”

73 Strauss, Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 57.

74 On magnanimity in Aristotle, see Hardie W. F. R., “‘Magnanimity’ in Aristotle's Ethics,” Phronesis 23, no. 1 (1978): 6379 ; Howland Jacob, “Aristotle's Great-Souled Man,” Review of Politics 64, no. 1 (2002): 2756 .

75 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Crisp Roger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1123b.

76 Nic. Eth. 1123e.

77 Nic. Eth. 1124b.

78 II:vi. 86.

79 II:x. 140.

80 II:viii. 110.

81 Aristotle, Politics, trans. Reeve C. D. C. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), 1284a.

82 Nic. Eth. 1106b. As Boonin-Vail has noted, this is not an entirely accurate account of the doctrine of the mean on Hobbes's part (Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue, 182).

83 III:xlvi. 1074. See also Boonin-Vail, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue, chap. 5.2.

84 Pol. 1284 (italics added).

85 The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, ed. Molesworth William, vol. 6 (London: John Bohn, 1840), 219.

86 Ibid.

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid., 219–20.

89 Ibid., 220–21.

90 II:xiv. 202.

91 Leo Strauss influentially asserted in Political Philosophy of Hobbes that this is the founding claim of liberalism.

92 II:xiv. 202.

93 To which we could add that the criminal commits the crime, no matter the axe.

94 Sreedhar Susanne, Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 169.

95 Ibid.

96 II:xxix.

97 On the causes of war in Hobbes, see Abizadeh Arash, “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory,” American Political Science Review 105, no. 2 (2011): 298315 .

98 II:xxi. 338.

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid.

101 III: Review and Conclusion. 1133.

102 II:xxi. 338–40. For an alternative account of war making in Hobbes, see Baumgold Deborah, “Subjects and Soldiers: Hobbes on Military Service,” History of Political Thought 4, no. 1 (1983): 4364 .

103 II:xxviii. 490.

104 Dyzenhaus David comes to a similar conclusion in “Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law,” Law and Philosophy 20, no. 5 (2001): 461–98.

105 Plato, Apology, trans. Grube G. M. A., in Plato: Complete Works, ed. Hutchinson D. S. and Cooper John M. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 32 a–d. For an outstanding account of the influence of Plato on Hobbes's thought in general, see Craig, The Platonian Leviathan.

106 II:xxi. 338.

107 Sullivan Vickie B., Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 109.

108 II:xxi. 338.

109 Ibid.

110 Slomp Gabriella, “The Liberal Slip of Thomas Hobbes's Authoritarian Pen,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13, no. 2–3 (2010): 363.

111 II:xxi. 338–40.

112 Johnson Bagby, Thomas Hobbes, 129.

113 Cf. McClure, “War, Madness, and Death.”

114 III:Review and Conclusion. 1136.

115 It is worth flagging that there is also something askew with Hobbes's memorable critique of tyranny as being something akin to rabies, pointing again to a sort of bivocal irony which is quite in line with the argument I have set out. Hobbes compared republican “tyrannophobia” to the hydrophobia of rabid dogs, where the people—the corporate body of the state—reject that which they need (a strong monarchy). This is interesting, because hydrophobia is a symptom of rabies, and the disease is neurological.

116 II:xi. 158.

117 II:xlvi. 1090–98.

118 II:Introduction. 18.

119 II:xlvii. 1112–14.

120 Ibid.

121 II:xxx. 544.

122 II:xxxi. 572.

123 II:xv. 238.

124 II:xxxi. 574.

125 Hoekstra, “The de Facto Turn in Hobbes's Political Philosophy,” 72.

126 II:xxxi. 574.

127 II:xxix. 498.

Many thanks to the external reviewers for the attentive and critical feedback.

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