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Interdependence: The Social Contract and Absolute Power in Hobbes’s Leviathan

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes presents the idea that the sovereign power of

a commonwealth is formed by a social contract, made voluntarily by people. However,

despite the contract’s central role in the formation of the sovereign power, Hobbes

emphasizes that this contract is “but words and breath” (112) and by itself is not able to

motivate subjects to obey the sovereign power. It is “the public sword” (112), Hobbes

declares, that motivates subjects to obey. If so, why was it necessary to make the contract?

Can’t there be some person who is powerful enough to force people into obedience,

without forming a sovereign power? This paper will attempt to address these questions by

showing the interdependence between the social contract and the consequent absolute

power. First, I will clarify what is meant by ‘power’ and why no great power can emerge

prior to the contract. Then, I will show how the social contract greatly increases the power

of one individual (or a group of individuals) to the level of absolute power. Finally, I will

show that although individualsparticipate voluntarily in this empowering contract, the

sovereign power keeps them obedient to the contract.

First I will discuss the power of individuals prior to the contract. According to

Hobbes, a person’s “power” is defined as “his present means to obtain some future

apparent good” (50), and his “good” is defined as“the object of [his] appetite or desire”

(28). In other words, a person’s power is the means he has to get what he desires. These

means could be a natural part of him, such as his physical strength, or critical thinking

skills; they could also be external things that he possesses1, such as financial resources, or

well-equipped friends. Considering this, one may think that some individuals would be

1 Which Hobbes calls “instrumental”, as opposed to “natural” (50)


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significantly more powerful than otherssimply by fortune of birth; undoubtedly, some are

born possessing greater physical strength or more financial resources than others.

However, Hobbes argues that these differences between individuals are actually negligible;

he describes how a physically weaker man can confront the stronger man by using

stratagems or cooperating with others. Thus, in the state prior to the social contract, which

Hobbes calls the state of nature, there exists an “equality of ability” (75).

Furthermore, another characteristic of the state of nature is that every individual

has the “right of nature”, which is an individual’s right to use his own power “for the

preservation of his own nature” (79). In other words, “every man has a right to everything”

(80), no matter if it is stealing someone else’s items that he considers useful, or attacking

someonehe thinks will steal his own items. Evidently, it is impossible for one individual (or

group of individuals) to hold power greater than all others prior to the social contract.

Because all are equal in ability, an individual striving to obtain his desired object will find

himself in competition with others desiring the same object. The two ways for this

individual to increase his power and obtain what he desires is by enlisting the help of

others to overcome competition, or by eliminating the competition that is blocking him. But

both of these ways will require others to forego their right of nature: the right of nature

permits others to deny help to the individual, and the right of nature permits others to

compete with the individual. Therefore, an individual cannot become significantly more

powerful than others, without others first having laid down their natural right. This is

addressed by the social contract.

Let’s examine the way a contract can empower an individual. According to Hobbes, a

contract is a “mutual transferring of right” (82). This right is “a man’s right to anything […]
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the liberty of hindering another of the benefit of his own right to the same” (81). When an

individual transfers his right to another individual, he is restricting himself from hindering

or obstructing the other individual in any way. The former is no longer equal to the latter in

terms of the “right to anything”, i.e. the natural right. Furthermore, the power of the latter

has slightly increased by the former’s abandoning of right: competition and obstruction to

the latter’s pursuit of his desired object is slightly decreased. In any case, the latter is

significantly more powerful than the former as a result of the contract between them.This

hints at how a contract involving many individuals could greatly increase the power of one

individual, which is the social contract of forming a commonwealth.

The social contract establishes the absolute, unlimited sovereign power by

transferring the rights of many individuals to one individual (or a group of individuals).

According to Hobbes, a commonwealth is formed when many individuals “confer all their

power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their

wills […] unto one will” (109). This one will is the will of the sovereign, who may use all

subjects’ power and strength as he desires. This sovereign power Hobbes describes in a

variety of ways: the “greatest of human powers” (50); the “absolute power” (133); “so

unlimited a power” (135). This is because all subjects have transferred their natural rights

to the sovereign, and so the sovereign is the only individual (or group of individuals) who

holds the natural right. Now, not only does the sovereign have a right to everything and

anything, he is also in a circumstance in which he is best able to exercise this right. There

are no subjects who can compete with him or obstruct his pursuit to obtain what he

desires; in addition, he can enlist the powers of his subjects to obtain what he desires.Thus,

the sovereign power is the greatest power, absolute and unlimited.


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It is important to see that the source of the sovereign’s power is his natural right,

and the social contract contributes to the sovereign power by greatly increasing the

effectiveness of this natural right. This is illustrated by the list of the sovereign’s “rights and

faculties” (110) detailed by Hobbes. These include: the right to hold sovereign power

regardless of the opinions of the subjects; the right to judge and punish his subjects; the

right to make war with other commonwealths. Now, these rights also belong to individuals

who hold the natural right; all individuals in the state of nature have these rights. But

because all subjects have transferred their rights, these 12 rights “are the marks whereby a

man may discern in what man […] the sovereign power is placed and resideth” (115). What

truly distinguishes the sovereign from his subjects is his possession of the natural right. In

this sense, the source of the sovereign’s power is the natural right.And it is much more

effective in the commonwealth than in the state of nature, because all subjects have laid

down their rights to resist the sovereign, enabling him to utilize many more means and

abilities. Therefore, this is the contribution of the social contract: to greatly increase the

power of one individual (or a group) by making his natural right much more effective.

Let’s consider why individuals would participate in a social contract. In the

formation of a commonwealth by acquisition2, their motivationsare relatively

straightforward. In a dilemma between subjugation and death, individuals make a contract

with the conqueror out of their desire to preserve their life. As for the conqueror, Hobbes

declares that it is “a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of

power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (58). This may be out of a person’s delight in

obtaining more power, or out of his fear of losing his current level of power. Assuming this

2Commonwealth by acquisition is “that where the sovereign power is acquired by force” (127). Individuals contract with
the conqueror out of “fear of death”, because this conqueror has “their lives and liberty in his power” (127).
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is true, it is not surprising that the conqueror would endeavor to force others to make

contracts with him since these contracts would greatly increase his power, as explained

earlier in this paper. However, this does not exactly explain the case of commonwealth by

institution3. In this case, the contract does not take place in a dilemma between subjugation

and death, but subjects are still voluntarily laying down their natural rights, decreasing

their power. Why would they do so?

Hobbes states that the reason individuals would participate in the social contract is

“their own preservation” (106). This self-preservation is more general and long-term

compared to the immediate choice in face of a conqueror: it includes protection from being

harmed by others, defense from foreign invasions, and thus a general peace and security

that would enable them to “live contentedly” (109). There is no such peace and security in

the state of nature, because individuals – holding equal power and the natural right – are

constantly in conflict with one another for various reasons4, resulting in what Hobbes calls

a perpetual state of war. So Hobbes argues that the only way to achieve the desired peace

and security is by restricting every individual’s natural right, “without the which there

cannot possibly be any peace” (175). This can be done by having individuals lay down their

natural right through a contract, as described earlier; but Hobbes admits that a contract can

easily be broken5. So he states that the primary method of helping individuals keep their

contract is by “fear of the consequence of breaking their word” (87), that is, fear of

3 Commonwealth by institution is when individuals “agree amongst themselves to submit to some man” (110), and they
form a contract with one another to transfer their rights to a chosen individual (or a group of individuals).
4 Hobbes describes three main causes of conflict: “first, competition; secondly diffidence; third, glory” (76). And all three

are rooted in every individual’s core desire of self-preservation.


5 Even if an individual declares in a contract he will forego his right to physically punish others, he still has the means (the

physical strength) to punish others, and so when he is harmed by another he may be tempted to break his contract and
use his own strength to punish the offender.
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punishment. So, a social contract is necessary to achieve the desired peace and security, but

fear of punishment is necessary to sustain obedience to the contract.

Ultimately, a sovereign power is required for such fear of punishment to be

effective. Hobbes explains: “for the subjects did not give the sovereign that right, but only

(in laying down theirs) strengthened him to use his own as he should think fit, for the

preservation of them all” (204). In order to punish another, one must have the natural right

to everything as well as sufficient power. In the state of nature, individuals all hold the right

to punish, yet there is not one individual that has greater power than all others, as

explained earlier in this paper. But a social contract can establish an absolute power by

greatly increasing the power of one individual (or a group) through the transfer of rights,

as described earlier. Therefore, the sufficient power to punish every other is established by

the social contract. It is evident then that the social contract is in a sense self-sustaining: it

first establishes an individual with absolute power above all others; then this sovereign

enforces obedience to the contract by its absolute power.

This paper has shown three key points. First, that no great power can exist in the

state of nature; second, that a contract is capable establishing an absolute power by the

transfer of rights; third, that the fear of punishment is necessary to ensuring obedience to

the contract. Ultimately, we see that the social contract and the absolute power are

interdependent in the way they sustain a commonwealth: the contract establishes the

absolute power, and this power enforces obedience to the contract.

Word Count: 2010


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Work Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, IND: Hackett, 2007.