Lesson 5: The Political Sweep of the Modern Project: Hobbes

A. Basic Themes

There is scholarly dispute over the historical origin of moral and political discourse involving rights. Richard Tuck, for example, traces the origin back to the late medieval ages and the theology of Jean Gerson, who in a work published in 1402 first assimilated the term "ius", that is justice or right, to the term "libertas" or freedom [2]. As Tuck explains, this is one of the first appearances of the idea of an active right, a right that does not have a strict correlative duty, thereby implying that right is a dominion over something to use as one pleases. Human freedom becomes the fundamental moral fact, not virtue, or divine command. The development of such a notion wound its way through late medieval nominalism and became the main theme of Hugo Grotius, John Seldon, and finally to Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes' work, especially Leviathan, is usually the marked as the turning point from the ancient natural right or natural law to the modern account of natural rights [3]. Hobbes most articulately challenged the fundamental presuppositions of the Thomistic synthesis of Biblical Theology and Aristotelian Philosophy such as the sociability of man and the possibility of a common good, the existence of a highest good in virtue and contemplation, and the natural law derived from such human teleology. Hobbes, rather, began with a state of nature as a state of war, the futility of seeking a good higher than the pleasant preservation of the individual, i.e., comfortable self-preservation, and a natural law clearly derivative from more fundamental rights of nature such as the right to self-preservation. Following the early lead of Gerson, Hobbes defines "right of nature" (ius naturale) as "the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own nature" [4]. Hobbes clearly distinguishes right (ius) from law (lex) - "right, consisteth in liberty to do, or forbeare; whereas Law, determineth, and bindeth to one them; so that Law, and Right, differ as much, as Obligation, and Liberty." For Hobbes, right, i.e., liberty, clearly takes precedent over law, i.e., obligation. The fundamental right or liberty of the self is unbounded or unlimited by anything; by the fundamental right of preservation, each man has a right to everything and anything done in the pursuit of preservation is without blame. The intolerable conflicts between individuals however amounts to a state of war. It is reasonable, therefore, to limit ones claim to things for the sake of self-protection. Morality exists by way of contract. Morality is a rational deduction of moral rules from the right of self-preservation [5]. Hobbes' defense of individual rights required the existence of an absolute power in society to keep all potential wrongdoers in a state of awe such that they would obey the law. Hobbes' account was shocking in so many ways, not the least of which was its implicit anti-theistic philosophy, that it was frequently decried and banned. The direct contrast between Hobbes and the biblical and philosophical accounts of moral and political order would in many ways be the easiest approach to take to the philosophical questions about rights.

Thus, Thomas Hobbes developed a new type of ethical inquiry; he shifted the emphasis from duty and virtue to individual rights; he shifted from sociability to individual liberty as the primary characteristic of human nature; and he lowered to goal of ethics from human perfection and religious goals to comfortable self-preservation. Natural rights inquiry traces moral obligation back to a social contract in which the individual rights to life, liberty, and property (or pursuit of happiness) are protected through common agreement. The norm simply stated is to refrain from harming another in life, liberty or property: each person thus has the right to live as he or she pleases as long as they grant that same equal right to others. It may be said to be a negative morality or a minimalist morality because it reduces morality to a much narrower scope and because it proceeds on the assumption of a "thin theory of human good". With this theory of human good, a substantive account of human perfection is replaced with a procedural account comprised of goods that any one would desire whatever their life plan or goals. Without an agreement to protect such goods as life, liberty and property no one would be safe or secure. This type of inquiry has exerted tremendous influence upon American mores.

The strengths of the liberal natural rights approach are obvious. It does not depend upon contentious religious or metaphysical principles. Further, it promotes tolerance and human freedom and escapes from the dogmatism and intolerance of the pre-modern traditions. On the one hand, it appears to defend fundamental human dignity and on the other it is clear to reason and easily adapted to self-interest.

But there are many problems with the system of natural rights. It is hard to determine who is the bearer of the rights and what precisely are the rights thus held. It places self-interest and individual rights as the first principles of the inquiry. It is based on a theory of human nature which is atomistic and fails to account for the social nature and social duties of human persons. It tends to reduce morality to the matter of civil law and thus leaves out of purview a wide range of important issues regarding human perfection and happiness and perhaps even erases the distinction between a noble or base conception of human life and striving.

2. Richard Tuck, Natural rights theories: Their origin and development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 24-31.

3. See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952); What is Political Philosophy?, (New York: Free Press, 1959); Richard Tuck, Hobbes, (New York: Oxford, 1989); C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962); David Johnson, The Rhetoric of Leviathan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Ian Shapiro, The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

4. Leviathan, chapter 14. In the Penguin edition edited by C. B. MacPherson (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 189.

5. See Hobbes, Leviathan; see also Richard Tuck, Hobbes and Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History.


1. Hobbes Leviathan - Questions for Reading and Review

  • 1. How does Hobbes define "good"?
  • 2. What is happiness? Is there a highest good?
  • 3. What is power? How is it integral to human striving?
  • 4. What are the reasons for considering all men equal?
  • 5. How does this give rise to equality of hope? And what follows from equal hope?
  • 6. What are the three causes for quarrel?
  • 7. What is the state of war?
  • 8. What are the effects of a state of war?
  • 9. What are some examples of a state of war?
  • 10. What is the status of morality in a state of war? what passions incline men to peace?
  • 11. What is THE Right of Nature? What is its extent in a state of war?
  • 12. How is liberty defined?
  • 13. Which rights are "inalienable"? Why?
  • 14. What is natural law? What is the difference of right and law?
  • 15. What is the first law of nature? Explain each part.
  • 16. What is the second law of nature? How is it like the Golden rule?
  • 17. What is the original meaning of injustice? What rights can never be given away (alienated)? Why?
  • 18. What is the ultimate source of obligation and duty? What gives a duty its binding power?
  • 19. What is a contract? A covenant? What is performance or failure to perform called?
  • 20. What are the conditions for keeping a contract? What conditions make it void? Why are certain covenants void or invalid? (Inalienable rights) of what use are oaths? Explain.
  • 21. What is the third law of nature?
  • 22. What is the origin of justice? Explain the role of commonwealth.
  • 23. Why keep contracts? What if you get away with breaking it?
  • 24. What is the source of value of things? People?
  • 25. Explain the origin of gratitude (law 4), sociability (law 5), pardon (law 6), revenge (law 7), and contempt?
  • 26. Explain the rationale for the procedural problems known as equity, arbitration, and partiality?
  • 27. What is the touchstone or motto for natural law? Compare this with the Christian Golden Rule.
  • 28. In what sense do the laws bind? Difference between in foro interno/in foro externo; in what sense are they eternal laws? Are natural laws really laws? Explain.
  • 29. What is the liberty of the subject?
  • 30. How does Hobbes treat issues of the soldier's courage?
  • 31. In what situations is the subject free of obedience?

2. Outline For Hobbes, The Leviathan







1. Hobbes, six lessons to the Professors of the Mathematics

Hobbes, six lessons to the Professors of the Mathematics, Ep. ded.:

Of art some are demonstrable, others indemonstrable; and demonstrable are those the construction of the subject whereof is in the power of the artist himself, who, in his demonstration, does no more but deduce the consequences of his own operation. The reason whereof is this, that the science of every subject is derived from a precognition of the causes, generation, and construction of the same; and consequently where the causes are known, there is place for demonstration, but not where the causes are to seek for. Geometry therefore is demonstrable, for the lines and figures from which we reason are drawn and described by ourselves; and civil philosophy is demonstrable, because we make the commonwealth ourselves. But because of natural bodies we know not the construction, but seek it from the effects, there lies no demonstration of what the causes be we seek for, but only of what they may be.

2. Hobbes, De Corpore politico

Hobbes, De corpore politico II, 10, 8

It was necessary there should be a common measure of all things, that might fall in controversy...This common measure, some say, is right reason: with whom I should consent, if there were any such thing to be found or known in rerum natura. But commonly they that call for right reason to decide any controversy, do mean their own. But this is certain, seeing right reason is not existent, the reason of some man or men must supply the place thereof; and that man or men, is he or they, that have the sovereign power....

3. Hobbes, Vita carmine expressa

Hobbes, Vita carmine expressa, authore seipso, Molesworth I, lxxxix.

And it seemed to me that there was a single true thing in all the world, although falsified in many ways: a single true thing which is the foundation of those things which we falsely say to be something; such flitting things as sleep has, and things which I can multiply by mirrors as I choose; fantasies, offspring of our brain, nothing without, nothing in the parts within but motion.

4. Hobbes, Leviathan

Hobbes, Leviathan XXXI.

The right of nature, whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be derived, not from his creating them, as if he required obedience as of gratitude for his benefits; but from his irresistible power...the right of afflicting men at his pleasure, belongeth naturally of God Almighty; not as Creator, and gracious; but as omnipotent.

Leviathan VI

For there is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.

Leviathan XIII.

The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them.

5. Hobbes, On Body

Concerning Body VII,1

The end of knowledge is power...the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done. In teaching of natural philosophy, I cannot begin better (as I have already shown) than from privation; that is, from feigning the world to be annihilated... We compute nothing but our own phantasms.

6. George Grant English Speaking Justice

While the theoretical foundations of our justice came increasingly to be understood as simply contractual, nevertheless decent legal justice was sustained in our regimes. This can only be comprehended in terms of the intimate and yet ambiguous co-penetration between contractual liberalism and Protestantism in the minds of generations of our people.

It is more important to recognize the dependence of secular liberalism for its moral bite upon the strength of Protestantism in English-speaking societies. Most of our history is written by secularists who see the significant happening as the development of secular liberalism. They are therefore likely to interpret the Protestants as passing if useful allies in the realization of our modern regimes. This allows them to patronize Protestant superstitions in a friendly manner, as historically helpful in the development of secularism. To put the ethical relation clearly: if avoidance of death is our highest end (albeit negative), why should anyone make sacrifices for the common good which entail that possibility? Why should anyone choose to be a soldier or a policeman, if Lockean contractualism is the truth about justice? Yet such professions are necessary if any approximations to justice are to be maintained. Within a contractualist belief, why should anyone care about the reign of justice more than their life? The believing Protestants provided the necessary moral cement which could not be present for those who consistently directed by contractualism or utilitarianism or a combination of both. This fundamental political vacuum at the heart of contractual liberalism was hidden for many generations by the widespread acceptance of Protestantism. At one and the same time believing Protestants were likely to back their constitutional regimes; yet they backed them without believing that the avoidance of violent death was the highest good, or that justice was to be chosen simply as the most convenient contract.

As Protestants accepted the liberalism of autonomous will, they became unable to provide their societies with the public sustenance of uncalculated justice which the contractual account of justice could not provide from itself.

Most intellectuals in our societies scorned the fundamental beliefs of the public religion, and yet counted on the continuance of its moral affirmations to serve as the convenient public basis of justice. Clever people generally believed that the foundational principles of justice were chosen conveniences, because of what they had learnt from modern science; nevertheless they could not turn away from a noble content to that justice, because they were enfolded more than they knew in long memories and hopes.

George Parkin Grant English-Speaking Justice Notre Dame Press, 1985, pp. 58-68


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