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)


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.