Discussion (2): Raffaella Santi and Ioannis Evrigenis debate Hobbes’s state of nature.




Response to Raffaella Santi’s Comments



Ioannis D. Evrigenis (Tufts University)



I am grateful to Raffaella Santi for her insightful comments on my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes. Santi has identified a key issue in regard to Hobbes’s state of nature, not least because of Hobbes’s insistence on proper method and his aspiration to be the first to put politics on a proper foundation. That issue is science and its place in Hobbes’s account.

Santi and I disagree on only one thing: the view that she ascribes to me regarding the scientific status of Hobbes’s state of nature. She writes, ‘[f]or Evrigenis, the state of nature is not scientific at all’, and adds ‘[i]t is an image used rhetorically’. Although I never claimed the former, I will admit complicity in possibly leading some readers to that conclusion. I will argue, however, that the fault is Hobbes’s, for that conclusion is evidence of his success in producing what in the Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique he calls ‘a kind of science’.

Santi’s former conclusion, namely that I think the state of nature not scientific, is based on the assumption that science and rhetoric are mutually exclusive, an assumption that I reject. Santi made a very generous reference to my book, Images of Anarchy, wherein I devote more space to this issue. The first piece of evidence, then, is the book’s subtitle: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature. I cannot reproduce the argument in all its details, but I will list certain pertinent points.

Contrary to accounts such as Strauss’s and Skinner’s, which see Hobbes’s development as manifested in stages marked by turns, I argue that Hobbes made consistent use of both rhetoric and science, throughout his political treatises. Others, notably Tuck, have argued that the earlier political works are every bit as rhetorical as Leviathan, and I agree. For me, however, the use of rhetoric does not signal the absence of science. This argument applies on two levels.

First, it is possible to envision what in my book I call ‘a science of rhetoric’, namely an account of what language should be expected to do to audiences. The evidence from the Elements and De Cive shows that Hobbes was tweaking this part of his theory from the beginning, placing a lot of weight on the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rhetoric’. I will return to these two terms in a moment.

This science of rhetoric is precisely what I think Hobbes develops on the way to his science of politics. The latter involves ‘maker’s knowledge’, but not in the way that most interpreters see it. That is, it does not give a recipe for the construction of a commonwealth but rather, as Santi notes, one for the avoidance of its collapse. The maker, then, is Hobbes first and foremost, who conjures the image of the state of nature, and only secondarily the sovereign who uses his recipe of the summum malum to avoid that collapse. For the reader, it is ‘destroyer’s knowledge’ that is vital.

The very existence of a summum malum, by the way, signals quite clearly that there is a science at work, and the state of nature is an essential component of it. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric rests heavily on an observation about how human beings think about terms of approbation and disapprobation, and a second about how we think when it comes to classification and opposition.

This is where reason and rhetoric come in. Whatever else they may be, ‘reason’ is a term of approbation and ‘rhetoric’ a term of disapprobation. As such, we tend to think of them not just as opposites but as mutually exclusive. Hobbes knows and manipulates this from the start. Consider the Epistle and first 13 chapters of the Elements, where Hobbes builds an image of the world divided as follows:

  • reason vs. passions
  • knowledge vs. opinion
  • teaching vs. persuasion
  • mathematicians vs. dogmatists

Crucially, this list of antitheses culminates in the opposition between the commonwealth and the state of nature. Footnote 11 in my chapter points to my book, in which I argue that this fact is only lost because of the publication history of the Elements and of readers’ zealous attentiveness to titles, which prevents them from seeing the connection between Elements chapters 13 and 14, a connection that Hobbes clearly intended. A careful examination of these oppositions reveals artificially neat domains, even in cases where the description is absurd, as when Hobbes attributes everything good in the world to the mathematicians and everything bad to the dogmatists.

The most telling sign that this opposition mirrors that between the state of nature and the commonwealth lies in the list of the benefits that the mathematicians have allegedly bequeathed to mankind. It is the opposite of the negative account of the state of nature in Leviathan 13. But all this is further confirmation of Hobbes’s science of rhetoric. That science predicts that we are eager to buy neat classifications such as the ones between reason and rhetoric, and order and disorder.

The starker the spectre of the other side, the more readily we will accept the side we happen to be on. A darker and more credible state of nature will always make the commonwealth look better than it may actually be. Hobbes also knows the force of a rhetoric of science, as we are eager to embrace anything labeled ‘reason’ and reject anything dubbed ‘rhetoric’.

My complicity in misleading Santi lies in my having claimed that Hobbes violates his own standards of precision and that his account of the state of nature is elusive and ostensibly self-contradictory. All of these characterizations, however, are based on evidence from the texts and none of them is meant to imply that there is no science at work. Where Hobbes’s standards of precision are concerned, consider only his preposterous statement in the Elements about mathematics: ‘to this day was it never heard of, that there was any controversy concerning any conclusion in this subject’ (13.iii, emphasis added). Or, take his claim that teaching occurs only when there is no disagreement. If that were true, then no teaching has ever taken place.

What, therefore, are we to make of these and other statements Hobbes makes about the divides I listed above? I argue that they are part of his science of rhetoric, whose aim is to lead us gradually to the realization of the summum malum. Many commentators since the 17th century have pointed to a fact that was surely well-known to Hobbes, namely that not everyone will recognize violent death as the summum malum. That is precisely where Hobbes had to concentrate.

His diagnosis, e.g. in Leviathan chapter 18, was that we are notoriously bad at calculating risk and reward, especially in the long term. His neat oppositions were part of the science of solving that problem, not least by putting dependable rhetoric to work.

Is his state of nature ostensibly self-contradictory? Not in its basic form. But to a reader, say, who associates it with the Fall and then discovers that Hobbes links it to Cain and Abel or the Indians of America, it certainly could be. Indeed, a quick survey of the reaction to it reveals that many found it self-contradictory. I argue that this was a consequence of his difficult balancing-act: having to convince many individuals who disagree fundamentally about lots of things, by appealing to their beliefs while avoiding too close an association with any of them, because such an association would alienate those who disagree with its foundation.

This explains his multifarious explanations and examples – from ancient ethnography, through Scripture, to America and civil war – of what in the end is a basic opposition between the undesirability of anarchy and the consequent desirability of order. As Santi points out rightly, all of these essentially point to what Hobbes calls the ‘Inference, made from the Passions’. If it were easy for everyone to arrive at such an inference, there would be no disorder. Alas, human nature intrudes.

This brings me to the second level on which rhetoric and science can coexist happily, and that is the point at which scientists have to communicate their findings to various audiences and convince people of very different abilities to act according to their discoveries. Assuming there were such a thing as communication without rhetoric, would anyone contend that a dry description of fact suffices to explain how rain or babies come to be, to every single person, regardless of intelligence, maturity, or level of education? Hobbes knew well that any truth he might arrive at would trickle down to his fellow countrymen through a number of different rivulets, many of which originated in pulpits. That was a fact he could not ignore.

Moreover, having arrived at the truth about human nature is one thing. Taking that truth into account in attempting to change human behavior is quite another. Hobbes’s science of rhetoric is but a subset of his broader science of politics. As I indicated above and explain in Images of Anarchy, however, that science is best thought of not as the construction of commonwealths as though they were LEGO sets straight out of the box, but rather a science akin to what we have come to call psychology, intended to rescue them from vainglorious wishful thinking. Let’s call it ‘political psychology’, to split the difference.

As I have argued, that science is already underway in the Elements, in Hobbes’s illuminating treatment of how men work on one another’s minds. Continuing through the two versions of De Cive, it culminates in the two versions of Leviathan, whose notorious title and frontispiece make it clear that the most difficult political problem is pride. If, however, it is true (as Hobbes argues in Leviathan chapter 13) that no one thinks himself inferior to anyone else when it comes to wisdom, how can one devise a solution without taking that fact seriously? Hobbes took it very seriously and needed to appease that pride in order to stand any chance of persuading us that we should fear the state of nature and wish to avoid it at all costs. That, I contend, is why Leviathan may well have been written with Charles II in mind, as Malcolm argues, but it was published so as to counsel everyone who thinks himself a king, namely every child of pride.

From Hobbes’s day to ours, many have despised the state of nature and the account of human nature on which it is based, yet even the most vociferous of Hobbes’s opponents sought not to dismiss it but to rescue it. That and the fact that we continue to think of rhetoric and science as strictly antithetical are evidence both of Hobbes’s science and of his success in articulating it. The state of nature is an integral part of that science, and I am very grateful to Santi for having given me the opportunity to clarify.




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.

Hobbes is funnier than Shaftesbury …

Hobbes is funnier than Shaftesbury … or so thought Adam Smith, at least. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith provides a scathing attack on the style of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. His judgement on Shaftesbury strikes me as spot on:

In his Treatise where he ridicules Mr Hobbs there is not one passage which would make us laugh. Mr Hobbs book would make us laugh but his ridicule would never affect us. (Glasgow Edition of Smith, vol. 4, p. 60)

Book: Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation (Luciano Venezia)

Luciano Venezia, Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2015)

About this book: According to the standard interpretation, Hobbes argues that subjects have binding political obligations because the sanctions for non-compliance provided by the law give them sufficient reason to obey. This view comprises an account of law and a theory of political obligation. The standard interpretation considers that for Hobbes the characteristic feature of law lies in its causal capacity to compel subjects to obey by the use of physical force or the threat to use physical force. In turn, this reading states that subjects are bound to obey the law because so acting best promotes their rational self-interest.

Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation challenges this reading, and develops an alternative interpretation of Hobbes’s theory of political obligation. According to the account developed in the book, the directives issued by the sovereign introduce authoritative requirements, so that the subjects are morally obligated to obey them.