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 a response 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.

New piece on Hobbes and prosopopoeia

Rilla, Jerónimo (2021): Hobbes and prosopopoeia, in: Intellectual History Review,

With this paper, we intend to contribute to the debate concerning Hobbes’ conception of the person of the State. To be more precise, we shall argue that the philosopher’s notion of the State draws influence from what classic rhetoricians called prosopopoeia. Although this similarity has been identified by some contemporary interpreters, its chief characteristics remain underexplored. This viewpoint will allow us, on the one hand, to delve into the creative role of Hobbesian representatives in the process of actively conforming the person of the State; on the other, it will enable a novel understanding of the enemies of the State as personifications or allegories conjured up by rebellious agents.

New article: A Hobbesian approach to collective action

Evrigenis, Ioannis D. (2021): In praise of dystopias: a Hobbesian approach to collective action, in: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy,

Long before Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion Theory, Thomas Hobbes’s account of self-interest and risk assessment formed the basis of a powerful argument for the benefits of negative appeals. Dismissing the pursuit of highest and final goods as inherently incapable of yielding collective action, Hobbes proposed a method focusing instead on the highest evil, something that individuals with different goals could agree on as a barrier to their respective pursuits. In his own theory, that evil was violent death in the dystopian setting of his notorious state of nature. The staying power of Hobbes’s memorable image itself validates Hobbes’s rationale and offers important reminders regarding the limits of utopian appeals to collective action.

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.

New book contrasting Hobbes with Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx

James, David (2021): Practical Necessity, Freedom, and History. From Hobbes to Marx, OUP

By means of careful analysis of relevant writings by Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Marx, David James argues that the concept of practical necessity is key to understanding the nature and extent of human freedom. Practical necessity means being, or believing oneself to be, constrained to perform certain actions in the absence (whether real or imagined) of other, more attractive options, or by the high costs involved in pursuing other options. Agents become subject to practical necessity as a result of economic, social, and historical forces over which they have, or appear to have, no effective control, and the extent to which they are subject to it varies according to the amount of economic and social power that one agent possesses relative to other agents. The concept of practical necessity is also shown to take into account how the beliefs and attitudes of social agents are in large part determined by social and historical processes in which they are caught up, and that the type of motivation that we attribute to agents must recognize this. Practical Necessity, Freedom, and History: From Hobbes to Marx shows how Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Marx, in contrast to Hobbes, explain the emergence of the conditions of a free society in terms of a historical process that is initially governed by practical necessity. The role that this form of necessity plays in explaining history necessity invites the following question: to what extent are historical agents genuinely subject to both practical and historical necessity?

New Article asking: How natural is Hobbes’s Natural Person?

Rilla, Jeronimo (2020): How natural is Hobbes’s Natural Person?, in: History of Political Thought, Vol. 41, No. 4, 559-585

This paper deals with Hobbes’s category of ‘natural person’. Although this notion could be interpreted in purely natural terms, namely as referring to the human body and its specific accidents (sensation, passions, speech and reason), it will become clear that its main trait is artificiality. To be more precise, we will show that a natural person is analogous to an actor performing on a stage. Since elaborating a character that acts in accordance with the expectations of an audience involves several tools of artifice, the title of the paper acquires greater significance and calls for a recasting: is Hobbes’s natural person natural at all? With the purpose of giving a definite answer we will demonstrate that its genuinely natural feature is the human body, understood not as a physio-biological object, but as the ultimate responsibility locus of the person’s performance. In other words, natural persons are natural insomuch as their bodies may be held accountable for their misdeeds.

New article on Hobbes and the Modern Business Corporation

Claassen, R.J.G. (2020): Hobbes Meets the Modern Business Corporation, in: Polity,


Political theory today has expanded its scope to debate business corporations, conceiving of them as political actors, not (just) private actors in the market place. This article shows the continuing relevance of Thomas Hobbes’s work for this debate. Hobbes is commonly treated as a defender of the so-called concession theory, which traces the legitimacy of corporations to their being chartered by sovereign state authorities for public purposes. This theory is widely judged to be anachronistic for contemporary business corporations, because these can now be freely formed, on the basis of private initiative. However, a close reading of the crucial passages in Hobbes’s work reveals a more subtle view, which rejects this private/public dualism. Hobbes’s reflections on the companies of merchants of his day provide room for business corporations’ pursuit of private purposes, while keeping them embedded in a public framework of authority. Moreover, by criticizing the monopoly status of these companies, he opens up a way to integrate market failure arguments from modern economics into concession theory. The “neo-Hobbesian concession theory” emerging from this analysis shows how concession theory can accommodate private initiative and economic analysis, and thus be a relevant position in the debate about the modern business corporation.

Latest issue of Hobbes Studies

Hobbes Studies, Volume 33, Issue 2 (Nov 2020)


Book Reviews

  • John Marshall: Collins, Jeffrey. In the Shadow of Leviathan: John Locke and the Politics of Conscience 177
  • Vladimir Milisavljević: Courtland, Shane D., ed. Hobbesian Applied Ethics and Public Policy 182
  • Enzo Rossi McQueen, Alison. Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times 188
  • David Johnston: Raylor, Timothy. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes 192
  • Jeffrey Collins: Fukuoka, Atsuko. The Sovereign and the Prophets: Spinoza on Grotian and Hobbesian Biblical Argumentation 196

Time to rethink Hobbes on the Passions

Bobier, Christopher (2020): Rethinking Thomas Hobbes on the Passions, in: Pacific Philosophical Quarterly,


There is widespread scholarly disagreement whether Hobbesian passions are or involve a type of cognition (i.e., imagination). This largely overlooked disagreement has implications for our understanding of Hobbesian deliberation. If passions are intrinsically cognitive, then, because Hobbesian deliberation is a series of alternating passions, deliberation would appear to be intrinsically cognitive as well. In this paper, I bring to light this overlooked disagreement and argue for a non‐cognitive reading of Hobbesian passions, according to which, a passion is an appetite or aversion caused by, but distinct from, an imagination of a future good or harm.