Thomas Hobbes has the reputation of a “realist,” and in countless textbooks one can find a depiction of Hobbes as representative of a kind of hard realism utterly dismissive of the society of states and the norms that underlie it. There are passages in Hobbes certainly suggestive of such a view. In the absence of a coercive power, he states flatly, there can be no such thing as justice or injustice, and states therefore retain the primitive (and unlimited) rights of self-preservation that individuals have in the state of nature. There is, by the same token, no hint in his writings of a world state that would give the law to its constituent members. At the same time, however, Hobbes also insisted that the law of nations is nothing other than the law of nature, and he devoted much attention to defining what that law of nature consisted of. In doing so, he in effect drew up articles of peace for the nations. These laws (there were nineteen of them) are excerpted below from his masterpiece, Leviathan.Hobbes was almost myopically focused on the establishment of a civitas or commonwealth, and his discussions of international relations are taken up in passing, brought into the discussion to show why individuals must divest themselves of their natural rights and institute a sovereign power to settle their disputes (and, later, why an absolute power of war had to be vested in the sovereign). Despite these limitations, the ideas he identified with the law of nature provide an outstanding guide to the sort of human conduct necessary for the achievement of peace, and he is quite clear on the point that these laws in conscience oblige both individuals and nations. The fundamental law of nature, he writes, is to seek peace so far as it is attainable. He immediately adds that you are released from your obligation if others will not be peaceable toward you. He does not provide much guidance in assessing how to make that determination, but that need not be an obstacle to our consideration of it (as we do, for instance, in contemporary debates over the legitimacy of preventive war). Nor does it diminish the value of what is to follow, which is usefully read as explicating the posture that states should take toward other states, if peace is their objective. Hobbes’s doctrine provides ample avenues toward war if that is what states desire, but if peace is their aim they can learn much from his prescriptions. (That peace was his objective is suggested by the preface to On the Citizen in 1642, where he acknowledged that in relations among states man had indeed been a wolf to man, but nevertheless held out the prospect of a universal peace if human beings could learn from moral philosophy.)
When Ron Paul proposed the golden rule as a guide for American foreign policy at one of the Republican debates in 2012, he was practically laughed off the stage. Surprising it may seem, then, to find the supposed master of realpolitik summarizing the laws of nature in the following terms: Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself. It may be objected that Hobbes’s notion of international morality is too thin; it provides minimal rules that must be observed to maintain peace, but does no more than that. Be that as it may, it would also seem to be the case that no “thicker” conception of international duties—devoted, say, to global welfare or environmental justice—can dispense with the thin rules even as it seeks to go beyond them.These selections are from chapters 14 and 15 of Leviathan. I have used the edition prepared by Michael Oakeshott, which modernized some of Hobbes’s spelling. I provide a shorter and modernized version of Hobbes's theorems of peaceableness at the end.
* * *A LAW OF NATURE, lex naturalis, 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. For though they that speak of this subject, use to confound jus, and lex, right and law: yet they ought to be distinguished; because RIGHT, consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear: whereas LAW, determineth, and bindeth to one of them: so that law, and right, differ as much, as obligation, and liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.
1) And because the condition of man, as hath been declared in the precedent chapter, is a condition of war of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a right to every thing; even to one another's body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time, which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason, that every man, ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule, containeth the first, and fundamental law of nature; which is, to seek peace, and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature; which is, by all means we can, to defend ourselves.2) From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law; that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. For as long as every man holdeth this right, of doing any thing he liketh; so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he; then there is no reason for any one, to divest himself of his: for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law of the Gospel; whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris (do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself).
3) From that law of nature, by which we are obliged to transfer to another, such rights, as being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third; which is this, that men perform their covenants made: without which, covenants are in vain, and but empty words; and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war.And in this law of nature, consisteth the fountain and original of JUSTICE. …[W]hen a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust: and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just.
But because covenants of mutual trust, where there is a fear of not performance on either part, as hath been said in the former chapter, are invalid; though the original of justice be the making of covenants; yet injustice actually there can be none, till the cause of such fear be taken away; which while men are in the natural condition of war, cannot be done. Therefore before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant; and to make good that propriety, which by mutual contract men acquire, in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth. . . .4) As justice dependeth on antecedent covenant; so does GRATITUDE depend on antecedent grace; that is to say, antecedent free gift: and is the fourth law of nature; which may be conceived in this form, that a man which receiveth benefit from another of mere grace, endeavour that he which giveth it, have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will. For no man giveth, but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence, or trust; nor consequently of mutual help; nor of reconciliation of one man to another; and therefore they are to remain still in the condition of war; which is contrary to the first and fundamental law of nature, which commandeth men to seek peace. The breach of this law, is called ingratitude; and hath the same relation to grace, that injustice hath to obligation by covenant.
5) A fifth law of nature, is COMPLAISANCE; that is to say, that every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest. For the understanding whereof, we may consider, that there is in men's aptness to society, a diversity of nature, rising from their diversity of affections; not unlike to that we see in stones brought together for building of an edifice. For as that stone which by the asperity, and irregularity of figure, takes more room from others, than itself fills; and for the hardness, cannot be easily made plain, and thereby hindereth the building, is by the builders cast away as unprofitable, and troublesome: so also, a man that by asperity of nature, will strive to retain those things which to himself are superfluous, and to others necessary; and for the stubbornness of his passions, cannot be corrected, is to be left, or cast out of society, as cumbersome thereunto. For seeing every man, not only by right, but also by necessity of nature, is supposed to endeavor all he can, to obtain that which is necessary for his conservation; he that shall oppose himself against it, for things superfluous, is guilty of the war that thereupon is to follow; and therefore doth that, which is contrary to the fundamental law of nature, which commandeth to seek peace. The observers of this law, may be called SOCIABLE, the Latins call them commodi; the contrary, stubborn, insociable, froward, intractable.6) A sixth law of nature, is this, that upon caution of the future time, a man ought to pardon the offences past of them that repenting, desire it. For PARDON, is nothing but granting of peace; which though granted to them that persevere in their hostility, be not peace, but fear; yet not granted to them that give caution of the future time, is sign of an aversion to peace; and therefore contrary to the law of nature.
7) A seventh is, that in revenges, that is, retribution of evil for evil, men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow. Whereby we are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design, than for correction of the offender, or direction of others. For this law is consequent to the next before it, that commandeth pardon, upon security of the future time. Besides, revenge without respect to the example, and profit to come, is a triumph, or glorying in the hurt of another, tending to no end; for the end is always somewhat to come; and glorying to no end, is vain-glory, and contrary to reason, and to hurt without reason, tendeth to the introduction of war; which is against the law of nature; and is commonly styled by the name of cruelty.8) And because all signs of hatred, or contempt, provoke to fight; insomuch as most men choose rather to hazard their life, than not to be revenged; we may in the eighth place, for a law of nature, set down this precept, that no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred, or contempt of another. The breach of which law, is commonly called contumely.
9) The question who is the better man, has no place in the condition of mere nature; where, as has been shewn before, all men are equal. The inequality that now is, has been introduced by the laws civil. I know that Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, maketh men by nature, some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort, such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy; others to serve, meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he; as if master and servant were not introduced by consent of men, but by difference of wit: which is not only against reason; but also against experience. For there are very few so foolish, that had not rather govern themselves, than be governed by others: nor when the wise in their own conceit, contend by force, with them who distrust their own wisdom, do they always, or often, or almost at any time, get the victory. If nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledged: or if nature have made men unequal; yet because men that think themselves equal, will not enter into conditions of peace, but upon equal terms, such equality must be admitted. And therefore for the ninth law of nature, I put this, that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.10) On this law, dependeth another, that at the entrance into conditions of peace, no man require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest. As it is necessary for all men that seek peace, to lay down certain rights of nature; that is to say, not to have liberty to do all they list: so is it necessary for man's life, to retain some; as right to govern their own bodies; enjoy air, water, motion, ways to go from place to place; and all things else, without which a man cannot live, or not live well. If in this case, at the making of peace, men require for themselves, that which they would not have to be granted to others, they do contrary to the precedent law, that commandeth the acknowledgment of natural equality, and therefore also against the law of nature. The observers of this law, are those we call modest, and the breakers arrogant men. The Greeks call the violation of this law . . . a desire of more than their share.
11) Also if a man be trusted to judge between man and man, it is a precept of the law of nature, that he deal equally between them. For without that, the controversies of men cannot be determined but by war. He therefore that is partial in judgment, doth what in him lies, to deter men from the use of judges, and arbitrators; and consequently, against the fundamental law of nature, is the cause of war.The observance of this law, from the equal distribution to each man, of that which in reason belongeth to him, is called EQUITY. . . .
12) And from this followeth another law, that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the quantity of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right. For otherwise the distribution is unequal, and contrary to equity.13) But some things there be, that can neither be divided, nor enjoyed in common. Then, the law of nature, which prescribeth equity, requireth, that the entire right; or else, making the use alternate, the first possession, be determined by lot. For equal distribution, is of the law of nature; and other means of equal distribution cannot be imagined.
14) Of lots there be two sorts, arbitrary, and natural. Arbitrary, is that which is agreed on by the competitors: natural, is either primogeniture, which [in Greek] signifies, given by lot; or first seizure. . . .15) It is also a law of nature, that all men that mediate peace, be allowed safe conduct. For the law that cornmandeth peace, as the end, commandeth intercession, as the means; and to intercession the means is safe conduct.
16) And because, though men be never so willing to observe these laws, there may nevertheless arise questions concerning a man's action; first, whether it were done, or not done; secondly, if done, whether against the law, or not against the law; the former whereof, is called a question of fact; the latter a question of right, therefore unless the parties to the question, covenant mutually to stand to the sentence of another, they are as far from peace as ever. This other to whose sentence they submit is called an ARBITRATOR. And therefore it is of the law of nature, that they that are at controversy, submit their right to the judgment of an arbitrator.17) And seeing every man is presumed to do all things in order to his own benefit, no man is a fit arbitrator in his own cause; and if he were never so fit; yet equity allowing to each party equal benefit, if one be admitted to be judge, the other is to be admitted also; and so the controversy, that is, the cause of war, remains, against the law of nature.
18) For the same reason no man in any cause ought to man to be received for arbitrator, to whom greater profit, or honour, or pleasure apparently ariseth out of the victory of one party, than of the other: for he hath taken, though un unavoidable bribe, yet a bribe: and no man can be obliged to trust him. And thus also the controversy, and the condition of war remaineth, contrary to the fact of nature.19) And in a controversy of fact, the judge being to give no more credit to one, than to the other, if there be no other arguments, must give credit to a third; or to a third and fourth; or more: for else the question is undecided, and left to force, contrary to the law of nature.
These are the laws of nature, dictating peace, for a means of the conservation of men in multitudes; and which only concern the doctrine of civil society. There be other things tending to the destruction of particular men; as drunkenness, and all other parts of intemperance; which may therefore also be reckoned amongst those things which the law of nature hath forbidden; but are not necessary to be mentioned, nor are pertinent enough to this place.And though this may seem too subtle a deduction of the laws of nature, to be taken notice of by all men; whereof the most part are too busy in getting food, and the rest too negligent to understand; yet to leave all men inexcusable, they have been contracted into one easy sum, intelligible even to the meanest capacity; and that is, Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself; which sheweth him, that he has no more to do in learning the laws of nature, but, when weighing the actions of other men with his own, they seem too heavy, to put them into the other part of the balance, and his own into their place, that his own passions, and self-love, may add nothing to the weight; and then there is none of these laws of nature that will not appear unto him very reasonable.
The laws of nature oblige in foro interno; that is to say, they bind to a desire they should take place: but in foro externo; that is, to the putting them in act, not always. For he that should be modest, and tractable, and perform all he promises, in such time, and place, where no man else should do so, should but make himself a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruin, contrary to the ground of all laws of nature, which tend to nature's preservation. And again, he that having sufficient security, that others shall observe the same laws towards him, observes them not himself, seeketh not peace, but war; and consequently the destruction of his nature by violence.And whatsoever laws bind in foro interno, may be broken, not only by a fact contrary to the law, but also by a fact according to it, in case a man think it contrary. For though his action in this case, be according to the law; yet his purpose was against the law; which, where the obligation is in foro interno, is a breach.
The laws of nature are immutable and eternal; for injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawful. For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.The same laws, because they oblige only to a desire, and endeavour, I mean an unfeigned and coustant endeavour, are easy to be observed. For in that they require nothing but endeavour, he that endeavoureth their performance, fulfilleth them; and he that fulfilleth the law, is just.
And the science of them, is the true and only moral philosophy. For moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind. Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions; which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men, are different: and divers men, differ not only in their judgment, on the senses of what is pleasant, and unpleasant to the taste, smell, hearing, touch, and sight; but also of what is conformable, or disagreeable to reason, in the actions of common life. Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himself; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth evil: from whence arise disputes, controversies, and at last war. And therefore so long as a man is in the condition of mere nature, which is a condition of war, as private appetite is the measure of good, and evil: and consequently all men agree on this, that peace is good, and therefore also the way, or means of peace, which, as I have shewed before, are justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, mercy, and the rest of the laws of nature, are good; that is to say; moral virtues; and their contrary vices, evil. Now the science of virtue and vice, is moral philosophy; and therefore the true doctrine of the laws of nature, is the true moral philosophy. But the writers of moral philosophy, though they acknowledge the same virtues and vices; yet not seeing wherein consisted their goodness; nor that they come to be praised, as the means of peaceable, sociable, and comfortable living, place them in a mediocrity of passions: as if not the cause, but the degree of daring, made fortitude; or not the cause, but the quantity of a gift, made liberality.These dictates of reason, men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly: for they are but conclusions, or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him, that by right hath command over others. But yet if we consider the same theorems, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then are they properly called laws.
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Given that Hobbes identifies the law of nations with the law of nature, we can without fear of misrepresentation offer prescriptions to states in the conduct of their foreign policy. I have reworked Hobbes’s list of nineteen into Nine Rules for Peace Seeking, aping Hans Morgenthau’s enumeration. It would not be unreasonable, of course, to substitute for “state” such signifiers of political collectives as nation, prince, commonwealth, republic or empire in the following formulations. I am troubled by the fact that the Nine Rules for Peace Seeking, by virtue of my abridgment, now fall short of the Ten Commandments and the Fourteen Points.
Every state ought to seek peace as far as it can obtain it; it may go to war only when other states will not live peaceably with it.
A state should be willing, when others are too, to lay down its right to all things and be content with as much liberty against other states as it would allow other states against itself.
States should keep their agreements.
States should show gratitude and try to accommodate themselves to others.
States should pardon those who repent sincerely of their crimes and should look to the good to follow, not the evil of the past, when taking revenge.
A state should not declare hatred or contempt of others.
In entering into peace agreements, no state should reserve to itself any right which it will not allow to others, but should rather acknowledge others as having rights equivalent to its own.
States should submit their disputes to arbitration, should deal equally with others, and should admit that they are not fit arbitrators in their own cause.
Simply expressed, in terms that the plainest person can understand, states should not do to others what they would not have done by others to themselves.
As Hobbes emphasized, this is not especially complicated. But think how controversial it would be if spoken by an American president today! How inconsistent with the special role claimed by the United States in world affairs! How contrary to the nationalistic spirit of the American people!
* * *Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan; Or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (London, 1651); edited with an introduction by Michael Oakeshott (London: Blackwell, 1955)