When one examines the maxim of Thomas Hobbes as set forth in Leviathan it becomes obvious that Hobbes believes the nature of man to be bad. According to Hobbes, if we as men were left to exercise our own private judgement regarding our affairs we would most assuredly collapse into a state of war. He believes that when there is no singular, ever-present power to keep man in awe, and to control man by fear of punishment from that singular power, that man will break his agreements and act in his own self-interest. “For the Lawes of Nature (as Justice, Equity, Modesty, Mercy, and (in summe) doing to others, as wee would be done to,) of themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” (Hobbes, pg.117) The laws that are enacted are contrary to our self-interest, so without the terror of some ever-present power to instill fear in all man, we would abstain from no measure in order to preserve our own well being. In a state of war man is in “a Continual fear and danger of a violent death; and the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes. Pg. 107)
The only way to prevent entering a state of war is to erect one common power, which is known as a commonwealth or sovereign, who is “One person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence.”(Hobbes, pg. 121) With this definition comes the role of the sovereign. It is the role of the sovereign to enforce the laws of nature and to promote laws that are necessary for a peaceful and commodious life among men. In order for this to take place fluidly, it is necessary that all men agree that, “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.”(Hobbes, pg.120)
If this indeed occurs, the sovereign is able to enforce laws that give the people an assurance that they are not in any danger because of the consequences that will follow if they disobey the sovereign.
In order to fulfill his role, the sovereign must retain certain powers that enable him to do so. These powers are as follows in no particular order; First, subjects cannot change the form of government because they entered into a covenant willingly and being bound by that covenant they cannot lawfully make a new one without permission. Second, the sovereign retains the right to make laws, and in making these laws he has the right to punish and reward people as he sees fit so as to preserve the Lawes of nature. Third, the sovereign’s power can never be fortified because he made a covenant with the whole and it would be impossible to make covenants with each and every single man for it would make each covenant void. Fourth, the sovereign’s power can never be forfeited because he made a covenant with the whole and it would be impossible to make covenants with each and every single man for it would make each covenant void. Fifth, the sovereign has the right of choosing all counselors and ministers, both of peace and war and also the right of making war, and peace, as he thinks best. Finally, the sovereign is the judge of what is necessary for the peace and defense of his subjects, and whatever the sovereign does is unpunishable by the subject due to the fact that his power is indivisible.
The reason that Hobbes believes it is necessary for the sovereign to attain such extensive powers is because if a sovereign’s power is not absolute then his power is considered void. On pg. 127 Hobbes says “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, 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.” With this statement Hobbes is not saying that power cannot be delegated, but he is saying that the sovereign must retain the right to veto anything or else his power becomes void. “And as the Power, so also the Honour of the Sovereign, ought to be greater, than that of any, or all the Subjects. For in the Sovereignty is the fountain of Honour. The dignities of the Lord, Earle, Duke, and Prince are his creatures.” (Hobbes, pg.128)
As it has already been stated, the sovereign’s power is indivisible, which means that his subjects have no absolute rights. However, his subjects do still retain some rights under his rule. Those rights are as follows; First is the right of nature, which states that a subject has the liberty to defend their own bodies, even against those that lawfully invade them. Hobbes states that covenants, not to defend one’s own body, are void. Second, a subject has the right to refuse any command that would result in injury to himself. Third, a subject has the right to not incriminate himself while being interrogated by the sovereign even though he has no assurance of a pardon to do so. Fourth, no subject is bound to either kill himself, or any other subject unless specified by the majority when the sovereign was elected. Fifth, a subject has the right not to enter warfare, unless he voluntarily undertakes it, even though their refusal can be punishable by death. Finally, if a subject has a controversy with the sovereign, the subject has the same liberty to sue the sovereign for his right, as if it were against a subject, and before such judges that are appointed by the sovereign.
Hobbes believes that any law enacted by the sovereign is a good law because the sovereign is “One person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence.”(Hobbes, pg. 121) On pg. 239 Hobbes gives an exact definition of a good law when he says, “By a Good Law, I mean not a Just Law: for no Law can be Unjust. The Law is made by the Sovereign Power, and all that is done by such Power, is warranted, and owned by every one of the people; and that which every man will have so, no man can say is unjust. It is in the Lawes of a Common-wealth, as in the Lawes of Gaming: whatsoever the Gamesters all agree on, is Injustice to none of them. A good Law is that, which is Needful, for the Good of the People, and withal Perspicuous.” Again, with that in mind any three of the laws, which Hobbes gives as belonging to the sovereign, would be good laws that fulfill the sovereign’s role. Along this same line of thinking, it is wrong to say that any of the laws that Hobbes gives are bad. The only laws that would be considered bad would be ones that took absolutism away from the power of the sovereign, yet none of the laws do. Even the laws that give rights to the people are worded such that the sovereign retains absolute power in the end.
In Thomas Hobbes Leviathan a convincing argument is given for the benefit of an absolute power in a governmental system. Whether or not you agree with Hobbes depends inherently on your belief in the nature of man. If as Hobbes believes, the nature of man were so bad that without a sovereign there would be war among men, then obviously, a sovereign would be needed to maintain peace and to keep all men in fear of punishment. If not for that ever-present fear of punishment, man would do whatever was in his self-interest, eventually leading all to a state of chaos and war. I do not believe that Hobbes’ account of political power is convincing because I do not believe the nature of man is that bad. Hobbes states that in order for a sovereign to rule he must have “absolute” power. Because I believe in man as a whole I do not believe any man needs nor deserves absolute power over another. With a sovereign there is no system of checks and balances to reinforce equality in the government. I believe that Thomas Hobbes argument for a singular, all powerful sovereign in Leviathan is compelling, however, I also believe in the rights of man, and I do not believe that any one person should have control over the affairs of all.