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.