From the Natural Man to the Political Machine

Sovereignty and Power in the Works of Thomas Hobbes

by Gabriela Ratulea (Author)
©2015 Monographs 132 Pages


It is unusual to connect Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy with liberal thought. This study argues that liberal philosophy is indeed indebted to Hobbes: as a modern thinker he was the first to deduce political rights and obligations from self-interest. While we may say today that Hobbes sustains the capacity of government at the expense of democratic institutions, it is equally clear that he invented the idea of political legitimacy in the modern sense. Analyzing the tradition of natural law, the doctrine of social contract, and the sources of moral and political obligation, the study shows how Hobbes’ assumptions help us to understand that there is no liberty without political authority.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Hobbes in context
  • 1.1 Natural law and positive law: The Classics
  • 1.1.1 Pagan conceptions
  • 1.1.2 Christian conceptions
  • 1.2 Natural law and natural right: The Moderns
  • 1.3 Civil war and sovereignty in England
  • Chapter 2: The theory of sovereignty
  • 2.1 The human condition of mankind
  • 2.1.1 The two postulates of human nature
  • 2.1.2 The war of every one against every one
  • 2.2 Natural laws as moral percepts
  • 2.2.1 The seeking of peace and the transfer of right
  • 2.2.2 Justice, gratitude and other natural laws
  • 2.3 The institution of civil society
  • 2.3.1 The constitution of civil power
  • 2.3.2 The reign of law and judiciary power
  • Chapter 3: Hobbes’s theory of obligation
  • 3.1 The critique of Hobbesian theory by John Locke
  • 3.2 A liberal interpretation of Hobbes
  • 3.3 Moral and political obligation
  • References

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As John Rawls has pointed out, the modern moral and political philosophy begins with Hobbes, and with the reaction to Hobbes. Usually there is a tendency to oppose Thomas Hobbes to the liberal thinkers and to consider him as the theoretician of the unlimited political power. Nevertheless the main problem is similar in Hobbes’s theory as well as in liberal theory, their common question being: how is the rational freedom possible and how to guarantee the exercise of civic duties of citizens? This is the reason why we should consider the opposition between Hobbes and liberals as not to being found in their aspirations, since both theories aim for a society in which individuals enjoy their freedom without expose to danger the safety of their fellows. The opposition is merely to be found at the level of means of action which are considered for attaining this objective: unlimited political power versus limited political power. Hobbes and the entire liberal view consider that a liberal political society must be founded on moral facts and properties. These moral resources, which are not necessarily of religious inspiration, are coming from the foro interno of individuals and prevent them from doing certain actions. But the individual moral sense is not efficient and sufficient in all the circumstances to insure the stability of any given society. For this reason, it is necessary to impose some external limits which are able to compel the individuals to respect some moral rules, and this action is to be done by political power.

Approaching the Leviathan to the liberal ideology (whose founder is considered to be John Locke) we may say, as some interpreters did (like Leo Strauss or C. A. Macpherson), that modern individualism begins, in theory, with the intellectual work of Hobbes. “Although his conclusions barely can be considered as liberals, its postulates are deeply individualistic,”1 since he deduces political rights and obligations from the interests and the will of separate individuals. His conceptions of society, justice and natural law would be traditional, but the foundation of political rights and obligations is to be understood in connection with two major suppositions: the equality of needs and the equal insecurity. Also, for him, the moral rely on politics and has its origins in the social contract and the birth of civil society.

During the civil war (1640–1649) it appeared to Hobbes that people’s security and well-being cannot be guaranteed in the state of anarchy or in the absence of a real political power capable to solve the conflicts that inevitably rise in a given human society. In this respect the Leviathan is not only a philosophical, but also a juridical and moral answer to the political crisis generated by the civil war. The English philosopher develops in his political theory the only efficient solution to the problem of violence and war: the institution of an absolute and powerful political government. Only such a power can restore the order there where violence dominates and can prevent the violence there where order still reigns. We may say today that Hobbes sustains the capacity of government at the expense of democratic institutions, but we could not blame him since he invented the idea of legitimacy of politics in the modern sense, when he stated that even the sovereignty by acquisition is founded “not by the victory, but by the consent of the vanquished.”

In Hobbes’s view, the role of the state it is not to create or promote a virtuous life for people, but to defend every one’s natural right. In this respect, natural and civil law are closely related to each other. The main function of positive law is therefore to apply natural law, not to declare it void. Natural laws such as equity, justice and gratitude pertain to those moral features which determine people to search for peace; they become effective laws only within the state. If natural law is part of civil law in every civil state, civil law is, in its turn, part of natural law as long as the observance of the conventions and the commandment to give to every man his own are precepts of natural law. Therefore, there are no fundamental differences between natural and civil laws, since they are just different aspects of the only general law, one being unwritten, the other written. Despite these remarks, the right to natural liberty may be restraint by civil laws, as long as these laws are made to provide peace and security, so that people do not harm each other, but help each other and be united against a common enemy. The possibility for a rational and consequently a peaceful order to prevail is given by the sovereign’s absolute power, and this is because he is the only person who keeps integrally the natural precepts.

In Hobbes’s theory, the laws that lead to the institution of the civil society are all deduced from the concept of human nature. Thus, the concept of human nature is not only a descriptive or an explaining concept, but it is outstandingly a boundary-concept.2 The state of nature, it is not the state of the beginning, it is deeply embedded in the psychological characteristics of the mankind, being on the one hand synonym of danger that threats continually the humanity and pursue it from the shadow, and on the other hand the principle of virtue and the condition of possibility of common good. ← 7 | 8 →

If we consider the international political situation of this early 21st century, we are entitled to assert that the technological transformations of the art of war created a new equality in insecurity among people. The crisis of sovereignty in some societies produces new dangers for the global security. This is the reason why, through the realist school of thought in International Relations, Hobbes’s political theory could indicate some principle of action, in connection with the liberal theory. Hobbes was that thinker of the 17th century who founded the rational political obligation on the human nature itself. His realistic assumptions could help the contemporary people to understand that there is no liberty where there is no political authority.

1 C. B. Macpherson, The political Theory of Possessive Individualism Hobbes to Locke (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 1.

2 Or, more accurately, a limiting concept, the Grenzbegriff of which Kant speaks.

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Chapter 1: Hobbes in Context


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Natural law natural right State of nature social contract Modern individualism Natural condition of mankind
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 132 pp.

Biographical notes

Gabriela Ratulea (Author)

Gabriela Ratulea is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Communication, Transilvania University of Brasov (Romania). Her main research interests are political philosophy and social justice.


Title: From the Natural Man to the Political Machine
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134 pages