Hobbes moral philosophy philosophy political theory

Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan

Second in an ongoing series.

Leviathan title pageIn last week’s post, I sketched a proposal for reading Hobbes’s venture in moral philosophy in Leviathan. Today I would like to develop that proposal further, opening a broader perspective on the argument of Leviathan as a whole.

My proposal — to recapitulate in brief — is that the various moral rules that Hobbes calls ‘Laws of Nature’ are intended primarily as evaluative norms, providing criteria for moral blame and approbation. They prescribe the basic requirements for peaceable social intercourse, with reference to which human beings may recognize one another’s conduct as either conducive to peace or else destructive of it – a basis for telling acceptable behavior from offensive. The rule that Hobbes calls the First, or Fundamental Law of Nature is simply “Seek Peace, and Follow It.” The succeeding eighteen Laws are further specifications of the first, identifying various attitudes and practices that Hobbes thinks are needed if social interaction is not to devolve to brute force or intransigence. These rules are intended to supply a coherent lexicon for moral approbation and blame – providing a (somewhat) determinate meaning to such terms as justice and injustice, gratitude and ingratitude, modesty and arrogance. In this Hobbes makes no attempt to show that adhering to these rules is instrumental to the attainment of any benefit or advantage to the agent. He intends simply to set forth a coherent basis for determining “what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind.” Why Hobbes prefers to refer to these rules as ‘Laws of Nature’ is a trifle obscure, but this turns out to have only incidental bearing on their validity as moral norms.

This reading of Leviathan’s moral theory departs from the prevalent scholarly interpretations of Hobbes’s conception of the Laws of Nature. It will also sound foreign to the argument of Leviathan as a whole, according to the usual view of the latter. But there’s a curious thing about this. The usual view of Leviathan actually has little use for the Laws of Nature at all — little use for Hobbes’s actual treatment of them, anyway. It tends to consign nearly all of the actual contents of the chapters devoted to the topic to irrelevance or redundancy. It seems to me that we can do better, if we attend more closely to the structure of his argument.

Leviathan is read and remembered chiefly for two things. The first is its depiction of man’s natural state as anarchic, perpetual war, in which justice is senseless and no one is safe. This is found in the book’s First Part, “Of Man,” in its famous 13th Chapter (“Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”) — which contains his much-quoted line about the nastiness and brutishness of this state of war, and also his dark pronouncement that “Force, and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues.” The other thing for which the book is remembered is Hobbes’s contention that the only redress to this anarchy lies in submitting to an all-puissant sovereign, the sole and supreme arbiter and enforcer of right. This is found in the book’s Second Part, “Of Commonwealth” — beginning in Chapter 17. There Hobbes posits men’s desire to escape the misery and perils attendant on their natural lot as the reason why they choose to forego their natural liberty, accepting the restraints that come with membership in a commonwealth. In doing so, he goes on to argue, they are bound to accept the rule of an absolute sovereign, in whom all plenary powers of government must be vested. The resulting political doctrine is uncompromisingly authoritarian, whereby the subjects’ duty to obey is nearly indefeasible, so long as the sovereign retains the ability to keep them safe.

Wedged between these two things — in Chapters 14 & 15, near the end of Part I — is Hobbes’s account of the Laws of Nature, the ‘science’ he proclaims as “the true and onely Moral Philosophy.” What does Hobbes mean to accomplish, in the course of the argument of those chapters? How does it advance the book’s larger argument?  On the usual reading of Leviathan, chapter 17 picks up more or less exactly where chapter 13 had left off. The two-chapter sequence devoted to the Laws of Nature can seem on this view no more than a nebulous, long-winded bridge between Hobbes’s dismal doctrine of man and his correspondingly grim doctrine of sovereignty. Consistent with this view, Hobbes’s commentators tend to limit their attention to just a few, apparently haphazard passages, which seem merely to amplify what Hobbes has already said in Chapter 13, or else merely to fumble toward what is to come in Part II. Statements are seized upon which seem to warrant the conclusion that for Hobbes a ‘Law of Nature’ is simply a prescription of self-interested, survivalist prudence, telling men how best to provide for his safety. Little notice is paid to the fact that almost nothing that Hobbes has to say in these chapters on behalf of the various rules in his canon seems especially suited for this. That whole business is read with impatience, assumed to be mostly superfluous to the real thrust of the book.

I believe that this involves a double mistake: about Hobbes’s purpose in those particular chapters, and about the nature of the larger project in Leviathan as a whole. The mistake comes down to assuming that whenever Hobbes discusses anarchy and its redress, he is talking about the same issue, with the same narrow polemical intent. This is why it seems that Chapter 17 can seem to pick up just where Chapter 13 had left off, and why much of Chapters 14 and 15 can seem otiose or redundant. In fact, different issues are in play on each occasion, as befits different stages of a complex argument.

As I suggested in the previous post, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is intended as a theory of peace. It identifies requisite standards for peaceable social intercourse, in default of which social life devolves to ceaseless quarrels and the sway of mere force or intimidation. It emerges in the course of elucidating this moral theory, that the way of life prescribed by these norms cannot in practice be realized without the institution of government, able to ensure general compliance and provide for the authoritative resolution of disputes. In a certain sense, then, Part I’s moral theory remains incomplete without the political theory presented in Part II. But the latter requires the former as its foundation. For the desideratum of Hobbes’s political theory is not simply an (empirical) state of tranquility, but the (moral) condition of peace. His aim in Part II is precisely to show what terms of political association, and what use of political power, might be rendered consistent with the norms of peaceable interaction.

Already at the end of Chapter 13, Hobbes indicates that the nastiness of permanent strife is not after all the most men are capable of, despite the facts of the human condition which tend to make it endemic. Among human beings’ multifarious passions, there are some that revolt at the prospect of endlessly insecure indigence, and among human intellectual endowments is the faculty of reason, which points the way toward transcending antagonism. “Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” Leviathan’s Laws of Nature, as expounded in the following chapters, are precisely those “articles of peace”; they provide a basis for distinguishing peaceable conduct from hostile, that the latter might be duly reprehended (anyway, regretted) as “intolerable in society.” By the end of Chapter 15, Hobbes feels entitled to congratulate himself on having identified the relevant norms, showing that the specified rules are indeed “the way, or the means, of Peace.” He sees nothing missing, for this purpose, in the fact he is yet to provide any account of the basis of a government, or men’s reason for submitting to one. That’s a separate problem for him, conceptually distinct.

There are admittedly certain things that Hobbes says in Leviathan that tend to muddle the distinction. The most vexing of these is his insistence on referring to his “Articles of Peace” as ‘Laws of Nature.’ On a few occasions when he feels self-conscious over his use of that term, he feels it incumbent upon himself to highlight a connection between these rules and the furtherance of human life – this being the only meaning of ‘nature’ that his philosophical scruples allow him to countenance. A few such statements are cryptic and ambiguous enough to lend seeming support to the notion that Hobbes’s whole theory is addressed to nothing but self-interested agents’ desire to secure themselves against violence. Yet this reading leaves deeply obscure why Hobbes has settled on these particular rules, none of which seem formulated with an eye to that end. Hobbes’s commentators typically cope with this difficulty simply by disregarding the specific Laws, except insofar as they seem to comport with the apparent thrust of the argument in Part II. On the usual view, the only one of the Laws of Nature  of decisive importance is the one which prescribes escaping the perils of war by relinquishing natural freedom, submitting to government.

The trouble is: there isn’t actually any such Law to be found in Leviathan — not in these chapters, nor anywhere else in the book. Readers have often assumed that some such a rule is contained in Hobbes’s formulation of the Second Law of Nature. It goes like this: “That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his presumptive] right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.” Hobbes conceives of this on the model of a mutual covenant, and the statement of the rule is followed by a lengthy discussion of the conditions in which covenants of various sorts are either viable or invalid. When it comes time to present his account of the formation of a commonwealth, in Chapter 17, he will draw on this prior discussion, for it is through a special sort of mutual covenant, too, that the Hobbesian commonwealth is established. And yet — that is not to say that the Second Law prescribes entering that very special sort of covenant (not necessarily, anyway). The requirement spelled out in the Second Law would be fully satisfied by the readiness to enter a truce, when met with others likewise ready to do so. Nothing is said about any mechanism to deter any party’s breach of such an agreement, nor of any authority with power to adjudicate and punish alleged violations. Nor is anything said of any provision for concerted collective action of any kind among the parties concerned. Those omissions are no unintended oversights on Hobbes’s part. The Second Law is far more complex and elaborate than the corresponding rule in his earlier books, and some care must have gone into its formulation. He wants to leave the question of government out of the picture, at this stage of his argument.

Unlike the non-existent, pseudo-Hobbesian Law prescribing submission to government, Leviathan’s actual Second Law makes no sense as a strategic or prudential maxim, addressed to an agent’s self-interest. (That is, unless one insists on attributing to Hobbes the intention to make certain rather far-fetched arguments, nowhere found in his book). A truce comes with no guarantees — it lasts exactly so long as the parties choose to honor its terms, which simply expire on the suspicion of a violation. Among would-be parties to peace, a truce is simply a step toward alleviating mutual fear and limitless recrimination. Honoring the requirements of the Second Law does not make anyone any safer, except in the sense it formulates a norm whereby men of good will are not necessarily doomed to remain forever at odds.

So why then does the Second Law of Nature state that one must be ready to enter on truces “as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary”? [Emphasis added.] The answer is simple: because the legitimacy of this concern is to be acknowledged, among all who would seek to live peaceably. To hold otherwise would leave social intercourse hostage to the bullying impositions of the strong — and this Hobbes declines to do. His various Laws of Nature are consistently formulated in such a way to leave men a right to stand up for themselves, when their legitimate interests are belittled or threatened.

Like the further seventeen Laws that Hobbes goes on to enumerate (in Chapter 15), the Second Law of Nature is offered as a corollary to the First, “Seek Peace, and Follow it.” This Fundamental Law forms one half of a more comprehensive, two-branched, “generall rule of Reason”: “That every man ought to endeavor Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre.” The latter half of this two-branched rule tends to grab readers’ attention, in affording such seemingly limitless discretionary license in the conduct of war. (Hobbes speaks of this latter branch as “the summe of the Right of Nature”: in short, “By all means we can, to defend ourselves.”) The important thing to notice, however, is that Hobbes in fact strictly limits this discretionary license to the circumstance in which no hope for peace is possible: it is literally nothing more than a right of desperation. When within reach, peace is to be sought, and followed — all strategic or prudential calculations aside.

Neither the Fundamental Law of Nature, nor its numerous corollaries, are addressed to strategic exigencies. In the case of the Second Law, the readiness to enter a truce is in no way made contingent on the other parties’ relative strength, as potential allies or adversaries, but only their attitude, their own readiness to reciprocate. So, too, in general: other people’s readiness to abide by the Laws of Nature is the only relevant datum for judging whether the conditions for peace are ripe. Those who fail or refuse to adhere to these norms, in the situations to which they apply, are to be seen as hostile to peace — and open to blame for that reason.

(To be continued.)

Next in this series: Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan.

Preceding post in this series: Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal.


Beached Whaleengraving by Jacob Matham, 1602.  

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