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Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
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Leviathan (1651)

by Thomas Hobbes

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This is not an easy recreational read, but there is much to enjoy.
Hobbes writing is wonderful - short and direct, he makes his arguments sing! Strong and opinionated - he must have been wonderful company in real life. But also an arch old conservative - we find him arguing in the end of Part 2 that the remedy for discontent with the political order is that the people should be taught to not want change!
Parts of the book are just a joy to read - Chapter 13 on people living in a "state of nature", i.e. outside of a political commonwealth, is short, sharp and persuasive. This is also the source of the famous quote of life outside a commonwealth as "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short". But in others he deploys his skills to argue for the indefensible: he suggests that the people have a covenant with their monarch, but not the other way round, and even, remarkably, that the people are authors of the actions of a monarch, and thus have no cause for complaint at any action taken by the monarch!
I read an edition with current spelling, but I also referred to a text of the original. I found it amazing that the English in use in 1651 is so accessible today, whereas Shakespeare, from two generations earlier, is at times a struggle. Of course, one is written in academic terms while the other is vernacular, but it is striking how stable the language has become over 350 years.
Read August 2014. ( )
1 vote mbmackay | Aug 16, 2014 |
One of the best political treatises ever written. Very lucid arguments to justify an all-powerful state. I loved reading this book again. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
My reactions to reading this book in 1994.

It took almost two months to plow through this book, but I’m not sorry I did.

Like most “great books”, the things I heard about it were rather simplistic and one-faceted. The actual book was more complex than I expected. I expected a detailed argument in favor of absolute rule, justified by divine right, by a king. Like some of the writings of Cicero, Hobbes, writing at the time of the political upheaval of the English Civil War (Cicero also wrote in a time of civil war), displays a strong desire for strong government to bring about tranquility. But Hobbes is up to much more than just an essay on why the Stuarts should have absolute power.

As Oakeshott says in his introduction, Hobbes was fascinated by geometry and it shows in the first part – “Of Man” – in which he develops a rather medieaval (in the sense of human consciousness being described as a series of internal “motions” caused by external objects) theory of psychology. Hobbes, in a style reminescent of a geometrical proof, starts out by defining certain human traits and emotions then constructs, using these definitions, theorems of human psychology. Hobbes view of man is realistic. He sees him as neither purely a creature of emotion (though he dedicates much time to exploring this aspect of humanity) or reason. He sees wisdom and rationality arising from human attempts to predict the future based on experience.

The book ends with some surly, sarcastic – but convincing – attacks on key elements of Catholic theology – the immortal soul, eternal torment in hell, purgatory. There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of ghosts – which Hobbes briefly deals with along with demon possession – as pertaining to purgatory, and the arguments about both that were going on at this time, and the trinity. He also takes a shot at the idea of the temporal rule of the Catholic Church over sovereigns. (Some of this is covered under the last section called “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”.)

Still, much of the book is Hobbes’ argument not only for an absolute sovereign (whether a king – which he prefers – or committee or assembly) but an absolute theocracy with religion and politics absolutely melded. Hobbes, according to the introduction, gets accussed of immorality. I don’t think Hobbes was amoral or immoral but his philosophy is extremely pragmatic. Hobbes, as the starting point of his philosophy (and this is extended, by contract, to the Leviathan of the state), sees a man as having the right to whatever he desires. The problem – of course – is that a man does not exist, mankind does and each man competes with the other for “honor, riches, and authority”. Hobbes says that man’s life, in a state of nature without government, is, to use his most famous phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. That in nature every man is at war with every other man, that no society, no art, no science, no letters exist, only continual fear. As Hobbes rightly notes, this state of anarchy is so intolerable that even the most primitive tribe has some form of government.

However, I think there are a couple of minor flaws to his vision of man’s competition. First, each person has different notions of “honor, riches, and authority”, each niche, each subtle variation in the term “riches”, “honor”, and “authority” can be occuppied by a different person. Second, Hobbes seems to postulate a zero-sum society where one person’s gain is another’s loss. This flies in the face of economic history. Still, Hobbes’ point, that commerce, trade, and economic security can’t exist in such conditions, is true. Hobbes’ ultimate statement – that all religious and political authority must be invested in the Leviathan (the artificial body of the state with the government as its head) to prevent this natural state of war and foster civilization – is understandable given the civil and religious conflicts of English society at the time.

However, Hobbes bluntly reaches several conclusions that would make a libertarian wince. Subjects have no right to attempt changing their government. The sovereign cannot forfeit his power. The laws of the commonwealth do not apply to the sovereign. Dissent is not allowed. The sovereign’s power is not limited. Hobbes hates separation of powers too. Hobbes acknowledges that this is a recipe for tyranny. Hobbes even denies the right of dissent based on religious conscience. He demands the outward form of obedience to whatever the sovereign mandates religiously. You can believe, according to him, whatever you want, and God will judge you accordingly, but even God expects absolute obedience. Hobbes says that government wanting power is always much worse than too much power. He blithely adds that the government is always concerned with its subjects' welfare because it is a component of their welfare. He is also quaintly naïve when he says that the sovereign will grant his subjects much freedom because there are many areas he will not seek to regulate. Obviously, he didn’t forsee the regulatory zeal of the modern Leviathan.

Still, Hobbes (at least in my very uneducated opinion) seems to straddle not only an authoritarian tradition but a libertarian one. He says that “force and fraud” are the cardinal virtues of war. Presumably that includes the war of man with every other man that occurs in nature. Government is instituted to eliminate this warfare. Interestingly, libertarians view government’s sole legitimate function as preventing “force and fraud”. In other words, like Hobbes, they wish to quell warfare in the state of nature. Libertarians base much of their philosophy on the use of contracts, and Hobbes bases his philosophy on that too. The subject, to avoid the unpleasant state of man in nature, voluntarily gives up his rights and will to a sovereign that promises security from violence. Much of the book is a detailed explication of this idea in its various political and religious implications. However, though Hobbes is about as an extreme advocate of governmental power as there is, he says a subject can – with justice (which, in Hobbes’ terms, means without violating the contract the subject forms with his sovereign) – resist a sovereign’s attempt to kill him. The whole point of the contract, Hobbes argues, is for the subject to avoid death. A subject can also justly refuse to kill himself, testify against themselves, or defend their life (even if they are criminals who have committed an unjust act the state seeks to punish) against the sovereign. While Hobbes views every action of the sovereign authorized by the subject via contract to get security, he points out that logically the contract is void when the subject’s life is at stake. ( )
2 vote RandyStafford | Apr 11, 2013 |
I first read this as an undergraduate in political science, then we read it again in a second social philosophy course (where a chapter had been assigned for my first social philosophy course). ( )
  vegetarian | Nov 1, 2012 |
Leviathan is considered one of the great works of political philosophy, though, as we shall see, only a fraction of it is strictly political in nature. It is firmly grounded in the civil and religious values of the English Reformation, but presages the Enlightenment. And it is both timeless and a product of its time, having been written by Hobbes while in exile during the English Civil War.

The work may be divided into three parts: the first philosophical, the second political, the third religious (though these are not the terms Hobbes would have preferred).

In the first part, "Of Man," Hobbes begins with the basic question: How do we know what is real and true? He discusses the senses, the intellect, rational thought, dreams, and illusions. He goes on to derive a series of "Natural Laws" based upon the logical actions a man must take, and the associations he must form, to secure peace and well-being. But as all men seek their own advantage in competition with others, peace is impossible unless men voluntarily submit themselves to the direction of a higher authority: the Common-wealth.

The second part of Leviathan, "The Common-wealth," is the one most read and studied. Hobbes classifies Common-wealths into three basic types: government by one, by a few, and by all. The attributes of common-wealths and the principles of effective government are the same, he maintains, for all three types. He clearly, however, endorses monarchy as the best form of government, it being the most efficient, the one most reflecting the natural organization of the family, and the one most consistent with Christian scripture.

Hobbes adamantly maintains that all power flows from the Sovereign (be it one person, several or many) and that it is foolish to pretend to contain the Sovereign's authority by constitutions or other forms. If a power exists that can curtail the Sovereign with a constitution, then that power is the true Sovereign, and since whomever makes a constitution can just as easily unmake it, the constitution's authority is just a fiction.

Much of the middle part of Leviathan is a systematic description of the nuts and bolts of government. Hobbes defines and distinguishes between administrators, ambassadors, and councilors. He lays out in some detail the principles of jurisprudence that are still in use today. For example, he discusses rules of evidence and testimony, how to relate the severity of punishment to that of the crime, and when ignorance of the law may or may not be an acceptable excuse.

Though many would argue that it is at odds with his preference for autocratic government, Hobbes' writing reflects his belief in the essential dignity and equality of all men and the principle of seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. He makes no distinction between social classes, and he repeatedly states that a man's thoughts and beliefs are his own business--a radical notion at the time.

The final two sections of Leviathan, comprising the largest segment of the work, are concerned with religious matters. At first Hobbes discusses strictly theological questions, such as how to interpret scripture and how to verify alleged miracles. This seems at first completely unrelated to the preceding discourse on Common-wealth, but it is all building a case in support of the primacy of civil authority over clerical: "...in every Christian Common-wealth, the Civill Soveraign is the supreme Pastor.... It is by his authority that all other Pastors are made, and have the power to teach...."

All of the issues of the English Reformation are revisited in a relentless attack on Catholicism and Papal authority. Yet Hobbes angered the Anglicans as well when he asserted that faith was the only requirement for salvation--that a man, even when compelled to follow the forms of another faith, is free to believe as he chooses, and his belief is all that matters. To us Leviathan reads like a devout religious tract with a bit about government in the middle, but the idea of freedom of conscience led to Hobbes' being labeled an atheist and forbidden to publish in England.

Hobbes has been described as the Shakespeare of English prose. I wouldn't go quite that far, but Leviathan is clear, lucid, and not at all difficult to read notwithstanding the archaic and inconsistent spellings. The first two sections are definitely recommended, while the last parts are chiefly of historical interest. Some familiarity with Plato and Aristotle would be recommended, if for no other reason than to enjoy Hobbes' impassioned attacks on their ideas. ( )
5 vote StevenTX | Jun 12, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas Hobbesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Curley, EdwinEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Macpherson, C. B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Oakeshott, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tuck, RichardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Nature (the ary whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal.
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He that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but Man-kind: which though it be hard to do, harder than to learn any Language, or Science; yet when I shall have set down my own reading orderly, and perspicuously, the pains left another, will be onely to consider if he also find not the same in himself.
The names of such things as affect us, that is, which please, and displease us, because all men be not alike affected with the same thing, nor the same man at all times, are in the common discourses of men of inconstant signification. For seeing all names are imposed to signifie our conceptions; and all our affections are but conceptions; when we conceive the same things differently, we can hardly avoyd different naming of them. For though the nature of what we conceive, be the same; yet the diversity of our reception of it, in respect of different constitutions of body, and prejudices of opinion, gives everything a tincture of our different passions. And therefore in reasoning, a man must take heed of words; which besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker; such as are the names of Vertues, and Vices; For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare; and one cruelty, what another justice; one prodigality, what another magnanimity; and one gravity, what another stupidity, &c. And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other do not.

And those who do deceive upon hope of not being observed, do commonly deceive themselves, (the darknesse in which they lye hidden, being nothing else but there own blindnesse;) and are no wiser than Children, that think all hid, by hiding there own eyes.
Fear of oppression disposes a man to anticipate or to seek aid by society, for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty.
The office of the sovereign (be it a monarch or an assembly) consists in the end for which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety pf the people. To which he is obliged by the law of nature and to render an account thereof to God...and to none but Him.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140431950, Paperback)

Viewing politics as a science capable of the same axiomatic approach as mathematics, Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" retains its appeal for the modern reader, not just in its elevation of politics to a science, but in its overriding concern for peace. This "Penguin Classics" edition is edited with an introduction by C.B. Macpherson. Written during the turmoil of the English Civil War, "Leviathan" is an ambitious and highly original work of political philosophy. Claiming that man's essential nature is competitive and selfish, Hobbes formulates the case for a powerful sovereign or 'Leviathan' to enforce peace and the law, substituting security for the 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' life he believed human beings would otherwise experience. This world view shocked many of Hobbes' contemporaries, and his work was publicly burnt for sedition and blasphemy when it was first published. But in his rejection of Aristotle's view of man as a naturally social being, and in his painstaking analysis of the ways in which society can and should function, Hobbes opened up a new world of political science. Based on the original 1651 text, this edition incorporates Hobbes' own corrections, while also retaining the original spelling and punctuation, and reads with vividness and clarity. C.B Macpherson's introduction elucidates for the general reader one of the most fascinating works of modern philosophy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher and political theorist, one of the first modern Western thinkers to provide a secular justification for the political state. Regarded as an important early influence on the philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism, Hobbes also contributed to modern psychology and laid the foundations of modern sociology. If you enjoyed "Leviathan", you might enjoy Plato's "Republic", also available in "Penguin Classics".

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:45 -0400)

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WESTERN PHILOSOPHY. A magnificent literary achievement and the greatest work of political philosophy in the English language. Permanently challenging, it has found new applications and new refutations in every generation. Hobbes argues that human beings are first and foremost concerned with their own individual desires and fears. He shows that a conflict of each against every man can only be avoided by the adoption of a compact to enforce peace. The compact involves giving up some of our natural freedom to a sovereign power which will enforce the laws of peace on all citizens. Hobbes also analyses the subversive forces - religion, ambition, private conscience - that threaten to destroy the body politic, and return us to the state of war. This new edition reproduces the first printed text but modernizing the spelling. It offers exceptionally thorough annotation, an introduction that guides the reader through the complexities of Hobbes's arguments, and a substantial index.… (more)

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