Liberty and Free Will In Leviathan

Hobbes’ philosophy concerns how one should live and be governed in accord with reason. This reason is based on appeasing basic, deeply held human needs. That is, Hobbes’ philosophy uses his premises on the nature of man to build a case for a cooperative mode of living together that serves his most basic needs, or as Hobbes calls it, his desires. To be clear on the term of desires, the focus is on what we all wish to avoid, rather than anything superfluous. This I would label as both a practical and moral philosophy; it is practical because it shows us a means of living among one another, and it shows us by implying by contrast –to the state of nature– that this is the best course of action.

The way suggested by Hobbes to understand the prepositions he puts forth in his work, and to understand people and society we must take dig under the veneer of law and altruism, in order to find the deepest reasons for our modes of being and cooperating with one another. As Hobbes puts forth:

the science of natural justice is the only science necessary for sovereigns and their principal ministers; and they need not be charged with the sciences mathematical (as by Plato they are) further than by good laws to encourage men to the study of them… that men may learn thereby both how to govern and how to obey.1

Or in other words we should not take laws at face value, and consider what distinguishes a good law from a bad one. This is important, as implied by the final line that we may come to know why we obey and are governed in the way we are, i.e. from a rational standpoint rather than an intuitive one.

Hobbes’ philosophy is derived from principles that are not universal in a cosmic sense, or have a teleological nature; his philosophy tells us to align our actions on a different standard than ancient philosophers have suggested.

And the science of them [the laws of nature] 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 … and divers men not only in their judgment on their 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.2

Therefore we are bound by our own nature, specifically our faculty of reason to instrumentally achieve our goals that are derived from our sense of good and evil, which Hobbes has defined as our appetites and aversions. This means that morality is not some lofty or intellectual pursuit, but is one embedded in a utilitarian, i.e. a pragmatic way which is suggested by the final line. Also the final line mentioning the everyday actions tells us that this alignment of our actions is based on a human standpoint, instead of the old standard of the cosmos espoused by the likes of Plato.

Thus the suggested course of action is not bound to a teleology, the means gains more attention than the purpose or end. The difference here is that the means achieve the goals almost by its mere practice, not sometime in the distant future in a teleological sense. Also, the means is meant to avoid the cause(s), not to achieve the cause in the teleological understanding. In this way, we can say that Hobbes’ philosophy is a pragmatic one based on the minimum requirements to avert universal human problems. The moral understanding is more relative to the culture and time and thus we can’t base our actions out of this, as the grounds –of reason– are not there, i.e. the moral viewpoint stands on ambiguity or ever shifting ground and is not therefore useful in guiding us.

In this way, we can say that Hobbes’ philosophy is a pragmatic one based on the force of reason and necessity. The necessity is a human one, which is how to solve the problem of living together, the importance of which is elucidated by Hobbes’ explanation of the Laws of Nature and the Right of Nature. The latter is explained by Hobbes as follows:

The Right of Nature … is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.3

While the former is defined by Hobbes as such:

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 own life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.4

The problem is one of security while living amongst others who are equal in their rights or liberty, because there is nothing from stopping one from taking the life or possessions of another if it serves to preserve the thief’s life. Thus it follows that to prevent this possibility that infringes on the Right of Nature that men possess, it is necessary to seek peace through a tacit agreement to cooperate. This means that men must willingly limit their personal liberties, as is stated by Hobbes:

For as long as all men holdeth this right of doing anything 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 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.5

The question then arises of how such an agreement would be upheld, that is, how and why do men cooperate willingly? My answer would be that they are bound by the want of welfare that good laws satiates, on laws Hobbes says:

For the end of laws [implicit and explicit agreement] is not to restrain people from a harmless liberty, but to prevent them from rushing into dangers or harm to themselves or to the commonwealth [society], from impetuous passions, rashness or foolishness, as roads are hedged not as an obstacle to travelers, but to prevent them from wondering off, with injury to their fellow citizens.6

This suggests that men will comply with their covenants because they must have the understanding that to do so would benefit themselves, they give deference to law because they know that without it they would possibly undergo unpleasantness such as disorder and insecurity of persons, specifically their own. However, if this is the case, what then prevents one from preemptively breaking their contract out of fear, in order to get the better of the other person? Fear cannot be the only motivator, for there is in the one who abides, a certain kind of understanding, a right mode of such. This understanding can be seen as a sentiment of obligation and keeping good faith, but what is this nature of this sense of obligation and where does it come from?

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 a time and place where no man else should do so, should but make himself prey to others … 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.7

The solution to this problem is suggested by Hobbes as simply following through on one’s word: “The same laws, because they oblige only to a desire and endeavor (I mean an unfeigned and constant endeavor) are easy to be observed. For in that they require nothing but endeavor, he that endeavoureth their performance fulfilleth them; and he that fulfilleth the law is just.”8 This to me is an argument based on virtue rather than pure empiricist rationalism, where is the guarantee that people will keep their word? This is where we return to the moral philosophy of Hobbes, where we need to talk about virtue-ethics in terms of traits a character can possess which enable them to act in this manner.

Whereas the Law of Nature stipulates that we can through reason discover rules that help us preserve our lives, this is a very general statement, we need to look at these rules put forth in chapter xv of the Leviathan. The first curious thing to be found is this passage: “That which gives to human actions the relish of justice is a certain nobleness or gallantness of courage (rarely found) by which a man scorns to be beholden for the contentment of his life to fraud or breach of promise.”9 This suggests that men have an innate desire to live an authentic life free of doubt or shame, and this seems to cast doubt on men as being purely rational and calculating creatures. To sum up the rules cast forth, the fundamental rule is to seek peace through internalized beliefs (or faith) paired with reason. Whereas all men are to be understood to be equal in their capacities, a trust can be developed between them –for they are all in the same boat– so to speak.

Gratitude is the first virtue or sentiment that Hobbes speaks of: “Gratitude depend on antecedent grace, that is to say, antecedent free-gift … 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.”10 Thus the building blocks of men’s actions and of society itself (which is based on security), is trust which is built out of willing grace, i.e. charity to one-another in hopes others will return the favour. This would mean that men act out of not just rationality & fear, but also of hope, trust and good will. These can be argued to be mere adornments of rational self interest however, which derive from our passions as Hobbes labels them the “interior beginnings of voluntary motions.”11

This fits perfectly with his materialist conception of reality, or that everything is just matter and motion, i.e. cause and effect. He says this clearly in his chapter on the passions, with: “And although unstudied men do not conceive any motion at all to be there, where the thing moved is invisible, or the space it is moved in is (for the shortness of it) insensible, yet that doth not hinder, but that such motions are.”12 What is surprising is his acknowledgment of the other more less-rational aspects of human nature such as benevolence or the “desire of good to another, benevolence, good will, charity, If to a man generally, good nature.”13 The other pleasing note is that courage arises from fear which arises out of hope, for as he states an “appetite with an opinion of attaining is called hope.”14 It is in believing that good will come for us in the immediate present or the future that guides our actions, but there is room for altruistic behaviour through charity or free-gift, and general good will.

What guides men to seek peace in contract with others, and to uphold their covenants is a sense of future time, or in a word foresight and prudence which come from imagination and experience. Even the normative value of forgiveness serves a utilitarian purpose as suggested by this passage:

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 … not granted to them give caution of the future time is a sign of an aversion to peace.15

Which means that present wrongs can lead to worse wrongs down the road, and we should nip-the-bud to avoid a possibly greater evil, which would be a prolonged discord contrary to peace. This trend of virtues or morals continues to be explained in terms of seeking peace or avoiding conflict, some of the other moral goods are as follows: to be not prideful as all men are equal in nature, to take only his fair share (against arrogance), equal use of things commonly held, and so on.16 Hobbes concentrates these laws into an aphorism that anyone can understand, as not everyone as the time to study these laws, he says: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself.”17

What we do unto others, stems from voluntary actions and free-will, however if someone is obliged or inclined to follow the laws of nature, wouldn’t one would think that this is a sort of bondage? Some may believe that actions borne out of necessity and freedom is a sort of illusion. Liberty for Hobbes cannot be explained in purely materialist terms in that liberty stems from the will of God, “For if God’s will did not impose a necessity on the human will, and consequently on all actions depending on it, the freedom of the human will would take away the omnipotence and omniscience and liberty of God.”18 This almost goes back to the natural order sense of the universe where one can align themselves with it, or deny it.

Hobbes offers no proof in an empirical or materialist sense of God or a first-mover or cause, he sort of just assumes it for the sake of the argument. Hobbes says that God is the initial cause that all other causes derive from or are subject to, and that he/she/it is impossible to know or be comprehended.

For then [the philosophers/thinkers] they should not be able to render a reason how God’s will and preordaining of things to come should not be before his prescience of the same (as the efficient cause before the effect, or agent before the action), nor of many other their bold opinions concerning the incomprehensible nature of God.19

God plays an important part in Hobbes’ philosophy in explaining where natural law comes from, and therefore our reason and consequently our actions. Natural law [divine commandments?] is ever present, and these laws are in place because of the conditions set forth by a higher power, which Hobbes labels as God. This suggests that we need this ground to stand upon to enable us to make a choice in the first place, God’s will is an enabling factor rather than a constraining one.

Now concerning liberty, our obligations, reason and free-will there is no inconsistencies according to the pages of the Leviathan. This reconciles free will with ordainment or in other words determinism. A “Free-man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”20 Free will is differentiated from liberty with this: “of the word free-will no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man.”21 So freedom or liberty is based on a capacity, while free will is our inclination to do things willingly. With this distinction we can now understand from inference that through cooperative endeavours we only limit our personal liberties, but that is no huge loss because we still retain our rights.

And when a man hath in either manner abandoned or granted away his right, then is he said to be obliged or bound not to hinder those to whom such right is granted or abandoned from the benefit of it; and (it is said) that he ought, and it is his Duty, not to make void that voluntary act of his own” [unless it violates the natural laws]22

This signifies that rights are never lost, only transferred to another and the only thing we lose is our capacity to exercise the right that we willingly transferred. This is the basis of the social contract, which with the transfer of the right the reliever is obliged to give something in exchange. If there is no exchange then this would be a violation of one’s natural rights and would have no basis, and would be injust.

To conclude, Hobbes’ moral philosophy is one based out of human motivations but not the kind one would think, i.e. greed, egoism, selfishness or the other motivations. While Hobbes has a materialist conception of the universe as nothing but matter-in-motion, it is not to be misunderstood as an atheist, nihilistic or existential argument. Instead through his text the Leviathan offers a comprehensive and plausible explanation of humanity and our interactions with each other. The materialist understanding is in a sense a Newtonian one, where one object or cause comes into contact with another object and creates a causal chain with no end. The causes can be invisible to our senses, to our conscious minds, and incomprehensible as is the case with –God– the Prime Mover. We form a cooperative order with others because we have the capacity to understand our natural rights, and our equity within nature. We reason that we can make life easier by contracting to seek peace, and through peace we gain security which enables us to not only subsist, but to go beyond that. We become obligated by reason because we know that to cooperate with others is necessary and is most conducive to preserving our lives, and also making our lives easier and thus better. We use courage to take initiative in contracting with others, and have a hope that the other will complete his end of the agreement. We are driven by necessity, necessity engenders ingenuity, ingenuity engenders tools, and these tools are not just material ones but social ones. Natural laws give shape and character to life, and is a springboard for action and choice, to choose to cooperate is the most conducive to natural law and is an inevitable result given the condition of man.



Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company, 1994.

  1. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 243.
  2. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company, 1994), 100.
  3. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 79.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 80.
  6. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 229.
  7. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 100.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 93.
  10. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 95.
  11. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 27.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 30.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 96.
  16. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 96-98.
  17. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 99.
  18. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 137.
  19. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 461.
  20. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 136.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 81.
Lee Kierstead

by Lee Kierstead