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Thomas Hobbes and the Laws of Nature

Updated on October 10, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Thomas Hobbes vs. Augustine of Hippo

In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, he discusses man, commonwealth, and how the two interrelate with each other. In this article, I will discuss how Hobbes views liberty, and how his views differ from that of Augustine of Hippo’s view of free will. Next, I will discuss Hobbes’ view of the law of nature. Finally, I will discuss Hobbes’ view of justice in the state of nature, and the role that a sovereign plays in nature. By analyzing Hobbes thoughts and ideas, one can gain a better understanding of humans and the societies in which they live.


As Hobbes begins discussing liberty, he says that man should use liberty for the advancement of self in the world. We are given liberty so that we may prosper in the world and give meaning for the lives we live. Liberty, Hobbes defines, is “the absence of external impediments, which impediments may oft take away part of a man’s power to do what he would” (Hobbes 79). Liberty is the absence of opposition against another man’s will. In chapter twenty-one, opposition is the “external impediments of motion” (136). Hobbes describes liberty as a type of freedom. This freedom must be of physical consistency. Whether man or animal, liberty or freedom must come about by external motion from a live being.

Since liberty must be of a physical nature, this means that one cannot technically speak freely, receive something that is free, or even have a free will. If these things are not condemned by the law, they are not defined as free because they were never enslaved in the first place. Hobbes states that liberty is consistent with fear and liberty is consistent with necessity. By being consistent with these two things, man creates a commonwealth which creates laws or covenants that dissolve any liberty in which man may have held in the first place. After a commonwealth is established, it is then up to the commonwealth to permit which liberties it will allow its public to take part in.


Free Will

Hobbes and Augustine’s views of freedom are similar because both freedoms require movement in order to establish that there is indeed freedom. However, Hobbes then goes on to say that the only thing that can be free is a body. This means that there is no such thing as free will.

Here, Hobbes’ view of freedom differs drastically from Augustine of Hippo’s view of freedom. According to Augustine, free will was given to humans by God so that they can do good in the world. Without a free will, there could be no good or bad. A human must be able to choose between acting right or acting wrong. If a human chooses to act wrongly, then they invoke a negative choice of the free will. However, since they have free will and are able to do bad, they are also able to right and therefore choose a correct choice with their free will. When discussing the will, Augustine states that the will cannot be defined by good or bad; it is something that merely chooses the path of good or bad. Augustine claims that man cannot freely do good if they do not have free choice of the will. Since man is able to do good, they must have free will.

Hobbes’ view of this claim might be a bit pessimistic. Since Hobbes believes the only thing that can be free is a body, Augustine’s claim that there are things such as freedom of choice and freedom to do good would be unsatisfactory and perhaps even comical. In order to obtain true freedom, Hobbes would say, there must be something that is impeding the will’s progress. Because Augustine says that God does not hinder any path of the will, and that the will is in fact totally and completely free to do as it chooses, Hobbes would avidly go against any claim of freedom of the will. However, if Augustine’s claim was that God somehow impedes the will in any way, such as a commonwealth would impede on a man’s liberty, perhaps then Hobbes could begin to see that there is such a thing as freedom of the will.

Security and the Law of Nature

As Hobbes goes on to discuss the certain liberties that man is entitled to, he describes the law of nature and how liberty is part of it. Man has liberty so that he can better himself in the world. Liberty is man’s nature. Therefore, Hobbes says, “A law of nature is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (79). According to Hobbes, man cannot do what would be destructive to his own progress in life. If he does so, he is going against the law of nature. Establishing this law by reason, it seems only sensible that man should do everything in his power to preserve his own life and the society in which he lives so that his life can better prosper from it.

In a perfect state of nature, a man who lives outside of a society, the man will have perfect liberty and ability to do as he pleases. However, while living in a state of nature allows for complete freedom, this does not mean it allows for complete safety. Hobbes states that “the condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone” (80). This is because everyone is trying to act out their own liberty; man takes what will best suite him in his own life. By reasoning it is no longer intelligent to allow for such freedom when a state of nature becomes man against man, because even though there is freedom, it will be a freedom that encompasses a constant fear of death and deterioration within the world. There is no security in pure liberty.


Establishing a Sovereign (Commonwealth)

In order to establish security in man’s life, he constructs a commonwealth or a sovereign. By establishing a sovereign, men give all their power to an artificial person and allow them to rule and make decisions as if it were they making the rules or decisions. Following the first law of nature, preserving individual liberty and success in the world, “men are commanded to endeavour peace” (80). When men are willing to be at peace with each other, they no longer have to worry about losing their place in the world. By working together, men establish that it becomes necessary to forfeit certain rights in order to obtain a greater good. Hobbes states, “Right is laid aside either by simply renouncing it or by transferring it to another” (81). Man then creates a sovereign if other men are willing to give up their rights, other men are willing to create a sovereign so that there may be peace, and if you give up an equal amount of rights that other men give up.

When man strives for security, he must realize that much of his liberty will be stripped from him. Hobbes states, “as men (for the attaining of peace and conservation of themselves thereby) have made an artificial man, which we call a commonwealth, so also have they made artificial chains, called civil laws, which they themselves by mutual covenants have fastened” (138). By creating a sovereign, man gives up freedom and allows himself to be chained by laws. Even though he is bound by law, he still has certain liberties that he is entitled to. Those liberties that he is entitled to are determined by the sovereign himself. While this may seem like the raw end of the deal, we must remember that by empowering a sovereign, these men are gaining security and peace. As they thrive in a peaceful environment, they are actually better able to establish prosperity for themselves. Since they no longer have to live in fear of a gruesome death, they can work together, building upon each other’s accomplishments and ultimately striving for the perfect way of life within the world.

Justice and Injustice

Although men find that there is justice when they deem a sovereign responsible for their society, Hobbes states that in a perfect state of nature, there will be no justice. “For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything; and consequently, no action can be unjust. But when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust” (89). If “injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant,” then “whatsoever is not unjust, is just” (89). There can be no justice in a state of nature because the term justice would not be applicable to people who did not have the ability to break laws.

While there is no justice in a state of nature, there is justice within a society. When man empowers an artificial man to become sovereign over a group of people, the sovereign creates covenants for those below him to follow. Since there are now laws within this society, breaking one of these laws would be considered unjust. However, since the sovereign is the one who created the laws, is it possible for a sovereign to break the laws and therefore act unjustly?

Hobbes makes the claim that it is impossible for a sovereign to act unjustly. The basis of his claim is that if there was no sovereign, there would be no laws. If there were no laws, there would be no such thing as justice. Hobbes also states that a man cannot punish himself. Since a man is always following the first law of nature, to condemn himself in any way would be an impossible task against his own prosperous being.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes | Source

Rights of a Sovereign

As men allow themselves to be governed by a sovereign, they forfeit any right they may have had to control the sovereign. They do not have covenants with the sovereign, but rather amongst themselves. No matter what, men have an obligation to obey the sovereign. Since men gave up all their rights to the sovereign, they no longer have any power themselves. According to Hobbes, it would be unjust for men to overthrow their sovereign because they would be going against the covenants they created between themselves. The only way a sovereign can lose his power is if he willingly gives it over to another sovereign. No man can justly put a sovereign to death because in doing so he would disrupt the peace, which is why he joined in the covenant in the first place, and would therefore be acting unjustly.

However, the sovereign does have a right to put you to death if he so pleases. Even though your death might be the correct thing to do in order to regain a balance of peace and prosperity throughout the community, you still have a right to preserve your own life. This goes back to the first law of nature. You must do everything you can to ensure your survival. While you may defend yourself, you do not have the right to kill the sovereign while doing so. Killing the sovereign would be going against your covenant of peace and would be unjust on your part. Hobbes says that in the end all men will struggle to survive no matter what the circumstances are. It is your right to survive as ordained by nature. As you struggle for survival, your chances will be quite slim, especially these days. You can make covenants to establish certain ruling over communities, and you can make covenants to forfeit your own power to another man, but you can never make a covenant to not defend yourself in the face of death. You have the liberty to ensure your own survival.

The Cost of Community

In conclusion, Hobbes’ discussion of humans and their overcoming the state of nature, we learned that the only thing that has true liberty is a body. This went against Augustine’s argument about the freedom of choice and the will. Hobbes also spoke about the laws of nature and how humans feel fear in a state of nature so they establish a sovereign to gain peace and community. Finally, we learned about the different roles justice and injustice play when discussing men who are ruled by a sovereign, and the sovereign himself.

Politics in Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan"

© 2017 Luke Holm


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    • Luke Holm profile image

      Luke Holm 3 weeks ago

      Louise, thank you for your comment! Hobbes is like one of the founding fathers of modern political philosophy. He tends to focus on humans in nature vs. humans in society. One of his ideas that I always found fascinating was that in nature we are all equal, regardless of physical stature, because anyone can wait for their enemy to fall asleep and then simply drop a large rock on their head...savage, but true.

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      Louise Powles 3 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

      That was really interesting to read. I've never heard of him before, so learned something today. =)