What are the laws of nature? How does Thomas Hobbes impact Spinoza?


Herein below is an attempt to determine the impact of Thomas Hobbes on Spinoza’, the idea of God and the laws of nature. The work and narratives of different authors have been reproduced below solely for educational purpose. -Boringbug


Spinoza is placed as a political philosopher on an intellectual line with Thomas Hobbes.[1] There are certain elements in Spinoza’s work which reminds us of Hobbes. Starting with Spinoza, unlike Hobbes, he was not a philosopher of Right.[2] He does not try to legitimize the domination of state on the basis of the law of reason as does Hobbes. His political thought precludes any idea to establish the principles of legal philosophy. For him, reality is ‘with respect to our imagination’, one single system made coherent by laws with each part determined by laws of corporeal world and thinking.[3] The Spinozian man differs from all other natural objects known to us by his capacity-ability to think which makes him more humane viz. ability to reason. But man with his body as well as with his mind remains an integral part of nature.[4] Like body, the intellectual belongs to natura naturata[5]and in all its appearances it is subjected to natural laws. In short, man is entirely determined by the laws of his specific nature. The mind and the body are one and the same which is now conceived under the attribute of thought. The body cannot determine the mind to think and the mind cannot determine the body to motion or to rest. A man always stands in the need of certain incentives to determine his choice which originates from the objects of desire.

According to Spinoza the effect of passion cannot be taken away or restrained except by an effect that is opposite and stronger than the effect which to be restrained. The ethical problem with which Spinoza confronts should not be thought as concerning the possibility for the man to have his volition and action determined by pure reason alone. Instead being blinded by desire one should draw up an actively enlightened calculation of benefit with respect to self-preservation that determines all thought of volition and action.[6]

It is here that Spinoza raises the question of the possibility of human freedom, a question which determines the entire ethical thought. For him a thing is free which exists from the necessity of its nature and is determined to act by itself alone. It has been held in comparison to that of Hobbes, that Spinoza has strongly modified and moderated the absolutism of State Authority which he supports by reserving it to a natural right.Thomas Hobbes also suggests that man has a natural right to self-preservation and that apparently matches Spinoza’s position of a natural right to everything. According to Hobbes a natural right of man is a state of discord, to be more exact a state of war viz. “of all against all”. Because in Hobbesian state the natural right in principle is insecure, ineffective and consequently identical to a right for nothing. It is just with respect to the natural right that the state turns out to be a rightless state. That natural right can be preserved only by leaving the natural state altogether and by joining a civil state. Thus the insecurity of the natural rights under the natural state is what makes the existence of a ‘civil’ state necessary.

For Thomas Hobbes “human will” is just the last desire you have before you take action on it. Hence the idea of ‘free will’ becomes absurd.  All motivation is selfish and ultimately tied to survival.  The basic negative emotion is fear and the basic positive emotion is the desire for power.  Good and bad are purely subjective matters.Just like Hobbes, Spinoza is a mechanist.  He believes only in determinism and not free will.  For us as humans, this determinism comes in the form of desires which are derived from our need to survive.  All things have a motive of self-preservation and all things are “selfish”.[7]

Hobbes reasoned that knowledge of human nature must also be in reach. He decided to venture away from empiricism and proceeded to formulate principles of human conduct:

The natural state of all bodies, he concluded, is motion; material universe is a matter in motion. Life is motion in limbs, nerves, cells, and heart; human feelings, such as desire and aversion, are motions either towards something or away from it.[8]

Hobbes was not an atheist:  He was a deist, meaning that he believed in a creator, an intelligent prime mover who started all this but one who does not need to intervene once his mechanical laws of nature take effect. It is submitted that Hobbes and Spinoza’s political philosophies were nearly identical. That the outcome of both Hobbes and Spinoza’s political theory was self-government and that Hobbesian and Spinozian polity is to be understood as a community inhabited by rationalistic individuals living in absolute freedom.


Many in the early modern period were upholding what had become a tradition of using classical thought as a vehicle for religious theology. However, Hobbes took presumably ancient ideas, such as materialism and determinism to extremes which would have made his contemporaries uneasy.[9] Hobbes was rigorous in his application of mechanics and materialism and used these ideas to ground his theology.[10] Hobbes’s mechanistic-materialism pervades virtually every aspect of his philosophy. Hobbes was a Christian of a different sort. Like Spinoza, Hobbes was incredulous when it came to belief in the occult. Hobbes not only demystified religion but out-rightly dismissed the possibility of supernatural phenomenon such as prophecy.[11]

What makes Hobbes different is that we find his theology not in his biblical exegesis but tucked away and hidden in what he wrote on causation. While Hobbes’s redefinition of causality in De corpore implies God’s materiality (demonstrating the lengths to which Hobbes was willing to defend his materialistic world view), Hobbes does say elsewhere that ‘motion and rest‘ as attributed to God is not to be understood ‘in the same sense in which they are attributed to bodies.’[12]  However, Hobbes, in his work on liberty and necessity, gave us a reason to believe that he held a naturalistic conception of God. Nonetheless, Hobbes is committed to his biblical exegesis, believing it to be correct, and is equally committed to his metaphysics, which asserts the corporeality of God and the mechanical structure of the universe. The idea that God is corporeal seems to lend itself to the thought that God is discover-able. Hobbes’s repeated statements that God is purely incomprehensible seems to be incompatible with the idea of a corporeal God (a God which is ‘real’ has ‘dimensions’ and is ‘somewhere’) insofar as if “he is corporeal and he can be discovered through reasons (even if God as a totality cannot be comprehended, how ‘he’ manifests himself through nature can be found out through reason). However, as pointed out:’Every serious charge of atheism leveled at Hobbes had to work from the consequence of his doctrines rather than from any of his written statements… This allowed Hobbes to be read as both theist and an atheist.’[13]

Spinoza expressed a similar concern by indicting the masses for being ‘guided’ not ‘by reason’ but being at the ‘mercy of impulse’. As a result, excluded them from his readership saying “I would prefer they (the masses) disregard this book completely rather than make themselves a nuisance by misinterpreting it after their ‘won’t’.”[14] One of the greatest objections which has been leveled against those who wish to establish connections between Hobbes and Spinoza is that- in Hobbes infinite power is a term which can only be coupled with God, causing God to be the only ‘beneficiary of the equation irresistible might with right.’[15] In the natural state of men, sure and irresistible power gives the right of ruling and commanding those who cannot resist; so that the right to do anything whatsoever is an essential and direct attribute of omnipotence.[16] The division in thought here, which separates Hobbes from Spinoza, seems to be driven by the fact that Spinoza makes right identical with Power.[17] The idea is that man cannot act rightly in all that he does in the state of nature. That is, man is still accountable to God, whose right extends from His power (meaning, men can still commit injustice, even in the state of nature).

Hobbes does not so much change his position as he does vacillate on the issue discussed here: the existence of obligations in the state of nature and the relationship between right and power. For Spinoza natural right is never forfeited as a result of his metaphysical views, whereas Hobbes seems to say that one’s natural right can be forfeited. Hobbes defines God as irresistibly powerful out of necessity. God’s power is infinite because it must be by definition. In the Appendix to the Latin ‘Leviathan’ Hobbes explains that because matter was created ex nihilo God ‘has his existence from his own power, not from any other thing; and therefore, that he also exists from eternity; and because there was nothing which gave God existence, there also will be nothing which will make him not exist. Because of what God is, that is, First Mover, by His own power he must exist, and because He exists from eternity, He must therefore be eternal or infinite. The quantity (this term is used loosely since God’s power is beyond measure) of God’s power derives from the fact that He* created all out of nothing, His power must then necessarily be in-finite. God’s power, however, delimits man’s power, making God the only entity whose might always makes right. Therefore, there are quantitative limits to the natural right with which man can act in the state of nature.

Whereas, Spinoza is tied up in his metaphysics: every person in nature acts (persists) according to nature, that is, by necessity and without limitation.[18] Spinoza identifies the supreme law of nature as that “each thing endeavors to persist in its present being, as far as in it lies, taking account of no other thing but itself, it follows that each individual has the sovereign right to do this, that is, to exist and to act as it is naturally determined.”[19] In his metaphysics we learn that ‘Nature’ is a term used interchangeably with ‘God’. ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ constitutes an infinite substance of which everything existing is a mode: ‘if there were any other substance but God, it would have to be explicated through some attribute of God, so there would exist two substances with the same attribute, which is absurd. So there can be no substance external to God’. Therefore, ‘Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.’[20] God, an infinite substance, of which each of us is a mode, ‘acts solely from the laws of his own nature, constrained by none.’[21] The power with which God acts is infinite, and as a mode of God we therefore act, by nature, with the power of God. Each thing acting in accordance with the law of nature acts to persist in its being according to its own nature infinitely. Thus, however it persists it does as rightly as it does so by nature. This is why Spinoza draws no difference between ‘fools, madmen, and the sane’ and those ‘endowed with reason’ since whatever an individual thing does by the laws of its own nature, it does so with sovereign right’.

Problems arise only when we interpret what Hobbes says in ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ as indicating that God’s will and human action are separable events. Within (and technically without) the context of the state of nature any action taken by a person is to be understood as right insofar as that action coheres with God’s will. When in the natural condition man cannot violate God’s will inasmuch as every action undertaken by man in nature occurs by God’s will. To say that man can commit injustice in nature is tantamount to saying God can violate His own will, which is a self-defeating statement. Man will act in such a way that he considers to be conducive to his preservation and in doing so he is acting by nature, which justifies the use of any means necessary to preserve himself.


Hobbes defines liberty as freedom from external impediment whereas Spinoza defines liberty rationalistically.[22] Natural right, in Spinoza’s system is not a juridical concept. Spinoza makes natural right a constitutive element of man’s ontology.[23] While a certain proportion of power can be forfeited to the sovereign, thereby giving the sovereign certain number of powers; natural right cannot be forfeited.

The juridical right with which the sovereign acts in Spinoza’s system is contingent on its power, and its power is contingent on its ability to effectively govern. The sovereign derives its power from those who put it in power, therefore, ‘the greater the number of subjects who are given cause by a commonwealth to join in conspiracy against it, the more must its power and right be diminished.”[24] While Spinoza, like Hobbes, did believe that when performing a cost-benefit analysis, obeying the state is almost always in ones benefit, “it is exceedingly rare for governments to issue quite unreasonable commands in their own interest, and to retain their rule, it especially behooves them to look after the public good and to conduct all affairs under the guidance of reason’.

Spinoza believed that the sovereign should be obeyed absolutely, and that ‘everyone transfers all the power that he possesses to the community, which will therefore alone retain the sovereign natural right over everything.’ However, at the same time he has the expectation that the sovereign will act in the benefit of those whom it is thought to represent. Otherwise, because Spinoza makes ‘right’ identical with power, the sovereign stands at risk of being overthrown in a coup d’état.Hobbes’s sovereign has, like Spinoza, the juridical right to rule over and guide the commonwealth.

Hobbes, while believing that the power of the sovereign is not infinite,[25] thinks that the juridical right with which the sovereign acts does not expire until the sovereign itself relinquishes that right.[26] However, as it concerns the transference of natural right, what is transferred to the sovereign is man’s capacity to make judgments–his right to act in a certain way. What is not transferred is man’s desire to preserve him, for this right cannot be forfeited, and is elemental when considering man ontologically.

It has been said that Hobbes ‘vacillates’ on the issue of natural right insofar as upon entering the commonwealth man relinquishes his natural right completely, yet, if the state were to condemn that man to death he would be able to defend himself, and do so rightly by his natural right.[27] Man’s natural right, his propensity to self-preservation, is an outgrowth of Hobbes’s mechanistic-materialism, and cannot be forfeited. The only instance where man could justifiably violate the laws of the sovereign, would be when/if his life is in jeopardy. In such an instance, man does not have the juridical right to act, rather his actions can be the subject of no moral debate insofar as his actions are purely the consequence of nature, and therefore occur by necessity. Spinoza’s conception of sovereignty is incompatible with Hobbes’s since Hobbes believed that even if a sovereign lacks power it still possess the right to act until that right has been formally forfeited.

Although, like Spinoza, Hobbes seems to intimate that man’s natural right is inalienable. Making things slightly complicated, this right is empirically based and is simply a fact and should not be mistaken for its juridical counterpart. Even though Hobbes and Spinoza converge over the issue of natural right, Spinoza’s endorsement of democracy as the best form of governance seems to drive them apart ideologically.

Spinoza considered democracy to be the best form of governance, believing that democracy allows for the most freedom. Democracy enables such a condition ‘because they are, as equals, most fully bound, by consent, as a part of the sovereign, they are most free.’ What matters for Spinoza is how effective a government is, however, ‘effective’ is narrowly defined. In addition, regardless of his pragmatism, the form of governance which is most effective is defined as that which allows for the most freedom, which is democracy. The object of the commonwealth and its system of laws, according to Spinoza, is to facilitate reasoned and rational understanding and thought. Its ‘purpose’ is to avoid the follies of appetite and to keep men within the bounds of reason, as far as possible, so that they may live in peace and harmony.


Hobbes and Spinoza’s works have many resemblances, and one might see the influence of ‘Hobbes’ in the work of Spinoza.  But there are instances where the resemblances end up contradicting each other. Spinoza ends forming up theologies which are opposite to that of Hobbes. Hobbes and Spinoza both understand passions as being an inexorable feature of man’s existence. Therefore, they are not looking to restrict or suppress man’s passions, rather, they are looking to provide man with the tools with which he will be able to accurately assess, and realize the truths of nature, and by correctly assessing a man’s passions will naturally be altered. Man will continue to will and act, but differently.

For Spinoza, man’s ultimate possibility is blessedness, and blessedness arises from ‘love towards God, this love must be related to the mind in so far as the mind is active’. Active emotions’ are defined as ‘those desires that are defined by man’s power, that is, by reason’ and ‘are always good’. Understood slightly differently, man does not actively suppress his passions, what he desires is structured by reason; reason becomes a constituent element of man’s decision making processes. He does not suppress those passions in-congruent with his nature; he ceases to have those passions which would be harmful or hurtful to his nature. Hobbes, like Spinoza, believes man is ultimately capable of thinking, and therefore acting in a blessed way. Hobbes explains that the diversity of man’s passions are the product of ‘the difference of the knowledge, or opinion each one has of the causes, which produce the effect desired.’ The outcome of Hobbes’s political education is that citizens begin to use and understand language uniformly. Thus, political education eliminates the possibility for any difference of knowledge or divergent opinions about causes between men. Through political education, men’s passions are made harmonious, providing them with the means to rationalistic freedom. The Hobbesian commonwealth is put into motion for the very purpose of harmonizing man with nature, allowing him the opportunity to attain the absolute freedom which comes with self-government.

[1] George Geismann, “Beyond Hobbes and Rousseaui”, Journal of History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1991), pp. 35-53, Para. 1, Line 1, University of Pennsylvania Press, Jstor.org, May 7, 2010, 08:19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Miller, “Spinoza and the Concept of a Law of Nature”, History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 20 No. 3, (July, 2003), Pp. 257 – 276, para 3, Line 3, University of Illinois Press, North American Philosophers Publications, Jstor.org, (June 25, 2012), 00:23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joseph Ratner, “Spinoza on God (I)”, The philosophical Review, Vol. 39, No.1 (Jan. 1930), pp. 56-72, Jstor.org, Duke University Press.

[6] George Geismann, “Beyond Hobbes and Rousseaui”, Journal of History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1991).

[7] Dr. C. George Boeree, “Modern Philosophy: The Enlightenment”, http://webspace.ship.edu, July 28, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sarasohn, ‘Motion and Morality: Pierre Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, and the Mechanical World-View’, Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 46 no. 3 (1985).

[10] ‘God and Thomas Hobbes’, Church History vol. 23 no. 9 (Sep 1960).

[11] Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651), Early English Books Online, http://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/fulltextACTION=ByID&ID=D00000121658130000&SOURCE=var_spell.cfg&WARN=N&FILE=../session/1220812246_22155 (Accessed January 9, 2008), 10; 32; 169; 197.

[12] Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, tr. Harold Whitmore Jones (London Bradford University Press, 1976).

[13] Parkin Jon, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England 1640-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[14] Spinoza Baruch, Theological-Political Treatise tr. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).

[15] Curley Edwin, ‘The State of Nature and Its Law in Hobbes and Spinoza’, Philosophical Topics vol. 19 no. 1 (1991).

[16] Ryan M. Harding,‘Redefining the Hobbes-Spinoza Connection: The Role of Natural Theology in Hobbes’s Understanding of Natural Right, the Laws of Nature, Sovereignty, Civic Education, and Liberty’, MA Political Philosophy (Idea of Toleration), The University of York, Department of Politics, 19 September 2008.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Supra note 10.

[20] Supra note 16.

[21] Spinoza, Ethics.

[22] Malcolm, Noel, ‘Hobbes and Spinoza’ in Aspects of Hobbes (op. cit.).

[23] Spinoza, Ethics, 108.

[24] Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus in Benedict de Spinoza: The Political Works ed. A.G. Wernham (Oxford Clarendon, 1958).

[25] Supra note 16.

[26] Ibid.

[27] McShea, The Political Philosophy of Spinoza; Claire Finkelstein’s, A Puzzle About Hobbes on Self-Defense’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 (2001).

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