Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: I.XIV


In this chapter Hobbes gives us three definitions which are central to his view of the state of nature, and so central to his view of politics. First, we have natural right:

The Right of Nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, 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, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto. (XIV.1)

The basic and fundamental rule of human existence as relevant to the state is that we have a right to defend ourselves.

The second definition is that of liberty; specifically Hobbes is concerned with negative liberty:

By Liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments, which impediments may oft take away part of a man’s power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according as his judgment and reason shall dictate to him. (XIV.2)

So long as there is no external opposition to our actions, we are understood to be free. Even when there are such external “impediments” which might keep us from acting in every way as we wish, we are never truly universally restrained—we always have some flexibility, some “power left” to exercise according to our own desires.

The third definition is of natural law:

A Law of Nature (lex naturalis) is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. (XIV.3)

The distinction Hobbes draws between natural “right” and natural “law” is the difference between description and proscription. Natural rights are the things which we can do; natural laws define those things which we ought to do. And so the definition of “liberty” gets subsumed under the definition of “right,” for our ability to act—whether in defense of our lives or otherwise—is descriptive; only how we should act can be normative.

When we set the idea of natural right and freedom next to the idea of natural law, we see a tension between the two which no doubt we all recognize even from our daily lives—just because we can do something by no means suggests that we ought to do something. There may be in my town no law on the books forbidding me from driving down the street screaming profanities at passers-by, but the absence of such a law does not mean that I should go out of my way to do so.

What’s more, when we set this tension between right and law in the context of the war of all against all that exists in a state of nature, we come to the conclusion that “in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (XIV.4). While we don’t want to try too hard to systematize Hobbes, I think we can see something of how he comes to this conclusion. If all of us are driven by our passions, and our passions are based on the desire for power, and if we have a natural right to defend ourselves, what better way is there to defend ourselves than by seizing control of the persons or things we fear most? This may mean slavery, this may mean murder, this may mean any number of things, but if anything goes in the game of self defense and if there is nothing more human than the thirst for power, then Hobbes’s conclusion makes sense.

Of course, if we all are always trying to control or destroy each other because of how we are as human beings, we must conclude that “there can be no security to any man (how strong or wise soever he be) of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live” (XIV.4). You and I will never truly be safe as long as we are constantly circling each other, waiting on the other to drop his guard slightly so that we can move in for the kill. Which leads Hobbes to the quite reasonable conclusion

that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is by all means we can, to defend ourselves. (XIV.4)

So the first natural law is that we ought to seek peace, without necessarily giving up the reality that we wish to defend ourselves. But how can these seemingly mutually exclusive goals be accomplished? This leads Hobbes to the second natural law:

that man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. (XIV.5)

Out of the universal human desire for self-defense, we should mutually agree to a cease-fire that is beneficial to all. The rule that Hobbes tries to twist so that it contains this principle is the Golden Rule. As the editor of the Hackett edition points out, Hobbes makes the Golden Rule conditional, where Christ suggests that it applies regardless of whether it is obeyed by the opposing party. Moreover, we should notice that the Golden Rule itself is a positive command to do, where Hobbes makes it into a negative do not.

His poor scriptural exegesis aside, Hobbes in the second law of nature has laid the foundation for the authority of the state. And so he spends a good deal of time talking about what exactly it means to lay down our rights. The process itself is simple: by word, action, or both we renounce our rights either 1) without regard to who receives them or 2) specifically to another party. Once we have done that, we have agreed to “divest [ourselves] of the liberty of hindering another of the benefit of his own right…” (XIV.6). In other words, when we give up our rights to someone, that someone has more freedom as a consequence, and we receive a good of some sort in return for the freedom we have lost.

This whole process of transferring rights Hobbes calls variously contract, covenant, or gift, depending on the nature of the transfer. Given his emphasis on words earlier in the Leviathan, it should be no surprise to us that Hobbes spends so much time working out the definitions of different kinds of transferences of rights and the sorts of signs that attend each. We won’t go through all of these and instead will focus on the method of transferring rights that Hobbes settles on: the covenant.

“Covenant” is a word that in Hobbes’s time was becoming increasingly central in English Protestant theology. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that

The first covenant made [by God] with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” (WCF VII.2)

Hobbes takes some ideas from this—the idea of a set of obligations on each party within the covenant, for example—and moves in a different direction. The characteristics of a Hobbesian covenant include (and please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed one):

1) Obligation on each party involved—if there is a higher power to enforce the terms of the covenant these obligations stand, if not the covenant dissolves on the failure of one party to fulfill it (XIV.18).
2) Inclusion of all implied-but-unstated means necessary to the agreed upon end. “…They that give to a man the right of government in sovereignty are understood to give him the right of levying money to maintain soldiers,” etc. (XIV.21).
3) Rational actors and mutual consent—there can be no covenant with animals (XIV.22).
4) Exclusion of divinity from non-Biblical covenants (XIV.23).
5) Grounded in real possibilities, rather than fantasy; “…to promise that which is known to be impossible is no covenant” (XIV.25).
6) Consent of both parties, however gained. “Covenants entered into by fear… are obligatory…” because they are still entered into (XIV.26–27).
7) May not conflict with an earlier covenant (XIV.28).
8) May not transfer nontransferable rights, such as the right to self-defense (XIV.29–30).
9) Need not involve an oath (XIV.31–33).

We should reemphasize that there are of course some rights which cannot be surrendered even by covenant. Likewise, when we make an agreement with someone else, we are assuming some portion of good to ourselves in response. If that good is not delivered, or if we have misunderstood the nature of the agreement, or if we are assaulted, the contract does not stand in such instances. For example, I might agree that the police department ought to handle dispensing justice in my town, but if someone breaks into my house and starts shooting, my agreement with the police in no way has taken away my right to defend myself and my family. We might say this is an irrational inconsistency in Hobbes (and be perfectly right in doing so), but I suspect here we have a case of good English common sense breaking through in an attempt to anticipate criticisms of “but what if someone attacks me in a dark alley and I’ve given up the right of self-defense?” Of course Hobbes doesn’t mean you can’t fight back if attacked, hence the disclaimer of nontransferable rights in XIV.8.

One last thing to note in closing—all of this “covenant” business takes place in the context of the state of nature. The “state” is not exactly a covenant as such, so much as it is the entity that takes over when covenants fail to do what we wish them to do in a state of nature. Hobbes seems to believe that covenants without a greater power than both parties enforcing them only hold together through fear of man and fear of God—neither of which is necessarily strong enough to overcome our desire to do what we want regardless of having given our word in a covenant:

So that before the time of civil society, or in the interruption thereof by war, there is nothing can strengthen a covenant of peace agreed on, against the temptations of avarice, ambition, lust, or other strong desire, but the fear of that invisible power which they every one worship as God and fear as a revenger of their perfidy. (XIV.31)

And we all know how much the average human being fears God, which in turn further reinforces Hobbes’s argument for why we need a state to pull us out of the state of nature.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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