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What was or is natural law?

Natural law, or the law of nature, is a set of rules for human actions, usually posited as having a divine source. As a universal moral and political code, natural law was first conceptualized by stoic philosophers, who believed that natural law was part of the fundamental structure of the universe. Some early thinkers believed that natural law applied to animals as well as humans.

Christian theorists later took up the idea of natural law as self-evident principles of human behavior that could be known only by rational beings. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) thought that human reason could reveal God's intentions for how we ought always to conduct ourselves so as to preserve the common good, or the good of the community. Following natural law is an important part of obedience to God. The particular laws of nations and peoples might differ, but the basic principles of natural law are universal.

What were Grotius' influential ideas about natural law?

Hugo Grotius (in Dutch, Huigh de Groot [1583-1645]) modified natural law from a prescription for the common good to a doctrine restraining what individuals were permitted to do in pursing their own separate goods. That is, he changed Thomas Aquinas' (c. 1225-1274) notion of natural law from a communal idea to an individualistic one. This line of thought was highly influential for the political philosophy developed by both Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).

According to Grotius in The Law of War and Peace (1626), natural law could be used to settle religious disputes, as well as international ones. Grotius thought that natural law could be known by observing human nature. He concluded that humans are both sociable and combative and that every person has rights that limit what others can do. Government is the result of sacrificing some rights so that our lives will improve. Grotius thought that we would be obligated to obey natural law if God did not exist, although he also thought that God does enforce natural law.

Both Hobbes and Locke constructed theories of just and useful government, beginning from foundations of natural law. However, Hobbes emphasized the combative aspects of human nature, whereas Locke emphasized the sociable side.

Thomas Hobbes

Who was Thomas Hobbes?

More than any other seventeenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) directly applied the atomism and materialism of the science of his day to metaphysics. Hobbes believed that everything in existence was caused by matter and motion. He was one of René Descartes' (1596-1650) early critics and was considered an atheist by his peers. Hobbes is most famous for his description of the natural condition of mankind as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

What was Thomas Hobbes life like?

Hobbes' father was the vicar of Westport, but he had to leave for London after his involvement in a brawl outside his church. Thomas' uncle, the alderman of Malmesbury, financed his education. Hobbes studied Greek and Latin at Oxford University from 1602 to 1608, and after graduating he took the position of tutor to Lord Cavendish's oldest son, William. (Lord Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire was to become Hobbes' main patron throughout his working career.) With William, he traveled to Europe in 1610, when

Thomas Hobbes applied the atomism and materialism of the science of his day to metaphysics (iStock).

Thomas Hobbes applied the atomism and materialism of the science of his day to metaphysics (iStock).

Johannes Kepler first published his system of the elliptical shape of planetary orbits and Galileo Galilei was reporting his observations with telescopes. Hobbes met English statesman, scientist, and philosopher Francis Bacon after he returned to England and agreed with him about the need to discard Aristotelian views of science. However, Hobbes did not subscribe to Bacon's inductive method. Bacon believed that scientific knowledge could be built up from observation. Hobbes, in contrast, was to develop a system of knowledge beginning from the first principles of matter and motion from which the nature of experience could be deduced.

Hobbes then began reading the classics and translated Thucydides' history into English in 1628. By this time, Sir Cavendish had died and his widow dismissed Hobbes to cut expenses. So, Hobbes went back to Europe to work for another noble family as tutor to Sir Clinton's son. He became interested in geometry as a method for conveying a philosophical system; his interest in astronomy was piqued when he met the astronomer, priest, and philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), as well as Galileo.

From that exchange, he conceived the idea of applying the principles of the science to the human world, specifically to politics and history. He wrote Little Treatise (1637), an explanation of sensation set out in a geometrical form, which was both an attack on Aristotle's theory, and his own original thought. He thought that the cause of all sensation was changes in motion of insensible particles.

In 1650, Hobbes published his Elements of Law in two parts: the psychological treatise Human Nature and De Corpore Politico, which defended unified government. This began a period when Hobbes' life was in danger as politics shifted, because he was suspected of atheism on account of his materialism and was disliked because of his own dislike of Catholics. Overall, his defense of a strong monarchy set Parliament against him. Meanwhile, he was briefly the mathematical tutor to Charles II, before he became king, and he published his magnum opus, Leviathan (1651).

Between 1645 and 1663, Hobbes became involved in several protracted and bitter controversies with other thinkers. He disputed the question of free will with John Bramwell, bishop of Derry. Two Oxford dons were angry with him: John Wallis, a professor of geometry, was scathing about Hobbes' attempts to square the circle. (This was the problem dating from antiquity of devising a method for constructing a square with an area equal to the area of any given circle.) Seth Ward, professor of astronomy, was opposed to Hobbes' entire philosophy.

What stories did Hobbes' contemporaries tell about him?

According to the biography of Hobbes written by his contemporary John Aubrey, when Hobbes was at Oxford, he used to get up early in the morning and venture forth with lead weights, packthreads, and pairings of cheese. He would smear the threads with birdlime (an adhesive substance used to trap birds by sticking their feet to something) and bait them with the cheese. Jackdaws would spy them from far away and strike at the bait. Young Hobbes would then haul in the string and the weights would cling to the birds' wings. (Aubrey does not furnish details about what happened after that.)

After the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, people sought reasons for God's wrath. Parliament passed a bill to suppress atheism, and a committee was constituted to investigate Hobbes' Leviathan. There was a report that Hobbes had been burned in effigy, and Hobbes was afraid that his papers would be searched, so he himself burned part of them. The king, who liked Hobbes, intervened, but from then on Hobbes was not permitted to publish his work. Neither the Roman Catholic church nor Oxford University permitted his books to be read, and they occasionally even burned them.

Hobbes played tennis until he was 75, rewrote his autobiography in Latin verse at the age of 84, and at 86 published translations of the Iliad and Odyssey in verse.

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