Hobbes, Revolution and the Philosophy of History

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


When coming to the study of Hobbes’s political philosophy one is confronted by several puzzling elements. I wish to take up three of them. The most bothersome, perhaps, is Hobbes’s claim that there is no significant difference between sovereignty by institution and sovereignty by acquisition. Both can be legitimate and can be so for the same reason, namely, the consent of the subjects.


Social Contract Moral Obligation Common Rule Civil Disobedience Political Body 
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  1. 1.
    J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. P. Laslett (New York-Toronto: Mentor, 1965), p. 378.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Both ‘American savages’ and the early Germans actually belong under the third sense in which (as we shall see) the state of nature can be taken; see EW III, 82, 114–5.Google Scholar
  3. 3a.
    J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in The Political Writings of J.J. Rousseau, ed. C.E. Vaughan (New York: Wiley, 1962), I, p. 136, p. 141.Google Scholar
  4. 3b.
    J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971), pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  5. 4a.
    See M. Oakeshott, ‘The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes’ in his Hobbes on Civil Association (Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 95–113.Google Scholar
  6. 4b.
    Also J.W.N. Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas (London: Hutchinson, 1965), pp. 76, 82–3, 86–7, 150ff.Google Scholar
  7. 5a.
    See A.E. Taylor, ‘The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes’ in Hobbes Studies, ed. K.C. Brown (Cambridge: Harvard, 1965), 41ff.Google Scholar
  8. 5b.
    Also H. Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), pp. 7ff., 28, 63, 98–9, 102.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    For a more balanced view (though different from mine), see S. Moore, ‘Hobbes on Obligation, Moral and Political: Parts I–II’ in Journal of the History of Philosophy IX–X (January 1971-January 1972), pp. 43–62, 29–42.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Cf. Warrender, op. cit., pp. 53–79.Google Scholar
  11. 8a.
    Locke, op. cit, p. 375; Social Contract inGoogle Scholar
  12. 8b.
    Rousseau, op. cit., II, p. 32.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Hobbes says that the laws of nature are not really laws but rational conclusions or theorems that dispose, even compel, men toward security (EW III, 133–5, 147, 253; EW II, xvii, 44, 49–50; E, 82, 93; EW IV, 284–5). See also L. Stephen, Hobbes (London: MacMillan, 1904), pp. 208–9. It is true that in several places Hobbes also says that the laws of nature are more than theorems of reason, they are actually laws, if understood as divine laws ‘delivered by God in Holy Scripture’ (DC, EW II, 49–50). This would seem to imply that they oblige morally. But in general Hobbes’s discussion of God is to be taken as an appendage, i.e., he discusses theological issues in order to show that the laws of nature (and his political theory in general), which are independently established, are not contradicted but confirmed by Scripture (EW II, vii, 50–1; E, 95). Further, Hobbes holds that Scripture can only oblige us if so commanded by the sovereign (Liberty, Necessity, and Chance in EW V, 179). There are even laws of nature that precede the writings of Scripture (EW II, 113–4; E, 130–1).Google Scholar
  14. 11a.
    See Watkins, op. cit., p. 76;Google Scholar
  15. 11b.
    also R. Peters, Hobbes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956), pp. 170–1. It might be argued that Hobbes neither needs nor attempts to deduce moral obligation as something more than an obligation based upon self-interest. It might, for example, be argued that rule egoism (long-term self-interest as a principle which decides general rules - and which can even be found in the state of nature) is sufficient. But in places Hobbes certainly wants more than this; secondly, even this sort of obligation in the state of nature, as we shall shortly see, would hinder the scientific deduction of an absolute sovereign; and finally, as we shall see in our discussion of sovereignty by acquisition (section 4.), Hobbes needs more than this — individuals must have an obligation in opposition to their long-term self-interest.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    See Stephen, op. cit., pp. 213–4.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    See E, 175. Hobbes does admit the possibility of factions established by agreements or contracts; see EW, III, 223; EW II, 176.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    The sovereign must even decide his own successor; see EWIII, 181.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    Social Contract, op. cit., II, pp. 31–32, 65.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    EW III, 185, 189, 204, 254, 703–5; EW II, 109–13; E, 105, 128. A covenant is distinguished from a contract in that for the former at least one party does not actually perform but only promises to do so in the future; see EW II, 20; E, 77–8; EW III, 121.Google Scholar
  21. 17.
    EW III, 189, 703; E, 126; EW IV, 423. Oddly enough, in the ransom example it is one’s long-term interest as opposed to one’s immediate interest that makes for obligation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

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

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip J. Kain
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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