Misremembering Plato’s Noble Lie

Back when I taught at Yale, I used to give a quiz about Plato’s Republic in the first class meeting for one of my upper-level seminars. The students were all supposed to have taken at least one prior course in which the Republic was read, and I wanted to see how well they remembered it.  (I also wanted to show them that I meant business.)  The quiz had two questions: What is the Republic’s ’noble lie’? What is its political purpose?

Nearly everyone got the first question right, at least in broad outline. The noble lie is one of the things that’s remembered by everyone who’s ever read The Republic — that, and the notion that none but philosophers are fit to be kings.

The noble lie is the public deception that Plato has his Socrates propose at the end of the Republic’s Book III.  It is a myth about human origins — in the most literal immediate sense: a myth about where babies come from. According to this myth, the city’s babies are not born from the bodies of human mothers, but from out of the earth, after having been formed in an underground mineral womb. All share a common maternity — the ground under their feet — yet their souls and their destinies differ, depending on their mineral composition.  Those with gold in their souls are destined for the ruling elite.  Those whose souls are made up of silver  are to be denied that distinction, but are fit to bear arms.  Everyone else — the general populace — are left to their private occupations, befitting the baser metals of which they are made.

From their earliest childhood, the citizens of Socrates’ city are to be taught that they share the same geological parentage. Yet for some unexplained reason, the specific type of metal in their soul forbids them to come into contact with certain substances or pratice certain activities. The commoner sorts — their souls made of iron and bronze — are not to bear arms, nor take part in government. That means they are left to money-making occupations — agriculture, crafts, and commerce.  Their gold- and silver-souled brethren, on the other hand, are not to touch money, or possess anything bought with it.  Their lodgings and sustenance are to be provided to them by the state, on a communal basis.

So much for the first question.  Everyone who’s read The Republic remembers this, more or less. How about the next one? If that’s the noble lie, what’s its political purpose?  What rationale does Plato put in Socrates’ mouth, when proposing this myth’s propagation?

I’d get the same answer from almost every student.  It didn’t matter if they’d read the Republic in a philosophy course, or a course in political theory.  It didn’t matter if they’d read it in a course taught by me.   In all likelihood, it’s the answer that comes to mind to anyone reading this. The political purpose of the noble lie is to persuade  the common citizens to accept the rule of the guardians (the philosopher kings). It’s propaganda designed to inculcate submission and subordination. It’s an ideological prop for a regime of benevolent despots, designed to make the people accept their subordination.

There are some things in certain books that we almost  always misread, or misremember. Fortunately for us, in this case, it’s a book that’s always worth a re-reading.

Plato isn’t interested in any of that.  For better or worse, he takes it for granted that in a well-ordered state — or in a disorderly one, for that matter — some few must rule, and the others obey.  He takes it for granted, too, that most people are satisfied with that arrangement, most of the time, so long as they aren’t threatened, or despoiled of their possessions — or would be, anyway, if not over-excited by self-serving demagogues. Be that as it may — the noble lie isn’t intended for them.  Plato has Socrates introduce the noble lie at a specific juncture of his argument, to address a different problem entirely.

The problem has nothing to do with the people resenting or chafing against the guardians’ rule. The noble lie isn’t directed at the common people at all, except incidentally. It’s directed at the elite.  In particular, it’s directed at the elite’s silver class, the warrior caste. The stated purpose of the noble lie is ensure that this class be kept from taking advantage of their armed strength to despoil the city, by teaching them to shun all contact with money, and the things that money can buy.  The myth appeals to this caste’s love of honor — prestige — while also slyly insinuating the belief that the essence of prestige is to dine in a mess hall, and live in a barracks.

The bit about the noble lie comes at the end of a long discussion (taking up much of book II, and all of book III) concerning the selection and training of those who are to guard the good city.  (At this point in The Republic, nothing has been said about ruling — “guarding” is treated as a matter of defending against enemies.) When Socrates first raises this issue, he compares guardians to well-bred sheepdogs.  Like shepherds’ dogs, the city’s guardians must  possess sufficient “spiritedness” (thumos) as to be ready and able to fight off the enemies of the city, and yet they must show perfect gentleness to its friends (that is, the law-abiding citizens).

Socrates goes on in great deal about the proper training for these guardians, which — true to his sheepdog analogy — is essentially a matter of properly disciplined habituation.  (Only later in the Republic does it become fully clear that this is all just the first phase of the much longer training of those who are to serve as the city’s true, ruling guardians — the philosopher-kings.)  Unexpectedly, at the end of that long discussion, it emerges that Socrates himself has little confidence in this educational program’s results.  Out of every cohort selected to receive this rigorous training, only a fraction will prove worthy and reliable guardians. The would-be guardians are to be subjected to various (unspecified) trials and tests, so as to identify those “who believe throughout their lives that they must eagerly pursue what is advantageous to the city [i.e., the city’s good] and be wholly unwilling to do the opposite.”  Those who are to guard the city must be counted upon, above all else, to “guard” their belief that what is best for the city is best for themselves; they must prove themselves able to withstand the seductions of desires or fears as might becloud or confuse this belief.

Socrates and his companions seem to take it for granted that only a few of the would-be guardians will satisfy this criterion; when put to the test, the rest will prove not to be so reliable after all. And yet Socrates also assumes that these unreliable ones, too — or some of them, anyway — must be kept in the service of the city.  For reasons not yet explained, the true guardians must count on retaining the help and support of the others.

(A part of the equation that emerges only later in the Republic: those who bear arms for the city are younger than the true guardians — too young to have been fully tested.  Socrates cannot explain this properly at this point in the dialogue, for it is only later, in Book VII, that we are given the reason why the true guardians will have to be much older men and women – it takes that long to be educated as a philosopher, to show oneself worthy of that education.)

The device is needed, Socrates implies, precisely because the armed cohort otherwise cannot be counted upon to identify their own best interest with that of the city; the myth of the metals is to fortify that identification by appealing to their sense of honor — that same ‘spiritedness’ which is the outstanding trait of this caste.

Although Socrates recommends having the noble lie propagated everywhere in the city, this is chiefly in order to increase the likelihood that it will take hold among the warrior caste. It’s a drastic solution, and it isn’t so clear that Socrates himself thinks it’s likely to work. What’s interesting is that he’s so acutely aware of the peril in the problem.

“The most terrible and most shameful thing of all is for a shepherd to rear dogs to help him with his flocks in such a way that… they do evil to the sheep and become like wolves instead of dogs.”

δεινότατον γάρ που πάντων καὶ αἴσχιστον ποιμέσι τοιούτους γε καὶ οὕτω τρέφειν κύνας ἐπικούρους ποιμνίων, ὥστε ὑπὸ ἀκολασίας ἢ λιμοῦ ἤ τινος ἄλλου κακοῦ ἔθους αὐτοὺς τοὺς κύνας ἐπιχειρῆσαι τοῖς προβάτοις κακουργεῖν καὶ ἀντὶ κυνῶν λύκοις ὁμοιωθῆναι.

Republic 416a

Laws of Nature in De Cive and Leviathan

Fourth in a series.

The first two posts in this series sketched my proposal for reading Hobbes’s moral theory in Leviathan, together with some remarks on the bearing of that theory on the book’s political argument.  In the third, I pointed out some discreet, but decisive differences between Leviathan‘s Laws of Nature and their antecedents in De Cive, Hobbes’s earlier treatise in Latin.  De Cive’s Fundamental Law of Nature is formulated as a twofold dictate of instrumental reason, addressed to the singular agent’s strategic self-interest: “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).   The Fundamental Law in Leviathan is instead a general norm for social interaction, concerned solely with the furtherance of peace: “Seek peace, and Follow it.” Leviathan’s argument on behalf of this rule is held studiously apart from strategic or instrumental considerations.  In De Cive, the desirability of peace is subordinate to the self-regarding agent’s bedrock interest in his self-preservation.  In Leviathan, that conceptual priority is inverted.   Hobbes posits a prima facie right to self-regarding, self-defensive behavior, but this right is conditioned by the positive requirements of peaceable social intercourse.  Only where there is no prospect of peace does Hobbes now grant men unlimited rein in their self-defensive measures. It is ultimately in the interest of peace that this so-called “right of nature” is affirmed.

I ended the previous post by observing that Hobbes’s reconception of the Fundamental Law makes for a decisive shift in his treatment of his other Laws of Nature as well.   The various specific Laws of Nature in  De Cive are supposed to hold good both as rules for living in peace, and also as the surest means for obtaining advantage in war (i.e., acquiring allies or confederates).  This  had the effect of leaving them  hostage to a simplistic, ad hoc hypothesis concerning the strategic balance of power (i.e., safety in numbers). It also implied that peace was of no more than instrumental value.  Both implications are avoided in Leviathan.  Hobbes now offers his specific Laws of Nature as “Articles of Peace” — protocols of peaceable social interaction, without regard to any given agent’s self-regarding interests or strategic advantage.

To see how this difference plays itself out, consider how  Hobbes has altered the Law which enjoins the making of covenants, requiring men to accept certain limits to their natural liberty.   (To forestall a confusion over Hobbes’s numbering of the relevant rule in the two books:  Whereas in Leviathan, this is known as the Second Law of Nature, as the next in the sequence after the Fundamental Law, in De Cive the numerical sequence begins only after that book’s version of the Fundamental Law, with this particular precept at the head of the series, numbered First.)  De Cive’s version of this Law is simple and open-ended. “That the right of all men, to all things, ought not to be retain’d, but that some certain rights ought to be transferr’d, or relinquisht.” (“ius omnium in omnia retinendum non esse, sed iura quaedam transferenda, vel relinquenda esse” DC 2.3.)  Notice that nothing is said in the rule about when men’s natural rights should be waived, nor to whom.   As the rule owes its rationale to strategic considerations, then so too, presumably, does its application.  After all,  If the reason one is to seek peace is that the solitary individual is too weak to protect himself against others’ assaults, then it is presumably the consideration of one’s relative weakness that ought to dictate whether submission is proper. Nothing is said, in the earlier formulations, of what one is to expect in return.  Peace is the rational course of action of those too weak to rely on their strength; the strong are at their discretion to do otherwise. The natural inference would be that the weak are to submit to the strong, the isolated to the more numerous and better organized.

Leviathan’s Second Law of Nature is different.  “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 right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”  There is a built-in principle of reciprocity: The directive to abandon or surrender one’s natural liberty is now limited to the condition in which one is met with others’ readiness to do the same.  Hobbes goes on to observe that the underlying principle here is none other than

that Law of the Gospell; Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that ye do to them.  And that Law of all men, Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri non feceris  [i.e., “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe,” as Hobbes renders it elsewhere].  (Leviathan, ch. 14.)

As I’ve noted before, Hobbes’s argument here is concerned solely with identifying requirements for peaceable interaction, independent of strategic or prudential factors.  Thus specified, those requirements would be fully satisfied by men’s agreement to a truce — which may or may not make anyone safer (depending on the parties’ continuing good will, among other factors).   The reference to the parties’ concern to provide for their own self-defense does not mean that this is the rule’s underlying rationale.  All it means — in the context of the  built-in principle of reciprocity —  is that the parties’ concern for their safety is to be acknowledged as legitimate, no bar to their putative peaceableness.   Hobbes makes a point of explaining that the reason why concessions must be mutual, is  to ensure that weak not be made to suffer the bullying or intransigence of the strong: “if other men will not lay down their Right, as well as he; then there is no Reason for any one, to devest himsefle of his: for that were to expose himself to Prey (which no man is bound to) rather than to dispose himself to Peace.” Note that Hobbes’s specific concern in this statement is to clarify what counts  as a peaceable disposition  — which also amounts to clarifying the condition under which the rules of peaceable conduct apply.  It is other men’s readiness to lay down their arms that constitutes the condition in which it is incumbent on those who would wish to be taken for peaceable to show themselves ready to do the same, in like measure.  (In the absence of this, Hobbes believes, it is morally senseless to demand of the peaceable that they make unilateral concessions.  Actually, it is worse than senseless: it is positively obnoxious.)

The basic difference in Hobbes’s reasoning in the two books is somewhat masked by the fact that in De Cive, too, he eventually introduces a norm of reciprocity.  De Cive’s Eighth Law of Nature holds that men are to be counted equal by nature; the Ninth, that whatever rights any man retain for himself, be granted to others as well.  (These same Laws appear in Leviathan, numbered Ninth and Tenth, respectively.)  In explaining these rules — unlike in the case of Leviathan’s Second Law —  Hobbes supplies a rationale that  amounts to a prudential consideration: those who claim unequal rights for themselves will inevitably find those claims contested, and can’t be so sure of always coming out on top in a fight.   (Much same rationale appears on behalf of the corresponding rules of Leviathan – but that seems a case of authorial laziness, re-using an earlier passage with nothing much staked on it.)   The point is that Hobbes needs some such prudential argument in De Cive, if the book’s Laws of Nature are to bear any semblance to familiar moral norms.  He need no longer be burdened by this in Leviathan. 

As I noted in the previous post, Hobbes concludes De Cive’s account of the Laws of Nature with the reminder that every one of those Laws is “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).  This statement is omitted from the corresponding paragraph in Leviathan, with good reason.  That summative paragraph differs from its antecedent in De Cive in other ways as well.  In both versions, Hobbes refers to the same norm of reciprocity that (as we’ve seen) he also invokes in Leviathan with reference to the Second Law: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe.” (In his 1668 Latin translation of Leviathan, Hobbes also quotes the Golden Rule in this passage.)  But the similarity ends there.

The paragraph in De Cive is concerned the question of why men so often fail to honor these rules, when it is their own self-interest at stake.  Hobbes’s answer is rather conventional: men’s judgments are often swayed by short-sighted, irrational passions. He introduces the maxim of reciprocity as the heuristic device by which we are able, when calm, to correct for this irrationality. The idea is that how we treat others is a reliable predictor of how they are likely to treat us: those to whom harm is done, do harm in return. (A subsequent paragraph elaborates further, identifying rationality with a lucid appraisal of the future consequences of one’s acts.)

Hobbes drops all of this when rewriting this paragraph for Leviathan. Instead,  the precept of reciprocity is now simply offered as the epitome of the various specific Laws, a handy formula into which they are all ‘contracted.’  This is just to reiterate what he has argued throughout, having already introduced this same maxim in his gloss on the Second Law of Nature. So this now is Hobbes’s concluding reminder of the principle underlying his account (as the statement about the paramount dictate of self-preservation had been in the earlier book.)  In De Cive the maxim had been endorsed as an aid to men’s self-interested deliberations. In Leviathan, Hobbes treats it instead as a device for keeping one’s own “selfe-love” from tipping the scales when “weighing the actions of other men with his own.” Not the rationality, but the reasonableness of human conduct is now what hangs in the balance  — and it’s the assessment of other mens conduct that Hobbes now puts at the forefront of his concern as a moral theorist.


Preceding posts in this series:

  1. Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal
  2. Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan
  3. Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan

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.


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.