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.