4. The English Context

4.1 Hobbes, Leviathan

About This Text

Thomas Hobbes lived through the English Civil War.  The long and bloody struggle between the parliament and crown motivated and shaped his political ideas.  In Leviathan, Hobbes famously imagines human beings in a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  People will, Hobbes argues, quickly flee such a terrible condition, creating for their own protection a mighty Sovereign.  If it is to save human beings from their own nature, the sovereign must have nearly total power, must never be question and, Hobbes argues in the passage below, must possess “indivisible” rights.  Hobbes, that is to say, is no fan of the idea of separated political powers.



excerpts from Leviathan (source)


The Act Of Instituting A Common-wealth, What

A Common-wealth is said to be Instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, Every One With Every One, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly Of Men, shall be given by the major part, the Right to Present the Person of them all, (that is to say, to be their Representative;) every one, as well he that Voted For It, as he that Voted Against It, shall Authorise all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.

Quick Explainer

Leviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes.jpg (1304×2004)

This is the image found on the frontispiece of Leviathan.  The figure with the sword and scepter is the Sovereign.  The body of the Sovereign consists of the multitude of individuals who have, by surrendering their rights and powers, created the Sovereign as a unified, nearly all powerful entity that each agrees to obey in all things.

These Rights Are Indivisible

These are the Rights, which make the Essence of Soveraignty; and which are the markes, whereby a man may discern in what Man, or Assembly of men, the Soveraign Power is placed, and resideth. For these are incommunicable, and inseparable. The Power to coyn Mony; to dispose of the estate and persons of Infant heires; to have praeemption in Markets; and all other Statute Praerogatives, may be transferred by the Soveraign; and yet the Power to protect his Subject be retained. But if he transferre the Militia, he retains the Judicature in vain, for want of execution of the Lawes; Or if he grant away the Power of raising Mony; the Militia is in vain: or if he give away the government of doctrines, men will be frighted into rebellion with the feare of Spirits. And so if we consider any one of the said Rights, we shall presently see, that the holding of all the rest, will produce no effect, in the conservation of Peace and Justice, “A kingdome divided in it selfe cannot stand”the end for which all Common-wealths are Instituted. And this division is it, whereof it is said, “A kingdome divided in it selfe cannot stand:” For unlesse this division precede, division into opposite Armies can never happen. If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these Powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided, and fallen into this Civill Warre; first between those that disagreed in Politiques; and after between the Dissenters about the liberty of Religion; which have so instructed men in this point of Soveraign Right, that there be few now (in England,) that do not see, that these Rights are inseparable, and will be so generally acknowledged, at the next return of Peace; and so continue, till their miseries are forgotten; and no longer, except the vulgar be better taught than they have hetherto been.

Stop & Think

Hobbes’ English is a bit challenging.  So, take a minute and identify 2 or 3 specific arguments he makes against dividing sovereign rights or power.  How compelling are these arguments in the context of the widespread embrace of separation of powers in the United States today?



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