Philosophy



‘to avoyd the present stroke of death:’ Despotical Dominion, Force, and Legitimacy in Hobbe's Leviathan


Charles D. Tarlton 

Abstract

The logic of Leviathan is formally made to derive commonwealth and the rights of sovereignty (the obligations of subjects, read the other way around) from an elaborate process beginning in the physiology of human perception and passions, through language and reason, into the state of nature (the war of all against all) and, finally, under the direction of the laws of nature, to a collective and formal resignation of all their natural rights to create an absolute sovereign. This process of ‘instituting’ the sovereignty stamps the resulting sovereign with legitimacy. Early in the Second Part of Leviathan, however, Hobbes moves to attach all the rights and legitimacy of that instituted sovereignty onto what he calls ‘Despotical Dominion’, the power created when a conqueror exacts a promise from the conquered on pain of immediate death. The result is to translate all that Hobbes has said about sovereignty in general into a defence of the legitimacy of this crude force and violence. The whole of Leviathan's political argument is coloured, then, by this strategy and the best reading of it turns out to be the oldest one—that it is a defence of tyrannical power.