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

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

***

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

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

Martinich Against Skinner

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereignty by Acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “primary” and “secondary” State of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

Obligation

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

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

Andrew Day (Nonzero Foundation)


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

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

[3] Leviathan 17.13.

[4] Ibid.,14.11.

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

[6] Ibid.,15.38.

european-review cover

New article: A Bridge between Art and Philosophy: The Case of Thomas Hobbes

Skinner, Quentin (2022): A Bridge between Art and Philosophy: The Case of Thomas Hobbes, in: European Review, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1062798722000059

Description
The leading question raised by the rhetoricians of classical antiquity was how to speak with maximum persuasive force. You must find the means, they answered, to enable your readers to see what you are arguing. This initially gave rise to a preoccupation with visual metaphors and other so-called figures of speech. Much later, with the development of the printed book, this also led to the practice of inserting actual figures into books to provide visual summaries of their arguments. Here, one pioneer was Thomas Hobbes, and this article offers an interpretation of the frontispieces he included in his two main works of political philosophy, De cive and Leviathan. The moral Hobbes aims to convey is that we have no alternative but to submit to the protecting power of the sovereign state if we wish to live in security and peace.

philosophy and rhetoric cover

New article on Hobbes’ Biological Rhetoric and the Covenant

Kuschel, Gonzalo Bustamante (2021): Hobbes’ Biological Rhetoric and the Covenant, in: Philosophy & Rhetoric.

Description
For Victoria Kahn, Hobbes’ argument that fear of violent death is “the passion to be reckoned upon” in explaining what inclines men to peace must be interpreted as a mimetic argument. However, Kahn then notes a paradox that makes Hobbes’ thinking problematic: whereas love and the desires are appetites that produce an imitative effect, fear is different. Though also a passion, fear lacks that capacity to produce a mimetic effect or, therefore, to generate a contract. My hypothesis is that resolving the dilemma presented in Kahn’s interpretation of Hobbes requires a shift in attention from mimesis to rhetoric and, more specifically, to biological rhetoric as defined by Nancy Struever. This approach to Hobbes makes it possible to understand the rhetorical role of fear in generating and maintaining the social contract, and how the problem that Kahn signals —the impotence of fear in relation to mimesis — can be resolved.

Democratization cover

New article on Hobbes and authoritarian leadership

Patapan, Haig (2022): The modern manual of authoritarian leadership, in: Democratization, https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2021.2023500

Description
The rise of modern authoritarianism is distinguished by its increasing sophistication in the techniques of authoritarian rule. Is it possible to comprehend these modern authoritarian techniques within a larger framework that accounts for their theoretical provenance, interrelationship and efficacy? This article argues that the nature and structure of the modern state has shaped the form and expression of authoritarian rule. More specifically, it shows how Thomas Hobbes, the influential theoretical founder of the modern state, can account for the modern “manual” of authoritarian leadership, with its distinctive use of rule of law and constitutions, voting and elections, and a free marketplace as means to enhance power and consolidate rule. Understanding the theoretical foundations of this modern manual is valuable for providing new insights into the efficacy of these techniques and thereby the dangers posed by modern authoritarians and the means to counter their threat.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Byron (Kent State University)

References

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

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

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

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. London.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)


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

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

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