Why did Hobbes write Leviathan?


The present-day reputation of Leviathan is somewhat ironic. Modern readers are shocked by the book’s political philosophy, with its seemingly bleak view of human nature and its endorsement of sovereign power with no constitutional constraints. Yet in fact Leviathan offers perhaps the most accommodating version of Hobbes’s political thinking. It adds to the earlier argument of De Cive a novel conception of political representation, which although far removed from the modern democratic understanding of the idea, displays some of the lineaments of it. In De Cive Hobbes envisaged the state as having a democratic foundation in popular consent that must necessarily be abandoned in favour of monarchy for reasons of practicality. In Leviathan he offers an account of politics that is open to multiple different political forms. I suspect one reason Leviathan has retained its fascination is that Hobbes’s attempt to map his idea of sovereignty on to a shifting political landscape gave it an open-ended quality, which has allowed later readers to find what they were looking for in it. Hobbes’s contemporaries were more confused than outraged by his political views: they couldn’t be sure if he was really a monarchist or not. What scandalized them were the parts of the book that modern readers skip over: the assault on religion.

more from David Runciman at the TLS here.