In Leviathan, Hobbes argues the importance of self-preservation and the fearful condition of the state of nature, which leads to the formation of a sovereign power that compromises natural liberties in exchange for peace and unity. The government, furthermore, needs to be fearful so that people won't break the covenants. So in some way, fear is the principal cause of war and the principal means of peace.

However, why is this sovereign power thus created by people, the Leviathan so called by us, less fearful than the state of nature? Hobbes maintains that the sovereign power must be absolute; otherwise, it permits factions and is not sovereign. But isn't this absolute authority much more powerful than any individuals in the state of nature? Being so powerful, it can kill any individual in the name of authority. In the state of nature, people are equal in physical strength, as argued by Hobbes, thus still permitting the chance of survival. If self-preservation is a priority as claimed by Hobbes, this seems to be a contradiction to me. Just like Locke said, if there are already many foxes in the forest, why bother creating a lion?

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    The war of all against all ends up killing many more people than the Leviathan exactly because the Leviathan has much more power than any of them. Motivation for challenging an overwhelming superior is much lower than for challenging an equal, it is called deterrence.
    – Conifold
    Feb 6 at 8:32

In Leviathan, c.13, Hobbes depicts the state of nature as 'a warre of every man, against every man' (Tuck: 88). (All references listed at end of Answer.)

Exactly what is the state of nature and what is so bad about the war that it involves?

The state of nature and its disadvantages

Here's Gregory Kavka's summary account (one of two Kavka quotations I'll use):

Hobbes argues that people living in a state of nature, without a common power over them to keep them in awe, are in a state of war of every person against every other. He defines war not in terms of actual fighting, but as a known willingness to fight. So a war of all against all is a state in which each knows that every other is willing to fight him, not one in which each is constantly fighting. But it is more than just this, for Hobbes contends that, in the state of war, there is so little security of life and property, that all live in constant fear and productive work is pointless. (And he uses this contention as the ground of a favorable comparison of absolute sovereignty with the state of nature.) But, because people learn by experience, a state of known universal willingness to fight would not long leave its inhabitants feeling so insecure unless acts of violence, coercion, and theft actually occurred with some frequency. Hence, the real conclusion that Hobbes draws (and needs) is that the state of nature is a state of war of all against all, punctuated by frequent violence, in which the participants correctly perceive themselves to be in constant danger. (Kavka: 292.)

So in the state of nature life is totally insecure and human flourishing is impossible because there is no safety in activity, production or possession.

How to avoid or end this state of affairs?

What are the options?

In Leviathan, Hobbes offers a hypothetical contract argument in support of the conclusion that political sovereigns have absolute and unlimited authority over their subjects, and that-save when their survival is immediately at stake-these subjects are morally obligated to obey all of their sovereign's commands. Hobbes, in effect, imagines rational self- interested parties in a state of nature choosing among three alternatives: (1) remaining fully in this state of nature; (2) grouping themselves together under a government with limited, or divided, power and authority; and (3) forming themselves into a civil society, or commonwealth, governed by a sovereign with unlimited power and authority. He contends, however, that the second alternative is basically illusory. Because of the constant danger of factionalism, civil war, and social disintegration in a group governed by a limited or divided power, such a form of social organization does not provide its members with sufficient security to really remove them from the state of nature.30 Each is forced, in order to protect his long-term well-being, to anticipate-to use force and cunning to increase his power and thus his ability to come out in a favorable position when the inevitable civil strife breaks out into open warfare.3' The conflict of each person with every other thus goes on, perhaps in muted form, with trickery and deceit being more common forms of aggression than overt violence, but nevertheless leaving each person in a basically insecure, and thus unhappy, position. Now as the formation of a government with limited or divided powers would not constitute a real escape from the state of nature, the choice of the parties, in Hobbes's hypothetical contract theory, effectively reduces to one between absolute sovereignty and the state of nature. The argument that the state of nature is a state of war of all against all supplies the crucial remaining premise that allows Hobbes to conclude that the parties would choose the absolute sovereign as the lesser evil. (Kavka: 296-7.)

A non sequitur

We ought to note at this point that Hobbes' argument at most supports the institution of a sovereign with, not absolute power and authority but merely sufficient power and authority to maintain civil peace.

But can we trust the sovereign - Leviathan - not to make things worse than, or as bad as, the state of nature?

Suppose we grant Hobbes his sovereign with absolute power and authority, what guarantee do we have that the sovereign will not treat his/ her subjects in ways that are as bad as remaining in the state of nature - or even worse?

Hobbes' reply would be that there is no state worse than the state of nature. Therefore by simple deduction the Hobbesian leviathan cannot be more fearful than the state of nature. Hence if the sovereign were to reduce us to conditions as bad as the state of nature, we should be no worse off than if we had remained in it. But Hobbes argues that it would not be in the sovereign's interest to reduce us to such conditions since 'in the dammmage, or weakening of [his/ her] Subjects' the sovereign's 'own strength and glory' would be fatally at risk (Leviathan, c.13; Tuck: 128-9.) In other words Hobbes believes that the sovereign has prudential reasons to create and maintain the conditions of civil peace, the components of which are defined by the nineteen laws of nature enumerated and specified in Leviathan, c. 15 - moral principles which when enforced are 'the way to peace' (Robertson: 144). Hobbes accepts, therefore, that even absolute sovereignty will dissolve under certain contingencies: 'the physical powers of a monarch or a sovereign assembly [a sovereign: GT] are never great enough, in themselves, to deter violent opposition' (Kavka: 308). Even ruthless power can evaporate under unremitting revolt.

As to the individual:

If the sovereign - as you say - 'can kill any individual in the name of authority', he or she cannot kill all; and any individual, no matter if justly condemned for an offence, has no obligation to comply with any commmand that aims at his 'hurt':

If the Soveraign command a man (though justly condemned,) to kill, wound or mayme himselfe; or not to resist those that assault him ; or to abstrain from the use of food, ayre, medicine, or any other thing, without which he cannot live; yet hath that man the Liberty to disobey' (Leviathan, c. 21; Tuck: 151).

The individual always has the chance (and with Hobbes' blessing, the rightful liberty) of escape, however tyrannical the sovereign may be.


I do not claim that Hobbes has demonstrated to all reasonable satisfaction that the rule of 'leviathan will be less fearful than the state of nature'. But I have assembled his reasons for supposing that it would be less fearful. They are worth consideration whatever one's final view of them.


Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck, Cambridge: CUP, 2018.

Gregory S. Kavka, 'Hobbes's War of All Against All', Ethics , Jan., 1983, Vol. 93, No. 2 (Jan., 1983), pp. 291-310.

G. Robertson, Hobbes, London: Blackwoood, 1886.


What it can do and what it does do are two different things. Yes, a government has more power to destroy than any individual. But usually it will not use this power wantonly; it will keep peace, it will enforce laws. Killing is a lot more prevalent in primitive societies than modern governments. Here's an article with some statistics on the subject: https://ourworldindata.org/ethnographic-and-archaeological-evidence-on-violent-deaths You can see that the rate of violent death in state societies is much lower than the rate of violent death in non-state societies.

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