Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Slomp

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship. We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Response to Alexandra Chadwick, Theodore Christov, and Nicholas Gooding.

Gabriella Slomp, University of St Andrews

I wish to express my gratitude to Gonzalo Bustamante and the European Hobbes Society for organizing a symposium on my book on Hobbes Against Friendship; I also wish to thank Alexandra Chadwick, Theodore Christov, and Nicholas Gooding for their very interesting comments and challenging questions.

To begin with, I will consider Chadwick’s typically insightful remarks and address two questions that she raises, one about natural sociability and the other about Hobbes’s model of friendship.

Regarding ‘natural sociability’, Chadwick draws attention to my claim that ‘Hobbes ruled out natural sociability; however, he maintained that men can and ought to become sociable.’ She enquires about the difference between Aristotle and Hobbes- if there is a ‘natural’ capacity for sociability (given man can be sociable), then where do we draw the line between this and ‘natural’ sociability?

First let me elucidate my claim: on the one hand, Hobbes tells us that by nature men are unsociable – a claim that is particularly clear in De Cive where we read that ‘By nature, then, we are not looking for friends but for honour or advantage from them’[1]; on the other hand, Hobbes maintains that men ‘ought’ to be sociable (sociability is ‘the sum’ of the laws of nature) and ‘can’ become so by training (‘ought’ for Hobbes depends on ‘can’). On my reading, Hobbes is very keen to highlight the difference  between ‘natural’ versus ‘acquired’ behaviour: men are naturally unsociable but canbecome sociable through education and discipline.

Having said this, I agree with Chadwick that on sociability ‘articulating the difference between the two [Aristotle and Hobbes] becomes trickier once we reject the caricature of a Hobbesian man as an isolated, exclusively self-interested individual.’

Chadwick also raises an important question about the triadic model of friendship that I attribute to Hobbes vis-a-vis the triadic model of friendship that I (and others) associate with ancient and medieval political thought. The difference between the two models is significant and here I want to make another attempt to clarify it. The ancient and medieval model of friendship was anchored to an entity – the good, the beautiful, God – that men did not invent but discovered. This entity regulated the relationship between friends and set limits to what they could ask and expect of each other. In contrast, according to my interpretation, the Hobbesian model of friendship is fastened to an entity created by man – the state – that will regulate partial societies and affiliations among citizens in a way that strengthens peace. Although for Hobbes the Leviathan is accountable to God and its decisions are not arbitrary but informed by the laws of nature, nevertheless the Leviathan’s criterion of selection is not a Christian principle, but a secular value: the safety and wellbeing of the commonwealth. Building on Chapter 22 of Leviathan, I argue that the state will foster those partial societies that can become the ‘muscles’ of the commonwealth and suppress those affiliations that are cancerous and can undermine its health. In this respect too Hobbes has been influential: although some contemporary theories of civic friendship (e.g. Schwarzenbach) claim to reject Hobbes and to put forward a revised and updated Aristotelian model of civic friendship, in fact they are adopting the Hobbesian secular triadic model of friendship.

 Next, I want to thank Christov for his engaging reflections on natural persons, international relations, and the modern self. Here I limit myself to clarify my position on two topics.

First, international relations. In the book I consider two separate narratives on how friendship works among political entities or states – the narrative that stretches from Plato’s Lysis to Carl Schmitt, according to which all friendship is a response to enmity (I call this ‘negative friendship’) and the narrative from Cicero to the Scottish Enlightenment according to which friendship is the engine of economics and of ‘commodious living’ (I call this ‘positive friendship’). I argue that Hobbes’s discussion of leagues, confederacies, alliances, and factions resonates with themes of the first narrative, while his discussion of financial corporations and colonies shares themes with the second. Ultimately I show that, according to Hobbes, leagues and alliances work in international relations, as do financial corporations and cultural networks; in contrast, neither negative nor positive friendship are effective in natural conditions. This difference undermines the famous correspondence between international relations and the state of nature.

Second, Christov eloquently reminds us of Hobbes’s new science of politics and of the concept of the modern self. I wholeheartedly agree with Christov that Hobbes’s contribution to modern political thought is immense, but at the same time I concur with the growing number of scholars who maintain that Hobbes looked backward in order to move forward. I agree with Christov that there are significant differences between ancient and modern theories and practices of friendship; it is interesting though that both Aristotle and Hobbes discussed friendship between equals and unequals and suggested that friendship can be an equalizer. Contemporary supporters of the revival of friendship point out that the friendship approach is ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘vertical’ and looks at people and states as they ‘stand together’ rather than how they ‘stand over each other’.

Last but not least I must thank Nicholas Gooding for his very thoughtful critique. I will organize my response into two parts: (i) clarifications and (ii) grounds for healthy debate.

To begin with, a few clarifications.

First, Gooding raises the topic of the ambivalence of friendship and asks whether this was in fact under-appreciated by the ancients, as my quotation from C.S. Lewis would seem to suggest. Rather, my argument in the book is (or tries to be) that a range of ancient authors considered the ambivalence of friendship and highlighted the connection between friendship, corruption, and other evils. However, I conclude – following Cicero – that the prevailing view in Greece and Rome was that a relationship that entailed immorality could not be regarded as amicitia. The idea that ‘only good men can be friends’ is attributed to the ancients by Hobbes in Anti-White.

Second, I agree with Gooding that Hobbes ‘has no use for’ the Aristotelian taxonomy, but from different reasons from those he states. Rather than the absence of objective distinguishing criteria that causes the taxonomy to be ‘of no use’, it is the existence of a separate criterion – namely, the effect of friendship on peace – that renders the Aristotelian taxonomy unfit for Hobbes’s purposes. From an Hobbesian perspective, although conspirators may be more generous with their friends than merchants are with theirs, nevertheless the selfless friendships of the former can damage the commonwealth more than the self-interested friendships of the latter.

Third, in my book, I intended not to selectively cite from Hobbes and instead include the range of his views on virtue. I agree with Gooding that one cited passage (where Hobbes discusses ‘the cause’ of virtue) does Hobbes little service; however, what I tried to convey in this part of the book was  that – on balance- Hobbes emphasizes  ‘the effect’ or ‘impact’ of actions on peace and the wellbeing of the commonwealth. Indeed, I have been a long-standing supporter of the view, expressed forcibly by S.A. Lloyd,[2] that Hobbes disconnected virtue from the pursuit of individual excellence and fastened it to peace.

Finally, Gooding makes a couple of statements that are grounds for healthy debate. For instance, Gooding suggests that some views by Hobbes on Aristotelian virtue contain ‘misreading’ or ‘carelessness’ or ‘philosophical shortcomings’. My view is different: Hobbes was very well-acquainted with Aristotle’s work and had an above-average capacity to understand Aristotle’s politics and ethics. However, when dealing with Aristotelian ideas Hobbes could not help being polemical in Carl Schmitt’s sense of the word. As Carl Schmitt maintained that the definition of political terms is part of a theorist’s political struggle, so Hobbes seemed to think that a new definition of virtue – and the vilification of the Aristotelian meaning – was part and parcel of his battle against the Aristotelians.

Next, Gooding maintains that Hobbes marginalized friendship because ‘he had no use of it’. I beg to differ because in a Review and Conclusion to Leviathan Hobbes draws the attention of the reader to the importance of ‘a constant Civill Amity’ within his commonwealth. Hobbes acknowledges the difficulty of developing civil amity, but rejects the idea that it cannot be attained; in his argument, education and discipline are the means of its development. On my reading, the engine of Hobbesian civic friendship is neither love nor custom; rather it is the citizens’ shared understanding of the function of authority and their commitment to obey the law.

I hope to have answered some of the questions raised by my three readers. 

[1] ‘The majority of previous writers on public affairs either assume or seek to prove or simply assert that Man is an animal born fit for Society …. This Axiom, though very widely accepted, is nevertheless false; the error proceeds from a superficial view of human nature. … For if man naturally loved his fellow man … there is no reason why everyone would not love everyone equally as equally men … (On the Citizen, Part I, 1.2, 21–22)

[2] ‘The Laws of Nature articulate moral virtues, and moral virtues are the dispositions that create and sustain civil society, that is the commonwealth-based form of life requisite for peaceful, sociable, and comfortable living. Rational excellences that contribute to the interests of the agent but not reliably to the interests of the collective … are neither moral virtues nor among “the” Laws of nature Hobbes enumerates.’ (Lloyd, S.A. 2009. Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Cases in the Law of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 141)

Online Colloquium (4): Comments on Gabriella Slomp, Hobbes Against Friendship: The Modern Marginalization of an Ancient Political Concept

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship.

We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Nicholas Gooding
University of California, Berkeley
Department of Philosophy

When I told a friend and fellow philosopher that I was reading a book about Hobbes on friendship, she responded with the suspicion that Hobbes scholars were scraping the bottom of the barrel. An understandable reaction, since Hobbes hardly mentions friendship. But what Professor Slomp’s argument suggests is that my friend’s reaction betrays precisely Hobbes’s success: Though Aristotle could list as a “common opinion” the idea that friendship was more important to the polis than justice, after Hobbes, it appears that the default assumption is that friendship is irrelevant to the political theorist.

In fact, Aristotle’s account of friendship plays an important role in the story that Professor Slomp tells. Here, I want to comment on, and raise some questions about, her discussion of Hobbes’s relationship to two particular elements in the Aristotelian theory.

The first is what Aristotle called “friendship for the sake of the useful.” Aristotle suggested that “political friendship” is an instance of such, and though he used the term “political friendship” only a handful of times, later thinkers would come to recognize it as having profound importance. Within this tradition, Professor Slomp discerns two different (though “intertwined”) strands, which she labels “negative friendship” (an alliance for protection against a common enemy; chapter 3) and “positive friendship” (a cooperative partnership enabling the friends to live “commodiously”; chapter 4). On Slomp’s telling, Hobbes’s criticism is relatively nuanced (see, e.g., p. 97). He does not deny the possibility of such friendships, and he incorporates elements of both negative and positive friendship into his own political theory. Where he diverges most sharply from the tradition concerns the question of whether anything plausibly thought of as “friendship” could provide the basis of peace and stability.

Slomp’s argument here is, I think, quite persuasive. I could, admittedly, imagine feeling that her conclusion, when stated in such general terms, is hardly something anyone would have thought to deny. But what makes her discussion illuminating is its capacity to bring out, by means of a bird’s-eye survey of the vicissitudes of “political friendship” before Hobbes, that Hobbes’ silence on the topic is surprising—surprising in ways that we (belonging as we do to an intellectual world partly shaped by Hobbes) might otherwise be blind to. On this basis, it seems to me that Professor Slomp is able to offer a plausible account of the Hobbesian views that can be inferred from what looks at first like an almost total neglect of the topic.

I find myself somewhat less persuaded by her discussion of another Aristotelian idea, that of “virtue friendship”—the only genuine form of friendship according to Aristotle, since, unlike friendships for the sake of utility or pleasure, it involves loving another in himself and wishing him well for his own sake. (Slomp labels this “normative friendship.”) Here, Slomp tells us, Hobbes is uncompromising: Whereas he “made some important concessions to the narratives on negative and positive friendship,” his “theory contains a forceful…rejection of the ancient model of normative friendship…” (p. 97).

Hobbes does not explicitly discuss Aristotle’s notion of virtue friendship. So why believe that he nonetheless rejects it? An initially tempting answer might be that Hobbes—with his notoriously reductive view of human motivation—simply thought it impossible for one person to love another in himself or to wish him well for his own sake. But Slomp is not persuaded by this familiar line of thought: “Hobbes’s description of human nature does not exclude the possibility of one man considering another to be ‘a second self,’…[nor] preclude men from acting generously towards a select few, even if he rules out universal love for mankind.” (p. 112)[1]

So, Hobbes’s rationale for rejecting normative friendship does not derive from his psychology. Instead, Professor Slomp suggests that it derives from his rejection of the Aristotelian conception of virtue as consisting in a “mean” that lies between a vice of deficiency and one of excess—a view Hobbes breezily demolishes thus: “as if not the cause, but the degree of daring, made fortitude; or not the cause, but the quantity of a gift, made liberality” (Lev. 15.40; cf. Slomp p. 113). If we read this a criticism of Aristotle, however, then it does not seem to be Hobbes at his best, since it would have to depend on a superficial misreading of Aristotle’s account of ethical virtue. Aristotle explicitly says that the reason or motive for an action (“the cause”) is part of what makes it virtuous;[2] and, whatever “the mean” is, it is very explicitly not the midpoint between two extremes.[3] Professor Slomp’s discussion of this topic can sometimes give the impression that she is simply following Hobbes in his misreading of Aristotle (see p. 113); I expect that this impression is misleading, but it does raise some questions: Is she assuming that Hobbes’s carelessness or philosophical shortcomings on this score do not matter for her argument? Or that Aristotle himself need not be the target of Hobbes’s critique—that Hobbes’s purposes will be served well enough by knocking down this strawman instead?

But, granting Hobbes’s rejection of the Aristotelian account of virtue, it is hard for me to see why this, on its own, should imply a rejection, rather than a reinterpretation, of the idea of virtue friendship. After all, Hobbes does not reject the notion of virtue altogether; instead, he presents us with a view according to which the moral virtues are those qualities that lead to peace (Lev. 15.40). Is there some reason to suppose (without falling back on that crude or reductive psychology that Slomp cautions us against) that the recognition of such qualities in another could not be the basis of love, as the Aristotelian virtues supposedly were?

Professor Slomp does offer us a further justification for Hobbes’s rejection of normative friendship: “Hobbes took and voiced a position on friendship that distinguishes the moderns from the ancients—he stressed the ambivalence of friendship” (p. 114), in the sense that he saw that it could be a potential danger (not only a benefactor) to the political community.

            Were “the ancients” unaware of the ambivalence of friendship? C.S. Lewis appears to have thought so—Professor Slomp quotes him approvingly (I take it) on p. 114: “Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better, and bad men worse.” The problem is that Lewis seems to be very straightforwardly mistaken here. In fact, his claim could almost be a paraphrase of the final paragraph of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics:

Hence, the friendship of base people turns out to be vicious. For they are unstable and share base pursuits; and by becoming similar to each other, they grow vicious. But the friendship of decent people is decent, and increases the more often they meet. And they seem to become still better from their activities and their mutual correction. (NE 9.12, 1172a9-12; Irwin translation)

            Now, Professor Slomp might (perfectly correctly) point out that Aristotle is not talking about people being made worse by virtue friendship. Granted, but now there is some risk that Hobbes’s purported disagreement with the Aristotelians will devolve into a merely verbal dispute. Any friendship that is a potential “school of vice” and therefore a danger to the community will, for that very reason, not count as a “virtue friendship.” But that does not involve the Aristotelian in any substantive disagreement with the idea that the relationships normally referred to as “friendships” are politically ambivalent. 

Perhaps we can do better. The Aristotelian believes we have reason to conceptually mark off those relationships that are not ambivalent; Hobbes has no use for her taxonomy. Why? One idea that may suggest itself is that Hobbes thought that the distinction could not be drawn, because there are no independent, objective criteria of goodness or virtue; thus, if (those whom we are inclined to think of as) the vicious love each other because of qualities they themselves respect, their relationship has just as much claim on the label of virtue (or genuine) friendship as any other. But I don’t think that Slomp can avail herself of this kind of argument, since she grants that there are, for Hobbes, just such objective criteria (the laws of nature, the moral virtues).

            To echo something Alexandra says in her contribution, I do not mean to suggest that Hobbes was a closet proponent of the Aristotelian view of friendship, and I am sure that there are other reasons that we might come up with for supposing that Hobbes would be skeptical about it. Perhaps we might appeal to his rejection of natural teleology, which is certainly involved in Aristotle’s tripartite account of friendship. Or we might imagine that singling out some friendships as “virtue friendships” would involve, by Hobbes’s lights, arrogating rights to oneself that properly belong only to the sovereign. But, even if we can come up with such a story, I still find myself wondering: What does Hobbes’s silence on the matter show? That his rejection of the Aristotelian picture of friendship was so uncompromising that he could not even bring himself to speak of it, or that—in the words of one of Hobbes’s anti-Aristotelian contemporaries—he simply felt he did “not have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind”?[4]

One can imagine, after all, why Hobbes may have thought that virtue friendship was irrelevant to his concerns, and thus that he need not bother with the subtleties of refuting it. Professor Slomp points out that, rare though it was, virtue friendship was of profound political importance for Aristotle and many thinkers influenced by him. But this is because for those thinkers the moral education of citizens was a (perhaps the) central goal of the polis; virtue friendship was politically important insofar as it both contributed to and was made possible by the achievement of this goal. But once that view of the proper goal of the political community is rejected, virtue friendship immediately becomes peripheral. Hobbes has a conception of politics according to which, even if there is such a thing as virtue friendship and even if it is of paramount importance to people in their personal lives, it is anyway of no political importance. He declines to speak of it simply because he has no use for it.

That, anyway, is one alternative explanation—too baldly stated, no doubt—for Hobbes’s silence.  I would be curious to hear more about why Professor Slomp believes, instead, that it is best explained by supposing that he rejected the idea of normative friendship altogether.

Perhaps, however, there is an inevitable indeterminacy here. It is, after all, a much trickier business for an interpreter to draw inferences from a thinker’s silences than from his statements. And notwithstanding my worries and questions about the place of Aristotelian virtue friendship in Professor Slomp’s argument, it seems to me that she generally handles this tricky business with thoroughness and care. I learned a lot from her new book, and am grateful both to her and EHS for the opportunity to participate in this symposium. 

[1] I am sympathetic with this claim, but I would have liked to hear a bit more about how she understands passages that seem to be in some tension with it—for instance, the argument of chapter 1 of De Cive, which, at least at first pass, presents us with a view of men as seeking the company and friendship of others, not because we love them as such, but for the sake of our own advantage and glory. Hobbes concludes part of his argument, for instance, with a striking claim: “So it is clear from experience to anyone who gives serious attention to human behavior that every voluntary encounter is the product either of mutual need or the pursuit of glory.” (Silverthorne translation, slightly altered; emphasis added).

[2] See Aristotle’s repeated claims that, in order to be virtuous, an action must be undertaken “for the sake of the fine,” e.g., NE 4.1, 1120a24; 2.4, 1105a32; on courage specifically, see NE 3.7, esp. 1115b17-24; on generosity, see NE 4.1, esp. 1120a28-30.

[3] See NE 2.6, 1106a30-b8; 2.7, 1107a1-2.

[4] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, AT 25.

Online Colloquium (3): European Hobbes Society online colloquium on Gabriella Slomp’s Hobbes Against Friendship: The Modern Marginalisation of an Ancient Political Concept, Response by Alexandra Chadwick (University of Jyväskylä)

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship.

We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Alexandra Chadwick (University of Jyväskylä)

I’m grateful to Professor Slomp and the European Hobbes Society for the opportunity to read and comment on this book. As Slomp makes clear in her introduction to this colloquium, her study contributes to that important strand of Hobbes scholarship which seeks to ‘advance our understanding of his theory in relation to ancient and medieval political thought’. Despite Hobbes’s frequent references to the novelty of his theories, such studies (of his political ideas, and his wider philosophy) often find the break he makes with earlier traditions of thought to be less sharp than first appeared. It then becomes particularly interesting—and challenging—to clarify precisely where and why Hobbes’s position is distinctively ‘modern’, and where he might better be said to have transposed old tunes into a new key. 

            Slomp draws attention to the way that, despite his avoidance of the term, and contrary to enduring images of Hobbesian humans as self-interested (p. 4), ‘friendship’ is far from alien to Hobbesian man: ‘Hobbes did not deny or oppose the occurrence of practices of friendship between individuals, peoples, and states; rather, he rejected friendship as an explanatory and normative principle of peace and concord’ (p. 2). She makes a number of comparisons with earlier traditions which will no doubt be of use to scholars interested in ancient and medieval ideas, as well as early modernists.

             I would like to ask for a little more detail about two differences that Slomp identifies: first, Hobbes’s rejection of natural sociability, and second, the claim that for Hobbes ‘the Leviathan replaces the external entity—the good, God—that anchored ancient and medieval models of friendship’ (p. 127). I’ll finish with a small question about the role of ‘materialism’ in Hobbes’s understanding of friendship. 

Natural sociability

Although Hobbes’s alleged rejection of natural sociability is often stated, and perhaps has a relatively minor role in the book, Slomp’s position on the matter seems important. For one thing, the denial of natural sociability is often used to support the ‘self-interested’ interpretation of Hobbesian man that Slomp rejects. For another, natural sociability is often understood to be a distinctive feature of those ‘anthropological and ethical assumptions whose demolition Hobbes saw as his mission to accomplish’ (p. 144).

According to Slomp, while Aristotle and—building on his ideas—Cicero (p. 68) believed that humans are naturally sociable, ‘Hobbes ruled out natural sociability; however, he maintained that men can and ought to become sociable’ (p. 129). I would be interested to hear more about exactly what Hobbes is ruling out. For something to be ‘natural’ to man has meant several different things to different thinkers. The belief that men ‘can and ought’ to become sociable seems to me to draw on two prominent Aristotelian meanings: sociability is natural to man because it is something humans have a capacity for, and sociability is natural to man because it is something that humans ought to strive for. What marks the difference between Hobbes’s position and a properly ‘natural’ sociability? Or, to put it another way, what meaning(s) of natural sociability does Hobbes deny?

I am not trying to suggest that Hobbes’s position is the same as that of Aristotle, but rather reflecting on the fact that, for all Hobbes might have thought that Aristotle’s anthropology was misconceived (p. 84), articulating the difference between the two becomes much trickier once we reject the caricature of a Hobbesian human as an isolated, exclusively self-interested individual. 

The ‘man-made state’ in Hobbes’s ‘triadic’ model of friendship

My second question moves from thinking about the ‘natural’ to the ‘artificial’ within Hobbes’s theory. A key claim in the book, as summarised in the introduction to this colloquium, is that ‘Hobbes rejected the ancient…and medieval…model of friendship that was triadic and entailed an external entity—the Good or God—that philosophers did not invent but discovered and that set boundaries to what friends could ask of each other’. Hobbes’s theory retains ‘a triadic model of friendship’, but ‘the third entity is created by man: the state’. In the book this is expressed as follows: ‘the ancient and medieval model of friendship…was fastened to an eternal truth—the good, the beautiful, the gods, or God’, whereas Hobbes’s model ‘replaces the external anchor—the good and beautiful—that existed independently from man’s will with a human construction, the Leviathan’. It is the state, for Hobbes, which ‘regulate[s]’ and ‘supervises’ all forms of friendship (p. 127-8; see also p. 145).

            Yet, as Slomp goes on to note, ‘the third entity of Hobbes’s model of friendship—the man-made state—is ultimately accountable to an entity that is not created by man—God’, insofar as He has fixed the content of the laws of nature which the state should uphold (p. 128). There seems to be, then, an ‘external entity’, an ‘eternal truth’ independent of human will that sets the boundaries of friendship. That being so, what is the significance, for Hobbes’s understanding of friendship, of the state being a ‘human construction’? 


Finally, Hobbes’s position on friendship is said to capture ‘the spirit of modernity—its individualism, nominalism, pragmatic scepticism, and materialism’ (p.2; see also p. 124 and p. 144). I would be interested to hear more about the role that materialism plays here. Slomp writes that ‘materialism prevents [Hobbes] from understanding friendship as a mingling or blending of souls’ (p. 124). Is this simply because the Hobbesian form of materialism denies that there any such entity as a ‘soul’, or is something else meant by this? Given that Slomp rejects the link some commentators have made between materialism and ‘selfishness’ (see p. 35, n. 10), I am curious to hear more about how she understands Hobbesian materialism to form and constrain the relationship between self and other. 

Hobbes Against Friendship is a very stimulating read, and these three questions inevitably reflect particular thoughts that it set off in relation to my own interests. I’ll be very grateful to hear Slomp’s response to any of them which she considers to be of interest too. 

Online Colloquium (2): Gabriella Slomp’s Hobbes Against Friendship: The Modern Marginalisation of an Ancient Political Concept, Response by Theodore Christov (George Washington University)

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship.

We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship. We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Theodore Christov (George Washington University)

I am grateful to Professor Slomp and Gonzalo Bustamante for the opportunity to provide a response to her book. References to the concept of friendship and how it operates within his larger corpus, the book shows, are not as frequent in the vast scholarship on Hobbes, as one might expect. After all, as Slomp reminds us, while Hobbes excelled in his humanist education, as his familiarity with the works of the ancients reveals, he did not make the concept of friendship a central (or even peripheral) pillar in his political philosophy. Instead his lack of general interest in friendship was motivated by political considerations given that his goal was the establishment of civil peace. Rather than seeing friendship as establishing the political, Slomp argues, “it is the political that creates the conditions for friendship.” Such a departure from the ancient view of friendship is nothing short of radical and Slomp’s book seeks to understand the significance of this transformation, not only in terms of Hobbes’s philosophy but also in helping us grasp the consequences for the modern self.    

While the book presents a wide array of topics from antiquity to the present, three broad themes stand out in the consideration of Hobbes’s relationship to friendship.  

Natural persons

Outside the security of political authority, Hobbesian agents, above all, seek security which will allow them to overcome fear of violent death. They stand in no relationship to one another except that of a master and a servant. The central question, as Hobbes states, is to determine under what conditions “one man may acquire right, that is to say, property or dominion, over the person of another.” The emergence of political relations and their firm establishment cannot proceed from any mutual affinities or personal friendships: the foundation of the civil state must first and foremost ground the conditions for solving security, without which there can be no security in friendly relations. Even though Hobbes recognizes the cultivation and pursuit of friendship as a mark of a decent life, he is largely uninterested in its practice outside the guarantees of the state. 

Slomp concludes that, because goodwill, trust, reciprocity—largely taken to characterize friendship—do exist in the natural condition of mankind, “there is no doubt that Hobbesian alliances, leagues, and confederacies are forms of Hobbesian friendship.” I do wonder, however, whether such multitudes, driven solely by the need for the basic need for survival, in fact qualify for any type of friendship—whether positive or negative—if their mode of belonging is based on protection. While practices we commonly associate with friendship clearly abound in the state of nature, the fundamental human-to-human relationship is that of the dominion of a master and a servant. The natural state is populated by such multitudes in submission to their masters. To the extent that such relationships of a servant’s obedience in exchange for a master’s protection may exhibit elements of common mutuality, one could plausibly identify features that we associate with friendship. But the ultimate goal of any leviathan, as Hobbes continually reminds us, is to de-personify the nature and practice of authority, and in that sense, friendship is not only inconsistent with, but in fact antithetical to politics.  

International relations

The interpersonal state of nature, exemplified by individuals seeking the protection of leagues and alliances, is just one example Hobbes uses to illustrate the main features we associate with the condition outside sovereignty. But he also makes use of the international domain to illustrate how agents interact in the absence of a single leviathan. Slomp briefly introduces the international sphere as an instantiation of, what she calls, a “negative” conception of friendship and highlights its “protective nature.” Alliances may indeed function as a form of protection against the enemy, especially in the case of small states in relation to great powers. But their inherent instability and shifting orientation make them last for a brief period only. 

The essential analogy between the state of nature and the international domain is key to understanding the role friendship plays in Hobbes’s larger political project. His natural persons are indeed states since they exhibit the central features we associate with instituted sovereigns. At the same time, there are limitations to such an analogy given that international peace (unattainable in the long run, Hobbes seems to think) does not necessitate the establishment of a global leviathan. Friendship at the level of natural persons may enhance one’s security to the extent that such a friendship is reciprocally beneficial to the other, but at the level of artificial persons, such as states, friendship potentially promotes the stability of international order itself. Prosperity, the goal of any leviathan, can be partially derived from external peace and it is in the interest of states to develop friendly relations with other states. The cultivation of a circle of friendly states can help a state transform itself from a self-enclosed political unit to a valuable partner and strategic ally. Central to how Hobbes understands friendship is the creation of leagues of peace among states in their quest for security and the creation of a wide network of cooperative efforts between states.    

Modern self

Slomp concludes that for Hobbes, “it is not friendship that creates the conditions of the political; rather, it is the political that creates the conditions… for lasting friendships.” She emphasizes his radical departure from the ancients, especially from Aristotle’s noble view of the role friendship can play in the polis. There is much admiration for ancient attachments to the idea and practice of friendship, especially in its purest form of “another self,” as Aristotle famously proclaimed. And to some extent, as Slomp herself acknowledges, thinking through the concept of friendship necessarily evokes a range of emotions that are basic to human life. What Hobbes does, however, is to erase altogether its potential for the creation of the political. He does not deny that many, if not the majority of us have a natural propensity to seek out the company of another and avoid solitude at all costs. 

The transformation of the idea of friendship from antiquity to the time of Hobbes also serves as a reminder of the kind of modern self we have inherited. Our modern self has left the noble aspirations of Aristotle’s centrality of friendship to the life of politics. The individual agent has emerged as the architectonic pillar of, what Hobbes called the new civic science. But that modern self has also facilitated possibilities for friendship among equals that would have been unfathomable to the ancients. While most male citizens would have affirmed Aristotle’s gesture toward a narrow slice of the social fabric, almost all females and children would have been excluded. It is precisely the task of this modern self with a distinct Hobbesian pedigree that calls for a transformation of politics that is inclusive and far-reaching.   

Hobbes Against Friendship is a short but engaging book that traverses through centuries of political philosophy and recovers a neglected aspect of Hobbes’s thinking about human relations based in friendship. It can also enrich our understanding of the meaning Hobbes attaches to a deeply human emotion rooted in the pursuit of sociability and association, and ultimately peace.  

Online Colloquium (1): Hobbes Against Friendship by Gabriella Slomp.

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Gabriella Slomp’s recent book, Hobbes Against Friendship.
We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by responses from Theodore Christov, Alexandra Chadwick, Nicholas Gooding , and finally a reply by Gabriella Slomp.
Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan Publishing for supporting this colloquium.

Introduction of: Gabriella Slomp FRSA – University of St Andrews

I wish to thank very much Gonzalo Bustamante for the opportunity of introducing my book on Hobbes Against Friendship to the European Hobbes Society. What can I say to a potential reader?

I will start by addressing the two questions I ask myself every time I open a new book on Hobbes: (i) How does the author deal with the challenges presented by J.L. Austin ’s Law of Diminishing Fleas, according to which the secondary literature produces comments upon comments ad infinitum, without ever engaging with the original texts? (ii) How does the writer cope with the problem posed by the Anonymous’ Law of Hungry Midgets, according to which early interpreters of influential philosophers’ feast on choice pieces of their theories, while later commentators, if they want to eat at all, must be content with feeding on particles that are so small and insignificant that have escaped the attention of the fattest midgets?

I suspect that a critical reader might level criticisms against my handling of both laws. On the one hand, the reader might claim that my eagerness to avoid Austin’s Law of Diminishing Fleas has led me to engage too little with Hobbesian scholarship; on the other hand, the reader might point out that my choice of topic is a corroboration of the implacable Law of Hungry Midgets because Hobbes’s writings make frequent references to enmity, and not to friendship, and this demonstrates that my topic is largely irrelevant.

Regarding the second criticism, namely that my topic is unimportant, my line of defence is suggested by the subtitle of the work, which promises an exploration of the origins and reasons of the modern marginalisation of an ancient political concept. The book aims to show that an investigation of Hobbes’s stance on political friendship can advance our understanding of his theory in relation to ancient and medieval political thought and offer a fresh perspective on his contribution to modernity and liberalism.

An analysis of Hobbes’s views on friendship is a timely focus because recent times have seen a revival of interest in the concept of friendship among political theorists, sociologists, philosophers, historians and theorists of international relations. On the one hand, there seems to be consensus among writers that Hobbes was instrumental to the modern marginalisation of friendship – a concept that loomed large in ancient and medieval moral and political theory; on the other hand, to my knowledge the literature has shown little interest in addressing questions such as: Why did Hobbes, unlike Bodin, fail to talk about civic friendship in his theory of state sovereignty? Why was Hobbes’s neglect of friendship 3

influential? What can Hobbes’s theory contribute to contemporary debates about the feasibility and desirability of re-introducing friendship to the foreground of political studies?

In an attempt to answer the above questions, the book revisits the so-called ‘friendship tradition’ that Hobbes inherited and explores three notions and narratives within it: ‘negative friendship’ or friendship for security and defence; ‘positive friendship’ or friendship for the satisfaction of material and emotional needs; and ‘normative friendship’ or friendship for moral growth and flourishing.

Regarding negative and positive friendship, Hobbes does not deny its occurrence in the world of experience. Indeed Hobbes’s ‘leagues’, ‘alliances’ and ‘confederacies’ can be said to be forms of negative friendship – they are empowering relationships entailing mutual trust and good will and are based on self-interest; similarly, Hobbes’s ‘systems’, ‘corporations’ and partial societies are forms of positive friendship, namely utility-based relationships created and maintained for the advancement of ‘commodious living’. However, while Hobbes did not contest or oppose practices of positive or negative friendship, he rejected the idea that such practices can provide an explanation for the attainment and maintenance of peace; for Hobbes it is not friendship that delivers man from the state of nature and sheds light on the attainment of peace; it is not friendship that keeps and strengthens concord among citizens. Rather, it is the establishment of authority that brings and keeps peace among people. In other words, Hobbes reverses the order of creation he found in the tradition before him: it is not friendship that creates the conditions for the political; rather it is the political that creates the conditions for all forms of friendship.

Regarding normative friendship, Hobbes’s stance is particularly interesting. 4

Hobbes does not regard any friendship as necessarily virtuous; he does not deny that selflessness or altruism may occur among friends, but he rejects the view that self-sacrifice and selflessness are per se good, regardless of consequences. Revolutionaries may be more generous with friends than bankers and merchants but they are nevertheless bad citizens.

On the one hand, Hobbes rejected the ancient (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero) and medieval (Augustine, Aelrad, Aquinas) model of friendship that was triadic and entailed an external entity – the Good or God – that philosophers did not invent but discovered and that set boundaries to what friends could ask of each other; on the other hand, his theory opposes, indirectly but firmly, the modern model of friendship (Montaigne) that was dyadic and let the friends decide the terms and values of their relationship. Indeed, from a Hobbesian perspective, both models of friendship can undermine fidelity to law and endanger peace. In contrast, in Hobbes’s theory, we find a triadic model of friendship where the third entity is created by man: the state.

In my view, Hobbes’s stance on positive, negative and normative friendship was influential because it captured the spirit of modernity – its individualism, nominalism, materialism and its practical scepticism. I argue that Hobbes’s legacy has both a critical and a constructive component and lives on. Indeed, according to my account, contemporary liberal theories of civic friendship (such as Schwarzenbach 2010, Digeser 2016) do not escape the Hobbesian challenge but tacitly adopt Hobbes’s triadic model of friendship where the state is the third party that sets limits to what friends can ask of each other. In sum, Hobbes has much to tell us not just on issues of enmity and war but also on civic, international and global friendship.

Digeser, P. E. 2016. Friendship Reconsidered. What it Means and How it Matters to Politics.

New York: Columbia University Press. 5

Gooding, Nick and Hoekstra, Kinch. 2020. ‘Hobbes and Aristotle on the Foundations of Political Science’. In Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide, eds. Robin Douglass and Johan Olsthoorn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 31–50. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl. 2009. On Civic Friendship: Including Women in the State. New York:

Columbia University Press.

Slomp, Gabriella. 2019. ‘As Thick as Thieves: Exploring Thomas Hobbes’ Critique of Ancient Friendship and its Contemporary Relevance’. Political Studies 67(I): 191206.

Smith, Travis. 2008. ‘Hobbes on Getting by with Little Help from Friends’. In Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 221–47.

Stanlick, Nancy. 2002. ‘Hobbesian Friendship: Valuing Others for Oneself’. Journal of Social Philosophy 33(3): 345–59.


Among the exceptions, see Stanlick 2002, Smith 2008, Gooding and Hoekstra 2020. For my own contribution to this literature, see Slomp 2019.

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to critics by Martinich

This online colloquium has been established to discuss A.P. Martinich’s recent book, Hobbes’s Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations. We began with an introduction to the text, followed by responses from Michael Byron, Andrew Day and Gabriella Slomp. We conclude this week with a reply by A. P. Martinich. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


My thanks to the critics for their comments. I will reply to Michael Byron, Andrew Day, and Gabriella Slomp in that order.

Michael Byron’s comments are incisive and give me the opportunity to clarify points that are easy to misunderstand. The first point concerns my explanation of the laws of nature as laws consisting of two parts, one part that expresses a proposition that describes what is to be done, such as “You lay down your right to all things,” and a performative part, which for the laws of nature, is always “I, God, command.” The propositional part specifies what the addressee is to do; and the performative part specifies the authority who issues the command. Byron objects that my interpretation “saddles Hobbes with a speech act theory.” But that misconstrues how speech act theory is functioning here. It is an expository device and as such is intended to make Hobbes’s view clear to twenty-first century readers. Although Hobbes did not have anything like the detailed understanding of language that J. L. Austin and John Searle do, he did have some sense of the difference between a proposition and the force with which the speaker expresses the proposition, as we see in his explanation of the difference between a command and counsel in Leviathan, chapter 25. In short, the goal is to render Hobbes’s ideas in terms that a current-day reader can understand. If someone exclaims that my method is anachronistic, I say that it is impossible for readers today to understand a seventeenth-century author without a semantic bridge to cross.

About the way the laws of nature are genuine laws, Byron thinks that he has a simpler and better explanation than mine. He says that “Hobbes can leverage the distinct normative statuses of counsel and command to do the work … The ‘dictates of reason’ have the normative force of counsel, and depend for their application on our desiring the end specified.” One objection to this position is that Hobbes does not think that counsel is normative; the laws of nature as dictates of reason are prudential, not obligatory. They acquire the force of law because of a belief that God, whose authority is grounded in irresistible power, commands them. If one balks at the idea that the legal force of the laws of nature depends on a belief in God, one should consider that the prospective subjects of a human sovereign have to believe that the people constituting the sovereign will protect them.

Byron goes on to say that the status of the laws of nature “as law, however, depends not merely on their being commanded, but also on a prior obligation of those commanded to do the commander’s bidding (Hobbes 1651, 26.2/137).” My reply is to deny that human beings in the state of nature have authority over other human beings and hence cannot command the latter. Lacking authority, no one has the right to be obeyed. That authority depends on the artificial device of a covenant. But God’s sovereignty by nature is, well, natural and not artificial and involves no covenant. As soon as a person believes that God exists, they understand that that fact makes them his subjects; submission would be superfluous. So, I think Byron’s comment, “The difference between being God’s natural subject and God’s enemy is that the subjects have submitted, which is a voluntary act,” is untrue.  

I turn now to sovereignty by acquisition, which I think is confused or at least confusing, in Hobbes’s text. A problematic passage is “the vanquished covenanteth either in express words or by other sufficient signs of the will that so long as his life and liberty of his body is allowed to him, the victor shall have the use thereof at his pleasure” (Hobbes 1651, 20.10/104).[1] The suggestion is that the covenant is with the conqueror. However, the condition of the supposed covenant, “the victor shall have the use… [of the body of the vanquished]at his pleasure,” is so oppressive that it is between hard and impossible to believe that the victor is giving up a right, as a covenant requires. It led Gauthier to describe it as a “degenerate covenant” (The Logic of Leviathan, p. 125).

Sovereignty by acquisition need not have been a difficult concept for Hobbes to incorporate into his theory. Here are two clear ways that the vanquished or victor could return to being subjects of a commonwealth: (a) the vanquished covenants with the subjects of the sovereign who is represented in war by the victor—the victor could be identical with the sovereign—or (b) the vanquished covenant with each other and make an artificial person, specified by the victor, to be their sovereign. Byron objects that my interpretation “does not capture the point … that the vanquished are submitting to the victor whose sword is at their throats, not to those back home whom he represents qua artificial person.” Distance poses no problem. Whether the victor is the sovereign or the sovereign’s representative, say, the commander of the sovereign’s armies, the subjects are represented. In today’s world, an American president, ambassador or other representative can sign a treaty and bind the American people who are thousands of miles away.

Byron thinks that I have been misled by my term, “conquering sovereign,” which he claims is an “oxymoron for Hobbes,” because “[i]f you conquer me, you are not my sovereign; if you are my sovereign, you cannot conquer me.” I suppose that also holds for “conquered sovereign,”mutatis mutandis. So when a total war results between two sovereigns, neither ends up a conquering or a conquered sovereign. (The intended and a straightforward meaning of a “conquering sovereign” is a sovereign which conquers people other than its subjects.) William the Conqueror of England and Henry V (conqueror of France) were conquering sovereigns because they led their armies. My guess is that Hobbes was thinking of such sovereigns. Also, conquering sovereigns can be victorious through the mediation of a representative, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was through the actions of his representative General Dwight Eisenhower.

Byron thinks that “the consent of the vanquished that confers dominion on the victor (and thus constitutes him or the sovereign he represents as the new sovereign of the vanquished),” means that the victor, who is “the natural person who vanquished them on the battlefield,”

becomes the new sovereign of the vanquished. He thinks that a covenant is made “between two natural persons, the victor and the vanquished, even when the natural person of the victor happens to coincide with the artificial person of a sovereign.” If Mr. Eisenhower had made bold to become the sovereign of Germany in 1945, surely President Roosevelt would have disabused him of his delusion.

Byron thinks that my term, “sovereignty by substitution” is unnecessary because Hobbes already has the idea, which Byron calls “commonwealth as succession.” But substitution is different from succession. In succession, the sovereign S of commonwealth C designates the person or persons P who will constitute S of C at the demise of the current holder of the sovereignty. In substitution, S of C designates the person or persons P1 who will constitute a new sovereign S1 of a new commonwealth C1. The vanquished person intimidated by the person with the sword makes their sovereign S1, who may not intimidate the vanquished at all. This situation is different from either of the two situations that Hobbes thought exhausted the possibilities: “men who choose their sovereign do it for fear of one another … [or choose] him they are afraid of.” But the sovereign by substitution satisfies neither description.

Byron denies this latter point—”When the English submit to the victor, they submit to William. For however short a time, he is their sovereign”—but his denial is made contrary to the stipulated facts. The phrase he quotes from Hobbes, “the present possessor [of sovereignty]” applies to succession, but not to substitution because in the latter, stateless persons go from the state of nature immediately to a sovereign other than the person who destroyed their sovereign.  One upshot is that Hobbes’s geometric political philosophy is descriptively inadequate to the contingencies of political reality.


Andrew Day thinks that my l-meaning, s-meaning, and c-meaning correspond respectively to Quentin Skinner’s lexical meaning, meaning to us, and what an author meant. To give me a reason to agree with him, Day would have had to provide evidence for his claim. But “meaning to us” and “what an author meant” do not appear in “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” and he does not explain where and in what way I misinterpreted Skinner. In chapter 5 of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy, I gave grammatical criteria for four senses of ‘mean’ and argued that certain passages in “Meaning and Understanding” sometimes confused them. The upshot of my article is that historians of ideas or philosophy can be interested in different kinds of meaning; and it is important to understand what kind of meaning is of interest.

Skinner’s achievement needs to be described in more detail than the one Day provided: [Skinner] ‘shift[ed] the focus from saying to doing.” Too many different kinds of things count as doings—producing sounds or ink marks, speaking a language, making a request, insulting the host, currying favor, wasting time, practicing—for that one word to be helpful in understanding Skinner’s theory.

I agree with Day’s comments about the importance of “discursive conventions and social context” and with Day’s explanation of why on Hobbes’s theory the sovereign “cannot be party to the sovereign-making covenant.”

In my opinion, Day should not say that a subject acquires a sovereign by acquisition “in exchange” [my italics] for “deliver[ing] … immediately the life and corporal liberty of his new subjects,” because that at least suggests that a contract has been effected between the sovereign giving life and the subject giving obedience. I agree that Hobbes should never have said or implied that “the sovereign makes no assurances, express or otherwise;” but Hobbes was not always consistent.

Day says that my distinction between primary and secondary states of nature seems “inconsistent” with some passages of Leviathan. It is. But Hobbes’s texts about the state of nature are even more perplexing without the distinction. Like my use of speech act theory mentioned in my comments to Byron, my distinction between the two states of nature is an interpretive device that has the purpose of explaining how Hobbes could say in one place that there are no laws in the state of nature and in another place describe the laws of nature as existing in the state of nature. If one takes Hobbes’s geometrical model of constructing complex things from simple things, such as plane figures from lines, one can understand the primary state of nature as the state of nature minus laws of nature and the secondary state of nature as the state of nature plus the laws of nature.

Day thinks another problem with the distinction between two states of nature is that it “implies that humanity itself is prior to God.” Not so, no more than that a geometer who begins with points implies that the geometer is prior to lines and plane figures. On the background assumption that God exists, that he is prior to humanity would be a fact about reality. That the laws of nature do not exist in the primary state of nature is a fact about how Hobbes develops his theory.

Day is right to hold that the distinction is “unnecessary to account for the bellicose horrors of man’s natural state.” It is not supposed to.

I think that in Leviathan, Hobbes’s text suggests and his political philosophy needs God to command the laws of nature in order for them to be obligatory. If the laws of nature do not genuinely oblige, I think Hobbes’s comment that obligations arise from laying down one’s rights does not ground the force that obligation requires.

Day’s last point, that Hobbes was motivated by “the inherited duties, born of local attachment, and constitutive of belonging, … duties we did not choose” and so on is probably true. There is a disconnect, I think, between the stuff of a person’s life lived among other people and Hobbes’s abstract political theory.


Gabriella Slomp helpfully summarized my book’s content.

Her question about the relative helpfulness of interpretations stimulated by political context of an interpreter directly relates to her own scholarly work, e.g., “The Liberal Slip of Thomas Hobbes’s Authoritarian Pen,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2010), in which she argues that Carl Schmitt was right to hold that Hobbes’s individualism undermines his argument for an absolute state, but not for the reason Schmitt gave. Many political theorists are interested in Schmitt’s political theory and his interpretation of Hobbes; their work on these topics often results in some judgment about Hobbes’s political philosophy. I do not deny that an “examination of historical context” of commentators who are centuries removed from Hobbes may sometimes yield helpful perspectives. But I think that studying Hobbes in his actual historical context is a more efficient and reliable way of coming to understand his views. Philosophia longa; vita brevis.

Every method of interpretation has dangers. One danger in privileging someone like Schmitt is using his misleading terminology to describe Hobbes’s views. I think Slomp does so when she says that, “in Hobbes’s argument, the individual (and not the state) is sovereign,” because sovereignty indicates political authority, and subjects as subjects have no political authority according to Hobbes.

Concerning the extent to which “Strauss’s context shed light on his interpretation of Hobbes,” an informative answer would require detailed knowledge of Strauss and his context, neither of which I have. The same applies to Schmitt and possibly Taylor and their contexts. I have read most of Strauss’s works on Hobbes and some of Schmitt’s and have not found them helpful. Reading those theorists may be the occasion for becoming clear about Hobbes’s thought, but it rarely is the reason for clarity.

As for “evidence that the rise of fundamentalism in contemporary politics has contributed to the recent increase of interest in Hobbes’s views on religion and Christianity,” I don’t think the influence is important either directly or indirectly. I doubt that many evangelical Christians read philosophy and have seen little evidence that contemporary Hobbes scholars care much about evangelical views. I think that Hobbes scholars should care about Hobbes’s religious views because he undoubtedly cared about religion. A more intense study of the religious thinkers in Hobbes’s context is time better spent.

I am not sure that all times of crisis produce innovative political philosophy. Western Europe between 450 CE and 1200 CE included times of crisis but did not produce any innovative political philosophy. It is true that “we wouldn’t have the Leviathan (at least in its present form) if there hadn’t been an English civil war” whether we take “a Voegelian perspective” or not.I think reading Hobbes’s texts closely within the political, religious, scientific, and literary contexts that affected him is the best way to interpret him.

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)

[1] Andrew Day writes, “I disagree with Martinich that Hobbes ever said, or appeared to say, that the sovereign by acquisition is party to the sovereign-making covenant.” For the sake of discussion, I conceded to Bernard Gert, David Gauthier, Gregory Kavka, S. A. Lloyd, and others that Hobbes’s thought or language is perplexing.

Online Colloquium (4): Slomp on Hobbes’s Political Philosophy

This online colloquium has been established to discuss A.P. Martinich’s recent book, Hobbes’s Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations. We began with an introduction to the text and then responses by Michael Byron and Andrew Day. We now have a response from Gabriella Slomp, which will be followed by a reply by A. P. Martinich next week. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


I wish to thank Robin Douglass for giving me the opportunity of commenting on A. P. Martinich’s recent book on Hobbes, which ‘extends the interpretation … presented in The Two Gods of Leviathan’ (p. 14). As the title suggests, the book has two main aims: first, to interpret Hobbes’s political philosophy; second, to reflect on the ‘nature of interpretation’ (p. 14). I will concentrate on the latter.

For Martinich, ‘interpretation is the updating of a scholar’s network of beliefs to achieve an understanding of the text. It re-establishes the epistemic equilibrium that is upset by the initial reading of a text.’ Martinich maintains that ‘sophisticated texts usually receive varying interpretations. The variety is largely due to several factors: (a) everyone’s network is unique; (b) people have different attitudes; (c) people with the same belief may be inclined to apply it differently because of (a) and (b)’ (Introduction to the Colloquium).

In what follows I will ask A. P. Martinich to expand his views on different aspects of interpretations of Hobbes. Although my questions are overlapping, I will separate and label them for ease of exposition and reference.

The ‘background’ question

It is commonly acknowledged that attention to context illuminates texts; consistently, Martinich examines the historical circumstances of Hobbes’s writings and explores their impact on Hobbes’s projects (see for instance Chapter 12). As the historical and intellectual context can assist our understanding of Hobbes’s work, likewise it can shed light on the changing interests and trends of Hobbes. Indeed Martinich shows how Hobbes’s initial critics were prevented from comprehending Hobbes’s theory by their highly felt scholastic beliefs (see Chapter 6).

With the aim of asking Martinich my first question, I propose to briefly consider the heated debate about Hobbes that took place in the 1930s in Europe. According to various accounts, supporters of the rising totalitarian ideologies were looking for possible founding fathers of the total state. In particular, the year 1938 – when Adolf Hitler was named Time’s ‘Man of the Year’ – saw the publication of two works on Hobbes that impacted this debate. I am referring of course to A. E. Taylor’s The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes (1938) and Carl Schmitt’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1938) – two altogether different interpretations that shared one fundamental claim, namely that the power of Hobbes’s Leviathan is limited and therefore Hobbes cannot be regarded as the father of the total state.

While Taylor argued that Hobbes’s theory anticipated Immanuel Kant’s deontology, Schmitt pointed out that Hobbes anticipated Baruch Spinoza and liberal constitutionalism. Schmitt claimed that by examining Hobbes’s argument on ‘miracles’, one notices a ‘barely visible crack’ in his theory of absolute state sovereignty: Hobbes made a concession to man’s private domain. According to Schmitt, the individual, and not the state, is sovereign in Hobbes’s theory; the Hobbesian man decides the case of emergency, namely when obedience can be withdrawn because the state no longer provides protection.

In a nutshell, at the time of great debates about the origins of totalitarianism, Taylor (1938) and Schmitt (1938) agreed that Hobbes was in many respects the founder of liberalism – a point made also by Strauss (1936, 1952; discussed by Martinich in Chapter 8).

So, my question for Martinich is twofold: first, to what extent does Strauss’s context shed light on his interpretation of Hobbes? Second, according to Patricia Springborg (2007), during the twentieth century part 3 and 4 of Leviathan were largely neglected. Is there evidence that the rise of fundamentalism in contemporary politics has contributed to the recent increase of interest in Hobbes’s views on religion and Christianity?

The ‘innovation’ question

From Erich Voegelin (1952) to Richard Wolin (1960), many have pointed out that the most innovative political philosophies in the Western tradition have emerged in times of crisis. In particular, Voegelin argued that during normal times there is coordination between the world of experience, the self-interpretation by society, and the dominant political philosophy. By contrast, in times of crisis, a disconnection takes place between the experience of individuals and societies on the one hand, and the ideas and concepts of political philosophy on the other: it is at these critical times that ground-breaking political theories are conceived and put forward. From a Voegelian perspective, we wouldn’t have the Leviathan (at least in its present form) if there hadn’t been an English civil war.

Indeed, in the early modern period the dominant Aristotelian philosophy could not shed light on the civil and religious wars that raged over Europe for more than a century; by contrast, the theories of unlimited state sovereignty of Bodin and Hobbes introduced concepts and ideas that made sense of people’s experiences and re-connected political theory with real life.

Whether we agree or not with Voegelin, it is nevertheless interesting to understand the impact of states of emergencies on interpretations of Hobbes: have natural and political crises driven interpreters to gain novel insights into his theory? Or have they fostered distorted readings of Hobbes? Prima facie the evidence is mixed. For instance, the works of Strauss (1936), Taylor (1938), and Schmitt (1938) appear to be biased to most contemporary readers; yet these interpretations – incorrect as they may be – had the merit of drawing attention to aspects of Hobbes that were previously overlooked – notably, the paramount importance of the individual.

Similarly, the Cold War can be said to have motivated crude realist readings of Hobbes’s international relations that are dismissed as inaccurate by many contemporary interpreters; yet these realist readings had the merit of advancing our understanding of Hobbes’s notion of security, instrumental rationality, and animus dominandi.

My second question to Martinich has to do with innovation and crisis: in addition to the discovery of new evidence, what can bring about innovation in Hobbes scholarship? Have  contemporary challenges – the war on terrorism, the demonisation of enemies, the problem of the environment, and issues of social justice and equality – brought about innovations in Hobbes scholarship in terms of focus and findings?

The ‘fragmentation’ question

In the first part of the twentieth century we find interpretations of Hobbes that engage with all aspects of his philosophy – a good example is John Watkins’s Hobbes’s System of Ideas (1965). In the last thirty years, however, the focus of Hobbes scholarship has become smaller and smaller. In 1988 Robert Kraynak was among the first to draw attention to this trend in Hobbes studies; he questioned the move from ‘the heroic age’ of epic interpretations of Hobbes’s entire philosophy to the age of specialised studies of ‘aspects’, ‘perspectives’, and ‘fragments’ of Hobbes. In 1989 Robert Orr too denounced and lamented the new trend and looked for culprits. Indeed, a search started for the causes of the fragmentation of Hobbes studies: some blamed the selective approach of analytical philosophers, of game theorists, of contextualists. Others blamed external factors such as the separation of disciplines; universities’ pressure on the fast production of monographs and the twenty-page format of journal articles.

It is worth noting that, despite concentrating on Hobbes on religion, Martinich has consistently opposed the fragmentation of Hobbes’s theory. For instance, in Chapter 1 of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy Martinich reminds us that Hobbes intended to create a comprehensive science that explained everything that could be explained. He argues that the dominant interpretation of Christian doctrine could not accommodate the new science and that Hobbes made it his business ‘to construct a new theological bag to hold the old wine of doctrine’ (Introduction to the Colloquium).

On this topic, my question to Martinich has two aspects: First, how important is it, in his view, to oppose the fragmentation of Hobbes’s theory? Second, how convincing is the connection between a Christian God of love and a mechanistic interpretation of the world?


As Martinich’s new book engages with the context of primary and secondary sources; as it offers an interpretation of Hobbes’s political philosophy that is innovative and has proved to be influential; as it focuses on religion without losing sight of Hobbes’s commitment to science, I hope that my three questions about background, innovation, and fragmentation make sense and induce Martinich to tell us more about the nature of interpretation and explain further how alternative readings of Hobbes are born and developed, and why some accounts become more influential than others.

Writing in 1989, Richard Tuck pointed out that ‘so far, there is remarkably little of quality written on Hobbes’s religious ideas’ (p 238). In 1992 Martinich rectified the problem with his famous work on The Two Gods of Leviathan; the present book expands the interpretation of 1992 and is very likely to revive the interest in the theism or non-theism of Hobbes, in his methodology and contradictions, in the relationship between Hobbes’s understanding of the Christian doctrine and his theory of political obligation, and in the role of God and the ground for normativity in Hobbes’s political philosophy.

Gabriella Slomp (University of St Andrews)


Kraynak, Robert 1988 International Hobbes Association Newsletter, no. 7 June, pp. 8-10.

Martinich, A.P. 1992 The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Orr, Robert 1989 International Hobbes Association Newsletter, no. 10, pp. 2-5

Schmitt, Carl 1938/1996 The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Springborg, Patricia (ed.) 2007 Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Strauss, Leo 1936 The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and its Genesis. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Taylor, A.E. 1938 ‘The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes’ Philosophy, 13, pp. 406-24.    

Tuck, Richard 1989 Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voegelin, Eric 1952/1987 The New Science of Politics Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Watkins, John 1965 Hobbes’s System of Ideas: A Study in the Political Significance of Philosophical Theories. London: Hutchinson.

Wolin, Sheldon 1960/2004 Politics and Vision. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Online Colloquium (3): Day on Hobbes’s Political Philosophy

This online colloquium has been established to discuss A.P. Martinich’s recent book, Hobbes’s Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations. We began with an introduction to the text and then a response by Michael Byron. We now have a response from Andrew Day, which will be followed by a response from Gabriella Slomp and then a reply by A. P. Martinich. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Because I think Martinich has the better argument in the debate regarding whether Hobbes was a sincere Christian or esoteric atheist, and because my task here is to offer helpful criticisms, I will not dwell on that issue except to say I hope his new book convinces more scholars of the theistic interpretation. If a consensus develops that Hobbes meant the opposite of what he wrote about religion, then Martinich’s major work on Hobbes, The Two Gods of Leviathan,may lose its well-deserved status as an indispensable classic.

I disagree with Martinich’s new book on more peripheral matters of method and exegesis.

Martinich Against Skinner

Martinich distinguishes four senses of “mean” and seeks to show that Quentin Skinner conflates them systematically.

Martinich’s distinction between communicative meaning and intention is a useful addition, helping us to distinguish in a more granular way between the c-meaning of a statement (e.g., De Cive’s passages on indivisible sovereignty mean the sovereign has the right to tax without parliamentary approval) and its i-meaning understood as its animating intention (e.g., Hobbes’s comments were intended to support Charles). It is possible that Hobbes’s reputation for atheism and radical absolutism undermined the royalist cause, in which case he i-meant to support the monarchy but failed, and this does seem distinct from c-meaning, even if c-meaning is, as Martinich seems to concede, reducible to i-meaning (see 108).

Nevertheless, Skinner’s own distinctions between lexical meaning, meaning to us, and what an author meant strike me as adequate to his interpretive project, and not so different from Martinich’s taxonomy.[1] Skinner’s categories correspond to Martinich’s l-meaning, s-meaning, and c-meaning, although for Skinner the latter is the “intention” of an author understood as the illocutionary force of her text. Skinner’s hermeneutic intervention has been to shift interpretive focus from saying to doing, which may be illustrated by the following example.

A Martian who possessed a dictionary and a transcript of a dinner conversation, but no understanding of discursive conventions, would be unable to understand what a dinner guest meant in saying “Can you pass the salt?” Considered in its lexical meaning, this question is a query. But what the speaker meant was a practical request. Filling out the social context more thickly might yield other possibilities. If the dinner guest and host were prone to bickering, and the former knew the latter was self-conscious about his cooking skills, then the utterance could plausibly be construed as an insult implying the meal was insufficiently flavorful.

In any case, the lexical meaning and meaning to the Martian would be inadequate to establish what the guest meant in speaking just that utterance; a knowledge of discursive conventions and social context would be necessary to recover the speaker’s possible intentions; and the host’s reaction would be relevant evidence for ascertaining which intention among the range of possible intentions was most likely. Skinner seeks to read complex theoretical treatises in an analogous way. He may sometimes overweight the reception of Hobbes’s writings as a clue to Hobbes’s intentions, and over decades of writing he may have slipped sometimes between divergent senses of meaning, but these faults would constitute a failing not of his method but of its application.

Sovereignty by Acquisition

I disagree with Martinich that Hobbes ever said, or appeared to say, that the sovereign by acquisition is party to the sovereign-making covenant, or that subjects by acquisition are not party to such covenants.[2]

Why did Hobbes assert that the sovereign cannot be party to the sovereign-making covenant? One reason is that otherwise subjects could claim the sovereign had breached the covenant, justifying their withdrawal of obedience. Another reason is that covenants must be enforced by a higher authority, and there cannot be a civil authority higher than the sovereign. Sovereignty by acquisition is neither contingent on the sovereign’s future behavior nor subject to judicial review, ergo the sovereign is not party to the covenant.

As for subjects, even under sovereignty by institution, the “real unity” that characterizes a civitas and transcends consent obtains “as if” each subject expressly made a covenant.[3] The same logic holds for sovereignty by acquisition, meaning subjects by acquisition can be said to covenant no less surely than subjects by institution.

A covenant is a sub-category of a contract. Hobbes writes that

“one of the contractors, may deliver the thing contracted for on his part, and leave the other to perform his part at some determinate time after, and in the mean time be trusted; and then the contract on his part [i.e., on the part of the contractor being trusted] is called PACT, or COVENANT” (my italics and interpolation).[4]

The sovereign by acquisition delivers immediately the life and corporal liberty of his new subject, who in exchange promises to obey. Even if a subject does not expressly make this promise, his life and physical freedom imply it. By contrast, the sovereign makes no assurances, express or otherwise, about his own future behavior. He therefore cannot be said to covenant, and there is no inconsistency, real or apparent, between sovereignty by institution versus by acquisition in Hobbes’s theory, except the ones that Hobbes acknowledges.

The “primary” and “secondary” State of Nature

Martinich reprises his distinction between the “primary” and “secondary” states of nature. In the former, there are no laws of nature, which arise only in the latter. I think there are some problems with this distinction that attenuate its exegetical utility.

First, it seems inconsistent with some passages of Leviathan. Martinich suggests that when Hobbes refers to conditions of “mere” nature he has in mind some “pure” nature, which is conceptually prior to the secondary state of nature, and which is devoid of moral and juridical categories (141-142). But Hobbes also uses that term in certain passages that mention the existence of natural law and contract.[5]

The second problem with Martinich’s distinction is that it implies that humanity itself is prior to God. But man’s existence owes to God, whose omnipotence, and thus his authority to command, are essential to his nature. To conceive of man as being in his own essential nature free of moral obligations is incongruous with the theological dimension of Hobbes’s political theory.

The third problem with the distinction between the “primary” and the “secondary” state of nature is that it is unnecessary to account for the bellicose horrors of man’s natural state. In the state of nature, even if I seek peace, I cannot be sure that others will do the same. Thus, my natural obligations are nullified whenever I cannot be sure that others will not exploit my irenic actions, which in the state of nature is virtually always. For a law of nature to be nullified, it must first exist. Civil sovereignty is necessary for the laws of nature to become broadly actionable. But when distrust is not at issue, even in the state of nature, obligation holds. As Hobbes makes clear, “the laws of nature are immutable and eternal.”[6]

That Hobbes first describes the dreariness of life in the state of nature and then introduces the natural laws is a matter of the rhetorical strategy guiding the presentation of his theory and should not be taken to imply an additional distinction within the state-of-nature concept. Hobbes has a two-image story – state of nature versus civil state – not a three-image one.


Martinich has asked “whether there is a better ground for normativity in Leviathan than God’s ‘priming the pump’ of obligation.” That depends on what we mean by “in Leviathan.” At the level of Leviathan’s abstract theory, obligations arise from a free individual’s self-regarding choice, and this pump needs much theological priming indeed. In the wake of the death of God, liberals have been left with an utterly barren moral psychology, and while Hobbes’s relationship to liberalism is complicated, he does bear some responsibility for this development.

But if we consider the man and not the theory, Hobbes has more to offer us. However “timeless” was Leviathan’sargument, its aimwas to restore the peace in seventeenth-century England. The theoretical basis of that work was self-preservation, but its practical genesis was Hobbes’s love of country. What motivated Hobbes were the selfsame duties that his theory helped expunge from modern consciousness – the inherited duties, born of local attachment, and constitutive of belonging, duties to our nation, and to each other, duties we did not choose, but cannot discard, duties that demand self-sacrifice, but which define the self, and imbue life with meaning.

Andrew Day (Nonzero Foundation)

[1] Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume One: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 91-93. “Lexical meaning” is my term, by which I mean the dictionary meaning of words and phrases.

[2] “Is party to a covenant” is here equivalent to the verb “covenants” or “has covenanted.”

[3] Leviathan 17.13.

[4] Ibid.,14.11.

[5] See Ibid.,14.18,27; 15.31,40; 20.4,5; 22.29

[6] Ibid.,15.38.

Online Colloquium (2): Byron on Hobbes’s Political Philosophy

This online colloquium has been established to discuss A.P. Martinich’s recent book, Hobbes’s Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations. We began last week with an introduction to the text. We now have a response from Michael Byron, which will be followed by responses from Andrew Day and Gabriella Slomp, and finally a reply by A. P. Martinich. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


I am grateful to Robin Douglass and the European Hobbes Society for the invitation to participate in this symposium. And I am especially grateful to Al Martinich, whose work has taught me so much about Hobbes. So it is a privilege to participate in this forum on Hobbes’s Political Philosophy, his latest collection of (previously published) work. At Robin’s suggestion, I have focused on the middle chapters of the book, which concern issues of sovereignty. I will, however, have nothing to say beyond “thank you” for chapter 8, where Martinich dismantles Strauss’s seminal interpretation of Hobbes. As is customary in these symposia, I focus on areas of disagreement, which belies the significant extent to which I agree with Martinich and the debt I owe him.

Chapter 7 is Martinich’s last word in his conversation with John Deigh regarding whether the laws of nature are God’s laws. As many readers will recall, Deigh (2016, 304–7) builds his “nonlaw” interpretation on Hobbes’s pronouncement at the end of Leviathan, chapter 15 that the laws of nature are “dictates of reason” (Hobbes 1651, 15.41/80, using Martinich’s citation schema that includes chapter and paragraph along with 1651 pagination). Deigh claims that the nonlaw interpretation conforms more closely to Hobbes’s scientific method, specifically by contending that the definition of ‘law of nature’ entails that they are not laws. The idea is that ‘law’ changes sense when used in a compound term such as ‘law of nature’: just as ‘liberty’ changes sense in the term ‘civil liberty’, so ‘law’ changes sense in ‘law of nature’ and does not mean ’law’.

Martinich offers several responses, but here I focus only on his appeal to speech act theory to distinguish between the “action-guiding propositional part” and the “force-indicating part” of a law of nature (155). He claims that Hobbes derives the propositional part from definitions via his scientific method, but God’s command supplies the force-indicating part. This diremption is Martinich’s way to explain how the laws of nature are both rational theorems and divine commands. That explanation confers a substantial hermeneutic advantage over the nonlaw view, which has to dismiss Hobbes’s assertion that the laws of nature are laws as an “inconvenience” (Deigh 2016, 309).

Martinich does not here provide an account of which components of a law of nature constitute the action-guiding or force-indicating parts. He does point out that the commands can be stated in the indicative mood in a way that allows them to play their inferential role in Hobbes’s science. The main concern is that Martinich saddles Hobbes with a speech act theory, and the only argument that Hobbes accepted such a theory seems to be that it would help explain his double account of the laws of nature. That might be an acceptable price to pay if we had no simpler account, but in fact we do. As I have shown (Byron 2015, ch. 2), Hobbes can leverage the distinct normative statuses of counsel and command to do the work that Martinich proposes to do with speech act theory. The normative status of counsel or advice is instrumental, consistent with Hobbes’s narrow view of reason. The “dictates of reason” have the normative force of counsel, and depend for their application on our desiring the end specified. Since that end is peace, a general condition of surviving long enough to pursue felicity, we all have sufficient reason to follow those dictates, even apart from their normative status as law.

Their status as law, however, depends not merely on their being commanded, but also on a prior obligation of those commanded to do the commander’s bidding (Hobbes 1651, 26.2/137). And Hobbes’s remarks about civil law in chapter 26 apply to natural law too: some people fail to submit to God and become what Hobbes calls “God’s enemies” (Hobbes 1651, 31.2/186). God’s enemies refuse to submit to God, so they are under no obligation to obey God (despite having prudential reason to obey the dictates of reason). Note that this interpretation has the double advantage of neither imputing a speech act theory to Hobbes, nor introducing a distinction between two kinds of obligation. Instead, it relies on the different normative statuses of counsel and command, a distinction that Hobbes does draw.

In chapter 10 Martinich explains why Hobbes’s account of God’s natural sovereignty is possible, despite the explicit definition of ‘sovereign’ in terms of a sovereign-making covenant. There, Martinich contends that, “it is plausible that a sovereign is a person who has the right to command, that is, the right to have people obey simply because the person desires it” (Martinich 2021, 207–8). This claim probably glosses this definition: “Command is where a man saith do not this, without expecting other reason than the will of him that says it (Hobbes 1651, 25.2/131),” where Hobbes understands ‘will’ as the last deliberated desire. But anyone might have a right to command, which is neither identical to nor entails a “right to have people obey.” What distinguishes the sovereign from any other commander is that the sovereign’s commands have the normative force of law, and they have that force because its subjects have submitted and thereby promised to obey (Hobbes 1651, 26.2/137). So although sovereigns do have the right to command and the right to have people obey, these rights do not coincide in the way Martinich seems to suggest.

The situation with God is different in virtue of the fact that God has dominion, or the right to rule, by virtue of irresistible power. Yet that right does not entail a correlative obligation on us: Hobbes denies that God literally reigns over all people: some are not subject to God’s natural sovereignty, and he classifies them as God’s “enemies” (Hobbes 1651, 31.2/186). The difference between being God’s natural subject and God’s enemy is that the subjects have submitted, which is a voluntary act (Byron 2021). That voluntary submission, with its promise to obey, is the act in virtue of which the rational theorems of the laws of nature gain the status of law for God’s natural subjects, and in virtue of which those laws become obligatory. So it is equally incorrect to say of the divine sovereign that God has “the right to have people obey simply because [God] desires it.”

The topic of sovereignty brings me to chapter 9, where Martinich addresses an apparent inconsistency in Hobbes’s treatment of sovereignty by acquisition. The issue arises because Hobbes “seems to say that the conquering sovereign becomes a covenanting party in sovereignty by acquisition” (176). Hobbes says that:

“Dominion [is] … acquired to the victor when the vanquished, to avoid the present stroke of death, covenanteth either in express words or by other sufficient signs of the will that so long as his life and liberty of his body is allowed to him, the victor shall have the use thereof at his pleasure” (Hobbes 1651, 20.10/104).

After pointing out that Hobbes should not have assimilated parental authority or despotism as examples—much less paradigms—of sovereignty, Martinich proposes a clever reading of this and related passages. The solution is to treat the “conquering sovereign” as an artificial person representing the subjects of the commonwealth: “the victorious subjects covenant with the vanquished through the person of their sovereign, who represents them” (191). In that way, he reinterprets the covenant between victor and vanquished as a covenant between existing subjects and incoming subjects of a commonwealth. This idea, though grounded in Hobbes’s idea of an artificial person, does not capture the point Hobbes makes in chapter 20 and elsewhere, which is that the vanquished are submitting to the victor whose sword is at their throats, not to those back home whom he represents qua artificial person.

Martinich strays at the outset with his term ‘conquering sovereign’, which read literally should be an oxymoron for Hobbes. If you conquer me, you are not my sovereign; if you are my sovereign, you cannot conquer me (as I have already submitted to you). Martinich uses this term throughout his chapter, and I believe it leads him to see a problem where there is none. The vanquished submit not to the artificial person of the sovereign (nor to those that person represents), but to the victor, or the natural person who has vanquished them on the battlefield. This act of submission constitutes them as new subjects of the commonwealth, and requires a covenant neither between subjects and non-subjects nor between anyone and sovereigns as such.

Hobbes makes this point when he argues that it is not the victory but the consent of the vanquished that confers dominion on the victor (and thus constitutes him or the sovereign he represents as the new sovereign of the vanquished).

“It is not therefore the victory that giveth the right of dominion over the vanquished, but his own covenant. Nor is he obliged because he is conquered …, but because he cometh in, and submitteth to the victor; nor is the victor obliged by an enemy’s rendering himself … to spare him for this his yielding to discretion, which obliges not the victor longer than in his own discretion he shall think fit” (Hobbes 1651, 20.11/104).

So the way out of the conundrum concerning an apparent sovereign-subject covenant is to recognize that Hobbes never says such a covenant occurs. He describes a covenant between two natural persons, the victor and the vanquished, even when the natural person of the victor happens to coincide with the artificial person of a sovereign.

Martinich creates another difficulty where perhaps none exists with his notion of “sovereignty by substitution.” He creates this tool as a way to suggest that Hobbes’s two stated modes of commonwealth creation, institution and acquisition, are not sufficient to account for all possible or actual commonwealths. Martinich envisions a possible world in which William of Orange conquers England, but directs the vanquished to submit to Mary Hyde instead of himself. Such a scenario seems to be neither commonwealth by institution—the English were conquered—nor by acquisition—the victor is William but the sovereign is Mary. To account for this kind of case, Martinich coins ‘sovereignty by substitution’ (185).

But Hobbes already has an account of such cases, not as commonwealth creation but as succession. When the English submit to the victor, they submit to William. For however short a time, he is their sovereign. When William directs the English to take Mary as their sovereign, this is succession, the right of which Hobbes ascribes to the sovereign in chapter 19. “[I]t is manifest that by the institution of monarchy the disposing of the successor is always left to the judgment and will of the present possessor … [and] it is determined by his express words and testament, or by other tacit signs sufficient” (Hobbes 1651, 19.18–19/100). So it is not necessary to beg the question against Martinich by assuming that only two modes of commonwealth creation are possible, only to distinguish two moments that Martinich seems to collapse, namely commonwealth creation (by acquisition) and succession. So though I agree that Hobbes might have recognized more than two modes of commonwealth creation, I do not think that this William-to-Mary example illustrates one.

Michael Byron (Kent State University)


Byron, Michael. 2015. Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Byron, Michael. 2021. “Hobbes on Submission to God.” In A Companion to Hobbes, ed. Marcus P. Adams, 287–302. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Wiley Blackwell.

Deigh, John. 2016. “Political Obligation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, edited by A. P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. London.

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Hobbes’s Political Philosophy

This online colloquium has been established to discuss A.P. Martinich’s recent book, Hobbes’s Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations. We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by weekly responses from Michael Byron, Andrew Day, Gabriella Slomp, and finally a reply by A. P. Martinich. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Hobbes’s Political Philosophy describes the large features of my understanding of Hobbes. He wanted to develop a comprehensive science that included all aspects of reality. Thinking that all causes were bodies in motion and impressed by the scientific work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Harvey, he thought that such a science was possible and that it would subvert the unintelligible theories of scholastic Aristotelianism (chapter 1).[1]

For Hobbes and many of his contemporaries, politics and religion were not separate. Religious authority was one arm of sovereign authority. In Behemoth, Hobbes would write, “There is no Nation in the world whose Religion is not established, and receives not its Authority from the Laws of that Nation” (ed. Paul Seaward, 2010, p. 167). Hobbes’s models among ancient societies were Israel, Athens, and Rome. The sovereign’s function required him to have authority to use any means that he considered necessary to preserve his subjects, and that included authority about religion. It was important, then, for Hobbes to subvert the idea that religion could have an authority independent of the secular authority. In 1650, he could not sensibly argue for an episcopal church, which was loathsome to the government; and he was loathe to support presbyterianism, which maintained that religious authority could trump secular authority. Hence his qualified endorsement of Independency. Also, any form of Christianity would have to fit biblical fact and early creedal doctrine. Because the dominant interpretation of Christian doctrine was not consistent with the new science, he had to construct a new theological bag to hold the old wine of doctrine.

Identifying Hobbes’s intentions partially consists of identifying the arguments and evidence he thought should persuade rational people of the truth about the world and the best way to preserve peace. He thought that the former would reveal the latter. Identifying his intentions also consists of understanding what he thought the significance of his project would be, namely, a new understanding of the Bible consistent with science. His project was to subvert the major religious and political errors of Stuart England; and it was not covert.

Most of the chapters in this book were published over the last twenty-five years and directly relate to the main theses of The Two Gods of Leviathan (Cambridge UP, 1992). Hobbes’s ‘timeless’ theory of the origin of government in Leviathan is a social contract theory, according to which people in a non-political condition contract or ‘covenant’ with each other, transfer rights to an artificial person and authorize that person to represent them. By the principle that whoever wills the end wills the means to that end and the fact that human beings will the sovereign to protect them, they will to the sovereign what it needs to perform its functions, namely, the right to judge what is necessary to protect its subjects. That is Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty by institution. In describing sovereignty by acquisition Hobbes could have applied his theory of covenants, as parts of chapters 13-15, 17, and 21 of Leviathan suggest (chapter 9). But sometimes he seemed to deny that the survivors are parties to a covenant.

Concerning his methodology, Hobbes wanted political philosophy to be a deductive system, similar to geometry, which began with definitions and progressed with theorems. A key definition is that of a law of nature; and within it, the key concept is self-preservation as an absolute or limitless value. Self-preservation is not a law of nature but enables the laws of nature to be deduced. If self-preservation were not an absolute and limitless value, it could not be used to prove the laws of nature, notably, the first, which is essentially ‘make peace’, and the third, ‘keep your covenants’. If self-preservation had to compete with other values or desires, the laws of nature would not apply necessarily and universally. Hobbes occasionally retreats from the geometric model, as in his account of patriarchy (chapter 9).

As I argued in Two Gods, in addition to his political philosophy, Hobbes tried to solve two pressing issues. One was to show that Christian dogma was compatible with the new science. His association with members of Mersenne’s Circle is strong contextual evidence that he shared their project of reconciling dogma with science. The other pressing issue was to show that Christianity, correctly understood, was not politically destabilizing (chapter 12). Debunking Christianity would not have been a viable solution during the 1640s and 50s. Many of his positions were perceived to be paradoxical and thus sacrilegious. He admitted to being a paradoxical thinker, but the inference is invalid. Some of his biblical interpretations considered outrageous to conventional readers, were later accepted by biblical scholars (chapters 11).  Sometimes contradictions within the Bible made it impossible to give a consistent treatment of its contents (chapter 13). A point that I have not previously emphasized is that Hobbes’s denial that one can know that revelation is true is compatible with believing it (cf. chapter 13). Most of the propositions that human beings hold to be true are beliefs, not instances of knowledge. A political example is the belief that each person has when transferring rights to a sovereign that every other person will keep their part of the covenant.

Criticisms of my interpretation caused me to reflect on my interpretation and the nature of interpretation itself. Interpretation, I came to believe, is the updating of a scholar’s network of beliefs to achieve an understanding of the text. It reestablishes the epistemic equilibrium that is upset by the initial reading of a text (chapters 3, 4, and 12). Because people of the same culture or subculture tend to have greatly overlapping beliefs, they tend to interpret texts similarly. However, sophisticated texts usually receive varying interpretations. The variety is largely due to several facts: (a) everyone’s network is unique; (b) people have different attitudes; (c) people with the same belief may be inclined to apply it differently because of (a) and (b). My hope was that general standards of rationality would help show that my interpretation stood up to criticism (chapters 2, 3, 4).

Specific objections to my interpretation are sometimes the result of misunderstanding my positions. I hold that Hobbes’s views were often nonstandard but nonetheless orthodox and that Hobbes subscribed to English Calvinism—there were many other national Calvinisms in the seventeenth century—and as such differed from Calvin on many things (chapter 3).[2] To argue that Hobbes’s propounded religious views must be satirical or subversive because they contain egregious errors or contradictions commits the fallacy of special pleading unless his errors and contradictions in geometry and political philosophy are accounted for(chapter 3, 12, and 14). Also, some of Hobbes’s supposedly irreligious positions were often similar to positions held by less divisive intellectuals. Hobbes’s debate with John Bramhall was similar to at least two other debates about whether double predestination entailed that God is the “author of evil,” one between William Twisse and Thomas Jackson in the 1620s and 30s, and the other between William Barlee and Thomas Pierce in the 1650s (Chapter 11). The same chapter shows that Hobbes was not the only scholar to give naturalistic explanations for biblical phenomena.

Good interpretations have recognizable properties (chapters 2 and 4). The property of completeness requires considering all the evidence (or a reasonable amount of it) relevant to a text. If a scholar claims that Hobbes enthusiastically endorsed Independency, largely on the text, “we are reduced to the Independency of the primitive Christians,” he or she needs to consider that the phrases “perhaps the best,” and “if it be without contention” are hedges. And Hobbes’s example of Corinth, which was rife with discord, dampens enthusiasm for independent congregations (chapter 12). Good interpretations typically preserve the interpreters’ tenacious beliefs; they show how the text coheres; and they use obvious or palpable explanations rather than less obvious or non-palpable ones: “The straightforward interpretation of Hobbes’s espousal of odd views is that he held odd views” (chapter 12, p. 237). An objection to Straussian interpretations is their preference for non-palpable interpretations, dependent on secret messages in the white space, between the lines of the black type (chapter 3). Opponents who think that Hobbes’s intended his novel account of persons to overthrow the entrenched doctrine of the Trinity choose a non-palpable explanation over the palpable one that Hobbes wanted to show the power of his account and failed (chapter 3 and 12).

One oddity of good interpretations is that some of the properties of good interpretations are not necessary or even quasi-sufficient for good interpretations. For example, good paintings often have triangular arrays of people or objects, and the arrays contribute to their goodness. But many bad paintings also have triangular arrays.  Similarly, good interpretations are usually simpler than bad ones; but not always. Judging solely by simplicity, interpretations that identify the serpent of Genesis, with the Satan of the book of Job, and with Lucifer of Isaiah are better than those that distinguish each character because each has a separate mythic origin.

Even if two interpreters agreed completely about the evidence on some matter, they might still have different interpretations because of different weights assigned to different parts of the evidence (chapter 12). Another difficulty with getting agreement among interpreters is that while they all are interested in identifying the author’s or the text’s meaning, there are many senses of ‘meaning’. The two most important are the (communicative) meaning that the author tries to impart and the significance (meaning) of what the author is saying or doing (chapter 5). They are easy to confuse because what the author means usually contributes to its significance.

Quentin Skinner has rightly urged scholars to read the early commentators on a philosopher’s works. He thinks they have a privileged position; I agree except when the philosopher is innovative. For example, Hobbes’s initial critics, inflexible in their scholastic beliefs, lacked the openness to understand him. Chapter 6 talks about some of these misunderstandings.

In chapter 7, I argue that in Leviathan, Hobbes maintained that the laws of nature are the laws of God because “reason” is the “undoubted word of God” (32.2, p. 195 of a 1651 edition). He could not demonstrate it because he did not experience it first-hand, but it was a deep and pervasive belief of the time.  In chapter 8, as part of a criticism of Leo Strauss’s The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, I argue that Hobbes’s rights in the state of nature are not normative or part of morality. The central concept of Hobbes’s ethics is obligation, which voluntarily arises from laying down a right.

As indicated earlier, Hobbes did not write about sovereignty by acquisition in a clear, unambiguous way. Though he said that it is essentially the same as sovereignty by institution, he sometimes suggested that a conquering sovereign is a party to it, and sometimes that no contract is involved at all. In chapter 9, I show that Hobbes’s description of sovereignty by acquisition can be interpreted in a way that is consonant with sovereignty by institution. In chapter 10, Hobbes’s account of God’s natural sovereignty in virtue of his omnipotence, is supported by various biblical texts, notably, from the book of Psalms. One of the benefits of Hobbes’s position that the source of God’s kingship is omnipotence is that the problem of evil is forestalled.

It would be helpful if my critics would say something about these matters: why they think Hobbes was not trying to show the compatibility of Christianity with civil obedience (if they think he was not); what evidence I might have neglected in treating this issue; whether my desiderata for interpretation are appropriate or not; and whether there is a better ground for normativity in Leviathan than God’s “priming the pump” of obligation.[3]

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)

[1] Numbers of chapters refer to chapters in Hobbes’s Political Philosophy unless otherwise indicated.

[2]  William Molesworth denied that Hobbes’s works contain any anti-Christian doctrines (Ms. Fawcett, Life of … Molesworth, London,p. 254) and Phyllis Doyle stated that Hobbes was a Calvinist Christian (“The Contemporary Background of Hobbes’ ‘State of Nature’,” Economica (1927), 21: 336-55.

[3]  My thanks to S. A. Lloyd for especially constructive comments.