Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of England’s greatest political thinkers. Leviathan, published in 1651, was Hobbes’ most important work, a book that explains in detail the steps to move from the nightmarish situation of the state of nature to a secure society in which life is bearable. Leviathan was the gigantic sea monster described in the Bible. For Hobbes, it was a reference to the great power of the state.
Hobbes’ Leviathan opens with a picture of a giant towering over a hillside, holding a sword and sceptre. The giant is made up of lots of smaller people, who are recognizable still as individuals. The giant represents the powerful state sovereign as its head. Without a sovereign, Hobbes believed, everything would fall apart and society would decompose into separate people ready to tear each other into pieces in order to survive.
Critics of Hobbes say he went too far in allowing the sovereign, whether it was a king or queen or parliament, to have such power over the individual in society. The state he describes is actually an authoritarian one — one in which the sovereign has almost unlimited power over citizens. Peace may be desirable, and fear of violent death a strong incentive to submit to a sovereign, but putting so much power in the hands of an individual or group can be dangerous.
A Little History of Philosophy