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Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: A Summary

Thomas Hobbes with the Leviathan writes one of the most organic texts of statist absolutism. Together with his other text, ‘Behemoth’, Leviathan effectively sums up Hobbes’ political thought. In Leviathan credit is given to the modern state as an absolutist state that puts a stop to the ‘natural state’ of the “bellum omnium contra omnes”. Admirable for sobriety and clarity, he argues in a stringent way, avoiding above all the spiritualistic hypotheses at the basis of the constitution of a state, understood as an entity distinct from natural society and from civil society itself. While using natural law to explain the moment of the formation of the State as a separate entity, based on the theory of the mutual contract between men, Hobbes then breaks down any optimistic conception coming from this contract (present instead in Althusius, Grotius) proclaiming instead the absolute independence of State thus constituted in relation to the single individual and civil society. There is no middle ground: the state, once formed, cannot be criticized and its authority cannot be questioned, not even by those who founded it with the initial contract. If it were to happen, there would be a civil war with consequent destruction of the existing state to go towards the formation of another state, that is, to another absolute authority. Hobbes obviously has in mind, when he expresses these concepts, the English revolution of 1640-60. And the very fact that it developed popular movements of sedition without later constituting itself in a new state led him to condemn this revolution as purely negative, only subverting the existing order. The Hobbesian conception of the state is therefore decidedly materialistic. In it there is no place for the religious entity, indeed, religion is seen as “… inexhaustible variety of fantasy … this fear of invisible things … natural seed of what everyone calls to himself, religion … “. God cannot be known, any attempt to trace the concept of just and unjust back to him is useless. On the other hand, for Hobbes, just and unjust have a meaning closely linked to the opinion of men. With this Hobbes “humanizes” the State which thus places itself far from both individualistic and religious conceptions and interferences.

It should be noted that Hobbes defines the state as absolutist and utilitarian, aimed at a specific purpose, namely the repression of the struggle of all against all, preventing the collapse of civil society and this happens even if it materializes in forms other than the monarchy. It is true that he considers this form of government the best but it makes no difference whether the other two forms of government are chosen, namely the democratic one (in this case it is the Assembly that is sovereign and unquestionable) and the aristocratic form. These latter concepts are important because, alongside Hobbesian materialism, they allow us to recover Hobbes’ thought in a current perspective, beyond his time. Such recoveries were, for example, attempted in Italy by some ex-workerist currents then merged into the PCI in the mid-1970s, to justify the so-called “autonomy of the politician”. Moreover, it is not by chance that even today it is often cited, together with the aspect of the ‘primacy of politics’, as one of the most complex problems of our times.


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