Online Colloquium (5): Reply to critics by Martinich

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gabriella Slomp helpfully summarized my book’s content.

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

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

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

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

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

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)

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

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

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


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

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

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

The ‘background’ question

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘innovation’ question

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘fragmentation’ question

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

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

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


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

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

Gabriella Slomp (University of St Andrews)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Martinich Against Skinner

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereignty by Acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “primary” and “secondary” State of Nature

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Andrew Day (Nonzero Foundation)

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

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

[3] Leviathan 17.13.

[4] Ibid.,14.11.

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

[6] Ibid.,15.38.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Byron (Kent State University)


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

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

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

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. London.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)

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

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

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

Impressions of the Third Biennial Conference of the European Hobbes Society

“…it is against his duty, to let the people be ignorant, or misinformed of the grounds, and reasons of those his essential rights; because thereby men are easy to be seduced, and drawn to resist him, when the commonwealth shall require their use and exercise.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, XXX.3

From 18-20 Nov 2021, 15 scholars from 10 different countries and for the first time 8 graduate students from the University of Zagreb gathered together in the old and beautiful Mediterranean city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, for the Third Biennial Conference of the European Hobbes Society. As always, it was a joy to see familiar faces as well as to introduce new ones. 

It should be noted that the whole organization was a challenge due to the ongoing Covid-19 related crises. First, the conference had to postponed for a year as the epidemiological situation did not allow majority people to travel. As the Covid-19 global pandemic is still preventing some people from travel, some speakers were unable to attend in the end. Despite all these challenges and missing faces we had thoughtful presentations and productive discussions. Precisely, we had twelve new interesting papers on Hobbes, covering various topics related to Hobbes’s thought from those related to interpretation of Sommerville’s work as it was the case with the opening talk of S.A. Lloyd, to George Wright’s project related to translating the Latin Leviathan, Hobbes’s arguments about religion discussed by Asaf Sokolowski, the relation between Hobbes and Enlightenment by Luc Foisneau, a reconstruction of Hobbes’s state of nature through the work of Thucydides by Luka Ribarević, interpretations of Hobbes’s view on injustice and injury by Johan Olsthoorn, criticism related to Hobbes’s political science by Adrian Blau, etc. 

The full program can be found here.  

We are very grateful to the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, Croatia for providing us as organizers with grants making this EHS conference possible, as well as the Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik for hosting us and offering the grants allowing our grad students to participate in the conference. Thanks also goes out to all participants, both for coming in Dubrovnik as well as for shaping this small epistemic community and inducing an inspiring and thoughtful conversation on various aspects of Hobbes’s work.

The Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik will be open for hosting similar events and workshops in the future. We continue to welcome initiatives for various events under the aegis of the EHS. Finally, we are pleased to announce that the Fourth Biennial Conference of the European Hobbes Society will be organized by Daniel Eggers, at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in August 2023. Until then, stay safe and enjoy Hobbes!

Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios Hobbesianos/ Latin American Hobbes Studies Association

The Latin American Hobbes Studies Association was formed at the end of 2019, in Curitiba, by an agreement among researchers from different universities in Brazil and Argentina. Claudio Leivas (Brazil) was elected as president director and Andrés Di Leo Razuk (Argentina) as vice-president director for this biennium (2019–2021).

Our main goals are expanding the philosophical discussion of Hobbes’s work as well as establishing links with other international academic centres. That is why we urge all Latin American researchers linked to Hobbes’s thought to join this philosophical community.

In addition to strengthening academic ties and exchanging ideas, members of the association work on several indexed journals and we organise the annual Hobbes International Congress, which this year was already in its seventh edition. The papers of our last conference will be published in: We are glad to invite everyone to the next Congress in Argentina, hopefully in person.  Do not hesitate to send us an email at

Call for abstracts: Third Biennial Conference of the EHS

The Third Biennial Conference of the European Hobbes Society will be held at the Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik from Thursday 18th to Saturday 20th November 2021.

In addition to the papers presented by invited speakers, we have reserved a number of slots for papers to be selected from a blind-reviewed call for abstracts. We thus invite abstracts of no more than 300 words (longer abstracts will not be considered) by the end of Wednesday 8th September 2021. We welcome abstracts on any aspect of Hobbes’s thought. Abstracts should be emailed to in a Word file by the deadline.

Successful applicants will be informed by Wednesday 15th September 2021. The conference will follow the usual format of the European Hobbes Society, with all papers pre-circulated in advance to allow for optimal discussion and feedback during the conference itself. With this in mind, successful applicants will need to have a full draft of their paper (no longer than 9,000 words, including all references) ready to circulate by Monday 1st November 2021. Accommodation expenses are covered for all the speakers and there is no registration fee for the conference. Unfortunately, we are unable to cover travel expenses of successful applicants.

Attendance at the conference is free and open to all European Hobbes Society members, but the number of places is limited and will be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. All participants are strongly encouraged to have a look at the pre-circulated papers in advance of the conference. Places will of course be reserved for everyone presenting papers, but if you would like to attend in a non-presenting capacity then please email to reserve your place.

For further information or queries please contact the conference conveners:
Luka Ribarević (University of Zagreb):
Hrvoje Cvijanović (University of Zagreb):

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to critics by Sandra Leonie Field

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sandra Leonie Field’s recent book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. We began with an introduction to the text, followed by responses from Alissa MacMillan, Christopher Holman and Justin Steinberg. We conclude this week with a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


It is a great honour to have my book featured by the European Hobbes Society, and to have Alissa MacMillan, Chris Holman, and Justin Steinberg give such detailed attention to the book’s ideas and arguments.

Potentia aspires to make contributions both to studies of Hobbes and Spinoza, and to democratic theory. I hope to have achieved philosophical and philological rigour in my readings of Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s texts. At the same time, my purpose in those readings is to locate ideas which might help reorient us with respect to contemporary systematic questions of political philosophy. I thank my critics for pressing on both of these fronts. I’ll respond to four areas of concern that they raise: (i) Hobbes on power; (ii) Hobbes on democracy; (iii) the Hobbes/Spinoza relation; and (iv) the larger lessons for democratic theory.[1]

i. Hobbes on Power

My interpretation of Hobbes centres on identifying a shift in his conception of human power, both individual and collective, between his early and late political texts. I draw significant political consequences from this shift. I would like to thank MacMillan for her efforts to reconstitute and situate this shift in terms of debates regarding the Hobbesian individual. Her presentation conveys some of the excitement that I myself felt in carrying out this research, excitement which I feared may have been lost in all the finer scholarly details of the chapters. Equally, however, I would like to thank Steinberg for asking whether I have overstated the shift’s political consequences.[2] In particular, Steinberg expresses skepticism that the changing conception of power explains (a) why Hobbes abandons De Cive’s ‘sleeping sovereign’ in Leviathan, or (b) why in his early works Hobbes underestimates the threat of informal collectivities to sovereign power. I’ll address these two challenges in turn.

Steinberg reconstitutes my argument against the sleeping sovereign as follows. The sleeping sovereign does not actively exercise its power most of the time. But the later text Leviathan conceives power (potentia) as efficacy. An inactive power is ineffective, and as such, it is no power at all. So, the sleeping sovereign lacks power and is not viable as a sovereign.

To this argument, Steinberg objects that nothing about efficacy requires continual action. Even once we clear out any residual scholastic commitment to inner essential tendencies, there must be a way of talking about everyday tendencies or dispositions or inactive powers. For instance, surely we can say that a driver has the power to brake even when they don’t exercise that power. Just like the driver ready to brake, surely a sleeping sovereign could be ready to issue directives. Inactivity does not mean lack of power.

In response, I grant that it is possible for Hobbes, in his later non-scholastic conception of power, to speak of dispositions and inactive powers. But under what conditions? For Hobbes, everything has its determinate causes, and possibility relates only to our epistemic limitations. Thus, to say that something is possible is just to say that, for all we know, it may happen in the future. Correspondingly, we can attribute powers (potentiae) or dispositions only to the extent that we anticipate likely future efficacy, as for instance in the case of the car driver’s power to brake (52–53).[3]

Nonetheless, I would suggest that this very standard of likely future efficacy raises problems for the putative power (potentia) of a sleeping sovereign that it does not raise for the driver’s power to brake. Recall what is at stake: a government covers quotidian administration and governance, but from time to time the sleeping sovereign wakes, holding the government to account or redirecting its work through a vote. The sleeping sovereign, qua sovereign (summa potestas), holds the entitlement to everyone’s obedience. Imagine the sovereign makes a ruling which is not to the pleasure of the government. How can it be confident of achieving the concrete obedience of the populace? Hobbes’s answer in his early texts is simple: the sovereign is entitled to obedience, and the sovereign will get that obedience, because it holds the sword. But what is this ‘sword’, how is it constituted? Let us consider this power, not as a matter of entitlement, but as a question of concrete efficacy. It is composed out of the actions of individuals in society, which in turn are shaped by the everyday incentives and pressures that they face within ongoing relationships. And here lies the problem: subjects’ everyday actions follow patterns of obedience to the government. If some portion of the government and/or the populace choose not to comply with the sovereign, they have the ready network of collective power to do so. We end up with divided allegiance and risk of war, and a serious question mark over the likely future efficacy (and hence power) of the sovereign. Under an alternative scenario, the sleeping sovereign, aware of this risk, might take a strategy of appeasement: taking care not to ask controversial questions or allow controversial responses. On this scenario, a sleeping sovereign may avert the risk of civil war, but the scenario is hardly more encouraging for the idea that the sleeping sovereign is the true seat of power (95–98).

Let me turn now to the second respect in which Steinberg is skeptical about the political impact of Hobbes’s changing philosophical conception of power: concerning the political salience of informal groupings. Steinberg reconstitutes my argument as follows. On Hobbes’s early view, power potentia is conceived in a scholastic manner as grounded in essences, and only genuine individuals–not mere aggregates–can bear essences. This means that informal groupings, lacking potestas and formal structure, cannot bear essences or have power. This in turn leads Hobbes to underestimate their capacity to destabilize the sovereign.

To this argument, Steinberg objects that Hobbes is in fact critical of essences. For instance, Hobbes’s early discussion of human nature as a sum of various powers amounts to an antischolastic and antiessentialising reduction of the concept of human nature. So, even for early Hobbes, ‘we don’t need a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have powers’.

In response, I concede that Hobbes is attempting an antischolastic polemic on multiple conceptual fronts, right from his early works. But my point is that, regardless of the vigour with which Hobbes may depart from scholasticism in many respects, there are conceptual features remaining in his early view of powers which are illuminatingly viewed as scholastic legacies. For Hobbes in his early works, collective power (potestas) is conceived of as the sum of the powers (potentiae) of the individual members of the collective, the full use of which the collective is entitled by (actual or rationally imputed) contract; the power potentia of the collective is equated to its potestas. Correspondingly, in these early works, Hobbes vigorously refuses to attribute to informal collectivities any power (certainly not potestas, but also not potentia) of their own (57–73). To me, this seems to show, contra Steinberg, that Hobbes does in fact ‘rely on a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have power.’ It is this reliance that (I argue) contributes to Hobbes’s early blind spot about the threat of informal collectivities. To be sure, Hobbes is aware and concerned about the threat of insurrection throughout his entire oeuvre. But it is striking to me that Hobbes, in his early works, attempts to conceive seditious groupings as illicit formal collectivities, leading (I argue) to a straitened and inadequate grasp of the dynamics of popular unrest (73–77, 100–104).

ii. Hobbes on Democracy

Following its analysis of Hobbesian concepts of power, Potentia articulates a certain understanding of Hobbesian democracy. As already discussed above, I think that the ‘sleeping sovereign’ model of democracy is deeply flawed, and that it is Hobbes’s own recognition of these flaws that leads him to abandon the model in his later writings. In its place, I offer my model of ‘repressive egalitarianism’, which draws both on my own conceptual and exegetical analyses of power in Hobbes’s later writings, and also on more historically informed studies of Collins and Zagorin. According to this model, the key to democratic sovereignty is maximal suppression of sub-state power blocs, such that individuals are rendered equal in power to one another, and unable to band together to disrupt the sovereign democratic decision (127–139). To be clear, in my discussions of repressive egalitarianism, it is not my purpose to defend repressive egalitarianism as an optimal model of popular power, but merely to defend the exegetical claim that it is Hobbes’s model. In the arc of the book’s argument, the value in Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism is its withering intolerance towards the oligarchic informal forces in the social body which so often masquerade as bearers of popular power. For now, I’ll consider three objections to my interpretation of Hobbes on democracy, two from Holman and one from MacMillan.

Holman’s first objection is that repressive egalitarianism is far from the most interesting or salient model of democracy that we might glean from Hobbes’s texts. My model of repressive egalitarianism appears implicitly committed to electoral democracy. But in Holman’s view, Hobbes’s model of democracy is neither plebiscitary (as per Tuck), nor electoral/representative, but direct participatory democracy. Holman constructs this Rousseauvian reading of Hobbes by drawing on De Cive’s definition of democracy as an assembly of all citizens.[4] On Holman’s reading, this democracy requires ‘concrete institutional spaces’ for shared deliberation that are ‘universally accessible and must meet at determinate–as opposed to merely occasional–times and places’. In this light, my book should be faulted for missing what is both the true Hobbesian model of democracy, and also a more useful model for us today, instead wilfully promoting a less meaningfully democratic model.

For now, my response will focus on Holman’s claims regarding Hobbes’s texts, leaving the contemporary application to be considered in my following section. I confess I am skeptical regarding the Hobbesian credentials of Holman’s model. Within De Cive, a democratic assembly, an assembly of all citizens, is an assembly in which ‘everyone has a right’ to vote and participate in debates. But there is no indication that he views a small (relative to population) assembly like a parliament as being in principle disqualified from meeting this requirement. Indeed, as sovereignty is vested in a single assembly, actual participation must be limited to a small number by logistical necessity. Certainly, as Holman points out, Hobbes argues that England of the Rump Parliament was an oligarchy and not a democracy. But what makes this the case is not (contra Holman) the general fact that parliaments are relatively small and inaccessible bodies, but the much more specific fact that this parliament had permanently and formally excluded some people on the basis of their political views (in the course of the 1648–9 transition between Long and Rump Parliaments).[5]

If I am right, De Cive offers a model of democracy which is content with only very limited actual participation. Holman and Tuck both, in different ways, try to resist this conclusion, and Holman’s proposal strikes me as just as creative as Tuck’s. Tuck’s plebiscitary democratic sovereignty achieves universality by dropping the requirement for holding an actual assembly. Holman’s alternative envisages multiple deliberative assemblies jointly covering the entire commonwealth. But in its creativity, Holman’s proposal seems to me to stray further away from anything Hobbes could endorse: for what better way to commit the cardinal Hobbesian sin of inviting conflict through ambiguity of authority than by sanctioning multiple mutually insubordinate regional assemblies.

In my account of Hobbes’s late models of political order, repressive egalitarianism is a general feature of all forms of sovereignty. Whether democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy, the important thing is that there should be as little as possible by way of counter-powers which could challenge sovereign commands. Rather, the commonwealth should aggregate isolated individuals who have little choice but compliance with sovereign command. But repressive egalitarianism would take a particular manifestation in democratic orders. One key risk to be addressed is that democratic assemblies themselves might be sites for the formation of informal oligarchic power blocs and oligarchic allegiance. I argue that Hobbes’s analysis of counsel shows a simultaneous commitment to widespread consultation across the whole population along with a strong hostility to collective deliberation within political assembly (especially democratic assembly) (124–127).

Holman’s second objection is that I have underplayed Hobbes’s account of the possibilities of non-antagonistic sociality, found for instance in Leviathan Chapter 22’s discussion of collective activities. In response, I grant that my presentation has focussed more heavily on informal oligarchic power blocs, such as may accumulate around rich or charismatic figures. These are not antagonistic–their complex structure eludes any simple binary of horizontal mutual association versus vertical domination–but nor are they very appealing. I focus on these because they are (I argue) both underrecognized in the literature, and of great systematic importance in understanding Hobbes’s later political philosophy.

Despite this focus, I do not mean to deny that Hobbes grants there can also be more productive and collaborative sociality. But to me, the key questions are, what are the concrete conditions under which such sociality arises and is sustained? and what is its relation to politics? Answering these questions reveals that in Hobbes’s philosophy, the human possibility of productive sociality can neither serve as a model nor as a foundation for democratic politics. In Leviathan’s Chapter 22, on ‘systemes’, Holman’s exemplars of sociable association occur within, and presuppose, the security provided by sovereign rule. As such, they cannot serve as a model for that rule. Furthermore, I don’t see in Hobbes any trace of the idea that these associations could, even when internally sociable, play a useful role in shaping or constraining sovereign power. (That idea, which I endorse, I associate with Spinoza, not Hobbes (260–261).) To the contrary, on my reading, all associations constitute threats to sovereign rule, because they constitute points of incipient resistance to that rule. In laying out idea of ‘repressive egalitarianism’, my point is to trace as best I can Hobbes’s own late account of the conditions of possibility of overcoming the political problem, which is to constitute a unified commonwealth without internal power blocs. As it is impossible to eliminate internal power blocs entirely, I read Chapter 22 as an attempt to taxonomize and triage the threat posed by those groupings that remain.

Now I turn to MacMillan, who objects that I soft-pedal the educational dimension of both Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s political philosophies. MacMillan suggests that repressive egalitarianism is achieved through rational education, and not through any ‘strange and impossible engineering of individuals’. Drawing on Pettit’s work, she suggests that subjects can come to internalize and act upon their duty in good part through achieving a true understanding of the grounds of politics, and not merely through indoctrination.

In response, the book does attempt a discussion of Hobbes’s views on education. But perhaps this is unsatisfying to MacMillan, because the upshot of that discussion is a fairly deep ambivalence regarding the promise of education to solve the political problem. In Hobbes’s early works, I argue that neither education nor indoctrination are particularly important. For he is confident peace can be secured simply by establishing the appropriate juridical regime of rights, with subjects’ compliance achieved by the threat of the sovereign’s sword, not by their understanding (73–77, 108–112). In the later works, Hobbes is more attentive to the insufficiency of the threat of punishment to shape behaviour, leading to a much greater interest in persuading and teaching people how they ought to behave (98–106, 112–118). But on my interpretation, the real underlying problem is that subjects can have hope of success in resisting sovereign commands, if they ally themselves with informal oligarchic power blocs beneath the sovereign. Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism seeks to break up or constrain potential counterpowers in the social body. For Hobbes, intellectual strategies of education or indoctrination, while not without some value, cannot succeed unless they are paired with this more structural approach to political stability (140–141).

iii.  The Hobbes/Spinoza Relation

One ambition of the book is to reconfigure our understanding of the relation between the political philosophies of Hobbes and Spinoza, which I think has been greatly muddied by the absence of a clear account of their various conceptions of power. Potentia claims to establish a reading which shows their political philosophies have more in common than usually recognized. In particular, I draw out the similarities between (late) Hobbesian potentia and Spinoza’s potentia operandi, and their shared focus on the concrete conditions the durability of the state.

Steinberg raises the concern that I have overdrawn the similarities between the two thinkers, and unduly minimized breaks of real significance between them. Specifically, even if we grant the similarity between late Hobbes’s potentia and Spinoza’s potentia operandi, they ‘each have an additional conception of power that the other would have rejected (or did reject)’. First, Spinoza rejects appeals to de jure authority and obligation, whereas such concepts are the foundation of Hobbesian philosophy. Second, Hobbes offers no counterpart to the Spinozist potentia agendi, power of producing effects understood through the thing’s own nature alone.

In response, I very much like Steinberg’s neat characterization of what I concede is a deep difference between the thinkers. Nonetheless, I wonder whether that deep difference needs somehow to be accommodated more in the book than it already is, given the book’s goals.

The observation that Hobbes has a strongly juridical conception of power, and that Spinoza critiques Hobbes for this conception, is central to the book. A major challenge for the book is to determine what this difference amounts to. The view that a Spinozist attention to the question of potentia as efficacy is sufficient to undermine Hobbes’s supposedly hard-headed civil science is a staple of the literature. According to this view (encouraged by Spinoza’s own Letter 50 and by Chapter 17 of his Theological-Political Treatise), Hobbes’s juridical focus on questions of right and authority comes at the expense of any serious consideration of the concrete grounds of exercise of this right. But in fact (still according to this view), Hobbesian absolute sovereignty cannot achieve requisite potentia to match its authority. Thus  Hobbes’s political philosophy is a failure (151–156).

The first half of the book strives to show that this view is false. I show that Hobbes in his later works very clearly does have an account of the potentia requisite to sovereign potestas. In particular, adequate potentia can be achieved in the regime, so ambivalent to contemporary sensibilities, that I have characterized as ‘repressive egalitarian’. In reconstructing the late Hobbesian theory of potentia, and giving it such relative prominence in the book, I am fighting against a tide of literature which (from the Hobbes side) pays too little attention to Hobbes’s nonjuridical analysis of power, and which (correspondingly, from the Spinoza side) critiques Hobbes for his neglect of such an analysis.

Thus, despite the book’s focus on Hobbes’s potentia, in no way do I mean thereby to deny the obvious fact that that Hobbes is overwhelmingly, from start to finish, a juridical thinker of power, focussed on questions of right and potestas. At the same time, I confess I am rather more interested in Hobbes’s concrete theory of power than in his juridical theory. I agree with Hoekstra’s suggestion that juridically conceived absolute sovereignty ultimately ‘becomes a kind of hidden God, largely irrelevant to our ongoing thinking about politics’.[6] And if the goal is obtaining a solid grasp of concrete political power and its possible configurations, Spinoza’s own picture is sometimes naive and simplistic (notably the Theological-Political Treatise’s discussions of democracy, Chapters 5 and 16). On this point, our understanding is richly enhanced by Hobbes’s theory of potentia.

I turn now to consider Spinoza’s potentia agendi. In his own work, Steinberg convincingly shows that the Spinozist goal of politics is freedom in a metaphysical sense, that is, the increasing rational self-determination of citizens, understood in terms of an increase of their individual potentiae agendi. By contrast, Hobbes is remarkable amongst philosophers for his total lack of interest in specifying ethical virtues, or indeed in any ethical conception of happiness beyond political salience, and also for his vehemently antimetaphysical disinterest in question of natures.

I already do recognize Spinoza’s potentia agendi has some role in core political theses of the book which would not have been possible from Hobbes alone. I already grant that the model of popular power that I end up championing is neo-Spinozist insofar as it is interested in specifying a political order’s own power (its potentia agendi), and not merely its efficacy (237–238). I also criticize Hobbes for his failure to consider that the seditious character of sub-state groups may be a product of certain conditions rather than a constant of human nature, and this failure on Hobbes’s part is conceivably linked to his general lack of interest in philosophically investigating human nature (260–261). What more exactly, salient to the goals of the book, should I have acknowledged?[7]

iv. Larger Lessons for Democratic Theory

In this final section of reply, I address some concerns raised regarding Potentia’s contributions to contemporary democratic theory. Holman and MacMillan both defend the honour of democratic radicalism and of grassroots power, which they suggest is insufficiently respected in my book.

The question, ‘what does popular power even mean?’, can be met with two quite different kinds of answer. One kind of answer analyzes the conceptual structure of popular power. A different kind of answer specifies the implementation of power so conceived. Potentia is primarily concerned to defend an answer of the first, conceptual, type. I propose to reconceive popular power, such that a political phenomenon counts as a manifestation of popular power when it is popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity) and powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Let me draw out two notable features of this conception. First, popular power is judged at the level of the overall functioning of society, rather than at the level of specific events, processes, or institutions. Second, popular power is judged at the level of durably achieved effects, not at the level of will or intention. If we want popular power worthy of the name, this is what I take it to consist in. If this conceptual move is granted, then the second type of question does become pressing: what specific political phenomena, events, and processes might tend to be found in a society meeting this standard of popular power? However, Potentia does not offer a fully formed answer to this second question, instead just offering some schematic suggestions (252–262).

Thus, it is a misconception that Potentia is importantly opposed to various democratic phenomena of a more radical flavour (plebiscites, social movements, or even participatory democracy); it is a misconception that I think it is a mistake for social movements, mass plebiscites, or other mass participation to be central to popular politics. The conceptual frame that I advance simply denies that any particular phenomenon, including plebiscites or social movements, is the definitive bearer or gauge of popular power. In principle, I am quite open about whether in fact a society of popular power will feature extensive plebiscites and/or social movements.

In fact, I am sympathetic to the idea that some significant presence of social movements would be required for meaningful popular power to be achieved (258–262). As Machiavelli argues, peaceful republics tend to be aristocratic (like Venice); to achieve a less hierarchical polity, contentious politics is necessary (like the tumults of the Roman plebs).[8] It is true that I am more skeptical about plebiscites: historical examples both from my native Australia and from my current residence of Singapore show how readily plebiscites can be engineered to serve purposes of authorities who establish them; in other cases, the results of the vote have been captured by the deep pockets of partisan advertising (137, n61–62). At the same time, sometimes plebiscites have been established in more meaningful ways. One of the better examples is the Irish Abortion Referendum. The Irish Citizen’s Assembly looms large in the book because of its role in setting up that referendum, not because some such assembly is necessarily the keystone of popular power (256).

So, with these general comments in place, let me turn to my critics. MacMillan accepts my critique of any radical democratic appeal to a popular power standing outside the processes of social formation. But in her critical comments, she suggests that I go too far in the institutional direction. In the web of mutual causation between institutions and the individuals who interact with them, if it’s a choice where to locate popular power, MacMillan interprets my book as identifying popular power on the side of the institutions. On her reading, I grant that social movements have a causal impact on the institutions of popular power, but deny that these movements are themselves part of popular power. MacMillan proposes that we should resist this such a stark choice, and instead we should view popular power as a ‘symbiosis’ between grassroots action and institutions.

In response, the view I want to defend is in fact aligned rather closely with MacMillan’s. Perhaps I introduced confusion by a carelessly equivocal use of the notion of ‘institutional’. Sometimes the term contrasts with ‘extrainstitutional’ forces such as social movements and informal collective actions, but other times ‘institutional’ is understood more expansively, to include the full array of social practices and processes which together constitute the polity. On my view, popular power should be identified at the second, broader, level, and this sounds very much like MacMillan’s ‘symbiosis’.

Now I turn to Holman’s comments on the book’s contemporary claims. Holman agrees that it is not worth defending a radical democracy founded (as per Tuck and Negri) on the unmediated will of the people. But in Holman’s view, I am too quick to offer parliamentary democracy as an alternative. Instead, Holman defends another radical tradition, for which the core commitment is a critique of the elitism of representative democracy.

In response, I am happy to acknowledge the countless perversities of representative democracy, not merely its aristocratic/oligarchic tendencies, but also its systematic distortion by electoral objectives (254–258). At the same time, I wonder whether there remains a role for representative systems, to help balance out some potential hidden exclusions and difficulties that face strong interpretations of direct participatory democracy. For instance, the extreme time-poverty of carers constitutes an obstacle to their participation in formally open participatory assemblies. For another example, a privilege to the autonomy of local participatory assembles can provide cover for antidistributive policies between rich and poor regions.

Again, most important to Potentia is the conceptual criterion of popular power. My point is not to be either for or against particular practices or institutions, such as electoral versus participatory democracy. What needs to be identified is the combination of elements which best achieves a society of equality and participation over time. In my own sketch, I imagine many factors interacting with and counteracting electoral politics: a mix of participatory fora, lottocracy, social movements, as well as expert bodies. But if an overall political order which eliminates electoral representation and replaces it with extensive participatory democracy in fact meets the standards of popular power that I have described, I am happy to endorse it.

However, I recognize that my conceptual claim is controversial. In particular, I suspect that Holman may not grant it. Holman’s own discussion of democracy, both in this review and in his other work, appears to identify popular power with a specific political location–namely, a network of participatory deliberative fora–and not at the level of overall social effects. This feature of Holman’s scholarship helps to make vivid the hard choice that lies at the foundation of Potentia’s engagement with democratic theory. The book starts by facing up to the disappointments that afflict all particular institutions and sites of democracy–not merely electoral democracy but equally plebiscites and mass movements, and also even participatory democracy. From time to time, in greater or lesser degree, these institutions and sites all find themselves going wrong. They may be captured by moneyed interests, eroded by zerosum conflict, confidently tyrannizing their internal minorities, wracked by an inability translate ideas into durable outcomes. In light of these disappointments, what should we think of popular power and democracy? Holman’s response is that popular power is highly ambivalent and can be self-destructive: that’s just the tragedy of democracy. The response of my book is different. Rather than hold onto a tragic vision of democracy, and correspondingly oscillate between hope and despair about its value, instead Potentia proposes the very meaning of popular power needs to be rethought. On this new conceptualization, a self-destructive, oligarchic, or otherwise failing democracy is not a case of misused popular power. Rather, it is a case where popular power worthy of the name has not yet been achieved.

Sandra Leonie Field (Yale-NUS College)

[1]  This research was supported by Yale-NUS College (through grant number IG17-SR101).

[2]  I also owe broader thanks to Steinberg. Steinberg’s own writings on Spinoza have been very important in my research. But on reflection, I realise that my book gives quite an unfair characterization of his views. I look forward to setting the record straight at some point in the future.

[3] All in-text references are to Field, Potentia.

[4] Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, edited and translated by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 7.1.

[5] Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, edited by Paul Seaward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), reading 319 in light of 317.

[6]  Kinch Hoekstra, ‘Early Modern Absolutism and Constitutionalism’, Cardozo Law Review, 34 (3), 2013: 1097.

[7] I think that sometimes comparisons of the two authors can be too quick in appealing to Spinoza’s potentia agendi to illuminate his differences from Hobbes. For instance, I am skeptical how much difference there is between Hobbes and Spinoza on the appropriate balance of hope and fear in their respective best regimes.

[8] Sandra Leonie Field, ‘Contentious politics: Hobbes, Machiavelli, and corporate power’, Democracy Futures series, The Conversation, 20 November 2015.

Online Colloquium (4): Steinberg on Potentia

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sandra Leonie Field’s recent book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. We began with an introduction to the text, followed by responses from Alissa MacMillan and Christopher Holman. We now have a response from Justin Steinberg and will finish next week with a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Many among the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021, the day on which the results of the 2020 election were to be certified by congress, conceived of themselves as representing ‘the people,’ reclaiming government from the tentacles of a ‘deep state’ elite. Of course, this self-conception was preposterous, not only because the mob manifestly represent only a minority of Americans who were seeking to overthrow the will of the majority of voters, but also because it is not clear in what sense a mass movement like this one can really be said to be popular. Wealthy elites, large corporations—including powerful media entities—and even foreign agents often play crucial roles in materially supporting such putatively ‘populist movements’ and in managing and manipulating the beliefs and affects of participants. Moreover, in the case of the capitol mob, ‘the people’ took their instructions from, and sought to do the bidding of, an egomaniacal wannabe autocrat. This raises the crucial question: what, exactly, constitutes popular power.

This is the driving question behind Sandra Leonie Field’s book Potentia. Field turns to two 17th century political theorists, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, to try to extract a conception of popular power that might avoid Joseph Schumpeter’s dismal conclusion that we should abandon all pretenses to popular power. In the process, Field exposes problems with recent radical populist interpretations of Hobbes and Spinoza, showing that both of these figures better appreciated the problems with identifying populist movements and plebiscites with popular power than their ‘radical’ interpreters. The result is a rich and stimulating work on a topic—namely, power—that, while glibly bandied about in everyday political discourse, is somewhat undertheorized in contemporary political philosophy.

Since this is the European Hobbes Society, and since I have commented on the Spinoza portion of the text in another forum, I will focus here on Field’s analysis of Hobbes. Field traces Hobbes’s conception of power as it evolved over the course of his writings. She maintains that while in the early writings (e.g., Elements of Law, De Cive) Hobbes puts forth a kind of neo-scholastic conception of power [potentia] as an internal capacity, in the late works (e.g., Leviathan) he adopts a much more radical, mechanistic conception of power as concrete efficacy. There is a corresponding shift in his notion of collective power. In the early writing, only formal collectives, or those groups in which members have joined wills to form a juridical union, have authority [potestas] or power [potentia]. Informal collectives are relatively fragile, possessing no authority or power of their own. But by the time he wrote Leviathan, Hobbes came to appreciate the gap between juridical authority [potestas] and efficacy [potentia], leading him to take seriously the ways in which informal collectives can threaten theright of the sovereign, which he comes to think requires both authority [potestas]and efficacy [potentia].

While much of this account strikes me as original and compelling, I have some reservations about whether Hobbes’s changing conception of power explains as much as Field suggests. Let’s consider her case against Tuck’s “sleeping sovereign” interpretation, according to which Hobbes takes the true and ultimate sovereign to be the people, who ‘awaken’ in crucial moments to wrest power from the everyday governors and to reassert their supreme authority. Field’s response is that, in virtue of the fact that in the later writings right requires efficacy, the people cannot be said to hold sovereign right since they do not actively exercise power. But it is not obvious to me that by conceiving of potentia as causal activity Hobbes has really forsaken the notion of power as capacity. Even one who thinks that power is an activity can make meaningful, true claims about dispositions or capacities (e.g., the bomb would have destroyed the building, if it had been detonated). And Field herself notes that the later Hobbes himself allows for dispositional properties (52). That being the case, it is not evident that by adopting a conception of power as efficacy Hobbes conceptually excludes the possibility of the people possessing such dispositional power.

Nor need one be the immediate efficient cause of effects in order to exercise causal power. I can exercise power over my car even when I am not operating the gas, brake, or steering wheel (imagine that it is rolling downhill at precisely the desired speed or is on cruise control), provided that I could press the gas or brake, or move the steering wheel, if the velocity or direction were not to my liking. I see no reason, then, simply on account of his view of potentia, that the later Hobbes could not allow that the people possess ultimate sovereign right in a similar counterfactual sense: if the immediate executors were governing in deeply undesirable ways, the people could assert their power. This is not to defend Tuck’s interpretation; it is simply to suggest that the shift in Hobbes’s conception of potentia is not sufficient to rule it out. 

Similarly, I am not sure how far the mature conception of potentia goes towards explaining Hobbes’s newfound appreciation of the ways in which rebel groups challenge authority. According to Field, in the earlier writings, Hobbes thought that groups have potentia only insofar as they have potestas—that is, only insofar as they are a formal collective—while in the later writings, where potentia is understood as efficacy, informal collectives can be said to exert potentia. I gather that the reason why, on Field’s account, the early Hobbes is supposed to have thought that groups cannot have potentia without having potestas is because he remains committed to a scholastic conception of powers as grounded in essences; and only genuine individuals—not mere aggregations—can be the bearers of essences. But I’m inclined to think that Hobbes was actually criticizing the scholastic conception of essences as the ground of powers when he reduces man’s nature to its powers in the Elements of Law (EL 1.4).By treating natures as nothing but powers, I take it that Hobbes is precluding the priority of essence-bearing individuals. Otherwise put, we don’t need a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have powers. 

Moreover, questions of political ontology seem somewhat orthogonal to an analysis of the threat posed by informal collectives. Field herself seems to recognize this, as she puts forth another reason why the later Hobbes might have come to better appreciate the ways in which sovereignty can be challenged from below: his experience of living through the English Civil War. But even if this experience revealed the urgency of the problem, surely Hobbes’s knowledge of ancient history, not to mention his awareness of a successful revolt in the United Provinces, would have positioned him to recognize the threat even in his early works.

Finally, I want to discuss Field’s assessment of the relationship between Hobbes and Spinoza. In her introduction to this colloquium, she writes that “Spinozists tend confidently to position Hobbes as the ‘bad guy’ versus Spinoza as the ‘good guy’, or in more scholarly terms, they tend to criticize Hobbes as excessively ‘juridical’, to be saved by Spinoza’s ‘power’ approach. But in my book, I believe they are revealed to have more in common in their conception of politics than is usually granted.” At the risk of conforming to the Spinozist stereotype, I want to suggest—without presenting things in terms of heroes and villains—that there is something significant about Spinoza’s break with Hobbes that is downplayed in Field’s presentation.

It is certainly true that Spinoza has a conception of potentia—namely, potentia operandi—that is rather like the later Hobbes’s conception of power [potentia] as efficacy. But what differentiates the two political thinkers, as Spinoza makes explicit in a letter to Jarig Jelles (Ep. 50), is that Hobbes embraced a scheme of rights and obligations distinct from potentia, while Spinoza always treats right as coextensive with power. While Field herself acknowledges this (154), she treats it as relatively inconsequential. But Spinoza’s insistence that one’s natural right cannot be alienated and that the right and law of Nature “prohibits nothing except what no one desires and no one can do” (TP 2/8) is fundamental to his normative political philosophy, as it sweeps away what he sees as specious appeals to de jure authority and duty, and puts the onus on the sovereign to govern in stable and compelling ways. Hobbes, on the other hand, is fundamentally committed to the alienability of right and to a conception of natural law that obligates (at least in foro interno)outside of the state and grounds obligation within the state. This is no small difference.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that, as Field astutely observes, in addition to thenotion of potentia that Spinoza takes to be coextensive with right [potentia operandi], Spinoza has another conception of potentia [potentia agendi] that has no counterpart in Hobbes’s philosophy. It is this notion of potentia that is of particular normative import for Spinoza: humans and states alike strive to maximize their power of acting [potentia agendi], with “acting” here being taken in Spinoza’s technical sense of producing effects that can be understood through one’s nature alone.

While Field acknowledges the importance of potentia agendi, she does not explore just how distinct it is from anything in Hobbes. There are at least three respects in which the account of action or causation (what Spinoza calls “adequate causation”) on which the potentia agendi is based differs from anything that one finds in Hobbes: it depends on the explanatory role of natures, which Hobbes rejects (for more, see Steinberg, “Striving, Happiness, and the Good: Spinoza as Follower and Critic of Hobbes,” in Marcus Adams, Blackwell Companion to Hobbes [forthcoming]); it treats causation as a form of rendering intelligible, rather than regarding it in purely mechanistic, physical terms; and it is in some sense modelled on divine conception of immanent causation, a notion of which Hobbes is quite critical (see EW V.372–373). Since the striving for power in this sense of being capable of producing effects from one’s nature is the very ground of normativity in Spinoza, one cannot appreciate Spinoza’s ethical or political aims without making heavy use of this notion. Such a high-metaphysical conception of power would surely have elicited an eye roll, if not a savage critique, from Hobbes.

This, then, in the score, as I see it: while the later Hobbes and Spinoza seem to adopt a somewhat similar conception of power (potentia, for Hobbes; potentia operandi for Spinoza), they each have an additional conception of power that the other would have rejected (or did reject): Hobbes’s juridical conception of potestas; and Spinoza’s conception of potentia agendi. By all appearances, these are important and ineliminable concepts for their respective systems that have significant downstream consequences for their normative political thought. For all of their similarities, then, Hobbes and Spinoza remain critically distinct theorists of political power.

Justin Steinberg (Brooklyn College, CUNY)