I would like to hear some opinions on a question I am asking myself due to contradictions in the references of my term paper.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics" states:

Aquinas was not the only historically important paradigmatic natural law theorist. Thomas Hobbes, for example, was also a paradigmatic natural law theorist. He held that the laws of nature are divine law (Leviathan, xv, §41), that all humans are bound by them (Leviathan, xv, §36), and that it is easy to know at least the basics of the natural law (Leviathan, xv, §35). He held that the fundamental good is self-preservation (Leviathan, xiii, §14), and that the laws of nature direct the way to this good (Leviathan, xiv, §3).

Those are exactly the points they described earlier in the article as the foundation of the natural law theory.

However other references very clearly depict Hobbes as the one philosopher who rejects political Aristotelianism, for (I am translating the reference myself here) "he replaces the cooperation anthropology with a conflict anthropology; the teleological nature concept with a mechanistic-causal nature concept; the substantial reason (Vernunft), in line with nature, with an instrumental and strategic rationality; the unity of nature and politics with the opposition of nature and politics; the theory of a good life with a theory of self-preservation; the concept of the political community as natural purpose with the concept of the commonwealth as an utile instrument, with the clever and antisocial egoist correcting the coexistence deficits of the first nature" etc. Altogether many reasons to question his ability to defend the natural law without contradicting himself.

Why are the references in disagreement? Is it plausible to defend Hobbes as a natural law theorist? If not - why does the Stanford Encyclopedia still consider him to be one?

Edit: Political Aristotelianism and the natural law were for many centuries one tradition. Assuming that Hobbes is the antagonist of political Aristotelianism, is there a way to defend his position as a natural law theorist (can there be a natural law in a "mechanistic-causal nature concept"?), or is this the point in history where the natural law turns into a law of reason?

  • 1
    I love this question, but what exactly is a "natural law theorist"? Is it simply a person who theorizes natural laws? That's not what I'm getting from this question, because I don't much see how the "many reasons" actually question Hobbes' name as a natural theorist. I think they all work with nature, if you change your perspective.
    – commando
    Aug 9, 2012 at 4:54
  • 1
    I'd say a natural law theorist is someone who claims that there actually is a natural law. But this claim, IMO, is an ethical realistic viewpoint, and I don't see how you can be an ethical realist in a concept of a mechanistic nature. So yes, he does work with nature, but his nature concept, IMO, contradicts a possible natural law.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 9, 2012 at 11:30

3 Answers 3


You have the right hunch about the shift from classical to modern natural law. I believe that Eric Voegelin has shown in his posthumously published eight-volume work, The History of Political Ideas the influence that Luther's and Calvin's philosophical anthropology had on Hobbes and subsequent political thinkers. Hobbes changes the tradition from one dominated by Scholastic terminology to one of Natural Right, as Leo Strauss argued. Working instead with a picture of depraved humanity, Hobbes turned away from the question of right in the sense of justice (ius) to the external concerns of one's rights or privileges under the law (lex). By overextending the effects of original sin as is customary in the Protestant tradition, Hobbes focused natural law away from questions about right/wrong or just/unjust to concerns about rights or what is lawful according to covenant. Questions of conscience are shot and reflect the dismal state all people suffer from. Locke, Grotius, and Pufendorf turned to this as well with the bifurcation of human nature into our internal and external lives. Internally, there is nothing to be done sense man is wretched and driven only by appetite or desire for finding pleasure and avoiding pain. Natural rights becomes a focus on institutional and legal enforcement concerns, while divorcing the natural law from ethics, especially virtue ethics and the notion of self-government. Vico exposed the pitfalls of this tradition in presupposing the rational construction of the social contract, which does follow from our experience. He concluded that the tradition of modern natural right works with an impoverished notion of justice, which is concerned only legal social relations. If there is anything like the natural law left, in the classical sense, it really boils down to divine law or the scriptures of revelation. After the reformers it because less likely that natural law is written on the heart or that we have a "window" into the eternal law, as Aquinas claimed. Ever since advocates of natural law and right have been in a needless quagmire boiling it down to Catholic and Protestant faiths. Please see my master's thesis on this very subject where I go into great detail on this very issue. Chapter three is an entire analysis of Luther's and Calvin's philosophical anthropology according to Voegelin's research that I think you will find quite helpful. There is a lot more to add obviously but this, I think, addresses one of the main divisions that will help us get a handle on how these traditions do vary. I appreciate any feedback or corrections. Thanks for your time!!

  • Thank you for your efforts, I will have a look at the references, although sadly time and my thesis' volume are too short to cover Luther and/or Calvin. Where do I find your thesis?
    – iphigenie
    Aug 12, 2012 at 19:49
  • I totally understand! If it is not available online or if you have to pay to view it then you can get it for free through inter-library loan with your university. If that doesn't work for you, then I would be more than willing to mail you the chapter. I definitely feel you on the whole time and "thesis' volume" thing, but good luck to you and I hope your studies are going well. Let me know if you would like me to look anything over--we have a few free days before the ball gets rolling again...lol! Thanks so much for inquiring about it! You should be able to get EV's volumes easily. Peace Aug 12, 2012 at 20:48

After several days of work on my thesis I feel obliged to answer my own question, partly because it is built upon a negligent but interesting mistake, partly because nobody pointed a finger at my mistake. Also I read in the FAQ that it's not wrong to answer one's question, if it is unwelcome, I apologise.

The mistake I made was mistaking the natural right for the natural law. Very interesting problems grew out of that. Indeed it seems right to call Hobbes a natural law theorist, for he talks a lot about these natural laws (although he often enough calls them precepts) and continually uses them in his argumentations. But although these laws do have the form of imperatives and probably cannot make do without some kind of theism (as A. E. Taylor points out in The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes) I was right with observing a problem with the compatibility of a mechanistic-causal nature and a natural right. Indeed the natural right seems to turn into a right of reason, but not a "law of reason", as I wrote in my initial question.

Unlike other thinkers, who might have different opinions on the content of the jus naturale but agree on its importance as a tool for justification of government and legal rights, there is just one natural right for Hobbes, justifying, as it seems, only actions of individuals:

"The RIGHT OF NATURE, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto."

I will improve this answer, probably after having written my thesis. Until then I would be very thankful for advice on where to find further literature/sources on the right of reason.


Hopefully, you will reconsider! Hobbes clearly has a deflationary view of reason (ratio) in the traditional sense and states in Part I of Leviathan that human beings are driven by appetites with bigger brains. He is a materialist and it is very clear in the passage you are citing that he associates right of nature with self-preservation. It is Aquinas, who says that natural law is "right reason" participating in the mind of God or the eternal law (Summa Theologica Question 94--Treatise on Law). So Hobbes would agree that he has changed the natural law to one's "right of reason" but he doesn't think much about it! We are still driven by animal inclinations and what the Aquinas and Aristotle called "right reason" is really for Hobbes "vain-glory." We are guided prominently by a "fear of violent death" and reason amounts to calculations in finding ways to survive and maintain our power or liberty. I think Taylor overstates the case because the "theism" that Hobbes advocates is Calvinistic like I've argued. It is what I call the "dead-beat dad" theology, where God is as far away from us sinners as possible! We don't deserve anything from God given our insufficiency, yet we owe him everything since he brought us into the world. We are wretched creatures for Hobbes and the only power capable to keeping us in line is that mortal God--Leviathan, which comes from the Bible meaning whale--the biggest animal on the planet. Following Luther's Two Swords doctrine, Hobbes emphasizes not the tension but the separation between the kingdom of God and man. Leviathan are God's vicars on earth answerable only to the Divine Law! If you notice, like Locke and Rousseau did, this is why Leviathan can NEVER break the social contract in Hobbes' theory, which is absurd. Hobbes gave up on "right reason" with access to the eternal law directly through metaphysical participation and traded it in for the right of appetite and power, "which ceaseth only in death." This is one of the keystone reforms brought about by natural right against natural law--it is no longer rational, but obligatory and institutional based on human power and dominion promulgated by God. Immaterial substances like angels or the intellect for the medieval schoolmen are a laughing stock to Hobbes! They are chimeras of our fancy and if they happen to actually exist then Hobbes claims they are merely "thin ariel bodies" not observable to the naked eye.

  • 1. What am I to reconsider? I didn't find the point where you make a valid objection (no offence intended). For as you said, I already pointed out the specific passage where he makes clear that the natural right is what legitimates every means for human self-preservation. 2. Thanks for the input, although I have to point out that you are repeating the mistake I did when first writing the answer. You're saying that Hobbes "has changed the natural law to one's 'right of reason'", but you can not change a right into a law, semantically they are very different things, and so they are in content.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 19, 2012 at 18:04
  • 3. Would you try to explain this passage to me? "This is one of the keystone reforms brought about by natural right against natural law--it is no longer rational, but obligatory and institutional based on human power and dominion promulgated by God." 4. I don't know why you're talking about angels and stuff, but please consider adding a few exclamation marks less next time, otherwise I have to consider you being overly eager on me feeling stupid for even asking.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 19, 2012 at 18:05
  • No, you cannot keep talking about Hobbes and reason because of the baggage it carries from the Scholastics. Hobbes linked the notion of an immaterial substance like mind and angels with Thomistic natural law--it's human phantasy. Natural law derives from the divine will--Hobbes is supra-voluntarist. You cannot just treat chapters 13 and so on but have to consider the whole book and the philosophical anthropology it presupposes. Take a look at part IV--the Kingdom of Darkness--Hobbes links natural law as confiscated by the Church when it's simply for him a "right of nature." Aug 19, 2012 at 21:44
  • It's natural law only as a command from God because nature is not a guide to ratio. I'm sorry my style offended you but that's how I consistently write if you look at my other posts. I wrote a 123 pp thesis on this in 2009 and after doing all that work, trust me, this isn't getting me all worked up...lol! So I hope it works out for you! I think you really need to understand the medieval debates on this subject which absorbed Hobbes' age. In attempting to break out of this he is heavily influenced by Luther, Calvin, and especially Grotius. Glance at the Laws of War and Peace if you can! Aug 19, 2012 at 21:52
  • Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf break out of the rationalists vs. voluntarists debate as heavily Catholic and merely reactionary. This is the tradition of political philosophy that EXACTLY thought you could move from a right to a law. Just because you and I live in a time when people think this isn't possible does not detract from this historical fact. In doing a study of this nature you have to be careful in reading our own values, hopes, fears, purposes, etc. into the interpretations. This is why I like Voegelin's analysis, he was a first-rate historian trying to be intellectually honest. Aug 19, 2012 at 21:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .