Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, felt that society naturally resembles a State of Nature, and that this State of Nature is a State of War. A State of Nature is “the condition where we are forced into contact with each other in the absence of a superior authority”. In order to avoid living in a State of Nature, and therefore avoiding a State of War, a sovereign had to be erected; the sovereign would be given the rights of all their subjects and be able to enforce peace. Hobbes thought that an absolute sovereign was such a sovereign with unlimited power; if the power was limited it would have to be limited by an even greater power. He also outlined a series of duties, and rights that were forfeited to the sovereign. Hobbes’ main argument for a sovereign was that any type of government is better than the State of Nature; that absolute sovereignty is the form of government most likely to be able to avoid a return to the State of Nature; and that “people can only live in peace if they are subjected to an absolute sovereign”.
The sovereign acquires their power through the cessation of rights by their subjects in order to achieve peace. The extent of this forfeiture would be to such a level that it is acceptable to everyone else that you have this amount of rights, as it is acceptable to you that another person has a certain amount of rights. If every person gives up their personal rights, then the power obtained must be invested in the hands of a select few; or preferably, according to Hobbes, in the hands of a single person. The cessation of rights by the whole of a society results in the creation of a commonwealth or of a Leviathan, a mortal god, “to which our peace and defense is owed”.
Once the sovereign has received the rights of every individual, they will have accumulated enough power and authority to carry out the wishes of the population as a whole. A covenant has been created between the sovereign and their subjects, in whom the people have invested their rights in the sovereign, and in return they would receive security from one another, as well as from foreign nations. However the sovereign does not actually have to engage in a contract or covenant with their subjects because the sovereign is not ceding power to anyone; but the people have to engage in covenants with each other so they will all cede rights to the sovereign.
Injustice, according to Hobbes, occurs when a person fails to complete their part of a covenant. Because a sovereign does not participate in any covenants with their subjects, it is impossible for a sovereign to commit injustice, which gives their subjects no right to rise against the sovereign. The only exception to this is if the sovereign commands their subjects to kill themselves; then self-preservation – the most important human desire – would override the orders of the sovereign and the subjects would have the right to rebel. Absolute sovereignty is the right not to be attacked by one’s subjects, while it is also the obligation that the sovereign will not demand that their subjects kill themselves.
There are practical reasons for the sovereign not participating in contracts with their subjects. Firstly, it is not practical for the sovereign to make a covenant with everyone individually, and it is not possible to make a covenant with the population as a whole because while the sovereign is being created, the people are still in a State of Nature and do not trust each other. A person who forfeited their rights to the sovereign has made a covenant with the rest of society, a covenant that can be reinforced by the sovereign through the sovereign’s ability to punish those who act unjustly. Therefore it can be seen as the fault of the perpetrator, who has been punished, if they are killed or injured by the sovereign. It is the role of the sovereign to punish those who have acted unjustly; but also the