Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan

Third in a series.

De Cive Frontispiece detail1. The preceding posts in this series have proposed reading Hobbes’s moral philosophy in Leviathan as a theory of peace.   Departing from the widely-held view that Hobbes’s theory is addressed to singular agents’ prudential or strategic interests, I have argued that Hobbes means to do no more (and no less) than identify appropriate norms for peaceable social intercourse, suitable for use in the practice of moral evaluation.  The moral rules that Hobbes calls ‘Laws of Nature’ are offered not as guidance for self-regarding agents, but as morally valid standards for discriminating between acceptable and blameworthy conduct.    I have  suggested that the designation of these rules as “Laws of Nature” amounts to no more than a concession to the moral vernacular of Hobbes’s time and place (and his own linguistic habit), with little real importance or significance to his moral theory.

My proposal pertains solely to Leviathan – not to any of Hobbes’s earlier books.    This alone would be enough to make it seem highly eccentric, and probably objectionable, to scholarly experts on the subject. The prevailing scholarly opinion is that Hobbes’s clearest and most fully elaborated statement of his moral theory is not Leviathan at all, but an earlier treatise, written in Latin, De Cive (“On the Citizen”). Where Leviathan’s treatment of the subject has seemed obscure or elusive, commentators routinely draw on De Cive to supply missing premises or conclusions. A number of prominent scholars have gone so far as to hold that De Cive is to be taken as the authoritative statement of Hobbes’s thinking on this matter.   (When it comes to Hobbes’s political theory, by contrast, it is generally acknowledged that Leviathan’s version constitutes a further, more sophisticated iteration of his thought.) The reason for preferring De Cive in this is precisely that this earlier text provides a more elaborate explanation of the status of the Laws of Nature as such, and their grounding in a sort of natural necessity – namely, every man’s instinctive pursuit of his own survival. That certainly seems inconvenient for my proposal, to say the least.

The objection can be met head on.  It seems to me that the privileged status accorded to De Cive is unwarranted, and has merely contributed toward perpetuating long-standing misunderstandings of Leviathan.   What we take to be Leviathan’s gaps and obscurities, might be better be regarded as the sign of a discreet, but decisive swerve away from his former line of thinking.   There are enough incidental parallels between the two books’ respective accounts of the Laws of Nature to make it likely that Hobbes had the earlier one open on his table when writing later. The interesting question is why he chose not to follow it more closely than he did.


2. De Cive’s first chapter opens with a dark meditation on human beings’ natural unfitness for society. (This, more than anything found in Leviathan, is the source for what is commonly known as the ‘Hobbesian’ view of human nature.) Dismissing the contrary view as merely naïve, Hobbes appeals to worldly experience, inviting his readers to consider how much selfish, self-absorbed, and mean-spirited behavior pervades all social life. He grimly maintains that we would be unwilling to put up with each other in society at all, did we not seek to gain some self-regarding advantage, or else obtain validation for our own good opinion of ourselves. “All Society therefore is either for gain, or for Glory; (i.e..) not so much for love of our Fellowes, as for love of our Selves.” (I quote from the first English translation, of 1651.   In Hobbes’s Latin: “Omnis igitur societas vel commodi causa, vel gloriæ, hoc est, sui, non sociorum amore, contrahiturDC 1.2.) Every man is in it for himself alone, and seeks as much for himself as he dares get away with. Men are undoubtedly better off with one others’ assistance, yet all would more gladly obtain what they want through domination than mutual help – did they not more greatly fear others’ domination. Mutual fear, not fellow-feeling, is the basis of social cooperation.

In the state of nature, each person is a menace to every other. As each is impelled by nature to shun harm to himself, all may rightfully endeavor to preserve themselves against danger. “Therefore the first foundation of naturall Right is this, That every man as much as in him lies endeavor to protect his life and members.” (“Itaque Iuris naturalis fundamentum primum est, ut quisque vitam & membra sua quantum potest tueatur.DC 1.7.) Nobody can be expected to defer to anyone else’s judgment in what measures might be needful for his safety (unless that judgment should happen to coincide with his own). On the other hand, no one is in fact able to provide for his safety, acting alone.   The only rational course of action is to compensate for one’s relative weakness by forming strategic alliances. “And so it happens that through feare of each other we think it fit to rid our selves of this condition, and to get some fellowes; that if there needs must be war, it may not yet be against all men, nor without some helps.” (“Atque ita evenit ut mutuo metu, ē tali statu exeundum & quærendos socios putemus, ut si bellum habendum sit, non sit tamen contra omnes, nec sine auxiliis.” DC 1.13.)

De Cive codifies this conclusion in its statement of the Fundamental Law of Nature: “That Peace is to be sought after where it may be found; and where not, there to provide our selves for helps of War.” (“quærendum esse pacem ubi haberi potest; ubi non potest, quærenda esse belli auxilia.” De Cive, 2.2). Peace is the preferred alternative, because it makes for a more optimal solution to the problem, but formidable allies in war is the next best thing. Strategic considerations aside, the difference between peace and war holds no great theoretical significance.   What matters either way is providing for one’s safety.


3. In Leviathan, too, Hobbes dwells on the factors which naturally tend to bring men into conflict.   In the famous 13th chapter – “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery” – he identifies “three principall causes of quarrell”: competition, diffidence (i.e., mistrust), and glory (i.e., reputation).   What he has to say about each of these three is reminiscent of his prior treatment of this theme in De Cive – enough so that countless readers have found this alone sufficient basis for judging Hobbes an inveterate misanthrope.   Readers familiar with De Cive tend to assume that the only real difference is that in Leviathan Hobbes is more brisk with analysis, and more grandiloquent in his rhetoric – somewhat briefer on the causes of strife, and more emphatic in lamenting the miseries suffered when conflict gets out of hand.

And yet there’s a difference. Absent from Leviathan’s version is anything approaching the prior book’s assertions concerning the selfish basis of human society in general. (He continues to reject any notion that men are naturally fitted for political society, but that’s now a separate issue for him.) Gone is De Cive’s grim appeal to worldly experience, decrying the cruelty, the greed, and the vanity on display whenever men gather for business or pleasure; gone the bullying knowingness that dismisses all doubt about this as mere naïveté.   What one finds in Leviathan instead is a sober consideration of factors which, if unchecked, naturally tend to make conflict inevitable and intractable. In claiming that these factors inhere “in the nature of man,” Hobbes is attributing them not to any inherently anti-social motive or propensity, but simply to the natural predicament in which human beings would find themselves, if abandoned to their own devices. The predicament consists in sheer uncertainty of their situation – which is partly a matter of moral uncertainty, in the absence of any authority acknowledged by all.  It suffices that there are always some people who can be expected to try to get the better of others in this situation, that others will reasonably want to forestall their being taken advantage of.  The trouble is that in asserting themselves to prevent this, they merely exacerbate the endemic, anarchic uncertainty.

In De Cive, the circumstance which makes the state of nature so irredeemably volatile is men’s roughly equal ability to do one another harm. The problem is each singular agent’s relative helplessness in providing for himself against all comers; the problem is solved – straightforwardly enough — through the pooling of many men’s strength, in strategic alliances.   In Leviathan Hobbes introduces a further complication. The paradigm instance of the insecurity which results from men’s roughly equal capacities is no longer the case of each against all, but rather of several together, ganged up (“by confederacy”) against a friendless third party:

…if one plant, sow, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like danger of another.

Man’s predicament is not his small chance for success when confronting an array of single adversaries roughly as strong as himself, but rather his helplessness when confronted with others in league against him – who for their part are no more secure. What had formerly been the solution is now merely part of the problem.  And Hobbes pointedly declines to provide any comparably strategic answer to the problem thus reconceived.

These differences bespeak a shift in Hobbes’s theoretical agenda. De Cive’s first chapter begins with a set of assertions concerning men’s inherent selfishness and natural antagonism, and works its way toward a rationale for strategic cooperation.   The corresponding chapter in Leviathan begins with a survey of factors that naturally tend to bring men into conflict, and which tend to make it interminable.   Yet that chapter concludes on a different note, denying that strife is inevitable. “Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”


4. The immediate argument leading up to Leviathan’s formulation of the Fundamental Law of Nature – in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 14 – is far briefer than the corresponding one in De Cive’s.   It sounds similar enough to De Cive’s to lend credence to the assumption that Hobbes had much the same thing in mind on both occasions.   But here, too, crucial differences emerge on closer inspection.

In a manner reminiscent of De Cive, Leviathan posits an initial situation of anarchic war, in which each may do whatever he sees fit to defend himself against all comers. Hobbes then remarks on the impasse arising from this, in that all would be thereby exposed to assault or invasion, and nobody’s life would be safe. Without further ado, he then formulates the following “precept, or generall rule of Reason”: “That every man, ought to endeavour 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.”

Leviathan‘s two-branched “generall Rule” obviously sounds very much like De Cive’s two-branched Fundamental Law. But there’s a crucial difference. De Cive’s Fundamental Law is a twofold imperative: seek peace when possible; otherwise, seek allies in war. The clauses concerning peace and war are strictly parallel, with identical syntax. (Both are expressed in the Latin with a future passive participle, used to express a requirement or duty). Whereas in Leviathan, only the first of the clauses states a requirement. The second is merely permissive.

The first branch of which Rule, containeth the first, and Fundamentall Law of Nature; which is, to seek Peace, and follow it. The Second, the summe of the Right of Nature; which is, By all means we can, to defend our selves.

Thus Leviathan’s Fundamental Law is simply “Seek peace, and follow it” – full stop.   Where there is any prospect of peace, it is to be sought. Only when there is none, do men retain an unlimited right to discretionary self-defense.

The impasse in De Cive arises because of the unstable balance of power, on account of men’s relative incapacity to repel others’ assaults. Leviathan’s version of the impasse makes no reference whatever to the parties’ relative weakness or strength. Instead, it is said to arise simply as a consequence of each person enjoying an unlimited right to do whatever he deems needful for his self-defense. In other words, what Hobbes now has in mind is a theoretical aporia, very different from De Cive’s strategic conundrum.

The difference is admittedly somewhat obscured by the way Hobbes leads into this argument, at the outset of Chapter 14.    The chapter opens abruptly, with a definition of the Right of Nature reminiscent of De Cive’s: “The RIGHT OF NATURE, which Writers commonly call Jus Natural, is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature, that is to say, of his own Life.” Coming as this does without preamble or explanation, this definition is easily mistaken for a substantive thesis – as if Hobbes were asserting the existence of such a right, as a natural fact. Finding no argument in the text to support this assertion, commentators look to De Cive to supply the unstated rationale. Yet to do so fatally distorts the shape of Leviathan’s argument. The Right of Nature in De Cive is supposed to be grounded in natural necessity, and the corresponding Law of Nature is but a strategic imperative, answering to that same exigent necessity. Whereas Leviathan’s version of these principles involves no such appeal to necessity. In Leviathan, the definition of the Right of Nature is no more than that – a bare stipulation. Its existence and extent are merely posited, hypothetically, as it were.   That hypothesis pertains not so much to the single agent’s interest in his survival, but to the possible terms upon which peace might be possible. (Thus the significance of Hobbes’s announcement at the close of chapter 13 of his thematic concern in the following ones.) Hobbes’s underlying intuition here is that no progress toward peace is possible, even in principle, unless would-be parties of peace acknowledge one another’s legitimate interest in their safety, and their right to exercise discretion in providing for it. That this immediately gives rise to a self-negating aporia simply shows that this principle is inadequate on its own, and requires the complement of a positive requirement: that peace be actively sought.

Concerned solely with peace, Leviathan’s  Fundamental Law of Nature  is in no way subordinate to any other interest or principle. Its only limitation lies in the scope of its proper application, by virtue of its built-in conditionality.  Peaceable conduct is required whenever there is peace to be had. If peace is neither present at hand, nor viably within reach, Leviathan’s residual Right of Nature gives men license to defend themselves as best they can. But only then – not otherwise. Where there is reasonable hope for making or furthering peace, that peace must be sought — irrespective of strategic advantage.

A question that barely came up at all in De Cive now comes to the forefront of Hobbes’s concern: When is peace in the offing? Allow me to suggest that Leviathan’s ensuing account of the various specific Laws of Nature is as pervasively concerned with this question, as with the question of what peace requires. It is really the same question, asked from different perspectives. The precepts for peaceable conduct supply the criteria by which other men’s readiness for peace is to be known.


5.  In both De Cive and Leviathan, the statement of the Fundamental Law of Nature is followed by the detailed exposition of a series of further Laws. Most (but not all) of these Laws are the same in both books, and the stated rationale provided for each is usually (although not always) much the same as well. But their significance to Hobbes has changed, in keeping with the change in how he conceives the Fundamental Law. The various Laws of Nature in De Cive are offered as corollaries to that book’s twofold strategic imperative. Hobbes asserts that these rules prescribe the rational means to obtain either of the two objectives indicated in the Fundamental Law; “they direct the wayes either to Peace, or self-defence” (“præcipiunt… vias vel pacis vel defensionis acquirendæDC 2.2.). If they are useful as recipes for making peace, they are equally useful as techniques for amassing allies in war. Their universal validity rests upon nothing but the (doubtful) assertion that the very same behavior is best adapted to either purpose. Hobbes concludes their exposition with a pointed reminder that all of these rules are “deriv’d by a certain artifice from the single dictate of Reason advising us to look to the preservation, and safegard of our selves” (“…artificio quodam ab unico rationis, nos ad nostri conservationem & incolumitatem hortantis, dictamine derivataDC 3.26).

That statement is omitted from the corresponding paragraph of Leviathan, where the series of Laws is put on a different footing. True to his altered formulation of the Fundamental Law, Hobbes consistently refrains from proposing adherence to these rules as the means to provide for one’s self-defense. He no longer feels the need to hazard so doubtful (because empirically contingent) a rationale for their validity. It suffices that they specify “the way, or means or Peace.” They are protocols for peaceable conduct, nothing more. And nothing less.

Continued in next post: Further on Hobbes’s Swerve: Laws of Nature in De Cive and Leviathan.


Previous posts in this series:

1. Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal

2. Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan


De Cive Frontispiece detail 2

Detail from the frontispiece of the first edition of Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive, 1642.