Defining the Office: Officium, Commodious Living and the Substantive Duties of Hobbesian Sovereigns

31 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2014

Date Written: 2014


Most examinations of the concept of duty in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes focus on the duties the subjects owe to the sovereign. When the duties of the sovereign are examined, they are typically characterized as moral duties, the violation of which can only be judged and punished by God (e.g. Warrender 1957, Martinich 1992). In contrast to the prevailing interpretation, I argue that Hobbes conceives of the duties of sovereigns as definitional elements of the office of sovereign, and that failure to fulfill these duties releases subjects from their obligation to obey. Close examination of the sovereign’s duties indicates Hobbes has a more robust conception of protection than merely physical security; the Hobbesian sovereign owes its subjects not only bare self-preservation but also those general conditions conducive to what Hobbes terms “commodious living,” including maximizing liberty, promoting commercial activity, and providing a minimal social safety net. These additional duties demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the role of the Hobbesian sovereign as providing only physical protection is insufficient for capturing the nuance of Hobbes’s thought. The preservation that the sovereign is created to provide, and which political obligation is conditional upon, must instead be understood to include a broader array of protections related to commodious living. I thus show that the Hobbesian sovereign not a dominating, irresistible force, but rather a provider whose subjects must only obey when it is fulfilling its duties to them.

Keywords: Hobbes, obligation, duty, natural right

Suggested Citation

Hallenbrook, Christopher, Defining the Office: Officium, Commodious Living and the Substantive Duties of Hobbesian Sovereigns (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Hallenbrook (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

One Shields Avenue
Apt 153
Davis, CA 95616
United States

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