any law of nature vow in vain, because it is unjust to keep tosuch a vow. And if it is something•commanded by the lawof nature, the vow is pointless because what binds then isnot the vow but the law.63
Leviathan 1Thomas Hobbes14. The first and second lawsWhen someone covenants to do something,whathecovenants to do is always something he can deliberate about(for covenanting is an act of the will, i.e. an act—indeed thelast act—of deliberation); so it is always understood to besomething in the future that it is possible for him to perform.Therefore, to promise to do something that is known tobe impossible is not to covenant. But if something turnedout later to be impossible but was at first thought possible,the covenant is valid and binding. It doesn’t·of course·bindthe person to do the thing itself, but it does bind him to·dosomething equal to·the value·of what he promised to do·; or,if that is also impossible, to try without pretence to performas much as is possible·of what he promised to do·; for noman can be obliged to do more than that.Men are freed from their covenants in two ways:•byperforming, and•by being forgiven,·as one may forgive adebt·. For•performance naturally brings obligation to anend, and•forgiveness restores liberty, because it hands backthe right in which the obligation consisted.Covenants entered into by fear in the raw condition ofnature are binding. For example, if I covenant with an enemyto pay a ransom or do a service in return for my life, I ambound by it. For it is a contract in which one party receivesthe benefit of life, while the other receives money or service inreturn; and consequently the covenant is valid unless someother law forbids the performance, which is not the case inthe raw condition of nature . Therefore prisoners of war whoare trusted to secure the payment of their ransom are obligedto pay it; and if a weaker prince make a disadvantageouspeace with a stronger one, out of fear, he is bound to keepit—unless (as I said earlier) the war is renewed by somenew and just cause of fear.And even in commonwealths(·as distinct from the condition of nature·) if I am forced torescue myself from a thief by promising him money, I ambound to pay it until the civil law clears me of that obligation.For anything that I can lawfully do without obligation I canlawfully covenant to do through fear; and what I lawfullycovenant I cannot lawfully break.An earlier covenant makes void a later one. For a manwho gave his right to one man yesterday doesn’thaveitto give to someone else today; so the later promise doesn’ttransfer any right, and is null.A covenant not to defend myself from force by force isalwaysvoid. The reason for this is something I explainedearlier. The avoidance of death, wounds, and imprisonmentis the only purpose for laying down any right; so nobodycan transfer or give up his right to save himself from death,
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