Hobbes and the State of Nature

For my current class at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, I am independently studying the theory of natural law.  George Grant summarizes the doctrine of natural law as “the assertion that there is an order in the universe, and that right action for us human beings consists in attuning ourselves to that order.  It is the most influential theory of morality in the history of the human race” (Philosophy In The Mass Age, University of Toronto Press, 1995, page 26).  This order can be discovered by reason.  This does not mean that it can be easily discovered; it simply implies that we are rational creatures.

My studies have led me to focus on one key thinker.  I am focusing on the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  What does Hobbes have to do with the church?  In his monumental work Leviathan, Hobbes spends a good chunk of space on the Scriptures.  As Leo Strauss writes, “Hobbes with double intention becomes and interpreter of the Scriptures for his own theory, and next and particularly in order to shake the authority of the Scriptures themselves” (The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 71).

I am particularly indebted to Leo Strauss and Dr. Terence Kleven (Central College, Pella, Iowa) for pointing out to me that the theory of natural law changed in the 17th and 18th centuries.  While Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Hobbes both write on the natural law, there is a fundamental difference.  The difference comes with the understanding of the state of nature.  By state of nature, I simply mean that Aquinas and Hobbes disagreed about the purposes of nature or the theory of mankind.  Because they disagreed about the state of nature, their understandings of natural law changed.  Natural law is based on nature.

What is the point?  The point is that I will periodically write on Hobbes or natural law.  This is a way for me to think through the subject and to respond to what I’m reading.

Where to start?  Well, let’s start with a short statement made in the Introduction of Leviathan.  Hobbes writes that man is the “most excellent work of nature.”  Hobbes rejects Aristotle’s claim that there is something higher to know: “For it is absurd for anyone to believe that politics or practical judgment is the most serious kind of knowledge, if a human being is not the highest thing in the cosmos” (Ethics, translated by Joe Sacks, 108).   In other words, Hobbes takes a humanist approach to nature.  He implies that man is the standard of nature.  He rejects Aristotle’s claim that there might be something above man by which to judge man.

For Hobbes, the state of nature just is.  Whatever is, is.  It is accidental.  It is purposeless.  It is bodies in motion.  There is nothing to learn from it to guide our actions or politics.  Reason cannot discover any order in nature because there is no created order in nature.  Natural law, then, does not become founded in the classical, Aristotelian understanding of nature.  Where is its foundation?


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