Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law

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Kody W. Cooper
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , March
     342 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the death of Thomas Hobbes, a majority of readers have perceived him as a conservative, or worse, a sympathizer of the monarchy. Therefore, the popularity of his work is significantly lower than that of his contemporary, John Locke. This trend shifted dramatically in the 20th century. The past 100 years has seen the renaissance of Hobbes’ scholarship. Scholarly works on Hobbes, with conflicting interpretations and perspectives, are published every year. For instance, C.B. Macpherson argues that Hobbes advocated for the modern sense of possessive liberty. Quentin Skinner, on the other hand, argued that Hobbes inherited the republican tradition. Echoing this turn in Hobbesian interpretation, Kody W. Cooper’s book, Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law, provides a clear, scholarly account of the relationship between Hobbes’s natural law and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of the theory of good. A brilliantly lucid work of analysis, the book introduces Hobbes’s ideas and his concern throughout his life with the traditional natural law theory. 

Clearly, Hobbes reduces all natural laws and virtues into the fundamental duty of the human being—self-preservation. Apparently, it is unusual to view it as a theory of the good, so Cooper admits that Hobbes’ scheme is different from the classical natural law tradition. The contrast lies in Hobbes’ thin theory of the good, rather than the sheer instrumentality of practical reason (8). Cooper argues that Hobbes establishes a thin theory of the good, within which the fundamental goods are life, physical health, and security. 

Cooper adopts a two-step approach to argue that Hobbes’ method is a theory of the good. First, he suggests that Hobbes has a sophisticated theory of objective basic goods. According to Thomas Aquinas’ sub ratione boni thesis, the appetite of the agent should desire whatsoever that is intrinsically good. Hobbes formulates his claim, more or less, in the same way. “A necessary of nature maketh men to will and desire bonum sibi, that which is good for themselves, and to avoid that which is harmful” (97). Unlike Aristotle or Aquinas, Hobbes argues that the greatest good for every man is his own self-preservation.

The account of bodily life and health as the bonum maximum can be further explained in three dimensions: pulchrum (good in life’s promise), jucundum (delighting), and utile (profitable). On one side, life is the crucial prerequisite of the life of felicity. Life in itself is also delightful. Some may argue that there are clearly a lot more goods than life in the world, and Hobbes’ doctrine of the good appears to ignore all of them. Cooper defends the claim that, life as the objective, basic good, merely implies that “life has primary of place in relations to other goods” (100). In other words, life is the most vital element of felicity. Therefore, according to Hobbes’ natural law theory, our appetites’ desire it naturally and strongly.

In order to attach it to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, after establishing Hobbes’ concept of objective good in his natural law theory, Cooper then needs to articulate the theistic basis of natural law and goods. Similar to A.P. Martinich’s approach, Cooper associates Hobbes’ political claim with his theological beliefs. For Cooper, Hobbes’ Pauline understanding of the law is very close to Aquinas’. Aquinas once suggested that it seemed puzzling to conceive laws in terms of fomes of sin, given that all laws should essentially be aliquid rationis. The legal order should be subordinate to the divine providence. His answer is that the law of sin is to punish and command obedience in light of men’s wrongdoing (83), a point Hobbes agreed with in Leviathan

Thus, Hobbes would claim that a real human nature exists and is accessible by men through reason. God creates this stable human nature which is unfolded whenever people are in the state of nature. The state of war reflects the fallen nature of humankind, and the Christian faith of Hobbes. This faith acts as a basis of his political philosophy. Unlike Richard Hooker’s natural inducement of love, or Locke’s peaceful and beneficial state of nature, Hobbes’s doctrine of human nature is dark and pessimistic. Cooper makes the claim that this doctrine can be illuminated by the older Christian tradition (89). In this sense, Hobbes’s political thought is far more enmeshed in the ancient and medieval traditions, rather than in contemporary liberalism. 

Nevertheless, the favor of pluralism in Hobbes’ theory is modern, and in contrast with the core belief of the natural law theory. Though Cooper argues that Hobbes held a thin theory of the good—instead of a thick theory like Aquinas or Aristotle—the question of whether the thin theory of the good can be compatible with conflicting moral beliefs or plans of life is still unsettled. Cooper claims Hobbes’ theory as “felicity pluralism,” which implies that the pursuit of a good life or happiness is plural, given that they all respect the basic principle: life is good and death is bad. 

For this reviewer, it does not seem convincing, as John Rawls might argue, for the overlapping consensus among conflicting moral systems or projects of good life. What distinguishes natural law tradition from contemporary individualistic liberalism is that the former provides a comprehensive view of objective goods, illustrating what good lives and good societies are. The latter merely sets the basic criteria of rights and the distributive system for any just society. According to Cooper’s thin theory of the good, Hobbes’ basic goods are merely physical life and health. This seems too thin to be claimed as a natural law theory. Cooper has to present a more substantive argument to support the idea that Hobbes has a positive theory of the good, which includes more than the exceedingly basic goods of life and security. Otherwise, it is not easy to justify the argument that Hobbes’ account of natural law is closer to classical and medieval tradition than to contemporary individualistic liberalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel (Yu-sum) Lee is a graduate student in Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kody Cooper is Assistant professor of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.


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