Listers, the Leviathan offers man salvation in a world where the state of nature is war and chaos. Peace is simply an interlude to more war. The very equality of humanity rests upon the belief that even the weakest may devise a way to murder the strongest; thus, through violence and murder, all men are equal. Though Hobbes’ views on statecraft, violence, and religion were arguably found distasteful to his contemporaries,  history still remembers him fondly for one importance reason: he rejected Catholicism and the ancient philosophers. He offered the world a different philosophy in which to view and govern itself than that of the ancients and medievals. He gifts later philosophers, most notably Locke, different material to work with than that offered by the Church. Hobbes jettisons the natural law and virtue teachings of the Church, he mocks the doctrine of transubstantiation as “madness,” and ultimately places all religion at the foot of the state, the Leviathan.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Hobbes broke with the philosophy of the ancients and of the Church. Hobbes is particularly important as he begins modernity’s focus on “rights language.” The autonomy of the individual expressed in “individual rights” becomes the hallmark of modern political and moral thought. Extrinsic standards, e.g., natural law, are pulled down as the individual is lifted up. Studying the moderns and how they interrelate is vital to a Catholic attempting to live an authentic faith in a modern world. It is unsettling to realize that the philosophies that shaped the modern world almost always shared a common trait: they were only able to posit their ideas by rejecting Catholicism.


Clarification by Contrast: Political Thought in the Ancients


The magnification of the "Leviathan" on the original cover of Hobbes' work. The Leviathan is composed of people.

The magnification of the “Leviathan” on the original cover of Hobbes’ work. The Leviathan is composed of people.

1. His Predecessor, Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s The Prince was unprecedented insofar as it removed statecraft from the standards of traditional virtue. Virtue, under Machiavelli, devolved from a habit of the good – prudence, justice, temperance, & fortitude – to the ability to gain and maintain political power through force and fear. In Chapter XV, he writes:

But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have imagined republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

What are the imagined republics? Machiavelli is referring to the cities in speech that were common among the ancient philosophers, most notably Plato & Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle speaks of nature as a standard and sees men as political animals that inhabit a polis ordered by the natural virtue of justice.1 The most notable imagined republic, however, for Machiavelli is the Kingdom of God as articulated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Machiavelli breaks with the western political tradition by advocating that the prince not live as men ought to live, but embrace and become “virtuous” in how men do live. He discards the “imagine republics” governed by virtue, and imports a statecraft designed to gain and maintain power through force and fear. Notice too, that Machiavelli believes the prince who strives to live virtuously according to the imagined republics will bring about his own ruin, while the prince who lives according to “real truth” will bring about his preservation.2


2. Historical Context & Brief Biography

Sixty-one years after the death of Machiavelli, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury was born (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679). He was raised in England in the aftermath of King Henry VIII separating the Church of England from the Church in Rome and in a Europe in the throes of the Protestant Reformation. So-called “religious wars” riddled the continent as political powers utilized various religious factions for political gain. The Roman Catholic Church was also in a time of reform as it had held the Council of Trent (1545-63). Hobbes spent most of his time in Continental Europe (1629-31; 1634-7). Due to his support of the English King in a time where Parliament was attempting to limit the monarchal powers, he was exiled to France (1640-51). In 1651, he returned to England after his criticisms of the papacy angered the French Catholic faithful. Thomas Hobbes died in 1679.3


3. De Cive: Mutual Fear

In The Citizen, Hobbes does for the citizen what Machiavelli did for the prince. Machiavelli’s teaching removed the prince’s political engagement from the traditional standards of virtue and replaced them with the reworked concept of virtue as the ability to gain and maintain power. Hobbes follows Machiavelli’s rework aimed at the prince and delivers it to the individual citizen. Consequently, when Hobbes speaks of the “virtue of justice,” the virtue is no longer concerned with good of the soul or the virtuous ordering of society. Hobbes’ virtue is concerned with power and material goods.4

In The Citizen, Hobbes posits that society’s primary function is to “preserve humans from mutual violence.” Here Hobbes jettisons Aristotle and the Western Tradition’s belief that man is by nature a communal political animal in search of the common good. Instead, Hobbes submits that man seeks only his own good and comes together in societal structures out of a common fear.

We must therefore resolve, that the original of all great, and lasting societies, consisted not in the mutual good will men had towards each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.

The state in ancient philosophy, the polis, was oriented toward the common good. The polis existed so that all men might live well. Men and polis sought the standards of nature and natural virtue. Under Hobbes, nature will undergo a significant transformation. Hobbes begins to articulate a political philosophy in which persons, by nature, have a mutual fear of one another. To understand why a mutual fear – not mutual good – is the foundation of Hobbes’ Leviathan, you must understand his view on nature and man’s right to self-preservation.


4. Equality through Violence

A hallmark of Hobbes’ philosophy is that society finds equality in the ability of each person to murder the other.

How easy a matter it is, even for the weakest man to kill the strongest, there is no reason why any man trusting to his own strength should conceive himself made by nature above others: they are equals who can do equal things one against the other; but they who can do the greatest things, (namely kill) can do equal things. All men therefore among themselves are by nature equal… therefore the first foundation of natural right is this, that every man as much as in him lies endeavor to protect his life and members.

Further articulating the rights of persons, Hobbes states, “every man has a right to preserve himself, he must also be allowed a right to use all the means, and do all the actions, without which he cannot preserve himself.” If man has in his arsenal “all the means,” to what end may he use them? Hobbes answers, “nature hath given to everyone a right to all.” According to nature, man has a right to everything through whatever means necessary and is equal to one another in the ability to murder.

To have all, and do all, is lawful for all. And this is that which is meant by that common saying, “Nature hath given all to all,” from whence we understand likewise, that in the state of nature, profit is the measure of right.

It is notable that Hobbes acknowledges that “profit is the measure of right.” Overall, we see Hobbes equate self-preservation with morality. It would be difficult to exaggerate the break this view of nature has with the traditional western political tradition and the Catholic Church. The break becomes a key characteristic of modernity: nature is not a standard to be followed but something to overcome, to conquer, and to vex. Where Machiavelli’s work was written to serve his own political end, Hobbes has purposely broken with the Ancients and attempted to be, in his mind, the first political philosopher.


5. The State of Nature is War

Following Hobbes’ teaching on individual rights, it is no surprise that for him the state of nature is war. Peace is simply an interlude to more war.

It cannot be denied but that the natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war, and that not simply, but a war of all men, against all men…

Gone is the ordered law of nature imprinted on the hearts of men; nature as a chaotic state of war is the new philosophy. A state in which men exist in mutual fear of falling victim to the unbridled natural right of another’s self-preservation. If equality is found in the mutual ability to murder one another and war is the natural state of man, what is Hobbes’ solution? Society is formed out of a contractual agreement whereby out of preservation the citizen transfers his power to the state. An idea he takes up in great detail in his Leviathan.


6. The Leviathan: Introduction

In accordance with the principles set forth in The Citizen, Hobbes begins to articulate a whole new vision of human life and society. Unlike Aristotle who begins his discourse on politics with what is common sense, Hobbes intends to establish a new modern political science in terms of motion and power. In fact, Hobbes takes geometry as his model science and guide for constructing his new science of politics.5

In his introduction, Hobbes speaks of nature and of the Leviathan. First, of nature, he states:

Nature (the art whereby God had made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that I can make an artificial animal.

As intimated in The Citizen, for Hobbes, nature is mechanistic. Humanity can now not only create art that mimics nature, but art that controls nature. Nature is a machine – albeit a violent and bellicose machine – to be understood and controlled. For Hobbes, man finds himself in a chaotic state of war, but he has the ability to deliver himself. He can create the Leviathan.

Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body…

The Leviathan is the great artificial construct or machine that is man at large. The ancients held that nature was a standard. Nature was a good and good habits were natural virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Under Hobbes, nature is a machine to be utilized and his reworking of the virtues is arguably presents them as something akin to mechanistic passions to be controlled.6


7. The Leviathan: On Virtue

In Chapter VIII, Hobbes reworks virtue in a similar fashion as Machiavelli. For St. Thomas Aquinas, virtue is a good habit. For example, justice is the natural virtue of being well-ordered or ordered according to right reason. It is a natural virtue, because it is available to all men by nature. Under Hobbes, virtue becomes whatever men seek as valued. He begins his chapter:

Virtue generally, in all sorts of subjects, is somewhat that is valued for eminence; and consists in comparison. For if all things were equally in all men, nothing would be prized. 

It is also notable Hobbes ends Chapter VIII with a critique of Fr. Francisco Suárez, a prominent Spanish Jesuit scholastic. Typical of modernity, he does not actually offer a philosophical rebuttal of the scholastics, but rather mocks their works as absurd and intended to drive men mad.

So that this kind of absurdity may rightly be numbered amongst the many sorts of madness; and all the time that, guided by clear thoughts of their worldly lust, they forbear disputing or writing thus, but lucid intervals. And thus much of the virtues and defects intellectual. 

The above quote is specifically speaking about the doctrine of transubstantiation. It is difficult to exaggerate the point that the moderns never actually engaged Catholicism and ancient philosophy, but rather simply mocked it and offered the people something more palatable to their desires. It is amongst history’s most tragic errors to believe that Modernity offered the people something more rational than what they had; the “Enlightenment” did little else than enlighten what people desired.


8. The Leviathan: On Power & Worth

In Chapter X: Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honor, & Worthiness, Hobbes articulates the theme of power, which is a major theme in his philosophy. He avers there are two types of power: natural and instrumental. The former is “the eminence of the faculties of body, or mind; as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility.” The latter type of power is described as “powers which, acquired by these [the natural powers], or by fortune, are means and instruments to acquire more; as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God, which me call good luck.” For Hobbes, the Leviathan grants value and dignity to a person based upon the usefulness of their power. He writes:

The value of worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolutely, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.

The public worth of a man, which is the value set on him by the Commonwealth, is that which men commonly call dignity. And this value of him by the Commonwealth is understood by offices of command, judicature, public employment; or by names and titles introduced for distinction of such value.

Hobbes articulation of power is reminiscent of Machiavelli. Where the ancients spoke of power as a means to a virtuous end, both Hobbes and Machiavelli speak of power as an independent category, an end in and of itself. For the ancients, the end sought by power, to be good for the state, had to be virtuous, it had to be accordance with the natural order. For Hobbes, power is a means to any number of subjective ends. The value of the end sought by power and the value of the person seeking it is externally placed on it by the Commonwealth, the Leviathan. Note how Hobbes couples together a person’s dignity with their “public worth,” and this “worth” or value is gifted to him by the Leviathan.


9. Leviathan: The Restless Pursuit of Power

Chapter XI: Of the Difference of Manners represents one of the clearest breaks with the ancients. He states quite clearly that there is no supreme good or final end.

To which end we are to consider that the felicty of this life consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus nor summum bonum as is spoke of in the books of the old moral philosophers.

The idea that there is a supreme good and final end for humanity was a hallmark of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. What then does Hobbes submit as a substitution? He writes:

Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object ot another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter… so that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.

For Hobbes, it appears that the supreme good and final end are fanciful characteristics of the old cities in speech. Man is left with a “restless desire for power after power, that ceases only in death.” Traditional God had been the final end of man and towards that end man ordered his steps. For Hobbes, the tearing down the supreme good and final end – which were ultimately God – only to erect a temporal pursuit of power in its place imports numerous question on how Hobbes actually views God and religion.


10. Leviathan: On Religion

Chapter XII: On Religion is a milestone in the Western intellectual tradition. In this chapter, Hobbes offers a discussion on what he takes to be a mythical account of the origins of man. He writes:

Seeing there are no signs nor fruit of religion but in man only, there is no cause to doubt but that the seed of religion is also only in man; and consists in some peculiar quality, or at least in some eminent degree thereof, not to be found in other living creatures….

This perpetual fear, always accompanying mankind in the ignorance of causes, as it were in the dark, must needs have for object something. And therefore when there is nothing to be seen, there is nothing to accuse either of their good or evil fortune but some power or agent invisible: in which seen perhaps it was that some of the old poets said that the gods were first created by human fear: which, spoke of the gods (that is to say, of the man gods of the Gentiles) is very true.

Hobbes then turns his attention to the monotheistic tradition in the West and makes a slight but significant change to a notable philosophic argument for God.

But the acknowledging of one God eternal, infinite, and omnipotent may more easily be derived from the desire men have to know the causes of natural bodies, and their several virtues and operations, than from the fear of what was to befall them in time to come. For he that, from any effect he sees come to pass, should reason to the next and immediate cause thereof, and from thence to the cause of that cause, and plunge himself profoundly in the pursuit of causes, shall at last come to this, that there must be (as even the heathen philosophers confessed) one First Mover; that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God: and all this without thought of their fortune, the solicitude whereof both inclines to fear and hinders them from the search of the causes of other things; and thereby gives occasion of feigning of as many gods as there be men that feign them.

Hobbes’ treatment of the First Mover argument warrants a few comments. First, it is one of the only positive statements he makes regarding Aristotle. Second, Hobbes sets the First Mover into his view of a mechanistic nature; thus, the First Mover is not seen as Being-itself – that which perpetually sustains all being – but rather the First Mover is that which simply started the machine. Hobbes then turns his attention to how these natural inclinations toward God in man unfolded into religion.

And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consists the natural seed of religion; which, by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath frown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another.

Hobbes then takes up the question of what is the purpose of a religion that is invented out of these natural seeds within man? He states there are two types of men that have cultivated these seeds of religion. The first did it according to their own invention and the second did it by God’s commandment.

But both sorts have done it with a purpose to make those men that relied on them the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former sort is a part of human politics; and teaches part of the duty which early kings require of their subjects. And the religion of the latter sort is divine politics; and contains precepts to those that have yielded themselves subjects in the kingdom of God. Of the former sort were all the founders of Commonwealths, and the law gives of the Gentiles; of the latter sort were Abraham, Moses, and our Bless Savior, by whom have been derived unto us the laws of the kingdom of God.

Though he attempts to make a distinction between invented religions and Christianity, they ultimately serve the same purpose and suffer under the same “natural seed” criticisms. Modernity must be understood by knowing how each modern philosopher relates to the other. For Hobbes and Machiavelli, Hobbes does for the citizen what Machiavelli did for the prince. After Hobbes, the next great modern philosopher is John Locke. Hobbes’ critique of religion was found too caustic by the British population; thus, Locke smooths out Hobbes’ rough critique and makes it more palatable for the general public. Christianity is accepted by the early modern philosophers, but it is almost immediately reduced into a moral myth and with political utility. It remains a respected theme until its radical rejection by Nietzsche.

In distinction, Catholicism stands as the greatest impediment to the “new” thoughts of the moderns and is immediately rejected. The character of this rejection is most important. As demonstrated in Hobbes’ “critique” of Scholasticism, Catholicism – and more particularly Scholasticism and Aquinas – are never actually philosophically addressed and refuted. The methodology of the moderns is to submit a counter philosophy and then simply mock Catholicism. A shallow and intellectually dishonest method still popular today.

In this spirit, Hobbes turns his attention to the “Church in Rome.”

Also the religion of the Church of Rome was partly for the same cause abolished in England and many other parts of Christendom, insomuch as the failing of virtue in the pastors makes faith fail in the people, and partly from bringing of the philosophy and doctrine of Aristotle into religion by the Schoolmen; from whence there arose so many contradiction and absurdities as brought the clergy into a reputation both of ignorance and of fraudulent intention, and inclined people to revolt from them, either against the will of their own princes as in France and Holland, or with their will as in England. Lastly, amongst the points by the Church of Rome declared necessary for salvation, there by so many manifestly to the advantage of the Pope so man of his spiritual subjects residing in the territories of other Christian prince that, were it not for the mutual emulation of those princes, they might without war or trouble exclude all foreign authority as easily as it has been excluded in England.

For who is there that does not see to whose benefit it conduces to have it believed that a king hath not his authority from Christ unless a bishop crown him? That a king, if he be a priest, cannot marry? That whether a prince be born in lawful marriage, or not, must be judge by authority from Rome? That subjects may be freed from their allegiance if by the court of Rome the king be judged a heretic? That a king, as Childeric of France, may be deposed by a Pope, as Pope Zachary, for no cause, and his kingdom given to one of his subjects? That the clergy, and regulars, in what country soever, shall be exempt from the jurisdiction of their Masses, and values of purgatory, with other signs of private interest enough to mortify the most lively faith, if, as i said, the civil magistrate and custom did not more sustain it than any opinion they have of the sanctity, wisdom, or probity of their teachers? So that i may attribute all the changes of religion in the world to one and the same cause, and that is unpleasing priests; and those not only amongst Catholics, but even in that Church that has presumed most of reformation.

A few things of note. As modern philosophy devalues religion, it lifts the state up to take its place. Under Hobbes, religion becomes a tool of the state by which it finds a means to keep the citizens obedient. Catholicism stands in direct conflict with this approach. First, Catholicism holds the state accountable to natural law, an extrinsic standard placed upon the state. Second, Catholicism is universal – it extends past the boundaries of the state and is thus considered “foreign” by the moderns. The Church in Rome is a foreign threat to the now great Leviathan. The idea of Catholicism as a threat to the new modern way of living will endure throughout the modern philosophers and in Locke will manifest in seeing Catholic citizens as untrustworthy members of the state due to their foreign allegiances. A critique that was heavily submitted in the history of the United State of America and arguably only waned not because America became more tolerant, but because American Catholics became less Catholic.


11. Man Finds Salvation in the Leviathan

Following his discussion on religion, Hobbes takes up what he believes to be the true account of humanity in Chapter XIII. A series of selected quotes from this section will demonstrate the foundation Hobbes lays for understanding human equality: the potential to murder one another.

For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machinations of by confederacy without others that are in the same danger with himself.

Hobbes believes he has discovered the natural foundation for equality, because if the weakest can murder the strongest then there is equality. He places this equality into his universe where nature is a perpetual state of war and all men seek power. He continues, as well, to rewrite the virtues according to his new narrative:

For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto.

Prudence, under the ancients and the Church, was the elective habit, the habit of right reasoning. The virtues were predicated upon nature as a standard of the good, but under Hobbes, nature has been rewritten and thus the virtues must be rewritten as well.

It may seem strange to some man that has not well weighed these things that nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience.

Nature has become something that has to be overcome. It is no longer a standard of the good, but a chaotic warring state that must be dominated by the Leviathan. The idea of nature as something to be vexed and conquered is a hallmark of the new modern thought. While Hobbes speaks of it in a political manner, Francis Bacon will speak of it in a scientific manner – nature as something to be tortured until she gives up her secrets. The ancients and the Church saw natural law as a standard to hold up to all men, but now nature has become something to be dominated and morality a subjective end of the state. It is the state, not nature, in which men find virtue.

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are non of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude.

It is ever more evident in the writings of Hobbes that in subjecting religion to the ends of the state and rewriting nature as a state of chaos, man finds his salvation in the Commonwealth, the Leviathan. Before society, the nature state of man is unbridled self-preservation.


12. The Beginning of Rights Language

In Chapter XIV: Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts, Hobbes articulates one of the monumental shifts in ancient to modern thought: individual rights. Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church never spoke in terms of individual rights. The standard for the state and for its citizens was natural law. What was good and what was evil was not predicated upon man’s judgment, but rather by the external standard set upon him by nature. In Hobbes’ deconstruction of nature into a realm of war and chaos, he gives the West its first true taste of rights predicated upon the individual.

And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone against everyone, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies, it follows that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endues, there can be no security to any man how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live.

The paragraph is notable within the Western intellectual tradition as the beginning of “rights language.” Hobbes is setting the stage for the Leviathan. Men, unable to live in the warring chaos of nature, will seek self-preservation by transferring their rights to the Leviathan. The state will be their salvation from each other and from the natural state of war and chaos.


  1. Aristotle: Read more on Aristotle’s view of natural law and politics with a brief note on Plato at Political Animals & The Philosopher King. []
  2. Machiavelli: For a further Catholic introduction to Machiavelli please visit 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli’s The Prince. []
  3. Thomas Hobbes Biography: More may be read on Stanford’s Philosophy Encyclopedia entry on Thomas Hobbes and other resources may be garnered from the Wikipedia article. []
  4. De Cive Quotes: All quotes from The Citizen are taken from Chapter 1: Of the State of Men Without Civil Society and have been edited in accordance with modern English spelling. []
  5. Geometry: Hobbes discusses his attempt to present his “political science” with the clarity of geometry in Chapter V. []
  6. The Passions: Where Aristotle had right reason and good habits, Hobbes has only mechanistic passions. In Chapter VI, Hobbes avers that men are externally moved, by the passions, either in aversion or in appetite. Aquinas spoke of passions as those things that acted on man and moved him toward one thing or another, but Aquinas also spoke of virtue as something that could guide the passions. Moreover, the will was that which moved men internally. Hobbes seems to only speak of passions. []