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.

New Chapter: Hobbes and Rousseau on Human Nature and the State of Nature

Evrigenis, Ioannis (2022): Chapter 8: Hobbes and Rousseau on Human Nature and the State Of Nature, in: Karolina Hubner (Ed.): Human: A History. Oxford Philosophical Concepts.

A paradox of the concept of “human nature” is that it holds both the promise of universal equality—insofar as it takes us all to share a common nature—while all too often rationalizing exploitation, oppression, and even violence against other individuals and other species. Most appallingly, differences in skin color and other physiological traits have been viewed as signs of a “lesser” humanity, or of outright inhumanity, and used to justify great harms. The volume asks: is the concept of human nature separable from the racist, sexist, and speciest abuse that has been made of it? And is it even possible—or desirable—to articulate a notion of human nature unaffected by race or gender or class, as if it were possible to observe humanity in a pure form? With chapter 8 on Hobbes and Rousseau.

New article on Hobbes’s Eschatology and Scriptural Interpretation in Leviathan

Okada, Takuya (2022): Hobbes’s Eschatology and Scriptural Interpretation in Leviathan, in: The Journal of Ecclesiastical History,

Hobbes’s eschatology in Leviathan is one of the most striking aspects of this classic work and has received considerable scholarly attention. Nevertheless, its scriptural interpretation has rarely been examined. This article closely analyses Hobbes’s scriptural case for two aspects of eschatology: the doctrine of mortalism and the terrestrial kingdom of God. It shows that, to a large extent, Hobbes’s biblical exegesis for these two eschatological issues was preceded by that of his contemporaries, including Richard Overton and John Archer. It is likely, in particular, that the scriptural interpretation for Hobbes’s mortalism was directly indebted to Overton’s Mans mortalitie.

New article on the Rhetoric of Hobbes’s Translation of Thucydides

Campbell, Chris (2021): The Rhetoric of Hobbes’s Translation of Thucydides, in: The Review of Politics,

In several key passages in Thomas Hobbes’s understudied translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, Hobbes’s Pericles directs audiences to distrust rhetoric in favor of calculative self-interest, inward-focused affective states, and an epistemic reliance on sovereignty. Hobbes’s own intervention via his translation of Thucydides involves similar rhetorical moves. By directing readers to learn from Thucydides, Hobbes conceals his own rhetorical appeals in favor of sovereignty while portraying rhetoric undermining sovereignty as manipulative, self-serving, and representative of the entire category of “rhetoric.” Hobbes’s double redescription of rhetoric is an important starting point for an early modern project: appeals that justify a desired political order are characterized as “right reason,” “the law of nature,” or “enlightenment,” while rhetoric constituting solidarities or publics outside the desired order is condemned. Hobbes’s contribution to this project theorizes rhetoric as a barrier to individual calculations of interest, placing a novel constraint on political life.

New collection of essays: A Companion to Hobbes

Adams, Marcus P. (ed.) (2021): A Companion to Hobbes. (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy). John Wiley & Sons.


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

New anthology: Early Modern Philosophy

Shapiro, Lisa & Lascano, Marcy P. (2021): Early Modern Philosophy. An Anthology, Broadview Press.

This new anthology of early modern philosophy enriches the possibilities for teaching this period by highlighting not only metaphysics and epistemology, but also new themes such as virtue, equality and difference, education, the passions, and love. It contains the works of forty-three philosophers, including traditionally taught figures such as Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, as well as less familiar writers such as Lord Shaftesbury, Anton Amo, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, and Denis Diderot. It also highlights the contributions of women philosophers, including Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Gabrielle Suchon, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, and Emilie Du Châtelet.

New article on liberty and representation in Hobbes

Bardin, Andrea (2021): Liberty and representation in Hobbes: a materialist theory of conatus, in: History of European Ideas,

The concepts of liberty and representation reveal tensions in Hobbes’s political anthropology that only a study of the development of his philosophical materialism can fully elucidate. The first section of this article analyses the contradictory definitions of liberty offered in De cive, and explains them against the background of Hobbes’s elaboration of a deterministic concept of conatus during the 1640s. Variations in the concepts of conatus and void between De motu and De corpore will shed light on ideas of individuality, unity and agency that carry direct political relevance. The second section explains why the concept of representation that Hobbes elaborated at the end of the decade in Leviathan cannot be interpreted within an exclusively political and juridical framework. Rather, I will claim that it should be explained in the light of Hobbes’s materialist theory of the power exerted by the sovereign persona on human imagination.

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):

New article: Hobbes on treason and fundamental law

van Apeldoorn, Laurens (2021): Hobbes on treason and fundamental law, in: Intellectual History Review,

This article considers Hobbes’ contribution to the development of constitutionalist thought by contextualizing his treatment of the concepts of treason and fundamental law in De cive (1642, 2nd ed. 1647) and Leviathan (1651). While in Leviathan he adopts the controversial conception of treason as a violation of fundamental law that had been employed to convict Charles I of high treason in 1649, he draws on the original meaning of the term “fundamental law”, as outlined in the most influential early analysis of Innocent Gentillet, to deny that fundamental laws can constrain the rights and powers of the sovereign. He bolsters this position by treating fundamental law as natural, not civil, law. While citizens commit treason when they violate the original covenant that establishes the sovereign, citizens cannot appeal to a human court for violations of fundamental law by the sovereign (who must render account for violations of natural law only to God). Hobbes’ ingenious reconceptualization of fundamental law, hence, shows that, when understood correctly, the theory of treason embraced by parliamentarians could never support the violent resistance against, and overthrow of, a monarch like Charles I.