Absolutism and the making of modern Europe

ben.wilko1 By ben.wilko1, 31st Jan 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

An essay about Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and the role of nationalism in the emergence modern Europe.

Absolutism and the making of modern Europe

Although written later, the 17th Century definition of Absolutism in the Danske Lov of 1683 is particularly fitting when analysing the front piece of Hobbes’ Leviathan. According to this Danish law, under Absolutism, the monarch alone had: “supreme authority to draw up laws and ordinances according to his will and pleasure” and furthermore “supreme authority over the entire clergy”. (Munck, 1990 p340) This is reflected in the iconic front cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan (illustrated by Abraham Bosse with input from Hobbes), which depicts his view of a ‘Leviathan’ or, more aptly a sovereign standing over his kingdom seemingly commanding aspects of the earth and the divine. It also shows different symbols of both religion and divine symbols and earthly powers and war, separated respectively, with the equals of each idea parallel to each other. As Merriman notes, a fundamental belief underpinning the notion of both Absolutism and the notion of the Divine right of Kings, was that; “Nothing upon earth is greater or higher next unto God than the majesty of kings.” (2004, 263)

The Age of Absolutism can be defined as the claiming of unlimited rule by monarchs or governments throughout Europe. It was indeed a firm belief of Hobbes’, that in order to maintain order and to further the development of common-wealth, there was a requirement for a limit on the liberty of the people and for the power of the state to be trusted under one entity. In the text of Levtiathan, Hobbes outlines his views of Absolutism further by explaining that without a common ruler or sovereign, humans “are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as …every man, against every man”. (1651, Chapter 13) This statement draws on one of the main causes of the emergence of Absolutism in Europe; the ongoing and almost continuous religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Due to the political and religious unrest created by such wars, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) –which brought together rulers from some of the major European states to discuss a basis of state sovereignty. The Treaty signaled a new concept of a single sovereign having the power to choose the religion of their own states. Under the Treaty, a sovereign of an Absolute State had Divine Right and was feared by his/her subjects; without such fear it was believed that “the natural state of the human race is selfish and moved only by a need for power.” With such a belief in mind, the frontispiece of Leviathan depicts the ideal of absolutism that a nation is stronger if the “need for power” is vested entirely in one unit or person. The image of the Monarch emerging out of the mountains with his body made up of the masses themselves, suggests the link between God, the King and the people as one. However, this all encompassing image is immediately undercut by the prominence of the Monarch’s head – without his intelligence and wisdom, the masses would fail to survive.

Whilst Absolutism as a system of power worked to the advantage of the Monarch, as the 18th Century approached and progressed, critics of the system became increasingly concerned about the abuses of power that the Monarch could wield under the veil of the rights of Kings. As a consequence of such questioning, a new and modern Europe began to emerge – a Europe which saw the emergence of greater religious tolerance and the rise of Republic. A clear example of this can be seen in the build up to the French Revolution (1789-99) during which the Monarch was challenged to the point of extinction, and the voice of the people was heard in a new Egalitarian way that previously would have been inconceivable.

The changes that took place in Europe in the late eighteenth century were clearly a fundamental part of the development of a new Europe made up of individual nation states. However, these changes were not only linked to the power of State. Whereas previously there was a wide connection with the Catholic Church, this was replaced with a sense of national identity throughout previously Absolutist European countries. Likewise, wars that had once been fought purely as a result of religious tensions, later wars in Europe began to focus of the balance and attainment of power between states.

Hobbes used the illustration on the front of Leviathan to symbolize and even glorify the key features of absolutism. The legacy of the Age of Absolutism can be seen throughout modern Europe yet at the same time and quite ironically, one thing that we can see from the front cover of Leviathan is that the common-wealth of citizens that Hobbes saw united under the absolute ruler paved the way for the heightened importance of community nationhood.


Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan part 1, chapter 13

Merriman, J (2004) A History of Modern Europe (2nd ed.). London: W.W. Norton & Company

Munck, T. (1990) Seventeenth Century Europe 1598-1700. London: Macmillan Press ltd.

'Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan' 2009,in The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather guide, Helicon, Abington, United Kingdom, retrieved 01 December 2009, <http://www.credoreference.com/entry/heliconhe/hobbes_thomas_leviathan>


Absolutism, Divine Right, Europe, Leviathan, Monarchy, Nationalism, Nations

Meet the author

author avatar ben.wilko1
Student of German studies with a passion for languages

Share this page

moderator Peter B. Giblett moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar PeaceMaster
1st Feb 2013 (#)

Wow! That's very informative.

Reply to this comment

author avatar GV Rama Rao
3rd Feb 2013 (#)

Excellent essay.

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?