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.