The Peculiarity of Hobbes’s Concept of Natural Right

  • C. A. J. Coady
Part of the Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées/International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 111)


Hobbes’s theory of natural right is generally held to be an important element in his political philosophy and many scholars see it as marking a decisive moment in the development of modern political thought. Leo Strauss, for instance, says of it, ‘The fundamental change from an orientation by natural duties to an orientation by natural rights finds its clearest and most telling expression in the teaching of Hobbes, who squarely made an unconditional natural right the basis of all natural duties, the duties being therefore only conditional’.1 Given this background, it is rather surprising that so few commentators have paid Hobbes’s theory the close attention that it surely deserves. Professor Goyard-Fabre’s concentration upon this issue both here and in her book2is thus all the more commendable but, while I agree with a number of things she has to say in the course of her discussion, I feel that its focus is insufficiently sharp and her central contentions about Hobbes’s concept of right strike me as misguided. In what follows I shall try to substantiate this claim and also sketch the outlines of what I regard as a more adequate view of Hobbes on natural right.


Civil Society Decisive Moment Natural Duty Rich Notion Telling Expression 
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  1. 1.
    Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 182.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Simone Goyard-Fabre, Le Droite et La Loi Dans La Philosophie De Thomas Hobbes (Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck: 1975).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (University of Chicago Press, 1952). His argument runs throughout the book but is summarized at pp. 113–115.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    This quite explicit insistence by Hobbes is surprisingly ignored by some commentators, including for instance, Strauss, who says, ‘Hobbes doctrine of sovereignty ascribes to the sovereign prince or to the sovereign people an unqualified right to disregard all legal and constitutional limitations according to their pleasure’. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 193. The obligations cited in the text seem to impose clear limits on the sovereign’s right, although not ones the subject can invoke, and to restrict his freedom to act as he pleases.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Brian Barry ‘Warrender and his Critics’, Philosophy Vol. XLII, No. 164 (1968). (Reprinted in Maurice Cranston and Richard Peters (eds.) Hobbes and Rousseau (New York, 1972). Cf. the argument of the footnote 12 on pp. 44–45 of the reprinted version and p. 134 of the Philosophy text.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    A point noted by Barry, op. cit., but taken by him to show that God is an ‘incidental beneficiary’ of Hobbes’s desire to give the sovereign unlimited natural right. I think it more likely that the attribution of the right of dominion to God should be understood negatively as indicating our rational obligation to obey God’s power irresistible and that the sovereign, if anyone, is meant to be an ‘incidental beneficiary’ of this point about rational obligation. Barry’s general position on obligation would preclude him from taking this line, or, at least, from being comfortable with it, since he treats this sort of rational obligation as involving a ‘secondary sense’ which is of minor importance in the understanding of Hobbes, especially the Hobbes of the Leviathan (cf. Barry, op. cit, pp. 58–64 and pp. 128–132). I cannot here discuss Barry’s complex and subtle argument but will merely record my view that his attempt to downgrade the way in which natural laws and rational considerations about self-preservation etc. oblige produces a distorion of Hobbes’s thought. I hope to give this matter the detailed consideration it deserves on another occasion.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Sir Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Concepts of Liberty’ in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, 1969). See also Berlin’s comments in the introduction to this volume, especially pp. xxxvii–xxxiii.Google Scholar
  8. 10a.
    I am referring here to the idea that our covenants oblige us simply because to incur any obligation is part of what it means to covenant. The early part of Chapter 14 of Leviathan (see EW III, 118–119) can, I think, be interpreted in a way that makes it quite close to John Searle’s view of the obligatoriness involved in promising (cf. John Searle, Speech Acts [Cambridge, 1969], Ch. 8). On the other hand, if we concentrate upon the ‘absurdity’ argument, in that same discussion, there are, as A.E. Taylor noticed and made too much of, distinct similarities with Kantian rationalism.Google Scholar
  9. 10b.
    For Taylor’s claims see A. E. Taylor, ‘The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes’, reprinted in K.C. Brown (ed.), Hobbes Studies (Oxford, 1965).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a 2ae, 94, 2.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Fransisco Suarez, A Defence of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith Book VI, Ch. IV, in Selections From Three Works of Francisco Suarez S.J., Classics of International Law (Oxford, 1944), p. 709.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers (Kluwer Academic Publishers), Dordrecht 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. A. J. Coady
    • 1
  1. 1.University of MelbourneAustralia

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