This paper offers a systematic analysis of Hobbes’s practical political thought. Hobbes’s abstract philosophy is rightly celebrated, but he also gave much practical advice on how to avoid disorder. Yet he is typically interpreted too narrowly in this respect, especially by those who only read him economistically. Other scholars supplement this economistic focus with sociological or political interpretations, but to my knowledge, no one stresses all three aspects of his thought. This paper thus examines each of Hobbes’s practical proposals for avoiding corruption and a state of nature. Hobbes clearly uses economistic, sociological and political approaches, which involve shaping incentives, desires/preferences, and opportunities, respectively. This intentionally anachronistic framework helps us see further, highlighting Hobbes’s rich and wide-ranging practical proposals for avoiding disorder – a crucial part of his theory.
Hobbes, in both the Elements of Law and Leviathan, argues that a wide variety of terms – including ‘good’, ‘bad’, and the names of virtues and vices – have a double and inconstant signification. This paper explores and explains that theory of Hobbes’s. (Two other interpretations are discussed: Pettit’s discussion in terms of indexicals, and Alexandra’s in terms of sense and reference.) This inconstancy of signification has considerable potential to cause confusion and conflict. Given those practical consequences, it is of some importance for Hobbes to find a solution to this problem. The paper examines several possible Hobbesian solutions to the problem. There is reason to think that these suggested solutions cannot completely solve the problem. Hobbes appears to believe that an appropriately powerful sovereign can resolve such problems when necessary, but this is a practical solution that relies on sovereign power, and the difficulty is never in principle resolved.
Few passages in Hobbes’s writings have generated as much critical interest as the notorious reply to the fool – one who believes it is reasonable to renege on our promises whenever it is advantageous for us to do so. In his reply, Hobbes appears to argue that it is never reasonable to renege on our promises because doing so is never in our prudential interest. The problem is not only that this reply seems wrong, but further that it seems inconsistent with Hobbes’s own philosophical commitments. This research note argues that the reply makes sense if we are willing to read it as an incompletely worked-out claim about the prudence of sometimes preventing oneself from being fully prudent in the future.
Hobbes surely spent the ten years (1641–1651) of greatest significance for his philosophical career on the Continent, in France, above all, in Paris. It was during this period that he published De cive; wrote the De motu, loco et tempore; produced a draft of the entire Leviathan as well as most of De corpore. His complicated relationship with Descartes has been studied closely, and Mersenne’s role has become clearer. There remains however the task of more carefully delineating the contours of Hobbes’s relations with the circles of “learned libertinism.” The Libertinism which will be dealt with here was not only French, instead of English, but also “theoretical” and “intellectual” rather than practical, and nothing at all sexual, contrary to the common usage of that word in the current language. French Libertinism was a philosophical trend aimed at promoting a non-conformist approach to religion, history, morals, and even politics.
Hobbes, in his political writing, is generally understood to be arguing for absolutism. I argue that despite apparently supporting absolutism, Hobbes, in Leviathan, also undermines that absolutism in at least two and possibly three ways. First, he makes sovereignty conditional upon the sovereign’s ability to ensure the safety of the people. Second and crucially, he argues that subjects have inalienable rights, rights that are held even against the sovereign. When the subjects’ preservation is threatened they are no longer obliged to obey the sovereign. Third, there is also a possible limitation on the absolute power of the sovereign in the form of restrictions Hobbes puts in place on what laws he may legitimately make. Finally, Hobbesian absolutism is compared to the absolutism of Carl Schmitt. This exercise demonstrates the limitations that Hobbes places on the power and authority of the sovereign.
Scholars debate whether Hobbes held to a command theory of law or to a natural law theory, and to what extent they are compatible. Curiously, however, Hobbes summarizes his own teachings by claiming that it is “natural justice” that sovereigns should study, an idea that recalls ancient virtue ethics and which is seemingly incompatible with both command and natural law theory. The purpose of this article is to explicate the general significance of natural justice in Leviathan. It is argued that below the formal and ideological claims regarding the law’s legitimacy, the effective ground of the legitimacy of both the civil and natural laws is sovereign virtue. In turn, it is argued that the model for this idea was found in Aristotle. As such, this article constitutes a general recasting of Hobbes’s legal philosophy with a focus on the natural person of the sovereign.