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.