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.

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

New Article: Gassendi and Hobbes in Dialogue on Psychology, Ethics, and Politics

Paganini, Gianni (2020): Early Modern Epicureanism. Gassendi and Hobbes in Dialogue on Psychology, Ethics, and Politics, in: Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism, ed. by Phillip Mitsis, OUP, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199744213.013.26

Two fundamental notions of Epicureanism took new life in modern political thought: that of the social contract, the agreed and consensual basis of law and authority, and that of the “state of nature” that precedes it. There is no question that among all ancient traditions the Garden was one of very few to base law and politics on the contract and consent of the contracting parties. Yet, by contrast with the Sophists, who emphasized the conventional aspects so far as to be open to the charge of pure relativism, Epicureans looked for a “weak” but “natural” foundation of the social contract deducing it from an idea or mental anticipation (prolēpsis) of justice based on utility. This approach was revived in the seventeenth-century Neo-Epicureanism of Pierre Gassendi who also reworked Epicurus’s and Lucretius’s outdated psychology, transforming it into a more modern “mechanistic” theory of mind. During the greater part of the 1640s Hobbes and Gassendi both lived in Paris and were in close personal contact. The same period was for both thinkers decisive for the construction of their works: the Syntagma philosophicum for Gassendi, De civeDe motuloco et tempore, and Leviathan for Hobbes. This chapter explores the complex interplay between them, especially with regards to psychology, the foundations of ethics, legal theory, and political philosophy, stressing the important role that ancient Epicureanism and seventeenth-century Neo-Epicureanism played in the birth of a modern theory of individual rights.

New article on the nature and person of the state

Johan Olsthoorn (2020): Leviathan Inc.: Hobbes on the nature and person of the state, in: History of European Ideas, June 16, pp. 1-16;

This article aspires to make two original contributions to the vast literature on Hobbes’s account of the nature and person of the commonwealth: (1) I provide the first systematic analysis of his changing conception of ‘person’; and (2) use it to show that those who claim that the Hobbesian commonwealth is created by personation by fiction misconstrue his theory of the state. Whereas Elements/De Cive advance a metaphysics-based distinction between individuals (‘natural persons’) and corporations (‘civil persons’), from Leviathan onwards Hobbes contrasts individuals acting in their own name (‘natural persons’) with representatives (‘artificial persons’). These changes notwithstanding, Hobbes retains the same corporate conception of the state throughout. On the prevailing ‘fictionalist’ interpretation, the sovereign brings the commonwealth into existence by representing it. I argue, rather, that as an incorporation of natural persons, the commonwealth becomes one person through the authorized (i.e. non-fictitious) representation of each constituent member singly by one common representative (‘the sovereign’).

New article: Glory and the Evolution of Hobbes’s Disagreement Theory of War

Arash Abizadeh (2020): Glory and the Evolution of Hobbes’s Disagreement Theory of War: From Elements to Leviathan, in: History of Political Thought, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 265-298

The centrality of glory, contempt and revengefulness to Leviathan’s account of war is highlighted by three contextual features: Hobbes’s displacement of the traditional conception of glory as intrinsically intersubjective and comparative; his incorporation of the Aristotelian view that revengefulness is provoked by expressions of mere contempt; and the evolution of his account between 1640 and 1651. An archeology of Leviathan’s famous Chapter Thirteen confirms that Hobbes’s thesis throughout his career was that disagreement is the universal cause of war because prickly, glory-seeking humans view its expression as a sign of contempt: although Leviathan abandons Hobbes’s previous argument that war is primarily rooted in vainglorious individuals pursuing domination, Leviathan’s ‘glory’ argument for war is a descendent of the older ‘comparison’, not ‘vanity’, argument.

New article: ‘Il concetto di status naturae tra Hobbes e Kant’, by Gianluca Sadun Bordoni

Gianluca Sadun Bordoni, ‘Il concetto di status naturae tra Hobbes e Kant’, Studi Kantiani 32 (2019), pp. 25-46.

Abstract : The Concept of status naturae between Hobbes and Kant ∙ The confrontation with Hobbes is present in Kant’s entire moral thought, as the concept of ‘state of nature’ shows. Although undervalued in Kantian literature, this concept is the constant starting point of Kant’s juridical and political analysis. Kant even thinks that the state of nature in international relations can always affect the internal juridical state, more than Hobbes was prone to admit. But Kant also radicalizes the perspective, by introducing, in addition to the ‘juridical’ state of nature, the concept of an ‘ethical’ state of nature, that – differently from Hobbes – cannot be overcome by political means, not even by man’s moral forces.

New book: Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide, edited by Douglass & Olsthoorn

Robin Douglass & Johan Olsthoorn (eds.), Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

This is the first book-length study in English of Thomas Hobbes’s On the Citizen. It aims to show that On the Citizen is a valuable and distinctive philosophical work in its own right, and not merely a stepping-stone toward the more famous Leviathan. The volume comprises twelve original essays, written by leading Hobbes scholars, which explore the most important themes of the text: Hobbes’s accounts of human nature, moral motivation, and political obligation; his theories of property, sovereignty, and the state; and, finally, his ideas on the relation between secular and ecclesiastical authority, and the politics behind his religious ideas. Taken together, the essays bring to light many distinctive aspects of Hobbes’s thought that are often concealed by the prevailing focus on Leviathan, making for a richer and more nuanced picture of his moral, legal, and political philosophy.


‘Introduction’, Robin Douglass and Johan Olsthoorn
1. ‘Excavating On the Citizen’, Deborah Baumgold and Ryan Harding
2. ‘Hobbes and Aristotle on the foundation of political science’, Nicholas Gooding and Kinch Hoekstra
3. ‘All the mind’s pleasure: glory, self-admiration, and moral motivation in On the Citizen and Leviathan’, S. A. Lloyd
4. ‘The right of nature and political disobedience: Hobbes’s puzzling thought experiment’, Susanne Sreedhar
5. ‘Motivation, reason, and the good in On the Citizen’, Michael LeBuffe
6. ‘Property and despotic sovereignty’, Laurens van Apeldoorn
7. ‘Sovereignty and dominium: the foundations of Hobbesian statehood’, Daniel Lee
8. ‘Corporate persons without authorization’, Michael J. Green
9. ‘Hobbes on love and fear of God’, Thomas Holden
10. ‘’A rhapsody of heresies’: the scriptural politics of On the Citizen’, Alison McQueen
11. ‘On the Citizen and church-state relations’, Johann Sommerville
12. ‘Sovereign-making and biblical covenants in On the Citizen’, A. P. Martinich

New article: ‘From soul to mind in Hobbes’s The Elements of Law’, by Alexandra Chadwick

Alexandra Chadwick, ‘From soul to mind in Hobbes’s The Elements of Law, History of European Ideas, online first.

Abstract: This paper examines the significance and originality of Hobbes’s use of ‘mind’, rather than ‘soul’, in his writings on human nature. To this end, his terminology in the discussion of the ‘faculties of the mind’ in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640) is considered in the context of English-language accounts of the ‘faculties of the soul’ in three widely-read works from the first half of the seventeenth century: Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1604), Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), and Edward Reynolds’s A Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soule of Man (1640). For Hobbes’s contemporaries, man’s soul conveyed God-like powers to human beings; for Hobbes this is a dangerous idea. Accordingly, he establishes a sharp divide between ‘soul’ and ‘mind’, understanding the two terms to be concerned with two very different things: one with soteriology, the other with mental abilities. Like his contemporaries, Hobbes thought that understanding the faculties reveals the way to live a good life. But unlike them, his moral and political philosophy relies on citizens accepting that they are not like God, rather than looking to restore the ‘divine’ within themselves.

New article: ‘Hobbes’s Practical Politics’, by Adrian Blau

Adrian Blau, ‘Hobbes’s Practical Politics: Political, Sociological and Economistic Ways of Avoiding a State of Nature’, Hobbes Studies, online first.

Abstract: This paper offers a systematic analysis of Hobbes’s practicalpolitical thought. Hobbes’s abstract philosophy is rightly celebrated, but he also gave much practical advice on how to avoid disorder. Yet he is typically interpreted too narrowly in this respect, especially by those who only read him economistically. Other scholars supplement this economistic focus with sociological or political interpretations, but to my knowledge, no one stresses all three aspects of his thought. This paper thus examines each of Hobbes’s practical proposals for avoiding corruption and a state of nature. Hobbes clearly uses economistic, sociological and political approaches, which involve shaping incentives, desires/preferences, and opportunities, respectively. This intentionally anachronistic framework helps us see further, highlighting Hobbes’s rich and wide-ranging practical proposals for avoiding disorder – a crucial part of his theory.