Discussion (2): Raffaella Santi and Ioannis Evrigenis debate Hobbes’s state of nature.




Response to Raffaella Santi’s Comments



Ioannis D. Evrigenis (Tufts University)



I am grateful to Raffaella Santi for her insightful comments on my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes. Santi has identified a key issue in regard to Hobbes’s state of nature, not least because of Hobbes’s insistence on proper method and his aspiration to be the first to put politics on a proper foundation. That issue is science and its place in Hobbes’s account.

Santi and I disagree on only one thing: the view that she ascribes to me regarding the scientific status of Hobbes’s state of nature. She writes, ‘[f]or Evrigenis, the state of nature is not scientific at all’, and adds ‘[i]t is an image used rhetorically’. Although I never claimed the former, I will admit complicity in possibly leading some readers to that conclusion. I will argue, however, that the fault is Hobbes’s, for that conclusion is evidence of his success in producing what in the Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique he calls ‘a kind of science’.

Santi’s former conclusion, namely that I think the state of nature not scientific, is based on the assumption that science and rhetoric are mutually exclusive, an assumption that I reject. Santi made a very generous reference to my book, Images of Anarchy, wherein I devote more space to this issue. The first piece of evidence, then, is the book’s subtitle: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature. I cannot reproduce the argument in all its details, but I will list certain pertinent points.

Contrary to accounts such as Strauss’s and Skinner’s, which see Hobbes’s development as manifested in stages marked by turns, I argue that Hobbes made consistent use of both rhetoric and science, throughout his political treatises. Others, notably Tuck, have argued that the earlier political works are every bit as rhetorical as Leviathan, and I agree. For me, however, the use of rhetoric does not signal the absence of science. This argument applies on two levels.

First, it is possible to envision what in my book I call ‘a science of rhetoric’, namely an account of what language should be expected to do to audiences. The evidence from the Elements and De Cive shows that Hobbes was tweaking this part of his theory from the beginning, placing a lot of weight on the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rhetoric’. I will return to these two terms in a moment.

This science of rhetoric is precisely what I think Hobbes develops on the way to his science of politics. The latter involves ‘maker’s knowledge’, but not in the way that most interpreters see it. That is, it does not give a recipe for the construction of a commonwealth but rather, as Santi notes, one for the avoidance of its collapse. The maker, then, is Hobbes first and foremost, who conjures the image of the state of nature, and only secondarily the sovereign who uses his recipe of the summum malum to avoid that collapse. For the reader, it is ‘destroyer’s knowledge’ that is vital.

The very existence of a summum malum, by the way, signals quite clearly that there is a science at work, and the state of nature is an essential component of it. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric rests heavily on an observation about how human beings think about terms of approbation and disapprobation, and a second about how we think when it comes to classification and opposition.

This is where reason and rhetoric come in. Whatever else they may be, ‘reason’ is a term of approbation and ‘rhetoric’ a term of disapprobation. As such, we tend to think of them not just as opposites but as mutually exclusive. Hobbes knows and manipulates this from the start. Consider the Epistle and first 13 chapters of the Elements, where Hobbes builds an image of the world divided as follows:

  • reason vs. passions
  • knowledge vs. opinion
  • teaching vs. persuasion
  • mathematicians vs. dogmatists

Crucially, this list of antitheses culminates in the opposition between the commonwealth and the state of nature. Footnote 11 in my chapter points to my book, in which I argue that this fact is only lost because of the publication history of the Elements and of readers’ zealous attentiveness to titles, which prevents them from seeing the connection between Elements chapters 13 and 14, a connection that Hobbes clearly intended. A careful examination of these oppositions reveals artificially neat domains, even in cases where the description is absurd, as when Hobbes attributes everything good in the world to the mathematicians and everything bad to the dogmatists.

The most telling sign that this opposition mirrors that between the state of nature and the commonwealth lies in the list of the benefits that the mathematicians have allegedly bequeathed to mankind. It is the opposite of the negative account of the state of nature in Leviathan 13. But all this is further confirmation of Hobbes’s science of rhetoric. That science predicts that we are eager to buy neat classifications such as the ones between reason and rhetoric, and order and disorder.

The starker the spectre of the other side, the more readily we will accept the side we happen to be on. A darker and more credible state of nature will always make the commonwealth look better than it may actually be. Hobbes also knows the force of a rhetoric of science, as we are eager to embrace anything labeled ‘reason’ and reject anything dubbed ‘rhetoric’.

My complicity in misleading Santi lies in my having claimed that Hobbes violates his own standards of precision and that his account of the state of nature is elusive and ostensibly self-contradictory. All of these characterizations, however, are based on evidence from the texts and none of them is meant to imply that there is no science at work. Where Hobbes’s standards of precision are concerned, consider only his preposterous statement in the Elements about mathematics: ‘to this day was it never heard of, that there was any controversy concerning any conclusion in this subject’ (13.iii, emphasis added). Or, take his claim that teaching occurs only when there is no disagreement. If that were true, then no teaching has ever taken place.

What, therefore, are we to make of these and other statements Hobbes makes about the divides I listed above? I argue that they are part of his science of rhetoric, whose aim is to lead us gradually to the realization of the summum malum. Many commentators since the 17th century have pointed to a fact that was surely well-known to Hobbes, namely that not everyone will recognize violent death as the summum malum. That is precisely where Hobbes had to concentrate.

His diagnosis, e.g. in Leviathan chapter 18, was that we are notoriously bad at calculating risk and reward, especially in the long term. His neat oppositions were part of the science of solving that problem, not least by putting dependable rhetoric to work.

Is his state of nature ostensibly self-contradictory? Not in its basic form. But to a reader, say, who associates it with the Fall and then discovers that Hobbes links it to Cain and Abel or the Indians of America, it certainly could be. Indeed, a quick survey of the reaction to it reveals that many found it self-contradictory. I argue that this was a consequence of his difficult balancing-act: having to convince many individuals who disagree fundamentally about lots of things, by appealing to their beliefs while avoiding too close an association with any of them, because such an association would alienate those who disagree with its foundation.

This explains his multifarious explanations and examples – from ancient ethnography, through Scripture, to America and civil war – of what in the end is a basic opposition between the undesirability of anarchy and the consequent desirability of order. As Santi points out rightly, all of these essentially point to what Hobbes calls the ‘Inference, made from the Passions’. If it were easy for everyone to arrive at such an inference, there would be no disorder. Alas, human nature intrudes.

This brings me to the second level on which rhetoric and science can coexist happily, and that is the point at which scientists have to communicate their findings to various audiences and convince people of very different abilities to act according to their discoveries. Assuming there were such a thing as communication without rhetoric, would anyone contend that a dry description of fact suffices to explain how rain or babies come to be, to every single person, regardless of intelligence, maturity, or level of education? Hobbes knew well that any truth he might arrive at would trickle down to his fellow countrymen through a number of different rivulets, many of which originated in pulpits. That was a fact he could not ignore.

Moreover, having arrived at the truth about human nature is one thing. Taking that truth into account in attempting to change human behavior is quite another. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric is but a subset of his broader science of politics. As I indicated above and explain in Images of Anarchy, however, that science is best thought of not as the construction of commonwealths as though they were LEGO sets straight out of the box, but rather a science akin to what we have come to call psychology, intended to rescue them from vainglorious wishful thinking. Let’s call it ‘political psychology’, to split the difference.

As I have argued, that science is already underway in the Elements, in Hobbes’s illuminating treatment of how men work on one another’s minds. Continuing through the two versions of De Cive, it culminates in the two versions of Leviathan, whose notorious title and frontispiece make it clear that the most difficult political problem is pride. If, however, it is true (as Hobbes argues in Leviathan chapter 13) that no one thinks himself inferior to anyone else when it comes to wisdom, how can one devise a solution without taking that fact seriously? Hobbes took it very seriously and needed to appease that pride in order to stand any chance of persuading us that we should fear the state of nature and wish to avoid it at all costs. That, I contend, is why Leviathan may well have been written with Charles II in mind, as Malcolm argues, but it was published so as to counsel everyone who thinks himself a king, namely every child of pride.

From Hobbes’s day to ours, many have despised the state of nature and the account of human nature on which it is based, yet even the most vociferous of Hobbes’s opponents sought not to dismiss it but to rescue it. That and the fact that we continue to think of rhetoric and science as strictly antithetical are evidence both of Hobbes’s science and of his success in articulating it. The state of nature is an integral part of that science, and I am very grateful to Santi for having given me the opportunity to clarify.




Discussion (1): Raffaella Santi and Ioannis Evrigenis debate Hobbes’s state of nature.




Comments on Ioannis Evrigenis, “The State of Nature”, in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes (ed. A.P. Martinich & Kinch Hoekstra, Oxford University Press 2016).


By Raffaella Santi (University of Urbino Carlo Bo)


In Hobbes’s state of nature, human beings are naturally in a ‘war of all against all’ that ends only with the construction of a civil state. But a state of nature can re-emerge if the state dissolves in civil war.

Ioannis Evrigenis’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes reconstructs the evolution of Hobbes’s state of nature, from The Elements of Law through the two editions of De Cive to the Leviathan. Evrigenis shows some important variations on the theme, and rightly emphasises that:

The first three accounts of the state of nature tried to persuade the reader that it is an undesirable condition which every sensible individual would wish to stay away from, but they gave him no real reason to think that it was a condition that he was likely to find himself in (pp. 226-7).

This is exactly what Leviathan chapter 13 supplies, linking the condition in the state of nature with that in the civil war.

Moreover, Evrigenis is right when he asserts that

Hobbes was not interested in providing a history of the emergence of civil society. Rather, he sought to convey the dangers inherent in attempting to dismantle it (p. 234).

Evrigenis is correct in his interpretation of the state of nature as a powerful rhetorical tool, meant to make readers reflect on human nature, in order to lead them to accept the terms of the Hobbesian politics.

But what about the scientific aspect?

For Evrigenis, the state of nature is not scientific at all. It is an image used rhetorically, and it is even ‘elusive’, for at least two reasons: (a) it is not clear enough, as shown by the many interpretations that have emerged since the 17th century; (b) it is meant to recall Genesis but without any mention of it. Evrigenis writes:

Even within the confines of Leviathan, the state of nature stands in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself and to the material that preceded it. […] Chapter 13 is elusive and even ostensibly self-contradictory. For instance, while he had described the state of nature as a war of all against all, Hobbes also claimed that “there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another”. He then presented the state of nature as an “Inference, made from the Passions”, but also suggested that it could be confirmed by the reader’s experience, and likened it to the conditions one would encounter amid civil war, or in the America of his day. Despite these difficulties, it was this most elusive of Hobbes’s images that became the best known and most widely influential element of his political theory (pp. 221-2).

I wish to challenge the view that Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature is ‘elusive’, ‘self-contradictory’ and ‘stands in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself’.

Hobbes writes and communicates in different ways, depending on the argument at hand. The implicit reference to Genesis, that many readers spotted, is probably intended, and the very idea of the state of nature was perhaps inspired not only by ancient Greek sources but also by the many post-Reformation theological discussions of the status naturae, status purae naturae, status naturae integrae and status naturae lapsae. Hobbes knew them well: an entire section of the Hardwick Library was filled with religious and theological volumes.

Moreover, Hobbes gives examples from history and, in modern terms, from anthropology, speaking of the populations of Europe before the creation of the civilized states, and of the wild inhabitants of America in his own days. He also mentions men who lock their doors and take precautions against others even when the State exists with civil laws to protect them.

In sum, we are dealing with three theoretical levels: theology, history and everyday experience, which Hobbes did not conceive as philosophical and scientific. As we read in De Corpore I.8 (and as confirmed in Leviathan chapter 9, although in different terms), philosophy is ‘knowledge from reasoning’ (ratiocinatio) and ‘excludes’ (excludit) theology and all knowledge arising from divine inspiration and revelation, as well as history, because it is knowledge deriving from experience or authority.

However, none of this shows that the state of nature is a-scientific or anti-scientific. In fact, the state of nature is a true ‘inference made from the passions’ and is perfectly ‘scientific’ (in a Hobbesian sense). This is why Hobbes does not quote Genesis and why Leviathan changes the all-too theological expression status naturae to the more scientific ‘natural condition of mankind’. (The Cain and Abel example in the Latin Leviathan of 1668 is no more than a rhetorical expedient to visualize the ‘first’ civil war, or to emphasize that any civil war sees brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour.)

We may or may not agree with Hobbes about what constitutes ‘scientific’, but the state of nature is scientific in Hobbesian terms, and does not stand ‘in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself’ as Evrigenis thinks.

Evrigenis also makes this argument on p. 96 of his beautiful 2014 book, Images of Anarchy:The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature, which identifies De Corpore as setting the standards for science.

In my opinion, the state of nature is scientific in a Hobbesian sense, as set out in De Corpore VI.6-7. (The following quotations are from Martinich’s 1981 translation.) Let’s follow Hobbes’s argument:

  1. Moral philosophy as the science of ‘motus animorum’:

‘After physics [that is based on geometry] we come to morals, in which the motions of minds are considered, namely desire, aversion, love, benevolence, hope, fear, anger, jealousy, envy, and so on; what the causes of the motions are, and of what things they are causes’.

  1. Civil philosophy in relation to moral philosophy:

‘Civil philosophy is connected to moral [philosophy] in such a way that it can nevertheless be detached from it. For the causes of the motions of the minds are not only known by reasoning but also by the experience of each and every person observing those motions proper to him only’.

  1. The two methods: synthetic and analytic (with the definition of civil philosophy):

‘And for that reason once the synthetic method has achieved a scientific knowledge of desires and disturbances of the minds, not only those who, by proceeding along the same path, hit upon the causes and the necessity for the foundings of cities and acquire the science of natural right, the duties of citizens and what right ought to be in every kind of city, […] but also those who have not learned the earlier part of philosophy, namely, geometry and physics, can nevertheless come to the principles of civil philosophy by the analytic method’.

  1. Explanation of the analytic method in relation to civil philosophy:

‘For, whenever a question is proposed, such as “whether such and such an action is just or unjust”, by resolving “unjust” into “fact” and “against the laws” and that notion of “law” into the mandate of him who has the power to control and “power” into “the will of men who establish such power for the sake of peace”, one finally arrives at the fact that the appetites of men and the motions of their minds are such that they will wage war against each other unless controlled by some power. This fact can be known by the experience of each and every person who examines his own mind. Therefore, one can proceed from this point to the determination of the justice or injustice of any proposed action by composition” ’ (emphasis mine).

  1. Conclusion: the state of nature is for Hobbes truly ‘scientific’, since it is found out by reason using a properly scientific method.

The state of nature is at the basis of Hobbes’s civil science. If the state of nature is not scientific, neither is the whole construction of civil science, and Hobbes has completely failed in his task. One can agree or disagree with Hobbes’s view of civil science, but it is clear that the state of nature – openly referred to in this passage of De Corpore on scientific method – is perfectly scientific in the Hobbesian sense of the word.

Online Colloquium (5) – Reply by Byron – Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began first with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron and responses by Michael Krom – here - (St Vincent State), Deborah Baumgold – here - (University of Oregon), and Johan Olsthoorn - here -(KU Leuven). We end with a reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Reply to Critics

I am grateful for the comments and criticism from Deborah Baumgold, Michael Krom, and Johan Olsthoorn. And I am especially grateful for this opportunity to discuss my work afforded by Joanne Paul and the European Hobbes Society.

Allow me to offer the briefest of responses to the thoughtful remarks from my colleagues. Baumgold and Krom both suggest, rightly, that I need to say more about Hobbes’s theory of religion, especially in light of what I have said about submission to God. The question Baumgold raises, “whether religious education might be a subject in its own right, separate from and even at odds with theology” opens a promising avenue of research. Krom, for his part, makes explicit the connection between Hobbes’s marginal note, “And to do all this sincerely from the heart,” and the passage in Leviathan it marks, which enjoins Christian agape. And although we need not think that sincerity is essentially or exclusively Christian, it is probably fair to say that Hobbes believes not only in the correctness of the Christian religion but in its being the measure of effectiveness of a commonwealth.

Olsthoorn’s rather longer comment engages the book more directly on a range of points. He first challenges the book’s exclusive focus on Leviathan, on the grounds that “other works in which Hobbes discusses justice and related themes are largely, or even completely, ignored.” Second, he charges that the book employs “a surprisingly limited range of Hobbesian concepts,” omitting to delve into, among other things, the natural right to all things. These defects, if that is what they are, might indeed be grave were the purpose of the book to explicate Hobbes’s theory of justice. But as the book aims instead to examine the roles that submission and subjection play in Leviathan, it is less clear that these features of the book constitute bugs.

Third, Olsthoorn complains that the book engages a “limited set of secondary sources,” which made me “overlook relevant alternative interpretive moves.” The charge of not including everything relevant is difficult to refute; I suppose I plead guilty, and beg to be excused on the grounds that my aim was not so much an exhaustive discussion of 350 years of literature, but to introduce a fresh bit of interpretation without utterly abandoning scholarly depth. Opinions regarding the balance I struck are bound to differ.

I will, however, dispute the specific example of a relevant omission: Gauthier’s reading of the laws of nature as obliging “in conscience without disallowing any particular action in practice” has less explanatory power than my interpretation. I can explain the notion that the “laws of nature are ceaselessly operative in conditions of war without being violable” in terms of the distinction between the rational theorems and the proper laws. The rational theorems apply to anyone with the power of reason; thus, the precepts of the laws of nature are in a way “ceaselessly operative.” Yet they are obligatory, and possibly violated, only where there is a “common power” to enforce them. The varieties of normativity in play explain what Hobbes says without appeal to the wooly notion of “obliging in conscience.”

Olsthoorn contends that my view treats “law and obligation as purely subjective: to be obligated by natural law is to see yourself as being obligated to God to obey it” (original emphasis). He states quite correctly that on my view the laws of nature are (or can be) obligatory prior to a (civil) sovereign’s “scriptural legislation,” and he infers that therefore anyone obligated by them in a secondary state of nature must be effectively a prophet, who has received the word of God directly. This is a non sequitur.

Anyone with reason may deduce the content of the laws of nature as rational theorems. Theists recognize those precepts as also divine commands addressed to subjects of God’s natural kingdom, and thus proper laws that obligate them. In a common- wealth, the authoritative interpretation of the precepts is the exclusive province of the sovereign. But in a state of nature, people have no authority but themselves. Flip Olsthoorn’s question: he seems to suggest that in a state of nature scripture is uninterpretable. That surely cannot be Hobbes’s view.

When Olsthoorn says that law and obligation are on my view “subjective,” he smears the view. True, to be obligated by natural law entails that one see oneself as obligated. No one is an accidental theist. But merely seeing oneself as obligated does not constitute obligation. Legal obligation is constituted by submission to a (divine or civil) sovereign.

Olsthoorn raises an intriguing issue when he reminds us that for Hobbes even the intent to sin is a violation. “Pace Byron, it does not follow that we ought to conform our value schema to that of the sovereign.” A larger problem lurks. Hobbes does not define intention in his psychological theory, and it is not clear given his hydraulic account of motivation where intention might fit in the genesis of action. Medieval philosophers like Aquinas regard intention as a function of will, but Hobbes has flattened will into the last desire before action. Intention might be will, but that would make the concept redundant. This question deserves detailed examination, which space does not allow. In the meantime, my view is grounded in Hobbes’s motivational theory in a way that tries to explain how “sincerely from the heart” might become an apt modifier of subjects’ actions.

Online Colloquium (4) – Olsthoorn on Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began first with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron and responses by Michael Krom – here - (St Vincent State) and Deborah Baumgold – here - (University of Oregon). Today we have our final response, from Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven). Next week we will post a reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Johan Olsthoorn

Michael Byron’s tightly argued and well-written short monograph on Hobbes has many virtues. Inter alia, it presents a new and logically coherent interpretation of an enduring problem within Hobbes scholarship: which persons are morally obliged to obey the laws of nature as laws and why? The laws of nature offer sound practical advice to everyone keen to survive amidst others (Lev. 15.34). Abiding by these laws is obligatory, Byron argues, only for God’s subjects (i.e., persons who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and providence). According to Hobbes, precepts have the status of laws only if issued to individuals who had earlier bound themselves to obey the lawgiver (Lev. 26.2). On Byron’s reading, this holds true for the laws of nature as well.

Byron contends that his voluntarist conception of moral obligation permits a superior interpretation of why and in what sense justice can be said to ‘apply’ in a state of nature (p. 13). Leviathan boldly proclaims that “the Notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have… no place… where there is no common Power” (Lev. 13.13). This claim is befuddling. Isn’t natural law operative outside the commonwealth? And isn’t abiding by the laws of nature ‘just’ and their violation ‘unjust’? To solve this puzzle, Byron turns to the idea of a dual state of nature, developed by Kavka (1986) and Martinich (1992) (pp. 13-19). God exists but does not rule in the primary state of nature. Natural law governs conduct in this state in the form of good counsel, not as law. Since just and unjust have meaning only in relation to law, it follows that there is no justice or injustice in the primary state of nature (p. 3). The secondary state of nature does contain proper laws, rendering it possible for actions to be just or unjust. These laws are the laws of nature seen ‘as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things’ (Lev. 15.41). Absent human government, anyone who has bound themselves to obey the word of God inhabits the secondary state of nature.

Submission and Subjection in Leviathan deserves praise for developing an original and ingenuous interpretation of Hobbesian moral obligation. Having myself recently published an alternative explanation for the state-dependency of justice and injustice (Olsthoorn 2015),[i] I hope the reader will forgive me for focusing on this theme first. Three general methodological choices, I submit, impair Byron’s interpretation. First, Byron focuses exclusively on Leviathan: other works in which Hobbes discusses justice and related themes are largely, or even completely, ignored. Second, he draws on a surprisingly limited set of Hobbesian concepts. On the textbook interpretation of Hobbes, for example, the natural right to everything precludes the possibility of injustice outside the state. Submission and Subjection all but fails to mention this right.

Third, Byron engages a fairly limited set of secondary sources. His nigh exclusive conversation with Hampton, Lloyd, and Martinich has arguably made him overlook relevant alternative interpretive moves. For instance, he does not consider the well-known suggestion by Gauthier (1969: 48-52) that the laws of nature are ceaselessly operative in conditions of war without being violable. Put differently, in the state of nature (which is a state of war), natural law obliges in conscience without disallowing any particular action in practice. After all, when peace cannot be obtained, right reason allows us ‘by all means we can, to defend our selves’ (Lev. 14.4). Leviathan therefore states that prior to the formation of the state, the laws of nature are ‘not properly Lawes, but qualities that dispose men to peace, and to obedience’. ‘For it is the Soveraign Power that obliges men to obey them’ (Lev. 26.8). Byron may rightly object that justice remains, on this reading, applicable in the state of nature. For it seems that any action performed with right is done justly (EL 16.2, 5; DCv 3.5).

Another solution not considered by Byron is that Hobbes does not call natural law violations ‘unjust’ – at least not in the later works. In the 1647 De Cive, Hobbes explains what his infamous doctrine of a right to everything amounts to:

This must be understood as meaning that nothing that one does in a purely natural state is a wrong against anyone, at least against any man. Not that it is impossible in such a state to sin against God or to violate the Natural Laws. For injustice against men presupposes Human Laws, and there are none in the natural state. (DCv: 1.10n; also DPS: 36)

This passage suggests that, whatever view we may take on the possibility of natural law violations beyond the state, such conduct constitutes no injustice towards humans. The Latin Leviathan makes a stronger claim yet, insisting that transgressing natural law should be called ‘iniquitous’, rather than ‘unjust’: “For Iniquitous is called what is done contrary to the Law of Nature, Unjust what is done contrary to the Civil Law. Yet, nothing was Just or Unjust before the Common-wealth was constituted” (LL 18.6; also DPS 31). These passages – ignored by Byron – allow for a straightforward explanation for the state-dependency of justice and injustice. An explanation, moreover, that neither hinges on the sense in which the laws of nature “oblige all Mankind” (Lev. 30.30), nor on postulating two conceptually distinct states of nature (for which there is no textual evidence).

Here, I will refrain from outlining my rival interpretation for why justice and injustice are inapplicable outside the Hobbesian commonwealth, published elsewhere. Instead, I will raise two further worries about Byron’s short and impressive book, informed by the above-mentioned methodological infelicities. The laws of nature, Byron maintains, are properly laws only qua divine commands, to those who have subjected themselves to God. This interpretation hinges heavily on Lev. 15.41:

These dictates of Reason, men use to call by the name of Lawes, but improperly… yet if we consider the same Theoremes, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then are they properly called Lawes.

Byron overlooks the parallel passage in De Cive, which spells out what the relevant word of God is:

properly speaking, the natural laws are not laws, in so far as they proceed from nature. But in so far as the same laws have been legislated by God in the holy scriptures… they are very properly called by the name of laws (DCv 3.33)

If natural law is law by dint of having been prescribed in Scripture, then Byron has a serious problem. For in Leviathan, Hobbes insists that biblical canons are rendered obligatory by the sovereign’s authority (except for those to whom God has spoken personally) (Lev. 33.24). Paradoxically, the divine injunctions found in Scripture are civil laws in Leviathan. This suggests that, until the sovereign ‘obliges men to obey them’, the laws of nature are but theorems of reason (Lev. 26.8).

In response, Byron must argue that the Bible’s moral doctrine is law without the civil sovereign’s validation. In support, he could appeal to Leviathan’s discussion of the triple ‘word of God’ (Lev. 31.3). “God declareth his Lawes” by revelation, by faith, and ‘by the Dictates of Naturall Reason’ (Lev. 31.3). Here, ‘the question is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath said’ (Lev. 33.1). Supernatural revelation is rare, while faith is nothing else than belief in men. It thus seems that in the natural condition, God’s laws are primarily promulgated by reason. And we indeed read that biblical doctrines which ‘differ not from the Laws of Nature… are the Law of God, and carry their Authority with them, legible to all men that have the use of natural reason’ (Lev. 33.22). However, Hobbes may well have been talking here about the laws of nature qua theorems of reason: the content of natural law can be rationally determined. Byron must show that natural law has obligatory force prior to the sovereign’s Scriptural legislation. How to know that the natural dictates of reason are simultaneously divine legislations? And how to know that these and only these conclusions of reason are divine laws – and not, for instance, whatever right reason reveals is the best course of action in war? (‘Force, and Fraud’ – Lev. 13.13). The worry here is that to inhabit the secondary state of nature, governed by obligatory natural laws, one has to be a true prophet, in personal communication with God. If, as Byron argues, mere belief in God gives natural law the force of law (pp. 89-92), then this appears to render law and obligation purely subjective: to be obligated by natural law is to see yourself as being obligated to God to obey it. After all, God has directly spoken and legislated to very few of us, if any.

In conclusion, a word on Byron’s thesis that being a good subject requires ‘desiring what the law prescribes and eschewing what the law prohibits’ (p. 7). ‘Insofar as my personal value schema fails to conform to that prescribed by the sovereign, my judgments of good and evil are wrong’ (p. 79). This interpretive claim strikes me as unwarrantedly strong. Byron righty points out that within the commonwealth, the civil law is the sole authoritative measure of actions (Lev. 46.11). Having promised to simply obey the sovereign, it is unjust for citizens to disobey the law for conscience’s sake (Lev. 29.7). Furthermore, Byron duly stresses that the very design or intention to break the law is sinful (p. 77). Pace Byron, it does not follow that we ought to conform our value schema to that of the sovereign. What follows is that it is impermissible to act or plan to act contrary to the civil law. We can accept this without holding that the civil law offers normative guidance for private conscience.

Indeed, we have good reason to reject the notion of ‘value conforming desire’. The sovereign’s interpretation of the laws of nature is certainly authoritative and binding for citizens. Yet authority does not imply truth: “For the interpretation, though it be made by just authority, must not therefore always be true” (EW 4, 340). Hobbes is quite aware that civil laws are often immoral (e.g. EL 21.3; DCv 7.14; Lev. 21.7, 22.15, 24.7; DPS 31). Why think that citizens should internalize the values immoral civil laws express? Doing so would bring conflict closer. Consider, furthermore, the biblical figure Naaman the Syrian (Lev. 42.11). Naaman was ordered by his lawful sovereign to publicly deny his Christian faith. Hobbes argues that he could have safely obeyed this order, since ‘that action is not his, but his Soveraigns’. The third law of nature did indeed require Naaman to obey. Yet Hobbes nowhere claims that to be a good subject, Naaman should adopt his sovereign’s heretical value schema. All he needs to do is obey. In Hobbes’s view, I contend, citizens may think and value whatever they want, provided they take the civil law as their rule of actions. Hobbes is more liberal, in this respect, than Byron suggests (pp. 9, 114-15).



Gauthier, David. 1969. The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Olsthoorn, Johan. 2015. ‘Why justice and injustice have no place outside the Hobbesian State’, European Journal of Political Theory 14, no. 1: 19–36.

Online Colloquium (3) – Baumgold on Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began first with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron and a response by Michael Krom (St Vincent State). This is now followed by a response by Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon). Look for responses by Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven) next week, and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Deborah Baumgold

Byron tells us at the outset that the basis of this interpretation is a ‘seldom-remarked passage’ in Leviathan on rulers’ duty: ‘[subjects] are to be taught that, not only the unjust facts, but the designs and intentions to do them . . . are injustice, which consisteth in the pravity of the will as well as the irregularity of the act’ (pp. x, 2). ‘The goal of this essay is modest’, he continues, ‘and its focus tight: the objective is to draw on a range of interpretative resources in order to resolve a set of textual issues, especially concerning Hobbes’s idea of a good subject’ (p. 10). The textual issues concern moral, political and religious obligation and are drawn from the secondary philosophical literature, principally from Sharon Lloyd’s and Al Martinich’s works and, to lesser extent, from arguments by Bernard Gert, Jean Hampton, Gregory Kafka and Perez Zagorin. By virtue of the secondary context, there are alternative ways of viewing and assessing Byron’s interpretation: as a reading of Hobbes’s texts or as a contribution to an interpretive stream within current moral philosophy.

Both in intention and impact, the work seems better read as the latter than the former. In lieu of focusing on textual discussions of servitude, subjection and slavery, the titular theme is a constructed distinction between mere submission and subjection done well.

The activity of subjection is distinct from the act of submission . . . submission is the last act a person performs in a state of nature, whereas subjection is an ongoing activity in a commonwealth. My act of submission constitutes me as a subject and the sovereign as my sovereign. . . . But the daily business of fulfilling that promise and continuing to obey the sovereign is much more than submission. Subjection is a distinct activity the successful performance of which includes the adoption of the VCD (p. 83).

‘VCD’ is shorthand for ‘value conforming desire’: political subjection centrally consists, in Byron’s view, in adoption of the sovereign’s ‘value schema’, especially as this is codified in civil law. Thus one might characterize the overall interpretation as conjoining the concept of justice as a virtue (the possession of a ‘just man’) with Leviathan’s emphasis on the sovereign’s duty of political education.  Good subjects are those who have been well-educated in and have adopted the sovereign’s outlook and values.

Having developed a different line of interpretation of subjection, one based more explicitly on the textual servant/slave contrast, I am understandably skeptical about the textual authenticity of the interpretation. However, I find much of interest in the arguments themselves, especially as these concern religion. Byron asserts that the submission/subjection distinction applies to human’s relationship to God as well as to political subjection. There is, he says, but one difference between the relationships: towards God, submission is accomplished simply by belief. By virtue of irresistible power, God possesses the right to govern, no contract is required (§4.3.3).

But, I suggest, there is actually a further difference, which is a problematic point in Byron’s interpretation but also points to an intriguing extension of Leviathan’s emphasis on political education. The difference is that the sovereign’s value schema can be a certainty (presuming a rational sovereign) but God’s cannot be. Recognizing the problem, Byron has to take the further step of specifying content. He equates Hobbes’s undoubted theism with Christian belief: ‘Crucial to this argument is a proper understanding of God: a providential God in an orthodox Christian conception is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good. So when I believe in that God, I thereby accept that God has irresistible power and therefore dominion over the world’ (p. 91). With basic content thus specified, Byron follows Hobbes in deducing subjects’ obligation to adopt their sovereign’s brand of Christianity.

While the argument seems to sidestep the pressing issues of religious knowledge and pluralism that greatly concerned Hobbes and his contemporaries, Byron’s discussion of the role of an authoritative value schema suggests a possible extension of Leviathan’s discussion of political education. Only in that final version of the theory did Hobbes emphasize political education, identifying it as a major duty of the sovereign and laying out key points in which subjects should be instructed (chapter 30, ¶3-13). By extension, might one expect religious education to have a similarly enhanced role in the work? So, pace the contrast drawn above between textual and analytic readings, Byron’s reading generates a question about the text: Does Part III of Leviathan’s evidence a trajectory of developing concern with what subjects should be taught as contrasted, say, to theological argumentation and ecclesiology? An intriguing hint in this direction, at least in the negative, can be found in comparison with the organization of the parallel Part III in De Cive. There, he employed a substantive template, dividing the Part into successive chapters on divine government by nature, the old covenant, and the new covenant. The straightforward arrangement is abandoned in Leviathan, where casual perusal indicates Hobbes was intent on pressing a Scriptural definition of God’s value schema (aka the ‘word of God’). So perhaps he was more orthodox a Christian as regards religious education—what subjects should be taught—than in his theological views? Instead of equating theism with a (Christian) authoritative value schema, Byron could follow his own lead and consider whether religious education might be a subject in its own right, separate from and even at odds with theology, in Leviathan.

Online Colloquium (2) Krom on Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began last week with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron himself. This is now followed by a response by Michael Krom (St Vincent State). In subsequent weeks we will feature responses by Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon) and Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven), and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response from Michael Krom

In Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth, Michael Byron presents a tight, focused argument that Hobbes has 1) a voluntarist conception of moral obligation in what Byron calls the ‘secondary state of nature’; and 2) the view that good subjects must conform their desires to those of the sovereign. Given the nature of this forum and the fact that Byron has opened it with a succinct summary of the book, I will not review the main points of his argument. Instead, I will 1) raise some questions concerning his interpretation; and 2) open up discussion on the implications of his interpretation for contemporary theory.

First, regarding his interpretation, Byron says throughout the book that he is talking about Hobbes’s Christian commitments (see, e.g., 3, 17, 91) and yet he tells us very little about the Christian Commonwealth. His arguments are focused almost entirely on natural religion. To some extent, this might not affect Byron’s interpretation, but it would be helpful for him to show how his theory would address this. For example, Hobbes tells us that those in the natural kingdom obey because of the rewards God will give them for doing so (Lev. 31.2), and yet he also takes up the orthodox Christian view that God will punish with damnation all who do not believe in Christ (Lev. 43.3). Why would the good pagan in the state of nature, or the sovereign who is not a Christian, be obligated to obey a God who will punish both the obedient and disobedient pagan? Perhaps Hobbes means rewards in this life, and the good pagan would know nothing of his future doom? And, these good subjects who conform their desires to those of the sovereign, are they good pagans or good Christians, or both? The passage that Byron cites regarding obeying ‘sincerely from the heart’ (Lev. 30.13) suggests that the good subjects Hobbes has in mind are not just good pagans, but good Christians: Hobbes explicitly structures his discussion of the obligations of sovereigns and subjects around the ten commandments as summarized by Jesus as love of God and neighbor.

I am reminded of a puzzle that A.E. Taylor found in Hobbes’s works: whereas in Elements of Law Hobbes claimed that only those in the prophetic kingdom know the theorems to be laws, in De Cive he says those in the natural kingdom know this as well. Why did Hobbes change or develop his views? And, why did he develop his theory without explaining ‘how . . . [he] supposes persons unacquainted with the Scriptures to have discovered that the natural law is a command of God’ (Taylor, 420). All of this is important because it touches upon a broad range of interpretive issues, and a host of scholarly works, regarding the sincerity of Hobbes’s Christianity; the extent to which he may be ‘de-fanging’ Christianity for his political purposes; the extent to which the natural/prophetic distinction should be taken as central to his work or just part of the rhetorical context; etc. It would have been helpful for Byron to follow Hobbes’s own distinction between natural and prophetic religion so as to clarify his thesis, especially given that he takes the sincerity quote from Lev. 30.13 to be central to his own argument.

Second, regarding the implications of his work for contemporary theory, scholars generally agree that Hobbes is the, or at least a, founder of the modern social contract tradition. To the extent that we still understand politics in terms of contracts between peoples and/or their rulers or representatives, Hobbes is thus an important figure in our own political tradition. Yet, to the extent that one can separate the social contract tradition from modern liberalism, there is considerable disagreement over whether Hobbes can be included in the liberal canon. To some extent this reflects what the scholars themselves think about the modern liberal project: whereas John Rawls seems to have thought it was important to call Hobbes a social contract, but not a liberal, theorist, critics of liberalism such as Leo Strauss and C.B. Macpherson (at least in liberalism’s ‘possessive individualism’ form) perhaps delight in showing how illiberal liberalism’s founder is. Given Hobbes’s program for centralized government; his rejection of Church/State separation; and his rejection of robust civil liberty, it is no wonder that theorists today would want to distance themselves from him. According to liberalism’s critics, if one can show, for example, that Rawls’s liberalism has its roots in Hobbesian authoritarianism, one seems to unmask the veil of ignorance as a contemporary way to justify the divinization of political authority.

Michael Byron hints at this issue when, both in the Introduction and in the concluding chapter’s discussion of ‘harmless liberty,’ he points out that the version of Hobbes he gives us is, in his own words, ‘less liberal . . . than some interpreters may like’ (9). What might Byron mean by this? That some would like Hobbes to be liberal? And, why does he not indicate that he himself does not like how illiberal Hobbes turns out to be? Is he indicating his agreement with Hobbes’s voluntarist conception of obligation and the need for citizens to conform their desires to the government’s value schema? Does he, while recognizing that Hobbes unfortunately seems ‘illiberal,’ intend to defend a liberalism that leaves us with nothing but ‘harmless liberty?’ Perhaps instead he is simply telling those who think of Hobbes as a liberal that they are wrong, and I am just reading too much into this. Yet it is a curious expression, and I wonder what Byron himself thinks about all this: Does Hobbes have something to offer us today? What contribution can Byron’s Hobbes make to contemporary political conversations?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Byron should have taken up these bigger questions, for that is not his purpose. It is hard enough to get Hobbes right, let alone tell us what Hobbes has to say to us today. I simply offer this as a springboard for conversation regarding what Byron’s interpretation of Hobbes might have to say for current discourse. If we could bring Hobbes into current discussions about the necessity of God for morality, or of religion for politics, or of the Rawlsian version of liberalism, what would he have to say to us? Byron’s book gave me much to think about on such issues, and I would like to hear why he thinks the Hobbes of submission and subjection might be important for us today.


Baier, Annette C., ‘Commodious Living’, Synthese 72. 2 (1987): 157-185.

Barnouw, Jeffrey, ‘Persuasion in Hobbes’s Leviathan’, Hobbes Studies 1 (1988): 3-25.

Button, Mark E., Contract, Culture, and Citizenship: Transformative Liberalism from Hobbes to

Rawls (College Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

Cooke, Paul D., Hobbes and Christianity: Reassessing the Bible in Leviathan (Lanham, Md.:

Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

Herzog, Don, Happy Slaves: A Critique of Consent Theory (Chicago: The University of

Chicago Press, 1989).

Hood, F.C., The Divine Politics of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

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Transformation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Lund, William, ‘Neither Behemoth nor Leviathan; Explaining Hobbes’s Illiberal Politics,’

Filozofski Vestnik 24:2 (2003): 59-83.

Macpherson, C.B. Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1989).

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Fool,’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 (2001): 406-19.

Sreedhar, Susanne, Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan (New York: Cambridge UP,


Taylor, A.E., ‘The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes,’ Philosophy 13 (1938): 406-424.

Warrender, Howard, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1957).

Westmoreland, Robert, ‘The Hobbesian Roots of Contemporary Liberalism,’ Faith and

Philosophy 8 (1991): 505-23.


Online Colloquium (1) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron himself. This will be followed by weekly responses by Michael Krom (St Vincent State), Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon) and Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven), and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.


Note: the following essay is adapted from the Introduction of the book and aims to offer an overview of the argument. It is published here with permission of the copyright holder. Many thanks to Joanne Paul and the European Hobbes Society for the opportunity to discuss my work. –M.B.

And to do all this sincerely from the heart Lastly, [subjects] are to be taught that, not only the unjust facts, but the designs and intentions to do them (though by accident hindered) are injustice, which consisteth in the pravity of the will as well as the irregularity of the act. And this is the intention of the tenth commandment, and the sum of the second table, which is reduced all to this one commandment of mutual charity: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, as the sum of the first table is reduced to the love of God, whom they had then newly received as their king (Leviathan, chapter xxx).

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously characterizes the state of nature as a predicament in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ The only means of escape from that dire condition is to found a commonwealth, with its notorious sovereign. Hobbes invests the sovereign with virtually absolute power over the poor subjects of the commonwealth, and that vast and unlimited sovereign has drawn the reader’s eye for 350 years.

Yet Hobbes has a great deal to say about subjects in a commonwealth as well, and he articulates a normative conception of a good subject. For some, subjects are a foil for the sovereign: potentially rebellious, foolish, and criminal, subjects are best cowed and crushed under the sovereign’s oppressive hand. And this for their own good: only through such domination can people live together in peace. This essay, in contrast, begins from a seldom-remarked upon passage where Hobbes invites sovereigns to cultivate their subjects’ devotion. The people of a commonwealth should be taught to obey the law from love, not fear, though Hobbes generally encourages multiple and overlapping sources of motivation. Of course, every community has its problem children: the dupes who will do whatever anyone says, the criminals who take advantage, the zealots who stray from true religion. Hobbes is more aware than most of the problem elements, and he has his views of how to deal with them. But what does he think about the good citizens of the commonwealth? What of those who are content to obey the law and contribute their talents to the common good?

In the book, I develop a novel interpretation of the role of submission in Leviathan, and introduce the concept of subjection to explain the expectations Hobbes has for good subjects. The argument begins in the state of nature with a puzzle: in chapter 13, where he introduces the idea of a state of nature, Hobbes says that the concept of justice lacks application there. A state of nature exhibits neither justice nor injustice. Then, in the following chapter on the laws of nature, Hobbes explains the sense in which violating those laws in a state of nature constitutes injustice. In order to explain away the appearance of contradiction, I rehabilitate A. P. Martinich’s distinction between primary and secondary states of nature.

Martinich (1992) addresses the same puzzle by postulating two distinct conceptual moments in Hobbes’s composition of the state of nature. The primary state of nature, as he conceives it, is one without God; so, following Hobbes’s formula, there is in such a state no common power, so no law, and thus neither justice nor injustice. The secondary state of nature, in contrast, includes God, and it thus exhibits a common power and the laws of nature. The secondary state of nature therefore enables the application of concepts of justice and injustice based on obedience to or violation of law, which seems to be the relevant sense in chapter 14 of Leviathan. So what at first seems to be a contradiction in Hobbes’s text is in fact an application of his “compositive method,” moving from the relatively abstract primary state of nature without God, to the secondary state of nature with God, and ultimately to the commonwealth with the civil sovereign later in the book.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, the primary state of nature seems to offend against the Christian priority of God over man: a conceptual moment without God? God is a necessary being, which seems to entail the impossibility of the primary state of nature so defined. Second, Martinich, as well as S. A. Lloyd (2009) for rather different reasons, regards the obligations imposed by the laws of nature as necessary, in the sense of applying to every person at all times. Doing so defeats the purpose of hypothesizing a primary state of nature: if the laws of nature impose obligations necessarily, then they impose obligations in the primary state of nature also, and in that case the concepts of justice and injustice seem to gain purchase there after all, thus undermining its point.

The solution is to redefine a primary state of nature. First, in order not to offend against Hobbes’s Christian commitments, God must exist in any state in which people exist. God must be conceptually, temporally, and in every way prior to people. Second, the laws of nature must not impose obligations necessarily. These views are possible given two claims. First, we must distinguish God’s existence from his sovereignty. Mere existence cannot entail that God is everyone’s sovereign, or there would be a common power, and so law and justice in a primary state of nature. Second, we must adopt a voluntarist conception of obligation. The obligations imposed by the laws of nature are undertaken only voluntarily, when one submits to God and makes him one’s sovereign. The primary state of nature must be a state without legal obligations of any kind, civil or natural, and conceiving of it thus explains how Hobbes can characterize it as a state in which the concepts of justice and injustice have no application. The secondary state of nature, in contrast, includes God’s subjects who have undertaken obligations under the laws of nature; their situation permits the application of the notions of justice and injustice. Rehabilitating the primary/secondary distinction allows us to explain away the apparent contradiction without stepping on any other Hobbesian commitment.

Next, I develop a normative analysis of the laws of nature, partly to understand better what Hobbes means to accomplish in distinguishing what he calls the ‘rational theorems’ from the ‘proper laws.’ One and the same set of precepts is both a set of rational theorems, derivable by reason and epistemically accessible to anyone, and a set of proper laws, which brings them under Hobbes’s generic definition of law and so treats them as commands issued to subjects who are obligated to obey those commands. Hobbes treats the precepts of the laws of nature differently, depending on their normative context, referring to them as rational theorems or proper laws as that context dictates. I locate my analysis within the general school of interpretation developed and articulated by Lloyd (2009), which she calls a definitional derivation. She shows that the function of the laws of nature is to promote the common good, rather than self-preservation or self-interest narrowly construed. I do not rehearse her arguments for these views, which I regard as conclusive. Instead, I seek to supplement and clarify the approach she develops on this point, and specifically to distinguish the normative role of the rational theorems from that of the proper laws.

Following Lloyd, I accept Hobbes’s claim that he intends the rational theorems to follow deductively from definitions, a priori propositions, and what Lloyd (2009: 212) calls ‘indubitable introspectables.’ Their function as laws of nature is to promote peace, but — moving beyond Lloyd here — in order to fit into Hobbes’s derivation the relation between following the precepts and peace must be conceptual, not causal. The normative form of the rational precepts is conditional and constitutes what Hobbes calls “counsel” rather than “command.” As the rational theorems are derivable a priori as the only path to peace, and because the desire for peace is a constitutive condition of practical rationality, their normative scope is universal for everyone who possesses reason. The normativity of counsel, as I call it, is rational justification with universal scope. Everyone has reason to seek peace.

The analysis yields different results when applied to the same precepts considered as proper laws. In virtue of the conceptual connection between following the precepts of the laws of nature and peaceable living, the function of the proper laws is the same as that of the rational theorems, namely to promote peace. Their form, however, is categorical rather than conditional, and they are ‘command’ rather than ‘counsel.’ Moreover, the proper laws are commands addressed to those who are obligated to obey. Again, presupposing voluntarism about obligation, not everyone is obligated to obey the laws of nature. The normative scope of the proper laws is thus generally smaller than that of the rational theorems. The normativity of law, as I call it, is obligation, and only God’s subjects are obligated by the laws of nature.

The fact that not everyone is obligated by the proper laws carves conceptual space for the primary state of nature as I conceive it. The primary state of nature is a situation without any legal obligations, including obligations under the laws of nature. In such a state, the rational theorems are still normative for all: the normativity of counsel is universal, but not obligatory. Only the proper laws, not the rational theorems, obligate, and in the primary state of nature nobody is God’s subject. Consequently, nobody has obligations under the proper laws, and Hobbes is able to claim without contradiction that the concept of justice does not apply. What remains to be defended is the commitment to a voluntarist account of legal obligation.

The defense of voluntarism considers three accounts of legal obligation. According to what Lloyd (2009) calls desire-based derivations of the laws of nature, such as that developed by Hampton (1986), the laws of nature comprise a set of hypothetical imperatives, the following of which is prudent because the imperatives embody true causal conditionals about how to promote self-preservation and (narrow) self-interest. On this view, the laws of nature are not in fact obligatory in any ordinary sense: following them is prudent in virtue of their causal efficacy, but that status does not constitute obligation. Although I follow Lloyd in rejecting this kind of derivation of the laws of nature generally, Hampton’s account manages to capture an important feature of the laws of nature inasmuch as she links the universal normativity of the precepts to their status as rational theorems. She is also correct to conclude that the rational theorems as such are not obligatory.

Martinich (1992) offers what Lloyd (2009) calls a duty-based derivation of the laws of nature, according to which the laws are universally obligating because of God’s irresistible power. In rejecting the connection between God’s power and obligation, I call attention to the distinction Hobbes draws between what he calls dominion, or the right to rule, and obligation. Hobbes consistently connects God’s irresistible power with dominion; but having the right to rule does not entail that God’s commands are obligatory for all, nor did Hobbes think so. Martinich’s view represents an advance over Hampton’s because it links the normativity of law to God’s will; but the account still falls short of being adequate because it generates necessary obligations and universal normative scope for the proper laws.

The third account of obligation under the laws of nature I consider is Lloyd’s own. She argues that the duties imposed by the laws of nature are Rawlsian natural duties, and so are normative for all. As we have seen, making the obligations imposed by the laws of nature universal for all generates a contradiction in Hobbes’s claims about justice in the state of nature. So although we have every reason to follow Lloyd’s definitional derivation of the laws of nature, we should not follow her in thinking that the duties imposed by the proper laws are Rawlsian natural duties.

The only suitable account of the obligations imposed by the laws of nature is voluntarist, according to which we have obligations under those laws only if we voluntarily undertake them. On this view, only the subjects of what Hobbes calls the kingdom of God by nature are obligated by the laws of nature. Indeed, Hobbes explicitly distinguishes such subjects from atheists and deists, whom he labels ‘God’s enemies.’ When we conceive of the normative scope of the proper laws as in practice narrower than that of the rational theorems, we can make better sense of the primary state of nature and solve the puzzle about justice in the state of nature. Commitment to voluntarism about obligation raises questions about submission, though: how exactly do we undertake obligations under law generally, and under the laws of nature in particular?

Next, I explore the ideas of submission and subjection. For Hobbes submission is the last act one performs in the state of nature. By transferring my right to govern myself to someone else, I constitute myself as a subject of a commonwealth and make the other my sovereign. Submission creates the obligation to obey that is the precondition of any command imposing legal obligations. Submission thus constitutes the normative basis of legal obligation, consistent with the voluntarist account defended earlier.

Once we are subjects of a commonwealth, the question turns from obligation to compliance. Assuming we are obligated to obey the law, why do so? Many attempts to address Hobbes’s ‘compliance problem’ turn on the motive of fear, including fear of punishment. But Hobbes himself thinks love is also available to explain compliance: good subjects, he thinks, obey the law because they want to do so, and all subjects, he says, should ‘do all this sincerely from the heart.’ In order to flesh out this notion of a good subject, I propose the idea of subjection: good subjects of a commonwealth subject themselves to their sovereign.

Hobbes defines crime as violation of the law by omission or commission. He defines sin more broadly  as criminal action or intent, and he thinks intent to violate can weaken a commonwealth even if it does not yield action. Although he does not follow Calvin in treating fleeting desires as sinful, he does think that dispositional desires for prohibited goods are a problem for the commonwealth. The sovereign builds into the civil law a partial value schema that represents what Hobbes calls the ‘public conscience,’ and when subjects cultivate and harbor desires that fail to conform to the public conscience they thereby express contempt for the sovereign that weakens the commonwealth. Indeed, Hobbes regards subjects’ attempt to preserve private conscience where the law has prescribed goods for the commonwealth as a seditious usurpation.

He is therefore committed to a conception that I call the value conforming desire (VCD). This higher-order desire aims at conforming one’s lower-order desires to the partial value schema prescribed in the law. Subjects are obligated to want what the sovereign prescribes in the law, and they must cultivate the VCD and promote its satisfaction in order to do so. Good subjects satisfy the VCD by monitoring their value schemata for conflicts with the judgments of good embedded in the law and expressed as the public conscience. This process is subjection: good subjects successfully subject themselves to the sovereign and cultivate the prescribed partial value schema, desiring what the law prescribes and eschewing what the law prohibits. Though he does not use this terminology, the cultivation and satisfaction of the VCD is what Hobbes has in mind when he requires subjects to ‘do all this sincerely from the heart.’ This notion of subjection is general and applies in both the civil commonwealth and God’s natural kingdom. Subjection operationalizes sincerity.

The idea of subjection facilitates the interpretation of some traditionally perplexing passages in Leviathan. One example is the claim that people in the state of nature must desire peace, as Hobbes says, in foro interno. This claim can be puzzling if we think that the purpose of the laws of nature is to promote something other than peace, but even assuming that their point is peace, why does Hobbes care about the contents of our desires, even or especially when we are not required to follow the law in foro externo? If the account of subjection is right, then it follows that subjects’ desires must generally conform to the values embedded in the law. In that case, this specific requirement emerges as simply a special case of a more general requirement for subjects to conform their values to the prescribed schema.

Another notorious passage concerns the Foole. I have little to add to the able treatment in Lloyd (2009), except that she does not explain Hobbes’s claim that the Foole who denies justice and the Foole from Psalms who denies God are the ‘selfsame Foole.’ This result falls naturally out of my interpretation. The Foole who denies justice locates himself in the primary state of nature, as only there does the concept of justice lack application. Only atheists inhabit the primary state of nature. Thus, the unjust Foole is identical to the atheistic Foole.

A third issue concerns submission to God. On my account, this topic is important because we acquire obligations under the proper laws only after submitting to God. Submission to another human being is quite clear in Hobbes: he explains it as a transfer of right – the right of self-governance – and power. That cannot be the account of submission to God, who already has infinite power and so dominion, or the right to rule, over all. I argue that theistic belief alone is sufficient for submission to God, and that this account accommodates voluntarism about obligation and the idea of subjection in God’s kingdom by nature.

I close the essay with a discussion of several issues pertaining to sovereigns. The main puzzle of the chapter concerns what Hobbes intends to do by claiming that the sovereign and the commonwealth are a “real unity,” which I take to be or imply identity. A thorny issue about sovereigns is authorization. Hobbes states that subjects authorize the sovereign’s actions, which seems to make the sovereign their agent or deputy. On the other hand, Hobbes also gives the sovereign nearly unlimited authority to command the subjects of a commonwealth, which seems to make the sovereign their superior. Hobbes’s claims on this topic have led Martinich (1992), among others, to conclude that he contradicts himself. A correct understanding of the right transferred in submission can clarify why he does not do so.

My reading of Leviathan offers a markedly less liberal Hobbes than some interpreters might like. Lloyd (2009), for instance, treats Hobbes as a proto-Kantian who prefigures Scanlon. But Hobbes places potent constraints on good subjects, and he allows little place for freedom of conscience, as we would call it, in the ideal commonwealth. Good subjects not only obey the law, they do so sincerely from the heart. That commitment demands not only conformity of action, but of motivation as well. Still, Hobbes imposes constraints on the extent of this sovereign power to dictate subjects’ values. One of these is the sovereign’s obligation to obey the laws of nature. The sovereign acquires this obligation under the proper laws just as anyone else does. We must understand the sovereign as an artificial person who believes in a providential God, and that theistic belief constitutes submission to God and creates obligations under the proper laws. Those obligations, including the duty to promote the safety and welfare of the commonwealth, constrain the sovereign. Moreover, sovereigns are obligated to subject themselves to God and thus to adopt the value schema embedded in the proper laws. This obligation imposes further constraints, as sovereigns ought to be motivated in ways that promote the common good.

Furthermore, the value schema embedded in the law is after all only partial, and allows subjects what Hobbes calls ‘harmless liberty.’ A good law must be strictly necessary for the realization of the end of law as such, namely peace. Dictating subjects’ every action is not required: Hobbes remarks that on this ground subjects are properly to be left the liberty to choose a career, wardrobe, diet, and so forth, all under the heading of ‘harmless liberty.’ He imposes a kind of feasibility constraint that justifies this allowance to some extent when he says that sovereigns simply cannot control everything their subjects might do. The obligation of sovereigns to obey the proper laws amounts to a success constraint as well, as a commonwealth that systematically fails to realize peace and prosperity for its subjects will dissolve. A failed sovereign is no sovereign at all, and such a commonwealth devolves to a state of nature, returning the right of self-governance to the former subjects.

The goal of this essay is modest and its focus tight: the objective is to draw on a range of interpretative resources in order to resolve a set of textual issues, especially concerning Hobbes’s idea of a good subject. I help myself to such resources without much defense – especially Lloyd’s rejection of what she calls the ‘standard interpretation’ of Hobbes – and do so without apology, in order to remain focused on the question at hand. I recognize that stronger assumptions weaken the argument; yet to the extent that I can offer superior interpretations and solve some textual issues based on those assumptions, the explanatory power of the result reinforces the assumptions. Leviathan is an enormous and rich book, and it is tempting to try to say something about everything. This temptation explains why so many books about Hobbes are big. Mine is a small book about Hobbes. Like Hobbes’s, my argument begins in the state of nature.


Hampton, J. (1986). Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge.

Lloyd, S. A. (2009). Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature. Cambridge.

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

Debate: Al Martinich vs. John Deigh on law. Part 2: Deigh.

This is the first in a series of debates about entries in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (OUP 2016 – see here).

This first debate features a critique by one of the editors, Al Martinich, of John Deigh’s chapter ‘Political Obligation’. Martinich’s critique is here.


Reply to Martinich

John Deigh

University of Texas at Austin


I am grateful to Al Martinich for his astute and careful discussion of the argument of my contribution, ‘Political Obligation’, to the splendid volume on Hobbes that he and Kinch Hoekstra have put together. The citations of Leviathan in my reply are to Richard Tuck’s 1996 edition for Cambridge University Press. I use the letter ‘L’ as an abbreviation of this work.


Many scientists believe in God. At the same time, they leave their religious beliefs out of the scientific theories they construct and accept. Hobbes, in writing Leviathan, treated his religious beliefs in the same way. A central aim of the work was to advance scientific theories of morals and political society, and he sought, in constructing those theories, to keep them free of religious propositions. The work, however, has other aims. It is not one of pure science. Hobbes’s pursuit of these additional aims is sometimes intermixed with his scientific efforts. This feature of the work complicates its interpretation. My projects in interpreting Leviathan have been to extract from its text the philosophical theories of morals and political society that Hobbes presented. These are the same as what Hobbes regarded as scientific theories, for he did not distinguish between science and philosophy. And because one of his additional aims in writing Leviathan was to advance a new Christian theology, these projects have required determining whether one can interpret the work without having either to concede that some of Hobbes’s religious beliefs unwittingly and inextricably infect his philosophical theories or to give up the view that he meant to be constructing philosophical theories that were free of those beliefs. The interpretation I put forward in ‘Political Obligation’, if sound, shows that one can so interpret the work. And given its fidelity to Hobbes’s idea of science, it is, I argue, superior to competing interpretations on which Hobbes’s philosophical theories rest on premisses about God.

Professor Martinich writes, ‘Hobbes’s considered view [in Leviathan] is that the laws of nature are genuine laws and impose obligations because they are commanded by God.’ He takes my interpretation to contradict this statement. And it does, provided that one understands his statement to be about a view Hobbes included in his philosophical theories of morals and political society. If his statement is instead about a view Hobbes held on reflection or generally, a view that is part of Hobbes’s overall set of beliefs, then nothing in my interpretation contradicts this statement. Hobbes, for all I say, may well have believed that the laws of nature are genuine laws because he believed in God and believed that God promulgated them. What I deny is that he thought such beliefs belonged to a properly constructed philosophical theory. I deny, that is, that Hobbes thought such beliefs were part of the true sciences of morals and political society he saw himself as constructing.

I stress this point because of the importance to the method I use in interpreting Hobbes of the role of his idea of science. Hobbes defined science in chapter 5 as knowledge acquired by, first, giving apt definitions of the terms that are special to the branch of knowledge being developed, second, joining these terms together to make assertions, and then, third, drawing consequences from the assertions one has made either initially or by drawing them as consequences of the initial assertions. The definitions with which scientists begin ‘settl[e] the signification of their words’ (L, 28), and constancy in using these words with the significations the definitions assign them guarantees, if the definitions are apt, the truth of the initial assertions made from these definitions and of the consequences drawn from them. Someone who reasons without starting with definitions, Hobbes warned, or uses words with different significations from the ones the definitions he started with assign them ‘will find himself entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twigs, the more he struggles, the more belimed’ (ibid.). My method of interpreting Hobbes, then, is based on the assumption that he meant, in constructing his philosophical theories of morals and political society, to be conforming to his idea of science. Accordingly, I presume in interpreting him that with respect to each term for which he gave a definition that he used that term in the sense in which he had defined it. That is, I take each occurrence of the term to express that sense unless the text provides strong evidence that Hobbes was using the term in a different sense.

The interpretation of Hobbes that Martinich favors opposes my interpretation if it entails that Hobbes in Leviathan constructed a philosophical theory of morals on which the laws of nature are commands of God.  I will assume that it does. Such an interpretation faces, on my method, an immediate problem. Hobbes, in chapter 3 of Leviathan, declared that the human mind can form no idea of infinity and then concluded that we have no conception of God. ‘[T]he name of God is used not to make us conceive him’, Hobbes wrote, ‘(for he is Incomprehensible …)’ (L, 23). If we have no conception of God, then no apt definition of God can be given. The name, in other words, cannot be a term in any branch of science. Scholars like Martinich who interpret Hobbes as constructing in Leviathan a philosophical theory of morals on which the laws of nature are commands of God therefore have the burden of explaining how Hobbes could have in this case ignored his own caution against trying to acquire knowledge or develop a science without starting from apt definitions: ‘And in wrong or no Definitions, is the first abuse [of speech] from which proceed all false and senselesse Tenets’ (L, 28).

A related problem for the interpretation Martinich favors arises, on my method, from its implication that Hobbes took the laws of nature to be binding on men and women solely in virtue of their being God’s commands. I take Martinich to affirm this implication when, after stating that obligations have more than one source, he writes, ‘The laws of nature bind simply because God is a natural sovereign with irresistible power who promulgates them through reason.’ The implication, however, does not square with the definition of being obliged or bound that Hobbes gave in chapter 14. Hobbes there said that to be obliged or bound to φ is to have laid down one’s right not to φ by either renouncing the right or transferring it to another or others. Such renunciation or transference consists in one’s saying or doing something that signifies this alienation of the right. Since Leviathan contains no other definition of being obliged or bound, this definition must apply to any obligation that results from one’s being the recipient of someone’s commands. Accordingly, one cannot be obliged or bound merely by being such a recipient. Hence, on the assumption that Hobbes adhered to his program for constructing a true science, laying down one’s right by renouncing it or transferring it is the only source of obligation he allowed. No one, therefore, is bound to obey anyone’s commands merely in virtue of the latter’s addressing commands to him or her. Defenders of interpretations that attribute to Hobbes the view that the laws of nature are binding on men and women solely in virtue of being commands of God thus bear the burden of explaining how Hobbes could have ignored his definition of being obliged or bound in this case.

The upshot of these and similar problems for such interpretations is that their defenders must somehow show that Hobbes did not reliably adhere to his program for constructing a true science, that his adherence to the program was erratic at best. Martinich, for one, thinks Hobbes’s adherence to his program was erratic. Expressly disagreeing with me on this point, he writes, ‘[O]ne problem is that Hobbes’s practice does not always conform to his official method. He does not invariably deduce conclusions from definitions although terms that have been defined may occur in the premises.’ Unfortunately, Martinich gives no examples supporting this claim about Hobbes that do not beg the question. The examples he does give presuppose the very interpretation of Hobbes that I reject. Still, let us take Martinich’s treatment of Hobbes’s definition of a law of nature as a test of whether Hobbes reliably adhered to his program.

According to this definition, a law of nature is a precept that is found out by reason and that forbids self-destructive action. A law of nature, therefore, need not be a law. Hobbes expressly affirmed this consequence of the definition in the last paragraph of chapter 15 and then again near the beginning of chapter 26, where he wrote, ‘For the Lawes of Nature . . . in the condition of mere Nature (as I have said before in the end of the 15th Chapter,) are not properly Lawes …’ (L, 185). Even if we grant the oddity Martinich observes in how Hobbes formulated the point in chapter 15 that the laws of nature need not be laws, Hobbes’s formulation of the same point in chapter 26 contains no such oddity. Indeed, it clarifies his meaning: men and women in their natural condition can discover the laws of nature by using reason, but in that condition the precepts they discover are not properly laws since nothing about the natural condition of men and women implies that they believe that these precepts were commanded by anyone including God. And if they have no such belief, then there is no basis, given Hobbes’s definition of law as a command issued by someone whom its addressees are formerly obliged to obey, for these precepts to be laws. One cannot, after all, be obliged to obey someone unless one has transferred some portion of one’s right of nature to him or her, and such a transference entails a belief that the transferee exists.

Martinich denies that Hobbes meant to be affirming this consequence of his definition of a law of nature when he remarked at the end of Chapter 15 on the impropriety of calling the laws of nature he had previously expounded laws. If Hobbes had thought of them merely as dictates of reason—which is how he characterized them when he said they were improperly called laws—he would not, Martinich argues, have used ‘law of nature’ as a general name for them. To the contrary, Martinich maintains, Hobbes’s use of this name to denote a dictate that one knows through reason signals that he took such a dictate to be a kind of law. Otherwise one would have to read him as treating ‘law of nature’ as a made up expression to whose meaning ‘law’ made no more contribution than ‘man’ makes to the meaning of the expression ‘man-of-war’. Hobbes, therefore, according to Martinich, meant the laws of nature to be understood as a kind of law, and since, despite sometimes describing reason as dictating actions, Hobbes did not think it made sense to take reason as having authority over its possessor, he must have taken the authority of the laws of nature to derive from some other source than reason. God, Martinich concludes, must then be the source of the laws’ authority. Their being commands of God is ‘a better explanation [of their authority] than anything else Hobbes had available.’

Martinich’s argument, however, is based on a false dichotomy. It assumes that Hobbes took the laws of nature to be either mere dictates of reason and therefore not laws or commands of God and therefore laws. There is, however, a third possibility, which Martinich misses and which squares better with the text. It is that Hobbes took the laws of nature to be in some contexts mere dictates of reason and in other contexts genuine laws. He took them to be mere dictates of reason in the context of human beings in their natural condition and took them to be genuine laws in the context of a commonwealth. Thus the passage from chapter 26 that I previously quoted continues, ‘When a Common-wealth is once settled, then are [the laws of nature] actually Lawes, and not before; as being then the commands of the Common-wealth and therefore also the Civll Lawes’ (L, 185). On this interpretation, Hobbes understands the expression ‘law of nature’ to denote genuine laws when one uses it in the context of a commonwealth to refer to precepts that fall under its definition. Those precepts are part of the commonwealth’s civil law. They are, Hobbes declared, the unwritten law of the commonwealth and are thus known not by any act of publication but by reason. One attributes them to the will of the sovereign, who is representative of the commonwealth, by virtue of their being dictates of the sovereign’s reason.

Hobbes divided the civil law of every commonwealth into its positive law, which is peculiar to each commonwealth, and natural law, which is law in every commonwealth. This division, which corresponds to Hobbes’s distinction between written or published law and unwritten law, is fundamental to his jurisprudence. In particular, he relied on it for his criticism of the jurisprudence of lawyers who defended the English common law, Sir Edward Coke, above all. On Coke’s jurisprudence, cases decided by English courts set precedents that subsequent court decisions follow in like cases. These precedents are therefore sources of law, and they have such controlling authority by virtue of the English constitution from which the authority of the courts that produce them derives. Laws based on precedents are thus, in Coke’s view, independent of the sovereign’s commands. Hobbes fiercely opposed this doctrine of precedent as a basis of law. Judges, he argued, should follow reason and not precedent. Their following precedent merely compounds error whenever the case they follow as a precedent was wrongly decided. They avoid compounding the past error of a court by following reason instead, and judges follow reason in deciding cases, Hobbes maintained, when they follow the sovereign’s reason, which is to say, when they apply the dictates of reason that the natural law comprises. These include the nineteen laws of nature Hobbes expounded in chapters 14 and 15, and he singled out the eleventh law, the law of equity, as an especially important law for judges to follow if they are to make sound decisions in the cases before them. In short, the laws of nature have, on Hobbes’s account of sound judicial reasoning, the role that precedent has on the account of such reasoning that the defenders of common law advanced.

Plainly, then, Hobbes had good reason to use the expression ‘law of nature’ as he did, despite its denoting precepts that fail, in the condition of mere nature, to be laws. For the precepts it denotes are laws when they are placed in the context of a commonwealth. Specifically, they are the commonwealth’s unwritten laws, which in virtue of being dictates of reason give direction to public ministers, judges especially, when, owing to the absence of explicit instructions from the sovereign, these ministers must use their judgment in deciding how to exercise their office (see L, 188). Judges, in following these dictates, are understood to be applying the civil law of their commonwealth, and consequently their decisions are based in its laws. At the same time, because they are dictates of reason, these unwritten laws exist independently of a commonwealth. By contrast to positive law, there is no point in time at which they are brought into existence by legislation. Rather, as Hobbes liked to say, they are eternal. It makes sense, then, for Hobbes to have used a name for these unwritten laws that marked them as distinct from a commonwealth’s positive law and that also applies to them in circumstances in which there is no commonwealth and thus they are not properly laws. That such a name includes the word ‘law’ as its primary vehicle of reference serves then to highlight the distinction between the laws to which it refers and positive law.

Finally, when I wrote that the definition of a term that is formed by joining together two names preempts the definition of either name whenever that name occurs as a component of the newly defined term, I meant that one must use the definition of that term to understand its meaning and refrain from using either definition of its component names to understand it whenever using the latter gives the term a different meaning. In saying this I did not mean to imply that either name, in its occurrence as a component of the term, automatically ceases to have the meaning that its own definition gives it. It ceases to have that meaning if the definition of the term in which it occurs as a component does not contain it or its definition. Hobbes’s definition of ‘law of nature’ illustrates this possibility, for it contains neither the word ‘law’ nor the definition Hobbes later gave to the word, namely, command by someone addressed to another formerly obliged to obey the former. By contrast, Hobbes’s definition of ‘right of nature’ contains his definition of ‘right’, namely, liberty to do or forbear. He defines ‘right of nature’ as ‘the Liberty each man hath, to use his power … for the preservation of his own nature’ (L, 91). In this case, ‘right’ retains the meaning it has according to the definition of it Hobbes gave when it occurs as a component of the term ‘right of nature’. Similar points then apply to the other two examples of multi-component terms that Martinich thinks present problems for my account, ‘commonwealth by acquisition’ and ‘civil law’. Generally, on my account of Hobbes’s definitions of such terms, whether any of their component names ceases, when it occurs as a component of such a term, to have the meaning it has in virtue of a definition Hobbes gave of it depends on whether the definition Hobbes gave of the term of which it is a component contains or fails to contain it or its definition.

Martinich and I disagree on how Hobbes understood what he called ‘the liberty of subjects’. Martinich takes Hobbes to have understood the liberty of subjects to be a kind of liberty. Accordingly, on Martinich’s view, it is distinct from natural or corporeal liberty. That is, natural or corporal liberty is a different kind of liberty from civil liberty. What distinguishes the liberty of subjects from natural liberty, according to Martinich, is the kind of external impediment whose absence constitutes the liberty. In the former case it is the absence of laws governing a certain action that creates the liberty of subjects with respect to that action. In other words, such laws, if they existed, would be, on Martinich’s view, external impediments to a man’s or woman’s doing that action. As against this view, I take Hobbes to have understood the liberty of subjects with respect to a given action to be a condition of freedom from laws that govern such action, but because Hobbes did not regard laws as external impediments, he denied that the existence of those laws deprived people of liberty to do the action. In other words, on my view, Hobbes denied that the liberty of subjects was a kind of liberty. The term, I contend, is a second example of Hobbes’s using definition of a multi-component term to preempt taking one of the term’s component names as having the same meaning as it has when it occurs apart from this multi-component term.

The text, I believe, supports my view. Hobbes first gave his definition of liberty as ‘the absence of external Impediments’ in chapter 14. Later, at the beginning of chapter 21, he restated it as ‘the absence of Opposition’, which he immediately clarified by saying that he meant by opposition ‘external Impediments of motion’ (L, 145). He then further clarified his meaning by observing that the term ‘liberty’ applies to anything, inanimate or animate, that moves, since such things can encounter bodies that block their paths and, when they do, they may be said not to have the liberty to go further. Two paragraphs later Hobbes considered actions done out of fear and whether their agents are at liberty to do or forbear from those actions. His examples were a sailor’s tossing cargo overboard during a storm at sea out of fear of sinking and a man’s paying his debts under the threat of imprisonment if he defaults. In neither example, Hobbes observed, does the agent lack the liberty to do or forbear from what he does. His point is clear: dangerous circumstances do not by virtue of being dangerous or arousing fear present external impediments of motion. Commenting on the debtor’s action, Hobbes wrote, ‘[B]ecause no body hindered him from detaining, [it] was the action of a man at liberty’ (L, 146). He then applied this point to laws, ‘And generally all actions which men doe in Common-wealths, for feare of the law, are actions, which the doers had liberty to omit’ (ibid.). Laws, therefore, on the view Hobbes set out at the beginning of chapter 21, are not external impediments of motion. Their absence does not expand the liberty of those subject to them. And while he characterized civil laws as artificial chains, he qualified his characterization by adding in reference to civil laws, ‘These Bonds in their own nature but weak, may neverthelesse be made to hold, by the danger, though not by the difficulty of breaking them’ (L, 147). Hence, the liberty of subjects is not a kind of liberty.

Hobbes, I submit, adhered more reliably to his program for constructing a true science of morals and political society than Martinich’s interpretation can allow. For this reason, Hobbes is best interpreted as constructing a philosophical theory of morals and political society on which the laws of nature need not be genuine laws.

Debate: Al Martinich vs. John Deigh on law. Part 1: Martinich.

This is the first in a series of debates about entries in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (OUP 2016 – see here).

This first debate features a critique by one of the editors, Al Martinich, of John Deigh’s chapter ‘Political Obligation’. Deigh responds in Part 2.


The Laws of Nature are the Laws of God in Leviathan

A.P. Martinich

University of Texas at Austin

The most difficult issue to resolve with respect to the correct interpretation of Hobbes’s view about the laws of nature in Leviathan is their relation, if any, to the command of God. I think that Hobbes’s considered view is that the laws of nature are genuine laws and impose obligations because they are commanded by God. Let’s consider what Hobbes says about laws in general. All laws consist of two aspects (Hobbes 1651: 137). The first and more salient component is the content of the law. Hobbes usually expresses the content of the laws of nature in the indicative mood, such as ‘You lay down your right to all things’ and ‘You keep your covenants’. Expressing laws in the indicative mood may seem odd because Hobbes thinks that laws are commands and commands are often expressed as imperatives; and Hobbes himself sometimes formulates laws as imperatives, such as, ‘Make peace’. However, formulating laws in the indicative mood is not odd; many contemporary jurisdiction formulate laws in just this way. Here’s a randomly selected law:

(a) A person commits an offense if he unlawfully appropriates property with intent to deprive the owner of property.
(b) Appropriation of property is unlawful if:

(1) it is without the owner’s effective consent;
(2) the property is stolen and the actor appropriates the property knowing it was stolen by another; or
(3) property in the custody of any law enforcement agency was explicitly represented by any law enforcement agent to the actor as being stolen and the actor appropriates the property believing it was stolen by another (Texas Penal Code: Section 31.03).

Given the propensity to think of laws as commands, I think it is amazing that Hobbes so rarely slips into the imperative mood.

One place where he does use the imperative is in his explanation of the distinction between commands and counsels. He gives, ‘Do this’, as an example of a sentence that may be a command or counsel depending upon who said it and with what intention. If a person with authority said it to a subordinate and expects the subordinate not to have any reason for obeying other than that the authority wants it done, then ‘Do this’ is a command. If the person does not have authority over the addressee and intends to direct the addressee to perform an action beneficial to the latter, then a primary desires is counsel.[1] My guess is that Hobbes chose the underdetermined sentence, ‘Do this’, because he did not want his readers to form a judgment about whether the sample utterance was a command or counsel on the basis of its content. If Hobbes had chosen, ‘Do not take the belongings of other people without their permission’, his readers may have thought, ‘This is a command’, and if he had used, ‘Get an education’, his readers may have thought ‘This is counsel’. Yet, for Hobbes, each of these latter examples could be command or counsel. A more unfortunate aspect of his selection of ‘Do this’—and the same would hold if he had chosen either of the other two examples I suggested—is that he does not clearly enough communicate the idea that these utterances can be made explicit commands or counsels by prefixing them with a performative phrase, ‘I command’ or ‘I counsel’.

The upshot of this discussion is that a command, like other illocutionary acts, has two elements, a propositional content and a force, and that often the force is fully expressed only when an illocutionary act verb in performative form prefixes the content of the law. However, sometimes the words expressing the force should not be expressed. This is especially true when the laws of nature are to be proved using only a logic that applies to sentences in the indicative mood, as was the case in the seventeenth century. There was no logic of imperatives or performative utterances at that time. So, while ‘You lay down your right to all things’ and ‘You keep your covenants’ can be proved straightforwardly, ‘Make peace’ cannot. In order to make it provable, it has to be paraphrased as, ‘You make peace’. Here’s a proof briefly stated: (1) You act to satisfy your desire to preserve yourself. (2) If you do not make peace, then you do not act to satisfy your desire to preserve yourself. Therefore, (3) You make peace.

Well, precisely what expression is supposed to express the force of the laws of nature? I think there are only two plausible possibilities: Either reason commands them or God commands them. In favor of the former is the fact that Hobbes sometimes says that reason commands. However, Hobbes should not think that reason has any authority over human beings; and it is easy to use synecdoche without realizing that the statement is not strictly true. Consider the slogan ‘Guns kill people’. Since both John Deigh and I believe that Hobbes’s explicit view of reason is only instrumental and suggests means to given ends, I will not discuss the possibility that reason commands the laws of nature further. That leaves the disjunct that God commands the laws of nature.

There are positive reasons for holding that God commands the laws of nature. Hobbes says they are. They are the ‘the undoubted word of God’ because God speaks to human beings through reason. Hobbes knows that human psychology makes people prone to act on dangerous desires. So fear of death and hope for a comfortable life may not be sufficient to preserve them. Fear of the punishments of God, an invisible power, helps people obey them. The legal (forensic) character of the laws of nature make people more inclined to obey. Many scholars think that Hobbes’s definition of religion as fear of invisible powers is part of Hobbes’s surreptitious campaign against theism. That is highly implausible. Christians understood fear of God to be of the essence of their religion. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. After Adam and Eve sin, they are afraid of God. When God wants to make a covenant with the Israelites, they are afraid of him, and plead with Moses to intercede for them. Martin Fotherby, bishop of Salisbury, wrote:

Religion itselfe is a kind of fear. Religion is nothing else, but the fear of some God: as the Creator himself hath expressly defined it. … Religion is an affection, which begetteth a care of worshipping a certain superior Nature, which is commonly called God (Fotherby 1622: 122).

We may find religions of fear repulsive, but the seventeenth-century English did not. So it would be absurd for Hobbes to try to get people to understand that there is something wrong with Christianity specifically and religion generally by ‘writing between the lines’.

A vivid example of divine fear is the Engagement Controversy. Thousands of the English balked at taking the Engagement for fear of violating the third law of nature, ‘You keep your covenants’. In the state of nature the fear of God inclines people to obey the laws of nature because God is ‘the revenger of their perfidy’ (70). God, the avenger, is doing his job only if he is taking revenge for violation of his laws. This is only to say that fear of God’s power helps motivate people to obey the laws of nature, not that it is sufficient to get everyone always to follow them.

I believe that John Deigh accepts at least the spirit of what I have said about the laws of nature with respect to how they can be proved. What he does not accept is that for Hobbes the laws of nature are commands of God (Deigh 2016: 304-7). He, like most nonlaw theorists, quotes Hobbes’s comment at the end of chapter 15, ‘These dictates of reason men use to call by name of laws, but improperly; for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves’ (Hobbes 1651: 80). Deigh maintains that since Hobbes had been proving laws of nature for two chapters, he must mean that the laws of nature are identical with the dictates of reason. But if that were true why didn’t Hobbes say that? Why doesn’t he use the phrase, ‘the laws of nature’, again if his position is that the laws of nature as such are not laws? That would eliminate any idea that those laws were laws. One explanation is that he did not want to be saddled with the paradoxical sentence, ‘The laws of nature are not laws’. Counting against this explanation is the fact that Hobbes embraced paradox (see Parkin, 2016). A different explanation, one that has some force with me is that, as great a stylist as he was, Hobbes sometimes phrased his points sloppily. But there is a better explanation. He shifts to a different locution, ‘dictates of reason’, precisely because he wants to indicate what part of a law of nature is provable, namely, the propositional or action-guiding part, and what part makes it a command. Propositions, when proved by reason, and commanded by God, are laws. Until the end of chapter 15, he could not discuss these propositions as commanded because he could not prove sentences of the form, ‘I, N.N., command that p.’ As theorems, the laws of nature have to be formulated without a performative prefix. In order to convey that the laws of nature are laws only insofar as they are commanded, as he intends to do in this context, Hobbes adopts the phrase, ‘dictates of reason’. So now, having proved what he wanted to prove, he takes the next step and reports what makes them laws: ‘if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things, then they are properly called laws’ (Hobbes 1651: 80). This statement is not an ‘inconvenient aside’ (Deigh 2016: 309).

One might ask, ‘Why God?’ I have already explained why it could not be reason. And there does not seem to be any alternative. Holding that God commands the laws of reason is, given the background assumptions of seventeenth-century intellectuals, inference to the best explanation. When Anglo-American philosophers describe their methods, they often say that they are argument and analysis. If they think about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, they may think of insight as another method. But one of the most powerful and pervasive methods is inference to the best explanation. God’s command is a better explanation than anything else Hobbes had available.

Nonlaw interpreters think that when Hobbes says, ‘men use to call [the theorems] by the name of laws, but improperly’, he is including himself in the ‘men’. But if he were including himself, he is using an odd locution. When a person refers to a group indefinitely—that is, without a quantifier—and says something critical of it, the implication is that they do not include themselves in the group unless they go out of their way to include themselves. When I say, ‘Professors do not help students enough with their writing’, I’m not talking about myself. I mean professors for the most part, not universally. So if Hobbes wanted to include himself among the people who use the name of laws improperly, he should have said so: ‘Men, including me, use to …’. It would have been very odd for Hobbes to admit that he uses one of his technical terms improperly. If ‘laws of nature’ was used by him improperly, one may wonder why he did not preface his proofs of those ‘laws’ by saying something like this: ‘men use to call [the theorems I am about to prove] by the name of laws, but improperly. I will use the appropriate term “dictates of reason”, and because they are deducible from the definition of “law of nature”, I will also refer to them as theorems.’

The apparent oddity of the passage, ‘men use to call’ is removed if we take it in the most straightforward way, given that he says (1) that God is a sovereign by nature; (2) that reason is one of the ways by which ‘God declareth his laws’ to human beings; and (3) that the laws of nature are found out by reason (Hobbes 1651: 186, 187, 64). It is no good to object that (1) and (2) are expressed long after, in chapter 31, for that chapter belongs as much to Part Two, ‘Of Commonwealth’, as any of the earlier chapters; and its position at the end of Part Two is appropriate since it aids the transition to Part Three, ‘Of a Christian Commonwealth’. Few Hobbes interpreters accept (1) and (2). But that is not pertinent. The pertinent point is that Hobbes’s formulation of his theory includes the laws of nature as laws.

In philosophy, of the making of many objections, there is no end. Deigh recently devised a new one that I consider ingenious. It consists of three components. The first is Hobbes’s insistence that definitions are ‘the starting points of the reasoning, which is to say, the adding and subtracting of words, that yield the theorems of science’ (Deigh 2016: 309). The second is that the nonlaw interpretation ‘conforms … more closely’ to Hobbes’s method of science (Deigh 2016: 306). The third is that, taking Hobbes’s definition of ‘law of nature’ strictly, one will see that it entails that laws of nature are not laws.

I accept the first component but not the second or third. Concerning the second, one problem is that Hobbes’s practice does not always conform to his official method. He does not invariably deduce conclusions from definitions although terms that have been defined may occur in the premises. It is fortunate that Hobbes would not invariably follow his explicit method because much of his philosophy would then disappear. Also, whether he is conscious of his lapse or not, he does not follow his explicit method with respect to his assertion that God commands the laws of nature. Near the beginning of chapter 31, Hobbes says, ‘There wants onely, for the entire Knowledge of Civill duty, to know what are those Lawes of God’ (Hobbes 1651: 186). Hobbes knows that a political philosopher in the seventeenth century has to deal with the issue of the relation of God’s laws to civil laws. Heck, we need to do that in the United States in the twenty-first century!

Also, I think that Deigh places too much weight on ‘assessing Leviathan as a work of philosophy’ when it comes to “evaluating the competing interpretations” (Deigh 2016: 305n29). For any given doctrine, almost any philosopher may have made a mistake, even a demonstrable one. Hobbes thought no one could be ‘so stupid as both to mistake in geometry and also to persist in it when another detects his error to him’ (Hobbes 1651: 21). Yet he was. I also do not agree with Deigh’s claim that law interpreters are committed to the proposition that ‘the source of the obligation to which those [sovereign-making] contracts give rise is the third law of nature’ and not ‘the contracts on which a commonwealth is founded’ (Deigh 2016: 305). I don’t think law interpreters are so committed. The laws of nature and sovereign-making covenants are two different kinds of things. So nothing stands in the way of holding that obligation comes from different sources. The laws of nature bind simply because God is a natural sovereign with irresistible power who promulgates them through reason. Covenants bind when people mutually lay down some rights by their voluntary actions. To say that there are two sources for some object with the name N is not to say that N is ambiguous. For example, one source of wealth is inheritance and another is industriousness; one source of obligation is the laws of nature and another is covenanting. If ‘obligation’ were ambiguous, then the sentence, ‘The laws of nature are a source of obligation and so is covenanting’ would be semantically defective. But it is not.

Deigh’s remark that Hobbes uses, not a categorical statement, but a hypothetical one to explain when the dictates of reason are laws (‘if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth them, then are they properly called laws’ (Deigh 2016: 306; Hobbes 1651: 80) is also not probative. Even aside from the fact that the logical form of scientific statements are hypothetical, I want to point out that all sorts of true philosophical propositions can be expressed as hypotheticals, such as ‘if we consider the proposition expressed by, “Study mathematics”, as advice, then it is counsel.’

I now turn to the second part of Deigh’s argument that the laws of nature are not laws because ‘law’ in ‘law of nature’ does not mean law. He says,

when a term consisting of two names joined together is defined, the definition preempts the use of the definition of either name whenever that name occurs as a component of the term. Likewise, it preempts the use of either name with some undefined meaning whenever the name occurs as a component of the term. The preemption is necessary to prevent the term from having two distinct extensions and thus being ambiguous (Deigh 2015: 310).

Deigh’s description of Hobbes’s view of definitions has to be too strong, for it has the consequence that ‘right’ in ‘right of nature’ does not mean right; ‘commonwealth’ in ‘commonwealth by acquisition’ does not mean commonwealth; and ‘laws’ in ‘civil laws’ would not mean laws because each of these technical terms are multi-name scientific ones (cf. Hobbes 1651: 102, 136). What is true is the weaker proposition that component ‘words’ of a multi-name technical term may not have the same meaning that it has outside of that technical term (hereafter: ‘ordinary meaning’). With this proposition, Deigh could go on, as he does, to assert that it is plausible that ‘law’ in ‘law of nature’ does not have its ordinary meaning just as ‘liberty’ in ‘civil liberty’ does not have its ordinary meaning. Deigh says:

 In chapter 21, for instance, he defines ‘liberty of subjects’ after first defining ‘liberty’. His definition of ‘liberty’ is the absence of external impediments to motion. His definition of ‘liberty of subjects’, is the absence of laws forbidding action. Hobbes, however, also observes that laws in themselves are not external impediments to action and hence that one speaks absurdly in holding that a law deprives one of liberty. ‘Liberty’, therefore, when it occurs in ‘liberty of subjects’, does not have the meaning with which Hobbes defines it. As Hobbes puts the point, in such occurrences it is not used with it proper sense (Deigh 2016: 310).

In other words, ‘law of nature’ is a multi-name, technical term and should be understood as a unity as if it were a fused expression, ‘law-of-nature’ (like ‘morning glory’, which is sometimes written ‘morning-glory’), or as if it were spelled without intervening spaces (‘lawofnature’, like ‘butterfly’). Deigh alludes to Hobbes’s statement that only natural liberty is ‘properly called liberty’ (Hobbes 1651: 108). So, Deigh infers, for Hobbes, civil liberty is not liberty.

In chapter 21, the division of liberty into natural and civil strongly suggests that each is a kind of liberty because each signifies the absence of a relevant kind of ‘Opposition’ or ‘external impediment’ (Hobbes 1651: 107). That ‘liberty’ in ‘civil liberty’ is a genuine kind of liberty is suggested by Hobbes’s claim that the ‘Liberty of Subjects’ extends to ‘all kinds of actions, by the laws praetermitted’ (Hobbes 1651: 109). In the Latin Leviathan, Hobbes says ‘a citizen is said to have liberty for those actions about which nothing is laid down in the laws, and these things alone’ (Hobbes 1668: 105: ‘Libertatem habere Civis dicitur illas actiones de quibus in Legibus nihil definitur, & ad eas solas’). If civil liberty were not a kind of liberty, then Hobbes’s saying that a citizen has ‘liberty’ would be analogous to saying that a morning-glory is a glory or a butterfly is a fly. (It is also no good to argue that a citizen ‘is said’ to be free but is not really free, just as, calling a tail a leg does not mean that dogs have five legs because Hobbes often uses ‘is said’ when the way things are said is the way they are.)

The civil laws themselves are ‘Artificiall Chains’, which subjects “have fastned [sic] at one end, to the lips of that Man, or Assembly, to whom they have given the Soveraigne Power; and at the other end to their own Ears’ (Hobbes 1651: 108-9; cf. Hobbes 1668: 105). Of course, if one switches from the category of civil liberty to natural liberty (‘corporall Liberty’), then subjects have ‘freedom from chains, and prison’ and it is absurd for them to ‘clamor as they doe, for the Liberty they so manifestly enjoy’ (Hobbes 1651: 109). Hobbes then returns to the category of civil liberty and points out that it is equally absurd for subjects to complain about their artificial chains and ‘a Sword in the hands’ of the Sovereign, for without those things, ‘all other men would be masters of their lives’ (Hobbes 1651: 109). In other words, they would be slaves, unfree persons.

I don’t think Hobbes would accept the objection that artificial chains cannot be impediments because they are artificial, for if he did, then sovereigns, who are artificial persons, would not be persons; and it is crucial to Hobbes’s theory of authorization to have artificial persons who can represent their subjects. Again it would be absurd for him to divide persons into natural and artificial, as he does (Hobbes 1651: 80).

How then should Hobbes’s claim that only ‘natural liberty … is properly called liberty’ and his claim shortly later that ‘we take liberty in the proper sense, for corporal liberty’ be taken (Hobbes 1651: 108, 109)? (In the Latin Leviathan, the second occurrence of ‘proper’ is not translated.) ‘Proper’ may mean applicable to only one thing. But it does not always have that narrow meaning. It can also mean more appropriate or strictly applicable to one thing than any other, as when someone says, ‘The proper part of the U.S. Constitution excludes its Preamble.’ My friend Jonathan has told me that my fedora is a proper hat unlike my ‘gimme hat’. (Caps are hats, as a person wearing a cap would quickly discover in a courtroom with a sign saying ‘No hats’.) From ‘Natural liberty is proper liberty’ one is not justified in inferring ‘Civil liberty is improper liberty’, only ‘Civil liberty is nonproper liberty’. Nonproper liberty could be ‘liberty’ in a derivative or broader sense. Deigh should not put too much weight on the word ‘proper’ because Hobbes did say that when the theorems of chapters 14 and 15 are delivered in the word of God, they are ‘properly called Lawes’ (Hobbes 1651: 80). Also, seventeenth-century usage allowed for x-es that were not ‘proper’: a kind of human liberty was not ‘proper’ (Owen 1643: 125); and human kings were kings but only God was a ‘proper king’ (Rutherford 1644: 39).

There are three positive reasons for holding that natural laws are laws. First, Hobbes divides laws into two kinds in chapter 26, one of which is natural law (Hobbes 1651: 48). If natural laws were not laws, then it would be absurd for him to make this division, similar to dividing horses into two kinds, equine and saw. The second reason is the way Hobbes explicates his definition of ‘law of nature’. He begins by saying that law is inconsistent with right, where right is liberty, Rights are contrasted with laws: ‘Law, and Right, differ as much, as Obligation, and Liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent’ (Hobbes 1651:  64). If a law of nature were not a law, then it would be pointless or misleading for Hobbes to use the concept of law and its contrary ‘liberty’ to explain his definition. Hobbes is not using the words ‘law’ in ‘law of nature’ metaphorically or as part of a fused expression.

Third, Hobbes indicates in Leviathan, chapter 25, ‘Of Counsel’ that a complete law consists of two parts. One part consists of a proposition that is action-guiding, such as ‘you lay down your right to all things’ or ‘you do not drive faster than 20 mph in a school zone’. The other part is the force with which that proposition is expressed; and the force is determined by the speaker expressing the proposition or with what purpose. When the proposition is issued by an authority as binding, it has the force of a command; and it is a law. When the proposition is expressed, say, by a friend who recommends a course of action for the addressee’s own good, it is counsel or advice.[2] (Hobbes does not consider the fact that authorities are sometimes friends and use their authority for the addressee’s own good.) It is easy to be mistaken about the force that a proposition has. Hobbes uses ‘Do this’ as his example. One defect of this example is that the words are so vague or noncommittal, ‘do’ [what?] ‘this’ [what?]. My guess is that Hobbes feared that a sentence such as ‘You do not kill’ would be interpreted as a command and one such as ‘You study hard’ would be interpreted as counsel. Another deficiency of ‘Do this’ is that it is in the imperative mood, as I explained above. So, Hobbes might have used an indicative sentence to illustrate the confusion of commands and counsels. ‘You are off the streets by midnight’ would have served. Although most philosophers say that sentences with the main verb in the indicative mood are assertions, there are many reasons to think that view is wrong (Martinich 1984:  72-6). In any case, if Hobbes knew speech-act theory, he might have said that the relevant sentence is indeterminate with respect to its force since none is expressed and it can be used either to give advice if the speaker was advising a person how to me alert at 8:00 AM or issue a command if the speaker was commanding the addressee about a curfew.

As I said, the propositional part of a law of nature can be proved by reason from the definition of ‘law of nature’. But who is the authority or sovereign who commands these laws? Hobbes says it is God, who is sovereign in virtue of his irresistible power. And God promulgates the content of the laws through reason, which is ‘the undoubted word of God’ (Hobbes 1651:  195). Since no one in seventeenth-century England doubted that God commanded the laws of nature, Hobbes did not need to produce a proof.[3] Richard Cumberland complained that Hobbes did not prove that God commanded them and attempted to do so in the 400 substantial pages of De Legibus Naturae (1672). Though he labored mightily, I see nothing in that book that would count as a demonstration. Later, John Locke tried and failed to prove that the laws of nature were commanded by God; and he knew that he had failed. But he did not give up his belief that they were.

When Hobbes is talking only about the propositional part of a law, the part that can be proved by reason, he says that the laws of nature are not laws and sometimes signals this narrow reference by using the term ‘dictate of reason’. Why should he use a different term unless he wanted to mark a difference? And when he says that the laws of nature are laws, he often makes clear who the authority is who makes the propositions laws, God.[4]



Deigh, John. 2016. “Political Obligation,” in Martinich and Hoekstra, pp. 624-40.

Martinich, A. P., and Kinch Hoekstra, eds. 2016. Oxford Handbook of Hobbes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Martinich, A. P. 1984. Communication and Reference. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Owen, John. 1643. Theomachia Autoexousiastike; or A Display of Arminianisme. London.

Parkin, Jon. 2016. “Hobbes and Paradox,” in Martinich and Hoekstra, pp. 624-42.

Rutherford, Samuel. 1644. Lex, Rex; The Law and the Prince. London.

Searle, John. 1969. Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



[1] Hobbes does not point out that, given his characterization of command and counsel, something can be both: Suppose there is a good God, a sovereign by nature, who wants to nudge human beings, and so directs the laws of nature to human beings, which he expects them to understand through reason as his mode of promulgation. The omission does not surprise me. Hobbes was a fallible philosopher, as are we all.

[2] This two-fold structure is familiar from speech act theory. See Searle 1969 and Martinich 1984.

[3] My guess is that, given Hobbes’s epistemological views, a person could never have more than empirical evidence for a belief that God commanded the laws of nature.

[4] I want to thank Leslie Martinich and Jake Galgon for their helpful comments.

Radio Hobbes

Whenever I’m teaching Hobbes—or any great thinker, for that matter—I like to point students towards some good radio discussions of his thought. I’ve long directed them to this excellent episode of In Our Time, with Melyvn Bragg in conversation with Quentin Skinner, David Wooton and Annabel Brett. I recently also discovered this very interesting episode of Great Lives, with Steven Pinker and Noel Malcolm. And for a somewhat less scholarly discussion of what Hobbes might have to tell us about issues from online computer games and Bitcoin to naked rambling, there’s this on ‘Hobbes and Civil Disobedience’ (I assume, for Hobbes, civil and disobedience are words, which when they are joined together, destroy one another). You’ll notice I’ve not ventured beyond the BBC and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find something more sophisticated than the last offering here.


ADDENDUM: This episode of Philosophy Bites, with Noel Malcolm in conversation with Nigel Warburton, is also recommended (thanks to Juhana Lemetti for the pointer). And for Francophone audiences, here’s Luc Foisneau talking about ‘Hobbes: la vie inquiète’ for France Culture.