Thomas Hobbes: The Mediation of Right

  • Gary B. Herbert
Part of the Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées/International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 111)


Rights have always been a Janus-faced measure of moral action. One’s rights are reminders that his welfare is always potentially in conflict with the welfare of others. They serve as principles of alienation, and the invocation of one’s rights is a latent declaration of war. One might liken the man who invokes his rights to the Biblical Adam who, having eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was awakened by that act to the bleak aspects of his surroundings. An enlightened Adam knows that the Garden of Eden is a paradise only for a man of very few, exceedingly simple wants. That knowledge alone is sufficient to transform paradise into purgatory (cf. EW III, 194). In much the same way, enlightened reflection upon the human condition, illuminated by a sense of one’s rights, is a prelude to distress and despair. Untempered, such enlightenment can awaken the serpent in man. It can coax him into exaggerating both his needs and his claim to rightful satisfaction of those needs.


Civil Society Social Contract Moral Virtue Religious Doctrine Natural Reason 
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  1. 1.
    Strictly speaking, Hobbes had no moral theory. His thoughts about the moral obligations we might have toward others, i.e. the obligation to see that their needs are satisfied, were expressed best by G.W.F. Hegel, when he wrote, ‘that all men should have a competency for their needs is a well-meant moral desire, but without any moral objectivity’. The Philosophy of Right, article 49.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    ‘… all signs of hatred, or contempt, provoke to fight; insomuch as most men choose rather to hazard their life, than not to be revenged’ (EW III, 140; cf. EW II, 38; E, Ch. 9, art. 6).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. my ‘Thomas Hobbes’s Counterfeit Equality’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy vol. xiv, no. 3 (1976).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cf. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, ed. Thomas P. Peardon, (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1952).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (eds.), vol. i, sec. 6 (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), p. 40.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 56.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cf. my ‘Thomas Hobbes’s Dialectic of Desire’, The New Scholasticism Vol. L, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    K.R. Minogue, ‘Hobbes and the Just Man’, in Hobbes-Forschungen, eds. R. Koselleck and R. Schnur (Berlin, 1969), p. 170.Google Scholar
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  10. 10.
    ibid., p. 162.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Friederich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Random House, 1969), Third Essay, sec. 24, p. 150.Google Scholar

Copyright information

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

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary B. Herbert
    • 1
  1. 1.Loyola University of the SouthNew OrleansUSA

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