I am wondering whether Hobbes as an author and his Leviathan specifically, are part of classical realism.

The purpose of the Leviathan is to accumulate the monopoly on force and hence, overcome the natural state of a "war of all against all".

The Leviathan is governing like a monarch, is the final judge and cannot be judged.

To sum up, from my perspective, the Leviathan appears to be more a state-building theory rather than a theory of international state behaviour.

Is my 'conclusion' correct or am I missing something?


Regarding the application of the Leviathan for International Relations, the natural state of war is identical with the anarchic system in realism. Every human and Hobbes fights for their own survival, much like in realism. Insecurity, threat of aggression and fear of others intentions are in both cases present. Mearsheimer's assumptions (Anarchy, Military Capabilities, Fear, Unknown Intentions and Goal of Survival) are confirmed. Hence, I actually am leaning again rather towards the direction that the Leviathan belongs to Classical Realism.

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    Wiki about Hobbes: "Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which expounded an influential formulation of social contract theory." I haven't read the eponymous book, but based on what shreds I know of Social Contract, your conclusion should be correct.
    – M i ech
    Dec 3, 2018 at 8:29

2 Answers 2


from my perspective, the Leviathan appears to be more a state-building theory rather than a theory of international state behaviour.

Hobbes is a precursor to the classical realists

The Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource for researching political theory. This answer is based on their entry on political realism in international relations.

Hobbes' theory is not a part of classical realism, but is a pre-cursor to it. The key difference is that he is mostly focused on domestic, rather than international politics. His theory does not explicitly capture the kinds of international behavior that the classical realists do.

Domestic vs International Relations

You correctly pointed out that Hobbes is largely focused on the relationships between individuals and the sovereign. He does not explicitly deal with international relations. Although (in my experience) many readers apply the state of nature to international affairs and therefore imagine that states behave like individuals, this is not a part of Hobbes argument.

The classical realists are more explicitly focused on international relations. They construct a world populated by state actors who pursue their own national interests. There is no effort to say that states are "like" people. Rather, state actors have their own interests which may (or may not) reflect their citizens' interests.

International Order

Hobbes does not suggest any kind of international "order". While individuals can escape the state of nature by agreeing to a sovereign to impose law, Hobbes does not propose a similar mechanism for states to ensure their continued security. The key difference seems to be that individuals institute a sovereign for their own security, but international insecurity for the state does not translate to individual insecurity. Therefore, there is no reason to institute an international "sovereign".

Conversely, the classical realists see international relations as a struggle for power, not security. States may come to agreements which enhance the power of all parties involved, as long as the agreements remain in effect. Realists therefore allow for international "order" in a way that Hobbes did not attempt to.

SEP includes one other interesting dimension. Hobbes' state is largely defensive. It acts to secure the security of its citizens. The classical realists' focus on power turns international politics requires an offensive strategy.

  • I was thinking about the assumption classical realists see international relations as a struggle for power, not security. Power is certainly a major objective for states but the underlying goal for a state is survival and therefore I would interpret it as a struggle for security. Security is therefore also the reason why fear is one of the elements driving state behaviour into an arms race for example. Mearsheimers argues that every state wants to achieve hegemony but for the reason of security, not power per se.
    – Alex_P
    Dec 5, 2018 at 21:27
  • Considering Mearsheimer, Walt, Waltz, I got the impression that actually power was a means to maintain security. Taking for example the balance of power theory, the state behaviour is chosen based on survival strategies. Just to be clear, I do not disagree that power is a crucial aspect, of course it is, but in IR I am not convinced that power is the primary goal. Do you have literature setting power as the prime objective in IR?
    – Alex_P
    Dec 5, 2018 at 21:51
  • Ok,I was always under the impression that John Mearsheimer belongs also to the classical realists. He and Morgenthau are in this aspect quite far apart. Anyway, thank you very much for you insight!
    – Alex_P
    Dec 5, 2018 at 22:03

A core concept behind the Leviathan indeed is to justify the position of the Monarch. It is indeed a political theory about the government of a nation (and anti-democratic to boot).

Classical realism is, or claims to be empirical. Its subject indeed is international politics, the (violent) conflict between states. One of the reasons offered is that states act as unitary actors - states are believed to have clear and unambiguous desires.

Now these are not entirely independent. When the Monarch is the embodiment of the State, and the Monarch's desires are the State's desires, it is much more reasonable to assume that those desires are unambiguous. Clearly, a state led by an ever-changing coalition of democratic parties has less well-defined desires.

Somewhat less obvious is the desire for power assumed by realism. In realism, there's nothing unexpected about sending an army to try conquer some neighbor. And Hobbes' absolute Monarch need not have many qualms about sending some peons to die on the battlefield. Hobbes eschews not violence, but anarchy. But in a democracy, those peons are much less inclined to vote for some quest for glory.

  • This is a pretty good answer. It would be improved by adding some references, though I'll be the first to admit it's sometimes difficult for academic questions. Dec 4, 2018 at 17:08

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