Online Colloquium (4): Cromartie on Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor, followed by responses from Ted H. Miller and Patricia Springborg. We now have a response from Alan Cromartie, before finishing with a reply by Timothy Raylor next week. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


It is a pleasure to welcome Timothy Raylor’s Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. Both specialists in rhetoric and generalist Hobbes scholars will surely find much to admire in its careful presentation. As someone doing work that crosses much of the same ground, I was grateful for the thoroughness of the picture it presents and the deftness and acuteness with which it summarises existing scholarship. Irreversible local advances range from the discovery of natural-philosophical concerns in De mirabilibus pecci to the removal of doubts about the Hobbesian authorship of A briefe of the art of rhetorique. The most striking claims, however, are that Hobbes’s ‘attitude to rhetoric underwent no radical changes during the course of his long life’ (11) and that it remained essentially Aristotelian in basis. To my mind, these claims are convincing; the difficulties lie in working out the implications for the precise relationship of rhetoric with logic. Given the opportunity, I’d like to ask two questions, both raised by presupposing that Hobbes’s rhetoric is broadly Aristotelian in nature. The first is concerned with what lies within the scope of ‘rhetoric’; the second with what lies outside the scope of Hobbesian ‘logic’. The starting point of both is some remarks about A briefe.

There is a case for saying that Hobbes’s concern with ‘belief’ involves a subtle distortion of Aristotle’s views, re-orienting study of the possible means of persuasion towards an unqualified focus on the endpoint of the process. But A briefe is unquestionably loyal to its Aristotelian source in treating the ‘belief’ produced by the art of rhetoric as coming ‘partly from the behaviour of the speaker; partly from the passions of the hearer: but especially from the proofes of what we alledge’ (Briefe, 5) – in other words, from êthos, pathos, but especially logos. The Digest and A briefe are both surprisingly insistent on the dominant role of logic in the art of rhetoric. Moreover, the logic that interests Hobbes is formally valid logic; he shows surprisingly little concern with fallacies (less, certainly, than Sturmius and Goulston). He mentions the use of examples—characterised as ‘short inductions’—but he is much more interested in ‘short syllogisms’ (that is, in enthymemes), which are for the most part presented as conventional syllogisms whose fault is that they are based upon endoxa. The Latin Digest’s summary of Book One, Chapter Six goes so far as to provide cross-references explaining the logical links that obtain between the colours of good. Significantly, Hobbes departs from Aristotle’s text in interpreting refutative enthymemes as arguments ‘wherein from that which the Adversary maintaineth, wee conclude that which is manifestly impossible’ (Briefe, 131). The Greek does not specifically refer to this kind of manoeuvre. In other words, Hobbes was using his rhetoric classes to teach the earl of Devonshire a kind of argument that was to be essential to his ‘scientific’ thinking.

My first question, then, is concerned with the survival of this capacious view of the art of rhetoric in the political writings of his maturity. Aristotle’s appeals to êthos, pathos, and logos all have a fairly obvious potential to go wrong: the hearer’s faith may be misplaced, his passions may distract him, and the commonly held opinions on which his ‘proofs’ are based may be in various respects misleading. But they can also go right; indeed, they must go right if any political order is to be sustainable. Belief is not only the basis of Christianity, but the default condition of human interaction. The Elements tells us that ‘there be many things which we receive from the reports of others, of which it is impossible to imagine any cause of doubt’; such things compose ‘a great part of our histories’ (EL, I.vii.9). Moreover, when specific people do specific things, they do so at the prompting of the passions. Reason is even powerless to make hearers pay attention (217). The point is not just that fear is at the heart of political life, nor even (if Oakeshott and others are right) that good behaviour can be driven by a generous pride, but that the causal chain that sets a human being in motion invariably passes through a passion. From his translation of Thucydides onwards, Hobbes is hostile to deliberate inflammation of the passions (of the type that will inevitably occur in large assemblies), but any presentation of future goods and evils will of its nature stimulate a passion-driven response. Lastly, there is some suggestion that ‘logic’ is still a component of what Hobbes calls ‘eloquence’, at least in the passage at Civ, xii.12 where the ‘art’ of one type of ‘eloquence’ is said to be logic, while the ‘art’ of the other—involving the use of metaphors and endoxa—is ‘rhetoric’ (a weaker claim, I think, than saying that these manoeuvres simply are rhetoric). I agree that this kind of contrast between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘logic’ is in a pejorative sense of the term a rhetorical manoeuvre (182), improperly implying that the art of rhetoric should be identified with some of its aspects. But has anything else really changed?

My second question is concerned with logic’s limitations. Here I differ from the view that natural philosophy is something less than science (14). This raises some deep problems that it would be impossible to settle by quotation. I take it, though, that Hobbes’s official position is that ‘science’ is conditional knowledge; the ‘truth’ that is involved in scientific propositions takes the form ‘if x, then y’. Civil science and geometry do have the special advantage that human beings can bring x about, but science by its very nature rests on suppositions and cannot lead to any non-hypothetical conclusions. Leviathan, Chapter Seven could hardly be clearer that ‘no Discourse whatsoever, can End in absolute Knowledge of Fact, past or to come’ (Lev 1651, 30); not only is there no path from fact to ‘science’, there is equally no path from science to fact. There may of course be passages in which Hobbes lapses from this very radical position, implying that a factual correspondence can be ‘true’ (at 179, the principia vera of Civ, x.11 are a possible example), but if we take it seriously, then science relates tp words, not things. This was the view, at all events, that Hobbes himself expressed in his ‘Objections’ to Descartes (190). Science can police our language—discouraging, for instance, loose talk of ‘liberty’—but cannot map the words we use onto specific actions. If so, it is not much to the discredit of rhetoric that it pursues an object that is not strictly ‘truth’. One such object worth pursuing is destroying pernicious religion. Prophetic religion is based on a historic revelation: the faith of a believer is faith in testimony (in general of testimony that miracles occurred). In other words, its basis falls outside the scope of science. But because it is faith in a person, it is open to attack by anything that attacks that person’s êthos. This surely explains the highly rhetorical texture of Leviathan, Part IV: ‘Of the Kingdome of Darknesse’ that is acknowledged on all sides to constitute a problem.

More tentatively, it can be suggested that the tone of the rest of the volume is appropriate to a project that has some elements of advocacy (deliberative rhetoric encouraging specific people to do specific things: encouraging, for instance, royalists to acquiesce in a republic that they found repulsive). All Hobbes’s major works display much literary art, but Leviathan does seem to aim at different, more varied effects. Pace Schuhmann, these effects do seem consistent with the view that

‘in all Deliberations, and in all Pleadings, the Faculty of solid Reasoning is necessary: for without it, the Resolutions of men are rash, and their Sentences unjust: and yet if there be not powerfull Eloquence, which procureth attention and Consent, the effects of Reason will be little’ (Lev, 389).

It is true that this passage forms part of an argument Hobbes rejects, but the claim that he objects to is not the premise that eloquence is necessary ‘in all deliberations’, but the conclusion that the faculty of eloquence cannot co-exist in one person with solid reasoning. If Leviathan just is deliberative rhetoric, should we be surprised that it uses rhetorical techniques?

Professor Alan Cromartie (University of Reading)

Online Colloquium (3): Springborg on Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor, followed by a response from Ted H. Miller. We now have a response from Patricia Springborg, which will be followed by a response from Alan Cromartie, and then a reply by Timothy Raylor. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


In his immensely learned and meticulously detailed book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes, Timothy Raylor rightly points to anomalies in what has become the received wisdom about Thomas Hobbes’s understanding of the relation between philosophy and rhetoric.[1] Quentin Skinner, whose Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1996) is now canonical, in his recent and excellent From Hobbes to Humanism (2018), restates his basic assumption, that ‘by “humanism” and “the humanities”, I am simply referring to a specific academic curriculum widely followed in the grammar schools and universities of early modern England … a course of instruction comprising five elements: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy’.[2] Skinner and Raylor assume that Thomas Hobbes was educated in terms of just such a curriculum. But Skinner has detected in Hobbes a growing scepticism about the value of rhetoric, given the political misuse of powers of persuasion, at the same time that his interest in science and evidence-based proofs increased in the 1630s, re-embracing the powers of rhetoric only in Leviathan, and particularly its polemic against ‘the Kingdom of Darkness’. While Raylor has come to doubt whether Hobbes ever embraced the civic humanists’ veneration for rhetoric.

Despite the curriculum, or just because of it, Raylor asserts, ‘Hobbes’s understanding of rhetoric [w]as, from the first, Aristotelian rather than Ciceronian. It was Aristotle, whose Rhetoric Hobbes rather surprisingly chose over the more predictable, Ad Herennium of Cicero, or Quintilian’s Institutes, as the text on rhetoric for his Cavendish charge’; and it was Aristotle who insisted that ‘Rhetoric is a tool, both powerful and dangerous; it needs to be kept apart from philosophy, which is—or ought to be—concerned with truth, not with persuasion’ (129–30). For Hobbes, the sciences must be communicated in language that is perspicuous, and ‘perspicuity excludes, by definition, most of the verbal and intellectual devices, the figures of thought and diction, of rhetorical elocutio’ (253).

Hobbes claimed that ‘philosophy has nothing to do with rhetoric’ as early as Anti-White, I.3’ (171–72), consistently distinguishing logic as concerned with truth from rhetoric as concerned with victory; and this realization ‘allows us to recognize a consistency in the concerns over rhetoric Hobbes registered at various points in his career without having to posit a dizzying series of voltes faces to explain them’ (191–93). I do not doubt that Raylor is right. The elegant simplicity of his revision allows us to see how for Hobbes philosophy (concerned with demonstrable truths) and rhetoric (concerned with the means of persuasion) were, like science (proceeding from demonstrable truths) and the passions (the subject of persuasion), two sides of the same coin, and that Hobbes’s ‘civil science’ was a neo-Aristotelian alternative to Ciceronian eloquence-based civic humanism. This is quite a momentous revision. It does not take away from the excellent work of Skinner and others on Ciceronian rhetoric in early modern England, but it does relocate it.

Raylor dismisses as an exaggerated anecdote Aubrey’s account of Hobbes’s Euclidean epiphany of 1630, where he claims to have encountered geometry for the first time (127), while stressing throughout the book that mathematics was not included in the typical English early modern humanist educational curriculum that prepared nobles and gentlemen for court; and was not part of Hobbes’s own early education either:

Theorists of noble education regarded geometry as a discipline with which the young gentleman should have some acquaintance, to help his understanding of the science of fortification and appreciation of architecture. But few if any regarded it as desirable that a young man should make a serious study of mathematical subjects (128).

In fact, Raylor’s initial judgment that Aubrey’s account of Hobbes’s Euclidean epiphany is an exaggerated incident, is probably the right one. Richard Talaska’s comparison between the Hardwick Hall library catalogue in Hobbes’s hand (Hardwick, MS Hobbes E.1.A), and the statutory requirements of the Oxford University curricula in Hobbes’s day, shows that geometry was in fact stipulated in the undergraduate programme, the required texts being those of Euclid of Alexandria (fl. 300 BC), Apollonius of Perga (3rd to 2nd c. BC), and Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287–c. 212 BC).[3]

Given the fervour with which mathematical and scientific MSS in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew and Coptic, were hunted in the seventeenth century, especially by English and Dutch trading companies, the news that geometry came to Hobbes so late is hardly credible. Possibly as a student he might not have given it much attention, but since mathematics plays such a crucial role in determining what for him is science and what is philosophical truth, we should find textual evidence for this epiphany. And we have it already in the exultant Epistle Dedicatory of the Elements of Law of 1640 to his patron, Newcastle, at whose command Hobbes is writing. There he already claims his epiphany (so to speak) to be the distinction between science and dogma, where mathematics, and especially geometry (presumably), that ‘consisteth in comparing figures and motions only’, is the discriminating case:

‘From the two principal parts of our nature, Reason and Passion, have proceeded two kinds of learning, mathematical and dogmatical. The former is free from controversies and dispute, because it consisteth in comparing figures and motion only; in which things truth and the interest of men, oppose not each other. But in the later there is nothing not disputable…’ [4]

In this brief dedication Hobbes defends his method, if he excuses his style, precisely in terms of the philosophy-rhetoric antithesis: ‘For the style, it is therefore the worse, because whilst I was writing I consulted more with logic, than with rhetoric.’ Here Hobbes most clearly demonstrates that he is already post-humanist, belonging to the movement of early modern scientists, within whose company he placed himself, far from the civic humanists of the Renaissance (already revered in Cambridge, but not in Oxford), although this did not prevent him from continuing to observe the marks of a humanist, as the writer of Latin poetry and translator of Thucydides and Homer.

Raylor’s book confines itself to an exhaustive study of Hobbes’s relevant texts, especially those of his so-called humanistic phase: the Briefe of Aristotle’s Rhetoric; Hobbes’s country house poem, De Mirabilibus Pecci Carmen; and his translation of Thucydides. Later chapters address Hobbes’s redeployment of rhetoric as an artful weapon to disclose the chicanery of the Church, culminating in the Kingdom of Darkness of Leviathan Book 4 and Hobbes’s burlesque the Historia Ecclesiastica. The thread of Hobbes’s philosophical seriousness, his indebtedness to his mentor Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and the quasi-scientific interests served even by his exploration of the Peak District in his early Country House or Journey poem, De mirabilibus pecci carmen (1636), are the subject of exemplary scholarly exposition. And it is here that Raylor’s revisionist view of Hobbes on philosophy and rhetoric can tell us such a lot, in noting for instance, the Paduan education of Hobbes’s medical companions to the Peak district, his interest in the ebbing and flowing of a well as a demonstration of Galilean tidal theory, etc. Galileo Galilei (1564–642), whom Hobbes visited in 1636 on the Grand Tour with the young Cavendish, lived and worked in Padua. The University of Padua, which schooled the students of wealthy Venice close by, was not only the centre of Neo-Aristotelian education, but its medical school emphasized Arabic science, and particularly texts of Galen of Pergamum (c. 129–210 AD) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–1198).[5]

One of the surprising omissions of the book is that Raylor does not really discuss Hobbes’s science, his optics, the atomism of the Cavendish circle, or Hobbes’s own mathematical endeavours. This is especially puzzling, given that Raylor was the editor of the special issue of The Seventeenth Century on the Cavendish circle, which includes Stephen Clucas’s excellent article on the atomism of the Cavendish circle;[6] and that Clucas and Raylor are jointly editing the forthcoming Clarendon edition of De Corpore, the work which first raised Hobbes’s mathematical claims to the attention of John Wallis (1626–1703), thereafter his bitter adversary. For Raylor to secure his revisionist case and persuade us that he is right, we need to know more about the distribution of knowledge in early modern England, which cannot simply be read off from the heavily Ciceronian educational curriculum. Indeed, the Ciceronian-humanist curriculum of Hobbes’s day, far from representing the current state of knowledge in the country, was a throw-back to an earlier classical revival, ‘the twelfth century renaissance’, in which the Western provinces of the Roman Empire, largely through the efforts of the monastic orders, succeeded in recovering both the legal and rhetorical texts of the Roman Republic, which became the basis of canon law and new literacy in an age in which even kings (including Charlemagne) were typically illiterate; but where, given the Church’s insistence on the literacy of the clergy, monasteries were small islands of learning in a sea of ignorance. [7]

This period also saw the reception of scientific translations from Arabic into Latin. For geo-strategic reasons, England was to play a major role in the transmission and development of this knowledge, and Oxford became its hub. To the polyglot collection of scholars who made the pilgrimage to Sicily and Cordoba we owe the circulation of Greek mathematical texts preserved in Arabic translation, as well as the Arabic commentaries, which further developed late medieval science based on Aristotelian logic and Arabic systems of mathematical calculation. [8] The Abbasid translation movement centred in Baghdad from the eighth to the tenth centuries, and subsequent Arabic commentaries from roughly the tenth to the twelfth centuries,[9] resulted in an Aristotle recognizably distinct from the Aristotle of scholasticism. Among works which were translated over and over, as Arabic science grew and more precise translations were required, were Aristotle’s Organon, his texts on logic, as well as the Rhetoric; but also the works of Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy of Alexandria (AD 100–170). When the Caliphate moved to Cordoba (AD 912–961), Latin translations of some of these Arabic texts were undertaken, initially for the benefit of the Cluniac monks of the Toledo Cathedral who were Latin speaking, and it was these that were recirculated back to Europe.

Scholars from Norman Britain could be proud of their contribution to science based on the translations from Greek into Arabic and Arabic into Latin, in search of which they travelled to Sicily, Spain, and the Levant, bringing back books and manuscripts. In the seventeenth century an active manuscript hunt was already under way in England, supported by William Laud (1573–1645), Chancellor of Oxford University and later Archbishop of Canterbury, and James Ussher (1581–1656), Archbishop of Armagh, while the foundation of the chairs of Arabic at Oxford and Cambridge opened a new era in oriental studies in England. Laud personally endowed the Laudian Chair in Arabic in 1636, whose first incumbent was Edward Pococke (1604–1691), privately sponsoring travellers to collect material from Constantinople and Aleppo, and even persuading Charles I to enlist the Levant Company in the hunt. The Bodleian Library became the repository for these manuscript collections, a major resource for members of the Royal Society, a remarkable number of whom worked on Arabic MSS. [10] It was this tradition of science, philosophy and rhetoric, from the beginning Aristotelian rather than Ciceronian, I maintain, to which Hobbes saw himself belonging. The vicissitudes of Thomas Hobbes’s long controversy with John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, are proof of nothing if not the urgency Hobbes felt to prove himself in mathematics, the new science of optics and atomist metaphysics.

Professor Patricia Springborg (Humboldt University, Berlin)

[1]  An extended version of this contribution has recently been published as a review essay in Global Intellectual History, online first (2019) at:

[2]  Quentin Skinner, From Humanism to Hobbes, Studies in Rhetoric and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018), 1–2.

[3]  Richard A. Talaska, ed. The Hardwick Hall Library and Hobbes’s Early Intellectual Development (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2013) 9, and 32, note 26, citing ‘Bodleian Shelf Mark: Wood, 423 (16)’. Talaska is not listed in Raylor’s index.

[4]  Hobbes, Elements of Law, ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ (Constitution Society online edition, 1640, at

[5]  Regina Andrés Rebollo, ‘The Paduan School of Medicine: medicine and philosophy in the modern era’, História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos, Rio de Janeiro, 17:2 (2010), online at:

[6]  Stephen Clucas, ‘The Atomism of the Cavendish Circle: A Reappraisal’, The Seventeenth Century, 9:2 (1994): 247–73.

[7]  Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Harvard University Press, 1927).

[8]  On the Abassid translation movement, Greek into Arabic, see Richard Walzer, Greek into Arabic: Essays on Islamic Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1962); and Dmitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasaid Society (Routledge, 1998).

[9]  For a more detailed account, see Patricia Springborg, ‘Constitutionalism and Antiquity Transformation’, Global Intellectual History, online first (2018) at:

[10]  See M. B. Hall, ‘Arabic Learning in the Correspondence of the Royal Society’, in Gül A. Russell, ed., The “Arabick” Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth Century England (Brill, 1993): 147ff.

Online Colloquium (2): Miller on Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor. We now have a response from Ted H. Miller, which will be followed by responses from Patricia Springborg (Humboldt, Berlin) and Alan Cromartie (Reading), and finally a reply by Timothy Raylor. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Thomas Hobbes never abandoned humanism. From beginning to end, he condemned the rhetorical practices he associated with demagoguery, but these were never the totality of rhetoric. Hobbes used its other parts to further his philosophical program. His transition from Cavendish family tutor to self-declared pioneer of civil science did not mark, as Quentin Skinner maintained, a turn away from humanism. Leviathan, therefore, did notmark a return to rhetoric. Reading Timothy Raylor’s new book,I was pleased to see an author who agrees with me on these basic assertions.[1] I was less pleased that he chose to highlight our disagreements rather than explore our commonalities (9–10, 28–31). Most importantly, there is now another dissenting voice against the standing view regarding Hobbes, rhetoric, and so-called phases of his intellectual career. Professor Raylor and I do differ on some matters, and I look forward to a productive debate over matters of substance. This entry can only be a start.

The book’sstrengths, and some of its weaknesses, stem from an intense focus upon dialectic, or renaissance era school logic. Particular concern is devoted to the interplay of distinct parts of rhetorical and dialectical practice as they developed prior to Hobbes’s arrival on the scene. For Raylor, however, there can be no discussions of Hobbes and rhetoric which do not first reverently correct Quentin Skinner’s error in assigning the early Hobbes a Ciceronian humanism. Having come from a position that did not assent to the Ciceronian-Hobbes in the first instance, I think his best contribution lies elsewhere.

Why was Hobbes dissatisfied with school logic? Our first impulse might be to speak of the quest for causes, but Hobbes also belonged to an intellectual milieu that still bore the impact of Ramism. Walter Ong described it as having robbed rhetoric to pay logic; it was a curricular maneuver. Ramism appropriated inventio, the rhetorician’s task of searching for proofs, for logic. This turned philosophy into an echo of the rhetorical practice of collecting and deploying commonplaces; the quest through authorities for sententiae had migrated.[2] Having acquired a reserve of received truths, the philosopher might, as demanded by the occasion, assemble arguments. Finding proof became a matter of invention, of drawing upon accepted truths from the reserve.

Some have found Ramist habits within Hobbes’s work (the table in Leviathan Chapter 9 echoed Ramist affinities for visual pedagogy), or in his treatment of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Raylor pulls in the opposite direction (173–75). Importantly, this also includes inventio’s migration. Its ill affect upon school logic, Raylor emphasizes, were a key target of Hobbes’s aggressive campaign (219–32, 246–53). It could only reinforce, rather than challenge, convention.Raylor’s Hobbes continues to operate within the collection of compartmentalized reasoning and communicative tasks that Quentin Skinner insisted upon, but with an important twist. Skinner saw Hobbes’s assault upon the task of inventio as an attempt to dethrone prudence and history. These sources of received but uncertain knowledge were no longer sufficient for the “human sciences.”[3] The old humanist store houses were no longer good enough, and that was a rejection of eloquence as well. Raylor, by contrast, sees in Hobbes’s assault on inventio a decontamination campaign within logic’s, not rhetoric’s, house. Whether this amounts to a rejection of “the greater part of the Western philosophical tradition” (223) may be questioned, but it does offer an alternative.

Supplying us with contemporaries that may have praised, or denounced, Hobbes on these same terms would have contributed further. Another question for Raylor might be how far Hobbes’s rebellion truly departed from its home terrain. When does a self-declared revolution begin to look more like mere reform?

I wish he had pursued some other questions. Outside the confines of discussions of Cicero or Quintilian (and Quentin Skinner’s) vir civilis, Raylor doesn’t speak directly to what many frame as the grand conflict between philosophy and rhetoric. Some of the scholarship Raylor puts behind him reveled in showing that Hobbes, the philosopher’s philosopher, could be made to eat his anti-rhetorical words. Quentin Skinner tried to demonstrate how and why Hobbes changed his mind—even if the hero of Ciceronian imaginary, vir civilis, was not likewise rehabilitated upon Hobbes’s return to rhetoric. Raylor offers material for what might have been a reframing. No one was more convinced than Thomas Hobbes that rhetoric (or at least its inventio) had become integral to philosophy. He wasn’t defending a timeless Platonic wall, but attempting to reverse part of an already successful invasion. For Raylor’s Hobbes, the question was which parts to keep and control, and which to deport from his reinvented discipline (246).

What did he keep? Loathed inventio was not elocutio. Aside from invention, rhetoric’s tasks included eloquence (style)—dispositio (organization), memoria (memory), and pronutiatio (voice and delivery) don’t figure here. Hobbes, argues Raylor, kept eloquence, if in a subordinate place (246). If we mistake eloquence for the whole of rhetoric, we miss something. Likewise, if we fail to see his counter-attack on inventio in its transplanted home. Eloquence may make itself most felt in Leviathan, but Raylor joins others who find it at work in earlier works including De Cive and The Elements of Law. Don’t mistake Hobbes’s ongoing truce with eloquence for either hypocrisy or a reversal. Raylor does not analyze Hobbes’s use of rhetoric’s subdivided repertoire in other important works including Behemoth, or his heated debates with mathematicians and other rivals for scholarly laurels.

Raylor’s recontextualization is testimony to a now obvious conclusion. Simple claims to read Hobbes “in context” mask something. Interpreters must argue which contexts are most relevant. Raylor’s context is useful, but this larger task is not as well met. This is because he is tempted to assign his context monopolistic privileges. It impedes his capacity to see other possibilities. If I find your driving objectionable, I might choose to criticize the way you maneuver the vehicle, your choice of destination, or your conduct towards other drivers. Hobbes did not like where many were driving in the political realm. Within the confines of Raylor’s perspective, his primary concern was to criticize the driving manual he presupposed they used. Where all political differences are, necessarily, doctrinal/philosophical differences this will have purchase. Hobbes’s contexts were not so very flat. He sought solutions in university reforms, but he thought many of those problems had spread beyond the universities. Had his foremost purpose been the defeat of Ciceronians we would have expected a more direct assault on Tully himself. Too much of what Raylor finds is inferred. My own view is that Hobbes wished to defend sovereigns from a variety of threats. He often sought pedagogical weapons in this struggle, but he traced many initial causes of his challenge to human ambition. Ambition caused problems in and out of school.

Raylor’s context for Hobbes is deep and sometimes helpful, but it is also sometimes unhelpfully narrow. It becomes so narrow that it jeopardizes his larger claims. It fails to capture some of Hobbes’s better-known boasts about his interventions into logic and philosophy. It also lacks the breadth to render a convincing picture of a political philosopher. Hobbes attacked pedagogues for the political and social consequences he attached to their teaching. Raylor’s tendency is to turn these pedagogical conflicts into ends in themselves.

For many, Hobbes’s break with humanism is signaled by his embrace of mathematics. For anyone (like Raylor and I) who maintain the persistence of Hobbes’s humanism, this must to be taken head-on. He does not do so. Hobbes had, in fact, continued a debate between Jesuit defenders of mathematics in the schools, and then did them one better. Not only were mathematicians capable of reaching certitude about natural philosophy’s most fundamental subjects,[4] but in Hobbes mathematics inverts the old hierarchy. He would see mathematics ranked prior and superior to the natural science, which must learn within its own limits to imitate mathematical methods.[5]

Hobbes participated in a larger trend. Enthusiasm for mathematics, especially practical mathematics, was growing outside of the schools. It was shared and observed by lettered men of his own and neighboring generations. Ancient humanist guidepost, Quintilian,[6] recommended mathematics, as did other pedagogues with influence in Britain, including Vives.[7] The fruits of mathematical learning were on display: at court, in noble (notably, Cavendish) households, in the taste for paintings that demonstrated a high mastery of perspective, in architecture, map-making, and among those claiming mastery of military and naval techniques. Workshops courted social climbers with shiny mathematical instruments.[8]

Raylor has nothing to say about the mathematician’s gains among the logicians, and brushes aside evidence of Hobbes’s connection with Britain’s mathematical culture. He relies, in part, on the authority of Mordechai Feingold.[9] Like the scholars Hobbes condemns, he asks too much of his authority. Feingold concluded there was no comprehensive mandate for mathematics education in the universities before 1640, but this was a part of Feingold’s project to rescue Oxford and Cambridge from the notion that they had no interest in mathematics. Hobbes helped propagate such claims.

In Chapter Three Raylor go to some lengths to connect Hobbes’s account of the Devil’s Arse (in De Miribilibus Pecci) with Baconian natural philosophy. He would, however, have us believe that we should not credit the notion of a mathematical humanism or its relevance to Hobbes if we cannot first establish that mathematics was at the core of university humanist pedagogy. Given Hobbes’s own views on the universities, this is a strange standard of evidence. The false premise erects an unnecessary barrier to discovering the connections between Hobbes and the mathematical culture in which he was immersed from the time of his earliest works. A similarly unnecessary barrier would stop us from looking towards the court, and to the households of noblemen for such connections. Do we have to believe, for example, that Charles I’s court had to be a “a centre of mathematical and scientific research” before we can entertain the possibility that one of the court’s mathematics tutors, Thomas Hobbes, was mindful of its interests?

In sum, this book contributes to correcting the mistaken partitioning of Hobbes’s career. Raylor uses the dialectical contexts to show the continuity of Hobbes’s humanism, but also makes Hobbes an unnecessary captive of those contexts.

Professor Ted. H. Miller (University of Alabama)

[1]  Ted. H. Miller, Mortal Gods: Science, Politics, and the Humanist Ambitions of Thomas Hobbes (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 7, 8–33, 55–70, 115–35, 161–99.

[2]  Walter Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 92–130, 237, and Chapter 6 passim.

[3]  Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 257–67.

[4]  Paulo Mancosu, ‘Aristotelian Logic and Euclidean Mathematics: Seventeenth-Century Developments of the Quaestio de Certitudine Mathematicarum’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 23 (1992): 241–65; idem., Philosophy of Mathematics and Mathematical Practice in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[5]  Miller, Mortal Gods, 81–114.

[6]  Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, trans. H. E. Butler. 4 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1920), bks. I, 10, 35, 7.

[7]  Juan Luis Vives, De Tradendis Disiplinis, trans. Foster Watson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), 201–2, 204.

[8]  The literature in the history of practical mathematics is reviewed in Miller, Mortal Gods.

[9]  Mordechai, The Mathematician’s Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England 1560-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

New article on the person and office of the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan

Laurens van Apeldoorn (2019): On the person and office of the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in: British Journal for the History of Philosophy,


I contextualize and interpret the distinction in Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) between the capacities of the sovereign and show its importance for contemporary debates on the nature of Hobbesian sovereignty. Hobbes distinguishes between actions the sovereign does on personal title (as a natural person), and actions he undertakes in a political capacity (as artificial person and in the office of representative of the state). I argue that, like royalists defending King Charles I before and during the English civil war, he maintains that the highest magistrate is sovereign in both his natural and political capacities because the capacities are inseparable, though district. This position goes back to the treatment of Calvin’s Case by Francis Bacon and Edward Coke and has further precedents in medieval English constitutional thought. An important reason for Hobbes to include this doctrine in Leviathan, I suggest, is to provide a response to parliamentarians who employed the sovereign’s multiple capacities to justify armed resistance against the king. I show the relevance of this contextualization by intervening in two recent debates, regarding the possibility of constitutionalist limitations on the actions of the Hobbesian sovereign and regarding whether sovereignty is held by the commonwealth or by the person of the sovereign.

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Timothy Raylor’s recent book, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Raylor himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Ted H. Miller (Alabama), Patricia Springborg (Humboldt, Berlin) and Alan Cromartie (Reading), and finally a reply by Timothy Raylor. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.


Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes began life as a cluster of doubts about some of our standard assumptions regarding Hobbes’s understanding and practice of rhetoric. Among such assumptions are: that the early Hobbes was a thoroughgoing humanist and, a fortiori, an unapologetic teacher and practitioner of the art of rhetoric who saw it as a valuable aspect of civic life; that Hobbes began, in the later 1630s, to develop concerns about rhetoric as self-serving and therefore dangerous; that, in embracing the so-called ‘scientific’ or ‘geometrical’ method around 1640 Hobbes rejected humanism, banishing rhetoric from his new civil science; and that, a decade later, in Leviathan, Hobbes effected a rapprochement with rhetoric, which he now, finally, came to see as an indispensable part of civil science.

There were, it seemed to me, problems with the chronology of the supposed stages of the development of Hobbes’s thinking about rhetoric. The turn away from rhetoric seemed to be detected in works that were also treated as products of Hobbes’s ‘high’ humanist period (such as the Briefe of Aristotle’s Rhetoric); while the rapprochement with rhetoric seemed to be detected in works that are considerably earlier than Leviathan (the 1646 preface to De cive, for example), thus severely curtailing the scope of the supposedly ‘scientific’ period. And it seemed questionable to me whether Hobbes’s concerns about rhetoric could be neatly accommodated to different stages. Hobbes seems to have been consistently concerned about the impact of orators on civil society in works of all periods—from the 1628 translation of Thucydides, through Leviathan, to late works like Behemoth and the Historia ecclesiastica. And up through his very latest major works—his translations of Homer—Hobbes’s humanist commitments remained unshaken.

It also seemed to me that in attempting to grasp the character of Hobbes’s conception of rhetoric we had failed to give due weight to the fact that in teaching rhetoric to the third earl of Devonshire, Hobbes used for his text not some staple of the humanist curriculum like the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium or Quintilian’s Institutes, nor even a modern textbook like that of Cyprian Soarez—but, unusually for the age, Aristotle’s Rhetoric: a work he later extolled to his friend John Aubrey as ‘rare’. Aristotle, it seemed to me, was the key to a proper understanding of Hobbes’s thinking about rhetoric.

Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes works through the implications of that insight. Where Cicero saw rhetoric as an essential complement to philosophy and found in the orator the ideal of active citizenship, a vital member of a healthy civitas, Aristotle’s attitude toward rhetoric as the ability to see the available means of persuasion involved no large claims for its philosophical value or political importance, and consisted with the concerns he frequently registered about the dangers presented by its subversion of rational processes by appeals to the character of the speaker and the passions of the audience. Although Aristotle was, for humanists, traditionally accommodated to a Ciceronian understanding of rhetoric, recent approaches by scholars such as Theodore Goulston—whose bilingual edition Hobbes appears to have used—set about the task of clearing away later accretions, freeing Aristotle’s account of rhetoric from its high-minded Roman framing.

Acknowledging Hobbes’s understanding of rhetoric as, from the first, Aristotelian rather than Ciceronian allows us to recognize a consistency in the concerns over rhetoric Hobbes registered at various points in his career without having to posit a dizzying series of voltes faces to explain them. Rhetoric is a tool, both powerful and dangerous; it needs to be kept apart from philosophy, which is—or ought to be—concerned with truth, not with persuasion. The problem, as Hobbes came to see it at the end of the 1630s, was that rhetoric had not been kept apart from philosophy.

Hobbes’s adoption of the ‘scientific’ method was founded, I argue, not on any general discontent over the power or character of rhetoric. It involved no general dismissal or rejection of the art. Hobbes continued to deploy, in dedicatory epistles and addresses to readers, the age-old techniques of capturing attention and securing goodwill. Nor was it founded on any sudden confidence in the persuasive power of reason: reason could yield truth; but truth did not necessarily persuade.

Hobbes’s new method was based on no discontent with rhetoric, but, rather, on the recognition that there was something fundamentally wrong with philosophy, which had been pursued not logically, by perfect and immutable reasoning, but rhetorically, by way of approximate proofs and persuasive instances, by means of likelihoods and probabilities. Philosophy, Hobbes insisted in Anti-White, I.3, has nothing to do with rhetoric. And from that position, I argue, he never retreated.

What, then, of Leviathan, and Hobbes’s supposed rapprochement therein with rhetoric? It is of course true that Leviathan exhibits some of the most brilliant flourishes of Hobbes’s English style; but this, in my view, does not involve a rapprochement between rhetoric and philosophy. The rhetorical texture of Leviathan is in part attributable to the mere contradiction of theory by practice. But the differences between Leviathan and Hobbes’s earlier works of civil philosophy have been overestimated. Hobbes’s exposition of his political philosophy in Leviathan differs less markedly from The Elements of Law and De cive than has recently been suggested. And the most distinctively ‘rhetorical’ parts of Leviathan are those sections of the work (part three and, especially, part four) which are new to Leviathan and which are not, strictly speaking, philosophical but controversial. Indeed, the generic and stylistic shift from the bare exposition of political philosophy in the early sections of Leviathan to the anti-clerical polemic of part four is so dramatic that the work’s most recent editor, Noel Malcolm, suggests that Hobbes’s intentions must have changed radically during the process of composition, after an Anglican attempt to undermine his position at court. In so arguing Malcolm echoes earlier commentators who have questioned the coherence of the work: J.G.A. Pocock, for instance, suggests that Leviathan is not one but two books.

Not only in respect to its textual practice does Leviathan subvert the notion of a late rapprochement with rhetoric; it does so also on the level of theory. It is in Leviathan that Hobbes offers his most sustained analysis of the contamination of philosophy by rhetoric. In Leviathan, for instance, Hobbes shows how political philosophers hostile to monarchy have deployed the term ‘tyranny’ to denote a distinct species of monarchy, while in fact denoting only monarchy itself, with the addition of their personal dislike. In an extended discussion, Hobbes exposes the way in which the orators and pseudo-philosophers who made up the early church deployed rhetoric to consolidate their spiritual authority and expand their temporal power. Indeed, in Hobbes’s analysis, it was by way of rhetorical figuration—particularly through metaphor, synecdoche, and metonymy—that they did so. The term ‘episcopus’ (‘bishop’), for instance, originally denoted merely a humble overseer of sheep; it was illicitly extended by metaphor to signify a ruler of people—even being stretched to denote monarchical authority over them. Among other examples of such figurative extension are the concepts of ‘hell’, ‘the kingdom of God’, and the papal ‘fulmen excommunicationis’.

But this emphasis on the dangers of figuration should not lead us to the conclusion that the main problem with rhetoric was, for Hobbes, the capacity of figurative language to hoodwink readers and auditors. This is a feature of elocutio, or style, on which I believe we have been too narrowly focused; it was a central feature of the Roman approach to rhetoric to which we are still largely indebted.

Although style is indeed a problem, our focus on it has, I argue, obscured the importance for Hobbes of the prior problem of inventio, or discovery: specifically, that method of argumentation which proceeds by finding the available means of persuasion. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it is a means of literary composition, not a method of logical demonstration: its proofs are merely plausible, not universal and necessary. This distinction, Hobbes believes, is what earlier philosophers have failed to observe. And Hobbes, I think, never backs away from this position.

Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes, argues for a new understanding of Hobbes’s thinking about the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric. That relationship does not, I argue, undergo a series of fundamental changes in Hobbes’s thinking. From first to last Hobbes is concerned about the political dangers of oratory. At the end of the 1630s, after (and, I suggest, in part because of) working intensely on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he set about freeing philosophy from the procedures of rhetorical reasoning and setting it on a firm footing. In so doing he drew a line between rhetoric and philosophy that he never, in theory at least, erased.

But although its central argument addresses the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric in Hobbes’s thinking, this is not the sole focus of the book. My reconsideration of Hobbes’s attitude to rhetoric led me to a more general reconsideration of his early humanism, the character of which was, I came to see, less literary, less civic or Ciceronian, than has usually been supposed. Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides, for instance, emphasizes not the virtue of eloquent men acting in the interests of the civitas, but the corruption of the state by demagogues—a panel illustrating which point Hobbes incorporated within his engraved title. That panel furnishes the dustwrapper image for Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes.

The humanism of Hobbes’s Thucydides is not brightly Ciceronian; it is darker and colder, in keeping with the Tacitean outlook detected in the Cavendish household by Noel Malcolm and Richard Tuck. Hobbes’s introductory account of Thucydides’ manner and method reveals opposition to Ciceronian canons of style and indebtedness to the ‘politic’ history that Bacon had drawn from Thucydides, with its quest to uncover the secret springs and hidden causes of political action.

Bacon was a significant influence on the Cavendish household, and in Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes I trace his impact on the essays and discourses of the Horae subsecivae (works sometimes recently assigned to Hobbes, but for which I adduce additional evidence in favour of William Cavendish’s authorship), and on Hobbes’s Latin poem on the ‘wonders’ of the Peak. While that poem has generally been treated as a contribution to humanist letters (as indeed it is), I suggest that in its focus on the rational investigation of natural phenomena both regular (e.g. the sources of rivers) and irregular (e.g. the ebbing and flowing well) and its investigation of the procedures of mechanical arts (e.g. the techniques of Derbyshire lead mining) the poem is informed by the concerns of Renaissance Aristotelianism and by those of Baconian natural history. My reading of these works of the 1620s and 1630s leads to some recalibration of our understanding of Hobbes’s humanism as more engaged with the philosophical and natural philosophical concerns of his maturity than has previously been recognized.

In sum, while it is the goal of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes to offer a fresh understanding of the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric in Hobbes’s thinking, it aims also to furnish a more nuanced account of Hobbes’s early philosophical interests, and a new understanding of the emergence of Hobbes’s mature philosophical stance. How far it succeeds in these goals is, of course, not for the author, but for his readers, to determine.

Professor Timothy Raylor (Carleton College)

New Volume: Interpreting Hobbes’s Political Philosophy, edited by S. A. Lloyd (Cambridge University Press)

S. A. Lloyd (ed.) (2019): Interpreting Hobbes’s Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Press

The essays in this volume provide a state-of-the-art overview of the central elements of Hobbes’s political philosophy and the ways in which they can be interpreted. The volume’s contributors offer their own interpretations of Hobbes’s philosophical method, his materialism, his psychological theory and moral theory, and his views on benevolence, law and civil liberties, religion, and women. Hobbes’s ideas of authorization and representation, his use of the ‘state of nature’, and his reply to the unjust ‘Foole’ are also critically analyzed. The essays will help readers to orient themselves in the complex scholarly literature while also offering groundbreaking arguments and innovative interpretations. The volume as a whole will facilitate new insights into Hobbes’s political theory, enabling readers to consider key elements of his thought from multiple perspectives and to select and combine them to form their own interpretations of his political philosophy.


  1. Methodologies of interpreting Hobbes: historical and philosophical, Adrian Blau
  2. Hobbes’s political-philosophical project: science and subversion, A. P. Martinich
  3. Hobbes’s philosophical method and the passion of curiosity, Gianni Paganini
  4. Hobbes, life, and the politics of self-preservation: the role of materialism in Hobbes’s political philosophy, Samantha Frost
  5. Human nature and motivation: Hamilton versus Hobbes, Michael J. Green
  6. On benevolence and love of others, Gabriella Slomp
  7. Interpreting Hobbes’s moral theory: rightness, goodness, virtue, and responsibility, S. A. Lloyd
  8. Interpreting Hobbes on civil liberties and rights of resistance, Susanne Sreedhar
  9. Hobbes and Christian belief, Johann Sommerville
  10. Hobbes on persons and authorization, Paul Weithman
  11. The character and significance of the state of nature, Peter Vanderschraaf
  12. Hobbes’s confounding Foole, Michael Byron
  13. ‘Not a woman-hater’, ‘no rapist’, or even inventor of ‘the sensitive male’? Feminist interpretations of Hobbes’s political theory and their relevance for Hobbes studies, Eva Odzuck
  14. The productivity of misreading: interpreting Hobbes in a Hobbesian contractarian perspective, Luc Foisneau

Hobbes Studies: Special Issue

Hobbes Studies Volume 32, Issue 1, 2019
Special Issue: The Reception of Hobbes in Germany

A new issue of Hobbes Studies is now available containing the following articles:

Celi Hirata: Subject and Subjectivity in Hobbes and Leibniz

Nathaniel Boyd: The Reception of Hobbes in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire

Daniel Eggers: Hobbes, Kant, and the Universal ‘right to all things’, or Why We Have to Leave the State of Nature

Edgar Straehle: The Problem of Sovereignty: Reading Hobbes through the Eyes of Hannah Arendt

Dirk Brantl: Recent Trends in German Hobbes Scholarship

Olaf Asbach De cive / Vom Bürger, written by Thomas Hobbes

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Abizadeh

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh, followed by responses from Sandra Field, Michael LeBuffe, and Daniel Eggers. We conclude this week with a reply by Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.


What a pleasure to have one’s work scrutinized so seriously and intelligently. My sincere thanks to Sandra Field, Michael LeBuffe, and Daniel Eggers for their critiques, and to Robin Douglass for bringing us together.


Hobbes in his political works claimed that the first and “fundamental” law of nature prescribes seeking peace; the rest prescribe the means to peace. The question is what, according to Hobbes, makes natural laws normative: Why do individuals have a reason to (be disposed to) do as they prescribe? I claim that what grounds the normativity of natural law for Hobbes is a foundationally normative principle prescribing that one desire and pursue one’s own ongoing good or felicity. The laws of nature are normative because they prescribe what conduces to one’s ongoing good—even in the face of imprudent or self-destructive desires, whose realization would be noxious to one’s felicity. These laws are intrinsically prudential normative precepts.

LeBuffe has qualms about this prudentialist interpretation, because “whatever Hobbes takes to be a principle,” we should expect him to state it “explicitly.” I agree with LeBuffe: it would be “contrary to his [Hobbes’s] account of science” to rely on “a fundamental principle that he does not mention.” (‘Principle’ denotes the starting point for a chain of reasoning.) But I do not agree with LeBuffe’s claim that Hobbes failed to indicate this foundational normative principle. Hobbes did so rather clearly by incorporating it into the very definition of natural law, which in the English Leviathan he defined as “a Precept … by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life … and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (L 14.3). Natural laws by definition consist in precepts that proscribe what conduces to self-destruction and prescribe the means to self-preservation. They are normative because self-preservation is normative. This is typical Hobbes: stating a particular science’s “principle” or starting point—here, the prescription to (be disposed to) pursue one’s own preservation—by incorporating it into the definition of a fundamental concept of that science. Hobbes stated his foundational normative principle precisely where LeBuffe says he should have: at the beginning of chapter 14 of Leviathan in his definition of a law of nature.

One might of course object that what Hobbes incorporated into his definition was a precept to pursue, not one’s good in general, but self-preservation. Yet Hobbes explicitly and frequently indicated that he meant by self-preservation not just bare survival, but the preservation of a life worth living, i.e., the preservation of “a life, as not to be weary of it,” not just “a bare Preservation, but also all other Contentments of life” (L 14.8; 17.1). This is why in the Latin Leviathan Hobbes could reformulate natural law’s definition in terms of a proscription against what tends to harm one’s good (“quod ad damnum suum sibi tendere”). Hence it is a mistake to say, as LeBuffe does, that “Abizadeh claims that for Hobbes the first normative principle which grounds natural law is “desire and pursue your own good,” rather than the explicit definitions and fundamental precepts of Leviathan 14” (my emphasis). I take ‘desire and pursue your own good’ to be, not a rival, but a gloss on the foundational principle incorporated into Hobbes’s definition, viz. desire and pursue your own preservation.

True, the “fundamental” law of nature as Hobbes stated it in his political works prescribes seeking peace (rather than self-preservation itself). But Hobbes treated the laws of nature themselves not as “principles” or the foundational starting point of reasoning, but as precepts “found out by Reason” (L 14.3, my emphasis)—on the basis of the foundational principle incorporated into their definition. Indeed, for Hobbes, as for Aquinas, the foundational “principle” of a particular science may itself be grounded in and derivative of some other principle outside the scope of that science. (Philosophia prima, the science lying at the foundation of all other sciences, is an exception.) Seeking peace is the first precept of Hobbes’s “moral” laws of nature, by which he meant those precepts that prescribe the social means to self-preservation. But although in his political works Hobbes was only concerned with precepts regulating social interaction, he also acknowledged, as relevant to ethics more broadly construed, other natural laws (such as temperance) concerning the non-social means to self-preservation. Both the social precepts of reason Hobbes treated in his political works, and the non-social precepts he mentioned but left aside, are grounded in a common normative foundation: self-preservation in the broad, Hobbesian sense of one’s own ongoing good.

LeBuffe is also worried about my claim that, although Hobbes took the laws of nature he specified to be epistemically accessible to every rational creature, he thought some may nevertheless fail to know them, i.e., some may not be aware of those precepts or, if aware, may not take them to be normative (“precepts of reason”). LeBuffe suggests that, according to Hobbes, although we may “easily misinterpret” the laws of nature, we nevertheless “all do know” them as precepts of reason. Presumably this means, for example, that although all rational creatures know that they ought to perform their covenants—i.e., although everyone takes the third law of nature to be normative—some misinterpret what this means, perhaps because they misapply the law in failing to understand the particular circumstances in which an undertaking counts as a valid covenant.

Hobbes certainly did envision that some who in principle know the laws of nature misinterpret them in practice. For example, Hobbes asserted that one reason why some “are prone to violate the Lawes” is because they are misled by “false Teachers” who “mis-interpret the Law of Nature” (L 27.11). Yet Hobbes asserted that people might also violate the laws of nature not because they misinterpret the laws they know, but because they fail to know them in the first place. This can happen in two ways: either because they are simply ignorant of the law (without believing anything false), or because they have positively false beliefs about which precepts are normative. The former consists in “some defect of the Understanding,” which “is Ignorance”; the latter consists in “Erroneous Opinion” stemming from “some errour in Reasoning.” When Hobbes asserted here that “Ignorance of the Law of Nature Excuseth no man; because every man that hath attained to the use of Reason, is supposed to know,” he was speaking about people who violate the laws of nature because (contrary to LeBuffe’s suggestion) they are ignorant of it. The colonial subtext of the example he immediately used to illustrate inexcusable ignorance—of “a man come here from the Indies” who would “perswade men here to receive a new Religion or teach them any thing that tendeth to disobedience of the Lawes of this Country” (L 27.4)—makes his view crystal clear.

There are “three wayes,” according to Hobbes, in which one may come to have positively false beliefs about natural law. One way I already mentioned: some are simply taken in by false interpretations (as LeBuffe suggests). The other two, however, consist not in misinterpreting known laws, but in failing to know the laws, in virtue of false beliefs about which precepts are normative. First, one may draw “Erroneous Inferences from True Principles.” Second, one may begin one’s reasoning “by Presumption of false Principles,” for example by taking as one’s initial premise “That Justice is but a vain word” or “That whatsoever a man can get by his own Industry, and hazard, is his own” (L 27.10-12). Hobbes’s most famous example of a person who in virtue of “specious reasoning” fails to know the law of nature is, of course, the Foole who claims “there is no such thing as Justice.” The Foole does not deny that violating one’s covenant “may be called Injustice,” but “he questioneth, whether Injustice … may not sometimes stand with that Reason, which dictateth to every man his own good,” i.e., he denies that Hobbes’s third natural law is normative (L 15.4). (Note the premise Hobbes shared with the Foole, and which LeBuffe says Hobbes never stated explicitly: reason “dictateth to every man his own good.”)

LeBuffe cites one passage that might at first glance seem to run counter to Hobbes’s numerous discussions of people who are unaware of, or indeed have positively false views about, which precepts are normative: “all men agree on this, that Peace is Good, and therefore also the way, or means of Peace” or “the rest of the Laws of Nature” (L 15.40). We should already be sceptical of LeBuffe’s interpretation of this passage, however: it is gainsaid by the Foole and, more generally, the fact that people sometimes reason erroneously. The problem is that LeBuffe has severed his quotation from the scope restriction Hobbes had imposed on “all men” immediately before. The fuller passage reads: “so long as a man is in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of War,) as private Appetite is the measure of Good, and Evill: And consequently all men agree on this, that Peace is Good…” (my emphasis). Hobbes was talking about people living in a state of war (“so long as…”). The Latin predecessor in De Cive contains the same restriction: “All men easily acknowledge this state [of war], as long as they are in it, to be evill, and consequently [per consequens] that Peace is good” (DCv 3.31). Once in society, however, many people lose sight of the evils of war and hence fail to recognize the normativity of peace and its means: for “by nature,” human beings are “destitute of those prospective glasses (namely Morall and Civill Science,) to see a farre off the miseries that hang over them” in the state of nature (L 18.20). It is the job of Hobbesian science to provide these prospective glasses so we can know the normativity of peace and its means via philosophical reasoning—whatever our empirical circumstances.

Let me go further: the point of the paragraph from which LeBuffe’s quotation is extracted is that even in the state of nature not everyone immediately recognizes that peace is good. People at some point (for example, after catastrophe) will become united in agreeing that peace and its means are overriding goods. Hobbes was saying in this paragraph that in the state of nature people initially call ‘good’ whatever happens to be the object of their variable appetites (so that even “the same man, in divers times, differs from himselfe; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth Good, what another time he dispraiseth”), but that, subsequently, they all come to agree that peace is good. True, Hobbes wrote “consequently,” not subsequently, but we should not be fooled by twenty-first century usage. If today ‘consequently’ is used exclusively as a quasi-conjunctive (like ‘therefore’), in the seventeenth century, consistently with its Latin etymology, the term also meant subsequently or consecutively, i.e., following in time or order (see OED first entry). When Hobbes wrote that “consequently all men agree on this, that Peace is Good,” he didn’t mean that everyone always already knows this truth; he meant that in the state of nature people will come to agree on it (and nothing else).


My argument here of course relies on a distinction between the capacity to know laws of nature and actually knowing them. This is the distinction Field calls into question. On her reading, since Hobbes was a materialist determinist who denied free will, a putative capacity one is never caused to exercise is no capacity at all: for Hobbes the capacity to do something is a function not merely of one’s “inner properties,” but of the entire web of causes that determines how one acts. If one is not caused to reason properly, then, on this view, there is no sense in which one could be said to have had the capacity to do so. Field thinks, moreover, this pulls the rug out from under normativity and normative practices—such as holding others attribution-responsible (e.g. criticizing them for violations) and, especially, holding them accountable-responsible.

I have reservations about both claims. First, all the textual evidence I called on to show that Hobbes thought some rational creatures fail to know the laws of nature despite the capacity to do so also serves as evidence that Hobbes did distinguish a capacity from its actual exercise. There is, moreover, a straightforward way in which determinists can make this distinction: one has the capacity to do something if, given the right external circumstances, one would do it—even if, under the actual external circumstances, one does not do it. This is the sense in which a rational agent has the capacity to reason and a stone does not: there are no circumstances in which a stone would reason. The distinction relies on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, on the one hand, and hypothetical and actual external circumstances, on the other. (This is, I take it, what Hobbes was up to in his distinction between absolute and conditional impossibility and potentia in AW 37.5-6).

So Field’s real point must be, not that the distinction cannot be made, but that it is not normatively relevant (of no “salience,” as she puts it). This is just her second point: that a determinist is not entitled to deploy notions of normative responsibility and blame. That’s an old intuition, one Field shares with scholastics such as Bramhall. Field may or may not be philosophically correct about this, but hers’ was not Hobbes’s view, and I do think Hobbes’s view (whether true or false) is compelling enough to merit attention. I suspect that what might drive Field’s disagreement with Hobbes here is being in the grip of a conception of normative blame from which Hobbes meant to release us (what she calls “deep moral responsibility”). The question is: What is involved, for Hobbes, in normatively blaming someone in the reactive, accountability sense? It does not involve attributing to agents the ability to have done otherwise under their actual, causally determined circumstances; nor does it involve attributing to them any retrospectively determined theological status, such as being in a state of deserving punishment. This was Bramhall’s, not Hobbes’s, conception. Hobbes’s view is prospective. Normatively to blame someone in the accountability sense is to demand of them that they henceforth acknowledge a normative demand and to seek to vindicate the demand by condemning and sanctioning violations by demanding excuses, justification, or apology, or exacting compensation. But the point of the practice is not to give agents what they deserve in some theological sense, or to rectify an imbalance in the cosmic order. The point is to prevent violations in the future. Rational creatures are the appropriate object of such blame because they have the capacity to respond under the right circumstances, and practices of holding responsible are an attempt to furnish some of those (causal) circumstances. I take it that this is what Hobbes was trying to argue against Bramhall in Liberty and Necessity.


Eggers raises two sets of concerns. The first centres on  my division of Hobbes’s ethics into reasons of the good and reasons of the right, corresponding to two distinct concepts of normative obligation: a (traditional) eudaimonistic concept, which specifies what is conducive to one’s felicity; and a (new) juridical concept, which specifies what one owes to others, i.e., that to which others have the normative standing to hold one accountable. The laws of nature “oblige” rational creatures in the first, eudaimonistic or prudential sense; contracts give rise to obligations in the second, juridical sense. (As Eggers notes, D. D. Raphael has also distinguished between two senses of obligation in Hobbes: natural and artificial. But his notion of artificial obligation does not correspond to what I call juridical obligation. Raphael’s notion is of a purely “logical” obligation—a precept of rationality; he provides no account of why logical requirements would be normative for agents; and he does not explain why others would have the standing to hold one accountable to them, i.e., the sense in which logical obligations are owed to others.)

Eggers tries putting pressure on the division between eudaimonistic and juridical obligation by asking, “what entitles us to pay such disregard to Hobbes’s own repeated application of the term” (‘oblige’) to characterize the normative force of natural law? I confess to being puzzled by this charge of disregard, since much of the book regards Hobbes’s use of ‘obligation’ to characterize the normative force of natural law. I suspect Eggers might think we disagree here because he has slightly misunderstood my position: I did not intend to claim (as he puts it) that “only the obligation arising from agreements is ‘true’ obligation” or that “obligation towards the laws of nature is not ‘really’ obligation.” I agree with Eggers: eudaimonistic obligation is a kind of obligation in Hobbes’s usage. It is a “true” kind of obligation precisely in the sense that it is normative. (In fact, I argue that this was what ‘obligation’ exclusively meant prior to the early modern period.) My point was that Hobbes used ‘obligation’ in two distinct senses: one in the “proper” sense, i.e., which accords literally with his official, juridical definition (at L 14.7); and another in a “deviant” sense, i.e., which departs from his explicit definition. Part of the misunderstanding might stem from Eggers perceiving more similarities between my view and Bernd Ludwig’s than is warranted (which I cannot judge: my linguistic skills are not good enough to read German without a translation to hand). But on reflection, I also think the misunderstanding may partly stem from my use of ‘proper’ in Hobbes’s now obsolete sense to mean literal: a term’s “proper signification” for Hobbes is its literal meaning (in contrast to its extended, metaphorical meaning), i.e., strictly in accordance with his own explicit definition. This is the sense in which juridical (but not eudainmonistic) obligation is obligation proper. And although Hobbes’s non-literal use of ‘obligation’ departs from his official definition, I don’t think it is “in contradiction” with it: the two meanings are different, not contradictory; nor do natural obligations “contradict” conventionally acquired ones. They simply have a different kind of normative force.

I take it our true disagreement lies in this last claim: that natural (eudaimonistic) and conventionally acquired (juridical) obligations for Hobbes have a different kind of normative force. Eggers argues that Hobbes’s distinctions between broad and narrow peccatum, counsel and command, and the non-literal and proper senses of law are no evidence for this claim. The reason is that, as Eggers puts it, the “normative authority” of juridical obligations “ultimately derives from prudential considerations.” Eggers does not provide an argument for this assertion, and it faces an unanswered challenge. Hobbes’s juridical notion of obligation reduces to two components: (1) a normative reason one has to φ plus (2) the normative standing others have to hold one accountable for φ-ing. The first part might be explicable in terms of prudential considerations in favour of one’s φ-ing. But the second part is not: the fact that it would be good for me if others were to have the normative standing to hold me accountable does not amount to their having this standing. (I argue in the book that the normative standing to hold accountable is not reducible, for Hobbes, to the non-normative fact of holding accountable.) Eggers’s suggestion that adopting the second-personal standpoint “might only be needed for determining the content and scope of our directed obligations, without these obligations therefore acquiring a non-prudential normative status” therefore fails to explain the normative standing to hold accountable (and, relatedly, Hobbes’s distinction between punishment proper and “hostility”).

Nor do I think Eggers’ assertion reflects Hobbes’s view. Hobbes was clear that the prudential reasons one agent has cannot by themselves provide to other people the normative standing to hold the agent accountable. Thus, Hobbes repeatedly claimed that natural laws themselves provide “no place for Accusation” (L 14.30; 27.3; cf. 30.30). Another important piece of textual evidence that Eggers passes over concerns the relation between natural right and natural law. Hobbes characterized the full right of nature, in the “pure” state of nature, as implying the absence of any obligation. Yet he also characterized rational creatures, even in the pure state of nature, as already obliged by natural law. The only explanation for how one could be free of all obligation while simultaneously obliged is that there are two different kinds of obligation at stake: natural right corresponds to absence of obligation in the juridical sense, while natural law imposes obligation in the eudaimonistic sense. Failing to distinguish the two dimensions of normativity implausibly saddles Hobbes with an obvious contradiction at the heart of his ethics—and this, with respect to his two most central ethical concepts.

Egger’s second set of criticisms again concerns the second dimension of normativity I read in Hobbes. If Field argues that normative obligations and responsibility are in tension with Hobbes’s determinism in general, Eggers argues that juridical obligations and accountability-responsibility are in tension with Hobbes’s deterministic egoist-hedonist psychology in particular. His first argument to this effect is that juridical obligation may conceptually require that one outwardly conform to it for the “right” motivational reason, viz., simply because one is obligated. On Eggers’ suggestion, for example, if one were motivated to conform to a juridical obligation simply because of prudential considerations—such as fear of punishment—then one would fail to fulfil the obligation. But if, given Hobbes’s psychological egoism, Hobbesian individuals are always wholly motivated by prudential considerations of self-interest, then they could never, even in principle, fulfil their juridical obligations—which, Eggers suggests, violates “ought implies can.”

The thought that fulfilling juridical obligations requires being motivated by justice itself is, however, wholly alien to Hobbes’s conception of juridical obligation and accountability. To be sure, this is not because no people are ever motivated to conform to their juridical obligations from recognizing the obligation’s normative force. Hobbes was a psychological egoist and hedonist, but (as I argue in the book) not a strong one. He held that all action is prompted by desire and that we desire things only if we represent them as pleasant to ourselves, but he did not think that only considerations of self-interest can motivate people (or that the object of all desire is pleasure). He acknowledged, for example, benevolence or “Desire of good to another” (L 6.22). Hobbes also acknowledged the desire to conform to one’s obligations: there exist “Righteous” or virtuous individuals whose “Manners” or “disposition” of character are aptly called “Just” precisely because they are motivationally disposed to fulfil their obligations because they are averse to violating covenants. Such individuals possess “a certain Noblenesse or Gallantnesse of courage, (rarely found,) by which a man scorns to be beholding for the contentment of his life, to fraud, or breach of promise. This Justice of the Manners, is that which is meant, where Justice is called a Vertue” (L 15.10-12). This is the sense in which, as David Boonin has argued, Hobbes was a virtue theorist: virtuous individuals are motivationally disposed to act for the “right” reasons, i.e., because they recognize the justice of an action.

Yet for Hobbes, questions of desire or motivation in foro interno, dispositions of character, and virtue fall exclusively under the auspices of the first, attribution-responsibility dimension of normativity governed by natural law. Others may have the standing to criticize one for an unjust or vicious character—it is an imprudent character to have—but there is no question of others having the normative standing to hold one accountable for unjust dispositions or motivations. There are no grounds, for example, for punishing (or demanding an apology or compensation from) those who outwardly conform to the laws but are motivated to do so solely because they fear punishment. Hobbes was resolutely opposed to allowing inquisitorial practices to infect accountability relations: he considered it a grave “Errour” to “extend the power of the Law, which is the Rule of Actions onely, to the very Thoughts, and Consciences of men, by Examination, and Inquisition of what they Hold, notwithstanding the Conformity of their Speech and Actions” (L 46.39). There is no basis for punishing a non-virtuous individual who performs just actions out of “feare” or “because his Will is not framed by the Justice, but by the apparent benefit of what he is to do” (L 15.10). This is the point of Hobbes’s distinction between just men and just actions in paragraphs 10-12 of chapter 15: the justice of “Manners” or character is a eudaimonistic obligation prescribed by natural law as conducive to felicity; but juridical obligations owed to others concern solely the “Justice of Actions.” So not only can Hobbesian individuals be motivated by justice, not being motivated by justice does not itself imply a violation of their juridical obligation. Juridical obligations do not require any particular mental states. We may, of course, decide to cut off relations with people of a vicious character—or, as Hobbes warned the Foole, we may refuse to enter into society with them in the first place—but we should be doing so, on Hobbes’s view, for prudential reasons. Resentment or revengefulness is out of place.

(It is true that, as I note in the book, Hobbes deemed it appropriate to punish unjust actions differentially on the basis of the person’s imputed mental states. For example, the punishment for murder may be different than for homicide because the former involves malicious intent. But there is no sense in which the justice of an action—i.e., fulfilling one’s juridical obligations—requires specific motivations.)

Eggers’ second argument about the incompatibility of Hobbesian psychology and juridical obligation suffers the same fate. Here is the argument as I understand it: First, if we hold people accountable for their actions, but all action derives, as Hobbes believed, from the will, then “within the Hobbesian framework, we can only hold someone accountable for his will.” Second, if “all that can ever motivate Hobbesian individuals are considerations of self-interest, then this means that in holding someone accountable for violating his contractual obligations, we ultimately blame him for not acquiring the appropriate self-interested motivation, that is, for not behaving prudently.” But then it looks as if one is reduced to holding individuals accountable for actions because they were imprudent, i.e., because of a violation of eudaimonistic obligation—which appears to collapse the distinction between the two dimensions of normativity.

There are three problems with this argument. First, as we have seen, Hobbes did not think that only considerations of self-interest can motivate people. Second, even though all action is for Hobbes caused by the will (desire), it does not follow that in holding people accountable for their actions we thereby “ultimately” hold them accountable for their will or desires. Again, as we have seen, on Hobbes’s view we sanction people for their actions, not for the will that caused the action—nor, indeed, for the opinion that caused the will, nor for the food they ate that caused the appetite that became their will, nor for the rain that nourished the food they ate, etc. The normative force of blame and accountability does not always retrace whatever paths had been forged by empirical relations of causation. Third, there is a difference between holding people accountable for actions that are imprudent and holding them accountable for actions because they are imprudent. For Hobbes, because violations of juridical obligation are also imprudent, when people are held accountable they are held accountable for actions that turn out also to be imprudent. Nonetheless, one has the standing to hold them accountable for violations on the basis, not of the actions’ imprudence, but of their being violations of juridical obligation.

Arash Abizadeh (McGill University)

Online Colloquium (4): Eggers on Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh, followed by responses from Sandra Field and Michael LeBuffe. We now have a response from Daniel Eggers (Köln), and will conclude with a reply by Arash Abizadeh next week. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.


One of the main ideas running through Abizadeh’s impressive book, Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics, is the idea that Hobbes’s doctrine of the laws of nature and his theory of contractual agreements are largely independent of one another and that agreements give rise to strict moral obligations that can neither be reduced to nor be derived from the purely prudential obligation towards the laws of nature.

To be sure, neither of these two claims is new. They have previously been defended, for instance, by D. D. Raphael and by Bernd Ludwig whose book Die Wiederentdeckung des Epikureischen Naturrechtes provides their most systematic and comprehensive defence. Yet, Abizadeh clearly goes beyond these earlier discussions and arguably improves upon them.

Firstly, Abizadeh does not forward the evolutionary reading defended by Ludwig according to which the independence of the two elements of Hobbes’s overall system is only achieved in Leviathan.

Secondly, and again unlike Ludwig, Abizadeh does not go as far as to claim that the laws of nature are not obligatory at all—and therefore does not have a similar problem with the fact that Hobbes explicitly and repeatedly describes the laws of nature in these terms, both in the earlier works and Leviathan.

Thirdly, Abizadeh locates the relevant claims within the context of some broader conceptual distinctions informed by modern metaethics. According to Abizadeh, Hobbes distinguishes between two different spheres of normativity: normativity in the ‘attributability sense’ and normativity in the ‘accountability sense’. While the former only requires that one can legitimately be criticized for one’s behaviour, as is already the case when one behaves imprudently, the second sense presupposes an interpersonal practice of assuming a second-person standpoint and holding one another accountable. Corresponding to this latter distinction is a distinction between two different types of normative reasons: eudaimonistic reasons of the good on the one hand and genuinely moral reasons of the right on the other.

Fourthly, Abizadeh introduces additional evidence for this supposed ‘chasm’ in Hobbes’s theory. Though some of his key evidence is already drawn upon by Raphael or Ludwig (such as Hobbes’s ‘official definition’ of obligation (L 14.65), his claim that there is “no obligation on any man, which ariseth not from some Act of his own” (L 21.11) and Leviathan’s table of the sciences in which “ETHIQUES” and “The Science of JUST and UNJUST” appear as separate enterprises), Abizadeh also appeals to Hobbes’s distinction between a narrow and a broad sense of ‘sin’ (peccatum), his opposition of counsel and command and his claim that the laws of nature fail to qualify as proper laws.

Fifthly, Abizadeh ultimately infers from his analysis a specific claim about Hobbes’s place in the history of moral and political philosophy. According to Abizadeh, Hobbes revolutionizes ethical theory by transforming the traditional notions of obligation and natural law, and their mutual relation. As a result, Hobbes’s theory is viewed by him as marking a watershed in the history of both normative ethics and metaethics.

There can be no doubt, then, about the originality of Abizadeh’s way of articulating and defending the two ideas under consideration. This is not to say, however, that his discussion does not give rise to some of the same worries that are raised by Raphael’s and Ludwig’s interpretations.

For one thing, though Abizadeh may not go as far as claiming that the laws of nature impose no kind of obligation whatsoever, he does emphasize that only the obligation arising from agreements is ‘true’ obligation, and the question is: what entitles us to pay such disregard to Hobbes’s own repeated application of the term? The strongest support seems to be provided by the passage from the chapter ‘The Liberty of Subjects’ already referred to above. Yet, if we read this passage in the way Abizadeh suggests, then Hobbes’s claim is simply incompatible with his own use of the term and many of his relevant statements. However, if we read it in a way compatible with this use—for example, by taking the statement to refer, more narrowly, to ‘The Obligation of Subjects’—they provide no support for denying that the obligation towards the laws of nature is proper obligation, too.

Similar considerations apply to Hobbes’s ‘official definition’ of obligation. That the passage has a definitory nature is hard to deny. However, the concession that large parts of Hobbes’s discussion of obligation are in contradiction with his own ‘official definition’ of the term is by no means a tempting one. Moreover, there are other examples where definitory statements provided by Hobbes do not have the comprehensive application they intuitively seem to have, as with Hobbes’s definition of liberty as the absence of external impediments which is inapplicable to the liberty constituting the right of nature. Rather than taking Hobbes’s statement to mean that the obligation towards the laws of nature is not ‘really’ obligation, therefore, we should perhaps better take it to mean that it is importantly different from the one arising from contractual agreements.

It is important to emphasize that this view does not yet commit us to the interpretive claim Abizadeh ultimately defends. According to Abizadeh, the obligations are not only different, they are of an entirely different kind. What distinguishes them is that they do not have the same normative status: while the obligation towards the laws of nature is purely prudential, the obligation generated by agreements is entirely independent of the negative consequences that might redound to the agent.

Yet, in my opinion, the textual evidence cited by Abizadeh does not sufficiently support this specific claim. For example, the fact that obligations arising from agreements are directed obligations, i.e. obligations in virtue of which I specifically owe something to someone, is fully compatible with the idea that their normative authority ultimately derives from prudential considerations. Likewise, Hobbes’s distinction between the broad and narrow senses of peccatum and his distinction between counsel and command are entirely neutral with regard to the question of what grounds our obligation towards contractual agreements. The same applies to the related claim that the laws of nature are not properly laws. The laws of nature are not properly laws because they do not have a law-giver (unless we conceive of them as expressions of God’s will). However, the question of whether the laws of nature express the will of someone with the authority to make laws and command certain behavior is neither here nor there with regard to the question of whether the normative status of the obligation towards these laws differs from the normative status of contractual obligations.

This leaves Abizadeh’s more explicit arguments on why the obligation towards contractual agreements is neither reducible to nor derivable from the prudential obligation towards the laws of nature, which are provided in chapter 6.2. In discussing the first point, Abizadeh rejects S. A. Lloyd’s ‘reciprocity interpretation’ of the laws of nature. With regard to the issue under consideration, however, this rejection does not have any real import since the question thereby being answered is not whether the obligations towards contractual agreements might not really be prudential, but the opposite question of whether the obligation towards the laws of nature might not really be non-prudential. Similarly, the way in which Abizadeh tackles the second issue, namely by distinguishing between the prudential reasons we have for assuming the second-person standpoint and the properties in virtue of which we have the normative power to take on contractual obligations, does not suffice to show that there must be such a thing as strictly moral, non-prudential obligation in Hobbes. For all Abizadeh tells us, the interpersonal practice of assuming a second-person standpoint, from which our directed obligations are said to emerge, might only be needed for determining the content and scope of our directed obligations, without these obligations therefore acquiring a non-prudential normative status.

In my view, then, the positive evidence provided in support of Abizadeh’s reading falls short of supporting his crucial claim—even if it may show quite impressively how keen Hobbes was on discussing the normative realm created by contractual agreements in its own right. Moreover, any interpretation of Hobbes that wants to drive a wedge between the two types of obligation needs to come up with a plausible explanation for the existence of the third law of nature and for the fact that Hobbes repeatedly discusses contractual agreements from a prudential perspective, as in his famous ‘reply to the Foole’. According to Abizadeh, what explains the link between prudence and contractual obligation is that Hobbesian individuals can only ever be motivated to fulfill their strict moral obligations in virtue of prudential considerations and that the self-interest of an agent serves as a general constraint on the obligations we can possibly attract by means of contractual agreements.

In my view, this attempt of reconciling the two spheres of normativity creates further problems, if not for Abizadeh, then for Hobbes. One question is whether the above account is compatible with the principle ‘ought implies can’ to which Hobbes obviously subscribes (see also Abizadeh’s discussion of the conditions of moral responsibility in chapter 4.1). Abizadeh’s treatment suggests that the principle is respected if there is some way for individuals to act in accordance with their contractual obligations or some way for them to be motivated to act in the relevant manner. However, one might think that the principle actually requires something stronger, namely that we can fulfill our strict moral obligations as strict moral obligations and be motivated by the fact that we are obliged in this specific sense.

Furthermore, it is not clear that Abizadeh’s solution sits well with the idea of accountability in terms of which he explicates strict moral obligation. According to Hobbes, it is impossible for us not to act on our will (unless, of course, we are hindered by some external factor). This suggests that, within the Hobbesian framework, we can only hold someone accountable for his will, that is, for that which the individual was overridingly motivated to do. If we hold someone accountable for not fulfilling his contractual obligations, then, we really hold him accountable for not being sufficiently motivated to fulfill these obligations. Yet, if all that can ever motivate Hobbesian individuals are considerations of self-interest, then this means that in holding someone accountable for violating his contractual obligations, we ultimately blame him for not acquiring the appropriate self-interested motivation, that is, for not behaving prudently. However, this suggests that the position Abizadeh ascribes to Hobbes, namely a combination of a modern accountability conception of contractual obligation and a “egoist-hedonist psychology” (229), is internally unstable. In fact, something similar seems to follow from the concession that our self-interest provides a general constraint for our strict moral obligations since the resulting view suggests that, after all, the fundamental normative value of Hobbes’s theory is self-interest and that we are only ever obliged by our own good, that is, prudentially.

The least we may say of Abizadeh’s analysis, therefore, is that he tends to treat Hobbes overly charitably and keeps quiet about some serious problems that are attached to the supposed enterprise of separating reasons of the right from reasons of the good—problems that fully come to the fore in the works of later moral philosophers, most famously in the works of Immanuel Kant.

Daniel Eggers (Universität zu Köln)

Online Colloquium (3): LeBuffe on Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh and a response from Sandra Field. We now have a response from Michael LeBuffe (Otago), which will be followed by one from Daniel Eggers and then a reply by Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.


I would like to begin by congratulating Arash Abizadeh. Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics is a splendid book. Even where I have disagreed with Abizadeh, the book has been a great help to me in framing central issues and in setting out pressing questions for different interpretations. I am sure that it will be a valuable resource for students of Hobbes for many years.

Here I will discuss Abizadeh’s views on the science of morality in Hobbes, and I will focus on his Chapter 3. I will begin from the principles that form the basis of that science and proceed to its conclusions, the laws of nature. In both cases, although I recognize the difficulties that Abizadeh has presented for what he calls subjectivism, I am also concerned about the alternative interpretation that he defends. On that interpretation, prudentialism, the view that one ought to desire and pursue one’s own good, is a foundational principle of moral science, which gives us reason to follow the laws of nature. The principle is distinct from any particular desire or knowledge, but its practical importance is guaranteed by epistemic access to the laws of nature: any sane adult can easily know the laws of nature.

Science, Hobbes writes in Leviathan, proceeds from definitions of words; to general affirmations; to syllogisms; to conclusions (L 7.4, cf. L 5.17). In the familiar case of the “science of virtue and vice” (L 15.40), Hobbes defines ‘right of nature’, ‘liberty’, and ‘law of nature’ (L 14.1–3); makes general affirmations in the right to everything and the fundamental law of nature (L 14.4); and proceeds by something recognizably like syllogistic reasoning to arrive at conclusions in the laws of nature (L 14–15).

Neither in Hobbes’s definition of ‘science’ nor in Leviathan 14–15 does the vexed term ‘principle’ arise, but I do not think that this is a significant problem for Abizadeh’s claim that the first normative principle is “desire and pursue your own good” (110). Hobbes does use ‘principle’ immediately before the L 5.17 definition of ‘science’ (see also the account of first philosophy at L 9). Moreover, where Hobbes does use the term ‘principle’ (or principium) more freely, as at De Corpore 15, he seems happy to have both definitions, such as the definition of ‘motion’, and also results of argument that are somehow fundamental, such as his version of the law of inertia, count as principles (DC 15.1).

I do think, however, that whatever Hobbes takes to be a principle he states explicitly and straightforwardly. Reason requires such transparency if it is to proceed on a solid footing. Where, then, Abizadeh claims that for Hobbes the first normative principle which grounds natural law is “desire and pursue your own good,” rather than the explicit definitions and fundamental precepts of Leviathan 14, I think his view is problematic. Considering the moral argument of Leviathan in parallel with the physical argument of De Corpore, it seems likely that Hobbes would have been happy to call his definitions, the right to everything, and fundamental law of nature “principles” in Leviathan. It seems quite unlikely, though, and contrary to his account of science, that he would have a fundamental principle that he does not mention.

Compare the case of Spinoza, whose psychology and method are similar in many respects to those of Hobbes. At the outset of his dictates of reason, Spinoza writes: “Because reason demands nothing contrary to nature, it therefore demands … absolutely, that each person should strive, as far as it is in him, to preserve his own being.” On the basis of this passage, one might argue that “desire and pursue the preservation of your being” is a principle of Spinoza’s dictates of reason. He starts with this emphatic statement about what we should do in general and other dictates of reason follow from it. Similarly, to take Abizadeh’s own comparison case (97), Thomas Aquinas explicitly and at the outset of his account of natural law makes it his first principle that the good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided (ST I–II q. 94 a. 2). If Abizadeh is right about Hobbes’s first principle, the case with Hobbes is quite different. He never does claim that one ought desire and pursue one’s own good. Notably, there is no such claim where one would expect to find it, at the beginning of Leviathan 14.

This point matters, I think, to Abizadeh’s assessment of interpretations of Hobbes that make him a subjectivist about reasons. If Hobbes were somewhere to assert as self-evident or to derive in argument the claim that one ought desire and pursue one’s own good, then the normativity of the laws of nature might well inherit their normativity from this principle: one ought to pursue peace because it is a necessary means to one’s good, and one ought to pursue necessary means to whatever ends one ought to pursue. The fact that Hobbes does not explicitly present this principle, though, is an impetus to take subjectivism and the deflationary sense of the normative that it presents seriously.

Turning now from the foundations to the conclusions of moral science, on Abizadeh’s view, we ought to understand Hobbes’s laws of nature as giving us reasons to act in particular ways that are independent of our particular desires or knowledge. Alternatively, if some subjectivist view is correct, then we ought to take them to give us reasons that are dependent upon our desires and knowledge. For example, on Watkins’s very simple “doctor’s orders” interpretation, I want to live, and I know that peace is means to survival (Watkins, 76–77). That knowledge gives me a motive (and so, in that sense, a reason) to seek peace. Textual evidence that may be relevant to the broader issue, then, is evidence concerning Hobbes’s views about whether human beings desire the ends secured by his laws of nature and whether human beings know that the laws of nature help to secure those ends. On the first topic, Abizadeh offers an excellent, nuanced account of Hobbes’s views about human desire. If subjectivism about reasons were to work, it would have to accommodate something close to desire as Abizadeh presents it. On the second topic, Hobbes’s views about human knowledge of laws of nature, however, I do have reservations about Abizadeh’s argument.

Abizadeh contends (122, 131) that, according to Hobbes, we need not know the laws of nature. If that were so, it would be a strong point against most varieties of subjectivist interpretation. The textual evidence that Abizadeh raises in support of this view, however, does not, to my eyes, do the job. One passage is Leviathan 30.4, where Hobbes writes that the grounds of sovereign rights need to be taught. Abizadeh paraphrases: “those who could know the laws of nature but do not, ‘need to be diligently, and truly taught’” (122). Perhaps one might work one’s way to the laws of nature from the rights of sovereigns, eventually, but the notions—and Hobbes makes this point emphatically (L 14.3)—are not simply intersubstitutable. Later, Abizadeh cites Leviathan 26.21, where Hobbes writes that the laws of nature need interpretation because we are frequently blinded by self-love and other strong passions. This also seems to me not directly related to the question of our knowledge of the laws of nature. The passage, I think, is naturally understood as one in which Hobbes notes that, although we all do know the laws of nature (perhaps because we all have a minimal degree of reason), we nevertheless easily misinterpret that law. The paragraph, after all, concerns the need for interpretation of all law. If knowing the law at all were a problem, that would be a more fundamental problem and would need to be addressed prior to the problem of misinterpretation.

A prominent passage in Leviathan states explicitly that all sane adults do know the laws of nature. At the conclusion of Hobbes’s moral science, Leviathan 15.40, he writes: “all men agree on this, that peace is good; and therefore also the way or means of peace … justice, gratitude … and the rest of the laws of nature.” Abizadeh’s contention that Hobbes defends a condition of epistemic access to natural law does offer a clear alternative reading of other passages (such as, L 15.35 and R&C 13) that a subjectivist might too quickly take to be equivalent to this passage: they do, read closely and without the context of 15.40, suggest that all can know the laws of nature and not that all do. In the light of 15.40, however, it seems to me that the subjectivist reading of these passages is better after all: all of us ought to know the laws of nature in the same sense that my socks ought to be in the drawer where I left them. In any case, the assertion that all minimally rational adults do know the laws of nature is perfectly consistent with the assertion that all minimally rational adults can know the laws of nature. Evidence that Hobbes maintains the latter, if that is what these other passages are, is not evidence that he does not hold the former.

Abizadeh’s analysis and criticism of subjectivist interpretations is excellent. In summary, I do worry that the alternatives he presents face pressing difficulties also. With respect to prudentialism, it is not what Hobbes would call “good and orderly” proceeding in science to have fundamental principles that are not explicit, and I do not think that Hobbes would have slipped this badly in his moral science. With respect to the view that we all must be able to know but need not know the laws of nature, it seems to me that Hobbes’s view is simpler: sane adults know the laws of nature. It is the enormously difficult function of the sovereign to create broader agreement and then fruitful cooperation from this small shared ground.

Michael LeBuffe (University of Otago)


Abbreviations of Historical Texts

L: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. I have freely modernized Hobbes’s English, and have typically followed the edition of Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994). I also follow Curley’s paragraph numbering.

DC: Thomas Hobbes, De Corpore.

ST: Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologicae.

Also cited

John Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas (London: Hutchinson, 1965).