After Aquinas, the two most notable developments in ethical theory are to be found in the turn from Aristotelian realism to Ockhamist nominalism on the one hand, and the turn towards a prudence-based understanding of right and justice epitomised by Machiavelli on the other hand. In the 13th century, Ockham combined a theory of divine omnipotence with a nominalist metaphysics. The result was an ethical theory which was strongly voluntarist in the sense that ‘goodness is dependent on obligation, obligation on volition, and volition unbound by reason or anything else’. (James Walsh, ‘Nominalism and the Ethics’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, January 1966, vol. IV, no. 1, p. 2.) Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) made much of Ockhamist nominalism in his own ethical writings. And Hobbes was also influenced by the 14th century pragmatic political philosophy, in which Machiavelli, most importantly, had argued that rights and civic virtue were circumscribed by such practical considerations as the fact that a ruler must remain in power in order to accomplish anything at all. These pragmatic and nominalist departures from Aquinas reached their most forceful articulation in Hobbes’ writings.


Civil Society Social Contract Moral Obligation Moral Philosophy Civic Virtue 
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Works by Hobbes Cited

  1. 1.
    The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury,collected and edited by Sir William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1840; second reprint, Germany: Scientia Verlag, 1966) 11 volumes (cited as EW).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    De Homine, translated by Charles T. Wood, T. S. K. Scott-Craig, and Bernard Gert, in Man and Citizen, edited by Bernard Gert (New York: Anchor Books, 1972 ).Google Scholar

Other Works Cited And/Or Recommended

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Copyright information

© Larry May 1989

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  • Larry May

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