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HOBBES: THE
LAWS OF NATURE*

DAVID GAUTHIER
Abstract: Are Hobbess laws of nature to be understood primarily as theorems
of reason, or as commands of God, or as commands of the civil sovereign?
Each of these accounts can be given textual support; each identifies a role
that the laws may be thought to play. Examining the full range of textual
references, discussing the place of the laws of nature in Hobbess argument,
and considering how the laws may be known, give strongest support to the
first of the three accounts, that the laws are primarily rational precepts and
only secondarily civil and divine commands.

1.
How shall we think of the laws of nature, as they occur in Hobbess moral
and political thought? As not known by men for any thing but their own
natural reason, . . . [and so] but theorems, tending to peace, and those
uncertain, as being but conclusions of particular men? (IV.2845)1 As
delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things?
(15.41) As the commands of the commonwealth, and therefore also civil
laws; for it is the sovereign power that obliges men to obey them? (26.8)
Hobbes offers all of these answers. Each may be defended as conveying
the heart of his account of the laws of nature by a selective appeal to his
writings. But what may be concluded from a more comprehensive appeal?
In this essay I shall examine Hobbess account of and references to the
laws of nature in the English version of Leviathan, in the Latin version
where it differs from the English, and in his disputations with Bishop
Bramhall. Hobbes began writing Leviathan about 1646, and published
the English version in 1651. My primary concern is with his treatment of
the laws of nature in that work, but his subsequent writings will aid us in
interpreting it. Bramhall published a reply to Hobbess account of liberty
and necessity in 1655, and Hobbes responded in 1656; this contains a
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 (2001) 258284
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remarkable attempt to base all law, the laws of nature included, in assent.
Bramhall then published a critique of Leviathan in 1658, and Hobbes
responded in 1668, directly elucidating some of his arguments and claims.
Also in 1668, Hobbes published the Latin version of Leviathan. Even if,
as some students of the text suggest, some or even large parts of it were
written prior to the English version, it represents Hobbess last published
account of his moral and political theory, although it has been somewhat
neglected in discussions of his thought.
I do not propose to consider in any detail Hobbess earlier accounts
of the laws of naturethose in the Elements of Law, and De Cive, although
I shall from time to time refer to the latter. In my view, when Hobbes
wrote these works, he simply had not thought through the problems that
he faces if he treats the laws of nature primarily as theorems of reason, or
the problems that he faces if he treats them primarily as divine commands, and the possibility of treating them primarily as civil laws had yet
to occur to him. As I shall argue, Hobbes never does think through all of
the issues surrounding the roles that the laws of nature must play in his
argument, but in both Leviathan and the responses to Bramhall he moves
well beyond his initial views.2
I shall begin with two preliminary but essential mattersthe fundamental conception of law that Hobbes accepts, and the sources of our
awareness or knowledge of the laws of nature. The account of the sources
immediately leads to the three interpretations suggested by my original
questions, and I shall sketch these in somewhat more detail. I shall then
examine at some length the textual evidence that must be appealed to in
assessing these interpretations. This will allow me to consider whether the
evidence enables us to decide among them, and also, a related but in some
ways different matter, whether the role the laws must play in Hobbess
overall argument allows us to decide among them. I shall conclude that
Hobbes really has no alternative but to treat the laws of nature primarily
as theorems of reason, and so neither as divine nor as laws properly
speaking, but that so treating them has very significant costs, perhaps not
for the core of his political theory, but certainly for some parts of it that
he would not have wanted to sacrifice.

2.
In the English Leviathan, Hobbes says that law in general is not counsel,
but command; nor a command of any man to any man, but only of him
whose command is addressed to one formerly obliged to obey him.
(26.2) The difference between counsel and command, according to Hobbes,
is that the reasons for the counselled act are deduced from the benefit
that arriveth by it to whom it is addressed, (25.3) whereas the reason for
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the commanded act is the will of the person who issues it, and, Hobbes
adds, the proper object of every mans will is some good to himself. (25.2)
Civil law differs from law in general only in specifying the name of the
person commanding, which is . . . the person of the commonwealth. (26.2)
Although civil law and its relation to the laws of nature will occupy us
presently, it may be worth noting here that if we take Hobbess insistence
that the reason for law is to be found in the will of the lawgiver, together
with his view that the object of the will is a good to the person willing,
and then note that the civil law is given by the person of the commonwealth, we reach the quite unexceptionable conclusion that the object of
the civil law must be the public good. For the good of the person of the
commonwealththe sovereignis not the private or particular benefit
of the individual or assembly which exercises sovereign power, but rather
is determined by the end for which the sovereignty was ordained, (21.15)
which, as Hobbes makes amply clear, is for the subjects to live peaceably
amongst themselves and be protected against other men. (18.1)
Returning to the characterization of law in general, we should underline Hobbess insistence that law is addressed to one formerly obliged to
obey the commander. Law is not the source of obligation. Rather, it
makes prior obligation determinate. And what then is the source of this
prior obligationthe obligation to obey the lawgiver? Hobbes claims
that there is no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act
of his own; for all men equally are by nature free. (21.10) So law is the
command of some person whom one is formerly obliged to obey in virtue
of some act of ones ownHobbes speaks of the act of our submission.
(ibid.) As we shall see shortly, in his debate with Bramhall Hobbes emphasizes that all law depends on the assent of the subjects. (V. 17880)
Since I shall want to appeal to the dependence of law on prior obligation in presenting what I consider to be the best (though not fully satisfying) reading of Hobbess account of the laws of nature, I should in fairness
note that the passage in 26.2 of the English Leviathan that I quoted above,
and which sets out this dependence, is not paralleled in the Latin version.
There, Hobbes simply notes that it is evident law is not counsel but
command, and refers to the distinction between the two in the preceding
chaptera reference that is tacit in the English version. I should of course
have liked Hobbes to repeat his insistence on prior obligation, but I do
not take his silence to reflect a change in his view.
Before leaving the characterization of law I should perhaps note that
elsewhere I have argued that Hobbess insistence on prior obligation is
one of the features of his account of law that makes it at best misleading
to treat him as a forerunner of legal positivism.3 For the positivist, the
identification of a command as a law does not require any normative
appeal or claim beyond the legal system itself, whereas for Hobbes it
does. I think this difference is of deep importance, and that Hobbess
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view is sound, but my present task is not to defend his view of law. However, as we shall see later, if Hobbes were a legal positivist, there would
be stronger reason to understand the laws of nature primarily as civil laws.

3.
The three characterizations of the laws of nature that I want to discuss
will come directly into view once we note the ways in which we come to
know the laws. The first, of course, is by natural reason. Hobbess first
reference to the laws of nature in Leviathan brings this out: And reason
suggesteth convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn
to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the Laws
of Nature, . . .. (13.14) And in the next chapter, Hobbes speaks of A
L N . . . [as] a precept or general rule, found out by reason.
(14.3) In the ensuing discussion, Hobbes does not suggest any other way
of finding out the laws of nature until the very end, where he concludes
with the claim that we may consider the same theorems, as delivered in
the word of God, that by right commandeth all things. (15.41)
So the laws of nature may be found out by reason, or they may be
known from the word of God. But are these distinct? A. P. Martinich, for
one, does not think so, insisting that the word of God here refers to
Gods natural revelation to humans through right reason, as he says
elsewhere. (M.125)4 I shall argue presently, appealing to Hobbess debate
with Bramhall, that Martinich is wrong. But Hobbes does say that God
declareth his laws . . . by the dictates of natural reason . . ., (31.3), and
that The word of God is . . . to be taken for the dictates of reason and
equity, (36.6) so it is certainly not evident that Martinich is wrong.
However, right or wrong, it is clear that Hobbes also thinks that the laws
of nature are delivered by God in holy Scriptures . . . the speech of God
commanding over all things by greatest right. (DC 3.33) And so we may
take delivery in Scripture, the prophetic word of God, to be a second way
in which we apprehend the laws of nature, leaving to resolve later the
question whether both natural reason and Scripture relate God to the
laws of nature, or only the latter.
And there is a third way in which the laws of nature may be known
as part of the civil laws of the sovereign. When a commonwealth is once
settled, then are they [the laws of nature] . . . the commands of the commonwealth, and therefore also civil laws; for it is the sovereign power
that obliges men to obey them. (26.8) To be sure, Hobbes does say that
whatsoever men are to take knowledge of for law, not upon other mens
words, but everyone from his own reason must be the law of nature,
(26.13) but he insists that the laws of nature . . . consist in equity, justice,
gratitude and other moral virtues . . . [and] the differences of private
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men, to declare what is equity, what is justice, and what is moral virtue,
make the ordinances of sovereign power necessary. (26.8) He acknowledges that though the law of nature be easy to such as without partiality
and passion make use of their natural reason, . . . yet considering that
there be very few, perhaps none, that in some cases are not blinded by
self love or some other passion, it is now become of all laws the most
obscure, and has consequently the greatest need of able interpreters.
(26.21) So even if in theory the civil law is needed only to oblige men to
obedience to the laws of nature that they know through natural reason,
yet in practice the civil law is needed so that a uniform and authoritative
version of the laws of nature may be known by all.
Natural reason, Scripture, and civil law are thus all sources of our
knowledge of the laws of nature. There is, or need be, no great problem
in this. But for Hobbes a problem does arise if we ask what we know, or
indeed what we can know, in each of these ways. Does each give us access
to law? And if not all of these ways give us access to law, then does this
matter? Do we know what we need to know of the laws of nature, unless
we know them as law?
The problem arises when Hobbes says, at the end of his account of the
laws of nature in chapter 15 of Leviathan, and (in the English version)
before he speaks of considering them as delivered in the word of God,
These dictates of reason men use to call by the name of laws, but improperly; for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth
to the conservation and defence of themselves, whereas law, properly, is
the word of him that by right hath command over others. (15.41) That
Hobbes takes this passage seriously is evident from the fact that he twice
later refers to it. In his discussion of civil law in chapter 26 of Leviathan,
he says, For the laws of nature, which consist in equity, justice, gratitude, and other moral virtues on these depending, in the condition of
mere nature (as I have said before in the end of the 15th chapter) are not
properly laws, but qualities that dispose men to peace and to obedience.
(26.8) And in his dispute with Bramhall he says, After I had ended the
discourse he mentions of the laws of nature, I thought it fittest in the last
place, once for all, to say they were the laws of God, then when they were
delivered in the word of God; but before, being not known by men for
any thing but their own natural reason, they were but theoremes, tending
to peace, and those uncertain, as being but conclusions of particular men,
and therefore not properly laws. (IV.2845)
Hobbes is quite clearly saying that the laws of nature, as given by natural
reason, are not lawsnot the commands of someone whom men are
obliged to obey. But he does not deny that they are, or come to be, laws.
Indeed, he has two very different accounts of how they come to be laws,
suggested in the second and third of the quotations with which I began
this essay. The one concludes chapter 15 of the English Leviathan; the
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whole sentence is, But yet, if we consider the same theorems, as delivered
in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then are they
properly called laws. (15.41) This sentence is entirely absent from the
Latin version. The other comes from chapter 26; the whole sentence is,
When a commonwealth is once settled, then are they actually laws, and
not before, as being then the commands of the commonwealth, and therefore also civil laws; for it is the sovereign power that obliges men to obey
them. (26.8) Here the Latin and English versions are in harmony.
So it is as commands of God, or alternatively, as commands of the
sovereign, that the laws of nature come to be known as laws. And these
are contrasted with the deliverances of natural reason, in which the laws
of nature are known only as theorems tending to peace. I can find no
other plausible interpretation of these passages, although I have already
noted other places in which Hobbes equates the deliverances of natural
reason with the commands of God. We shall return to these.

4.
Let me now sketch the three distinct interpretations of the status and role
of the laws of nature in Hobbess argument which correspond to the three
quotations with which I began. Each interpretation treats as primary one
way of knowing the lawsas theorems of reason, as commands of God,
as command of the civil sovereign. The first considers the laws as primarily rational precepts or theorems, stating what is necessary to preservation, and so what a person, insofar as she is rational and concerned with
her preservation, ought to do or be willing to do. As such, the laws of
nature are not literally laws; they are not commanded by someone whom
the subjects of the laws are obliged to obey; they have, in themselves, no
moral force. Although, as I shall argue shortly, they are not therefore
empty of all moral significance, they can not be taken, strictly speaking,
as obligatory, so that Hobbess frequent insistence that men in general
have an obligation to observe the laws of nature must be at best misleading, and his claim that sovereigns in particular have such an obligation is
unwarranted.
However, Hobbes is still able to maintain that subjects have an obligation to obey their sovereign, and the sovereign makes obedience to the
laws of nature obligatory, both as part of civil law, and as divine commands. But that the laws of nature are obligatory in these ways is a
strictly secondary matter. Their principal role is as rational precepts, and
in this capacity, as I shall show, they offer a rational grounding for
morality and sovereignty.
The second and third interpretations differ from the first in considering
the laws of nature primarily as laws. The second interpretation insists
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that the primary role of the laws of nature is to determine the particular
obligations of those to whom they are addressed, and that these obligations must depend on a prior general obligation of obedience to the lawgiver, who can only be God. The first sub-version of this interpretation
argues that, as Hobbes says, God gives laws to all who acknowledge his
existence and providence through natural reason; the second sub-version
argues that God gives these laws only to those who accept the Scriptures
as His Word. On either view the laws of nature are, as Hobbes frequently
insists, obligatory, and as much for sovereigns as for their subjects. The
office of a sovereign . . . consisteth in the end for which he was trusted
with the sovereign power, namely, the procuration of the safety of the
people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature, and to render an
account thereof to God, the author of that law, and to none but him.
(30.1) Surely this is clear and unambiguous in its support for the view
that the laws of nature, to play their essential role, must be commands of
God. It will, however, prove an embarrassment to the defenders of this
interpretation that, as I shall argue, Hobbes has no satisfactory account
of how the sovereign, or anyone else, knows the laws of nature to be
commands of God.
The third interpretation agrees that the primary role of the laws of
nature is to determine our obligations, and that these must depend on a
prior obligation to obey the law-giver, but identifies the law-giver as the
sovereign, who commands the laws of nature as part of the civil law. On
this view, the laws of nature may also and rightly be considered as commands of God, but again this depends on the sovereign, whose ecclesiastical authority makes him the interpreter of divine law. This view, like the
first, offers no very convincing account of the sovereigns own obligation
to obey the law of nature. It also, as we shall see, has little convincing to
say about the subjects prior obligation to obey the sovereign. If one were
to treat this interpretation merely as an account of how the laws of
nature come to be laws, while allowing that their primary role is as
rational precepts, then it would be a supplement to the first. But if one
regards the laws of nature as primarily lawsand on the face of it this
seems quite reasonablethen treating them as commands of the sovereign nicely avoids some of the problems that arise in treating them simply
as commands of God.

5.
If we are to decide among these interpretations, or to conclude that we
are unable to decide among them, we must examine Hobbess texts with
care. I have already remarked on the first introduction of the laws of
nature in ch. 13 of Leviathan, and noted the first words of the definition
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in ch. 14A L N . . . is a precept or general rule, found out


by reason, which continues, 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. My concern here is not with the content but with the form of the
requirementwith Hobbess use of forbidden. The account continues
by distinguishing right, which consisteth in liberty to do or to forbear
from law, which determineth and bindeth to one of them; so that law
and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the
same matter are inconsistent. Law forbids; it determines; it bindsand,
it is natural to infer, whereas a right in some matter gives one liberty to
do as one pleases, a law places one under obligation to do what conforms
to it. Indeed, we may do more than infer this if we consult the Latin
version, in which Hobbes says explicitly sed lex ad faciendum obligat
vel ad non faciendum.
That law binds and obliges is certainly Hobbess view. But may he
legitimately infer that the law of nature binds and obliges? Is he in a
position to claim that the law of nature is properly law?
The natural condition of man is, as we know, a condition of war in
which the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (13.9)
So it is clear that war is the enemy of preservation, and peace the necessary condition of a secure existence. Hobbess first law of nature, to seek
peace, and follow it, or that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far
as has hope of obtaining it is easily inferred as a precept, or general rule
of reason. (14.4) But does it bind or oblige? Does every man have an
obligation to endeavour peaceor is the ought in the first law no more
than the ought of rationality? Need any person be concerned with the
law-giver, or is it enough that she must see, if she will but exercise her
own natural reason, the necessity of peace to security and preservation?
Hobbess next move is crucially important. What must each man do to
endeavour peace? Here, Hobbes reminds us of the right of nature, the
liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the
preservation of his own nature, . . . and consequently of doing anything
which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest
means thereunto. (14.1) Doing anythingincluding, if it seems good to
him, invading, overcoming, killing his fellows. Hobbes is clear about the
consequencesFor as long as every man holdeth this right of doing
anything he liketh, so long are all men in the condition of war. (14.5) It
is then another easy inference to the conclusion that a 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 . (ibid.) The benefit, to each, of his own unrestricted liberty
is less than the cost to him of the unrestricted liberty of his fellows; it is
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therefore a good bargain for each to accept limits on ones own liberty in
return for his fellows acceptance of similar restraints on their liberty.
And when a man hath . . . abandoned or granted away his right, then
is he said to be O or B not to hinder those to whom such
right is granted or abandoned from the benefit of it; and . . . that he
ought, and it is his D, not to make void that voluntary act of his own,
and that such hindrance is I, and I, as being sine jure, the
right being before renounced or transferred. (14.7) Obligation enters
with the renunciation or laying down of right. Given the right of nature
as a normative, moral primitive, then obligation is introduced by accepting
a restriction on this right, the scope of the obligation being determined of
course by the particular restriction. I have already appealed to Hobbess
explicit insistence, there being no obligation on any man which ariseth
not from some act of his own; for all men equally are by nature free.
(21.10) In the passage from chapter 14 which I have just quoted, we are
given the basis for this insistence, and told from what kind of act obligation arises.
Hobbes then has no need to treat the law of nature as law, or as in
itself binding or obliging, to explain how men come to be bound and
obliged. Men oblige themselves by their own acts of laying down right.
But the law of nature is not therefore irrelevant to Hobbess account of
obligation. For it is a precept, or general rule of reason, and so a law of
nature, that each man be willing to lay down some portion of his natural
right, when others are similarly willing. And Hobbes proceeds to tell us
the way in which right is laid downthe words and actions involved. And
the same are the B by which men are bound and obliged, bonds that
have their strength, not from their own nature . . . but from fear of some
evil consequence upon the rupture. (14.7) Obligation and motivation are
distinct; the bonds oblige of their own nature, but their efficacity depends
on the consequences of breaking them.
Alas, none of this can be recovered from the Latin version, which tells
us nothing about obligation arising from the laying down of right. To be
sure, the sentence that I have quoted from chapter 21 does have its Latin
equivalent. What is absent is the essential grounding for the claim that all
obligation arises from ones own acts, which Hobbes provides only in
chapter 14 of the English text. How seriously should we take this absence?
I think that any answer must depend on whether the account of obligation through laying down right provides a satisfactory reading of Hobbess
further treatment of obligation and the laws of nature, and so must wait
for the conclusion of this enquiry.
But before proceeding, let me note what I take to be an essential feature of the account of obligation that I should like to recover from chapter 14. Although the role of the laws of nature in grounding obligation is

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adequately performed if we treat the laws simply as general precepts of


reason, and therefore as embodying no normative element beyond that in
rationality itself, it does not follow that, for Hobbes, obligation is a
purely rational concept. For as we saw, what the law of nature prescribes
is the laying down of right, and while Hobbess conception of right is in
important ways unlike our own, in not being in any way correlative with
duty, it is nevertheless a normative conception, and, in my view, not
reducible to reason. In Hobbess earlier writings, he does treat the right
of nature as that liberty which every man hath to make use of his
natural faculties according to right reason, (DC 1.7), but this attempt to
base natural right on right reason is absent from Leviathan. And this
seems to me no oversight on Hobbess part, for if natural right were the
expression of right reason, then laying it down would seem to require the
renunciation of right reason, which is surely not Hobbess view. Rather,
it seems to me best to understand the right of nature as, if you like, what
right reason exercises, but as itself possessing an independent moral
normativity. Laying down right is not, then, renouncing right reason, but
renouncing some part of what right reason would otherwise exercise
curtailing the space within which ones individual reason is properly operative. And this is surely very appropriately thought of as putting oneself
under obligation.5

6.
The second law of nature calls for mutual renunciations of right; these
are effected by covenant. From this second law, by which we are obliged
to transfer to another such rights as, being retained, hinder the peace of
mankind, there followeth a third, which is this that men perform 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 war. (15.1) So Hobbes speaks of men being obliged to lay
down their rights, and obliged by the law of nature. And although covenants, as mutual transfers and so layings down of right, would seem to
oblige as such, in accordance with the account in 14.7, yet Hobbes introduces a third law, requiring the performance of covenants. When later on
Hobbes reminds us that men are obliged by their covenants, it is to the
law of nature, that we should not violate our faith, that he appeals,
referring to it as a law of God. (43.5) So the tidy account of obligation
that I have sketched, treating it as laying down natural right and appealing to the laws of nature strictly as rational precepts, is not employed by
Hobbes in later chapters of Leviathan. For him, it seems, the laws of
nature must oblige, and the source of their obligation must be God.

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Hobbes enumerates sixteen more laws of nature; their content need not
detain us. Pausing then only to note that in the final paragraph of chapter
14, Hobbes claims that an oath adds nothing to the obligation undertaken in a covenant, which if lawful, binds in the sight of God without
the oath as much as with itand in Latin, that it binds not in the sight
of God but by the force of natural lawwe should now consider
Hobbess concluding discussion of the laws of nature in the last paragraphs of chapter 15. And here Hobbess language should leave us in no
doubt that he thinks of the laws of nature as obliging. For he says, The
laws of nature oblige in foro interno, that is to say, they bind to a desire
they should take place; but in foro externo, that is, to the putting them in
act, not always, (15.36) and The same laws, because they oblige only to
a desire and endeavour . . . are easy to be observed. (15.39) Yet he is about
to tell us that these dictates of reason are called laws but improperly.
I postpone commentary.
Hobbes consistently claims that the laws of nature are immutable
and eternal. (15.38) It might be thought that this requires him to treat
them as commands of an immutable and eternal God, rather than mere
conclusions of human reason, but here he offers an explanation of their
unchangeable nature that is compatible with treating them only as rational
precepts. For what he says is that injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride,
iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawful.
For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.
(ibid.) The relations of war, peace, and preservation, are the bedrock on
which immutable precepts can be founded. This passage is also absent in
the Latin.
And the science of them is the true and only moral philosophy. For moral philosophy
is nothing but the science of what is good and evil in the conversation and society of
mankind. Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different; and divers men differ . . .
in their judgment . . . of what is conformable or disagreeable to reason in the actions of
common life . . . ; from whence arise disputes, controversies, and at last war. And therefore
so long a man is in the condition of mere nature (which is a condition of war) as private
appetite is the measure of good and evil; and consequently, all men agree on this, that peace
is good, and therefore also the way or means of peace (which, as I have shewed before,
are . . . the laws of nature) are good (that is to say, moral virtues), and their contrary vices,
evil. (15.40)

This is a splendid summary of Hobbess argument. And it surely shows


that the key role of the laws of nature is to serve as a means of peace,
a role adequately performed by conclusions or theorems concerning
what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves. (15.41)
But does Hobbes see this? And does it fit what he says elsewhere?

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7.
We shall need to look in some detail at Hobbess references to the laws of
nature in the ensuing parts of Leviathan. I have already quoted passages
that suggest a different account of the nature and role of the laws than
the one I have been at pains to construct from parts of chapters 14 and
15. But before turning to this, I shall examine two quite different texts
Hobbess replies to Bishop Bramhall. For these shed important light on
how the laws of nature come to be laws.
As I noted above, in 1656 Hobbes replied to Bramhalls reply to
Hobbess Of Liberty and Necessity. Two passages in that reply demand
our attention. The first is Hobbess insistence that all law depends on our
assent (V.17880) Hobbes considers (i) the positive law of God, contained
in the Bible, (ii) the law of nature [which] was written in our hearts by
the finger of God, (iii) the laws of conquerors, who come in by the
power of the sword, and (iv) the laws of our ancestors, which were
made before we were born. In Hobbess discussion, (ii) is taken last; I
shall follow his order.
(i) The Bible is a law. How a law? By the authority of the Church.
And is the authority of the Church any other than the authority of the
commonwealth, or that of the commonwealth any other than that of the
head of the commonwealth, or hath the head of the commonwealth any
other authority than that which hath been given him by the members? . . .
because the legislative power is from the assent of the subjects, the Bible
is made law by the assent of the subjects.
(iii) He [the Bishop] thinks, belike, that if a conqueror can kill me if
he please, I am presently obliged without more ado to obey all his laws.
May not I rather die, if I think fit? The conqueror makes no law over the
conquered by virtue of his power; but by virtue of their assent, that
promised obedience for the saving of their lives.
(iv) But how then is the assent of the children obtained to the laws of
their ancestors? This also is from the desire of preserving their lives . . .
when they be grown up to strength enough to do mischief, and to judgment enough to know that other men are kept from doing mischief to
them by fear of the sword that protecteth them, in that very act of receiving that protection, and not renouncing it openly, do oblige themselves to
obey the laws of their protectors; to which, in receiving such protection,
they have assented.
(ii) And whereas he [the Bishop] saith, the law of nature is a law
without our assent, it is absurd; for the law of nature is the assent itself
that all men give to the means of their own preservation.
Hobbess treatment of assent to the laws of a conqueror and to the laws
of our ancestors cover ground already familiar to the reader of Leviathan.

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Indeed, his treatment of assent to the positive law of God should also be
familiar, if the reader has penetrated (as perhaps few today do) into the
depths of Part III. For Hobbes asks of the two tables of the law, who it
was that gave to these written tables the obligatory force of laws? There
is no doubt but they were made laws by God himself, but because a law
obliges not, nor is law to any but to them that acknowledge it to be the
act of the sovereign, how could the people of Israel . . . be obliged to
obedience to all those laws which Moses propounded to them? (42.37)
The answer, of course, is that the people of Israel had obliged themselves . . . to obey Moses; Moses, and Aaron, and the succeeding high
priests were the civil sovereigns; the canonizing, or making of the Scripture law, belonged to the civil sovereign. (ibid.) And the sovereign rules
by the covenant of his subjects. God makes the content of Scriptural law,
but the civil sovereign gives it the force of law, acting on the basis of his
subjects assent to his rule.
Just as there is no obligation on any man not arising from some act of
his own, so there is no law binding any man not arising from his own
assenteven the laws of God and nature. Hobbes had spoken differently;
in De Cive he said, For it is manifest that the divine laws sprang not
from the consent of men, nor yet the laws of nature. For if they had their
original from the consent of men, they might also by the same consent be
abrogated; but they are unchangeable. (DC 14.2) But Hobbes has since
discovered how law may be unchangeable in its content, as expressing the
will of God (in Scripture) or the conditions of preservation, yet owe its
binding status to assent, whether by the covenant of submission to the
sovereign, or by natural reason determining the necessity of peace, and so
the means of peace, for preservation. Making the obligatory force of
Scripture depend on assent to the civil sovereign fits well with Hobbess
overall argument. But his treatment of the obligatory force of natural law
may raise a doubt. Grant that all men assent to the means of their own
preservation; yet does this constitute an assent to law? Does not assent to
law require the recognition of a law-giver?
The other passage from this first reply of Hobbes to Bramhall that
warrants our attention concerns moral goodness, law, and right reason.
It is the law from whence proceeds the difference between the moral and the natural
goodness: so that it is well enough said by him [Bramhall], that moral goodness is the
conformity of an action with right reason; and better said than meant, for this right reason,
which is the law, is no otherwise certainly right than by our making it so by our approbation of it and voluntary subjection to it. . . . From whence it appears that moral praise
is . . . from obedience to the laws. . . . We choose no further than we can weigh. That is
good to every man, which is so far good as he can see. All the real good, which we call
honest and morally virtuous, is that which is not repugnant to the law, civil or natural; for
the law is all the right reason we have, and, (though he, as often as it disagreeth with his
own reason, deny it), is the infallible rule of moral goodness. The reason whereof is this,
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that because neither mine nor the Bishops reason is right reason fit to be a rule of our
moral actions, we have therefore set up over ourselves a sovereign governor, and agreed
that his laws shall be unto us, whatsoever they be, in the place of right reason, to dictate to
us what is really good. (V.1934)

Men covenant to set up a sovereign, whose reason they agree to take


for right reason. And this right reason is the law, which for them is the
infallible rule of moral goodness. We must ask how this account relates
to Hobbess claim that the science of the laws of nature is the true and
only moral philosophy. Hobbess insistence that the laws of nature are . . .
actually laws, . . . as being . . . the commands of the commonwealth . . . ;
for it is the sovereign power that obliges men to obey them (26.8) may
seem to be the key to the answer, and perhaps also to the resolution of
the doubt raised by his claim that assent to the laws of nature is assent to
the conditions of our preservation. Perhaps assent to the laws of nature,
like assent to the laws of Scripture, is all contained in the act by which
men submit to their sovereign.

8.
As I noted above, Bramhall returned to the fray with an attack on Leviathan published in 1658; Hobbes responded ten years later. One of his
main concerns is to insist yet again that the Scriptures . . . were made
law to us here, by the authority of the commonwealth, and are therefore
part of the law civil. (IV.369) But he also sheds additional and perhaps
unexpected light on his understanding of the laws of nature in the passage to which I have already referred in section 3 above, and in which he
responds to Bramhalls claim that in describing the laws of nature, this
great clerk [Hobbes] forgetteth the God of nature. (IV.284) Let us consider the reply again. Hobbes says, After I had ended the discourse he
mentions of the laws of nature, I thought it fittest in the last place, once
for all, to say they were the laws of God, then when they were delivered
in the word of God; but before, being not known by men for any thing
but their own natural reason, they were but theoremes, tending to peace,
and those uncertain, as being but conclusions of particular men, and
therefore not properly laws. (IV.2845)
Recall that in this passage Hobbes is referring to his account of the
laws of nature in Leviathan, and in particular to the concluding paragraph of chapter 15. Hobbes is therefore interpreting that paragraph,
telling us what he intended by it. And what he intended is clear; the laws
of nature are first known only as theorems, conclusions of natural reason.
They are not known as laws. They come to be known as laws, only when
they come to be delivered in the word of God, which is contrasted with
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natural reason.6 So how are the laws of nature delivered in the word of
God? Hobbes continues, Besides, I had formerly in my book De Cive,
cap. IV, proved them severally, one by one, out of the Scriptures: which
his Lordship had read and knew. It was therefore an unjust charge of his
to say, I had not one word in them [i.e. in describing the laws of nature]
that concerns religion, or that hath the least relation in the world to God;
and this upon no other ground than that I added not to every article, this
law is in the Scripture. (IV.285) I think that we must conclude from this
passage, taken together with Hobbess clear denial that delivery in natural
reason is delivery in the word of God, that the laws of nature are delivered
in the word of God in, and only in, Scripture.
So the laws of nature come to be laws, properly so called, only when
delivered in Scripture. But as we have seen, delivery in Scripture does
not, in itself, make a command a law. Scripture is made law only by the
authority of the commonwealth, only by the sovereign, and as such it is a
part of civil law. So the laws of nature, considered as delivered in the
word of God, come to be laws only as parts of the civil law. This would
rule out the second interpretation; either the laws of nature are primarily
theorems of reason, requiring us to authorize the sovereign who makes
them into civil laws, or they are primarily civil laws, whether or not
considered as also delivered in the word of God.
But before accepting this conclusion, we need to consider more of
Hobbess reply. We agree that the Scriptures are the word of God. But
they are a law by pact, that is, to us who have been baptized into the
covenant. To all others it is an invitation only to their own benefit.
(IV.363) Here Hobbes seems to suggest an alternative account of how the
laws of nature come to be law. For if they are delivered in Scripture, and
if Scripture comes to be law by baptism, then the laws of nature would
come to be laws for those who are baptized. They would still be laws
only by assent, since baptism is the act by which a Christian assents to
the new covenant which restore[s] unto God . . . the kingdom which,
being his by the old covenant, had been cut off by the rebellion of
the Israelites in the election of Saul. (41.4) But this kingdom awaits
the resurrection, when he [Christ] shall be king . . . of his own elect, by
virtue of the pact they make with him in their baptism. (41.6) Baptism,
then, makes the laws of nature laws, only at the second coming. In this
world, Christ hath not subjected us to other laws than those of the
commonwealth, (42.43) and so we are subject to the laws of Scripture
only as part of the civil law. That the Scriptures are law by the pact of
baptism does not, then, upset the conclusion that the laws of nature, even
as delivered in Scripture, owe their status as laws to their place in civil
law.
One further passage from Hobbess answer to Bramhall invites our
attention.
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. . . the civil laws are the rules of good and evil, just and unjust, honest and dishonest. Truly,
I see no other rules they have. The Scriptures themselves . . . are . . . part of the law civil. If
they were laws in their own nature, then were they laws over all the world, and men were
obliged to obey them in America, as soon as they should be shown there, though without a
miracle, by a friar.7 What is unjust, but the transgression of a law? Law therefore was before
unjust: and the law was made known by sovereign power before it was a law: therefore
sovereign power was antecedent both to law and injustice. Who then made unjust but sovereign kings or sovereign assemblies? . . . Just and unjust were surely made. If the king made
them not, who made them else? For certainly the breach of a civil law is a sin against God.
(IV.36970)

All but the last sentence fit beautifully with the claim that for Hobbes,
all law, properly so called, is civil law, obligatory because it is the command of the sovereign, to whom (although he does not repeat this here)
obedience is owed by the covenant or pact by which his subjects authorize
and submit to him. But what is the force of the last sentence? Does a sin
against God fall outside the framework of civil submission, command,
and obligation?

9.
I shall now return to Leviathan, and to a series of references to the law of
nature which treat it as directly obliging as the law of God. The first is a
parenthesized comment that the sovereign never wanteth right to anything (otherwise than as he himself is the subject of God, and bound
thereby to observe the laws of nature). (21.7) If the sovereign is bound
as Gods subject to obey the laws of nature, then God must be the author
of those laws, and so in this parenthesis Hobbes appeals to the laws not
as rational precepts but as divine commands. Heretofore in Leviathan,
references to the laws of nature as binding or obliging have been silent as
to the source of the obligation; now God is brought explicitly into the
argument.
The Latin is interestingly different. Hobbes makes no direct reference
to the laws of nature, saying only that he who has the supreme power
. . . can do no injury to his citizens, even though, by iniquity, he can be
injurious to God, and later, referring to Davids killing Uriah, king
David acted inequitably, and gravely sinned against God. But Hobbes
had already said, in the Latin but not the English text, That he who has
the supreme power can act inequitably, I have not denied. For what is
done contrary to the law of nature is called inequitable; what is done
contrary to the civil law, unjust. (18.6) So the reader might infer that
Davids action was inequitable in being contrary to the laws of nature,
and that he sinned against God as the author of those laws. But note that
whereas in the English text, the reader has at least been prepared for the
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idea of God as author of the laws of nature by the concluding sentence of


chapter 15, there is, as I have pointed out, no equivalent to this sentence
in the Latin version. Explicit reference to the laws of nature as laws of
God has yet to appear in the Latin text.
And I find that such reference first appears in chapter 26, Leges civiles
et civilia omnia transeunt et mutantur; sed leges naturales, cum sint divinae,
transire aut mutari non possunt. The English is more eloquent: Princes
succeed one another; and one judge passeth, another cometh; nay, heaven
and earth shall pass; but not one tittle of the law of nature shall pass, for
it is the eternal law of God. (26.24) We find no suggestion here that the
immutability of the law of nature derives only from the fact that it can
never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it, (15.38) a claim
that, in any case, is not present in the Latin version.
In chapter 29 we find that, It is true that sovereigns are all subject to
the laws of nature, because such laws be divine, and cannot by any man
or commonwealth be abrogated. But to those laws which the sovereign
himself, that is, which the commonwealth maketh, he is not subject.
(29.9) Here it would not seem that subjection to the laws of nature depends
on assent to the means of ones preservation, or that Gods commands
are law only insofar as the sovereign makes them law.
And one more quotation should suffice to make fully clear the role of
the law of nature in obligating the sovereign, and the status required for
it to play that role, as Hobbes presents these matters in Part II of Leviathan. The office of the sovereign . . . consisteth in the end for which he
was trusted with the sovereign power, namely, the procuration of the
safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature, and to
render an account thereof to God, the author of that law, and to none
but him. (30.1) The Latin also contains the essential elementsthe
sovereign obliged by the law of nature, and God its author. Rational
precepts, improperly called laws, will hardly fill the bill.
Hobbes does not appeal to the law of nature only to establish the
obligations of the sovereign. He also appeals to it to establish the obligation of the subjects to accept the right of the sovereign and his laws. For
a civil law that shall forbid rebellion (and such is all resistance to the
essential rights of sovereignty) is not (as a civil law) any obligation but by
virtue of the law of nature that forbiddeth the violation of faith; which
natural obligation, if men know not, they cannot know the right of any
law the sovereign maketh. (30.4) This passage sits ill with Hobbess
insistence that, as we have seen, the laws of nature . . . are . . . actually
laws, . . . , as being . . . the commands of the commonwealth, and therefore
also civil laws; for it is the sovereign power that obliges men to obey them.
(26.8) Hobbes can not coherently argue both that natural law obliges
only as part of the civil law, and that the civil law obliges only in virtue of
a prior obligation to the natural law that commands us to keep faith.
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Hobbes continues his appeal to the natural law forbidding violation of


faith in Part III of Leviathan, arguing that to depose him [the sovereign],
when he is chosen, is in no case just. For it is always a violation of faith,
and consequently against the law of nature, which is the eternal law of
God. (42.131) And again, The laws of God . . . are none but the laws of
nature, whereof the principal is that we should not violate our faith, that
is, a commandment to obey our civil sovereigns, which we constituted
over us by mutual pact one with another. (43.5) This passage continues
by grounding our obligation to Scripture in the laws of nature, but with
civil law as intermediary. Hobbes says And this law of God, that commandeth obedience to the law civil, commandeth by consequence obedience to all the precepts of the Bible, which . . . is there only law where the
civil sovereign hath made it so, and in other places but counsel, which a
man at his own peril may without injustice refuse to obey.
It might seem from the passages that I have just been quoting, in which
Hobbes grounds the obligation to obey civil law on natural law treated as
the law of God, that he introduced the idea of natural law as part of civil
law in chapter 26 only to forgetand contradictit. But this is not quite
so. For in showing that it is not hard to reconcile our obedience to God
with our obedience to the civil sovereign, Hobbes notes that because he
is a sovereign, he requireth obedience to all his own (that is, to all the
civil) laws, in which are contained all the laws of nature (that is, all the
laws of God). (43.22) This of course does not show that we may ground
the obligation to obey the laws of nature in the obligation to obey civil
law; rather, it shows only that the obligation to obey civil law does not
introduce any conflict with the obligation to obey natural law. Hobbes
continues to treat natural law as part of civil law, but seems not always to
acknowledge that its status as law depends on its being part of civil law.

10.
How do we know that the laws of nature are divine? Hobbes answer, in
Parts II and III of Leviathan, is that we know this through natural reason.
God declareth his laws three ways: by the dictates of natural reason, by
revelation, and by the voice of some man, to whom by the operation of
miracles he procureth credit with the rest. (31.3) No universal laws have
been given by revelation, and only Gods chosen people are given laws
by the mouths of his holy prophets. (31.4) But Gods natural kingdom
includes as many of mankind as acknowledge his providence by the
natural dictates of right reason. (31.4) Although, as we have already seen,
Hobbes distinguishes the deliverances of natural reason from divine laws
in his answer to Bramhall, in Leviathan he repeatedly identifies the two,
first in the passage just quoted, and then in Part III, saying, as far as
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they [the Scriptures] differ not from the laws of nature, there is no doubt
but they are the law of God, and carry their authority with them, legible
to all men that have the use of natural reason; but this is no other authority than that of all other moral doctrine consonant to reason, the dictates
whereof are laws, not made, but eternal. (33.22) And again, The word
of God is then also to be taken for the dictates of reason and equity, when
the same is said in the Scriptures to be written in mans heart . . .. (36.6)
The first of these latter two passages clearly contradicts Hobbess insistence in his reply to Bramhall that being not known by men for any thing
but their own natural reason, they [the laws of nature] were but
theorems, . . . and therefore not properly laws. (IV.2845)
Suppose that we identify natural reason with the word of God. Nevertheless, we may still ask why we are obliged to obey the deliverances of natural
reason. Hobbess answer begins by distinguishing two aspects of our relation to God. He concludes chapter 30 of Leviathan with the claim that:
the same law that dictateth to men that have no civil government, what they ought to do,
and what to avoid in regard of one another, dictateth the same to commonwealths, that is,
to the consciences of sovereign princes and sovereign assemblies, there being no court of
natural justice but in the conscience only, where not man, but God reigneth, whose laws
(such of them as oblige all mankind) in respect of God, as he is the author of nature, are
natural, and in respect of the same God, as he is King of kings, are laws. (30.30)

As author of nature, God determines the conditions of peace, which


form the content of the laws of nature. As King of kings, he requires us
to obey these conditions.
But why is he King of kings? If he is author of nature, then no doubt
he may do with nature as he pleases, but this is not to rule. What is the
basis of his right to rule? Hobbes tells us, The right of nature whereby
God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be
derived . . . from his irresistible power. I have formerly shown how the
sovereign right ariseth from pact; to show how the same right may arise
from nature requires no more but to show in what case it is never taken
away. And he continues:
Seeing all men by nature had right to all things, they had right every one to reign over the
rest. But because this right could not be obtained by force, it concerned the safety of every
man, laying by that right, to set up men (with sovereign authority) by common consent, to
rule and defend them; whereas if there had been any man with power irresistible, there had
been no reason why he should not by that power have ruled, and defended both himself and
then, according to his own discretion. To those, therefore, whose power is irresistible, the
dominion of all men adhereth naturally by their excellence of power; and consequently it is
from that power that the kingdom over men, and the right of afflicting men at his pleasure,
belongeth naturally to God Almighty, not as Creator and gracious, but as omnipotent.
(31.5)
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This is one of the least satisfactory passages in Hobbess writings. First


of all, may the right of nature, as a right to all things, be attributed to
God? The right of nature is defined by Hobbes as the liberty each man
hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his
own nature. (14.1) And it is a right to all things because the condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone (in
which case everyone is governed by his own reason and there is nothing
he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life
against his enemies), so that it followeth that in such a condition every
man has a right to everything. (14.4) But nothing threatens Gods preservation. His natural condition is not one of war; he has no need of a
right to all things to preserve himself.
Suppose nevertheless that we grant God a right to all things. This is
nevertheless not a right to be obeyed; it does not give rise in itself to any
obligation on the part of Gods supposed subjects to obey. Each man, as
Hobbes says, has a right to reign over the rest, and so may issue
commands to his fellows. But no one has an obligation to obey any of his
fellows, and so their commands are not laws. The commands of the
sovereign are laws to his subjects only because they have laid down their
right to all things, and by authorizing him, obliged themselves to obey
him. If God has power irresistible, and if we suppose that there are
natural benefits to those who obey his commands and costs to those who
disobey, then no doubt we have reason to authorize him to rule over us,
obliging ourselves to obey his commands which are then laws. And we
shall then regard those costs as natural punishments [which] must be
naturally consequent to the breach of the laws of nature. (31.40) But
now recall Hobbess insistence, against Bramhall, that the law of nature
is the assent itself that all men give to the means of their own preservation. (V.180) I suggested earlier that to suppose that this involves assent
to law, we must assume a law-giver. And if we think of God as author of
the laws of nature, then we can make good sense of Hobbess claim here,
and treat our obligation to obey Gods commands and his right, not
merely to rule, but to be obeyed, as based on that assent.
Hobbes, of course, insists that we do not establish Gods rule by covenant, and never suggests that we authorize him or assent to his commands. In De Cive, where he treats Gods right to rule in the same way as
in Leviathan, he proceeds to introduce a natural obligation to yield him
obedience, arising from fear or conscience of our own weakness in
respect of the divine power. (DC. 15.7) Such an obligation would seem
to be no more than the assent we give to the means of our preservation,
coupled with our recognition of God as author of those means, although
Hobbes does not present it in these terms. It would not then be an obligation independent of our assent. But in Leviathan Hobbes says nothing
about this obligation. He assumes that all he need defend is Gods right
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to rule, failing to recognize that such a right, if taken as part of the right
of nature, has no correlative obligation to obedience.
Hobbes treats Gods natural right to rule as grounded directly in his
omnipotence. But insofar as this is true, it will still be the case that his
right to be obeyed is grounded in the assent of his subjects. Hobbes has
no intelligible account of the obligation of persons to obey God that is
not consonant with his insistence that there is no obligation on any man
which ariseth not from some act of his own (21.10)in this case, the
assent he gives to the means of his preservation, together with his recognition that it is God who prescribes those means. But Hobbes never explicitly acknowledges this. When he refers in Leviathan to the obligation to
obey God, he offers no basis for it, saying only, for example, Nor was
there any contract that could add to or strengthen the obligation by
which both they [Abraham and his seed] and all men else were bound
naturally to obey God Almighty. (40.1)
I want to conclude this long discussion of passages in the second and
third parts of Leviathan relevant to Hobbess account of the laws of
nature with an aside, by directing attention to his quite peculiar account
of the authority to teach. Hobbes says, The monarch or the sovereign
assembly only hath immediate authority from God, to teach and instruct
the people, and no man but the sovereign receiveth his power Dei gratia
simply, that is to say, from the favour of none but God. (23.6) How
does the sovereign receive authority or power from God? For the sovereign is authorized by his subjects, so that he hath the use of so much
power and strength conferred on him that by terror thereof he is enable
to conform the wills of them all to peace at home and mutual aid against
their enemies abroad. (17.13) Authority and power immediately from
God? Whatever can Hobbes have been thinking?

11.
How do the three interpretations of the laws of nature introduced in
section 4 fare under textual analysis? Were we to have as our evidence (i)
the first part of Leviathan, in which Hobbes introduces and enumerates
the laws of nature, omitting only the discussion of obligation in foro
interno and in foro externo (15.367), and (ii) the replies to Bramhall,
supplemented by (iii) two passages in the second partHobbess insistence that all obligation arises from some act of the agent (21.10) and his
claim that the laws of nature are genuinely laws only as part of the civil
law (26.8), then the first of the three interpretations would surely be in
sole possession of the field. We should then read Hobbes as arguing that
each person naturally possesses the right to do whatever she judges needful for her preservation, but that, led by natural reason to understand
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that peace is a necessary condition of preservation and well-being, she


recognizes that peace is to be had only if she and her fellows follow
certain rules of conduct, foremost among which is that they give up some
portion of their natural right, and so put themselves under obligation not
to do what previously they might rightfully have done. In particular, she
recognizes that she and her fellows stand in need of a common power to
direct and protect them, and to this end she must, if her fellows are also
willing, authorize and give up her right of governing herself to some one
person or group on whom all agree, so that she comes to be obliged to
obey the commands of that person or group, which is to accept those
commands as laws. Included among these commands are the rules of
conduct mentioned above, which now become laws and so obligating.
And insofar as the sovereign so wills, these rulesand othersmay be
considered divine laws, commands of a being whose omnipotence leads
her to accept them as in a further sense conditions of her preservation.
Lacking in this account are three important elements in Hobbess treatment of the laws of nature in the second and third parts of Leviathan
(and in the discussion of obligation in foro interno and in foro externo).
The first is Hobbess insistence that the sovereign, like his subjects, has an
obligation to obey God and the laws of nature which are Gods laws. For
if the laws of nature are to be held for divine only insofar as the sovereign
wills, then he is not effectively obliged by them. The second is Hobbess
insistence that the obligation of the citizens or subjects to the sovereign is
based on the natural law, considered as divine, rather than grounding it
straightforwardly in the authorizing acts of the citizens. And the third is
his repeated claim that natural reason is, and is known to be, the word of
God, by which he gives laws to those who acknowledge his power and
providence. These elements are linked, since if the laws of nature oblige
as commands of God, and oblige to the upholding of sovereignty, then
both sovereign and subject must have natural knowledge of the laws as
divine commands.
This may suggest a form of the second interpretation. The laws of
nature are primarily divine commands, known as such by natural reason.
It will not do to treat them as divine commands known as such through
Scripture, since it is clear that Hobbes treats the obligation to obey Scripture as derivative from the obligation to obey the civil sovereign, and as
arising only insofar as the sovereign incorporates the precepts of Scripture into the civil law. Knowing Gods commands is of course not in itself
sufficient to be obliged to obey them, but we may suppose that anyone
acknowledging divine power and providence will be led to assent to these
commands as the means of her preservation. Each will give up whatever
part of his right of nature might lead him to act contrary to the laws of
nature. In this way it is possible to incorporate Hobbess claims that
nothing is a law without the assent of those bound by it, and that no one
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is under obligation except in virtue of some act of his own, into an


interpretation of the laws of nature that treats them primarily as the
commands of God.
Once the natural laws are in place as obligating, then the right of the
civil sovereign to be obeyed is founded on the obligation of the subjects
not to violate faith by reneging on or acting contrary to their authorization of him. The commands of the sovereign are laws because the subjects
are obliged to obey him, and they are obliged to obey him because they
have authorized him and by the laws of nature are obliged to keep faith.
Furthermore, the duties of the civil sovereign are founded on his obligation to obey natural law, and are owed, as Hobbes insists, to God alone
as author of that law.
But the fatal weakness of this interpretation is implicitly recognized by
Hobbes when he acknowledges that insofar as they are known only by
natural reason, the laws of nature are theorems or precepts but not laws.
Natural reason is conversant about the natural conditions of our preservation, not about commands of God. Even if we were to suppose
that natural reason is a capacity given by God, so that its deliverances
might be taken as Gods word, yet those deliverances take the form of
theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence
of themselves, not the form of commands. Hobbes has no intelligible
account of natural reason that would qualify its deliverances to be divine
commands. The passages in Leviathan in which he supposes otherwise
cannot be coherently accommodated in his system of thought.
Hobbes holds that there must be . . . one first mover, that is, a first
and eternal cause of all things, which is that which men mean by the
name of God. (12.6) This is the teaching of natural reason. Hobbes
never claims, and could not consistently claim, that natural reason also
teaches us that this first cause is also King of kings. I see no reason to
doubt that Hobbes believed that the first mover is the Christian God. But
belief is not to the point. Although the sovereign can not command
private belief, he may command public acknowledgement and obedience,
and it is only insofar as the sovereign does command his subjects to
acknowledge God as King of kings and to treat the precepts of natural
reason as Gods commands, that the subjects come to be obliged to obey
these precepts as divine laws.
This puts Hobbes in a difficult position. For although he does not
want to say that the sovereign has any obligation to his subjects, he does
not want the sovereign to be free from all obligation. He certainly wants
him to be obliged by and accountable to God. But may not Hobbes
suppose that insofar as the sovereign acknowledges Gods power and
providenceto be sure, not something that can be decided by natural
reason, but certainly true of the Christianand infidelsovereigns of the
day, he will assent to Gods commands? Yes, he may suppose this. But he
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can not coherently suppose that the sovereign has any natural knowledge
of what those commands are. He may not assume that the sovereign
must identify these commands with the deliverances of natural reason.
To be sure, the sovereign might do so. But this would be a happy coincidence, not a basis for a system of political thought.
Both the first and second interpretations capture important strands of
Hobbess thought in Leviathan about the laws of nature. Each has support in the texts; I do not see how anyone who makes a careful examination of all of the relevant works could deny this. But in judging between
the two interpretations, one must, I think, recognize that while the first
limits the role of the laws of nature in a way that Hobbes would not
want, the second requires Hobbes to take a view of natural reason insupportable within his overall account. What the first interpretation can not
accommodate is the important thought that the exercise of sovereign
right is necessarily limited by an obligation owed, not to the subjects but
to God. It can accommodate the thought that the obligation of the subjects to the sovereign is prior to civil law, because it can treat that obligation as arising from the act by which the subjects authorize the sovereign.
And it can then sacrifice the unsustainable claim that divine law is known
through natural reason. The main outlines of Hobbess argument are
then coherently preserved.

12.
What of the third interpretationwhich we might associate with legal
positivism, since it incorporates natural law entirely into civil law? It has
the significant merit, shared with the first, of accepting Hobbess insistence that natural reason acquaints us with the laws of nature only as but
theorems, tending to peace, (IV.285) so that When a commonwealth is
once settled, then are they actually laws, and not before, as being then the
commands of the commonwealth, and therefore also civil laws. (26.4)
But unlike the first interpretation, it insists that the primary role of the laws
of nature is to determine our obligations, and not merely to set out, as
rational precepts, what we must do in the interest of our preservation. It
does not of course deny that the obligations imposed by the laws of nature
do serve the interest of our preservation. Hobbes says that the principal
[law of nature] is that we should not violate our faith. (43.5) On the
third interpretation, this is to be understood straightforwardly as the claim
that the principal law of nature obligates us to keep faith, which, we may
add, is in the interest of our preservation. But on the first interpretation,
this is to be understood more obliquely, as the claim that the principal law
of nature tells us that in the interest of preservation, we must give up some
portion of our right of nature and so obligate ourselves to keep faith.
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If this were all, then the third interpretation would avoid the weaknesses of treating the laws of nature as primarily divine commands, while
giving us a straightforward reading of Hobbes frequent claim that the
laws of nature obligate. But unfortunately matters are not so simple, as
two other passages from Leviathan that I have already referred to will
remind us. For a civil law that shall forbid rebellion . . . is not (as a civil
law) any obligation but by virtue of the law of nature that forbiddeth the
violation of faith; which natural law, if men know not, they cannot know
the right of any law the sovereign maketh. (30.4) If natural law is known
as law, and obligates, only as part of civil law, then it can not serve as the
basis of civil law in the way in which this passage demands. Only a prior
obligation to natural law can serve to ground the right of any law the
sovereign maketh. And again, The laws of God . . . are none but the laws
of nature, whereof the principal . . . commandeth obedience to the law civil.
(43.5) Clearly if the law of nature obligates only as part of civil law, it can
not command obedience to it.
Treating the laws of nature as laws and obligating only as part of civil
law, Hobbes would have no account of the obligation to obey the sovereign. For he could only reason as follows: we are obliged to obey the laws
of nature because they are civil laws, and we are obliged to obey civil
laws because we are obliged to obey their maker, the sovereign, and we
are obliged to obey the sovereign because we have covenanted to authorize
him, and we are obliged to keep to our covenant authorizing him because
we are obliged to obey the laws of nature which forbid the violation of
faith. But this is to reason in a circle. To cut the circle by offering a
further ground for obeying the laws of nature, Hobbes must either treat
them as laws of God, and so fall back on the second interpretation with
its attendant problems, or as rational precepts counselling us to put ourselves under obligation, and so fall back on the first interpretation.
It might be urged that the third interpretation should treat the obligation to keep faith, or to obey the sovereign whom one has covenanted to
authorize, simply as a normative primitive, for which no grounding can
be given. Were Hobbes to do this, then he would have to abandon the
attempt, in the passages that I have just quoted, to base this obligation
on a prior obligation to obey the laws of nature. But that attempt is in
any case clearly doomed if one supposes that the laws of nature obligate
only as part of civil law. So this proposal would detach the keeping of
faith from the laws of nature. For if the laws of nature obligate only as
part of civil law, one can not consistently suppose that one has an
ungrounded obligation to keep faith, as part of the law of nature.
At this point one might suggest that the third interpretation be abandoned in favor of a fourth, in which the obligation to obey the laws of
nature is taken as the normative primitive, grounding the obligation to
obey the sovereign, and his laws, including the laws of nature in their
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capacity as also civil laws. This would be, in effect, to take the second
interpretation, in which the laws of nature obligate as commands of God,
and remove God. But this proposal shares the fatal weakness of that
second interpretationit requires that natural reason acquaint us with
law. And indeed it has a further weakness; it requires that natural reason
acquaint us with law in the absence of a law-giver. If we are to allow
Hobbes to let natural reason access law despite his explicit denials, we
should at least not compound his incoherence by denying him a law-giver.
The negative considerations that I have advanced, however, are not
sufficient in themselves fully to discredit the third interpretation. For
Hobbes may have thought, incoherently, that the laws of nature are laws
only as part of civil law, and also that the laws of nature ultimately obligate us to obey civil law. He may not have recognized that he could treat
the laws of nature simply as rational precepts and still ground the obligation to obey the sovereign and his laws. Or, even if he did recognize this
possibility, he may have had reasons for not accepting it. He never explicitly commits himself to the reading that I have offered of the introduction
of obligation in chapter 14, and much of what he says elsewhere certainly
suggests that he thinks of the laws of nature primarily as laws, and indeed
as both divine and civil laws. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the first
interpretation offers the most coherent reading of his overall position,
whether or not he was aware of it. Perhaps I should then sayit offers
Hobbes the most coherent reading of his moral and political theory. And
this is where I am content to let the argument rest. I conclude that we
may understand the laws of nature as primarily rational precepts, and
only secondarily as commands of the sovereign and, through his mediation,
of Godbut we may do this only as making better sense of more of what
seems most important in Hobbess argument than do either of its rivals.
Department of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh
NOTES
* The initial draft of this paper was written at the University of East Anglia, where I
was Visiting Research Scholar in the School of Economic and Social Studies, and presented
to a faculty reading group on Hobbes. I am grateful for feedback from the group, and for
support from the University of East Anglia.
1 References to Hobbes: Passages from Leviathan are identified by chapter and paragraph as given in Edwin Curleys edition of Leviathan. Roman numerals indicate volumes
of Sir William Molesworth (ed.), The English Works of Thomas Hobbes (London: 183945)
followed by page numbers. DC indicates the English translation of De Cive, as given in
Bernard Gert (ed.), Man and Citizen (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1991); passages are identified by chapter and paragraph.
2 I shall not attempt to defend the claims I make about Hobbess earlier writings in this
essay, which is already quite long and complex enough.
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3 See my papers, Thomas Hobbes and the Contractarian Theory of Law, in David
Copp (ed.), Canadian Philosophers: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Canadian Journal of
Philosophy, (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990), 534, and Public Reason, Social
Philosophy & Policy, 12, 1994, 1942.
4 M = A.P. Martinich, The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on religion and
politics (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
5
For aficionados of these matters, I should acknowledge that the view I have just expressed
in the preceding paragraph is not the position that I ascribe to Hobbes in The Logic of
Leviathan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) and not the way in which I read my own
argument in Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Whether it is a better
view than mine is, fortunately, not here at issue.
6
This passage in Hobbess reply to Bramhall seems to me to weigh conclusively against
A. P. Martinichs claim, quoted above in section 3, that in the concluding paragraph of
chapter 15, the word of God. . . refers to Gods natural revelation to humans through
right reason. Martinich is nevertheless clearly right to insist that elsewhere Hobbes does
identify right reason with Gods word.
7
I doubt that we learn anything new from this particular sentence, but quoting it is
surely irresistible.

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