Has liberty a place in Hobbes’ philosophy?

In memory of Paul Hirst

(Paul was the only member in the School of Politics and Sociology that “got it”. He never allowed his own ideological predelictions to colour his approach to students’ work – he relished giving a fair and insightful account of positions he didn’t hold to, which I noticed confused students who were there precisely because of Paul’s viewpoint. Indeed, he once told me that he thought it tiresome that the departmental profile was so ideologically homogenous — Guardian obituary).


In this article I argue that while civil peace, not freedom, is Hobbes’ major political value, his political philosophy, secures a number of dimensions of freedom to the citizen. I further suggest, as an endpoint, that if we read Hobbes prelusively – with a forward eye to the potentialities of his position – we can see his political philosophy as an early text for liberalism.

I. Freedom: Metaphysical and Political

“Liberty” is a term of both political and metaphysical reference. In metaphysics it relates to free will – I am free if, in doing an action, I could have acted differently if I had chosen, and if I could have chosen otherwise than I did. The issue of metaphysical liberty or free will concerns the very basic conditions of human agency, far beyond just the political domain. Hobbes had definite views about this issue, but in this article I will concentrate on his ideas concerning political freedom – the domain of restrictions on action that arise between one person and another and between the citizen and the state.

For Hobbes the primary political value – the goal set for politics – is social peace, not freedom. On the other hand, that until we analyse the idea of freedom, there’s no substance in putting social peace first. The priority of social peace can be rephrased in terms of freedom – i.e. freedom from a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, the Hobbesian socail jungle of the state of nature with its constant fear of violent death. So we have to make some analysis of freedom.

II. Political Freedom: Hobbes’ Ambiguities

Hobbes uses different definitions of liberty for different circumstances. Wernham (1960: 123-124) offers four different senses of freedom in Hobbes.  Consider these senses illustrated by a game of chess:

  1. If a man is capable of deliberation as to whether or not he can play, then using Wernham’s phrase, this might be called “freedom of choice”.
  2. If he is not obliged to play or not to play this is “freedom of obligation”.

  3. As a result of deliberation he wants to play from a desire to derive pleasure from playing, then this is “freedom from compulsion”.

  4. If in going to play he meets no obstacle, this is “freedom with no external impediment to motion”.

Clearly, an agent cannot be free in all four senses at the same time.

III. Political Freedom: Hobbes’ Central View: Freedom as Non-Impediment

It’s plain that Hobbes has a basic notion of liberty as non-obstruction. Hobbes finds it useful to adopt one  definition of liberty for the state of nature and another for civil society. Pennock (1965) belives that the two definitions can be reduced, au fond, to the same.

For Hobbes, liberty is consistent with fear (Leviathan, 136).  According to Hobbes, if a person is robbed at gunpoint, he would be acting freely. It is not the robber (external), but the fear (internal), that constitutes the impediment.  So for Hobbes, a voluntary action and a free action are one and the same. It is clear that Hobbes needs to draw the line between voluntary and involuntary acts; that is, between those where the time of causation moves through the mind and those where it does not (for a crisp and lively discussion on this topic see J.W.N. Watkins, Hobbes’ System of Ideas, chapter 7). It is easy to see Hobbes’ conception of liberty as to be consistent with causal necessity (Leviathan, 108) and its implications for political liberty without delving into the philosophy of mind: absence of external impediments to voluntary motion is what Hobbes took human liberty to be.

IV. Freedom, Sovereignty and Civil Peace

On the surface, Leviathan offers little hope for freedom: (1) civil peace, not freedom, is the main goal of politics; and (2) Leviathan enjoys absolute sovereignty which equals (a) predominant power which, through the peculiarities of Hobbes’ moral philosophy, (b) cannot be employed unjustly. This point has to be made clear in a vital piece of scene-setting.

V. Freedom: The Deeper Picture

If that’s what liberty is, non-impediment, we can subdivide its political application: (a) there’s the question of freedom between citizens, and (b) there’s the question of freedom between citizen and sovereign (how much freedom does Leviathan leave the citizen?)

Between citizens Leviathan has to secure social peace. The sovereign guarantees – which is the whole point of setting him up – a minimum of non-obstruction between one person and another. The level of obstruction described in Hobbes’ account of the state of nature no longer can occur, thanks to Leviathan.

Between citizen and state the position is more complicated. One thing on which one needs to get absolutely clear, and which most students never understand, is that nothing follows for the extent of citizen’s freedom from the fact that Leviathan has absolute sovereignty. Absolute sovereignty on Hobbes’ account means that the sovereign is not democratically accountable, cannot act unjustly, and so on. But says precisely nothing about how far the sovereign will interfere with the citizen’s activities.

One thing Hobbes says is that the liberty of the subject depends on the silence of the laws. That is, where there isn’t an express prohibition, you can do what you like (within the contraints of the laws of nature, which bind the civil state).

A politically significant implication of this conception of liberty is that there is no loss of liberty in obeying a command from fear of the consequences of disobeying it. A man’s liberty is reduced if something external alters the endeavour itself without opposing the behavior initiated by this altered endeavour. On this view, laws do not take away libery, provided they are simple enough and few enough to be easily known and remembered, so that we do not land in gaol through incidental transgressions of them (XIII, 15; and p. 179).

Another point is that Hobbes is aware of the need for political pragmatism. He stresses that it is not in the sovereign’s own interest to rule in an arbitrarily harsh, repressive way. For if he he does, people will see no great gain from obeying the sovereign rather than reverting to the state of nature, or at least combining to oust the present sovereign and getting another one. Hobbes says that there is an irreducible degree of freedom of thought since our minds are not open to Leviathan’s inspection.

However, there is an ambiguity in Hobbes. On the one hand he says: we need to secure civil peace, and the way to do that is to have an absolute sovereign who sees rules through general laws. These general laws apply equally to all; so, whatever liberty they allow is equal liberty.  How much liberty do they allow? These general laws implement the 19 laws of nature which are set out in Leviathan (chapters 14-15). Those laws are not consistent with a repressive sovereign who greatly restricts liberty.

On the other hand, Hobbes stresses the extreme importance of civil peace as the major value to be secured by the political system; and there’s a definite mood in Hobbes in which he suggests by the strongest implication that the advantages of having an absolute sovereign, in respect of securing civil peace, are so great, so rationally suasive, that you’d do better to have even a repressive absolute sovereign , who doesn’t follow general rules and implement the laws of nature, than to have any form of government short of absolute sovereignty – since any other government will endanger civil peace.

VI. Hobbes and Liberalism: Hobbes as a Forerunner of Liberalism

It’s a common error to mistake the nature of liberalism. Of course “liberalism” is a term with many meanings, some unrelated and not at all compatible. Often it’s taken in the sense of an ideology for which, like anarchism, freedom is the major value – though different from anarchism in recognizing a role for the state; freedom of contract, association, thought, belief and expression are generally regarded as the specific freedoms into which liberal freedom resolves itself.  On the radical Left, liberalism is regarded as superficial becuase economic and social equalities are neglected (or even defended!) in ways that make the liberal freedoms empty for most people.

But it seems to me that this characterization misses the heart of philosophical liberalism. For a more accurate picture of suchliberalism, note the six tenets of liberalism listed by Richard Flathman (1989, pp. 49-50).

  1. Human beings are purposive, goal seeking creatures whose actions and patterns of action cannot be understood apart from their conceptions of good.
  • Conceptions of good and goals of action are irreducibly plural (c.f. Lawrence 1989, p, 37-38).

  • There is a scarcity of at least some of the goods that human beings seek and of the resources necessary to effective pursuit of those goods.

  • Hence there is certain to be disagreement and competition, and very likely, conflict.

  • Disagreement, competition, and conflict neither can nor should be eliminated, but conflict must be contained within non-destructive limits.

  • The primary objective of politics is to promote an ordering of human interaction which allows each person the greatest possible freedom to pursue goals compatible with effective constraints on destructive conflict.

  • Plainly, on these lines, Hobbes ia a liberal. He accepts Flathman’s tenets 1-6 – and his absolute sovereign is one way of promoting the primary objective of liberal politics (see tenet 6).

    Part of the history of liberalism since Hobbes has been the quest for an alternative solution for there is an obvious danger that the absolute sovereign will try to impose his or her own conception of the good on everyone else. For Hobbes, the risk is worth taking, because he hold the extereme view that the absolute sovereign is the only alternative to anarchy. But if we reject that view, the game is open to look for another way of promoting the primary objective of liberal politics. One direction this question has taken is that of constitutionalism.

    I should, however, like to prevent one misunderstanding. Some have argued that the liberal must reject a Hobbesian absolute sovereign because liberalism is democratic.  Actually, Hobbes does allow absolute sovereignty to reside in a democratic assembly, but he reckons its chances of success are pretty low. That aside, the deeper point is that the relation of liberalism to democratic politics, in spite of the ease with which the phrase “liberal democracies” is apt to slide off the tongue, is highly problematic. In my view, democracy does not entail liberalism. Democracy is only “a nudge and a wink” in the direction of liberalism.


    Hobbes (1651/1991). Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck. Cambridge University Press.

    Flatham, R.E. (1989). Towards a Liberalism. Cornell.

    Pennock, J.R. (1965). Hobbes’ Confusing “Clarity” – the Case of “Liberty” Hobbes Studies, ed. K. Thomas, Blackwell.

    Watkins, J.W.N. (1973). Hobbes’ System of Ideas, London.

    Wernham, A.G. (1960). Liberty and Obligation in Hobbes. Hobbes Studies, ed. K.C. Brown, Blackwell.