3.1. The State of Nature among Individuals
In th Leviathan
, Hobbes famously presents his thought experiment about what life would be like had there not been a civil state regulating individual behavior; it would be a war of all against all, characterized as a “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” [4
] (p. 89). Because there are no laws there is no justice or injustice. With the introduction of the civil state, comes the introduction of justice and injustice. Life in the state of nature is detrimental to the well-being of the individual. As such, it is intolerable and the only way to end it is to establish laws, or sovereign power, and this is what the individuals in the state of nature decide to do.
Scholars do not agree on how to interpret the transition from the state of nature to the civil state. Most scholars read Leviathan
with the assumption that one of Hobbes’ goals is to improve his philosophical anthropology, i.e., an investigation of human nature, as is the case with the Elementa
]. Thus, scholars try to understand what Leviathan
tells us about the human mind.
Jean Hampton uses rational-choice theory to point out that Hobbes fails in giving a plausible argument for the transition from the state of nature to the civil state [17
]. There is no trust among the individuals in the state of nature, therefore, any form of cooperation would be impossible. On the other hand, Alan Ryan argues that natural man is not a utility-maximizer, as suggested by rational-choice theory, but rather a disaster-avoider [18
], i.e., someone who does whatever needed in order to avoid disaster. This, then, serves as part of the explanation for how the civil state comes into being; natural man does whatever it takes to avoid disaster, and in the state of nature they realize that establishing positive laws is the only way to avoid disaster. Knud Haakonssen points out that natural man is mainly interested in living a good life, but because there is no trust in the state of nature, it is impossible to do this [19
] (pp. 31–36). In this regard, Hobbes talks about diffidence, glory, and competition as the main causes for quarrel [2
] (p. 88). Diffidence is what makes natural man constantly strive for security in their own life, and is, thus, an obstacle to living a good life, whatever that might be. This interpretation suggests that man is not by nature power-seeking and self-centered, as suggested by for instance Morgenthau [12
The discussion on the transition from the state of nature to civil state is, however, not something that Hobbes was particularly interested in. According to Arash Abizadeh Hobbes was more concerned “with the commonwealth’s subversion and dissolution” [6
] (p. 312). Understanding the passions, and the role they play in human agency is important, but it is a mistake, Abizadeh argues, to think of Hobbes as a “…psychological reductionist according to whom there exists a passion that always
trumps the others.” [6
]. What is more, Abizadeh holds that “Nor did Hobbes think that the relative strength of each passion is invariantly determined by humans’ natural condition” [6
] (p. 310). In addition to the passions, a number of other factors, such as ideology and socialization, are crucial for understanding the causes of war: “Hobbes believed that the ideological basis of war in his century could be traced to a culture that spawned endless disputes over rationally irresolvable and often obscure trivial matters, inflamed the passion for glory, and cultivated fear for the wrong objects” [6
] (pp. 312–313). If this is right, we can learn from Hobbes’ theory that to avoid war today we need to understand our own cultures and ideologies and the ways in which they “inflame” our passions. This means, or so I suggest, that understanding the current reasons for why we need regulating laws is crucial if we are to succeed in establishing laws and norms that actually answer to the challenges we face, such as for instance violations of human rights.
Abizadeh’s argument is interesting because it sheds light on the richness and complexities of Hobbes’ Leviathan.
This squares well with Ursula Renz’ point that Leviathan
is not analytical in spirit, but educational: “The goal is not to examine the human mind, but to teach the reader about the properties of her own mind” [7
] (p. 5). She points out that the introduction to Leviathan
is important with regard to understanding the message of the book: Nosce teipsum
, Know thyself
was meant to “teach us, that for the similitude of the thoughts, and Passions of one man, to the thoughts, and Passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself, and considereth what he doth, when he does think
, &c, and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts, and Passions of all other men, upon the like occasions” [4
] (p. 10).
The audience of Leviathan
, Renz points out, are individuals who are interested in politics. This has consequences for how Leviathan
should be understood, as it makes clear that the purpose of the treatise is to convince the reader of the main message, namely that man is an agent who deliberately creates the state. That man is the creator of the state does not contradict Hobbes’ overall naturalistic and mechanistic philosophy, as for Hobbes man is both the matter and the creator of the state: “It thus seems crucial for Hobbes’ educational project that the reader see how man, notwithstanding his behavior being caused by
mere matter and motion, can be understood as a cause
in his own right, that is, as the more active and practically efficacious manner that seems implied in the notion of man as the artificier
of the state” [7
] (pp. 8–9). This is a nice reminder for anyone who is interested in understanding Hobbes’ political theory, as it provides a framework for the interpretation that pinpoints Hobbes’ motivation, namely to show that human beings play an important role, through their choice, in how to organize sovereignty so as to avoid war. This point is often overlooked by realist thinkers as they seem to have a perspective that the power politics is somewhat not something that can be changed by human beings.
There is of course a lot more to be said about Renz’ argument. The extent to which her interpretation of Hobbes’ epistemology makes sense, and the extent to whether it fits within Hobbes’ philosophical theories in general are topics that need a separate discussion. Despite this, there is something to be said for Renz’ insistence that Leviathan should be read on its own terms, with a view to what we can plausibly believe was Hobbes’ intention. This intention, I believe, must be understood in light of who Hobbes was writing for, i.e., people interested in politics, and with the aim of underlining that man is an agent who deliberately makes the state. An educational reading of Leviathan is, thus, fruitful because it teaches the reader about themselves, and by extension of others. This is helpful with regard to finding the best conclusions on how to organize political power.
There is no doubt that reading Leviathan in accordance with Abizadeh and Renz provides interesting insights into Hobbes’ political theory. What we learn from this is to pay attention to the context in which Hobbes was writing, and the role this plays in interpreting Leviathan. As Abizadeh pinpoints, culture and ideology nurture the passions. This means that human action and decision are not just a result of the passions, or rationality for that sake, but the ways in which the passions inform human behavior are dependent upon the context. Together with Renz’ point that, despite Hobbes’ mechanistic and naturalistic philosophy, the state is the result of human deliberation, it follows that one important message to learn from Leviathan is that the conclusion of how to organize civil life should be a result of the reasons for why we need civil life. More needs to be said about these reasons, however, and this can be done by examining the role of the natural laws.
3.2. Natural Laws
Hobbes’ view of the natural laws is of crucial importance for his political theory. Scholars agree that the natural laws play an important role in the sense that they inspire individuals to submit to political authority, but they do not agree on whether they are rules of reason or divine commands or something else [19
] (p. 32). Hobbes’ legal theory has traces from both the natural law tradition and the positivist tradition, and he cannot be categorized easily in this landscape. Positive laws, for Hobbes, are legitimate insofar as they are made by the sovereign; as such, he belongs to the tradition of legal positivism. The claim expressed by, among others, St. Augustine that “an unjust law is not a law at all” [20
] makes no sense for Hobbes. For him, the content of positive law is not drawn from the natural laws, as is the case for natural law thinkers like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. For Hobbes, justice is first introduced in the civil state and is defined as keeping the covenant: “And the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not Performance of Covenant.
And whatsoever is not Unjust, is Just
] (p. 100). Yet, to the question about why
we need sovereign power, Hobbes appeals to the natural laws. The sovereign power comes into being because the individuals in the state of nature realize that they need political power to be safe and therefore they establish sovereign power. This is not to suggest, however, that Hobbes is in agreement with, e.g., H.L.A. Hart, who, without talking about natural laws, points out that there are natural reasons, so to speak, for why we need a legal system [21
]. For Hobbes, there is a peculiar relationship between civil law and natural law. It is important to get a grasp on this as it has an important role in Hobbes’ view of international relations. A thorough interpretation of this relationship is a study in and of itself. In this paper, therefore, I will look mainly at David Undersrud’s interpretation [8
] as it provides an argument for the ways in which Hobbes may be understood as a natural law theorist in his own right. Undersrud argues that “the sole role of the laws of nature is to provide the foundation of validity of the civil jurisprudence per se
] (p. 716) and this external foundation of the civil jurisdiction “is based on an in foro externo
obligation of obedience to civil law” [8
] (p. 716). In doing this, Undersrud argues against the view that Hobbes’ laws of nature should be understood as divine commands, as argued for by Martinich. What is more, he refutes the idea that civil laws and natural laws exist side by side, as argued for by Warrender. What allows him to do this, is a careful analysis of what Hobbes means by reason; natural and civil law; and obligation.
3.4. Laws of Nature, Civil Laws, and Obligation
A law of nature is, according to Hobbes, “…a Precept, or generall 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” [4
] (p. 91). Here, one might get the impression that a law of nature is a law in the same way as a civil law is a law, namely, something that one must abide by if one wants to avoid punishment. This, however, is not the case. As Undersrud points out, the reason for this is to be found a little later in Leviathan
: “These dictates of Reason, men use to call by the name of Lawes, but improperly: for they are but Conclusions, or Theoremes concerning what conduseth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas Law, properly is the word of him, that by right hath command over others” [4
] (p. 111). This means that natural laws and civil laws are different kinds of laws, the former are conclusions whereas the latter are commands. This means, among other things, that the laws of nature do not have the same kind of legal force as the civil laws. However, it is due to the natural laws that we have civil laws, as the latter is the means to establish peace, as expressed in the first law of nature. As such, the laws of nature validate the civil laws without providing any specific content for them. This point is the reason for why Hobbes is a natural law theorist and not a legal positivist. What is more, for Hobbes, the ultimate reason for why civil laws bind in foro externo is to be found in the third law of nature (which is derived from the first): “That men performe their Covenants made: without which Covenants are in vain, and but Empty words; and the Right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of Warre” [4
] (p. 100). This, as well, underlines that Hobbes is a natural law theorist and not a legal positivist. The third law of nature is the reason why individuals are bound by the civil law. And the civil law exists, as mentioned, because it is the means to the given end, namely peace. As such, natural law is what validates the legal and political system in Hobbes’ theory.
There is an in foro externo obligation to abide by the civil law, and this is provided by the natural laws, but there is no in foro externo obligation to the natural laws. There is, however, an in foro interno obligation toward the natural laws [4
] (p. 110). Although there is no punishment involved in breaking the natural laws, it would, nevertheless, be irrational as it would be contrary to peace, and, thus, contrary to self-preservation. One might argue that this is not interesting as the natural laws have no practical consequences for political life. However, this does not mean that they play no role. As we have already seen, Undersrud argues that the natural laws are the foundation for civil laws, without giving content to the civil laws.3
Although the civil laws are introduced locally and not globally, so to speak, it does not follow that their introduction is of no importance regarding international relations, and it is to this we now turn.