Discussion (1): Raffaella Santi and Ioannis Evrigenis debate Hobbes’s state of nature.




Comments on Ioannis Evrigenis, “The State of Nature”, in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes (ed. A.P. Martinich & Kinch Hoekstra, Oxford University Press 2016).


By Raffaella Santi (University of Urbino Carlo Bo)


In Hobbes’s state of nature, human beings are naturally in a ‘war of all against all’ that ends only with the construction of a civil state. But a state of nature can re-emerge if the state dissolves in civil war.

Ioannis Evrigenis’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes reconstructs the evolution of Hobbes’s state of nature, from The Elements of Law through the two editions of De Cive to the Leviathan. Evrigenis shows some important variations on the theme, and rightly emphasises that:

The first three accounts of the state of nature tried to persuade the reader that it is an undesirable condition which every sensible individual would wish to stay away from, but they gave him no real reason to think that it was a condition that he was likely to find himself in (pp. 226-7).

This is exactly what Leviathan chapter 13 supplies, linking the condition in the state of nature with that in the civil war.

Moreover, Evrigenis is right when he asserts that

Hobbes was not interested in providing a history of the emergence of civil society. Rather, he sought to convey the dangers inherent in attempting to dismantle it (p. 234).

Evrigenis is correct in his interpretation of the state of nature as a powerful rhetorical tool, meant to make readers reflect on human nature, in order to lead them to accept the terms of the Hobbesian politics.

But what about the scientific aspect?

For Evrigenis, the state of nature is not scientific at all. It is an image used rhetorically, and it is even ‘elusive’, for at least two reasons: (a) it is not clear enough, as shown by the many interpretations that have emerged since the 17th century; (b) it is meant to recall Genesis but without any mention of it. Evrigenis writes:

Even within the confines of Leviathan, the state of nature stands in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself and to the material that preceded it. […] Chapter 13 is elusive and even ostensibly self-contradictory. For instance, while he had described the state of nature as a war of all against all, Hobbes also claimed that “there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another”. He then presented the state of nature as an “Inference, made from the Passions”, but also suggested that it could be confirmed by the reader’s experience, and likened it to the conditions one would encounter amid civil war, or in the America of his day. Despite these difficulties, it was this most elusive of Hobbes’s images that became the best known and most widely influential element of his political theory (pp. 221-2).

I wish to challenge the view that Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature is ‘elusive’, ‘self-contradictory’ and ‘stands in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself’.

Hobbes writes and communicates in different ways, depending on the argument at hand. The implicit reference to Genesis, that many readers spotted, is probably intended, and the very idea of the state of nature was perhaps inspired not only by ancient Greek sources but also by the many post-Reformation theological discussions of the status naturae, status purae naturae, status naturae integrae and status naturae lapsae. Hobbes knew them well: an entire section of the Hardwick Library was filled with religious and theological volumes.

Moreover, Hobbes gives examples from history and, in modern terms, from anthropology, speaking of the populations of Europe before the creation of the civilized states, and of the wild inhabitants of America in his own days. He also mentions men who lock their doors and take precautions against others even when the State exists with civil laws to protect them.

In sum, we are dealing with three theoretical levels: theology, history and everyday experience, which Hobbes did not conceive as philosophical and scientific. As we read in De Corpore I.8 (and as confirmed in Leviathan chapter 9, although in different terms), philosophy is ‘knowledge from reasoning’ (ratiocinatio) and ‘excludes’ (excludit) theology and all knowledge arising from divine inspiration and revelation, as well as history, because it is knowledge deriving from experience or authority.

However, none of this shows that the state of nature is a-scientific or anti-scientific. In fact, the state of nature is a true ‘inference made from the passions’ and is perfectly ‘scientific’ (in a Hobbesian sense). This is why Hobbes does not quote Genesis and why Leviathan changes the all-too theological expression status naturae to the more scientific ‘natural condition of mankind’. (The Cain and Abel example in the Latin Leviathan of 1668 is no more than a rhetorical expedient to visualize the ‘first’ civil war, or to emphasize that any civil war sees brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour.)

We may or may not agree with Hobbes about what constitutes ‘scientific’, but the state of nature is scientific in Hobbesian terms, and does not stand ‘in stark contrast to the standards Hobbes set for himself’ as Evrigenis thinks.

Evrigenis also makes this argument on p. 96 of his beautiful 2014 book, Images of Anarchy:The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature, which identifies De Corpore as setting the standards for science.

In my opinion, the state of nature is scientific in a Hobbesian sense, as set out in De Corpore VI.6-7. (The following quotations are from Martinich’s 1981 translation.) Let’s follow Hobbes’s argument:

  1. Moral philosophy as the science of ‘motus animorum’:

‘After physics [that is based on geometry] we come to morals, in which the motions of minds are considered, namely desire, aversion, love, benevolence, hope, fear, anger, jealousy, envy, and so on; what the causes of the motions are, and of what things they are causes’.

  1. Civil philosophy in relation to moral philosophy:

‘Civil philosophy is connected to moral [philosophy] in such a way that it can nevertheless be detached from it. For the causes of the motions of the minds are not only known by reasoning but also by the experience of each and every person observing those motions proper to him only’.

  1. The two methods: synthetic and analytic (with the definition of civil philosophy):

‘And for that reason once the synthetic method has achieved a scientific knowledge of desires and disturbances of the minds, not only those who, by proceeding along the same path, hit upon the causes and the necessity for the foundings of cities and acquire the science of natural right, the duties of citizens and what right ought to be in every kind of city, […] but also those who have not learned the earlier part of philosophy, namely, geometry and physics, can nevertheless come to the principles of civil philosophy by the analytic method’.

  1. Explanation of the analytic method in relation to civil philosophy:

‘For, whenever a question is proposed, such as “whether such and such an action is just or unjust”, by resolving “unjust” into “fact” and “against the laws” and that notion of “law” into the mandate of him who has the power to control and “power” into “the will of men who establish such power for the sake of peace”, one finally arrives at the fact that the appetites of men and the motions of their minds are such that they will wage war against each other unless controlled by some power. This fact can be known by the experience of each and every person who examines his own mind. Therefore, one can proceed from this point to the determination of the justice or injustice of any proposed action by composition” ’ (emphasis mine).

  1. Conclusion: the state of nature is for Hobbes truly ‘scientific’, since it is found out by reason using a properly scientific method.

The state of nature is at the basis of Hobbes’s civil science. If the state of nature is not scientific, neither is the whole construction of civil science, and Hobbes has completely failed in his task. One can agree or disagree with Hobbes’s view of civil science, but it is clear that the state of nature – openly referred to in this passage of De Corpore on scientific method – is perfectly scientific in the Hobbesian sense of the word.

CRISPP Special Issue: Hobbes and the Law

Special Issue of the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy: Hobbes and the Law (19.1, 2016)

Edited by Anthony F. Lang Jr. and Gabriella Slomp.

This issue contains the following articles:

Anthony F. Lang Jr. and Gabriella Slomp, ‘Thomas Hobbes: theorist of the law

Abstract: This short article introduces the papers that follow on the topic of Hobbes as a theorist of the law. It provides an overview of Hobbes’ reputation as a theorist of law in both domestic and international theory. The paper summarizes the papers that follow and suggest how they fit into the wider literature on Hobbes, legal theory, and constitutional theory.

Larry May, ‘Hobbes, law and public conscience

Abstract: This paper brings forth the importance of public conscience in Hobbes’s account of politics and law. It connects this idea to the famous Martens Clause that played and continues to play a crucial role in international legal debates. The Martens Clause, part of the preliminary materials of the Hague Conventions, posits that humanity’s ‘public conscience’ should play a role in international legal norms concerning warfare when treaties or conventions do not provide guidance. The paper argues that Hobbes also appeals to public conscience in his construction of the relationship between law and politics. Rather than the private conscience that might challenge the sovereign, the public conscience is that which reflects moral principles such as equity which the paper argues is more important than justice in interpreting the law. The paper thus elucidates an important component of Hobbes’s theory and makes clear its relevance for international affairs.

Tom Sorell, ‘Law and equity in Hobbes

Abstract: Equity is clearly central to Hobbes’s theory of the laws of nature, and it has an important place in his doctrine of the duties and exercise of sovereignty. It is also prominent in his general theory of law, especially as it is articulated in the late Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Still, it is not more central to Hobbes’s ethics, politics and legal philosophy than his concept of justice, or even ascentral. On the contrary, his theory of justice is presupposed by his views about equity – in the sense that fidelity to a social contract is a condition of adjudication and definitive interpretation of law. Nor does equity contribute to a genuinely anti-authoritarian strand in Hobbes’s political philosophy. It is not as if, between the lines of that philosophy, Hobbes is a liberal. He does not think that the sovereign should exercise self-restraint because liberty and autonomy are good and sovereign self-restraint creates a space for both. Rather, he thinks that heavy-handed rule saps initiative, wealth and other resources from the people, making them less able to participate in or finance military action or internal state security. In other words, heavy-handed rule can make it harder for the sovereign to discharge the principal duty of sovereignty – ensuring public safety.

Patricia Springborg, ‘Hobbes, civil law, liberty and the Elements of Law

Abstract: When he gave his first political work the title The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, Hobbes signalled an agenda to revise and incorporate continental Roman and Natural Law traditions for use in Great Britain, and from first to last he remained faithful to this agenda, which it took his entire corpus to complete. The success of his project is registered in the impact Hobbes had upon the continental legal system in turn, specific aspects of his theory, as for instance the right to punish, entering the European civil code through Pufendorf, and remaining to this day. This is a topic of considerable importance at a time at which the UK is considering scrapping the European Union, with all the attendant legal ramifications that entails. But strangely, despite some acknowledgement of Hobbes’s contribution to European civil law, and specifically the German civil code, the larger legal context for his thought has not thus far been systematically addressed.

Gabriella Slomp, ‘The inconvenience of the legislator’s two bodies and the role of good counsellors

Abstract: I focus on Hobbes’s distinction between the natural and political persons embodied in one sovereign and show that, driven by their passions, ignorance, or bad judgement, rulers qua natural men may undermine the end they ought to pursue qua political actors, namely the protection of the well-being of the people. In particular, as legislators, they may make laws that are unnecessary, or that the people cannot endure, or that give rise to their impatience and discontent. I argue that in Hobbes’s argument, the notion of good counsel provides a safety net against bad commands being issued by rulers. I claim that the process of consultation of good counsellors is an essential component of Hobbes’s understanding of law-making. I suggest that the Hobbesian notions of counsel and counsellor provide a valuable framework to illuminate aspects of contemporary global law-making.

Maximilian Jaede, ‘Hobbes on the making and unmaking of citizens

Abstract: This article examines Thomas Hobbes’s views on legal citizenship in relation to sovereign prerogative powers and the conditions of rule by law. It is argued that the authority of Hobbesian sovereigns includes the right to decide whether individuals be admitted as subjects of the state, or treated as public enemies. While Hobbes’s specific understanding of the legal status of citizens seems to be inapplicable today, it is suggested that he provides us with a broader perspective on the making and unmaking of citizens, which could be used to evaluate attempts to deprive terrorists of their citizen rights. In Hobbes’s view, the sovereign does not only have a right to formally admit or exclude individuals, but also a duty to constitute them as citizens through civic education. Hence, it is ultimately the government’s responsibility if citizens turn into enemies of the state.

Anthony F. Lang Jr., ‘Thomas Hobbes and a chastened ‘global’ constitution the contested boundaries of the law

Abstract: Hobbes’ account of politics, law, and obligation has long been read, especially by realists in international affairs, as leaving no space for international law or institutions. This article argues that a more nuanced reading of Hobbes’ ideas about law and politics provides support for not only a defense of international law but a defense of a (chastened) global constitution. Hobbes’ constitutionalism does not derive from a separation or balance of powers but on two other elements of constitutionalism: the importance of the individual and the centrality of law. The article proceeds as follows: The first section locates Hobbes theory of law in relation to his theory of authority, drawing on David Dyzenhaus’s emphasis on the rule of law in Hobbes. The second section draws on theorists such as Larry May to find a defense of international law and institutions, what I call international constitutionalism. The third section turns to Richard Flathman’s interpretation of Hobbes as a theorist of liberal self-making, suggesting how his insights can be applied globally. The conclusion brings these thoughts to bear on the relevance of Hobbes for global law and politics.