Books Philosophy Political Philosophy

Is Thomas Hobbes a Natural Law Theorist?

Kody W. Cooper. Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2018; 2022.

Thomas Hobbes occupies a special place in the history of philosophy and political theory. One of the progenitors of modernity, various strands of Hobbesian scholarship places him as a materialist and closet atheist, an enemy of natural law philosophy, or a harbinger of atomistic individualism and soft totalitarian statism. “Doceo sed frustra” (I teach, but in vain). So Hobbes wrote about himself. And so Hobbes has been (mis)interpreted, almost prophetically. Kody Cooper, however, rejects these commonplace readings of Hobbes and asserts that he was, in fact, a natural law theorist who therefore has much to offer modernity, and tries to correct the (mis)interpretations of Hobbes.

Ever since Bishop John Bramhall offered his penetrating critique of Hobbes’s Leviathan almost immediately after its publication, Cooper asserts that Hobbes’s political philosophy has been misunderstood from the beginning. Because philosophy principally concerns itself with “God, the world, and man,” political philosophy cannot ignore these questions. Some say that Hobbes ignored God, and thus offered up a “secular” political philosophy concerned only with the world and man (thus following, supposedly, in the footsteps of Machiavelli). Cooper, however, contends otherwise in his attempt to rehabilitate Hobbes as a moral thinker with a tie to Transcendence:

Hobbes’s novelty flows not from supposedly secular foundations, nor from a rejection of the legal character of natural law, nor from a rejection of the objectivity of the human good rooted in a notion of human nature as fixed, nor from the ability of practical reason to tame the passions in line with its own goals. Rather, Hobbes’s novelty flows chiefly from his thin theory of the human good.

“Thin theory of the human good.” Quite the phrase. From summum bonum to summum malum is incorrect in Cooper’s estimation. Instead, Hobbes goes from the “thick” summum bonum of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition to a “thin” summum bonum understandable by human reason in its pursuit of practical desire. Far from avoidance of evil, or harm, Cooper’s reevaluation of Hobbes keeps him in the moral law tradition—even if thinly so.

In enlisting the Hobbesian revival in scholarship of the past 50 years, Cooper builds on the renaissance of Hobbesian scholarship that has attempted to rehabilitate the English genius from a materialist and secularist into a theist, episcopal-minded Protestant, and soft reformer of the scholastic natural law tradition in line with Protestant sola scriptura ideology. In building from these foundations offered by the likes of A.P. Martinich, Francis Oakley, Mark Murphy, Michael Gillespie, and Timothy Fuller (not to mention Michael Oakeshott who sadly goes without much dialogue), Cooper offers his take on Hobbes as belonging to, though an internal critic of, the scholastic natural law tradition. What follows is a dazzling read into the mind of one of England’s greatest political thinkers. But while dazzling, those with intimate familiarity with Hobbes are left unconvinced by Cooper’s thesis of rehabilitation and soft Aristotelian-Thomistic inheritance.

Before we continue, it is important to highlight another reader of Hobbes who is largely absent in Cooper’s reevaluation but for a single mention. Eric Voegelin considered Hobbes among the greatest political philosophers in history, but not because he agreed with him. For Voegelin, Hobbes was reacting against the Gnosticism of the Puritan revolutionaries—something that Cooper acknowledges, “[The Puritans] wanted, in Eric Voegelin’s words, to immanentize the eschaton. Hobbes sees this as a major threat to peace, the response to which demands a rationalist theology.” To avoid the disaster of continuous conflict and the Gnostic pursuit of nothing (utopia), Hobbes enlisted the conception of the eternal constitution and the strong state enforcing civil peace to prevent further social chaos and destruction. In Voegelin’s reading, Hobbes was decidedly not a transcendental thinker. But trying to show Hobbes as a transcendental minimalist is Cooper’s task.

There are a number of problems with Cooper’s revisionary assertion of Hobbes belonging to the moral law tradition. First, Hobbes’s own metaphysic and implications are decidedly materialistic. There isn’t much room for transcendental considerations. Much of the first part of Leviathan is dedicated to man as an automaton, a material machine moved by material forces.

Second, the facile reading of Hobbesian materialistic desire as reflective of the Christian reading of the Fall of Man plays footsie with the fact that Hobbes’s reading of the Fall of Man (outlined in the later portions of Leviathan) is novel and wholly new (and heretical), and therefore something entirely different from the preceding (orthodox) Christian tradition. The association of material desire (or sin) with a fixed Hobbesian human nature grounded in (fallen) materialism is thin at best. When Hobbes writes that “Not that actuall Death then entered [man]” (Lev. XXXVIII.2), this is because Hobbes considers a purely materialistic Adam as necessarily having been created mortal (on metaphysically materialistic grounds); so, death was only natural but warded off because of continuous refreshment from the Tree of Life. Most patristic writers and the inherited traditions prior to Hobbes and the Enlightenment held competing views of prelapsarian man, that is true, but most accepted an immortal Adam made mortal through the fall and expulsion and that death did indeed enter human nature and all posterity.[1]

Third, Hobbes repeatedly and regularly dismisses the classical tradition, and its Thomistic iteration, and offers something new in its place. The reading that Cooper tries to give is to preserve what Hobbes says he explicitly denies. In De Cive, Hobbes denies the Transcendental grounding that forms the pillar of classical natural law theory mocking early humans who conjured up belief in God out of fear and ignorance. Hobbes’s doublespeak is on full display when he writes “without special assistance from God, it proved almost impossible to avoid the twin rocks of atheism and superstition.” If Hobbes doesn’t reject the classical moral law tradition, this forces us to have to dismiss Hobbes’s own statements and offer a new psychoanalytic reading: Hobbes himself didn’t know he was part of the classical natural law tradition but thankfully Cooper and others knows better than Hobbes himself.

Hobbes does follow a radical Protestant reading of God and man, that is true (and Cooper does do a fine job elucidating where Hobbes relies heavily on Protestant hermeneutics and takes full advantage of Protestant hermeneutical freedom), for man doesn’t know God apart from “special assistance” in the language of Hobbes, or grace in the language of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed wing of the Church of England. But the radical Protestant theology of grace deliberately sets itself up against the classical natural law theory of Aristotle and the Scholastics, whatever ulterior and peripheral inheritances there are between Protestant theology and its antecedent Aristotelian and Scholastic competitors. If Hobbes is a member of a Christian party in reading human nature, it is as a radical bedfellow of grace against nature; but Hobbes’s outlook doesn’t permit grace so all we have is Hobbes’s nature which Christians—Catholic or Protestant—would recognize as sinful. Hobbes’s human nature is what Christians consider sinful nature, but Hobbes considers this sinful nature natural. The passions are natural to man in his physical state, his only state, and reason abides by the desire of the passions to obtain what it wants more efficiently and harmlessly.

“Throughout this book,” Cooper writes, “I suggest that key features of Hobbes’s moral and political thought are illuminated by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.” Cooper certainly puts up a valiant argument for his suggestion. We also learn plenty of insights into Hobbes and the equally facile and thin readings of Hobbes that dominate the popular discourse on this eminently important thinker. Hobbes is a complex and deep thinker, and Cooper certainly manages to reveal this in his book that stands alongside important revisionist scholarship on Hobbes like that of Michael Oakeshott (whom I greatly admire); this is something that is most welcome when compared to the shallow readings and portrayals of Hobbes that proliferate across the worldwide web. Hobbes certainly offers a natural law in the Leviathan and other writings, but it is not part of the classical law tradition as Cooper tries to maintain.

In Hobbes, humans do not seek God. Humans seek material comfort and lack of bodily harm. These are two radically different conceptions of the good; two radically different conceptions of the good precisely because Hobbes offers a new, materialistic, natural law—one very much contrary to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. And if we follow other interpreters of Hobbes, this is because Hobbes considered the pursuit of God led to unnecessary suffering and civil war (Hobbes had just lived through the turmoil of the English Civil War where pursuit of God was the expressed priority of the Puritan revolutionaries). While some eminent scholars have attempted to rehabilitate Hobbes, and Cooper joins ranks with some very eminent figures who belong to that camp, the attempt to find a theistic Hobbes remains elusive and ultimately unconvincing even if we run across numerous insights contained in this scholarly tradition.

By eliminating God from the natural law of man, Hobbes hoped to avert the pain and harm to the human body which was rampant in the seventeenth century. Looking back on it today, we can say Hobbes was very successful. God has all but been erased from public consciousness and politics, and the politics of minimalist harm is now the highest goal of politics leading to socialism, social welfare liberalism, or free-market materialism which all have the Hobbesian minimalist harm theory as their foundation. Hobbes helped usher in the modern liberal world we inhabit, thin theory of the human good or not. Those seeking an alternative will not find a friend in Thomas Hobbes.

*This review was first published under the title, “Thomas Hobbes, Natural Law Theorist?” at VoegelinView, 14 August 2022.

[1] See Augustine, City of God, XXIII.1-4; Augustine would have been the preeminent authority in Western Christianity, the Christianity familiar to Hobbes, on this account, and Augustine held that death entered human nature because of Adam’s sin as did all the orthodox Scholastics following Augustine that Hobbes would have been partially familiar with.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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