Uses and Application of the Covenant Theory in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by John Milton, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

John Milton, in his The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, promote distinctive models of government. More specifically, Milton maintains that the power of a king is transferred to him from the people, with whom it fundamentally remains; thus, the king can be deposed at any time should the people decide it necessary.

On the other hand, Hobbes advocates an irrevocable sovereign government that has absolute dominion and is almost equivalent in stature to the eponymous primordial sea beast. Of note is that while covenant theory serves as a crucial pillar for both thinkers’ reasoning, the models of political authority they ultimately propose are in stark contrast to each other. This essay will analyze Milton’s and Hobbes’s arguments about the ideal form of government, identify the key differences between them, and locate the junctures at which covenant theory takes on divergent meanings.

With both Milton and Hobbes, the nature of the state is the outcome of the nature of the men who compose it (Nicholson 412). Milton expounds that all men are created in the image of God, and thus have a “natural birthright” (Milton 1750, emphasis added) to freedom; as a result, an inherited kingship is unthinkable, as such a form of rule would make the subjects no better than slaves or mere possessions. A “hereditary title” (1751) undermines the basic principles that men are born equally free, and that rulers exist for the people and not vice versa.

This “dignity of mankind” (1751) leads to the perspective that kings are accountable not just to God but to the people as well, who must inwardly govern themselves with discerning “reason” (1748) to understand that the only legitimate laws are those “which they the people had themselves made or assented to” (1750). In line with these ideas, Milton strongly criticizes those who had originally supported limiting the king’s power but turned away from actually executing him (1749), claiming such hesitation is the negative byproduct of a misplaced awe for monarchs. Writing in the days leading up to Charles I’s decapitation, Milton purported to justify both rebellion and regicide.

In contrast, Hobbes perceives the natural state of man to be one in which he is engaged in perpetual war with all other men. To him, equality is merely a function of the fact that all men are roughly equal in physical and mental faculties, and consequentially come to possess equal hopes of attaining their desired ends (Hobbes 1598). Thus, everyone is at the mercy of everyone else at all times, and the state of nature is one where even if there is no actual fighting, there is never any “assurance to the contrary” (1599).

In an environment of such constant hostility, it is considered only appropriate that man should have the “Right of Nature” (1600) to use his individual power to the utmost extent for the preservation of his own life. The resulting pervasive and continual fear makes it impossible for anything, from industry to culture, to properly exist, and the concepts of justice and injustice can hold no validity (1599). Furthermore, these same conditions can be expanded to a more macroscopic level: nations, even if not currently in battle with one another, maintain a “posture of war” (1600) that generates uninterrupted international animosity.

For Milton, the rationale for a government ruling over naturally freeborn men originates from biblical history. To be more precise, though nature and man are “of God, and hence cannot be evil” (Nicholson 413), the fall of Adam and Eve gave rise to “wrong and violence” (Milton 1749) within human beings. This corrupted their good nature, so that henceforth the people were unable to conduct themselves morally without external guidance and discipline. However, even in establishing an entity to fulfill this purpose, Milton insists that men “did not forfeit their natural freedom” (Wolfe 419), which “cannot be taken from them” (Milton 1750). In this sense, the “titles of sovereign lord, natural lord, and the like” (1750) are oxymoronic and should “not [be] admitted by emperors and kings of best note” (1751).

The ideal model of authority Milton presents in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in accordance with these views revolves around the objective of governing freeborn men in a manner that “seems to them best” (1751). Men voluntarily come together and covenant to form a “common league” (1749), aiming to jointly defend themselves against those who may bring about mutual harm. Moreover, because a government is needed to restrain potential troublemakers from disturbing or opposing this agreement to protection, a single king or group of magistrates is chosen based on their “wisdom and integrity” (1750).

However, jurisdiction cannot be placed completely in the hands of these rulers because they too are sinners with roots in “Adam’s transgression” (1749), making the eventual misuse or perversion of power unavoidable. Mechanisms are thus devised to keep them in check and impose limitations on their authority, for example in the form of coronation oaths; in this way, it is ensured that kings and magistrates are by no means above the law, their power being merely entrusted to them by the people, with whom it intrinsically resides. Therefore, it is within the right of the people to disobey and overthrow the ruler should he prove counterproductive to his original purpose of preserving their welfare, even if no tyranny occurs (1751).

Conversely, Hobbes’s primary concern is emerging out of the natural “miserable condition of war” (Hobbes 1603) and into relative safety; otherwise, the “notions of right and wrong … have … no place” (1600), being in and of themselves insignificant in the brutish state of nature. The possibility of such a development is initially explored and afterwards expanded through the “Law of Nature” (1601), which dictates that for the larger purpose of general security, man is willing to partially lay down his natural right to self-preservation, but only if other men will do the same. In other words, to not “hinder the peace of mankind” (1601), man will accept provisory limitations on his Right of Nature that are necessary for moving out of the state of nature, should others be bound by the same constraints. Of course, if the latter condition is not met, there is “no reason for anyone to divest himself of his [right]” (1601) and be alone in exposing himself.

The “common power” (1604) Hobbes promotes in Leviathan is not simply highly visible, but so awe-inspiring as to be even terrible: only in the presence of such an authority will men, who are inclined to cause dissent, “direct their actions to the common benefit” (1604). Everyone must submit their will, judgment, and liberty to govern themselves entirely to the ruler, so that he may incorporate their very beings. Like Milton, Hobbes does not clearly establish superiority between a single king and an assembly of rulers. They also both acknowledge the necessity of anticipation of certain punishment against those who violate this social covenant, as merely trusting the people to behave themselves is insufficient. Yet Hobbes’s ideal model of authority is manifestly more forceful compared to Milton’s because it assumes man is innately “selfish, competitive, [and] egotistic” (Wolfe 417), and demands thorough subordination.

Metaphorically referred to as the ancient monster Leviathan, the sovereign government should have “so much power and strength conferred on him” (Hobbes 1605) as to become a “mortal god” (1605, emphasis added). Furthermore, Hobbes emphasizes that while deterrence is important, the ability to actually carry out punishment is even more so, as “covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” (1603, emphasis added); there must exist “power to make him perform” (1602) in conformance with the covenant. The monarchical absolutism outlined by Hobbes is unconditional and unmodifiable, regardless of the political or religious circumstances. In fact, according to Leviathan, it could be said that there is no reason to rebel, as no tyranny can be as destructive as the war of every man against every man it holds at bay. Should he experience the anarchy that accompanies the state of nature, man will prefer “security to freedom, servitude to war” (Wolfe 417, emphasis added).

In conclusion, the most salient points of difference between Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Hobbes’s Leviathan stem from two main areas. The first is that their discourses commence with disparate interpretations of man’s equality and contradictory evaluations of his natural state. Milton’s analysis of human nature is founded on the steadfast belief that all men are born equally free as the “resemblance of God Himself” (1749), and it is due to the transformative effect of the biblical fall that an entity for controlling them becomes necessary. Therefore, an ideal government has only a conditional authority that is derived from the people, and is “for their good in the first place” (1751). Contrastingly, Hobbes asserts that all men are indeed equal but in a much narrower sense, namely that they have commensurate capabilities for quarrelling and pursuing personal gain. Thus, the state of nature is wholly bleak and full of violence, and a godlike sovereign government is vital in resolving the chaos that inevitably ensues.

The second, and perhaps more conclusive divergence, is related to the issue of who holds ultimate authority, the king or the people. Milton stresses that the king or magistrate holds his authority strictly “in trust from the people” (1750), and thus the power of rulers should be confined and limited by specific restrictions; moreover, a king deemed unequal to the task of governing for the good of his people may be deprived of power at any time.

On the contrary, Hobbes insists that the adjudicating central government should evoke enough dread to bind its subjects into total obedience, and from the outset disqualifies the possibility of resistance or revolution. Hence, although both thinkers recognize the need for a social covenant among men, their underlying assumptions regarding such a system of government are highly dissimilar. They make very different uses of covenant theory to propose and advocate models of political authority that are essentially antithetical.


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