Hobbes and the Social Contract

In the year 1651, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of Social Contract ‘appeared for the first time in Leviathan’[1] during the civil war in Britain. According to Hobbes before the Social Contract men in a state of nature were living with fear due to life being ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’. Whilst there are many advantages of Hobbes’s concept this essay postulates that his concept is redundant and has too many impediments for it to be deployed in today’s world. This essay will first talk about how the thinker defined the concept; secondly, talk about how the concept is utilised in their theory. Thirdly, this essay will analyse the strength of the arguments and concept. Fourthly, this essay will analyse the weaknesses of the arguments. Fifthly, this essay will give its own judgement on the concept with a conclusion to conclude the essay.

Each person, in a state of nature ‘took for himself all that he could; human life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’[2] according to Hobbes. In order to end the state of nature individuals had to agree in a social contract to ‘give their liberty into the hands of a sovereign, who was thenceforward absolute, on the sole condition that their lives were safeguarded by a sovereign power’[3]. Hobbes himself described the Social Contract as ‘the mutual transferring of right’[4] essentially arguing that men give up some liberties in exchange for some protection. The term ‘sovereign’ is described as the ‘head of the Leviathan, the maker of laws … and the defender of civil peace’[5] and the term ‘Leviathan’ is understood to be a ‘metaphor for the state … constructed through contract by people in the state of nature in order to escape the horrors (of the state of nature) and the power of the Leviathan protects them from the abuses of one another’[6]. The state of nature, which is a crucial component of the Leviathan, is understood to be the ‘natural condition of mankind (that) would exist if there were no government, civilization, laws, and no common power to restrain human nature’[7] with life ‘in a state of nature (being) “nasty, brutish and short”’[8]. Finally, another concept that Hobbes uses is the commonwealth, which represents people that ‘consent to a sovereign authority, established by contract to have absolute power over them all, for the purpose of providing peace and common defence’[9].

Hobbes’s introduction is dominated by the Leviathan which he uses as a metaphor for the ‘institution of constitutional monarchy’[10].The ‘Leviathan rigorously argues that civil peace and social unity are best achieved by the establishment of commonwealth through social contract’[11] and this is what Hobbes wants from his social contract. Hobbes uses his Social Contract to argue his case for a Leviathan which is what he believes is the best option for a society. The person responsible for peace among its members is the monarch by being the ‘common power, to keep them in awe’[12] and only the monarch preserves his right while others ‘voluntarily give up theirs for the mutual defence of all parties involved in the compact that forms the commonwealth’[13]. The sovereign is left out due to the social contract not being in agreement ‘with the subject that empowers him, but the agreements between other subjects authorize his power’[14].Hobbes wants a sovereign power to protect the commonwealth and his text ‘attempts to prove the necessity of the Leviathan for preserving peace and preventing civil war’[15]. Hobbes lived in a period where there were continuous and prolonged civil or religious wars in Europe, which is why Hobbes proposed the Leviathan to stop violence and death from being so commonplace. Thus, the civil or religious wars are used to justify the needs for a social contract, more specifically, a Leviathan in order to guarantee peace.

One of the strengths of Hobbes’s social contract is its legitimacy of government[16]. Thomas Hobbes grew up during the English civil war where death at a young age was inevitable. Therefore, the social contract was created in order to give legitimacy to the government that the people consented to in order to prevent civil wars from occurring again. In addition, the ‘social contract strives for the most inclusive society’[17] for example, Hobbes argued his case for political authority to be ‘rested on one sole authority that all people consented towards’[18]. The reason for this is because human beings fight with each other for survival, supplies etc and through a ‘legitimate government via a social contract, no war exists between people’[19] due to the epicentre of political power now resting with the government of which the people have agreed to.

One of the weaknesses of Hobbes’s social contract is that our wills are being embodied by the Leviathan but clearly this is not the case because the Leviathan cannot embody everyone’s wills as this is too impractical. This can be seen with North Korea or the Soviet Union where the wills of the people are never embodied. Another weakness is that the sovereign is given power by the people and therefore his actions will be endorsed by the people[20], which is clearly not true. For example, North Korea has spent 25% of its GDP on its military from 2002-2012[21] much to the detriment of its people who live in absolute poverty and are starving. Yet under Hobbes, the actions of the North Korean leader, Kim Jung Un, will have apparently been endorsed by the people and this is not true as there have been numerous North Korean defects that have criticised North Korea and talked about how bad life[22] is in North Korea, which clearly shows how the people do not endorse his policies. In addition, Hobbes ‘over-simplified the project and based many assumptions on the idea that people act rationally at all times’[23].

Whilst Hobbes’s social contract provides some advantages the disadvantages outweigh the former. Hobbes argues that humans are ‘selfish, power seeking, and have an intrinsic appetite for material possessions’[24]. However, Hobbes’s statement that a sovereign with complete power can ‘safeguard against the state of nature’[25] is not true. We can see this with North Korea where Kim Jung Un has absolute power yet there is massive poverty and many people are killed. I would argue that the North Korean people are actually still living in a state of nature, even though there is a sovereign with absolute power, because people are killing each other for cannibalistic[26] reasons due to famine and poverty, the very thing a sovereign is supposed to stop. This is further backed by Khzmalyan who argues that Hobbes’s ‘sovereign might pose more threats to citizens than the state of nature he described’[27]. Another vital aspect of Hobbes’s concept is his claim that ‘humans would be willing to exit the state of nature’ to accept the social contract and enter the commonwealth for security. This clearly is too complex to simplify because humans are too complex and some may not enter at all preferring to live in a state of nature than in a commonwealth. Indeed, Hobbes’s Leviathan can actually lead to people’s life becoming further dejected, that being in a state of nature would be better. An example of this is the Russian Revolution in 1917[28] where conditions under the ‘Leviathan’ were so bad that people rebelled. Hobbes’s concept about the Leviathan, under the social contract, has many cracks in its armoury and the fact that his concept was tried out in Soviet Russia and failed spectacularly further shows how his concept is not only outdated but unworkable. Furthermore, Clarke criticized Hobbes for his arguing that ‘punishment would sufficiently motivate people to follow the rules of the social contract’[29] because if someone committed a crime and got away with it then the ‘fear of punishment alone will fail as a motivation’[30] as they will commit the crime again.

To conclude, Hobbes lived during the English civil war prompting him to create the Leviathan. The Leviathan, is arguably, Hobbes’s most famous work where he argues his case that people would rather join a commonwealth for self preservation than live in a state of nature where life is short and brutish. Hobbes’s Leviathan argues that ‘civil peace and social unity are best achieved by the establishment of commonwealth through social contract’[31]. There are many valid points that Hobbes brings to surface however, ultimately his concept is weak. Many weaknesses such as his assumption that people will enter the commonwealth blindly, the fact that Hobbes believes that the sovereign can protect us from harm etc has proven that Hobbes’s concept is weak. Furthermore, Hobbes’s concept has been implemented throughout history such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea and yet it has been seen that eventually, these states that adopted the Leviathan will eventually collapse thus branding Hobbes’s concept unworkable.


[1] Elahi, M. (2017). What is Social Contract Theory?. Sophia-project.org. Available at: http://www.sophia-project.org/uploads/1/3/9/5/13955288/elahi_socialcontract.pdf [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017). Social contract | political philosophy. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-contract [Accessed 9 Dec. 2017].

[3] ibid

[4] Oregonstate.edu. (2017). Great Philosophers: Thomas Hobbes: social contract. Available at: https://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Hobbes/hobbes_social_contract.html [Accessed 10 Dec. 2017].

[5] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Leviathan.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/leviathan/ (accessed December 18, 2017).

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] Frankenstein’s Monster: The Modern Leviathan Jevon Scott Kimmerly-Smith University of Windsor http://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6261&context=etd

[11] Sparknotes.com. (2017). SparkNotes: Leviathan: Summary. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/leviathan/summary.html [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[12] Hobbes, T. (1956). Leviathan. 1st ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, p.62: Chapter 13

[13] Hobbes, T. (1956). Leviathan. 1st ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, Chapter 13*

[14] ibid

[15] Sparknotes.com. (2017). SparkNotes: Leviathan: Summary. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/leviathan/summary.html [Accessed 21 Dec. 2017].

[16] Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). The Advantages of a Social Contract Theory | Synonym. Classroom.synonym.com. Available at: https://classroom.synonym.com/the-advantages-of-a-social-contract-theory-12083467.html [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

[20] Hummberto (2010) The limitations of the Leviathan Available at: https://lifeexaminations.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/the-limitations-of-the-leviathan/ [Accessed 9 Jan. 2018]

[21] koreatimes. (2004). N. Korea spends quarter of GDP on military from 2002-2012: US data. Available at: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/01/485_194556.html [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[22] BBC News. (2016). North Korea: Defectors’ stories. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-36928139/north-korea-defectors-stories [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

[23] Wikinut. (2010). The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Available at: https://guides.wikinut.com/The-political-philosophy-of-Thomas-Hobbes/16-vkavu/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

[24] Erainstitute.org. (2016). ERA Institute – Hobbes’s Leviathan: A Critique of the Omnipotent Sovereign. Available at: https://www.erainstitute.org/hobbess-leviathan-a-critique-of-the-omnipotent-sovereign/ [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[25] ibid

[26] Evans, B. (2013). North Korean parents ‘eating their own children’ after being driven mad by hunger in famine-hit pariah state. Mail Online. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2269094/North-Korean-parents-eat-children-driven-mad-hunger-famine-hit-pariah-state.html [Accessed 28 Dec. 2017].

[27] Erainstitute.org. (2016). ERA Institute – Hobbes’s Leviathan: A Critique of the Omnipotent Sovereign. Available at: https://www.erainstitute.org/hobbess-leviathan-a-critique-of-the-omnipotent-sovereign/ [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[28] ibid

[29] Fieser, J. (2017). The Social Contract. Utm.edu. Available at: https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/300/socialcont.htm [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

[30] ibid

[31] Sparknotes.com. (2017). SparkNotes: Leviathan: Summary. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/leviathan/summary.html [Accessed 21 Dec. 2017].