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From the Natural Man to the Political Machine

Sovereignty and Power in the Works of Thomas Hobbes

Gabriela Ratulea

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.
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Chapter 3: Hobbes’s theory of obligation


The transfer of rights through the social contract creates the political obligation of the subjects towards the sovereign. It is only by acknowledging his authority that people can hope to avoid the permanent threat of a violent death determined by the continuous desire of gaining power over others, this desire being characteristic of human nature. Thus, political obligation is inferred from human nature, which, according to Hobbes, is a moral obligation. People acknowledge their obligation towards the sovereign because this is in their own best interest. The matter which arises here actually aims at the fact that, from the perspective of classic morals, an obligation which is based exclusively on one’s own interest cannot be considered as moral (at most, it is prudent). A true moral obligation must be based on something that goes beyond the limits of one’s own interest. Obviously, for Hobbes, the issue is not discussed in these terms. The value of an obligation (which consists in its capacity to bind) can only be tested in practice. Or, practice hasn’t shown that an obligation which is based on something beyond one’s own interest binds people more firmly and to a greater extent than the latter. Moreover, Hobbes considers that “the new type of obligation is more efficient and bounded of men needs and capacities.”228 The obligation to which he is referring is based not only on his own interest, but also on something less noble, like fear. For this consideration, Hobbes was considered by...

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