The British empiricist Thomas Hobbes was born in Westport, Wiltshire, and, after being abandoned by his father, was raised by an affluent uncle. A precocious child, by the age of 14 he was translating a Greek tragedy into Latin verse. He attended Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and graduated in 1608. He tutored the future earls of Devonshire; this life-long contact with the family offered him exposure to influential people and the opportunity to travel. In 1628, Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, partly as a call to his countrymen to see the dangers of democracy. He was influenced by Euclid’s geometry while writing his first philosophical work, A Short Tract on First Principles, in which he employed the deductive method, in contrast to the popular inductive method of Francis Bacon and other experimental scientists. Knowledge of contemporary scientific thought and analysis pushed him away from the apparent vagaries of Aristotelianism and toward a new materialistic philosophy. Hobbes used geometry and the developing Galilean science of motion to describe man in society and his senses and imagination.
In 1640, because of his controversial views on the need for undivided sovereignty as expressed in his Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, Hobbes was forced for safety’s sake into exile in Paris, where he met Réné Descartes. Among his many activities there was service as a tutor to the Prince of Wales. Hobbes wrote on a great many topics, contributing to the fields of metaphysics and logic and laying the incipient foundations for Utilitarianism. In 1651, Hobbes published his masterpiece, Leviathan; or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. In 1666, the House of Commons investigated Leviathan for atheism and blasphemy, with the only result that Hobbes, having the king’s favor, was restricted in what he could publish in England. His materialistic philosophy and the concept of a social contract as the basis of society made him one of the most controversial English philosophers of his day. Hobbes lived to be 91; his later years were characterized by intellectual vigor and continuing controversy.
In Leviathan, Hobbes develops an egoistic psychology of man, describing the natural human condition as “a war of every man against every man.” Because men are by nature aggressive and violent, reason shows that it is prudent for them to enter into a social contract, giving absolute power to a sovereign who can guarantee to protect them from each other. This enables man to transcend the pre-societal condition of life that Hobbes famously describes as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and thus gives rise to a peaceful societal life in which social institutions and joint undertakings are possible. In the selection from Leviathan presented here, Hobbes outlines the tension between self-preservation and self-destruction. Although he does not explicitly mention suicide, he explains how the social contract involves the exchange of one’s rights over one’s own (and others’) life for the right of security.
In a brief passage in A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England, Hobbes exposes a conundrum in the legal treatment of the person who is felo de se. In this dialogue, probably written between 1662 and the middle to late 1670s but not published until 1681, two years after the author’s death, Hobbes is exploring the tension between his own views that the “state of nature” (though the phrase does not occur in the Dialogue) is one of self-interested mutual hostility, tempered in the civil condition by the investment of sovereignty in the monarch, and the views of Sir Edward Coke, a noted defender of the authority of common law lawyers. Hobbes’s role in this dialogue—he speaks as the Philosopher—is to point out conceptual difficulties in the common law. Both under common law and under English statute, he points out, suicide is treated as a serious crime, but one of which it must be assumed, he argues on the basis of his egoistic psychology, that the perpetrator is not guilty by reason of insanity.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, J. C. A. Gaskin, ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), part I, ch. XIV: Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts, pp. 86-89; Thomas Hobbes, A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England, Joseph Cropsey, ed., (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), “Of Crimes Capital,” pp. 116-117.
OF THE FIRST AND SECOND NATURAL LAWS, AND OF CONTRACTS
The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, 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 any thing, which in his own judgment, and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.
By liberty, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments: which impediments, may oft take away part of a man’s power to do what he would; but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according as his judgment, and reason shall dictate to him.
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.
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 follweth, 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 so ever 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 endeavour 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.
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 defense 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 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.
To lay down a man’s right to any thing, is to divest himself of the liberty, of hindering another of the benefit of his own right to the same. For he that renounceth, or passeth away his right, giveth not to any other man a right which he had not before; because there is nothing to which every man had not right by nature: but only standeth out of his way, that he may enjoy his own original right, without hindrance from him; not without hindrance from another. So that the effect which redoundeth to one man, by another man’s defect of right, is but so much diminution of impediments to the use of his own right original.
Right is laid aside, either by simply renouncing it; or by transferring it to another. By simply renouncing; when he cares not to whom the benefit thereof redoundeth. By transfering; when he intendeth the benefit thereof to some certain person, or persons. And when a man hath in either manner abandoned, or granted away his right; then he is said to be obliged, or bound, not to hinder those, to whom such right is granted, or abandoned, from the benefit of it: and that he ought, and it is his duty, not to make void that voluntary act of his own: and that such hindrance is injustice, and injury, as being sine jure; the right being before renounced, or transferred. So that injury, or injustice, in the controversies of the world, is somewhat like to that, which in the disputations of scholars is called absurdity. For as it is there called an absurdity, to contradict what one maintained in the beginning: so in the world, it is called injustice, and injury, voluntarily done. The way by which a man either simply renounceth, or transferreth his right, is a declaration, or signification, by some voluntary and sufficient sign, or signs, that he doth so renounce, or transfer; or hath so renounced, or transferred the same, to him that accepteth it. And these signs are either words only, or actions only; or (as it happeneth most often) both words and actions. And the same are the bonds, by which men are bound, and obliged: bonds, that have their strength, not from their own nature, (for nothing is more easily broken than a man’s word,) but from fear of some evil consequence upon the rupture.
Whensoever a man transferreth his right, or renounceth it; it is either in consideration of some right reciprocally transferred to himself; or for some other good he hopeth for thereby. For it is a voluntary act: and of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself. And therefore there be some rights, which no man can be understood by any words, or other signs, to have abandoned, or transferred. As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them, that assault him by force, to take away his life; because he cannot be understood to aim thereby, at any good to himself. The same may be said of wounds, and chains, and imprisonment; both because there is no benefit consequent to such patience; as there is to the patience of suffering another to be wounded, or imprisoned: as also because a man cannot tell, when he seeth me proceed against him by violence, whether they intend his death or not. And lastly the motive, and end for which this renouncing, and transferring of right is introduced, is nothing else but the security of a man’s person, in his life, and in the means of so preserving life, as not to be weary of it. And therefore if a man by words, or other signs, seem to despoil himself of the end, for which those signs were intended; he is not to be understood as if he meant it, or that it was his will; but that he was ignorant of how such words and actions were to be interpreted.
from A DIALOGUE OF THE COMMONS LAWS OF ENGLAND
A Dialogue between Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England:
Of Crimes Capital
Lawyer. He is a Felon also that killeth himself voluntarily, and is called, not only by Common Lawyers, but also in divers Statute-Laws, Felo de se.
Philosopher. And ‘tis well so: For names imposed by Statutes are equivalent to Definitions; but I conceive not how any Man can bear Animum felleum, or so much Malice towards himself, as to hurt himself voluntarily, much less to kill himself; for naturally, and necessarily the Intention of every Man aimeth at somewhat, which is good to himself, and tendeth to his preservation: And therefore, methinks, if he kill himself, it is to be presumed that he is not compos mentis, but by some inward Torment or Apprehension of somewhat worse than Death, Distracted.
La. Nay, unless he be compos mentis he is not Felo de se (as Sir Edw. Coke saith, and therefore he cannot be Judged a Felo de se, unless it be first proved he was compos mentis.
Ph. How can that be proved of a Man dead; especially if it cannot be proved by any Witness, that a little before his death he spake as other Men used to do. This is a hard place; and before you take it for Common-Law it had need to be clear’d.