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Understanding Thomas Hobbes



Thomas Hobbes pencil drawing

Thomas Hobbes' 17th century book Leviathan has been called "the greatest single work of political thought in the English language” (John Rawls). 

But it is not the most accessible work. Beginning philosophy students continue to struggle with Hobbes' long sentences, old-English words and difficult prose style.

This study guide to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan solves these problems by organizing each chapter into short sections while using contemporary examples and modern English to explain the more difficult arguments and ideas.


There are Hobbes Leviathan chapter summaries at the beginning of each chapter and there are Hobbes Leviathan discussion questions at the end of each chapter.


The result is an understandable philosophy study guide to Leviathan that occupies a comfortable niche between SparkNotes Leviathan  summaries and  heavy scholarly works such as the Cambridge Companion to Hobbes Leviathan.

The author of this Thomas Hobbes study guide (Laurence Houlgate) also provides two chapters showing how Hobbes answers the central questions of political philosophy, and compares Hobbes' answers to those of other famous philosophers (for example, Plato and John Locke).


In a concluding chapter, Professor Houlgate makes Hobbes relevant to contemporary political disputes by imagining a discussion between Hobbes, John Locke and James Madison about the justification of the impeachment clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Each chapter ends with discussion questions. Students can use them to ask thoughtful questions during class meetings, helping students  with exam preparation and providing them with ideas for successful term papers.

This philosophy  study guide is much more than a  Hobbes Leviathan summary, a set of Hobbes Leviathan notes or a set of Leviathan flashcards.    It is a presentation of Hobbes' Leviathan for those smart students who want to understand how to read, think critically, and write about the classics of philosophy. 


Here is a sample of how Hobbes uses reason to prove that the sovereign of the ideal commonwealth “cannot do an injury to any subject.” 

The argument is relatively simple, although it requires an introduction.  Hobbes claims that civil society was formed by those living in the chaos and misery of a pre-political state of nature.  They want a way out and the only way they can guarantee that this will give them order and happiness is by entering a covenant (contract) with one another, authorizing a single person or small assembly of persons to do whatever is necessary to keep them all ‘in awe’ (a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and even terror).  This person or representative has “the right of bearing the person of them all” because  this right was made  “by covenant only of one to another and not of him to any of them.” 

The Hobbesian sovereign of the new civil society has absolute legislative, executive and judicial power.  Whatever laws the sovereign makes are laws that the subjects of the sovereign own by having authorized by mutual covenant all words and actions of the sovereign representative.  Hence, “every particular man is author of all that the sovereign does.”

It follows that the sovereign cannot do any act that is injurious to any subject of the commonwealth.  “He that does anything by authority from another does therein no injury to him by whose authority he acts.”   If the sovereign orders all blue-eyed people to leave the country, he does no injury to the blue-eyed people because they have authorized the sovereign to do this and no one can intentionally injure themselves.

But is the argument valid?  We can answer this in the same way we answered Plato.  It is valid if we can find a way to express the argument in one of the valid forms.  And here it is: modus ponens, once again:


1. If any person A is authorized by B to do an act that affects or concerns an interest of B,  then A does no injury to B.

2. Every act of the sovereign has been authorized by his subjects.

3. Therefore, no act of the sovereign can do injury to their subjects.


Of course, we will want to challenge Hobbes on the truth of the first premise.  If I authorize my doctor to surgically remove a cyst from my colon and she accidentally punctures the colon during the surgery, I will regard the puncture as an injury.   She and I might dispute the extent of her liability for the puncture, but this does not alter the fact that she injured me.   

[Get your copy today.  Click on the book cover image above]

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