Sovereignty and Subversion

23 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2015

Date Written: February 2, 2015


Between those who advocate “too great liberty” and those who contend for “too much authority,” Thomas Hobbes found it difficult “to pass between the points of both unwounded.” It does not appear that he cleared the gauntlet successfully. One of the many curiosities in Hobbes’s work is its provocation of two diametrically opposed, and seemingly inconsistent, criticisms. When Leviathan was first published some 350 years ago, Hobbes’s very name became an epithet in polite circles, evoking the horrors of atheism, libertinism, and worst of all, defiance to established authority. Today, the same work that Hobbes’s contemporaries denounced as a “Rebel’s Catechism” is widely viewed as an unequivocal, and misguided, defense of an authoritarian and absolutist government. Hobbes’s descriptions of the need for a powerful sovereign are many and memorable enough to have eclipsed, over time, his endorsements of a few specific rights to resist the sovereign. But Hobbes’s contemporaries did not overlook the subversive strands of his work, and neither should we. In particular, there is much to be learned from the juxtaposition of Hobbes’s account of law – a command made with authority, to one obliged to obey – and his account of punishment – an act of violence that the target has a right to resist. This juxtaposition illuminates some recurring jurisprudential questions about the relationship of law to coercion and the possibility of strictly descriptive, non-evaluative legal theory.

Keywords: jurisprudence, definitions of law, coercion, resistance, Hobbes, punishment, legal positivism, natural law

Suggested Citation

Ristroph, Alice, Sovereignty and Subversion (February 2, 2015). 101 Virginia Law Review, 2015 Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Alice Ristroph (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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