Hobbes’ Social Contract is the most essential and influential work in the history of political thought, which puts the very first idea of how and why the state came into being.

His political philosophy has been the subject of debate in academic circles.

In the social contract of Hobbes, the state or civil society is created through a contract or mutual agreement among men. This contract is known as the “Social Contract” and it empowers a man or a group of men who will represent the supreme authority over society. 

There is only one contract that results in men leaving the “state of nature” and the creation of society and state (sovereign). Although there is hardly any limit on the powers of the sovereign, ultimately it comes into creation with the consent of the people. 

The Major Features of Social Contract

  • There is a single contract that created the sovereign, therefore the sovereign is not a part of the contract. The sovereign is born due to the contract; therefore, he is not a party to it. 
  • Every person is part of the contract; no one is out of it. If anyone is left out, then that person will continue to enjoy his or her sovereignty. This cannot happen since, in one state, there cannot be two sovereign powers. So the contract includes everyone who once was a part of the state of nature. 
  • Under this contract, every man surrenders his natural rights and powers to a common sovereign who will “keep them in awe” and provide them with life security.
  • Men entered into the social contract to set up a ruler, as if every man should say to every man, “

I authorise and give up my right to govern myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on the condition that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner.” 

Thomas Hobbes
  • The natural rights are surrendered to the sovereign under the contract once and for all. The contract cannot be revoked or withdrawn. The reason for this is that if men are allowed to reverse the contract and revive natural rights, then they can go back to the state of nature. 
  • The state of nature is filled with violence, death, and insecurity. Thomas Hobbes conceived the situation of the people in the state of nature in the sense that they are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Even if a few decide to go back to the state of nature, it will put the lives of everyone in danger. Therefore, it is not allowed. 

In Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory, there is no scope for revolt and rebellion. Also, a single contract has created both the society and state, a reversal or withdrawal of the contract will mean the end of not only the state but of the society as well. Therefore, to protect society from chaos, Hobbes makes the sovereign absolute, indivisible, and inalienable. There is no limit on the political obligations enjoyed by the sovereign. 

The sovereign, or Hobbes Leviathan, has absolute powers over the individual. For Hobbes, sovereignty is an undeniable fact of political life; whenever there is a civil or political society, sovereignty must exist. 

In its absence, everyone will have the liberty to do as he pleases, and the entire purpose for which the commonwealth was set up will be lost. 

Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. 

Thomas Hobbes

The Major Features of Sovereignty which Leviathan or Sovereign enjoys are:

Power to Determine

Sovereignty, according to the Hobbesian definition, essentially lies in the “power to determine” on behalf of the entire community what should be done to maintain peace and order to promote their welfare. All men, apart from the sovereign, become its subjects. 


The second fundamental attribute of sovereignty is its absoluteness. The power of the sovereign is to make laws that are not limited by any human authority, superior or inferior. 

There is no rival or coordinating authority in the commonwealth besides the sovereign. It has ultimate power and unfettered discretion and is the source of the laws and also their sole interpreter; he cannot, therefore, be subject to them. 

The laws of nature, according to Hobbes, are not laws in the strict sense of the term; they are mere counsels of reason and have no compulsive force. The law of God also does not constitute any check upon him, for he is the sole interpreter. 

Individual conscience also cannot be pleaded against him, because the law is the public conscience by which man has agreed to be guided. 

Sovereign Laws or Distinction between “Good” Or “Bad” and “Right” and “Wrong”

All of the above leads us to the third important feature of sovereignty. In the state of nature, there can be no distinction between right and wrong, just and unjust, moral and immoral, and no property rights. 

These distinctions first came into existence with the establishment of civil society and the setting up of sovereign authority. Whatever conforms with the laws made by the sovereign is just and right; whatever is contrary to them is unjust and wrong. 

Also, the sovereign creates those conditions under which moral distinctions acquire significance and importance. Morality can exist only in a civil society. But since the sovereign is making the distinction between moral and immoral, the sovereign himself is above any sort of morality. 

The sovereign is also the creator of the property. In their natural state, people have only possessions that do not confer ownership. Legal property rights and their protection by society come into existence only with the establishment of sovereign authority. 

Since the property is the creation of the sovereign, he can take it away whenever he likes in the interest of the same. Taxation does not require the consent of the people. 

Source of Justice

In the fourth place, it may be said that the sovereign is the source of justice and has the power to make and declare war. He has supreme command of the militia and determines what doctrines and opinions are to be permitted and what are to be disallowed. 

By making the sovereign the source of justice and describing the judges as lions under the throne, Hobbes concentrates full executive, legislative, and judicial power in the sovereign. 

Indivisibility, Inseparability, and Incommunicability

In the fifth place, attention may be drawn to the indivisibility, inseparability, and incommunicability of sovereignty. Sovereign authority cannot be separated from any aspect of sovereignty without destroying it, nor can it be shared with others.

The goal of a civil war, then, cannot be to limit its exercise or to participate in it; it must be to determine who will possess and exercise it.

Although the social contract theories of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau are diametrically opposed to Hobbes’ social contract theory, But both had a focus on creating a sovereign political authority that would secure their basic fundamental rights. 

Hobbes’ social contract would appear flawless only if a perfect and infallible person or assembly could be found and established as a sovereign. But how can imperfect mortals justify the exercise of such universal and absolute authority in the real world? But Hobbes evades this fundamental question.


See Also:

Thomas Hobbes’s Biography 

Hobbes’ State of Nature 
Hobbes’ view on human nature 
Thomas Hobbes’ Security Dilemma 
What is Leviathan? 

Political Theory: Meanings and Approaches

Categorized in:

Tagged in: