Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Potentia

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sandra Leonie Field’s recent book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by weekly responses from Alissa MacMillan, Christopher Holman, Justin Steinberg, and finally a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


We live in an age of growing dissatisfaction with the standard operations of representative democracy. The solution, according to a long radical democratic tradition, is the unmediated power of the people. Mass plebiscites and mass protest movements are celebrated as the quintessential expressions of popular power, and this power promises to transcend ordinary institutional politics. But the outcomes of mass political phenomena can be just as disappointing as the ordinary politics they sought to overcome, breeding skepticism about democratic politics in all its forms.

In my new book Potentia, I argue that the very meaning of popular power needs to be rethought.[1] The book offers a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, focusing on their concept of power as potentia, concrete power, rather than power as potestas, authorized power. Specifically, the book’s argument turns on a new interpretation of Hobbesian/Spinozist collective potentia as a capacity that is dynamically constituted in a web of actual human relations. The measure of a collectivity’s potentia will be its actual characteristic effects and outcomes over time. But this means that far from popular power being the inherently egalitarian substrate of human collective existence, on this Hobbesian/Spinozist view popular power is a difficult achievement. Collective power is not necessarily popular, for there may be hostility or hierarchy in the relations between a group’s members. Nor is collective power necessarily particularly powerful, for collective action may only have wavering or evanescent effects. Thus I propose a revisionist characterization of popular power: a political phenomenon can to be said to express popular power when it is both popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity), and also powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Where radical democrats interpret Hobbes’s ‘sleeping sovereign’ or Spinoza’s ‘multitude’ as foundational instances of unmediated popular power, I argue that for both Hobbes and Spinoza, true popular power is achieved through the slow, meticulous work of organizational design and maintenance. Between Hobbes’s commitment to repressing private power and Spinoza’s exploration of civic strengthening, I draw on early modern understandings of popular power to provide a new lens for thinking about the risks and promise of democracy.

Let me say a little more about (i) the motivating problem of the book; (ii) its core textual and conceptual claims; and (iii) its upshot, for early modern political philosophy and for democratic theory.

(i) The motivating problem

I establish my new conception of popular power against the alternatives posed by two broad radical traditions that celebrate popular power: the American public law tradition, and the European post-Marxist tradition.

First, standing as a representative of the American public law tradition, Richard Tuck’s The Sleeping Sovereign revives Hobbesian absolute democracy as a model worthy of our attention in the present.[2] He grants that Hobbes may have disliked democratic government, but Tuck focuses instead on Hobbes’s notion of democracy as a form of absolute sovereignty, with the whole populace speaking its voice through pure non-deliberative plebiscitary voting. Parliaments and congresses can carry out quotidian governance, but from time to time the ‘sleeping sovereign’ should wake up and express the will of ‘we the people’.

Second, standing as a representative of the European post-Marxist tradition, Antonio Negri’s immensely influential EmpireMultitudeCommonwealth series (with Hardt) has popularized a conception of neo-Spinozist radical insurgent democracy.[3] Negri draws on Spinoza’s notion of the ‘multitude’, as the pre- or extra-institutional collective mass of society, as the source of all political power (the ‘potentia multitudinis’). When social movements or protest movements press claims, they actualize a form of democracy more authentic than any authorized representative or institution.

Taking plebiscites and social movements as canonical instances of popular power seems to me to raise many difficulties. I worry about their popularity. Schumpeter gives a sharp characterization of what is wrong, especially with plebiscites: he argues that the people’s will is the product rather than the driver of the political process (consider the famously emotive and misleading advertising in the leadup to the Brexit referendum).[4] Popular movements commonly compete amongst themselves in the public sphere: how can a single side really justify its claim to speak for the demos?

I also worry about the power of canonical instances of popular power. How much influence do plebiscites and social movements have on the day-to-day operation of governance? Furthermore, isn’t it paradoxical to count a polity which is basically oligarchic but occasionally convulsed by popular plebiscitary decision or by mass protest as better expressing the power of the people than a well-ordered polity where the common good is served in a more systematic if more boring way?

In public life, it is common to credit plebiscites and social movements as manifesting the power of the people. When these plebiscites and movements lead to unjust, irrational, or evanescent political outcomes, people may struggle to accommodate their intuitive normative commitments to democracy with the disappointing reality. In my book, I take Schumpeter’s worries seriously, but my response is fundamentally anti-Schumpeterian. Rather than abandoning the very idea of popular power, I put forward a new and better conception.

(ii) The core textual and conceptual claims

The book proceeds by way of a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza: in particular, their respective concepts of power potentia, concrete power, rather than power potestas, authorized power. I agree with radical democrats that these early modern thinkers are relevant for thinking about popular power: but in my argument, this is not because of their support for the radical view, but because of the resources they offer to critique it.

I start by contextualizing the concept of potentia within its overwhelmingly dominant frame of reference in the early modern period: scholasticism. On the scholastic view, a thing’s power identifies its own proper nature. At least in natural entities where free will does not intervene, this nature tends to be expressed for the most part. It offers an explanation of phenomena that is simultaneously descriptive and normative: the natural world is understood as a domain of proper entities endowed with natural and proper tendencies.

In the first half of the book, Chapters 2 through 5, I discuss Hobbes. I argue that Hobbes’s understanding of potentia undergoes a striking development between his early and late works, with significant ramifications for his science of politics. Undeniably, the tumultuous political events of the period during which he was writing would have provided external impetus for shifts in his political analysis; but this book’s contribution is to trace the conceptual transformations within which the shifting political analysis finds its voice. On the early scholastic-influenced view, individual human power potentia is understood as human faculties, which are more or less equal in all adults. Individual humans can properly combine their powers together only as a formal union, because any informal association lacks a unifying principle. This neatly meshes with Hobbes’s juridical theory of state authority potestas, which receives a potentia commensurate to its potestas in virtue of the covenantal combination of individual potentiae. But on the later view, reflecting the new mechanistic science that seeks to eliminate the explanatory appeal to inherent dispositional powers, individual human potentia is understood as whatever means a person may have to pursue their ends, including the assistance or deference of other people. As such, human potentia is relational and actual, and subject to great inequalities. Furthermore, individual human powers can accumulate into relatively stable informal allegiances and social groupings, endowed with their own power, even without any formal union. These private power blocs may sometimes be appealing, but more likely they will be oligarchic and objectionable. The new conception of potentia sits uncomfortably with the juridical theory of absolute state potestas, because in the face of competition from private informal powers in the political domain, the state may not have potentia commensurate to its potestas: call this mismatch ‘the political problem’. The political problem can be solved only by looking beneath the juridical order of potestas to consider the concrete determinants of a stable collective power potentia of the populace.

In the light of Hobbes’s changing understanding of potentia, it becomes easy to see why Tuck’s preferred plebiscitary model of sleeping sovereignty only features in Hobbes’s earlier text, De Cive, and is dropped in Leviathan. First, sovereignty separate from government is likely to have very little power potentia. The real seat of power potentia is the dense circuits of allegiance and deference that structure the quotidian functioning of the society. A sovereign standing separate from this structure but occasionally rising up to issue a ruling can make only a minor impact on the everyday production of effects in society, even if its ruling is respected; but even worse, such a sovereign gravely risks encountering the political problem, as it may find that much of the society has stronger allegiance to the government. Second, the claim of plebiscitary voting to give radical expression to the popular voice is weak: for without addressing the private powers in society, a vote tends to relay those unequal background conditions.

What might solve the political problem? I characterize Hobbes’s proposal as repressive egalitarianism: the common good is achieved by trying to improve the political and moral judgement of the sovereign, and at the same time protecting the sovereign from the distorting pressure of formal and informal power blocs within society. In the face of private power, the appropriate response is to crush it, to break collective formations within the populace in favour of a fragmented equality of all subjects. Hobbes argues that governance will better promote the common good when it takes a less participatory form; he worries that democracy may undermine the common good and lead to division. But if there must be popular political participation, if there must be a democratic assembly as sovereign, then it is especially important to repress informal powers that might seek to capture the democratic process. I characterize Hobbes’s democratic repressive egalitarianism as a certain minimal expression of popular power: it is a durable institutional form that strives to eliminate unequal influence.

In the second half of the book, Chapters 6 through 9, I turn to Spinoza. Spinoza’s concept of power potentia is central to his philosophical system, yet it remains elusive and difficult to characterize. In his magnum opus, the Ethics, the power potentia of any thing is linked to its essence and virtue; in particular, for humans, potentia is linked to ethics. At the same time, potentia appears to relate to a more ordinary meaning of power as efficacy or causality. This combination of normative and descriptive elements is apparently similar to that of scholastic natural science. But applied to human affairs, the combination yields implausible results. The power of the multitude is supposed both to tend towards virtue and also to be efficacious, but surely there are cases where efficacy does not align with virtue. What of the sorry history of human oppression and injustice? Interpreters—whether radical democrats, or equally the more mainstream interpreters whom I will label ‘constitutionalists’—tend to square this circle by echoing Seneca’s dictum that tyrants never last long. They presume that unappealing political regimes will be transient, and claim that democracy is the inner truth of every successful regime.

Rather than defending the alleged rapprochement of efficacy and ethics in Spinoza’s conception of power, to the contrary I explore their divergence. In the face of the democratic complacency of standard interpretations of Spinoza, I press Spinoza’s philosophy for a response to three Hobbesian worries: first, the problem of the multitude’s inner oligarchy; second, the problem of nonideal endurance; and third, the problem of democracy’s perverse effects. Determining Spinoza’s response demands a systematic reconstruction of his concept of power. In fact, I argue that Spinoza has two clearly distinct senses of potentia. On the one hand, there is the power to produce effects (potentia operandi); on the other hand there is the power of acting (potentia agendi): the difference is between an individual producing effects in general, versus an individual producing effects that can be understood through the individual’s own nature. Individuals can have a high degree of potentia operandi despite a low degree of potentia agendi: as, for example, a state under colonial rule, or an irascible individual whose partner calms the other’s outbursts.

Building on this distinction, I offer a systematic reconstruction of Spinoza’s politics that acknowledges its deep antinomianism. An individual’s right and a state’s right are coextensive with their potentia operandi, which is their power of producing effects of whatever sort, for better or for worse. Granted, only in those cases where they act from their own proper power (potentia agendi) alone are they in control of their own right (sui juris). This consideration of being sui juris (both the state itself being sui juris, and individuals within the state being sui juris) constitutes the ethical element of Spinoza’s political philosophy, and it is undeniably important. But my analysis emphasizes that the ethical element is only one component of a larger analysis of political power.

This reconstruction of Spinoza’s politics enables me to argue that Spinoza can and must accept my three Hobbesian problems. I argue that Spinoza accepts the first Hobbesian problem, the problem of the multitude’s inner oligarchy. Potentia operandi is very similar to the late Hobbesian potentia; thus, the Spinozist multitude tends to feature Hobbesian oligarchic informal power blocs. I paint radical democratic Spinozists as neo-scholastics: for they understand the multitude’s active power as a normatively appealing disposition that tends increasingly to express itself through history. But for Spinoza, unlike the scholastics, all power is fully actualized, and a multitude has precisely the degree of power that it expresses at any given time. If a multitude is not horizontal and equal, then it lacks the power to be so. Nor even does the existence of egalitarian and inclusive social movements establish the underlying goodness of the multitude. I argue that an entity’s action is determined by its own active power alone (it is sui juris) when it maintains itself homeostatically. Thus, a multitude’s power sui juris cannot be established by appeal to behaviour shaped by its opposition to the state. A multitude sui juris must have established the forms of self-regulation to maintain itself over time, and this will mean establishing an institutional structure. The multitude sui juris amounts to a Hobbesian state that has solved the political problem: a state that has established a configuration of individual potentiae that can hold itself together over time.

Next, I argue that Spinoza accepts the second Hobbesian problem: the problem of nonideal endurance. Allegedly Spinoza shows that the only durable independent states (the only states that have solved the Hobbesian political problem) are those that have good institutions, fitting with the intuitive desiderata of a normatively appealing democracy. Radical and constitutionalist interpretations alike insist that, for Spinoza as for Seneca, tyrannies never last long: great political power presupposes a deep ethical structure to the political order. To the contrary, I argue that a state can be durable in non-democratic ways, whether due to the stabilizing pressure of external forces, or due to well-crafted internal structures of dependency: the challenge for politics is not only for a state to achieve durability and address the Hobbesian political problem, but to do so in a way that more robustly expresses popular power.

In Chapter 9, I draw together the various argumentative threads of the book to propose a neo-Spinozist criterion of popular power. First, as to power: I propose that a collectivity expresses its power to the degree it is sui juris, or in other words, to the degree it homeostatically maintains itself and produces characteristic effects. Effects that either are produced sporadically or erratically or are produced durably but only due to pressure from an external force (for instance, under the tutelage of a colonial power) attest less to the collective’s own power. Next, as to popularity: I propose that a collectivity’s power counts as popular if it effectively self-regulates itself in accord with a fundamental principle of equality and participation. A collectivity producing hierarchized dependency amongst its members counts to that extent as less popular. What regime might meet this two-part criterion of popular power? I argue that Spinoza takes very seriously the problem of democracy’s perverse effects (the third Hobbesian problem); but whereas the Hobbesian solution is repressive egalitarianism, I characterize Spinoza’s solution as civic strengthening. Hobbes views all collective organization as a force of oligarchy and therefore seeks to individualize the multitude and fragment its collectivities as much as possible. By contrast, Spinoza seeks to encourage sociable and civic collective forms, and diminish the passions that entrench problematic oligarchies. Once the use of egalitarian organizational mechanisms such as sortition breaks the perverse incentives for oligarchic consolidation, the possibility emerges for formal and informal counterpowers to be welcomed as a beneficial part of a political system’s self-regulation.

(iii) The upshot for early modern philosophy and for democratic theory

The book poses a challenge to certain commonplaces in the Hobbes literature. First, the book defends the systemic significance and philosophical appeal of Hobbes’s theory of power (potentia), in contrast to the conventional focus on his theories of rights, duties, authority (potestas), and rational action. Second, the book makes a novel contribution to the lively debate about Hobbes’s relation to democracy, in particular arguing against taking the ‘sleeping sovereign’ as the key to Hobbesian democracy. Third, the book advances a novel characterization of Hobbes’s theoretical development, centring on the gradual elimination of scholastic remnants in his conception of political power.

Beyond the Hobbes literature, the book attempts to dislodge the persistent and often reductive presentation of the relation between Hobbes and Spinoza. Spinozists tend confidently to position Hobbes as the ‘bad guy’ versus Spinoza as the ‘good guy’, or in more scholarly terms, they tend to criticize Hobbes as excessively ‘juridical’, to be saved by Spinoza’s ‘power’ approach. But in my book, I believe they are revealed to have more in common in their conception of politics than is usually granted.

Furthermore, I hope that the substantial view that I develop from Hobbesian and Spinozist resources is valuable for democratic theory. I believe that my new criterion for a political phenomenon to count as an expression of political power provides a solution to my starting puzzle, and promises a way out of disturbing oscillations between faith in and disappointment with democracy. For on the view that the book develops, a formal system of democracy may or may not express popular power; nor do plebiscites or social movements automatically do so. Rather, the degree of popular power in a system depends on its concrete production of egalitarian effects durably over time. Plebiscites and social movements are no longer conceived as definitive or privileged expressions of popular power. Rather, they are viewed as potentially valuable elements within a broader vision of democracy.

Sandra Leonie Field (Yale-NUS College)

[1]  This research was supported by Yale-NUS College (through grant number IG17-SR101).

[2]  Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2015), 121–142.

[3]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).

[4]  Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 256–328.

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Sean Fleming

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming, followed by responses from Silviya Lechner, Jerónimo Rilla and Philippe Crignon. We conclude this week with a reply by Sean Fleming. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.


I sincerely thank Silviya Lechner, Jerónimo Rilla, and Philippe Crignon for their thoughtful responses to Leviathan on a Leash, and Robin Douglass for organizing this Colloquium. For the reader’s sake, let me begin with a roadmap. The respondents focus on three different aspects of the book. Lechner focuses on the kind of theory I develop: is it primarily normative or metaphysical? Rilla focuses on my interpretation of Hobbes’s theory of the state: does it stand up to scrutiny? Crignon focuses on the implicit premises of my Hobbesian theory of state responsibility: what does it assume or presuppose, especially about international law, and how Hobbesian is it really?

Lechner: Authorization and Representation

The crux of Lechner’s critique is that I hollow out the normative content of Hobbes’s theory of the state. I put too much weight on Hobbes’s account of representation and give short shrift to his account of authorization. ‘Throughout the book’, she says, ‘the emphasis is on the metaphysics of the state (questions of identity and continuity) rather than on normative analysis’.

I do not think the book is as tilted toward metaphysics, or away from normative analysis, as Lechner suggests. Metaphysics, very broadly defined, is the focus in three chapters: Chapter 1, which compares and critiques the two dominant theories of state responsibility; Chapter 2, which reinterprets Hobbes’s idea of state personality; and Chapter 4, which develops an account of state identity. The other two main chapters are primarily normative. Chapter 3 addresses the question of when actions should be attributed to the state, while Chapter 5 addresses the question of when the costs and burdens of the state’s responsibilities should be distributed to its subjects. Authorization, not representation, is the focus in both of these chapters. The bulk of Chapter 3 is about what it means for a government to be authorized, and the central concept in Chapter 5 is ‘authorization by fiction’. Even in Chapter 4, which is the most metaphysical of them all, the metaphysics is derivative of the normative analysis. In that chapter, I use Hobbes’s idea of succession to explain how a state can persist over time despite changes in its population, territory, and government. For Hobbes, a multitude of individuals becomes one person when the members of the multitude authorize a common representative; it remains one person as long as it has a continuous series of representatives, or an unbroken chain of succession. However, as I emphasize, not just any representative can unite a multitude; only an authorized representative can. The reader first has to accept the normative account of authorization that I develop in Chapter 3 in order to accept the ‘metaphysical’ account of state identity that I develop in Chapter 4.

Here, by the way, lies the answer to one of Lechner’s questions: ‘what is the relation between authorisation and representation?’ On my view, as on Hobbes’s, authorization is the normative relation that makes representation valid or legitimate. To authorize an actor is to grant that actor the right to represent: ‘done by authority’ means ‘done by Commission, or Licence from him whose right it is’.[1] Authority thus marks the difference between representatives and misrepresentatives—between those who ‘personate’ and those who impersonate.

Although Leviathan on a Leash is more normative than Lechner suggests, there is something to her critique. She is right that the normative part of the bookis not nearly as Hobbesian as the metaphysical part. I take up Hobbes’s accounts of representation and personhood, but I jettison much of his account of authorization. As I said in my Introduction to this Colloquium, and as I argue at length in Chapter 3 of the book, Hobbes’s account of authorization has to be extensively modified to fit contemporary politics. Political authorization need not be unanimous, unlimited, or irrevocable, and the state need not have a single locus of authority—a supreme, sovereign representative. Through a critique of Hobbes, Chapter 3 develops a new account of political authorization, which begins with the thought that authorization requires an authentic expression of an agent’s will. The normative part of the book owes as much to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Bernard Williams as it does to Hobbes.

So far, I have followed Lechner in using the word ‘metaphysics’ to refer to the non-normative aspects of the theory that I develop. But I should emphasize here, as I do in the book, that one of the advantages of my theory of state responsibility over the alternatives is that it is metaphysically thin. My Hobbesian theory of state responsibility provides a way of making sense of how states can be held responsible without positing corporate wills, agents, or intentions. The familiar concepts of authorization and representation do most of the theoretical work.

Lechner also asks where, if anywhere, I diverge from David Runciman. Let me first list the three points on which I follow him: (1) the state is ‘represented by Fiction’, like a bridge or an idol[2]; (2) Hobbes’s triangular or triadic model of representation is essential for understanding the modern state; and (3) Hobbes’s account of representation can be separated from his account of authorization.[3] The third point is the one on which Lechner diverges from Runciman and I. Whereas we think the structure of Hobbes’s theory of the state can be separated from its normative content, she argues that Hobbes’s thought should be understood ‘as a system of propositions’ (emphasis in original). I agree with Lechner that Hobbes’s thought should be interpreted holistically, which is precisely why I read his political and theological accounts of representation and personhood together. But it does not follow that his concepts are inextricable from his philosophical system, or that they all stand or fall together. Ideas from one philosophical system can often be redeployed within another. The history of political thought is, in large part, the history of how political thinkers have selectively borrowed ideas from others. We can separate Hobbes’s account of representation from his account of authorization, just as he separated the idea of representation from parliamentarianism.

My interpretation of Hobbes diverges from Runciman’s in only one major way. He makes the mistake (as many others do) of trying to compress Hobbes’s usage of ‘person’ into the definition of ‘person’ as ‘representative’ at the beginning of Chapter 16 of Leviathan. As I explain in Chapter 2, this renders Runciman’s reading of Hobbes inconsistent: ‘On one hand, he maintains that all persons are representatives. On the other, he maintains that states (and other incapable entities), which are not representatives, are nevertheless persons’ (51). He reaches the right conclusion—that Hobbes’s state is a fictional character—through a faulty line of reasoning. By showing that Hobbes’s concept of personhood is actually double-sided, and that persons can be ‘representees’ as well as representatives, I resolve this crucial inconsistency in Runciman’s interpretation.

Rilla: Personhood and Agency

Rilla accepts my argument that Hobbes’s state is like a fictional character. The state has to be represented by an actor because it cannot speak or act on its own. But Rilla maintains that Hobbes’s state is nevertheless an actor or ‘agent’ in its own right. Since Rilla is not persuaded by the textual evidence to the contrary that I present in Chapter 2, I will focus here on the conceptual problems with his interpretation.

Before I respond to Rilla’s arguments, let me identify the main point on which we disagree. I argue that Hobbes’s state is not an actor because it does not have a distinct will. The will of the state is nothing more than the will of the sovereign: ‘a Common-wealth hath no Will, nor makes no Lawes, but those that are made by the Will of him, or them that have the Soveraign Power’.[4] The actor, or the source of will, is the sovereign; the state is a character, merely a passive vehicle for the sovereign’s will. Rilla replies that the state is an actor, because its will is not reducible to the sovereign’s will. What he and I disagree about is whether Hobbes’s state has a will that is distinct from that of the sovereign. The italicized part of the last sentence is crucial. I do not deny that Hobbes ascribes a will to the state (as in the passage I quote above); what I deny is that the state’s will can differ or diverge from the sovereign’s will. I say this only for the benefit of the reader, since Rilla understands my argument well. Throughout his response, he is careful not to make a straw man out of me. He develops the most thoughtful critique of my position that I have yet encountered.

Rilla’s first argument is that the state must have a distinct will, because otherwise it would be difficult to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate ways of representing the state. If the state’s will is nothing more than the will of the sovereign, then how would it be possible for the sovereign to play the role of the state well or badly? For the sovereign to represent the state appropriately is, Rilla says, for the sovereign to ‘conform to the will and action proper to the person of the state’, which is ‘different from his or her natural attitudes’. Thus, he argues, ‘a set of intentions are attached by default to the person of the state: if a sovereign grants liberties that undermine his or her authority to a subject, “it is to be understood it was not his will” (L, XXI.20, 342)’.

The state need not have a distinct will in order for there to be ‘appropriate and inappropriate ways of personating it’. By Rilla’s logic, Hobbes must also ascribe distinct wills to bridges and idols, because there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of representing them, too. The point of Hobbes’s examples of representation of incapable entities—’Children, Fooles, and Mad-men’, ‘Inanimate things, as a Church, an Hospital, a Bridge’, and ‘An Idol, or meer Figment of the brain’[5]—is that the represented entity need not have any intrinsic capacity for will, action, speech, or rationality. The same point applies to the state, which is implied by the parallel Hobbes constructs between representation of incapable entities and representation of a multitude.[6] It is Rilla who ‘fails to notice an important trait of this dramatis persona’, and of dramatis personae in general. Representation is constrained not only by the will of the represented person (since it may not have one of its own), but also by the actor’s need to play the role of the person in a plausible way. The plausibility of representation is determined externally by an audience as well as internally by the will of the represented person. Thus, the fact that the state’s role can be played well or badly does not imply that the state has a will distinct from that of the sovereign, any more than the fact that Robin Hood’s role can be played well or badly implies that Robin Hood has a will distinct from the actor who plays his role.

At this point, Rilla might fall back on the word ‘fiction’: ‘To be sure, this intentionality concerns the state as a person by fiction, and not in metaphysical terms, as a mental event of an emergent mind’. But to distinguish representation from misrepresentation of the state, it is no more necessary to posit a distinct fictional will of the state than it is to posit a real one. The argument in the previous paragraph holds even if every instance of ‘will’ is qualified by ‘fictional’.

Rilla’s next objection is interesting and formidable. As I argue in Chapter 2, Hobbes did not want the state to have a distinct will, because this would raise a seditious possibility: the subjects might object that the sovereign has misrepresented the will of the state. However, as Rilla points out, Hobbes also saw a danger on the other side: ‘If the will of the state boils down to the natural will of the sovereign, subjects may feel alienated or disaffected from this person and disavow its actions’. This is certainly true, but Hobbes’s solution to this problem was not to posit a free-standing will of the state. Instead, he uses the concept of authorization to close the gap between subjects and the sovereign. Since subjects have authorized the sovereign, they should see his actions as their own: ‘by this Institution of a Common-wealth, every particular man is Author of all the Soveraigne doth; and consequently he that complaineth of injury from his Soveraigne, complaineth of that whereof he himselfe is Author; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himselfe’.[7]

Rilla later raises a related point. My metaphysically thin interpretation of Hobbes’s state, he says, ‘leave[s] it defenceless against other personifications perceived as speaking and acting through rebellious representatives (e.g. Liberty, the Holy Ghost, idols or the People mobilised by the Parliamentarians)’. It is true that Hobbes could have countered all claims against the state with the argument that only the state is ‘real’ and that all of these other entities and ideas are fictitious or illusory. But that is not what Hobbes does—for one thing, because it would have been suicidal to dismiss God and the Holy Ghost as fictitious. Instead, he relies on authorization to establish a hierarchy of fictions. The state is the arch-fiction: the only one whose representative is authorized ‘without stint’ by all subjects.[8] The sovereign is thus authorized to keep all of the other fictions in their places. Corporations, the Church, and God can be represented only as the sovereign permits. ‘Liberty’, like all other terms, is defined by the sovereign. And since ‘the people’ and ‘the state’ are the same fictional entity, represented by the sovereign, it is conceptually impossible for the people to act in opposition to the state (see below). Hobbes did not need a metaphysically thicker theory of the state.

Rilla also objects to the distinction that I draw between true representatives (monarchs) and fictional representatives (assemblies). He points out that assemblies are natural persons according to Hobbes’s definition in Chapter 16 of Leviathan, since they are actors capable of representing themselves. Rilla is undoubtedly right about this. But here, as elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to rely solely on Hobbes’s account of personhood from Chapter 16 of Leviathan. In Chapter 22, he refers to assemblies as ‘artificiall, and fictitious’: ‘if it [i.e. an act] be a crime, the Assembly may be punished, as farre-forth as it is capable, as by dissolution, or forfeiture of their Letters, (which is to such artificiall, and fictitious Bodies, capitall,)’.[9] In The Elements of Law, again using ‘body politic’ to refer to an assembly, Hobbes says that ‘a body politic, as it is a fictitious body, so are the faculties of will thereof fictitious also’.[10] On my view, Hobbes’s state is a fictional character, whereas a Hobbesian assembly is a fictional actor.

Rilla also takes issue with my claim that what makes Hobbes’s idea of state personality novel and valuable is ‘that it decouples personhood from agency’ (65). Historically, he points out, the idea of the state as fictional person predates Hobbes. Rilla is surely right. But my claim in the offending passage is not that Hobbes’s idea of state personality is historically novel, but that it is novel in relation to contemporary conceptions of the state. As I say in the very next sentence, Hobbes’s decoupling ‘allows us to sidestep the protracted debates about the metaphysics of corporate agency and intentionality’—debates in contemporary political theory and philosophy (65). On the question of how historically novel Hobbes’s state is, I follow Quentin Skinner, as Rilla does: ‘More clearly than any previous writer on public power, Hobbes enunciates the doctrine that the legal person lying at the heart of politics is neither the persona of the people nor the official person of the sovereign, but rather the artificial person of the state’.[11] What Hobbes offers is not an entirely new theory of the state, but an especially clear and powerful articulation of a theory that contemporary political theory has misunderstood or forgotten.

Rilla concludes that Hobbes’s state is, contrary to my claim, a ‘fictional agent’. But this leaves him, and anyone else who thinks Hobbes’s state is an actor or agent, unable to make sense of Hobbes’s theatrical metaphor. If the state is the actor, then who or what is the character that the state represents?

One possibility is that the state is both the actor and the character; the state represents itself. Although Rilla maintains that Hobbes’s state is an actor, he says at the outset that he accepts my claim that Hobbes’s state is a fictional character. So he must think it is both. This is conceptually possible: the state (assuming that it is an actor) could play its own role, much as celebrities ‘play themselves’ when they make cameos in movies (e.g., Bob Barker played Bob Barker in Happy Gilmour). But what is the textual evidence that Hobbes understood the state as both actor and character? And what purpose could this self-representing fiction possibly serve in Hobbes’s political thought?

Another possibility is that the state (as actor) represents the people (as character). This could be what Rilla is suggesting here: ‘Hobbes attributes personhood and agency to the state because as long as it (and not merely the sovereign) acts, we-the-people act. Either channelled by a monarch or an assembly, it is “the action of the people” (L, XI.20, 158) that is at stake’. Rilla’s reference to ‘personhood and agency’ is odd, because it seems to affirm precisely the distinction that I insist on. More importantly, the relation between the state and the people is not merely representation, but identity. The state is the people. As Hobbes says in De cive, ‘Ordinary people and others who do not notice this point, always speak of a large number of men as the people, i.e. as the commonwealth’.[12] Hobbes makes the same point in the passage of Leviathan from which Rilla quotes above. Subjects ‘are disposed to take for the action of the people [i.e. the state], that which is a multitude of actions done by a multitude of men’.[13]

It may be that Rilla has taken the identity between the state and the people into account. Maybe this is his thought: ‘as long as [the state] acts, we-the-people act’, precisely because the state is the people. But if the state represents the people, and the people is the state, then the state represents itself. Once again, Hobbes’s state is back to being a self-representing fiction—both actor and character.

In sum, those who interpret Hobbes’s state as an actor have yet to provide a compelling answer to this crucial question: who or what is the corresponding character? Unless they can reconcile the state-as-actor interpretation with Hobbes’s theatrical metaphor—not to mention the textual evidence that I present in Chapter 2—they do not have a compelling rebuttal to my state-as-character interpretation.

Finally, Rilla argues that recognizing the state as an agent (susceptible to culpability, and subject to norms of rational consistency) would help to make sense of how Argentina has taken responsibility for the atrocities of its last military regime. I cannot adequately address this case here, so I will only offer one point of clarification. Rilla points out that, ‘[i]nstead of alleging “misattribution” due to the unauthorised character of the dictatorship, the democratic government that took office afterwards acknowledged the crimes as acts of “state terrorism”’. His assumption is that, on my account, the atrocities of the military regime are not attributable to Argentina. On the contrary, I think these atrocities are attributable to Argentina. Although the military regime was repressive and murderous, it probably met the minimal threshold for authorization—namely, acceptance as legitimate by a substantial number of subjects. As I argue in Chapter 3, ‘We must not fall into the trap of thinking that an authorized government is necessarily a “good” one’ (89). If only democratic, rights-respecting, or ‘decent’ governments count as authorized, then authoritarian states will never be responsible for anything, because the actions of repressive governments will never be attributable to the state. The state thus becomes an ‘artificial angel’. The claim that only good governments count as authorized backfires badly when it comes to state responsibility.

Crignon: Hidden Assumptions and the Law of Nations

Crignon begins by noting what is not Hobbesian about Leviathan on a Leash. He argues that my book depends on three premises or assumptions that Hobbes did not accept: ‘(1) the existence of an international forum where states acknowledge each other as persons, (2) a system of international law which introduces rules to which states are subjected and (3) human rights limitations on state sovereignty’. Crignon is right that my theory of state responsibility presupposes a system of international law—one in which the ‘law of nations’ is more strictly binding than Hobbes’s ‘law of nature’. Because Hobbes thought states were ‘Absolute, and Independent, subject to none but their own Representative’,[14] he did not think they could be bound—not to each other, nor to their own citizens. I make room for state responsibility by modifying Hobbes’s account of authorization and casting off his absolutist theory of sovereignty. However, I think Crignon is wrong about the first and third premises. My theory of state responsibility does not assume or require an international forum of recognition or human rights limitations on sovereignty.

In relation to the first premise, Crignon argues that ‘[t]he idea that there is a common arena where states can acknowledge each other as peers is implicit’ in the book. On his reading, I am committed to the claim that ‘it is possible [for a state] to be a person regardless of the authorization/representation process’. The idea that he attributes to me is called the ‘constitutive theory of recognition’ among international lawyers: external recognition constitutes the state. But in Chapter 4, I actually defend the ‘declaratory theory of recognition’, which holds that the existence of the state is independent of external recognition: ‘The corporate identity of the state is not externally constituted by the recognition of other states; it is internally constituted by the state’s representatives and by the subjects who authorize them’ (143, emphasis in original; see also 130, note 10). Earlier in that chapter, I use the cases of Poland and Ethiopia to demonstrate the ‘irrelevance of external recognition to the continuity of the state’ (130). I argue that the Polish Republic and Ethiopia continued to exist for years despite an almost-total absence of external recognition (and total annexations of their territories and populations), because these states had representatives who continued to speak and act in their names. My account of state identity is, if anything, too dismissive of the role of external recognition in constituting the state.

Crignon next argues that my understanding of state personality is more Leibnizian than Hobbesian: ‘It is Leibniz, not Hobbes, who construed the idea that a state is a person in an international society, a “persona juris gentium”’. My view is certainly Leibnizian in that I see states as persons in relation to each other, whereas Hobbes saw states as persons only in relation to their own subjects. But if Leibniz argues that the ‘personality of the state is unrelated to the authorization and representation process’, then, in this respect, my understanding of state personality is decidedly Hobbesian. There is no contradiction between my understanding of states as ‘international’ persons (which is Leibnizian) and my claim that the personality of the state is constituted ‘internally’ by authorization and representation (which is Hobbesian). The fact that states are persons in relation to each other does not imply that their personhood is constituted by external recognition. Similarly, the fact that human beings are persons in relation to each other does not imply that their personhood is constituted by external recognition (rather than by some pre-social feature of the individual). How persons relate to each other is one question; how persons are constituted is another.

My theory of state responsibility also does not assume ‘human rights limitations on state sovereignty’. It does require limitations on sovereignty, but these limitations derive from authorization rather than from human rights. Whereas Hobbes thought political authorization had to be unanimous, irrevocable, and limitless, I argue that political authorization is always partial, temporary, and conditional (69, 85–88, 90–92). Authorization is temporary for two reasons: first because authority has a short shelf-life (which is why we hold elections every few years), and second because the authors themselves (subjects) have limited lifespans. Authorization is partial because there are always dissenters who refuse to authorize the government, as well as some subjects (such as young children) who do not have the capacity to authorize anyone. Authorization is conditional because it can be withdrawn; authorizing subjects can later become dissenters. It is for these reasons that sovereignty is limited. On my account, governments that do not respect human rights often do count as authorized. We might consider these governments to be ‘unjust’, but we should be careful about condemning them as ‘illegitimate’ or ‘unauthorized’: ‘The claim that only rights-respecting governments can be authorized implies that states cannot be responsible for violations of human rights’ (89). As I said at the end of my response to Rilla, the claim that only good governments count as authorized recoils on us when it comes to state responsibility.

Crignon argues that some of my examples depend on a conception of the state is that is un-Hobbesian: ‘A Hobbesian state can wage war, but cannot be bound by a covenant’. For Hobbes, ‘there can be no genuine treaty or compact between states’. I completely agree. As I argue in Chapter 2, Hobbes’s ‘theory of sovereignty rules out the possibility that states could be held responsible’ (68). Hobbes does not think states can be obligated (in a legal sense, at least) because he does not think they are subject to any higher authority; states cannot be bound (to each other, or to their own subjects) because there is no one to bind them. This is why I jettison Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty. My conception of the state is structurally Hobbesian, since I ‘retain the structure of Hobbes’s theory of representation’ (69), but Crignon is correct it is no longer Hobbes’s conception of the state after I am done with it.

Crignon says he ‘cannot see why the state cannot be accountable for its actions or even culpable for them, in addition to owning them’. Let me restate, and hopefully clarify, the arguments that I made in Chapter 3.

The conclusion that accountability resides with the state’s representatives, rather than with the state itself, follows from my earlier argument (discussed in my response to Rilla) that the state is a fictional character. Accountability, in common parlance and by my definition, is ‘an obligation to explain or justify’ an action—an obligation to answer for it (99). Since the state cannot speak or act on its own, it is simply incapable of real accountability. The task of answering for actions that are attributed to the state falls to its representatives. Public apologies may be issued in the name of the state, but they are always issued by the representatives of the state. Accountability thus resides with them.

The conclusion that culpability resides with the state’s representatives follows from an asymmetry between intention and action. Culpability requires both a wrongful act and a corresponding intention—in the terms of criminal law, an actus reus and a mens rea. But while actions can be attributed from a representative to a representee, intentions cannot be. To take a simple example, which I use in Chapter 3, suppose that I authorize an estate agent to buy a house for me. I am indifferent about the colour of the house. But the estate agent happens to like red houses, so she buys a red house for me. Since I authorized the estate agent, her action is attributable to me, but it would be a mistake to attribute her intention to me: ‘I bought a red house’ is true even though ‘I intended to buy a red house’ is false. Here lies the asymmetry between action and intention. The actions of an authorized representative are attributable to the person whom she represents; her intentions are not.

Now consider a case of wrongful action. Suppose that the prospective buyer of my old house requests a copy of the deed and the property survey, and I send these documents to him via my estate agent. Unbeknownst to me, these documents are forgeries. My estate agent recognizes this, but she is desperate to make the sale, so she keeps quiet and sends the forged documents to the prospective buyer. My estate agent is clearly culpable: she passed forged documents, and she intended to do so. Am I culpable, too? I think not. It is true that I passed forged documents; this act of my estate agent is attributable to me, since I authorized it. But it is not true that I intended to pass forged documents. The fact that my estate agent intended to do so does not imply that I intended to do so (unless I was aware of the forgery). As in the previous example, her action is attributable to me, but her intention is not. And since intent is necessary for culpability, I am not culpable.

Now consider the state. Since the state is a fictional character, it has no intentions of its own. If the state is to be culpable, the intentions of its representatives have to be attributed to it. Suppose that a soldier intentionally kills a civilian. On my account, this act is attributable to the state, because ultra vires acts of state officials still count as acts of state. However, the intention of the soldier is not attributable to the state, because intentions are not attributable at all. Here, again, the asymmetry between action and intention presents a barrier to vicarious culpability. Those who think the intentions of state officials should be attributed to the state have to explain why the intentions of representatives are not attributable to representees in other cases, such as the ones I describe in the previous two paragraphs. If the estate agent’s intention to pass forged documents or to buy a red house is not attributable to her client, then why should the intention of the soldier be attributed to the state? Why is vicarious liability so common but vicarious culpability so rare? My answer is simple: because it is possible to act vicariously but not to intend vicariously.

Crignon argues that ‘[t]he very notion of “doing wrong” or “being unjust” entails … culpability’. I do not think so, for the reasons that I describe above. A wrongful act can be attributed to a state, but a wrongful intention, which is necessary for culpability, cannot be. ‘Ownership’ and culpability can come apart. It is worth noting here that, under international law, states can be held responsible for wrongful acts but not criminally responsible for them. The UN International Law Commission’s Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts say nothing about culpability; guilt, punishment, and criminality are conspicuously absent.[15] States have reparative obligations under international law even though they cannot be culpable under international law.

Finally, Crignon asks precisely what role authorization and representation play in my Hobbesian theory of state responsibility. The answer that he suggests is mostly right: authorization and representation determine whose actions are attributed to the state and to whom the costs and burdens of the state are distributed. But I do not agree with his suggestion that authorization and representation play only ‘a minor role in the constitution of the state’. Once again, my account of state personality is more Hobbesian (and less Leibnizian) than Crignon suggests. For me, as for Hobbes, the personality of the state is a product not of external recognition, but of political representation. 

Dr Sean Fleming (Christ’s College, University of Cambridge)

[1]  Leviathan, XVI. 244, emphasis in original. I cite Hobbes’s Leviathan according to the chapter numbers and the page numbers from the 2012 Clarendon edition, edited by Noel Malcolm.

[2]  Leviathan, XVI. 248.

[3]  See especially David Runciman, ‘Hobbes’s Theory of Representation: Anti-Democratic or Proto-Democratic?’, in Political Representation, eds. Ian Shapiro et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 15–34.

[4]  Leviathan, XXXI. 570. See also De cive, VI.19 and VI.1a. I cite De cive by the chapter and paragraph numbers.

[5]  Leviathan, XVI. 246–48.

[6]  On this point, see Arash Abizadeh, ‘Hobbes’s Conventionalist Theology, the Trinity, and God as an Artificial Person by Fiction’, The Historical Journal 60, no. 4 (2017), pp. 915–41, at 926.

[7]  Leviathan, XVIII. 270.

[8]  Leviathan, XVI. 250; see also XXII. 348.

[9]  Leviathan, XXII. 352.

[10]  The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, XXI.4. I cite The Elements by the chapter and paragraph numbers. On this passage, and on the role of fiction in Hobbes’s thought more generally, see Robin Douglass, ‘The Body Politic “is a fictitious body”: Hobbes on Imagination and Fiction’, Hobbes Studies 27, no. 2 (2014), pp. 126–47.

[11]  Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics Volume 2: Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 404, quoted on p. 9 of Leviathan on a Leash.

[12]  De cive, XII.8, emphasis in original.

[13]  Leviathan, XI. 158.

[14]  Leviathan, XXII. 348.

[15]  As I explain elsewhere, the UN International Law Commission rejected a proposal to recognize international crimes of states. Sean Fleming, ‘Moral Agents and Legal Persons: The Ethics and the Law of State Responsibility’, International Theory 9, no. 3 (2017), pp. 466–89. I also discuss state criminality in ‘Leviathan on Trial: Should States Be Held Criminally Responsible?’, International Theory (forthcoming).

Online Colloquium (4): Crignon on Leviathan on a Leash

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming, followed by responses from Silviya Lechner and Jerónimo Rilla. We now have a response from Philippe Crignon, before finishing with a reply by Sean Fleming next week. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Chapter 3 of Sean Fleming’s outstanding book deals with attribution of actions to a state. It builds on the Hobbesian theory of the personality of the state, but goes further and incorporates three significant claims that change it to a large extent. These amendments entail assertions that Hobbes rejected, rightly or wrongly; as a result, the personality of the state and the consequences that Fleming draws from it in terms of responsibility, accountability and liability eventually appear distinct—and possibly quite independent—from what Hobbes vindicated. If I understand the author correctly, these assertions are the following: (1) the existence of an international forum where states acknowledge each other as persons, (2) a system of international law which introduces rules to which states are subjected, and (3) human rights limitations on state sovereignty. Hobbes did not accept any of these ideas and he probably had good reasons for doing so, starting with consistency with his fundamental principles: authorization by citizens and representation by the sovereign are the two processes that establish the person of the state, with absolute sovereignty. The question therefore arises as to what remains of Hobbes’s theory after such essential changes. Another question is whether these corrections are well-grounded and to what extent they may shed more light on state responsibility.

The idea that there is a common arena where states can acknowledge each other as peers is implicit in Fleming’s work. Although he dismisses the agential theory of International Relations and the functional theory of International Law (chapter 1), he pays special attention to interstate relationships. As a matter of fact, it is possible, according to him, to consider a state as a person “from the outside”, without being either its sovereign or one of its citizens. This claim is not self-evident. The notion of person, unlike that of human being, is not natural: one is always a person for someone else who offers recognition and who attributes actions to her. For Hobbes, a state is a person only for its citizens and for its sovereign due to the authorization/ representation process. In their mutual relations, states are in a natural condition, “a condition of war of everyone against everyone”, which is to be interpreted as a jural vacuum rather than as an open war. As the judiciary and theatrical origins of the concept may suggest, a “person” (or the actor) performs on a stage and before an audience. Less metaphorically, a forum must be displayed, which is (in Hobbes’s view) not to be found at the international level. Admittedly, this prohibits any political or legal recognition among states. Fleming clearly disagrees with Hobbes on this specific point. For him, a state is considered a person by other states, NGOs and IGOs, and this, of course, conforms to contemporary political theory, more specifically to IR theory. But this also means that it is possible to be a person regardless of the authorization/ representation process, which is the very basis of the “person by fiction” in Hobbes’s thought. Public law personality and international law personality have distinct principles and it seems to me that Fleming shifts from one to the other with no explicit justification. It is Leibniz, not Hobbes, who construed the idea that a state is a person in an international society, a “persona juris gentium”, as he said in the Cæsarinus Fürstenerius in 1677 (Akademia Verlag, IV, 2, p. 64), which is defined by its territorial supremacy and its international political significance, and to which actions can be attributed following the law of nations. According to Leibniz, smaller states have no such international personality because they lack influence, while larger states endorse this personality insofar as they are part of an interstate system with a supranational (imperial) authority. I suspect that Fleming follows Leibniz more than Hobbes on this point. Of course, this may be unproblematic but 1) Leibniz did elaborate his conception in direct opposition to Hobbes’s (“Hobbesian empire, I think, exist neither among civilized peoples nor among barbarians, and I consider them neither possible nor desirable”[1]) and 2) this notion of personality of the state is unrelated to the authorization and representation process.

Fleming gives examples of actions attributed to states, considered as persons, at the international level, such as Russia launching an attack on a plane (74), the USA signing the Paris Climate Change Agreement or withdrawing from it (86) and Germany signing a treaty (100). These examples are not backed by the same conception of the state. A Hobbesian state can wage war, but cannot be bound by a covenant. The last two examples imply that the USA and Germany are personæ juris gentium and suggest a system of positive international law, which is avowedly un-Hobbesian. According to Hobbes, indeed, there can be no genuine treaty or compact between states and, more importantly, any external action supposedly attributed to a state is in fact owned by the sovereign. We may as well attribute such actions to the government instead. It is true that, for Hobbes, international relations are regulated by the laws of nature (i.e. morality) and that “leagues between commonwealths” (Leviathan, XXII) are possible, lawful and even profitable. But moral duties cannot be translated into legal obligations and they bind the sovereigns rather than the states. Similarly, confederacies are between “absolute Lords” (Leviathan, XXX) rather than between states. This is why Hobbes may not be that useful here.

Fleming then makes an interesting distinction between ownership on the one hand and accountability and culpability on the other hand. He claims that while states own the actions, only representative governments are accountable and may be culpable for them (99–100). Yet I wonder if such a distinction is relevant here. If a state is a person for other states, as Leibniz (not Hobbes) contended, then I cannot see why the state cannot be accountable for its actions or even culpable for them, in addition to owning them. In such a case, authorized representatives are bound to act according to the state’s accountability: compensation for war damage illustrates this clearly. In fact, accountability itself is owned by the state. As it seems, personality, ownership, accountability and culpability have not much to do with the authorization/ representation process, because they utterly depend on a system of international law that makes the states fully responsible for their actions. My opinion would therefore be that Leibnizian principles are more consistent than Hobbes’s theory with Fleming’s claim that “although ‘moral or immoral behaviour’ can be attributed to a state only in a very thin sense, the supposition that states can do good or do wrong is nevertheless a crucial one’” (105).

Norms of justice are imposed on the state’s external activities by international law and generally on all its activities—internal as well as external—by human rights. Just as states can do wrong or do good regarding their behaviour towards other states, nations or peoples, they can be just or unjust towards their own citizens depending on whether they comply with human rights or not (88). Hobbes would of course not admit that a state could be unjust because “the makers of civil laws, are not only declarers, but also makers of the justice and injustice of actions” (Leviathan, XLII). Hobbes obviously lacked a full-fledged theory of human rights, although he acknowledged some inalienable rights that allow individuals to disobey the sovereign. He made clear also that a sovereign turns into an enemy when he endangers the people’s safety (De cive, XII, 3). Hobbes would nevertheless have rejected the assumption that a state (rather than the sovereign) can be unjust on this basis. I am actually sympathetic with Fleming’s claim that “unjust states” exist, specifically when they commit crimes against humanity, because those crimes are not defined by positive law and because they are committed by authorized public officers or public institutions as such. I also agree with his idea that ministers and governments are not the only ones responsible for these actions (74, 108). Yet again, I cannot see why exactly a state cannot therefore be accountable or culpable for its own actions. If, for Hobbes, a state owns its actions but cannot be held accountable for them, it is because the sovereign representative is thought to be absolute, not because the state lacks a natural will. Now if we dismiss absolute sovereignty, as Fleming rightly does (91), it makes perfectly sense that a state, and not only its representatives, is held accountable or even guilty for its mischiefs. The very notion of “doing wrong” or “being unjust” entails that sort of culpability. France, and not only Pétain and other officials, has rightly been declared guilty for the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in a famous speech by President Jacques Chirac in 1995. France, and not the present French government, has been found guilty by an administrative court for its inaction on climate change (2021). Hence, state accountability seems to me a better ground for public compensation, regardless of successive governments (and even of successive regimes).

These issues may not be of the highest importance to Fleming’s overall line of argument, but they nevertheless question the exact function of Hobbes’s theory of authorization and representation in this updated version of state responsibility. My guess is that it plays a minor role in the constitution of the person of the state and in making it responsible and accountable, but that it is necessary both to identify when somebody’s actions must be attributed to the state (a government’s or an official’s actions are the actions of the state if and only if the government or the official is duly authorized) and to carry out the responsibility of the state (a state’s obligations determine the duties of its representative officials). I would be very grateful to Fleming if he would discuss this reading, just as I already thank him for these challenging and impressive investigations.

Professor Philippe Crignon (Université de Nantes)

[1]  Cæsarinus Fürstenerius, in Leibniz, Political Writings, trans. P. Riley (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 120.

Online Colloquium (3): Rilla on Leviathan on a Leash

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming, followed by a response from Silviya Lechner. We now have a response from Jerónimo Rilla, which will be followed by responses from Philippe Crignon and then a reply by Sean Fleming. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Sean Fleming’s Leviathan on a Leash is a worthy and lucid work of scholarship. As the author clarifies, he does not seek to find a ‘grand solution to a contemporary problem’ in Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, but to develop a ‘Hobbesian’ theory of state responsibility (79). This Hobbesian viewpoint allows Fleming to challenge already existing, but flawed, answers—the ‘agential’ and the ‘functional’ theories of state ontology and responsibility—and to embark on a more cogent alternative.[1]

In chapter 2, Fleming reconstructs an interpretation of Hobbes’ notion of the personality of the state. Its main conclusion is that ‘Hobbes’ idea of personhood [is] unique and valuable’ because ‘it decouples personhood from metaphysical conceptions of agency’. Hobbes ‘claim[s] that states are persons … But Hobbesian personhood is metaphysically thin and fairly innocuous … The word “person” is ultimately dispensable’ (67).

To prove this assertion, Fleming sets out an illuminating distinction between two acceptations of ‘person’ that coexist in Hobbes’ texts: person understood as an actor or representative, on the one side, and person understood as a character or representee, on the other (52). ‘A complete understanding of Hobbes’ theory of the state requires both senses of personhood’ (56). Then, he argues that the Hobbesian state is not a person in the former sense, as an actor or agent, but in the latter, as a ‘fictional character’ (62) that is represented by the sovereign. The reason is that ‘the state lacks the defining feature of a corporate agent: a will that is distinct from the wills of its members and representatives’ (62). This Hobbesian conception ‘lays the groundwork’ to overcome the ‘limitations’ (45) of the agential and functional theories.

Although the author presents a plausible and compelling account, ‘tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded’ (L, Epistle, 4),[2] as Hobbes would put it. In what follows, I will detail a series of points in which I take issue with Fleming’s interpretation. To my mind Hobbes endows the state with personhood precisely because he wants to confer voice and agency to it.

[1] I agree with the claim that the state is like a fictional character. Since it cannot speak and act by itself, the state needs a representative, an actor, to articulate its words and enact its actions. From this, Fleming deduces that the state also lacks will or intentionality, and, therefore, agency.

I think this reasoning fails to notice an important trait of this dramatis persona. As we learn from chapter XXX of Leviathan, the state’s personentails an ‘office’: there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of personating it.[3] Moreover, a set of intentions are attached by default to the person of the state: if a sovereign grants liberties that undermine his or her authority to a subject, ‘it is to be understood it was not his will’ (L, XXI.20, 342). And actions: a sovereign should ‘be careful in his politic person to procure the common interest’ (L, XIX.4, 288). This script of attitudes depends on a representative to be realised, but it is different from his or her natural attitudes. When sovereigns do not conform to the will and action proper to the person of the state, they behave in a non statelike fashion. As Fleming recognises later, if the sovereign provides an unconvincing portrayal, subjects ‘may cease to accept his [or her] actions as acts of state’ (77), that is, as acts of which they are the authors.

To be sure, this intentionality concerns the state as a person by fiction, and not in metaphysical terms, as a mental event of an emergent mind. Consequently, the fact that the state’s will ‘is simultaneously a natural will’ (58) when represented by an individual sovereign does not disqualify the state from the class of agents. Representing the person of the state means willing and acting as the state.

[2] Fleming rightly weighs up the risk of conceiving the state as an actor separated from the sovereign: ‘if the state had a will of its own … [it] could act independently of the sovereign or the subjects could object that the sovereign has misrepresented the will of the state’ (62). But he overlooks the other horn of the dilemma. If the will of the state boils down to the natural will of the sovereign, subjects may feel alienated or disaffected from this person and disavow its actions.

Hobbes thought this was a pressing issue, especially germane to the debate against the Parliamentarians: ‘by all together, they understand them as one person (which person the sovereign bears), then the power of all together, is the same with the soveraigns power… [This] they see well enough when the soveraignty is in an assembly of the people; but in a monarch they see it not’ (L, XVIII.18, 280).

[3] Besides, it is not evident that the ‘monarch is a true representative’ (58) as opposed to an assembly that would be a ‘fictional’ (56) one. The alleged ‘conceptual distinction’ (58) between monarchies and corporate representatives conflicts with Fleming’s subsequent argument. Since Hobbes’ assemblies are ‘actor[s]’ (58) or ‘rudimentary corporate agents’ (63), and not merely passive characters, they share with individual representatives the important feature of being agents. As such they can trulyspeak and act for the state. Stricto sensu, an assembly acts as a natural person because its ‘words and actions are considered… [its] own’ (L, XVI.1, 244).[4] That is to say, a sovereign assembly acts and speaks by itself in representation of the people.

[4] Fleming claims that ‘describing Hobbes’ state as a corporate agent… is anachronistic’ (65). Decoupling agency would be ‘what makes his idea of state personality novel and valuable’. In terms of historical accuracy, however, the assertion might be too bold. To construe the state as a person by fiction, to make it speak and act as if it were a person, is as old as the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia,[5] and it is a trend that re-emerges in the 16th century.[6] Furthermore, what personification enables is precisely the agentialisation of an abstraction such as the state.[7] Conversely, the model of the representative as principal and the state/populus as a passive character deprived of agency, such as a minor, is not novel, but mainstream in medieval legal thought.[8]

[5] The risk of having a ‘metaphysically … innocuous’ (67) state for Hobbes is to leave it defenceless against other personifications perceived as speaking and acting through rebellious representatives (e.g. Liberty, the Holy Ghost, idols or the People mobilised by the Parliamentarians).[9] Hobbes could choose simply to disabuse the public and show that these are mere ‘figments of the brain’ (L, XLV.10, 1024). But, human beings ‘are enclined to suppose, and feign unto themselves several kinds of powers invisible, and to stand in awe of their own imaginations’ (L, XI.26, 162). Hence, through personification Hobbes intends to create the most powerful of all fictions (at least super terram): a ‘reall unitie of them all in one and the same person … of whose acts … every one [is] the author’ (L, XVII.13, 260, my emphasis).

To conclude, contra Fleming I contend that the Hobbesian state is a ‘fictional agent’ (62). Hobbes attributes personhood and agency to the state because as long as it (and not merely the sovereign) acts, we-the-people act. Either channelled by a monarch or an assembly, it is ‘the action of the people’ (L, XI.20, 158) that is at stake.

In addition, some recognition of state agency would be better suited to Fleming’s ‘crucial’ ‘supposition that states can do good or do wrong’ (105) and his concern with the ‘rational consistency’ (168) of states. Take, for instance, the Argentine state’s admission of blame and the subsequent reparations (both economic and symbolic) to the victims of the last military regime (1976–1983). Instead of alleging ‘misattribution’ due to the unauthorised character of the dictatorship, the democratic government that took office afterwards acknowledged the crimes as acts of ‘state terrorism’. While Fleming considers it untenable (102, 176), a notion of state ‘culpability’ might be helpful in this regard. On the one hand, because the comprehensive disposition of state resources and agencies towards human rights violations manifested a corporate intention attributable to the person of the state. On the other, because once democracy was restored, representatives and subjects of Argentina were willing to rebuild the state’s standing (arguably, its rational and moral ‘consistency’) in the world community.

Independent of this discussion, Fleming’s Hobbesian theory of state responsibility is thorough, persuasive and well argued. His book certainly succeeds in arraigning Leviathan. Whether it remains ‘on a leash’ as a passive character is debatable.

Dr Jerónimo Rilla (University of Buenos Aires, Argentina)

[1]  Incidentally, Fleming’s undertaking fulfils the criteria regarding how to use of the history of political thought for contemporary purposes set by Adrian Blau, ‘How (Not) to Use the History of Political Thought for Contemporary Purposes’. American Journal of Political Science (2020), Early View:

[2]  L = Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. N. Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012).

[3]  To assume a persona is to simultaneously assume an office, as explained by Conal Condren, Argument and Authority in Early Modern England: The Presupposition of Oaths and Offices (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), 6.

[4]  See Laurens van Apeldoorn, ‘On the person and office of the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan’. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 28:1 (2019), 49–68, at 60.

[5]  See Quentin Skinner, From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics (Cambridge: CUP, 2018), 16.

[6]  See Thomas Maissen, Die Bedeutung der christlichen Bildsprache für die Legitimation frühneuzeitlicher Staatlichkeit, in Religions-Politik, Vol.I, eds. G. Pfleiderer and A. Heit, 75-192 (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2013), 75–192, at 90–2, 116, and 172–3.

[7]  See Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Princeton: PUP, 2012), 25, who claims: ‘Personified abstractions are probably the most obvious allegorical agents’.

[8]  See Joseph Canning, The Political Thought of Baldus de Ubaldis (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), 193.

[9]  I discuss this issue in Jerónimo Rilla, ‘Hobbes and prosopopoeia’, Intellectual History Review (2021), Online First:

Online Colloquium (2): Lechner on Leviathan on a Leash

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming. We now have a response from Silviya Lechner, which will be followed by responses from Jerónimo Rilla and Philippe Crignon, and finally a reply by Sean Fleming. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Sean Fleming’s Leviathan on a Leash offers a contemporary theory of state responsibility inspired by Hobbes’s masterpiece. This compact book is full of insights that make us think deeply and critically about the problem of whether states can be considered agents who bear obligations—hence, the metaphor of a leash signifying the bonds of obligation suspended on the neck of ‘Leviathan’, the state. Particularly salient are issues of state responsibly for debt and reparations and, more indirectly, responsibility for wrongs such as slavery or genocide that shock our moral conscience. The author suggests that responsibility can be attributed to (or ‘owned by’ in Hobbes’s language) states. The puzzle is this: although the state is not just a collection of individuals, but a person in its own right, its obligations can be distributed further to its subjects. Under what conditions can these obligations be distributed, and to what class of agents inside the state do they apply (citizens, subjects, or residents)? These problems are tackled in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 discusses the identity and continuity of the state over time (as related to options such as cession, secession, unification, absorption, or dissolution), and Chapter 5 addresses some rarely examined problems—namely, the fact that any present attribution of state responsibility may be binding on future generations. Do we now have an obligation to repay a debt incurred by a former government, as authorised by an earlier generation of subjects of our state? Is our present state identical to the state which incurred the debt, and were the state officials acting legitimately in incurring such obligations in the first place? Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the metaphysics of the state (questions of identity and continuity) rather than on normative analysis. Metaphysics here refers to the study of abstract properties and relations between objects such as identity and non-identity, existence and non-existence, and continuity and discontinuity over time. The proposed analysis of these questions constitutes a genuine contribution to the contemporary discourse on state responsibility.

With respect to Hobbes’s theory of the state, the approach adopted in Leviathan on a Leash is revisionist. The author uses Hobbes’s main texts on politics as a springboard for developing his own position on state responsibility informed by contemporary international law, exemplified by international legal discourse and international legal instruments (i.e., the UN International Law Commission), largely from a descriptive perspective (Chaps. 1 and 4). The starting premise is that states can be bearers of obligations, not however in the strict sense in which human individuals can incur (or be released from) obligations. Rather, following Hobbes, the state may be compared to a person by fiction (see Runciman 2000). For Hobbes, ‘a PERSON, is he whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed, whether Truly or by Fiction. When they are considered as his owne, then is he called a Natural Person: And when they are considered as representing the words and actions of an other, then is he a Feigned or Artificial Person’ (L XVI, 217 [80]).[1] This statement occurs in Chap. XVI of Leviathan where Hobbes talks about agency and representation in general as well as in the specific context of civil law. Fleming appeals to Chap. XLII, which is about theology and the representation of God. There Hobbes says, ‘a Person, (as I have shewn before, chapt. [16]) is he that is Represented, as often as hee is Represented’ (L XLII, 522 [268]). A central thesis of Leviathan on a Leash is that the (Hobbesian) state counts as person (by fiction) insofar as it is represented by another agent—the sovereign—who in turn has been authorised by the multitude (prospective subjects) to act on their behalf (59–60). Thus, the explanans includes relations of representation and authorisation, and the explanandum is (state) personhood.

The master concept in the book is actually representation, with authorisation playing an auxiliary role. The author suggests that the state is a type of (artificial) representee, whose representative is (an antecedently authorised) sovereign. The ground for this claim is Hobbes’s statement that since the state cannot act by itself it requires mediation by a sovereign (L XXVI, 311 [137]). This interpretation is heavily indebted to a set of arguments presented by David Runciman (2000, 2007, 2009), dating back to an exchange between Runciman and Quentin Skinner over the nature of personhood in Hobbes’s moral and political theory (Runciman 2000; Skinner 1999). Skinner (1978: 353) developed the insight that the Hobbesian state is an entity distinct from both rulers and ruled. This insight was crucial in reclaiming the concept of the state, which has become strangely neglected in post-Rawlsian political theory. And yet, Skinner’s account (1999) posits a rigid taxonomy by assigning, to each type of agent, a fixed type of identity (personhood) derived from its mode of representation. On this account, the state is a purely artificial person, presumably because it is a representee rather than a representative. Runciman changes the focus from personhood to action, which reflects more faithfully Hobbes’s philosophical project centred on action and will. Runciman (2000) takes the Hobbesian state to be a person represented by fiction. This type of person resembles ‘incapable agents’ who cannot act on their own and cannot authorise their own representation (Runciman 2009, 23). To this category belong ‘Children, Fooles and Mad-men who have no use of Reason’ (L XVI, 219 [82]) as well as inanimate things like bridges or hospitals. Key here is the idea of ‘acting in the name of another’, when the representee is incapable of authorising its own representation. This situation involves a triadic relationship between ‘authors’ (full-fledged agents), representees (incapable agents), and representatives (guardians, masters, overseers) authorised by the authors. Thus a governor who has rights over a ward may authorise a guardian (a representative) to act in the name of the ward. Analogously, a bridge owner can authorise a representative to oversee the bridge. For Hobbes, an agent can become ‘personated’ whenever it is made to ‘bear the person’ of another. The idea is not merely that the agent is represented by someone, but that it is represented as something, as a character or a role, by means of external attribution. Hobbes calls this attributed character or role, persona (L XVI, 217 [80]). Personating incapable agents allows them to act and to enjoy rights which normally would accrue only to proper agents or ‘authors’. By implication, the bridge in the illustration above becomes a persona which has certain rights (to be maintained, for example).

Fleming follows closely Runciman’s theses throughout the book, and particularly the thesis that the state is comparable to an incapable agent personated by a representative (9). But no passage explicates how exactly (if at all) their views diverge. One point of divergence seems to be that Runciman is far more sceptical about the concept of authorisation than Fleming (Runciman 2009: 17, 21, 24). Another one is that Runciman (2009) defines the Hobbesian state as ‘the people’ or the passive subjects of political authority, whereas Fleming prefers to speak of the state in the abstract language of representation (as well as identity and continuity). Even though this abstract line of argument invites no logical objections, it is open to a normative objection—namely, that it assumes away Hobbes’s theory of the state construed as normative theory.

The remarks that follow reflect my own views about the character of philosophy in general and about Hobbes’s philosophy in particular. While I share Fleming’s interest in metaphysics and in analytic philosophy as a mode of explication, I see Hobbes’s philosophy as a system of propositions. Understanding Hobbes’s statements about the state, personhood or representation cannot, to my mind, be confined to conceptual analysis (i.e. analysing Hobbes’s definitions and usages of concepts such as ‘person’ or ‘representation’). Rather, individual concepts should be interpreted in the broader context of Hobbes’s arguments, and ultimately, of his philosophical system as a whole.My thesis in a bare outline is that: (1) Hobbes advances a normative theory of the state; and that (2) in Leviathan the concept of authority and authorisation as well as the normative vehicle of covenant—rather than the abstract concept of representation—lie at the core of the theory.

It is true that Hobbes claims that the state cannot act by itself and thus requires a representative, a sovereign, to act in its name. What however does Hobbes mean by ‘state’? Fleming maintains that the state is a representee, represented vicariously, and authorised by a multitude. This may be correct depending on our background premises, but it cannot be the full answer since it is requisite to explain how (if at all) the state differs in normative terms from cognate social groupings such as families, tribes, or crowds. My reading is as follows. The Hobbesian state constitutes a political and legal authority based on the original authority of a multitude of individuals. In this original (non-political) sense, authority is a ‘right of doing any action’ (L XVI, 218 [81]). Hobbes’s emphasis is on action, but equallyon the concept of a right. Authorisation is not just an act of appointing a representative; it involves a transfer of rights or an act of bringing about a change in the normative status of oneself and others. The vehicle for effecting this normative change is covenant. For Hobbes, individuals covenant to establish a civil state, and this state—comprising a system of coercive rules or laws—constitutes a common, final, and exclusive authority over a realm. As a system of rules it assigns novel statuses and rights to the covenanting individuals turning them into citizens and subjects. But in this act, the state is itself constituted as a bearer of rights vis-à-vis its subjects. Hobbes develops this argument in Part II of Leviathan (Chapters XVIII (see L XVII, 234 [91] on rules), XXII–XXIV, XXVI, and XXX). So interpreted, the Hobbesian state does not merely transmit pre-existing rights, but creates rights where none existed before. As such it is sui generis and therefore distinct from ordinary actors or incapable agents. The state is an artificial person—it is a person because it has unity, and this kind of unity whereby the many become one can only be attained artificially, by means of civil law as opposed to a physical fusion of the many (see Oakeshott 1975, 29). The Hobbesian state then is not artificial in lieu of its mode of representation (though of course it is also that), but because its essence is civil law. Civil law for Hobbes is the product of artifice, whose most significant manifestation is the civil state.

My first question to the present colloquium is why has the author decided to bracket Hobbes’s theory of the state in normative terms (one version of which I outlined above), and to downplay the attendant normative relation of authorisation (as focused on rights)? The second question is what is the relation between authorisation and representation? In the beginning of the book the author, in the footsteps of Skinner and Runciman, seems to prioritise the relation of representation in explicating Hobbes’s state as representee, or as persona ficta, but in Chapter 5 we encounter the statement: ‘Authorization is the ultimate source of many of the state’s responsibilities’ (163; emphasis added). Can the book’s central argument—that state responsibility may permissibly be distributed to the subjects—go through without taking seriously the concept of authorisation (considering that on Hobbes’s premises the subjects authorise their own state and sovereign)?

Dr Silviya Lechner (King’s College, London)


Hobbes, Thomas (1968 [1651]) Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975) Introduction to Leviathan. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 1–79. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Skinner, Quentin (1978) The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. II (The Age of Reformation). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, Quentin (1999) The Purely Artificial Person of the State. The Journal of Political Philosophy 7 (1): 1–29.

Runciman, David (2000) What Kind of Person is Hobbes’s State? A Reply to Skinner. The Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (2): 268–278.

Runciman, David (2007) The Paradox of Political Representation. The Journal of Political Philosophy 15 (1): 93–114.

Runciman, David (2009) Hobbes’s Theory of Representation: Anti-Democratic or Proto-Democratic? In Political Representation, eds. Ian Shapiro, Susan C. Stokes, Elisabeth J. Wood, and Alexander S. Kirshner, 15–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] References to Hobbes’s Leviathan (1968 [1651]) [abbreviated as ‘L’] are cited by chapter, page number of the 1968 edition, followed by the pagination of the 1651 ‘Head’ edition’ in square brackets.

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Leviathan on a Leash

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We begin with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Silviya Lechner, Jerónimo Rilla, and Philippe Crignon, and finally a reply by Sean Fleming. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Attributions of responsibility to states are ubiquitous in contemporary politics. It is commonly said, for instance, that the United Kingdom signed a trade agreement; that Lebanon is heavily indebted; that Iran is being punished with sanctions; and that the United States owes reparations for slavery. But what does it mean to hold a state responsible, as opposed to a nation, a government, or a leader? And when should responsibilities be assigned to whole states rather than to their individual members?

Leviathan on a Leash develops answers to these questions using theoretical resources drawn from Thomas Hobbes’s political thought. The theory of state responsibility that I construct is ‘Hobbesian’ in the sense that Hobbes’s theory of personhood is its point of departure. It makes sense to hold states responsible because they are distinct persons that are capable of acting via their authorized representatives. Actions performed by these authorized representatives—waging war, signing a treaty, borrowing money—are attributable to the state, and the state as a whole is therefore responsible for them. The central claim of the book is that thinking about state responsibility in these Hobbesian terms sheds new light on the problems posed by sovereign debts, reparations, treaty obligations, and economic sanctions.

It should already be clear that Leviathan on a Leash is more a work of contemporary political theory than of history of political thought. The book does engage with debates in Hobbes scholarship about Hobbes’s ideas of authority, representation, and personhood. But the primary aim of the book is to use these ideas to rethink the contemporary political phenomenon of state responsibility. This is not meant to be a hedge: the fact that my primary concern is with present-day politics does not immunize my interpretations of Hobbes from criticism. If anything, it raises the stakes and makes it more important to get Hobbes right. Throughout the book, I try to maintain a clear demarcation between intellectual-historical analysis and philosophical argument—between my interpretation of Hobbes and the Hobbesian theory of state responsibility that I develop. My theory of state responsibility stands on my interpretation of Hobbes, but my interpretation of Hobbes stands (or falls) on its own.

Leviathan on a Leash is a work of political theory in the realist tradition. Although the theory of state responsibility that I develop is abstract and general, it is not an ‘ideal’ theory. In my view, an ideal theory of state responsibility would be nonsensical—like an ideal theory of imprisonment—because the practice of holding states responsible would have no place in an ideally (or even ‘reasonably’) just world. It is inherently tragic and lamentable. State responsibility is, if anything, even more ‘non-ideal’ than imprisonment. While it might be argued that most prisoners deserve what they get, the people who bear the burdens of sovereign debts, reparations, and sanctions have often done nothing to deserve them. Why should a whole generation of young Greeks be seriously disadvantaged simply because governments elected by past generations incurred unsustainable debts? Why should Iraqis have been made to pay for a war waged by a dictator who terrorized them? State responsibility cannot be justified according to the standards of interpersonal morality. By those standards, holding the whole state responsible for the actions of its representatives looks like a ghastly form of guilt-by-association. Yet, under certain conditions (which I delineate in the book), state responsibility is legitimate according to the standards of political ethics. The practice of holding states responsible can be ‘justified’ in the political vocabulary of authorization and representation even though it is not ‘just’ in a moral vocabulary.

To frame this colloquium, let me summarize the three arguments of the book that I believe are of most interest to Hobbes scholars. This summary would be different if it were written for one the other target audiences—political philosophers, IR scholars, or international lawyers.

Hobbes’s concept of personhood is double-sided.[1] There is an underappreciated ambivalence in Hobbes’s concept of personhood. On one side, as Hobbes says in Chapter 16 of Leviathan, ‘a Person, is the same that an Actor is, both on the stage and in common Conversation’—that is, a ‘Representer of speech and action’.[2] On the other side, as Hobbes says in Chapter 42 of Leviathan, a person is ‘he that is Represented’, or ‘that which is Represented by another’—in terms of his theatrical metaphor, a ‘character’ rather than an ‘actor’.[3] To make this more concrete, consider a lawyer-client relationship. Which is the person? By the Chapter 16 definition, the person is the lawyer. By the Chapter 42 definition, the person is the client. Hobbes’s definitions of ‘person’ in Leviathan are plainly inconsistent.

In Chapter 2 of the book, I show that this inconsistency runs throughout Hobbes’s political works, and that it affects his usage as well as his definitions. Hobbes sometimes uses ‘person’ to refer to a representative (or actor), other times to refer to a representee (or character). I therefore argue that it is a mistake to try to pin Hobbes to one definition of personhood, as much of the secondary literature has done. Understanding Hobbes’s concept of personhood requires us to recognize and embrace the ambivalence.

Hobbes’s state is a ‘character’, not an ‘actor’. Recognizing the ambivalence of Hobbes’s concept of personhood is crucial for understanding his theory of the state. In each of his major political works, Hobbes says that the state, or ‘commonwealth’, is a person.[4] But what this means depends on which side of personhood is operative.

If the first sense of personhood applies, and ‘a Person, is the same that an Actor is’, then Hobbes’s state is an actor. Many political theorists and Hobbes scholars read him this way. Philip Pettit and Deborah Baumgold, among others, describe Hobbes’s state as a ‘group agent’ or ‘corporate agent’—much like the agents that populate contemporary International Relations theory. According to this interpretation, Hobbes’s idea of state personality is a primitive ancestor of contemporary theories of corporate agency, such as Pettit’s.

I argue that Hobbes’s state is not a person in the ‘actor’ sense. As he repeatedly insists throughout Leviathan, ‘the Common-wealth is no Person, nor has capacity to doe any thing, but by the Representative’.[5] The state needs a sovereign to speak and act in its name precisely because it cannot speak or act on its own. In this way, Hobbes’s state is like the things ‘represented by Fiction’ that he describes in Chapter 16 of Leviathan. Although ‘Inanimate things, as a Church, an Hospital, a Bridge’ have no agency, they ‘may be Personated by a Rector, Master, or Overseer’. The bridge can be a ‘character’ on the social stage, complete with rights and obligations, provided that an ‘actor’ is authorized to play its role. Similarly, since the state has no more agency than a bridge does, its ‘character’ has to played by a sovereign. The sovereign is a person in the representative sense, while the state is a person only in the representee sense. In other words, the sovereign is the actor (the performer of actions), while the state is the character (the thing in the name of which actions are performed).

The upshot of this interpretation is that Hobbes’s state is not a rudimentary corporate agent after all. It is something far more interesting than that. Hobbes gives us an ingenious account of how actions, rights, and responsibilities can be attributed to non-agents—to entities that have no intrinsic capacity for will, speech, or action. Anything can be a Hobbesian person (in the character sense) as long as it has an authorized representative who speaks and acts in its name. Hobbes thus explains how the state can ‘wage war’, ‘sign treaties’, and ‘borrow money’ without the metaphysical baggage of corporate agency.[6]

Hobbes’s theory of the state is of enduring relevance for political theory. Leviathan on a Leash sorts through Hobbes’s political thought and tries to separate the parts that are still theoretically useful from the parts that are mainly of historical interest. The parts that are worth retaining, I argue, are Hobbes’s theory of representation and his idea of state personality.

Hobbes captures the complexity of political representation much better than do most of his successors. Contemporary theories of representation and popular understandings of representation tend to compress political representation into a ‘dyadic’ relationship: the people authorize representatives, and those representatives act in the name of the people. Authorization goes in one direction; representation goes in the other. For Hobbes, political representation is ‘triadic’. It is not a simple two-way relation, but a complex set of three relations: (1) between subjects and their representatives; (2) between these representatives and the state; and (3) between the state and its subjects. Subjects authorize representatives; those representatives act in the name of the state; and the state distributes the benefits and burdens of membership—peace, protection, taxation, military service—to its subjects. As David Runciman has argued before me, something like Hobbes’s ‘triangular’ model is necessary to make sense of how political representation works in present-day democracies.[7]

What is missing from the common dyadic understanding of political representation is the idea of state personality. That is the second of Hobbes’s ideas that I believe is of enduring relevance for political theory: Political representatives act not in the names of the people who authorize them, but in the name of a corporate person—the state. Our common ways of speaking and writing about the state assume as much. When a head of state signs a treaty, for example, we say that ‘the state’ signed it. If treaty obligations did not attach to the state, but instead to the government or the citizenry, then treaties would cease to be binding whenever there is a change in government or a generational turnover in the state’s citizenship. The idea of state personality is necessary to explain how obligations can persist over time and through generations.

Hobbes has much in common with proponents of the ‘fiction theory’ of corporate personhood, which holds that corporate entities are made-up. The state is a fictional character, not unlike Robin Hood, whose role has to be played by an actor. But what distinguishes Hobbes from present-day proponents of the fiction theory is that he has a well-developed theory of personhood that explains how fictional persons are made and who can legitimately make them. Authorization is the process that determines who has the right to conjure up persons, while representation is the process by which persons are conjured up: ‘A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular’.[8]

Of course, many parts of Hobbes’s theory of the state are no longer theoretically useful. In particular, I argue, his understanding of authority can be jettisoned, along with the absolutist idea of sovereignty that it implies. It is no longer plausible, if it ever was, to think of political authorization as unanimous, unlimited, or irrevocable. Hobbes’s understanding of political authority leaves little room for state responsibility. If states are ‘Absolute, and Independent, subject to none but their own Representative’,[9] then they can have, at most, only weak obligations to other states or to their own subjects. But if we lop off Hobbes’s idea of authority and retain his theory of representation, then it becomes possible to theorize state responsibility in Hobbesian terms. This is the thought that Leviathan on a Leash develops.

Dr Sean Fleming (Christ’s College, University of Cambridge)

[1]  I first made this argument in ‘The Two Faces of Personhood: Hobbes, Corporate Agency and the Personality of the State’, European Journal of Political Theory 20, no. 1 (2021), pp. 5–26, first published in October 2017.

[2]  Leviathan XVI. p. 244. I cite Hobbes’s Leviathan according to the chapter numbers and the page numbers from the 2012 Clarendon edition, edited by Noel Malcolm.

[3]  Leviathan XLII. p. 776.

[4]  Leviathan, XVII. p. 260; De cive, V.9, X.5; The Elements of Law, XX.1, XIX.8. I cite De cive and The Elements according to the chapter and paragraph numbers.

[5]  Leviathan, XXVI. p. 416; see also XXI. p. 332, XXIV. p. 388, XXXI. p. 554.

[6]  I develop this thought in an earlier article. Sean Fleming, ‘Artificial Persons and Attributed Actions: How to Interpret Action-Sentences about States’, European Journal of International Relations 23, no. 4 (2017), pp. 930–50.

[7]  David Runciman, ‘Hobbes’s Theory of Representation: Anti-Democratic or Proto-Democratic?’, in Political Representation, eds. Ian Shapiro et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 15–34.

[8]  Leviathan, XVI. p. 248.

[9]  Leviathan, XXII. p. 348.

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Silviya Lechner

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by responses from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, Chiayu Chou and Oliver Eberl. We conclude this week with a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


I wish to thank the three scholars for contributing their thoughtful comments to this colloquium.[1] Certain disagreements about how we read Hobbes’s ideas of a state of nature, law, authority, and power are palpable, but this discloses the problem of interpretation—we inevitably import our own premises in interpreting a text, which is why even well-informed interpreters tend to espouse divergent points of view. But the fact of disagreement is also important because Hobbes saw it as the most perspicuous trait of human beings. Unlike ants and bees, each of us is a distinctive individual with a position of his or her own.

Chou’s reading closely follows mine, perhaps in light of our shared interest in law, and in Hobbes and Kant as philosophers of the state, defined as a public coercive authority. She raises two questions, one about the relation between natural law and positive law in my rendition of Hobbes’s moral and legal theory, and the other about the so-called ‘sovereignty dilemma’ (a term coined by Katrin Flikschuh, 2010) which problematises the moral status of the state in the international realm. Korab-Karpowicz does not engage my argument for the state of nature in Hobbesian Internationalism but provides an alternative, realist interpretation of the problem. Central to it are the premises of individuals as power-seeking egoists, and the idea of the state of nature as a state of war. Oliver Eberl detects silences in Hobbesian Internationalism pertaining to the modern state as a vehicle of European colonialism. He suggests that a historical reading of Hobbes’s state of nature is more profitable for understanding the concept than my philosophical analysis of it.

Egoism, Power, and the Realist Idiom of a State of Nature

Let me commence with Korab-Karpowicz’s derivation of Hobbes’s state of war from the premises of power and egoism, as presented in Leviathan. The thrust of my response is that taken together these two premises do not generate determinate propositions about human conduct, and that in his masterpiece Hobbes does not use them in the suggested sequence to derive the state of nature, or the state of war. Here we must differentiate Hobbes’s conception of egoism from our present-day understanding of it. Nowadays it is common to distinguish between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. The former is a descriptive thesis holding that action is motivated by a belief that the action is in one’s self-interest (or that it promotes one’s desires or inner states such as pleasure); the latter is a prescriptive thesis stating that one ought to act in one’s self-interest. Scholars like Bernard Gert and Francis McNeilly tend to agree that Hobbes did not subscribe to psychological egoism in Leviathan although such a doctrine is detectable in The Elements and De Cive.[2] And yet, they disagree about the nature and character of Hobbes’s egoistic premises. Gert (1965, 346) claims that Hobbes provided a mechanical account of pleasure, as an internal bodily motion effected by external causes, which promotes the body’s vital motion. Because this view of pleasure excludes the component of belief, it cannot be a proper motivational category as required by psychological egoism. Gert thinks that Hobbes adheres more or less to the same doctrine of mind throughout his corpus. Against this, McNeilly (1966, 199–200) has pointed out that the account in Leviathan is different since desire is now prior to pleasure (pleasure is the ‘appearance’ attendant to an already present desire). Desire, moreover, is no longer an effect of a perception (thought) of an external object, as it was in Hobbes’s early works, but is based on ‘endeavour’, an infinitesimally small motion inside the agent’s body directed towards a thought of a possible action. For McNeilly, Hobbes’s theory of desire involves mental projection and is not mechanistic. In his turn, Gert (1967, esp. 507) usefully points out the limits of egoism, by asking whether the notion of ‘one’s own desire’ is to be contrasted with the notion of ‘the desires of someone else’ or, rather, with ‘one’s moral sense’. He also ascribes ‘tautological egoism’ to Hobbes which merely points to the fact of a self having desires while remaining explanatory inert.

Gregory Kavka (1986, 25–26, 358–368) considers the ethically relevant form of egoism and attributes to Hobbes a position termed rule egoism. It stipulates that certain acts are justified by reference to rules, and that the rules are justified as being in the agent’s interest. The rules in question are Hobbes’s laws of nature and since their justification is prudential, Kavka fleshes out the consequentialist aspects of Hobbes’s moral system. It is notable that the notion of self-interest is not a purview of realist theory (in IR) but belongs to consequentialism as a basic moral theory.

Let us now see how Hobbes’s concept of power relates to self-interest. My interlocutor suggests that when egoists are engaged in a struggle for power the outcome is a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’. The difficulty with this is that power can be pursued for egoistic (self-regarding) motives as well as for altruistic ones (McNeilly 1966, 204), so the two concepts are not logically interlinked. What is more, Hobbes changes his definition of power. In The Elements it is a relative notion (‘power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another’, E I.8.4), whereas in Leviathan it is an instrumental notion (one’s ‘present means, to obtain some future apparent Good’, L X, 150 [41]). But if power is defined instrumentally, it yields no determinate propositions about how the agents will act. To be able to say something determinate, it is not enough to know what means individuals have; we also have to know their goals or ends. Hobbes denies that human conduct is directed towards some universal end or summum bonum (L XI, 160 [47]). Rather, different people pursue completely different goals, and even the same person at different times re-evaluates his or her goals. The term subjectivism rather than egoism better describes the human condition in Hobbes’s world. On my reading, Hobbesian individuals pursue divergent ends, and they only need power as a means to these ends. It follows that the quest for power is an amplifier of a problem whose source lies elsewhere—in the fact of irreducible diversity of human ends and the plurality of human wills. The state of nature, as presented in Hobbesian Internationalism, is a state of fundamental uncertainty precisely because no common measure of things exists—it is not necessarily an arena where individuals are trapped in a deadly struggle for power.

True, in De Cive Hobbes thought that power can suppress plurality and disagreement, which resulted in his command theory of law. To this end, the ruler’s power must be ‘irresistible’. But in Leviathan the naturalistic principle of power is replaced with the normative principle of authority. Rule by law replaces rule by force. While power has no theoretical limit—it can always be subdued by an even larger power—authority (the right to rule), once granted to a ruler by the subjects, possesses finality: it counts as supreme within a given realm (the realm of the state). In Hobbesian Internationalism the key category of analysis thus is sovereign authority, not sovereign power.

Korab-Karpowicz is interested in the tradition of political realism where the premises of egoism (self-interest) and power have a purchase. But realism is not the default position for state-of-nature arguments. The state of nature, as I try to show in the book, is a much broader and philosophically complex discourse. It refers to any condition of interaction among a large number of agents (humans or states) not modulated by common authoritative standards—in this sense, the internet is a state of nature. And this is a crucial point because the state of nature need not be a state of war—there need not even be an implicit invocation of a threat of physical violence, in the form of anticipation of physical harm. But what, then, is the predicament of the state of nature? In The Elements, it is a competition fuelled by vain glory (think of the academic market of scholars seeking tenure). In Leviathan, it is above all a situation in which people are mutually frustrated. What is emblematic of this predicament is not the plight of the solitary individual (the proverbial egoist), but the obstruction of one’s felicity by the mere presence of others. This is the problem of ‘men in multitudes’ (L XV, 214 [79]). And this is also why Hobbes takes law, as an authoritative institution designed to govern human multitudes, to be the solution to the predicament.

Morality, Law, and the Relations of States

The second set of questions in this colloquium concerns the connection between the law of nature and positive law. Quoting Norberto Bobbio, Chou asks whether my analysis is not burdened by a tension between law and morality permeating Hobbes’s own argument, which begins with the law of nature, as a moral law, but ends with positive law (civil law). In the book, I did not present the problem in these terms for a number of reasons. One is that Hobbes relies on a very restrictive notion of morality to describe agent relations in the state of nature. By ‘justice’ he means only that segment of morality dealing with the keeping of promises. Another reason is that he departs from the canonical notion of natural law, construed as a set of objective moral principles that govern rational agents. Hobbes thinks that discord in the state of nature is generated by the diversity of subjective judgments. Hobbes’s laws of nature, as a result, are (under a certain description) subjective ‘precepts’ advising the individual agent to make a certain manner of action (say, an equitable manner) a future policy in similar situations. Hobbes’s ‘precepts’ resemble Kant’s ‘maxims’. But their point is to govern intersubjective relations—the precepts are not supposed to tell Alan what to do, but how to behave towards James and Sally. Hobbes’s laws of nature also take account of the element of uncertainty that characterises the state of nature, leading Hobbes to make the famous claim that until security is attained, the laws of nature bind each agent in intention only (in foro interno) but not at the level of action (in foro externo) (L XV, 215 [79]. Law for Hobbes (and Kant) does not concern the moral quality of our intentions, but the external properties of our actions. As such it does not regulate actions but interactions. Law is the mirror image of the state of nature for both Hobbes and Kant because inside both domains—the juridical and the natural—the puzzle is to explain how each individual interacts (or should interact) with other individuals, and not how the individual as a self-standing entity complies with given moral principles (e.g., the Decalogue).

Hobbes is a modern philosopher who analyses his categories ‘under a description’. So the concept of a law of nature does not have a single meaning. It has multiple meanings depending on context. For the agent (from a first-person perspective), the laws of nature are prudential devices, enabling one to survive in a hostile environment. For an observer (form an explanatory or third-person perspective), they are rules found out by reason. In terms of their moral properties, they are ‘if-then’ (hypothetical) prudential propositions. Hobbes’s theory of morality is extremely complex because it combines deontological with consequentialist aspects. Concretely, it combines a prudential theory of the laws of nature with a deontological theory of covenant.[3] So this contrast is more central to Hobbesian Internationalism than the contrast between the law of nature and positive law.

But let me register my position on the question of legal positivism. By calling the laws of nature ‘rules’ Hobbes at once points to their generality as prescriptions (holding for everyone in the state of nature) as well as to their linguistic character. The laws of nature are propositions expressed in language and since their meaning demands interpretation, it can also lead to misinterpretation. How do we know that what Ellen calls ‘just’ is the same as what Alan calls ‘just’? In the state of nature we do not. This is the problem of disagreement and the only way to resolve it is by instituting ‘right reason’, as a principle of public reason. The device of public reason appeals to the sovereign and works on the premise that sovereignty is a legal office of final authority. Law, as a source of authoritative pronouncements, reduces the uncertainty of moral systems. In this sense, there is an affinity between HLA Hart’s (1961) legal positivism in The Concept of Law and Hobbes’s scheme.

With respect to international relations, we may ask whether the international state of nature can be seen as a sphere governed by moral rules, contrary to what realists usually suppose. Chap. 6 of Hobbesian Internationalism analyses a group of scholars, termed normativists, who have made a case for a Hobbesian morality among states. Some like Murray Forsyth (1979) and David Boucher (1990) equate the laws of nature to the law of nations, drawing on Hobbes’s claim from Chap. XXX of Leviathan. Others like Richard Tuck (1989) use a moralised version of Hobbes’s right of nature (appealing to Hobbes’s concept of ‘blameless liberty’ from The Elements) to articulate a ‘thin’ international morality that gives states a right of non-aggression but no right of mutual assistance. In Chap. 7 of the book the discussion moves from international anarchy to international authority. It raises the question, can a theory of international authority be developed along Hobbesian lines? It is argued that Kant’s theory of international right corresponds closely to what would have been Hobbesian theses for an international authority. Kant employs both Hobbes’s view of the state of nature, as a realm of fundamental uncertainty (and a realm of mutual frustration) as well as Hobbes’s definition of the state, as a coercive public authority. (He adds the further idea of a properly constituted state called ‘republic’). Unlike Hobbes, Kant posits moral rights in the state of nature, and a moral obligation that urges human beings to leave the state of nature in order to establish a rightful condition or a civil state.

This obligation generates a ‘sovereignty dilemma’ for states (discussed in Chap. 7). Kant’s logic requires each individual state to leave the international state of nature and to join a super-state (state of states). But, and this is the horn of the dilemma, a sovereign state cannot undertake such an obligation because by submitting to a higher authority (a super state) it would compromise its status of sovereign entity. This status is not just legal, but moral. Anarchy, it follows, is necessary for preserving the moral autonomy—or moral sovereignty—of states. A proper international authority therefore ought to be a Kantian peaceful league of republican states located within the international anarchy: it cannot be a super state. This is the core thesis of Hobbesian internationalism. Given that a centralised, state-like system of international law does not yet exist (and ought not to exist if the state’s moral sovereignty matters), the international moral obligations of states would have to be based on covenant as opposed to law.

Barbarism, Colonialism, and the Historical Interpretation of the State of Nature

Finally, the last section of this colloquium concerns the questions of barbarism, colonialism, and Kant’s principle of cosmopolitan right in relation to Hobbes. With respect to Hobbes’s state of nature, Eberl suggests that it should be read historically, and on this basis he interprets it as a condition of barbarism, as evident from Hobbes’s reference to the Americas in his description of the state of nature in Leviathan. With respect to the state, Eberl concludes that Kant saw it as a dangerous agent of colonialism and that this should give us pause for reflection. My response has three parts to it. The first is that in the Preface to Leviathan Hobbes observes that ‘He that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but Mankind’: this is a generalising (philosophical) purpose rather than an ideographic (historical) one. In Chap. XIII of the same work he mentions the ‘savage people in many places in America’ but in the same paragraph he emphasises that the state of nature is a hypothetical condition (‘there was never such a time, nor condition …over all the world’, L XIII, 187 [63]). In De Cive he uses a hypothetical description of individuals in the state of nature as ‘sprung out of the earth, and suddenly (like mushrooms) come to full maturity’ having no prior history and social relations (DC 8.1). Hobbes’s main works on morality, law and politics, The Elements, Leviathan and De Cive, along with the rest two volumes of his trilogy, De Corpore and De Homine, are works of philosophy. Philosophy for Hobbes is a mode of reasoning that begins with clear definitions, and moves from premises to conclusions, by using terminology that is purged from ambiguity as far as possible. In analysing Hobbes’s theses about anarchy and authority developed in these works I have adhered to Hobbes’s own philosophical method.

As Korab-Karpowicz rightfully notes, anarchy is a distinct category from the notion of a primitive condition of life. Barbarism, we may add, when it refers to primitivism implies primordiality and a temporal horizon, and when it refers to backwardness it implies narratives of regress and progress. In contrast to these notions, Hobbes’s state of nature designates a condition of human interaction in the absence of a common authority, or common authoritative standards, be it linguistic, normative, or juridical. On Hobbes premises, the state of nature is a densely populated domain where individuals interact on a regular basis; it is not a domain of solitude where hardly anyone meets anyone else, as in Rousseau’s (1987 [1755]) image of primitive society. Rousseau’s theory of the state of nature contains a mixture of historical facts about the technological evolution of society and a philosophical analysis of how this society should develop in order to prevent domination and exploitation. Eberl’s interest in barbarism seems closer to Rousseau’s than to Hobbes’s views.

Colonialism was not of a central philosophical concern to Hobbes. Nonetheless, he noted that when it becomes unavoidable, due to population growth and scarcity, colonial settlement abroad should not be used as a pretext for killing or enslaving the local population (L XXX, 387 [181]). In The Metaphysic of Morals and Perpetual Peace Kant was careful to block the agenda of would-be colonial powers bent to colonise weaker peoples by pleading a right of settlement.[4] Accordingly, Kant restricts the purview of his cosmopolitan right to a set of rights allowing individuals to visit a foreign country (including a right of refuge) without granting them rights of permanent settlement. Cosmopolitan right regulates the relations between citizens of a foreign state and a corresponding recipient state. On my reading of Kant, the state as an institution is not the primary agent of colonialism, though certain states have been implicated in colonial quests as a matter of historical fact. Indeed, the problem of historical interpretation of philosophical notions that Eberl insightfully alludes to is that our philosophical theories are based on abstractions that conceal and indeed eliminate the historical complexity lurking beneath. Thus the real state as opposed to its abstract portrait is always a mixed identity, and it inevitably has a dark side (Oakeshott 1975c, Part III). This diagnosis is correct. But it is not a problem confined exclusively to the category of the state, it affects the philosophical analysis of any other category.

Finally, it can be pointed out that imperial expansion and colonialism have been propelled in an equal measure by the global expansion of the market which continues to unfold today. The concluding chapter of Hobbesian Internationalism ventured to show that if the state as a public authority were removed from the global realm, we would be left with the global market as a primary mechanism for distributing value. Because the market has the character of private authority, even when it generates efficiency and economic growth, it is likely to have detrimental repercussions for our freedoms and rights. My philosophical defence of the Hobbesian state is qualified both by the recognition of the enduring relevance of anarchy in the international sphere, and by the realisation that in its capacity of public authority that is supposed to safeguard citizens’ freedoms and rights this form of state represents a standard that will not be met by all actually existing states.

Dr Silviya Lechner (King’s College, London)


Boucher, David (1990) ‘Inter-Community and International Relations in the Political Philosophy of Hobbes’. Polity 23 (2): 207–232.

Flikschuh, Katrin (2010) ‘Kant’s Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis’. The Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 469–93.

Forsyth, Murray (1979) ‘Thomas Hobbes and the External Relations of States’. British Journal of International Studies 5 (3): 196–209.

Gert, Bernard (1965) ‘Hobbes, Mechanism, Egoism’. The Philosophical Quarterly 15 (61): 341–349.

Gert, Bernard (1967) ‘Hobbes and Psychological Egoism’. The Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (4): 503–520.

Hart, HLA (1961), The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1949 [1651]) De Cive or the Citizen, ed. Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Hobbes, Thomas (1968 [1651]) Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.

Hobbes, Thomas (1969 [1650]) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, 2nd ed., ed. Ferdinand Tönnies. London: Frank Cass.

Kant, Immanuel (1991 [1795]) Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Kant’s Political Writings, 2nd ed.,trans. H. B. Nisbet, ed.Hans Reiss, 93–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1996 [1797]) The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kavka, Gregory (1986) Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McNeilly, F. S. (1966) ‘Egoism in Hobbes’. The Philosophical Quarterly 16 (64): 193–206.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975a) Introduction to Leviathan. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 1–79. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975b) The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 80–140. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975c) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Raphael, D.D. (2004) Hobbes: Morals and Politics, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1987 [1755]) Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress, 25–81. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Tuck, Richard (1989) Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]  Leviathan is cited by chapter and page number of the 1968 MacPherson edition, the original pagination of the 1651 ‘Head’ edition is shown in square brackets. De Cive is cited by chapter and section number, and The Elements, by part, chapter, and section number.

[2]  McNeilly’s (1966) paper is a critical appraisal of Gert’s (1965) argument.

[3]  A similar argument is advanced in Oakeshott (1975a, 1975b) and Raphael (2004).

[4]  Kant (1996 [1797]), Chap. III, § 62 of ‘Public Right’, VI:352–353; Kant (1991 [1795]), ‘Third Definitive Article of Perpetual Peace’, VIII: 358–359.

Online Colloquium (4): Oliver Eberl on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by responses from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz and Chiayu Chou. We now have a response from Oliver Eberl, before finishing with a reply by Silviya Lechner next week. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


Silviya Lechner’s careful analysis of the different versions of the state of nature in Thomas Hobbes oeuvre of is a piece of impressive scholarship. She contributes a necessary correction to the dominant understanding of the Leviathan which assumes that there is one single idea of a state of nature. It is therefore highly meritorious that she differentiates three versions of the state of nature in The Elements, De Cive, and Leviathan.

Instead of discussing the proposal for a ‘Hobbesian internationalism’ outlined in the book, which represents a kind of Kantian Hobbesianism, my commentary will focus on the broader idea of the state of nature and how it is used in political philosophy. To begin with, I refer to the description of the state of nature Kant gives which is based on Hobbes’s premises. With a Kantian reading of the state of nature in mind, I would like to raise a methodological and a substantial critique of the legitimation of the state that Hobbes and other state of nature-theorists present. Hobbesian Internationalism advocates ‘analytical hermeneutics’ as a method, by understanding context as ‘philosophical framework or system’, unlike the method of ’intellectual context’ advanced by Quentin Skinner (13). While this proposed approach may be methodologically well justified and furthermore legitimated by the European philosophical tradition, I think that it misses an important point about the genealogy and history of the state and our thinking about it. To think about the state only as a philosophical framework without accounting for its history puzzles me as an approach, because it treats the emergence of the state always as a solution—and never as a problem. I would therefore call my reaction a ‘contextual historical discontent’ in the reception of traditional European theories of the state.

Kant learned from Rousseau that historically states have emerged through a struggle of violence and bondage. This is why Kant continuously argued for the democratisation of states and the transformation of absolutist monarchies into republics. For this argument, he used the state of nature as a starting point. But in his description of the international state of nature, which is a relation between states, he clearly argued that it is the current constitution of the states that is problematic. This is what he said about the European states in Perpetual Peace:

Just as we now regard with profound contempt, as barbarous, crude, and brutishly degrading to humanity, the attachment of savages to their lawless freedom, by which they would rather struggle unceasingly that subject themselves, thus preferring a mad freedom to a rational freedom, so, one would think, civilized peoples (each united into a state) must hasten to leave such a depraved condition, the sooner the better; but instead each state puts its majesty […] just in its not being subject to any external lawful coercion at all […]; and the difference between the European and the American savages consists mainly in this: that whereas many tribes of the latter have been eaten up by their enemies, the former know how to make better use of those they have defeated.[1]

In this passage Kant clearly compares American savages with European states. The ironic use of ‘savages’ for European states cannot obfuscate the fact that Kant speaks of the American peoples and that he does this in a distinctly pejorative way: They are ‘barbarous, crude, and brutishly’, they have a ‘lawless freedom’ or a ‘mad freedom’, they are in a ‘depraved condition’, and have ‘eaten up their enemies’. Native Americans, or rather the cliché of the American “savages”, serve as an example to illustrate the state of nature between European states.

It is notable that in the above argument Kant used as a logical template Hobbes’s and not Rousseau’s description of the state of nature. Politically, however, he was closer to Rousseau’s republic and his idea of a social contract. Thus, the state of nature for Kant is a state of war marked by constant insecurity rather than permanent violence. At the same time, Kant recognises the actual tendency of states towards violence and their tendency to war, colonialism and unfreedom. The question that I wish to raise in this relation is, why should we drop this critique of the state and its authority from a historical standpoint? And why should we neglect the references of Kant and Hobbes to America when describing the state of nature?

In the book, Lechner also stresses the double meaning of the state of nature: ‘It may mean either a condition where the civil state has not yet emerged (prospective meaning) or one where an existing state has collapsed, as in the case of a civil war (retrospective meaning)’ (10). In Leviathan Hobbes famously described the state of nature as a condition for humans in nature, as their living environment. This is a condition without common power. ‘In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’[2]

This passage sounds much more like a description of the life of indigenous peoples in the Americas, than as a description of a European country in civil war: Why should buildings, navigation, knowledge of the face of the earth, the idea of time and arts, or letters be lost in a civil war? Why would life be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short? And why would there be no society? Instead of explaining why a civil war is a threat to life and safety, it seems that Hobbes equates state and society with European civilization. Civil war is a threat to the civilized way of life and this threat is symbolized by the situation of native Americans. In the frontispiece to De Cive, Libertas is visualized as the “savage” liberty of indigenous people, hunting humans and living in a state that resembles the description of a state of nature in Leviathan.

When Hobbes asks where and when such a condition could be seen, he answers that ‘savage people in many places of America […] live at this day in that brutish manner’. He furthermore argues that ‘men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government use to degenerate’ in civil war.[3] I conclude from this that Hobbes and his contemporaries refer to native Americans when they describe the human past before the advent of the state. This implies that Europe and America started out at the same level: The early inhabitants of England looked very similar to the contemporary Americans, as the drawings of the early Pictes from Theodor de Bry in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia show.[4]

A fallback into the state of nature means loss of civilization—or erasing the difference between European and “savage” societies. In my view, the power of Hobbes’ state-of-nature argument is that it reveals the Eurocentric fear of a regression into a stateless society, which in turn would mean becoming “savage” again.[5] The colonial picture of the native Americans serves as a blueprint for such a fallback. This identification of the state with society and civilization leads to the problematic strain of European history and reality: to discourses of colonialism, war, and racism.

Several scholars raised these concerns before, whereby they are more or less critical of the state—ranging from more anarchist to liberal viewpoints. [6] In conclusion, I would like to argue that political philosophy needs to stay critical of the idea of the state. Kant gives one example: he describes how the ‘common power’ not only solves problems but also creates severe violence and unfreedom. The historical process of state creation and violence go hand in hand. We would neglect this fact if we think of the state only as a solution to the problem of a state of nature, a problem whose formulation reflects our colonial prejudices.    

Dr Oliver Eberl, Leibniz University Hannover

[1]  Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 326, AA 8:354. 

[2]  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B: Macpherson (London: Penguin, 1985), 185–86.

[3]  Leviathan, 187.

[4]  Thomas Harriot, Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, The Complete 1590 Theodor de Bry Edition, with a new Introduction by Paul Hulton (New York: Dover Publication, 1972). See also Ioannis D. Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy. The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[5]  I develop the idea of a transformation of the colonial prejudices against ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’ into the ‘state of nature’ in more detail in my habilitation manuscript Naturzustand und Barbarei. Begründung und Kritik des Staates im Zeichen des Kolonialismus (2016, TU Darmstadt).

[6]  Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997); J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Vol. IV: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005); Philip Manow, Politische Ursprungsphantasien. Der Lev-iathan und sein Erbe (Konstanz University Press 2010); Pat Moloney, ‘Hobbes, Savagery, and International Anarchy’, American Political Science Review 105, no. 1 (2011): 189–204; Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall, Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017); James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press 2017); Alberto Toscano, ‘“By Contraries Execute All Things”. Figures of the Savage in European Philosophy’, Radical Philosophy 2, no. 4 (2019): 9–21.

Online Colloquium (3): Chiayu Chou on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by a response from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz. We now have a response from Chiayu Chou, which will be followed by a response from Oliver Eberl, and then a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


In her erudite and detailed book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy, Silviya Lechner provides a deep and comprehensive reading of Hobbes’s political philosophy by analyzing differences between Hobbes’s earlier works and his conclusive views in Leviathan. Lechner convincingly reveals the “the middle course” (28) that Hobbes adopts between theorists who believe that state authority is based purely on moral principles and those who equate authority to de facto power. This is because, contrary to the predominant view that the Hobbesian state of nature is a lawless condition, Hobbes actually emphasizes the role of natural obligation, which compels subjects to obey the laws of nature.

Beginning with an analysis of Hobbes’s concept of authority, Lechner progresses from discussing the “anarchy” in the state of nature to the “anarchy” in international relations. In particular, this book traces how later realists have interpreted and used Hobbes’s notion of the state of nature in the realm of international relations. Based on the “middle course” normative approach, Lechner challenges both the orthodox interpretations of Hobbes’s political philosophy of the state and the realist reading of Hobbesian international political theory in two stages. First, Lechner emphasizes two moral relations that are often underappreciated or ignored in realist readings of Hobbes, namely the laws of nature and the covenant. Second, by analysing the development of Hobbes’s ideas from his earlier works, which emphasized the laws of nature, to Leviathan, which emphasized covenant relations, Lechner goes further to constitute a Hobbesian international political theory that is based on Hobbes’s notion of covenant as a relation of trust and Kant’s account of international right (chap. 7). Assuming that these observations are accurate, Lechner is defending the normativist reading of Hobbes’s accounts of international relations (125–28) by agreeing that “morality has a place in international relations thus ruling out moral scepticism” (125). This results in a reconstructed model of international relations, namely Hobbesian internationalism, which implies “a Kantian theory of international relations superimposed on the fundament of Hobbes’s political philosophy” (140). Specifically, this unusual combination[1] “begins with Hobbes’s conception of the juridical state, transforms it into an argument for an international authority animated by Kant’s principle of international right, and complements it with Hobbes’s conception of covenants of mutual trust” (141).

One general point made in this argument pertains to the nature of “moral relations,” which are claimed to govern both the domestic and international state of nature. Specifically, a difficulty of reading Hobbes lies in the “fundamental antinomy of Hobbes’s thought in the following terms: Hobbes’s inquiry begins with natural law. Therefore, natural law theorists rightly consider him as one of their own. But Hobbes ends with the solid construction of a positivistic conception of the state. Therefore legal theorists rightly appropriate him” (Bobbio 1993, 118). Expressed differently, this controversy centres on the question of “what kind of bindingness there is here” , because, as May (2013, 5) indicates, Hobbes clearly claims that “all the laws of nature bind only in foro interno in conscience, not in foro externo.” This claim has already caused much interpretive difficulty. Although such difficulties need not be elaborated here, this interpretive difficulty may facilitate clarification of my following argument. In short, on the one hand, Hobbes’s claim appears highly “positivistic,” in the sense that the laws of nature seem unable to regulate civil laws (Watkins 1965; Skinner 1964). On the other hand, Hobbes appears to genuinely endorse the normative force of the laws of nature. He even extrapolates them to the international level by equating the laws of nature with the law of nations.

To some extent, Lechner’s book can be understood as an effort to resolve the aforementioned difficulty. The elegance with which she tackles this interpretive controversy is undoubtable. However, by indicating that “the state, as an inherently coercive public authority, has no alternative” (16), Lechner cannot avoid the positivistic answer that “both covenants and the laws of nature, as normative relations in the state of nature, remains uncertain” (106).[2] If this is the case, then the extent to which this normativist understanding of international relations can replace the traditional realist reading of Hobbes warrants scrutiny. In other words, the role and status of the moral relations that are said to govern both domestic and international relations remain unclear because of a dilemma: on the one hand, if moral relations can be effective in the absence of public authority, then the state of war can be avoided, and sovereignty need not be instituted; on the other hand, if no moral relations can function without a common power, then a Hobbesian supra-Leviathan is the logical conclusion. Furthermore, if the normative status of these moral relations and its relation to authority are unclear, then the nature of Hobbesian Kantianism, which is primarily based on the Hobbesian juridical state and a trust-based covenant, may also be unclear.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, this difficulty is not so much an omission of Lechner’s book as a reflection of the so-called “sovereignty dilemma” (159, quoting Flikschuh 2010). By “sovereignty dilemma,” Flikschuh implies that “given their moral status, states ought to submit under a supra-state public authority. Given the grounds of their moral status they cannot do so, but must treat themselves and one another as juridical sovereign agents”. Thus, “states must fall back on juridical self-enforcement within the loose framework of a non-coercive league” (Flikschuh 2010, 13). The point underlying this sovereignty dilemma is the distinct moral status of the sovereign state. From a Hobbesian perspective, independent juridical states ought to establish a super-Leviathan for an impartial and public authority to adjudicate disputes; however, this could only be true if the distinct role and status of the juridical state is neglected. Kant elaborates on this insight clearly in his mature political work, The Metaphysics of Morals. Kant, similar to Hobbes, conceptualizes states as being constituted by specific “structures” that an “individual agent ought to observe in pursuing their private ends” (103). Such structures cannot simply be replaced by an international framework of global organization nor can they be reduced to parallels with any individual in the state of nature.

As Lechner insightfully indicates, Hobbes and Kant remind us of the distinct moral importance of the state, which tends to be underemphasized given the trends of globalization and private security in modern society. In some respects, we may say that Kant’s international political theory provides an answer to the question that Hobbes’s theory of the state begins to ask.

Dr Chiayu Chou (National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C))


Bobbio, Norberto (1993) Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law tradition, trans. D. Gobetti. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. 

Chiayu Chou (2013) Rethinking Hobbes and Kant. London & New York: Routledge.

Flikschuh, Katrin (2010) “Kant’s Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 18, no. 4: 469–93.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994) Leviathan, ed. E. Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett.

May, Larry (2013) Limiting Leviathan: Hobbes on Law and International Affairs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pogge, Thomas (1988) “Kant’s Theory of Justice,” Kant-Studien 79, no. 4: 20733.

Taylor, A.E. (1938) “The Ethical doctrine of Thomas Hobbes,” Philosophy 13, no. 52: 406–24.

[1]  To clarify, this combination has been noted by numerous scholars (Taylor, 1938; Pogge, 1988; Chou, 2013).

[2]  Because both normative relations are uncertain in the state of nature, covenants “can be stabilized through coercion by the civil state. The laws of nature as general rules of conduct are burdened by epistemological uncertainty which […] can be overcome by public reason that supplies a public language” (106).

Online Colloquium (2): Korab-Karpowicz on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner. We now have a response from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, which will be followed by responses from Chiayu Chou and Oliver Eberl, and finally a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


It is often observed that in the environment of globalization, nation-states are increasingly affected by decisions over which they have little control. This is a result of the growing involvement in global politics of so many non-state actors, especially multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations.[1] If we understand freedom not merely in the Hobbesian sense as the ‘absence of restraint’, but rather in the Lockean terms as our ‘power to act or forbear acting’, [2] according to one’s choice, then it is right to say that once states are exposed to global forces, the crucial form of their freedom is being threatened, because those forces ‘affect the choices, life styles, and opportunities of those living inside their borders’ (169).[3] Can we then agree with Silviya Lechner, that Hobbes should be interpreted as ‘a theorist of freedom and rights’ (181), and particularly as a defender of the sovereign state against the supranational forces of globalization?

Let me examine some aspects of Hobbes’ political philosophy by following Lechner’s insights. As she claims, its fundamental categories are anarchy (state of nature) and authority (the state). The state of nature does not merely mean for Hobbes a primitive condition of life. Rather, it is the situation of anarchy, understood etymologically as absence of government. This may refer to either pre-political times, in which the state has not yet been established, or to a situation when, due to civil war or other domestic turmoil, a government loses its effective control over its citizens.[4] Further, the state of nature, in which human beings live when a public authority is absent, is seen by him as a state of war—and ‘such a war as is of every man against every man’.[5] He derives his notion of the state of war from his views of both human nature (egoistic) and the condition in which individuals exist (anarchy). The core of his argument is that the egoistic passions by which human beings are driven and an environment of anarchy in which they are placed both diminish the possibility of their cooperation and hence lead to their endless conflict.

This Hobbesian view of human beings has both domestic and international implications. In the view of classical political philosophy, which has its origin in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, human beings are naturally social. They can be egoistic, but they can also develop virtues and thus control their egoism by reason and hence can work for the benefit of others, even at the expense of their own benefit. The ability to rationally deliberate about what is beneficial and what is harmful, about what is just and what is unjust, is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Therefore, for classical political thinkers, human beings are both rational and moral agents, naturally capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and of making moral choices. With great skill and considerable force Hobbes attacks this classical view.[6] He denies that human beings have a natural desire for society. He claims that when they associate, it is solely for the sake of some mutual advantage. He also denies that there is any morality in the state of nature. The notions of justice or injustice have no application here.[7] His human beings, extremely individualistic rather than moral or social, are subject to ‘a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death’.[8] They struggle for power.

There are several implications that can be derived from these assumptions. First, since human beings are egoistic and antisocial, and cannot be improved by cultivating virtues and thus live peacefully with each other, they can be brought to peace only by coercion. For both Plato and Aristotle, politics is not about power or domination; it is rather about human flourishing or self-realization, which is expressed in the Aristotelian notion of a good life. But for Hobbes and his modern followers, politics is reduced to keeping, demonstrating or increasing power, and to applying different socio-techniques to be able to rule human egoists efficiently. The state that emerges as a result of his social contract, is, as Lechner rightly observes, ‘a system of coercive rules, laws’ (29), by which moral rules are also dictated. It is not the classical ideal of a political community aiming at a good life, an arena where the good of every person is discerned, developed and instantiated by the art of prudent ruling. The Hobbesian state, pictured as the awesome figure of the monstrous Leviathan, is all powerful. Absolute and unified sovereignty is for him the only practical alternative to dangerous anarchy.

As a result of such a conception of the state, citizens’ traditional class distinctions, and their ancient dignities, liberties, and privileges are removed. They all become equalized and their liberty lies only in those things that the sovereign has not forbidden. What Hobbes considered indispensable to sovereign power can be summed up as complete control over militia, money, and mind. It is, in particular, the control over mind—i.e., education—that is crucial for him. ‘Common people’s minds … are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by public authority shall be imprinted in them’.[9] They can therefore easily be subjected to the Hobbesian program of indoctrination. Since the teaching of sound political doctrine is essential for the preservation of peace, the sovereign decides what should be taught at schools and universities. The classics and all forms of traditional theology must be abandoned as potential sources of intellectual ferment and sedition.[10] The key is to ensure that people are instructed in ‘their duty to the sovereign power’.[11] Moreover, the sovereign has the right of censorship and it is his task to examine all books before publication. He also presides over the church and resolves all controversies in religion, controlling thus not only the words and deeds of his subjects, but also their consciences.[12]

While Hobbes is primarily concerned with the relations between individuals and the state, he has nonetheless made a substantial impact on the study of international relations. International politics, like all politics, is for him rooted in his concept of egoistic and power-seeking human nature. Once states are established, individual drive for power becomes the basis for the states’ behaviour, which manifests itself in their efforts to dominate other states and peoples. States, ‘for their own security’, writes Hobbes, ‘enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger and fear of invasion or assistance that may be given to invaders, [and] endeavour as much as they can, to subdue and weaken their neighbours’.[13] Accordingly, as it would be later for the realist Hans Morgenthau, who was deeply influenced by Hobbes and adopted a similar view of human nature, the quest and struggle for power lie at the core of the Hobbesian vision of relations among states. Further, as it would be later for the neo-realist Kenneth Waltz, international anarchy (the very fact that sovereign states are not subject to any common sovereign) is for Hobbes the defining element of international relations. In such an anarchic environment, in which other states might use force at any time, each state is responsible for its own survival and must be prepared to defend itself. 

By subjecting themselves to a sovereign, individuals escape the war of all against all which Hobbes associates with the state of nature; however, this war continues to dominate relations among states. This does not mean that states are always fighting, but rather that they have a disposition to fight.[14] The achievement of domestic security through creating a state is then paralleled by a condition of inter-state insecurity. One can argue that if Hobbes were fully consistent, he would agree with the notion that, to escape this condition, states should also enter into a contract and submit themselves to a world sovereign. Although the idea of a world state would find support among some realists, this was not a position taken by Hobbes himself. He does not propose that a social contract between nations be implemented to bring international anarchy to an end. This is because, as Hedley Bull later observed, the condition of insecurity in which states are placed does not necessarily lead to insecurity for individuals. As long as an armed conflict or other type of hostility between states does not actually break out, those living inside their borders, can feel relatively secure. In other words, although states may regard each other with suspicion and be ready for war, the lives of the people who live in them are not necessarily ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.[15]

The denial of the existence of universal moral principles in the relations among states brings Hobbes close to the Machiavellians and the followers of the doctrine of raison d’état. Since for him law is the command of the government,[16] states—all of which are sovereign and have no super-sovereign above them—are not subject to supranational legal or moral rules, except those to which they give consent and regard as their own. Further, they all have a basic natural right to do whatever they believe is necessary to preserve themselves. The right to self-preservation is possessed by sovereign states in just the same way as by individuals in the state of nature. Indeed, ‘every sovereign hath the same right, in procuring the safety of his people, that any particular man can have, in procuring the safety of his own body’.[17] In Hobbes one can thus find a powerful argument in the defence of the sovereign state against the supranational forces of globalization. However, what separates Hobbes from Machiavellian realpolitik and associates him more with classical realism is his insistence on the defensive character of foreign policy. We do not find in the Leviathan any glorification of war. As he repeatedly reminds us, his overriding concern is that both domestic and international peace be secured. Moreover, his political theory does not put forward the invitation to do whatever may be advantageous for the state. His normative approach to international relations is prudential and pacific and this, as Silviya Lechner rightly notes, may link him to the international ideas of Immanuel Kant. Sovereign states, like individuals, should be disposed towards peace, which is commended by reason.

Professor W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz (Opole University)

[1]  W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, ‘The United Citizens Organization: Public-Private Partnerships in Global Governance’, Research in Globalization 2 (2020):

[2]  John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in focus, ed. Gary Fuller, Robert Stecker and John P. Wright (London: Routledge, 2000), 2.23.

[3]  In-text references to Silviya Lechner, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

[4]  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), XIII.11.

[5]  Leviathan, XII.8.

[6]  See W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, ‘Hobbes: The Beginning of Modernity’, in his On the History of Political Philosophy: Great Political Thinkers from Thucydides to Locke (New York: Routledge, 2016), 158–83.

[7]  Leviathan, XIII.13.

[8]  Leviathan, XI.2.

[9]  Leviathan, XXX.6.

[10]  Leviathan, XXIX.14.

[11]  Leviathan, XXIII.6.

[12]  Leviathan, XLII.80.

[13]  Leviathan, XIX.4.

[14]  Leviathan, XIII.8.

[15]  Leviathan, XIII.9.

[16]  Leviathan, XV.41

[17]  Leviathan, XXX.30.