Sebastian Awatramani

The Corrupt Sovereign as an Oxymoron

Hobbes’ approach to political science, though sometimes illustrated by empirical elaboration, for instance in allusions to the governments of Ancient Greece and the like, is primarily a system of deduction based on Hobbes own stipulated definitions. Ultimately, building upon these definitions, Hobbes deduces the proper role of and identity of the Leviathan—or the sovereign—i.e. a person or assembly in whom ultimate power is placed for the governing of the commonwealth. The questions before us are thus: (1) whether Hobbes offers protection against the corruption of the sovereign, and (2) whether, in the event of corruption, the sovereign’s subjects have any recourse against his corruption. In this essay I will argue first that, as a function of its identity, the sovereign cannot, by definition, be corrupt; that it follows from this is that there is no recourse available, possible, or necessary against a corrupt sovereign; but that thirdly, a sovereign may be deposed in some circumstances.

Let us consider firstly some of the attributes defining the fundamental identity of the sovereign. The first fundamental attribute of the sovereign is its purpose, which Hobbes states is for men “to live peacefully amongst themselves, and be protected against other men” (229). In essence, the people form a commonwealth to remove them from the default state of war, and in doing so they generally forgo their right of execution of the laws of nature to the sovereign, who then does so on their behalf in the capacity of executor and judge. The reason they do this is to attain a state of peace, with the sovereign as the sole protector of the commonwealth; the means through which they do this is a compact between them (but not between them and the sovereign).

The second fundamental attribute of the sovereign lies in its nature as the Leviathan—i.e. an absolute power against which no one can hope to compete. In order to fulfill its obligation as the guarantor of peace amongst its subjects, the sovereign must be powerful enough to resist any and all encroachment against it.

Thus, when we consider these two fundamental aspects of the identity of the sovereign, we can find two manifestations of a single avenue through which the sovereign is immune to corruption, in that any corruption of these fundamentals would render the sovereign a non-sovereign.

First, in the case that the sovereign acted in such a way as to destroy the peace which the compact was originally agreed upon to secure, the compact would be void and thus the sovereign would no longer exist (272). That is, a sovereign by definition exists to sustain peace, and when peace becomes unsustainable, the body once known as the sovereign can no longer be rightly described as such.

A corruption of the second fundamental aspect of the sovereign’s identity follows the same logic as corruption of the first. In the case that the sovereign were not powerful enough to earn the description “Leviathan,” the sovereign would cease to be a sovereign, once again making it immune to corruption, as that which does not exist cannot be corrupt.

But there are other aspects of corruption, for example a king who acts in such a way that his subjects judge as unjust. The arguments against these actions as corrupt is similar but follows a different line of reasoning (which still adhering to an argument of stipulated definition).

While Hobbes does offer advice (242) to potential sovereigns on how they might justly rule, it is not implied that to do otherwise would be unjust for the sovereign. This, too, is due to its fundamental nature as the actor which receives its authority from its author (220-1), which is the commonwealth itself. That is to say, in the default state, the state of war, there is no right or wrong, and each man is within his rights to do as he pleases. When a compact is formed for the creation of a commonwealth, men delegate their rights to the sovereign, who then, by decree, decides what is just and unjust—by its absolute authority. Thus, because the sovereign has the authority (granted to him) over the laws which guide the commonwealth, no action he can take can be considered unjust by definition.

Thus, the sovereign, in the event of corruption, at least by these means, either ceases to be a sovereign or is not corrupt; the sovereign cannot exist at once in a state of corruption and still be a sovereign; the corrupt sovereign is an oxymoron.

It follows from this that there is no recourse against a corrupt sovereign. Recourse presupposes a sovereign, and if a sovereign cannot both exist and be corrupt then recourse is not possible or necessary ( Modus tollens).

This, of course, follows only from Hobbes’ own premises, and may seem harsh, or incongruent with a 21st century perspective, which leaves us to ask whether Hobbes has provided any sort of deductive door through which we can walk if this theoretical construct turns out to be deleterious to the commonwealth, even if the sovereign cannot be considered corrupt (i.e. merely unjust, dangerous, etc). In this, Hobbes has given us at least two, which I will discuss briefly.

For one, while it is made clear that any act of rebellion that may result in a capital punishment is unjust on behalf of a subject, after this initial act it is provided that such a subject would have the right to preserve his life by any means necessary (270). This could theoretically entail a revolution by a large enough group of men to fight the sovereign, albeit having to commit at least one unjust act, which implies that their actions would only be partly justifiable.

Secondly, Hobbes describes the international realm as being in essence governed only by the laws of nature (394). As such, each respective sovereign—being merely an embodiment, an artificial counterpart to a series of natural persons—retains the rights that any individual would in the state of nature. Thus, a door may be open for rebellion if a powerful enough group of men were to band together, renounce their citizenship of the commonwealth (360-61), form their own, and destroy the old.