Online Colloquium (5): Reply to critics by Martinich

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gabriella Slomp helpfully summarized my book’s content.

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

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

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

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

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

Al Martinich (University of Texas at Austin)

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

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

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


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

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

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

The ‘background’ question

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘innovation’ question

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘fragmentation’ question

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

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

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


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

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

Gabriella Slomp (University of St Andrews)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workshop on vice, sin, and sociability in early modern moral and political philosophy

The workshop will take place 11-12 April 2022 at the University of Jyväskylä. There will also be an opportunity to follow the talks online. To attend the workshop, contact Niklas Hintsa at, specifying whether you intend to participate in person or online.

The workshop is organised by Academy of Finland project, Vicious, Antisocial and Sinful: The social and political dimension of moral vices from medieval to early modern philosophy(, and it is funded by the Kone Foundation.

Workshop program:

Monday, 11 April

9.45 Welcome and introduction
10.00 Henrik Lagerlund: Suarez on Sin and Punishment
11.00 Gianni Paganini: Original sin, natural man and sociability in Thomas Hobbes

12.00-13.15 Lunch break

13.15 Jil Muller: Marie de Gournay and Michel de Montaigne: a lie as a vice for public utility
14.15 Heikki Haara and Tim Stuart-Buttle: ‘The proper degree of dependence’: the desire for esteem in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy

15.15-15.45 Coffee break

15.45 Ana Alicia Carmona Aliaga: Passions and self-esteem as the foundation of society in Pierre Bayle’s thought
16.45-17.40 Michael Moriarty: Self-love and social interaction: Augustinian perspectives

Tuesday, 12 April

10.00 Matthias Roick: Bad Tempers and the Vices of Discontent. Ethics, Medicine and Early Modern Forms of Sociability
11.00 Michael Jaworzyn: Occasionalism, Self-love, and Sociability in Early Modern Leiden, Berlin, and Bremen

12.00-13.15 Lunch break

13.15 Cesare Cuttica: The Unexpected Vices of Democracy from Plato to Dewey via Early Modern England
14.15 Martina Reuter: Male Tyranny as Moral and Political Vice

15.15-15.45 Coffee break

15.45 Michael Gill: British Moralist Responses to Recalcitrant Vice
16.45-17.15 Closing remarks and discussion 

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

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


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

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

Martinich Against Skinner

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereignty by Acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “primary” and “secondary” State of Nature

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Andrew Day (Nonzero Foundation)

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

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

[3] Leviathan 17.13.

[4] Ibid.,14.11.

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

[6] Ibid.,15.38.

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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,

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.

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New article on Hobbes’ Biological Rhetoric and the Covenant

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

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.