Online Colloquium (4) – Olsthoorn on Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began first with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron and responses by Michael Krom – here - (St Vincent State) and Deborah Baumgold – here - (University of Oregon). Today we have our final response, from Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven). Next week we will post a reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Johan Olsthoorn

Michael Byron’s tightly argued and well-written short monograph on Hobbes has many virtues. Inter alia, it presents a new and logically coherent interpretation of an enduring problem within Hobbes scholarship: which persons are morally obliged to obey the laws of nature as laws and why? The laws of nature offer sound practical advice to everyone keen to survive amidst others (Lev. 15.34). Abiding by these laws is obligatory, Byron argues, only for God’s subjects (i.e., persons who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and providence). According to Hobbes, precepts have the status of laws only if issued to individuals who had earlier bound themselves to obey the lawgiver (Lev. 26.2). On Byron’s reading, this holds true for the laws of nature as well.

Byron contends that his voluntarist conception of moral obligation permits a superior interpretation of why and in what sense justice can be said to ‘apply’ in a state of nature (p. 13). Leviathan boldly proclaims that “the Notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have… no place… where there is no common Power” (Lev. 13.13). This claim is befuddling. Isn’t natural law operative outside the commonwealth? And isn’t abiding by the laws of nature ‘just’ and their violation ‘unjust’? To solve this puzzle, Byron turns to the idea of a dual state of nature, developed by Kavka (1986) and Martinich (1992) (pp. 13-19). God exists but does not rule in the primary state of nature. Natural law governs conduct in this state in the form of good counsel, not as law. Since just and unjust have meaning only in relation to law, it follows that there is no justice or injustice in the primary state of nature (p. 3). The secondary state of nature does contain proper laws, rendering it possible for actions to be just or unjust. These laws are the laws of nature seen ‘as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things’ (Lev. 15.41). Absent human government, anyone who has bound themselves to obey the word of God inhabits the secondary state of nature.

Submission and Subjection in Leviathan deserves praise for developing an original and ingenuous interpretation of Hobbesian moral obligation. Having myself recently published an alternative explanation for the state-dependency of justice and injustice (Olsthoorn 2015),[i] I hope the reader will forgive me for focusing on this theme first. Three general methodological choices, I submit, impair Byron’s interpretation. First, Byron focuses exclusively on Leviathan: other works in which Hobbes discusses justice and related themes are largely, or even completely, ignored. Second, he draws on a surprisingly limited set of Hobbesian concepts. On the textbook interpretation of Hobbes, for example, the natural right to everything precludes the possibility of injustice outside the state. Submission and Subjection all but fails to mention this right.

Third, Byron engages a fairly limited set of secondary sources. His nigh exclusive conversation with Hampton, Lloyd, and Martinich has arguably made him overlook relevant alternative interpretive moves. For instance, he does not consider the well-known suggestion by Gauthier (1969: 48-52) that the laws of nature are ceaselessly operative in conditions of war without being violable. Put differently, in the state of nature (which is a state of war), natural law obliges in conscience without disallowing any particular action in practice. After all, when peace cannot be obtained, right reason allows us ‘by all means we can, to defend our selves’ (Lev. 14.4). Leviathan therefore states that prior to the formation of the state, the laws of nature are ‘not properly Lawes, but qualities that dispose men to peace, and to obedience’. ‘For it is the Soveraign Power that obliges men to obey them’ (Lev. 26.8). Byron may rightly object that justice remains, on this reading, applicable in the state of nature. For it seems that any action performed with right is done justly (EL 16.2, 5; DCv 3.5).

Another solution not considered by Byron is that Hobbes does not call natural law violations ‘unjust’ – at least not in the later works. In the 1647 De Cive, Hobbes explains what his infamous doctrine of a right to everything amounts to:

This must be understood as meaning that nothing that one does in a purely natural state is a wrong against anyone, at least against any man. Not that it is impossible in such a state to sin against God or to violate the Natural Laws. For injustice against men presupposes Human Laws, and there are none in the natural state. (DCv: 1.10n; also DPS: 36)

This passage suggests that, whatever view we may take on the possibility of natural law violations beyond the state, such conduct constitutes no injustice towards humans. The Latin Leviathan makes a stronger claim yet, insisting that transgressing natural law should be called ‘iniquitous’, rather than ‘unjust’: “For Iniquitous is called what is done contrary to the Law of Nature, Unjust what is done contrary to the Civil Law. Yet, nothing was Just or Unjust before the Common-wealth was constituted” (LL 18.6; also DPS 31). These passages – ignored by Byron – allow for a straightforward explanation for the state-dependency of justice and injustice. An explanation, moreover, that neither hinges on the sense in which the laws of nature “oblige all Mankind” (Lev. 30.30), nor on postulating two conceptually distinct states of nature (for which there is no textual evidence).

Here, I will refrain from outlining my rival interpretation for why justice and injustice are inapplicable outside the Hobbesian commonwealth, published elsewhere. Instead, I will raise two further worries about Byron’s short and impressive book, informed by the above-mentioned methodological infelicities. The laws of nature, Byron maintains, are properly laws only qua divine commands, to those who have subjected themselves to God. This interpretation hinges heavily on Lev. 15.41:

These dictates of Reason, men use to call by the name of Lawes, but improperly… yet if we consider the same Theoremes, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then are they properly called Lawes.

Byron overlooks the parallel passage in De Cive, which spells out what the relevant word of God is:

properly speaking, the natural laws are not laws, in so far as they proceed from nature. But in so far as the same laws have been legislated by God in the holy scriptures… they are very properly called by the name of laws (DCv 3.33)

If natural law is law by dint of having been prescribed in Scripture, then Byron has a serious problem. For in Leviathan, Hobbes insists that biblical canons are rendered obligatory by the sovereign’s authority (except for those to whom God has spoken personally) (Lev. 33.24). Paradoxically, the divine injunctions found in Scripture are civil laws in Leviathan. This suggests that, until the sovereign ‘obliges men to obey them’, the laws of nature are but theorems of reason (Lev. 26.8).

In response, Byron must argue that the Bible’s moral doctrine is law without the civil sovereign’s validation. In support, he could appeal to Leviathan’s discussion of the triple ‘word of God’ (Lev. 31.3). “God declareth his Lawes” by revelation, by faith, and ‘by the Dictates of Naturall Reason’ (Lev. 31.3). Here, ‘the question is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath said’ (Lev. 33.1). Supernatural revelation is rare, while faith is nothing else than belief in men. It thus seems that in the natural condition, God’s laws are primarily promulgated by reason. And we indeed read that biblical doctrines which ‘differ not from the Laws of Nature… are the Law of God, and carry their Authority with them, legible to all men that have the use of natural reason’ (Lev. 33.22). However, Hobbes may well have been talking here about the laws of nature qua theorems of reason: the content of natural law can be rationally determined. Byron must show that natural law has obligatory force prior to the sovereign’s Scriptural legislation. How to know that the natural dictates of reason are simultaneously divine legislations? And how to know that these and only these conclusions of reason are divine laws – and not, for instance, whatever right reason reveals is the best course of action in war? (‘Force, and Fraud’ – Lev. 13.13). The worry here is that to inhabit the secondary state of nature, governed by obligatory natural laws, one has to be a true prophet, in personal communication with God. If, as Byron argues, mere belief in God gives natural law the force of law (pp. 89-92), then this appears to render law and obligation purely subjective: to be obligated by natural law is to see yourself as being obligated to God to obey it. After all, God has directly spoken and legislated to very few of us, if any.

In conclusion, a word on Byron’s thesis that being a good subject requires ‘desiring what the law prescribes and eschewing what the law prohibits’ (p. 7). ‘Insofar as my personal value schema fails to conform to that prescribed by the sovereign, my judgments of good and evil are wrong’ (p. 79). This interpretive claim strikes me as unwarrantedly strong. Byron righty points out that within the commonwealth, the civil law is the sole authoritative measure of actions (Lev. 46.11). Having promised to simply obey the sovereign, it is unjust for citizens to disobey the law for conscience’s sake (Lev. 29.7). Furthermore, Byron duly stresses that the very design or intention to break the law is sinful (p. 77). Pace Byron, it does not follow that we ought to conform our value schema to that of the sovereign. What follows is that it is impermissible to act or plan to act contrary to the civil law. We can accept this without holding that the civil law offers normative guidance for private conscience.

Indeed, we have good reason to reject the notion of ‘value conforming desire’. The sovereign’s interpretation of the laws of nature is certainly authoritative and binding for citizens. Yet authority does not imply truth: “For the interpretation, though it be made by just authority, must not therefore always be true” (EW 4, 340). Hobbes is quite aware that civil laws are often immoral (e.g. EL 21.3; DCv 7.14; Lev. 21.7, 22.15, 24.7; DPS 31). Why think that citizens should internalize the values immoral civil laws express? Doing so would bring conflict closer. Consider, furthermore, the biblical figure Naaman the Syrian (Lev. 42.11). Naaman was ordered by his lawful sovereign to publicly deny his Christian faith. Hobbes argues that he could have safely obeyed this order, since ‘that action is not his, but his Soveraigns’. The third law of nature did indeed require Naaman to obey. Yet Hobbes nowhere claims that to be a good subject, Naaman should adopt his sovereign’s heretical value schema. All he needs to do is obey. In Hobbes’s view, I contend, citizens may think and value whatever they want, provided they take the civil law as their rule of actions. Hobbes is more liberal, in this respect, than Byron suggests (pp. 9, 114-15).



Gauthier, David. 1969. The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Olsthoorn, Johan. 2015. ‘Why justice and injustice have no place outside the Hobbesian State’, European Journal of Political Theory 14, no. 1: 19–36.

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