War in the Hobbesian State – Sovereignty’s Justification and Limit

by Jeffrey Bond

If we wish to investigate the heart of Thomas Hobbes’ political teaching in the Leviathan, there is no better place to look than Hobbes’ conception of war.  After all, although Hobbes denies that there is any summum bonum, a greatest good toward which all our pursuits and actions are hierarchically ordered by nature (p. 70),[1] he does posit a greatest evil, namely, the war of all against all which characterizes the state of nature (p. 231).[2]  Thus Hobbes justifies the need for an absolute sovereign because the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life in the state of nature is the one thing above all else to be avoided:  “And though of so unlimited a Power, men may fancy many evill consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbor, are much worse” (pp. 144-145).  For Hobbes, the peace established by the political art is not, as it was for the ancients and the medievals, the end toward which men are directed by nature which is necessary for the fulfillment and perfection of their being; rather, peace is to be sought because it is the absence of war,[3] which absence allows men to pursue their relentless quest for gratification of one desire after another (p. 70).

Now just as Hobbes sees the prevention of the war of all against all as the justification for his radical political proposition, he also recognizes that war presents the greatest limit to the authority of his sovereign, to say nothing of the challenge it presents to Hobbes’ own authority as the self-proclaimed founder of the true science of politics.  Indeed, Hobbes devotes much of his review and conclusion to the problems occasioned by war, and he even finds it necessary to set forth an additional law of nature, namely, “That every man is bound by Nature, as much as in him lieth, to protect in Warre, the Authority, by which he is himself protected in time of Peace” (p. 484).  But are the subjects of Hobbes’ sovereign obliged to protect their protection?  In what immediately follows his setting forth of this additional law of nature, Hobbes maintains that it would be self-contradictory for a subject to do otherwise:  “For he that pretendeth a Right of Nature to preserve his owne body, cannot pretend a Right of Nature to destroy him, by whose strength he is preserved:  It is a manifest contradiction of himselfe” (p. 484).  As we shall see, however, the contradiction would not be in the subject who refuses to protect his protection, but in the author of the Leviathan whose mistaken first principles and subsequent deductions necessarily lead him into manifest contradiction with himself.

In Hobbes’ chapter on liberty of subjects, we first encounter the problem which war presents not only for the soldier, but also for every subject of the commonwealth; for although Hobbes makes certain distinctions between civilian and soldier which would be pertinent to an exhaustive study of this question (pp. 150-154), we are justified in focusing on the hard case alone since Hobbes himself acknowledges there, as well as in the additional law of nature, that there are times when these distinctions disappear:  “And when the Defence of the Commonwealth, requireth at once the help of all that are able to bear Arms, every one is obliged; because otherwise the Institution of the Commonwealth, which they have not the purpose, or courage to preserve, was in vain” (p. 152).  Thus Hobbes argues that subjects must protect their protection, even though he maintains repeatedly that men cannot through any covenant give away their fundamental right to preserve themselves from wounds, chains, imprisonment, or death:

A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force, is alwayes voyd.  For (as I have shewed before) no man can transferre, or lay down his Right to save himselfe from Death, Wounds, and Imprisonment, (the avoiding whereof is the onely End of laying down any Right,) and therefore the promise of not resisting force, in no Covenant transferreth any right; nor is obliging (p. 98).

Since each man enters into a covenant to establish a commonwealth for the sole purpose of preserving his own life, and not the lives of others, it follows that he is not under any circumstances obliged to make the ultimate sacrifice since “the avoiding whereof is the onely End of laying down any Right.”  As Hobbes says elsewhere, “the motive, and end for which this renouncing and transferring of Right is introduced, is nothing else but the security of a mans person, in his life, and in the means of so preserving life, as not to be weary of it” (p. 93).  Indeed, Hobbes repeatedly tells us what he already supposes our passions to know, namely, that at any time in which we discover our life to be in danger, we may do whatever is necessary to preserve ourselves, for we can never give up our right to self-preservation.

But how are we, as subjects of a Hobbesian commonwealth, able to reconcile our obligation to protect the commonwealth in time of war with our natural right to preserve ourselves at all costs?  Clearly Hobbes thinks that when “push comes to shove” we will and ought to preserve ourselves rather than the commonwealth since the commonwealth exists for the sake of preserving our lives, and not our lives for the sake of preserving the commonwealth:  “The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavor to maintain it” (p. 153).  Nonetheless, since it is the desire to escape from the state of nature which drives men to establish the commonwealth in the first place, Hobbes thinks men will not readily plunge themselves into that abyss without good cause.  The subjects of the Hobbesian ship-of-state, like Odysseus, must choose between two evils:  the Charybdis of the state of nature or the Skylla of the sovereign’s sword.

It is for good reason that Hobbes does not try to resolve this tension by spelling out in any great detail how one knows that one has returned to the state of nature, for an analysis of this kind would merely highlight the insoluble nature of the problem.  Picture, if you will, a battle in full tilt in which the sovereign has declared the commonwealth to be in danger and thus in need of the protection of all.  Given Hobbes’ radically materialist epistemology,[4] each man’s passions will prompt his own judgment in a radically subjective manner.  In fact, any similitude between one man’s perceptions of danger and that of another would be wholly accidental.[5]  In the midst of battle, each man, being the measure of all things, would be guided by his own bombarded sense impressions, for violent death is, at it were, in the eye of the Hobbesian beholder.

Hobbesian men in battle would be nothing but a quivering mass of matter and motion in tension, whose reason, acting as the scout and spy of the passions (p. 53), would be continually assessing the quantitative balance between fear of the sovereign on the one hand and fear of the enemy on the other.  Such men, whose fear of violent death would be fully operative in battle, could not be counted upon to lay down their lives for each other, to say nothing of the commonwealth, the only justification for which was to have preserved them from this very danger.  Certainly the calculus of reason, which was clever enough to discover the covenant that saved men from the state of nature, would quite easily discover the simple solution of a well-placed bullet in the back of an officer, thus removing the fear of death more easily than one might by trying to destroy an unknown and perhaps superior enemy.  One can see then, why Hobbesian sovereigns have never relied upon Hobbesian principles in times of war.  Joseph Stalin, an otherwise devout student of Hobbes, was astute enough to depart from orthodox Hobbesian theory when, in the face of the Nazi threat, he stopped persecuting the Orthodox Church and rallied the Soviet people around Mother Russia.  William Jefferson Clinton, identifying himself more with the Hobbesian soldier than the sovereign, revealed his more orthodox Hobbesian principles when as president he stated that he would be willing to send American soldiers to Sarajevo as long as they did not have to die.

It is worth noting that the picture we have painted of Hobbesian men in battle would, according to Hobbes’ own psychology, be mirrored within each man, whether he were in battle or not.  Consider the following axiom from Hobbes’ political science:  “So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death” (p. 70).  But, as we immediately learn, this desire of which Hobbes’ writes is not one, but many.  Indeed, the passions, like individual men in the state of nature, must contend with each other for predominance, submitting only to the passion for self-preservation when the circumstances demand it.  The desire for glory, for example, is in a perpetual state of war with the desire for ease and sensual delights (pp. 70-71), while lust, avarice, ambition, envy and pride all demand their fulfillment.  Reason, far from even attempting to govern this unruly crowd, merely serves as a slave to the temporary victor, the soul thereby achieving an equilibrium of sorts that operates according to the eternal laws of physics.

Hobbes himself acknowledges these “great difficulties” at the beginning of his review and conclusion:

From the contrariety of some of the Natural Faculties of the Mind, one to another, as also of one Passion to another, and from their reference to Conversation, there has been an argument taken, to inferre an impossibility that any one man should be sufficiently disposed to all sorts of Civill duty . . .

And amongst the Passions, Courage, (by which I mean the Contempt of Wounds, and violent Death)[6] enclineth men to private Revenges, and sometimes to endeavor the unsettling of the Publique Peace:  And Timorousnesse, many times disposeth to the desertion of the Publique Defence.  Both these they say cannot stand together in the same person (p. 483).

Hobbes’ solution is to suggest that education and discipline may be able to reconcile these and other contraries of the soul, and to that end he supplies his additional law of nature as something worthy of inculcation.  That law, however, which we had occasion to quote at the beginning and which we must now quote again, merely restates the contradiction found in the psychic order as it appears in the political order:  “That every man is bound by Nature, as much as in him lieth, to protect in Warre, the Authority, by which he is himself protected in Time of Peace” (p. 484).  Hobbes, as we previously noted, then accuses that man who would not feel obliged to protect his protection as acting in a self-contradictory manner:  “For he that pretendeth a Right of Nature to preserve his owne body, cannot pretend a Right of Nature to destroy him, by whose strength he is preserved:  It is a manifest contradiction of himselfe” (p. 484).  Note, however, that Hobbes has altered the terms of his own law in an effort to make the charge of contradiction stick and to diminish the likelihood of the charge being redirected at him.  To that end, Hobbes equates a man’s unwillingness to risk his own life to protect his protection with a man claiming a right to destroy the sovereign.  But while the destruction of the sovereign may be the accidental outcome of a man’s fleeing from battle due to his fear of death, the fleeing man does not intend the death of the sovereign, to say nothing of claiming a right to destroy him.  Furthermore, we must presume on Hobbes’ own terms that the sovereign’s ability to defend the man from violent death had become sufficiently compromised, else the man would not have felt the need to reassert his natural right to preserve his own life by fleeing.

Having, by means of his analysis, unleashed the passions and reduced the reason to the role of slave boy, there is something deeply ironic about both Hobbes’ criticism of those who despair of controlling the passions and his suggestion that education and discipline be used to reduce or eliminate the tensions between sovereign and subject, one subject and another, and a man and himself.  In this context one cannot help but think of Plato’s Republic, a book devoted to education and discipline because, for Plato, politics is “the art the business of which is to care for souls.”[7]  In fact, the Republic could be fairly characterized as a sustained reflection upon the way in which the political order and the order of the soul necessarily mirror one another,[8] and hence the need for the proper habituation and discipline of the passions through the governance of reason in alliance with the spirited part of the soul.  Needless to say, Plato did not reduce education and discipline to the Hobbesian self-contradiction of attempting to set one fear against another in an effort to create a political and psychological equilibrium.

It might be argued that, although Hobbes cannot explain how political equilibrium can be maintained when subjects are required to risk their lives for a commonwealth the sole justification for which is to preserve their lives, nevertheless these situations are outside of the normal course of events and therefore do not undermine Hobbes’ overall political teaching.  Far from being an exception, however, the problem posed for the man who is obliged to protect his protection would seem to be paradigmatic of Hobbesian political life.  As Hobbes frequently reminds us, it is fear of the sovereign and fear alone that can ensure the survival of the commonwealth since the laws of nature cannot compel compliance.  And if that fear is to be effective, it must be ever-present to the minds of the subjects, lest they feel free to break the covenant to their own advantage and revert to the state of war.  If the sovereign be that powerful, however, as he must needs be, and if the subsequent fear and terror that he engenders in his subjects be sufficiently intense, then what word other than “war” ought we to use to describe the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects?  For war, as Hobbes instructs us in his famous chapter on the natural condition of mankind,

Consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known:  and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre . . . So the nature of Warre, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary (pp. 88-89).

But who is the measure of when the will to contend is sufficiently known?  It is not sufficient to say the sovereign’s judgment will determine this matter since it is precisely the sovereign who is feared.  Clearly then, according to Hobbes, each man must be the measure, for no man, not even the sovereign, can be the measure of another man’s fear of violent death.  In this respect, therefore, one can never fully leave the state of nature.  After all, Hobbes himself tells us that we cannot lay down our right to resist not only death, but also wounds, chains and imprisonment:  “as also because a man cannot tell, when he seeth men proceed against him by violence, whether they intend his death or not” (p. 93).  Along with the right to resist wounds, chains, imprisonments, and death, each man necessarily retains the right to judge when those things threaten him, as well as when men proceed against him by violence.  If this were not the case, then the unalienable right to avoid violent death would be empty since it could only be acted upon when the point of the sword was already in position such that it could not be avoided.  Thus even after the establishment of the commonwealth the prudent man must plot and plan lest he find himself suddenly outmaneuvered by the sovereign, his neighbors, and even his friends.[9]  How then does this scenario differ in kind from that of the man already in battle?  Apparently there is no real difference in kind, but only a difference of degree between life in the Hobbesian commonwealth and life in the state of nature.

Finally, given his first principles, Hobbes cannot even give an adequate account in the Leviathan of the very phenomenon that he insists justifies the harsh remedy of an absolute sovereign who is himself not subject to the social contract he defends.  For if Hobbes were right about the nature of war, and if self-preservation dominated our motives to the extent that he claims, there would never be a war since nobody would be willing to die for anything.  While Hobbes’ analysis can perhaps account for the vain-glorious fools and villains who have brought about their own deaths as well as the deaths of their victims, there is no place in his analysis for the countless others who went to war if only to stop such men, and who accepted the risk of death knowing it was a sacrifice required for something greater than themselves.  But to say that the Hobbesian commonwealth could make such a claim to men’s allegiance by virtue of its being “greater” than the individuals who compose it, is only to equivocate on the word “greater” in such a way as to eliminate, in true Hobbesian fashion, the distinction between greatness of quality and greatness in quantity.  This distinction, with respect to the political order, is nothing less than the difference between a unified devotion to the common good (in which the private good of the individual is realized) and an accidental unity held together by fear in which the individual men who compose it live lives of quiet desperation in their senseless quest for satisfaction.  And though it is true, as Hobbes suggests, that war provides an occasion for the worst excesses of selfishness, greed, lust, ambition, depravity, perversity and pride, it is also true, which Hobbes neglects, that war provides an occasion for the greatest expressions of selflessness, sacrifice, self-denial, humility, hope, faith and charity.  “Greater love than this no man hath than to lay down his life for his friends.”


[1] All citations are to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[2] Consider the beginning of Aristotle’s Ethics where Aristotle anticipates Hobbes’ definition of happiness as “a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later” (p. 70), but rejects it because “the process will go on to infinity and our desire will be empty and vain” (1094a21-22).

[3] Note that Hobbes defines peace negatively; it is “all other time than war” (pp. 88-89).  But peace, which is a positive good, should not be defined as the absence of war; rather war, which is a deprivation of a good, should be defined as the absence of peace.  We do not, for example, define light as the absence of dark, but darkness as the privation of light.

[4] “The World, (I mean not the Earth onely, that denominates the Lovers of it Worldly men, but the Universe, that is, the whole masse of all things that are) is Corporeall, that is to say, Body; and hath the dimensions of Magnitude, namely, Length, Bredth, and Depth:  also every part of Body, is likewise Body, and hath the like dimensions; and consequently every part of the Universe, is Body; and that which is not Body, is not part of the Universe:  And because the Universe is All, that which is no part of it, is Nothing” (p. 463).

[5] Note that Hobbes cannot really account for what he calls “similitude” (cf. pp. 10, 26).  Since he denies that we can know things as they really are—which denial is itself self-contradictory since he claims to know that he can know this very fact—how can he know that men experience similitude, not only within their own minds, but also with respect to the minds of others?  For according to Hobbes’ epistemology, each man’s perception of an object would be different not only from that of any other man, but also from his own subsequent perception of that same object, the similitude of which he would never be able to recognize if Hobbes’ analysis is correct.  One wonders how Hobbes accounts for our apparent ability to distinguish one thing from another since all qualitative distinctions have been reduced to quantity.  As if, for example, we could know what red is, having been told that it is such and such a wavelength, or know what sound is, having been told that it is a certain number of decibels.  Not only would this account fail to explain to a man who is blind and deaf what color or sound is, but it would also lead such a man to think that color and sound are the same kind of thing, differing from one another only in terms of “how much.”

[6] Given this definition of courage, we cannot be surprised by Hobbes’ failure to include courage in his discussion of the moral virtues, i.e., the laws of nature (pp. 91-111).  Hobbes reduces all the virtues to social virtues since the development of virtue for the sake of perfecting a man’s nature is contrary to his desire to maintain the commonwealth at all costs.  Accordingly, Hobbes dismisses the virtue of temperance as being, for the most part, irrelevant (p. 109).  Note also the almost casual attempt to reduce the theological virtue of charity to obedience (p. 404).

[7] Plato’s Laws 650b.

[8] Consider also the opening discussion of Plato’s Laws.  Here the Athenian Stranger demonstrates to his interlocutors that the political regime which begins with the principle that the whole of life is an endless war, must not only set itself against every other regime, but also each of its neighborhoods against each of its neighborhoods, and each household against each household, and each man against each man, and finally each man against himself (624a-626d).

[9] Conspicuous by virtue of its absence is any discussion of friendship in Hobbes’ Leviathan (cf. p. 88).  For the ancients and medieval, friendship constituted an important part of both ethics and politics.  For Hobbes, however, there could be nothing higher than a friendship of utility.