What is ‘sovereign power’ and how does it operate in the political theories of Hobbes, Locke, and
Rousseau (inclusion of Kant is optional)? Which view of sovereign power do you find most
persuasive and why?
Sovereign power is the legitimate authority that a state posses and exhibits through
legislature, it’s people, and it’s state. While many theorists have provided guidelines as to
how this sovereignty should reign, there is a consensus that there should be a definitive
authority to guide the state. Thomas Hobbes believed that sovereignty should be
submitted by the people onto one authority, which would secure the nation through
notions of fear and a covenant. John Locke believed that sovereignty should always
encompass the commonwealth, but should always work for the benefit of protecting the
states property and liberty. Rousseau believed that sovereignty should be the
commonwealth, as the sovereign should always work to the benefit of the common good.
I personally agree with Rousseau’s notion of sovereignty, as a government is only ever
established with the intent of benefiting its peoples, and therefore should be the people’s
To Thomas Hobbes, sovereignty was the notion that men should relinquish all of
their individual rights by submitting to a higher authority, on the basis that universal fear
of this higher authority would ensure peace in an otherwise chaotic society. In terms of
his perspective on the state of nature, Hobbes believed that men are in a constant state of
war due to their inherent selfish characteristics. In a state of nature, men are free to do as
they chose, as no covenant to dictate their actions is established. However, under an
established covenant, the transferal of rights between people obligates individuals to act
in accordance with the covenant and thus creates justice. Hobbes believed that the only
way to ensure man’s commitment to these covenants was through threat of punishment by
1 Steven, Cahn.( Political Philosophy : The Essential Texts. New York: Oxford
University ,Press, 2011.) 288. a civil power. He claims: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no
strength to secure a man at all.”
The only way to enforce this covenant is the creation of a commonwealth
representative state sovereignty. This commonwealth can only be maintained under the
guidance of one man, or an assembly of one man, who combines the wills and judgments
of all men into his individual will. Through this commonwealth, all men are able to enter
into a covenant with every other man in the state under the guidance and authority of the
sovereign. This sovereign is expected to use the strengths and means of his subjects to
ensure the constant peace and security of his state. When a commonwealth is acquired by
force, it is an acquisition, but when gained through institutions, it is a political
commonwealth. In a political commonwealth, the sovereign must be representative of the
people through a covenant that in return authorizes the actions and judgments of the
sovereign in full confidence. This commonwealth is obligated to give full obedience to
the sovereign through fidelity to the covenant. Breaking this would not only be an
injustice to the sovereign, but also to the commonwealth, as the state would be void
without its representative. 5
However, individuals still retain their personal right of nature and self
preservation, voiding any requests by the sovereign that entails a dangerous or
dishonorable offence risking one’s life. Hobbes believed that a true sovereign was the
entire commonwealth, unable to make individual covenants that did not encompass the
whole state. This gave the sovereign full discretion of laws, punishments, engagement
2 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 297.
3 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 300.
4 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 301.
5 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 302. into conflicts, and judgments, so long as the sovereign was able to properly protect
subjects and represent them. Regardless of opinion, subjects had to follow these
judgments blindly, even if it went against their personal conscience, as entering into the
state’s covenant meant accepting the public conscience. However, the sovereign was not
obliged to follow this civil law system, as this would make him a subject to himself,
nullifying his sovereignty.
In John Locke’s view of sovereign power, the commonwealth submits some of its
natural freedoms to civil society in exchange for a representative government built to
protect the people and their personal property, with the people always representing the
sovereign. In this view, Locke assumes all men to be equal and motivated by preservation
and liberty. The universal law, which Locke believes is always present in the state of
nature, is selfpreservation in the face of danger. However, this selfpreservation should
be conducted in proportionality to the crime committed against the individual, as well as
on the basis of reparations and restraint, to an appropriate level that would deter any
similar behavior. This executive power is given to every individual in the state of nature,
although it is prone to bias and exploitation.
Private property is very important to Locke’s theory, as the labours of individuals
translate into property, which in turn holds individual worth. The establishment of a
political state is vital to this idea of property, as everyone wants to ensure the
“preservation of his property, that being his life, liberty, and estate” through their own
means of punishment. However, a political system allows for a unilateral system of
punishments and preservation of property that is common to all, allowing for the greatest
6 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 307.
7 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 316.
8 Cahn, Political Philosophy, 324. amount of security for the property of all the members in the sovereignty. Although this
commonwealth disallows acting on private intuition based on the law of nature, the
executive laws that can administer punishment still apply to every individual, as the state
is a reflection of them.
This establishes the executive and legislative branches of the state, the very
sovereignty of the land, representing all of the people