Hobbes on civil law

December 27, 2009

Hobbes’s Leviathan includes an amazing chapter on law: Of Civil Law (Chapter XXVI). It comes in Part 2: Of Commonwealth, where Hobbes lays out how man escapes the evils of the state of nature by forming communities under a sovereign, i.e. the leviathan.  Eight main points summarise his system of law:

  1. The legislator in all commonwealths, is only the sovereign, be he one man, as in a monarchy, or one assembly of men, as in a democracy, or aristocracy.
  2. The sovereign of a commonwealth, be it an assembly, or one man, is not subject to the civil laws.
  3. When long use obtaineth the authority of a law, it is not the length of time that maketh the the authority, but the will of the sovereign signified by his silence.
  4. The law of nature, and the civil law, contain each other, and are of equal extent. For the laws of nature, which consist in equity, justice, gratitude, and other moral virtues on these depending, in the condition of mere nature are not properly laws, but qualities that dispose men to peace, and obedience.
  5. If the sovereign of one commonwealth, subdue a people that have lived under other written laws, and afterwards govern by the same laws, by which they were governed before; yet those laws are the civil laws of the victor, and not of the vanquished commonwealth. For the legislator is he, not by whose authority the laws were first made, but by whose authority they now continue to be laws.
  6. [T]he two arms of a commonwealth, are force and justice; the first whereof is in the king; the other deposited in the hands of the parliament.
  7. In all courts of justice, the sovereign is he that judgeth: the subordinate judge, ought to have regard to the reason, which moved his sovereign to make such law.
  8. [T]hat the law is a command, and a command consisteth in declaration … we may understand, that the command of the commonwealth, is law only to those, that have means to take notice of it.
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