In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes contends that government should highly restrict individual
liberty. Readers find it difficult to determine why Hobbes thinks government should restrict so
much individual liberty. On the surface, it seems that Hobbes believes that individual liberty
engenders revolt against the government, threatening the stability of the government and
preventing the government from protecting its people. However, a closer look shows that
Hobbes does not believe that individual liberty is a threat to the government; he believes it is a
threat to the very society that is free. Hobbes contends that the government should greatly
restrict individual liberty because free individuals necessarily act in ways that threaten the
survival of their society. Reversing the traditional maxim, which says that individual liberty
empowers and enriches society but weakens government, Hobbes contends that individual liberty
strengthens government but endangers society. While it seems that Hobbes is fearful of
threatening the government, a close reading of Leviathan show that Hobbes is so fearful of
threatening society that he believes that the government should focus exclusively on ensuring the
survival of its society without regard to the quality of that survival. Therefore, he contends, the
government should neutralize the threat of the individual by disarming him of his liberty and by
forcing all individuals to behave in a way that protects society’s survival.
We must begin by distinguishing individual liberty from the other type of liberty that
Hobbes discusses, what we will call “ancient liberty.” Individual liberty is “the absence of…
external impediments of motion” (Hobbes XXI 1, XXI 10). A person is free, therefore, if “he
that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he
has a will to do” (Hobbes XXI 2). For Hobbes, an individual is free if another party does not
physically prevent him from acting in a way that he could otherwise act.
Hobbes contrasts individual liberty with what we call “ancient liberty,” the liberty of the
government to act without impediment in the realm of international affairs. Hobbes argues that a
government has ancient liberty when its leadership can “resist or… invade other people” without
being physically deterred (Hobbes XXI 8). Ancient liberty is the ability for a government to do
what it wishes to other governments without obstruction from other governments.
The difference between individual liberty and ancient liberty is not just who possesses the
liberty, but also who regulates it. Individual liberty, as Hobbes defines it, is regulated not by
individuals and not by society, but by a sovereign. He writes, “the liberty of a subject
[individual] lieth… only in those things which… the sovereign hath praetermitted” (Hobbes XXI
6). Unlike individual liberty, which is regulated by the sovereign of the...