THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679), English Protestant or Atheist Philosopher
Elements of Law
Trilogy: De Cive (1642), De Corpore (1655), and De Homine (1657); translated as On the Citizen; On Physical
Bodies; On Man
Leviathan (1651) (This is Hobbes's most famous work.)
Behemoth; or, the Long Parliament (1668), on the history of recent English politics
about his premature birth in 1588: "Fear and I were born twins."
Hobbes's Theory of Nature
1. Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist, someone who believes that everything in the universe consists only of matter in motion. A visit with Galileo convinced him of a purely mechanical universe. In this Hobbes disagreed with Descartes, the first great modern dualist, who argued that the universe consists of two basic kinds of stuff in causal interaction -- mind and matter. On Descartes's view, mental states (beliefs, desires, acts of will) can cause events in nature (e.g., raising one's arm, hitting a tennis ball), and natural events can cause mental events (as when you step on a nail or see that the window is open). Hobbes would have none of this. He declared that nonphysical (immaterial, mental) substance is a contradiction-in-terms. He was therefore forced to say that even God is a material substance -- although a very pure and subtle one. This, of course, enraged the churchmen and convinced them of Hobbes's atheism.
2. Both Hobbes and Descartes held that the material world was fully causally determined, like clockwork. But for Hobbes the material world is all there is. All causes are only motions of matter. Descartes had to allow nonphysical causes by human minds and by God, a view that was much more comfortable than Hobbes's but much more mysterious and difficult to understand. Hobbes produced an entire system of nature based only on matter and motion. Everything in the cosmos belongs to the same, mechanical network of causes and effects, the same physical causal nexus. By reducing everything everywhere to matter and motion, Hobbes completely eliminated all traces of the old, hierarchical world view, for a one-level, homogeneous view of nature, man, and God. Completely swept away by now was the old idea that the celestial realms were made of a different stuff from the things and phenomena of the sublunar realm. Completely brushed aside was any suggestion that there are two or more orders of nature (material, mental or human, divine). Hobbes reduced everything to the same, material causal nexus.
3. Hobbes, although not at all in sympathy with the Puritans, agreed that language should be purified to avoid needless dispute and factionalism. In effect, he (and the Puritans) wanted a homogeneous language as well as a homogeneous nature. (Accordingly, we might label Hobbes, "Mr. Homogeneity.") All double-talk, all rhetoric, all use of metaphor and other imagery was to be eliminated. In his analysis of cause and effect as being one motion causing another, Hobbes practically reduced the definition of causality to an operational recipe, in line with the maker's knowledge conception described above. By taking the mystery out of the functioning of the universe, by reducing it to causal chains of matter in motion, Hobbes could simply bypass theological and other metaphysical conceptions of nature. This sort of scientific criticism of metaphysics and theology would later become a hallmark of empiricist or positivist philosophers and scientists, and it remains so today.
4. Descartes and Hobbes both advanced (very different) total world pictures of the cosmos and the place of human beings in it, based upon their understanding of the science of the day. These new, "scientific" world pictures were strikingly different from the ancient and medieval cosmologies and cosmogonies (the nearest counterpart being ancient Greek atomism). Human beings were now situated within a vast, cold material universe. Gone was the reassuring, Renaissance fabric of sympathies and correspondences of everything to everything else. In fact, the basic elements of the material world had no "human" qualities at all -- only the mathematizable "primary" qualities of a mechanical sort (shape, size, motion, impenetrability, weight or mass) -- but not secondary qualities such as color or smell. (Roughly, primary qualities are representational in appearing to us as they really are in reality, whereas secondary qualities are not representational.) The new mechanical science reduced quality to quantity and final causes (purposes, goals) to efficient causes (preceding events that bring about the effect, such as the motion of one billiard ball striking another). The physical world itself is dead, inert, and without purpose, meaning, or value. The universe is a home for man not intrinsically but only because God arranged the parts for our benefit. (Actually, the natural universe, even as created by God, is not a good home for man, in Hobbes's view. Only the right sort of humanly-created, artificial universe will provide sufficient security for us to find a home and to flourish.) Hobbes's thoroughgoing mechanism was even more shocking in that he did not even leave room for a traditional God. Hobbes did declare his belief in God, but like later materialists such as Spinoza and La Mettrie, he was widely reputed to be a "dirty atheist."
5. In a valiant attempt
to work out a human psychology, Hobbes simply extended the mechanical world
picture that he learned from Galileo to human cognition, action, and passion,
to our "inner" workings. In reducing reason and other cognitive processes
to mechanical action according to laws or rules, Hobbes, at the very dawn
of modern science, remarkably anticipated the science of artificial intelligence
(AI; see Haugeland, Chap. 1). Like leading AI theorists (such as
Herbert Simon) today, Hobbes reduced all directed or focused thought to
problem solving, and he reduced all problem solving to "seeking," that
is, to search through domains of possible solutions. He reduced reason
-- the human or mental function par excellence, even in Plato and Aristotle
-- to calculation, to the manipulation of arbitrary, representational
symbols. In the opening lines of Leviathan (1651), Hobbes
sounded as if artificial intelligence might really be his main subject:
Nature, the art whereby God has made and governs the world, is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated -- that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as does a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart but a spring, and the nerves but so many strings, and the joints but so many wheels giving motion to the whole body such as was intended by the artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. ("The Introduction"; Hobbes's emphasis)
6. And indeed, Hobbes was really interested in artificial intelligence. But his is AI of a more social sort -- the reason, will, and intelligence of that artificial creature the commonwealth or the state, a society of minds.
For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE -- in Latin CIVITAS -- which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; ...; counselors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; ....This is an arresting idea even for us today -- of the state as an artificial person that must be organized properly so as to have an appropriate sort of intelligence, memory, etc. On a smaller scale, think of a business corporation or "body," which is treated as an individual person by the law. Hobbes has here generalized the idea of a corporation.
In Chapter V of Leviathan, "Of Reason and Science," comes the central passage for our purposes (see below for the entire chapter):
When a man reasons, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total from addition of parcels [Hobbes's mental counters or representations], or conceive a remainder from subtraction of one sum from another; which if it be done by words, is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts to the name of the whole, or from the names of the whole and one part to the name of the other part. And though in some things, as in numbers, besides adding and subtracting men name other operations, as multiplying and dividing, yet they are the same; for multiplication is but adding together things equal, and division but subtracting of one thing as often as we can. These operations are not incident to numbers only, but to all manner of things that can be added together and taken out of another. For as arithmeticians teach to add and subtract in numbers, so the geometricians teach the same in lines, figures solid and superficial, angles, proportions, times, degrees of swiftness, force, power, and the like [an allusion to Galileo and Descartes]; the logicians teach the same in consequences of words, adding together two names to make an affirmation, and two affirmations to make a syllogism, and many syllogisms to make a demonstration; and from the sum or conclusion of a syllogism they subtract one proposition to find the other. Writers of politics add together pactions to find men's duties, and lawyers laws and facts to find what is right and wrong in the actions of private men. In sum, in what matter soever there is place for addition and subtraction, there also is place for reason; and where these have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do. (Hobbes's italics throughout)7. Here we have a clear statement of the "modern" (but still controversial) idea of reasoning as nothing more than computation, calculation according to mathematics-like rules or algorithms. This view excludes Aristotle's conception of reasoning as judgment, informed by experience -- an act that is not the simple, direct application of rules but is able to accommodate exceptions to rules. It also excludes some of Descartes, who often modeled reasoning on rational intuition. For Descartes, we can never be sure that a long sequence of reasoning steps constitutes a valid proof unless we can grasp the whole argument at once in an intuitive flash. Everything becomes clear and distinct at once, as it were. Only thus do you really understand the argument, and without understanding you cannot correctly judge validity. (Recall step four of Descartes's method.) Hobbes's mechanistic-computational account of thinking is incompatible with intuition.
8. The modern, highly rationalistic conception of thought as computation is often said to be indebted to the rise of capitalist economics as well as to modern science. We find evidence for this in Hobbes himself, who notes that the Romans had already made the connection.
Subject to names, is whatsoever can enter into, or be considered in an account, and be added one to another to make a sum, or subtracted one from another and leave a remainder. The Latins called accounts of money rationes, and accounting ratiocinatio; and that which we in bills or books of account call items, they call nomina -- that is, names; and thence it seems to proceed that they extended the word ratio to the faculty of reckoning in all other things. (Chap. 4)('Ratiocination' has long been absorbed into English, as meaning exact thinking. Is subtle logical and mathematical work analogous to double-entry bookkeeping?) Thus Hobbes reduced reasoning to reckoning or calculation -- manipulation of symbols according to a system of rules. The last passage interestingly suggests that accounting systems provided a leading model for the operation of the mind. Accounting systems were surely the leading example of practical arithmetic, which was now finally coming into its own as a useful model to challenge the old intellectual model of a geometrical system. Thought is a sort of bookkeeping, employing mental counters or symbols and done according to appropriate sets of rules. A confused thinker must beware of being "audited" by his intellectual superiors or critics -- for fear of being found mentally bankrupt, as we still say!
Hobbes's adding machine or accounting model of mind and rational thought may seem hopelessly naive. Yet he was basically correct about the potentially immense power of a machine that can very rapidly perform arithmetic operations. Similarly, Descartes was right that the scope of mathematics could be vastly extended. To add a contemporary illustration: in the 1950s, people still thought of digital computers as glorified adding machines that could also sort. Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, and others showed how to parlay this basic mathematical capability into a general, symbol processing machine, by suitably coding problems and solution strategies as series of simple operations ("programs") that the machine could "read" and "execute."
Economic competition demanded efficiency and led to the gradual replacement of the old, clumsy Roman numeral system of counting with abacuses and counting tables, by the new Hindu-Arabic number system and its easy computational algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. (Just try to multiply or divide using Roman numerals!) The new system was more abstract in representing quantities by means of a place-value system instead of the Roman numeral strokes. (Keeping the place-value number system in mind enables us to solve the following Problem: Show that the number abcabc is divisible by 13, where a, b, and c are numerals from 0 to 9.)
9. Descartes agreed with Hobbes that animal and human bodies are just machines -- mechanical devices. However, Hobbes, in a sense, believed that we are machines "all the way down." Descartes, too, found this idea absurd and abhorrent, yet, despite his views on intuition, his stress on logical proof was also a big step down the path toward the conception of rationality as ability to reason discursively. Leibniz later went beyond Descartes and Hobbes by invoking a more rigorous and intuition-free process of step-by-step logical reasoning as artificial symbol manipulation according to rules. Leibniz, however, did agree that a machine could not be a conscious, rational agent. Suppose there could be such a machine, he said in the Monadology (1714). Now suppose (as can always be done with his kind of machine) that it is rebuilt on a scale large enough that we can walk through it as we do a mill. Then no matter how closely we pay attention to the gears, drive shafts, etc., we could never observe consciousness or reason.
10. Hobbes took seriously the problem of skepticism that Descartes had made the central problem of modern epistemology: since all we are immediately aware of is (our own) perceptions and sensations, how can we know anything at all beyond these -- that there is a real, material world out there, or even that we exist? Moreover, Hobbes accepted Descartes's answer, cogito ergo sum, as a valid starting point. But he denied Descartes's next step, the conclusion that I am a thinking thing or mind. I can directly perceive nothing beyond the train of perceptions itself, said Hobbes; thus the notion of mind is a construct of imagination. Our perceptions do suggest to us the ideas of space and time, he continued; however, these, too, are basically constructs, since we cannot directly observe either space or time. And instead of reasoning to the necessary existence of an all-good and powerful God, as Descartes did, and then appealing to God's lack of deception as a roundabout, indirect proof of the existence of the physical world, Hobbes presents a direct argument for the existence of an external, physical world causing me to have these perceptions. (See Tuck, 40ff.)
1. I experience movement
in the form of moving images or perceptions.
2. Nothing can move itself. (Principle of Sufficient Reason)
3. Only bodies in space (that is, material bodies) can be moved.
4. All movement is caused by material bodies: only material bodies can move other bodies.
5. Some or all of the moving images that I experience cannot be sufficiently explain in terms of the movement of
other images that I experience. (That is, the moving images of my experience do not constitute a
6. Therefore, my experienced images are really material, and their movement is caused by material bodies
outside of my experience.
Hobbes thought his
premises were too evident to require careful defense.
Hobbes's Political Theory
11. All modern political science derives from engaging the challenges of Machiavelli and Hobbes, as did Locke, Rousseau, Marx and others. Hobbes introduced the themes of (1) the existence of an original condition or presocial "state of nature"; (2) the corresponding notion that the state is artificial or "manmade" rather than natural; we flourish only in an artificial, not a natural, environment; and (3) that the state (including civil society) is created by a social contract of some sort. Hobbes was first (or one of the first) to formulate the problem of social order in a philosophically sharp form; and his anti-democratic, absolutist solution to the problem has provoked much debate.
12. Hobbes was convinced that only a highly centralized government, with an absolute power at the center, could solve the problem of social order. For him the idea of a decentered or decentralized society was an oxymoron. Contracts and other social amenities scarcely made sense without the backing of an absolute power. Thus his solution to the problem of order raised by the disintegration and decentering of all the old powers and institutions is to propose a new sort of society, at the level of the nation state, that is more centralized than any hitherto. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes believed that human life could flourish only within the security of a stable social order. As the sine qua non of genuinely human life, secure order was of the utmost importance. Human beings do not flourish in their natural state; there is no justice in nature. We are not at home in nature and should not aspire to be "natural men." Justice and the state are artifacts, things humanly constructed.
13. Hobbes's epistemology is deeply related to his political theory. The civil strife in the England of his day had taught him that the sources of division in society must be identified and removed, as much as possible. One source was intellectual disagreement. Is there any way in which to avoid intellectual disputes and to resolve them when they do arise? Care with language and meaning will help greatly to avoid needless disputes, said Hobbes (see below), and geometrical proof provides the highest model for the conclusive resolution of disputes.
Hobbes became so impressed with geometrical demonstration as a method of establishing truths that he thought all knowledge, including politics and ethics, could and should be advanced in this form. (Geometrical demonstration is proving theorems from axioms, as you did when you studied Euclid's geometry in high school.) The fact that it could be expressed in this form, in Hobbes's view, showed that it was artificial knowledge in the sense of humanly made knowledge rather than something given by nature. (See below on "maker's knowledge.") Yet Hobbes's empiricist tendency demands some qualification of this last remark, for experience can never prove anything as certainly as mathematics can.
14. Demonstration was very important in the 17th century; for, again, anything that could be rationally demonstrated from agreed premises was not subject to further dispute. This was important for two reasons. First, demonstrative knowledge was the highest form of certainty that human beings could obtain, except for the intuited premises themselves. Therefore, it was desirable in itself. According to the ancient conception of knowledge, if something is not demonstrable, it is mere opinion and carries little weight.
[Actually, 17th-century England, France, and Holland saw the gradual emergence of the modern ideas of probability and evidence and of probable belief -- a kind of practically reliable knowledge filling the gap between demonstrative certainty on the one hand and mere subjective opinion on the other. 'Science' comes from the Latin word scientia, which had always meant certain knowledge. 'Science' gradually came to mean something less certain, though well justified. However, Hobbes was conservative on this score, and even the great Newton couched both his Principia Mathematica (1687) and his Opticks (1704) in geometrical form. Other kinds of mathematics and new epistemological distinctions were emerging, but geometrical demonstration still ruled the roost. Still, by the end of the century, Locke could anticipate the future status of scientific knowledge by saying that it could aspire only to probable knowledge, not to metaphysical certainty. And the same held for legal, historical, and religious knowledge. Future evidence could always undermine something that we think we know.]
15. Second, 17th-century England was a very turbulent century, and Hobbes was adamant that all possible means should be taken to avoid disagreement, conflict, or "faction," as he called it. He published his great political and philosophical treatise Leviathan in 1651, during the interregnum period in which the English Civil War was followed by the Protectorate (really a dictatorship) of the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell. The trouble had started over Parliament's attempt to curb royal power. Charles I strongly emphasized the divine right of kings, which he understood to mean that no earthly power could limit the freedom of kings to do whatever they wanted. Parliament's increased power and role in government reflected the increasing industrialization of England and the rise of a bourgeois middle class of business people, lawyers, and other literate and professional people. But this was intertwined with the religious debate between Catholics (the Stuarts, the royal family to which James I, Charles I and II, and James II belonged, had Catholic sympathies) and Protestants and with quarrels among the Protestant factions. The Calvinistic Puritans were rapidly gaining power, and included many lower-class people. The reign of the Stuart kings was broken when Charles I was beheaded in 1649 -- the first monarch to be executed in modern times. Beheading a king, who allegedly ruled as God's appointed one, was a momentous step of self-assertion for the citizens of any country. Later, in 1660, Charles's son, Charles II was restored to the throne (an event called "the Restoration"), soon succeeded by his brother James II. More trouble ensued and in 1688/89 came the so-called Glorious Revolution in which James II fled the country as his Protestant daughter Mary and husband William of Orange were invited from Holland to rule.
As historian Lawrence Stone summarizes the problem of social order:
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries ... this almost hysterical demand for order at all costs was caused by a collapse of most of the props of the medieval world picture. The unified dogma and organisation of the Catholic Church found itself challenged by a number of rival creeds and institutional structures ... the reliance upon the intellectual authority of the Ancients was threatened by new scientific discoveries. Moreover in England there occurred a phase of unprecedented social and geographical mobility which at the higher levels transformed the composition and size of the gentry and professional classes, and at the lower levels tore hundreds of thousands of individuals loose from their traditional kinship and neighbourhood backgrounds. (pp. 653f)16. Thus the problem of social order -- or rather the problem of legitimate social order, the problem of sovereignty -- was the chief problem on Hobbes's philosophical agenda, and a central problem of political philosophy -- perhaps the central problem -- ever since. How is it possible to achieve a state that is stable and ordered and yet legal -- morally or rationally justified? Actually, there are two problems here. One is the problem of finding a causal mechanism that will hold together a state of mutually repulsive individuals. This first was basically Machiavelli's problem. Second is the problem of solving the first problem in a legal or rationally justified manner rather than by brute force.
Stated in terms of human nature, the problem is this. Given that human beings are mutually repulsive creatures, how is it possible to contain them within a stable society, moreover, a society that does not force them into place against their will. For there can be "no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own." Hobbes here articulated the fundamental principle of modern political theory, that in the state of nature there are no obligations. In other words, no one is born into a state of obligation. Either way, no person or state has the right to demand allegiance except through the consent (not necessarily explicit) of the affected parties. Now the obvious model for obligation created by consent was the business contract. It is safe to say that modern social contract theory in politics is deeply indebted to business life, notably to the rise of capitalistic business life.
The problem for Hobbes and later political theorists is that they want to distinguish “right” from “might” (that is, rights from powers) while recognizing that rights must be suitably backed by the brute force of causal powers. As Machiavelli already said, "Good laws require good arms" (The Prince, Ch. XII). For Hobbes, right is artificial, not natural, and its very existence depends on the brute power of the state or sovereign (see below), yet there is still supposed to be a difference between legitimate and illegitimate use of those powers. In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx criticized this distinction of the contractarians as an illusion, asserting that rights are only an institutional reflection of powers, which alone have material reality (Scruton, p. 198).
Let us formulate the basic question of political theory in still another way: Is any form of human existence other than anarchy (= the complete absence of legitimate rule) both possible and legal? After all, anarchy is the only position which says that the state has absolutely no right to violate or curtail the prerogatives of individuals. All organized societies and governments must do this to some degree. The anarchist agrees with the classical liberal sentiment that "that government governs best which governs least," adding only that the least form of government is no government at all!
Now, given the obvious difficulty of the problem of political legitimization, one might think that only a weak state could be justified. Ironically, Hobbes's answer was that the most rational state for people who fear for their security (and that includes everyone) was an absolute monarchy, a totalitarian state, practically the strongest form of government that there is. (He did allow for other forms of government than monarchy but thought them more subject to divisive conflict.)
17. Anarchy was a real threat to 17th-century England, particularly during the Civil War when all manner of radical sects (including some strongly communistic ones) emerged. This threat was compounded by Hobbes's basic assumption that human beings are by nature ignoble savages driven by self-interest. (Again, unlike Aristotle before and Locke and Rousseau later, Hobbes characterizes our life in nature as bad; the natural is bad.) "So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless striving of power after power, that ceaseth only in death." Everyone constantly seeks power over others, and the glory that accompanies such conquest. "All society, therefore, is either for gain or for glory; that is, not so much for love of our fellows as for love of ourselves." We are driven by our passions of fear and unbridled self-assertion.
18. The "state of nature" -- the logical fictional time before human society existed or in complete breakdown during a civil war -- was a "war of all against all" with complete distrust and complete absence of culture and industry, which require cooperation. In Hobbes's famous words, life under such conditions was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." [This phrase sounds Machiavellian; compare the very different views of Locke and Rousseau.] So, as above, the problem of social order becomes: What keeps society from exploding, given that human beings are mutually repulsive atoms, vile and violent, completely selfish beasts, by nature, each acting purely out of self-interest to preserve his/her own life and to grasp as much power as possible?
19. Was the brutish state of nature a real historical stage? No. It has the status of a logical or theoretical idealization, a theoretically useful fiction akin to those found in mechanics and the other sciences. Funkenstein (pp. 331, 337) says that assumptions concerning the state of nature function much like the mechanical principle of inertia. It is an unreal, contrary-to-fact, limiting case that imposes a new ordering principle on a domain. It is a starting point, a reference point, any departure from which must be explained and justified.
20. Note that Hobbes simply takes individualism for granted: originally, we are nothing but a scattered collection of isolated, asocial, even anti-social animals. This is directly contrary to Aristotle's famous political assumption that "man is by nature a social animal." (Actually, Aristotle said that we are by nature political animals, where 'political' meant 'suited to living in a Greek polis', a relatively small city-state on the model of Athens. For Aristotle a polis was therefore natural, not artificial.)
21. Hobbes also rejected the ancient pagan and Christian natural law tradition, according to which the basic principles of morality and politics are ingrained in nature and discoverable by rational inquiry as "self-evident" principles. The only residue of natural law that Hobbes retained was the right of self-preservation. Every creature tries to preserve its life when challenged, and it has a right to do so. (Here we have what was later called the famous "four Fs": fighting, fleeing, feeding, and . . . reproducing the species!)
22. For Hobbes, the state is not natural but rather a deviation, an escape, from our natural condition (the inertial condition from which any departure must be justified). The state is "man made." It must be synthesized, composed, constructed. (See the quotations below.) Hobbes's own political-scientific method of studying the state in effect destroys and then rebuilds or reconstructs the state before our very eyes. This is an application of the method of analysis and synthesis. He first dissolves civic and personal bonds into the atomic, original condition, the state of nature. Then he shows how to use these minimal materials to rebuild a state that (supposedly) will really work. Of course, unlike Galileo, who could check his constructions experimentally, Hobbes's exercise was all in the imagination and not subject to controlled empirical testing.
In other words, Hobbes's method is basically the same one that his one-time master, Francis Bacon, had advocated: find the form or definition of something in such a way that you can actually produce the effect, so that human art can imitate nature. (The young Hobbes had served as Bacon's literary and legal secretary.) Even if we do not have a totally correct intellectual representation of nature, being able to produce natural effects by specified means is a sure kind of knowledge or pragmatic knowhow -- for we can actually "make" nature and imitate God's creative powers to this extent. This is one sort of maker's knowledge.
23. Accordingly, this view belongs to what is called the maker's knowledge tradition, that knowledge is something made and not simply an intellectual representation of the universe by human beings as mere spectators. Hobbes agreed that human beings are doers and makers, not only spectators. In taking apart the state and putting back together again, he was employing the method of analysis and synthesis (or resolution and composition) advocated by Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and many others, and later illustrated by Newton's experiments with light and color and by the chemists' analysis and re-synthesis of compounds. As the Italian thinker, Giambattista Vico, would later stress, our ability to make something, to synthesize it, is the acid test of whether we really understand it. We can fully understand, he says, only what we ourselves have made. [Does it follow, then, that we cannot make something that we do not fully understand?] Hobbes tries to convince us, by means of his construction of the state, that he understands how stable states must necessarily work. And they are artificial. Even more for Hobbes than for Machiavelli, perhaps, the state is a work of art, an artifact.
24. Well, how is Hobbes's state made? Experiencing a natural desire for security, the humans in the state of nature realize that some agreement limiting the "freedoms" to kill and maim one another is the only way out of their predicament. Thus they form a social contract or agreement among themselves. But the only way to enforce the terms of this agreement, Hobbes believed, given the degenerate nature of human beings, is for there to be a superior force that will make them behave. So they agree to give absolute power to a single entity, either one man, a king, or an assembly of some kind. That monarch or ruling body will have complete freedom to impose whatever law and order he or it wishes, as long as he or it keeps the peace and recognizes the right to self-preservation (the only bit of natural law that Hobbes retains). Observe that this solution to the problem of order is driven by passion, namely fear.
It is important to note that the contract for Hobbes is among the citizens only, and not between the citizens and the ruler. Hobbes suggests that a monarchy (rather than rule by an assembly) is the most stable form of government. Thus, Hobbes supports an absolute monarchy and totally rejects democracy, just at a time when Parliament was trying to limit the power of the king. (But, after all, didn't that attempt lead to civil war?) So Hobbes's writings alienated Parliament, and he fled to France more than once to escape persecution. (On one of these stays abroad, he was tutor in exile to the future King Charles II, also in exile.) But Hobbes angered the royalists as well, because the king of Hobbes's ideal state did not serve by divine right but instead by a prior agreement of the people. Finally, he angered the church by making it totally subservient to the state, that is, subservient to the sovereign, and by his apparent atheism. Late in life, Parliament investigated Hobbes's atheism, and he was prohibited from publishing anything more. For a man who wanted to end division in society, Hobbes caused a lot of trouble!
25. The Leviathan was a whale-like sea monster subdued by God in the Old Testament (book of Job). Hobbes's state is the Leviathan, something powerful and frightful enough to keep people in line, i.e., an early form of totalitarian state, although in theory Hobbes allowed that the ruling structure could be a democracy as well as a monarchy or aristocracy. In his secular justification of absolute power, Hobbes again reminds us of Machiavelli.
26. Hobbes retained only the minimal element of natural law -- the right to self-preservation. For him that is the only moral-political principle built into nature. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes thought that self-preservation automatically outweighs any other reason (Berlin, "The Originality of Machiavelli," 73). Like Machiavelli, he was too cynical to understand a religious morality of consistent altruism or charity, and the spiritual motivation that has made millions of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, not to mention communists, willing to give their lives for a higher cause. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes neglected the inner person and internal relations such as mutual trust as social cement. Both men saw society as a mere external juxtaposition of individual, rather bestial creatures, held together by external force. [A Hobbist might respond that trust is not rational; yet we could reply that Hobbes's own philosophy is based more on passion than reason.]
27. Hobbes went even further than Machiavelli in separating the state from the mysteries of the divine in the sense that he reduced political theory to rational analysis, to a rational inquiry into the foundations and justification of the state. Machiavelli's Prince was a practical handbook that did not explore abstract principles in a philosophical manner. In this sense, Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) is the first modern political theory, or book of political science, one compatible with a nontheological, scientific conception of the cosmos and based on Hobbes's attempt to sketch of scientific psychology of the social atom -- the individual human being.
Do you think that Hobbes goes too far in divorcing law and even politics
from morality -- so far as to undermine his claim to a rational solution
to the problem of politics? Is it possible to question the justice
of a law or the rightness of the monarch's command in his system?
Or does he simply take the dictates of the ruler to be the law (a view,
as we shall see later, that substitutes "positive law" for "natural law")?
One of the topics of Medieval disputation was: Is it law because it is
commanded or because it is right? (See Bredvold, 26.) So our
question is whether Hobbes comes down too far on the side of 'commanded'
rather than 'right'. In other words, does Hobbes remain too close
to the "might makes right" (in German, Macht macht Recht) position?
Consider Shakespeare's comment, spoken in the dire prediction of the perceptive
Ulysses in his play Troilus and Cressida.
If "force should be right"
then right and wrong
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, a universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up itself.
This brings up the
further question: What is to curb the appetite and will of Hobbes's sovereign?
The sovereign keeps the people in line, but what check is there on the
sovereign, who, after all, is one or more human beings who get up in the
morning and put on their shoes, one at a time, like everyone else.
Secondary Sources Used or Recommended
Again, the literature
on Hobbes is enormous. For a useful brief history of modern philosophy,
see Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy (London,
1984). Bronowski & Mazlish have a chapter on Hobbes and Locke.
Richard Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford, 1989) in the Past Masters series is
a good introduction to Hobbes. See also the Hobbes chapter of Leo
Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (2nd
ed., Chicago, 1972). For social background, see Lawrence Stone, The
Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, London, 1977).
For intellectual developments, including the emergence of modern notions
of natural law, probability, evidence, science, scientific knowledge, the
laboratory, etc., see Louis Bredvold, The Brave New World of the Enlightenment
(Ann Arbor, 1961); Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability
(New York, 1975); Barbara Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century
England (Princeton, 1983); Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan
and the Air-Pump (Princeton, 1985); and Amos Funkenstein's magisterial
Theology and the Scientific Imagination, (Princeton, 1986).
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