Thursday, January 06, 2011

Looking Afresh at Hobbes’s Moral & Political Philosophy

Having recently read S.A. Lloyd’s two remarkable books on Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy, namely, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (1992)* and Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (2009), as well as the late Perez Zagorin’s Hobbes and the Law of Nature (2009), I was inspired to look afresh at Hobbes’s Leviathan (De Cive and Behemoth will come later). While there’s much I’d like to share with readers about what I’ve learned, including material that may not be well-known or appreciated or may simply be misunderstood, I’ve selected a couple of passages for reflection. Perhaps some readers will be prompted to read Hobbes for themselves, yet again or for the first time. And should you want the expertise of others to guide and assist your efforts, one would be hard-pressed to find more able scholars than Lloyd and Zagorin.

“The Laws of Nature…[are] contained in this one Sentence, approved by all the world, ‘Do not that to another, which thou thinkest unreasonable to be done by another to thy self.’”—This is of course a negative formulation of the Golden Rule, on which there is a fair amount of literature but little of which is of high quality. For perspicacious treatments, I suggest one consult Jeffrey Wattles’ The Golden Rule (1996), Anna Wierzbicka’s discussion in What Did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts (2001): 191-202, and Neil Duxbury’s “Golden Rule Reasoning, Moral Judgment and Law,” Notre Dame Law Review, 84 (2009): 1529-1605.

“[I]f the Soveraign employ a Publique Minister, without written Instructions what to doe; he is obliged to take for Instructions The Dictates of Reason; As if he make a Judge, the Judge is to take notice, that his sentence ought to be according to the reason of his Soveraign, which being always understood to be Equity, he is bound to it by the Law of Nature…. All which Instructions of naturall Reason may be comprehended under one name of Fidelity, which is a branch of naturall Justice.”

“The unwritten Law of Nature, though it be easy to such, as without partiality, and passion, make use of this naturall reason, and therefore leaves the violators thereof without excuse; yet considering 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.”

“The things that make a good Judge, or good Interpreter of the Lawes, are, first, A right understanding of that principall Law of Nature called Equity; which depending not on the reading of other mens Wrongs, but on the goodnesse of a mans own naturall Reason, and Meditation, is presumed to be in those most, that have had most leisure, and the most inclination to meditate thereon. Secondly, Contempt of unnecessary Riches and Preferments. Thirdly, To be able in judgement to devest himselfe of all feare, anger, hatred, love, and compassion. Fourthly, and lastly, Patience to heare, diligent attention in hearing; and memory to retain, digest and apply what he hath heard.”

Hobbes, Thomas (Richard Tuck, ed.). Leviathan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

* I discussed Lloyd’s first book on this blog here, here, and here.

[cross-posted at]


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