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essays

March 1980

Hobbes’ Leviathan: Family and State

“Hobbes saw the nature of man as a selfishly individualistic animal at constant war with all other men.”

Richard Allen Chapman
University of Montana

“Leviathan Writ Small: Thomas Hobbes on the Family.” American Political Science Review 69(March 1975):76–90.

Thomas Hobbes viewed the traditional family as a heuristic device to teach the basic principles of his theory of political science. Hobbes’s analogy followed the growth and development of a child. A child’s (i.e. citizen’s) survival is dependent on the protection of his parents (i.e. government). Independence away from political authority is as fatal to a grown man as is the absurd idea of an infant free from parental dependence. Thus to Hobbes, authority is justified by necessity.

He reinforces his premise by stating that the family is essential to the political education of the state’s citizens. Children will be amenable to sovereignty and obedience in the state because they have already been taught the principles on which it rests in the home.

Hobbes saw the nature of man as a selfishly individualistic animal at constant war with all other men. In a state of nature, men are entirely self-seeking and live out lives which are “nasty, brutish, and short.” Only the fear of a violent death will motivate man to surrender their natural rights, and create a state of political sovereignty.

Thus the family is an institution created to curb the passions of man into reasonable and submissive behavior. Hobbes’s political science rests on the belief that the family sovereign will be successful, as he expects a sovereign to be entirely successful. He sees a citizen’s life as either of two extremes: either complete obedience to the power of the state, or given to the terrors of a violent state of nature. “He has linked paranoia with pacification in his conception of the education of the family.” However, neither a sustained paranoia or a sustained pacification are very elevating styles of the human existence.

Despite its flaws, Hobbes’s view of the family as a miniature version of the state is unique. If we accept Hobbes’s premise that the family can be viewed in political terms, we can equally criticize it according to political values. By having the relationship between protection and obedience taught in the family, Hobbes makes it possible to humanize the state by teaching fairness, consent, respect for human dignity, and equality in the family.

For this reason, Hobbes’s conception of family life in political terms seems theoretically sound. The questions Hobbes raises about the sovereignty of the father are not that of an anachronistic tradition of household authority; it is the problem of the modern state. Should the state imitate the more modern, democratic, egalitarian, and consensual nature of the family? Or should the state persevere in its former imitation of a patriarchal and authoritarian family model?