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Perez Zagorin, Hobbes and the Law of Nature.

Perez Zagorin, Hobbes and the Law of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Hobbes and the Law of Nature constitutes the final monograph by the late historian Perez Zagorin, who was a specialist in the field of early modern European and English political thought. Zagorin died in April 2009 at the age of 88 and in this last work he presents his assessment of Thomas Hobbes as a political and moral philosopher. Zagorin's analysis is based on Hobbes' three major political works--The Elements of Law (1640), De cive (1641), and Leviathan (1651)--which were written during the English Civil War that resulted in the temporary defeat of the British monarchy. As is explained in the preface, Zagorin's twofold intention is to analyse Hobbes' concept of natural law within its historical context, and to demonstrate his significance "as a humane moral philosopher and theorist of natural law'"(p.x). For this purpose Zagorin repeatedly contradicts scholars who place a one-sided focus on the role of self-preservation, calculation, and unbridled absolutism, while instead he presents an image of 'Hobbes the moral philosopher'.

In the first of four chapters Zagorin discusses Hobbes' unique position within the tradition of natural law and natural right, which concepts compose "the twin foundation on which Hobbes built the entire structure of his moral and political theory' (p.2). In comparing Hobbes" view on natural law to the theories of his predecessors, Zagorin stresses Hobbes' deviation from the age-old association between the natural and the good, and his refutation of a theistic foundation of natural law. On account of this innovative character, Zagorin considers Hobbes to have been little influenced by Grotius, in opposition to such theories as were voiced by R. Tuck and K. Haakonssen.

In chapter two Zagorin clarifies the relation between Hobbes' moral natural law and his harsh opinion of man's nature and condition in the pre-political state. According to Zagorin, "it would be wrong to suppose that the Hobbesian state of nature is completely lacking in moral principles", since even in here "men can be cognisant of the law of nature and God" (p.41). After his illustration of the other-regarding dimension of Hobbesian natural law, Zagorin subsequently reverts to those aspects in which Hobbes deviated from tradition. Firstly, this concerns Hobbes' affiliation between the desire for self-preservation and natural law; secondly, his legal positivism that only considers law as valid under the power of the sovereign; and thirdly, his conflation between natural and civil law: "that contain each other and are of equal extent". (1) In regard to the second deviation Zagorin argues that it is because of Hobbes' conversion of natural law into a set of moral (i.e. non-legal) principles, "that Hobbes could be at the same time both a legal positivist and part of the natural law tradition" (p.54).

In the third chapter Zagorin elaborates the argument that--regardless of Hobbes' fusion of natural and civil law--the laws of nature still function as an independent standard to which the Hobbesian sovereign is morally obliged (p. 54, 90). Zagorin commences the chapter with a discussion of certain controversially conceived aspects of the Hobbesian Commonwealth, such as the de facto relation between obligation and protection. Subsequently he proceeds to refute Q. Skinner's view on Hobbesian liberty as constituting a reaction against the republican affirmation of rebellion (p.77). Alternatively, Zagorin locates a substantial amount of liberty for Hobbes' subjects in the silence of civil law (i.e. negative liberty). Zagorin completes this moral picture of the Hobbesian Commonwealth with the claim that, besides, the sovereign holds genuine duties to these subjects, to which it is obliged by the law of nature and its inherent principle of equity (p.95).

In the last chapter Zagorin finalises his plea for the acknowledgement of genuine moral obligation in Hobbes. Notwithstanding Zagorin's awareness of the importance of self-preservation in Hobbesian politics, he still maintains that "the laws of nature are not maxims of prudence but genuine moral principles that make people who live by them both just and good" (p.109). Zagorin attempts to clear Hobbes from the fallacy (that was initially conceived by Hume) of deducing values from facts, and the blame hereof is shuffled off on the ethical naturalism of Christian rationalists (p.115). In the final paragraph on 'religion and toleration' Zagorin concludes, that despite of the sovereign's extensive power in religious affairs, even in this field Hobbes' opposition against persecution and tolerance towards diversity "reflect a broad strain of humanity and liberalism" (p.122).

In this book Zagorin, thus, presents a frankly moral picture of Hobbes as virtuous political thinker, secular natural law theorist, and forerunner of liberalism, in each of which respective claims he has been preceded by various other modern-day scholars. However, if Zagorin's complete account is compared to the more common interpretations, it becomes immediately apparent that these attribute greater importance to the impact of self-interest, calculation, absolutism, and the lack of individual liberty. Besides, this standard interpretation is roughly identical to the assessment that Hobbes obtained from his own contemporaries, concerning whose criticisms Zagorin shows to be well-informed. In one of his final attempts to refute these 17th- and 18th-century critics, Zagorin attributes their persisting misconception of Hobbes to their 'religious and political biases' (p.100). A personal question that repeatedly occurred while reading the book is, whether an unbiased posthumous interpretation does not deserve a more considerate observation of an author's contemporary reception, as it frequently appears that Zagorin's conclusions are unevenly appealing to a present-day, secularist, and liberally oriented audience.

Despite of this question mark concerning Zagorin's personal partialities in the construction of his case, on the positive side it should be mentioned that Zagorin applies a clear style of writing and structure, and additionally his arguments are rhetorically well-phrased. The outcome of Zagorin's demanding attempt to depict Hobbes as a realistic but yet virtuous natural law theorist can, therefore, in part be validated as successful. Zagorin indeed finds adequate support in Hobbes' writings for his demonstration of the other-regarding dimension of natural law, and for his description of the equitable office of the sovereign. (2) Some of the broader claims that Zagorin derives from these depictions are, nevertheless, more difficult to account for. Throughout the work Zagorin elaborately addresses Hobbes' view on the relation between God, natural law, and civil law, but in the end it remains unclear how the legal positivism and secularism that Zagorin ascribes to Hobbes would allow the latter to consider natural law as an objective and morally obliging standard for the sovereign and its subjects.

Besides, it seems to me quite impossible to recognise genuine moral obligation in Hobbes on the basis of his concept of natural law, which (apart from its correlation with self-interest) is considered by Hobbes as inherently inconsistent with men's liberty and natural right. (3) In short, Zagorin's book is a helpful introduction into the basics of Hobbesian politics, the prominent secondary debates, and the broader historical context of natural law theory, which will inspire many of its readers with a positive awareness of the potentially moral dimensions in Hobbes' political writings.

Ester Bertrand

University of Edinburgh and Free University of Brussels

(1) Leviathan, 26.8.

(2) Cf. Leviathan Ch. 14, 15, 30.

(3) Cf. Leviathan 14.3.
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Author:Bertrand, Ester
Publication:CEU Political Science Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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