1. Formative Influences
HE WAS born aforetime on April 5, 1588; his mother attributed his premature birth to her fright at the coming of the Spanish Armada and the threat of a large-scale invasion by murderous idolaters. To this unpremeditated expulsion into life the philosopher ascribed his timorous disposition, but he was the boldest heretic of his age. His father, an Anglican clergyman at Malmesbury in Wiltshire, may have transmitted some pugnacity to the son, for he engaged in a brawl at the door of his church and then disappeared, leaving his three children to be brought up by a brother.
The brother prospered, and at fifteen Thomas entered Magdalen College, Oxford, doubtless as timid as any youth venturing into caves dedicated to the idols of the tribe. He found little to his liking in the philosophy taught there; he consoled himself with extracurricular reading, and gained a firsthand acquaintance with Greek and Latin classics. Graduating at twenty, he had the good fortune to be employed as private tutor to William Cavendish, who became second Earl of Devonshire; the protection given him by that family proved precious to him in the days of his heresies. With his pupil he traveled on the Continent (1610). On his return he served for a while as secretary to Francis Bacon; that stimulating experience may have shared in forming his thoroughly empirical philosophy. About this time, Aubrey tells us, “Mr. Benjamin Johnson, Poet Laureate, was his loving and familiar friend,” 1 more learned than Hobbes, and not yet tough. Soon he was back with the Cavendish family; he retained relations with it for three generations; and probably from these generous and well-entrenched patrons he adopted the royalist and High Church views that won pardon for his materialistic metaphysics, and kept him from burning.
His discovery of Euclid was a turning point in his mental biography. He was forty years old when, in a private library, he saw the Elements open at Proposition XLVII of Book I. Reading it, he cried out, “By God, this is impossible!” The demonstration referred for its proof to an earlier proposition, and this to another, and so backward to the initial definitions and axioms. He was delighted with this logical architecture, and fell in love with geometry. 2 But, Aubrey adds, he “was much addicted to music, and practiced on the bass viol.” In 1629 he published a translation of Thucydides, with the professed aim of scaring England away from democracy. In that year he resumed his travels, now as tutor to his first pupil’s son, the third Earl of Devonshire. His visit to Galileo (1636) may have strengthened his inclination to interpret the universe in mechanical terms.
He returned to England in 1637. As the conflict between Parliament and Charles I progressed, Hobbes wrote an essay, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politique, defending the absolute authority of the King as indispensable to social order and national unity. This was circulated in manuscript, and might have led to the author’s arrest had not Charles dissolved the Parliament. As the temper of the conflict rose, Hobbes thought it discreet to retire to the Continent (1640). He remained there, chiefly in Paris, for the next eleven years. In Paris he won the friendship of Mersenne and Gassendi, and the hostility of Descartes. Mersenne invited him to submit comments on Descartes’ Meditations; he did, with some courtesy but too much point, and Descartes never forgave him. When civil war came to England (1642), Royalist emigrés formed a colony in France, and Hobbes may have taken from them some added rubbing of monarchist sentiment. For two years (1646–48) he was tutor in mathematics to the exiled Prince of Wales, the future Charles II. The outbreak of the Fronde in France—aiming, like the revolt in England, to limit royal power—confirmed his conviction that only an absolute monarchy could maintain stability and internal peace.
He arrived very slowly at the definitive expression of his philosophy. “He walked much and contemplated,” says Aubrey, “and he had in the head of his staff [cane] a pen and inkhorn, carried always a notebook in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entered it into his book, or else he should perhaps have lost it.” 3 He issued a series of minor works,* most of which are now negligible; but in 1651 he gathered his thoughts into a reckless masterpiece of thought and style: The Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. This is one of the landmarks in the history of philosophy; we must tarry with it leisurely.
2. Logic and Psychology
The style is almost as good as Bacon’s: not as rich in illuminating images, but every bit as pithy, idiomatic, forceful, and direct, with now and then a tang of pointed irony. There is no ornament here, no show of eloquence, only the clear expression of clear thought with a stoic economy of verbal means. “Words,” said Hobbes, “are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas.” 4 With that new razor he cut down many a weed of pretentious and meaningless speech. When he came upon St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of eternity as nunc stans, or “everlasting now,” he shrugged it off as “easy enough to say, but though I fain would, yet I never could conceive it; they that can are happier than I.” Therefore Hobbes is a blunt nominalist: class or abstract nouns like man or virtue are merely names for generalizing ideas; they do not represent objects; all objects are individual entities—individual virtuous actions, individual men . . .
He defines his terms carefully, and on the first page of his book he defines “Leviathan” as “a commonwealth or state.” He found the word in Job (xli), where God used it for an unspecified sea monster as an image of the divine power. Hobbes proposed to make the state a great organism that should absorb and direct all human activity. But before coming to his main thesis he swept through logic and psychology with a merciless hand.
He understood by philosophy what we should now call science: “the knowledge of effects, or of appearances, acquired from the knowledge . . . of their causes, and, conversely, of possible causes from their known effects.” 5 He followed Bacon in expecting from such a study great practical benefits to human life. But he ignored Bacon’s call to inductive reasoning; he was all for “true ratiocination,” i.e., deduction from experience; and in his admiration for mathematics he added that “ratiocination is the same with addition and subtraction”—i.e., the combination or separation of images or ideas. He thought that what we lack is not experience, but proper reasoning about experience. If we could clear away the miasma of meaningless words from metaphysics, and the prejudices transmitted by custom, education, and partisan spirit, what a load of error would fall away! Reason, however, is fallible, and, except in mathematics, can never give us certainty. “The knowledge of consequence, which I have said before is called science, is not absolute, but conditional. No man can know by discourse [reasoning] that this or that is, has been, or will be, which is to know absolutely; but only that if this be, that is; if this has been, that has been; if this shall be, that shall be; which is to know conditionally.”6
As that passage foresaw Hume’s argument that we know only sequences, not causes, so Hobbes anticipated Locke’s sensationist psychology. All knowledge begins with sensation. “There is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.” 7 It is a frankly materialistic psychology: nothing exists, outside us or within us, except matter and motion. “All qualities called sensible,” or sensory (light, color, form, hardness, softness, sound, odor, taste, heat, cold), “are, in the object that causeth them, but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversely. Neither, in us that are pressed, are they anything else but divers motions, for motion produceth nothing but motion.” 8 Motion in the form of change is necessary to sensation; “semper idem sentire idem est ac nihil sentire” (Hobbes could be epigrammatic in Latin too)—always to feel the same thing is the same as to feel nothing. 9 (So neither the white man nor the colored man is conscious of his own odor, since it is always under his nose.)
From sensation Hobbes proceeds to derive imagination and memory through a peculiar application of what came to be Newton’s first law of motion:
That when a thing lies still, unless somewhat else stir it, it will lie still forever, is a truth that no man doubts of. But that when a thing is in motion it will eternally be in motion unless somewhat else stay it, though the reason be the same (namely, that nothing can change itself), is not so easily assented to. . . .
When a body is once in motion it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally; and whatsoever hindreth it cannot in an instant, but [only] in time and by degrees, quite extinguish it. And as we see in the water, though the wind cease, the waves give not over rolling for a long time after; so also it happeneth in that motion which is made in the internal parts of a man, then when he sees, dreams, etc. For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the things seen, though more obscure than when we see it. And this is it the Latins call Imagination. . . . Imagination, therefore, is nothing but decaying sense . . . . When we would express the decay, and signifying that the sense is fading, old, and past, it is called Memory. . . . Much Memory, or memory of many things, is called Experience. 10
Ideas are imaginations produced by sensation or memory. Thought is a sequence of such imaginations. That sequence is determined not by a free will but by mechanical laws governing the association of ideas.
Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently. But as we have no imagination whereof we have not formerly had sense in whole or in parts, so we have no transition from one imagination to another whereof we never had the like before in our senses. The reason whereof is this: All fancies [imaginations, ideas] are motions within us, relics of those made in the sense; and those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense, continue also together after sense. . . . But because in sense, to one and the same thing perceived, sometimes one thing, sometimes another, succeeds, it comes to pass in time that, in the imaging of anything, there is no certainty what we shall imagine next; only this is certain, it shall be something that succeeded the same before, at one time or another. 11
Such a train of thoughts may be unguided, as in dreams, or “regulated by some desire and design.” In dreams the images lying dormant in the brain are aroused by some “agitation of the inward parts of man’s body.” For all parts of the body are connected in some way with certain parts of the brain. “I believe there is a reciprocation of motion from the brain to the vital parts, and back from the vital parts to the brain, whereby not only imagination [or idea] begetteth motion in those parts, but also motion in those parts begetteth imagination like to that by which it was begotten.” 12 “Our dreams are the reverse of our waking imaginations: the motion, when we are awake, beginning at one end, and, when we dream, at another.” 13 The illogical sequence of images in dreams is due to the absence of any external sensation to check them, or of any purpose to guide them.
There is no place in Hobbes’s psychology for free will. The will itself is no separate faculty or entity, but merely the last desire or aversion in the process of deliberation; and deliberation is an alternation of desires or aversions, which ends when one impulse lasts long enough to flow into action. “In deliberation the last appetite or aversion immediately adhering to the action or the omission thereof is that we call the will.” 14 “Appetite, fear, hope, or the rest of the passions are not called voluntary, for they proceed not from, but are, the will, and the will is not voluntary.” 15 “Because every act of man’s will, and every desire and inclination, proceedeth from some cause, and that from another cause, in a continual chain (whose first link is in the hand of God the first of all causes), they proceed from necessity. So that to him that could see the connection of those causes, the necessity of all men’s voluntary actions would appear manifest.” 16 Throughout the universe there is an unbroken chain of causes and effects. Nothing is contingent or miraculous or due to chance.
The world is a machine of matter in motion according to law, and man himself is a similar machine. Sensations enter him as motions, and beget images or ideas; each idea is the beginning of a motion, and becomes an action if not impeded by another idea.17Every idea, however abstract, moves the body in some degree, however unseen. The nervous system is a mechanism for transforming sensory motion into muscular motion. Spirits exist, but they are merely subtle forms of matter. 18 The soul and the mind are not immaterial; they are names for the vital processes of the body and operations of the brain. Hobbes makes no attempt to explain why consciousness should have developed in such a mechanical process of sensation-to-idea-to-response. And by reducing all perceived qualities of objects to images in the “mind,” he comes close to the position that Berkeley would later take in refuting materialism—that all reality known to us is perception, mind.
3. Ethics and Politics
Like Descartes before him and Spinoza after him, Hobbes undertakes an analysis of the passions, for he finds in them the sources of all human actions. All three philosophers use the word passion broadly to mean any basic instinct, feeling, or emotion—chiefly appetite (or desire) and aversion, love and hate, delight and fear. Behind all these are pleasure and pain—physiological processes raising or lowering the vitality of the organism. Appetite is the beginning of a motion toward something that promises pleasure; love is such an appetite directed to one person. All impulses (as La Rochefoucauld would argue fourteen years later) are forms of self-love, and derive from the instinct of self-preservation. Pity is the imagination of future calamity to ourselves, aroused by perceiving another’s calamity; charity is the satisfied feeling of power in helping others. Gratitude sometimes includes a certain hostility. “To have received from one, to whom we think ourselves equal, greater benefits than there is hope to requite, disposeth to counterfeit love but really secret hatred, and puts a man into the estate of a desperate debtor, that, in declining the sight of his creditor, tacitly wishes him there where he might never see him more. For benefits oblige, and obligation is thralldom.” 19 The basic aversion is fear, the basic appetite is for power. “I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” 20 We desire riches and knowledge as means to power, and honors as evidence of power; and we desire power because we fear insecurity. Laughter is an expression of superiority and power.
The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory [self-satisfaction] arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly; for men laugh at the follies of themselves past, when these come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonor. . . . Laughter is incident most to them that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves, who are forced to keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds one of the proper works is to help and free others from scorn, and compare themselves only with the most able. 21
Good and bad are subjective terms, varying in content not only from place to place and from time to time, but from person to person. “The object of any appetite or desire . . . a man calleth the good; the object of his hate or aversion, evil; for these words . . . are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so, nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.” 22 Strength of passions may be good, and lead to greatness. “He who has no great passion for . . . power, riches, knowledge, or honor . . . cannot possibly have a great fancy or much judgment.” To have weak passions is dullness; to have passions abnormally strong is madness; “to have no desires is to be dead.” 23
The felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. . . . Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the obtaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. 24
The government of men so constituted, so acquisitive and competitive, so hot with passions and prone to strife, is the most complex and arduous of all human tasks, and to those who undertake it we must allow every weapon of psychology and power. Though the human will is not free, society is justified in encouraging certain actions by calling them virtuous and rewarding them, and in discouraging some actions by calling them wicked and punishing them. There is no contradiction here with determinism: these social approvals and condemnations are added, for the good of the group, to the motives influencing conduct. “The world is governed by opinion”; 25 government, religion, and the moral code are in large part the manipulation of opinion to reduce the necessity and area of force.
Government is necessary, not because man is naturally bad—for “the desires and other passions . . . are in themselves no sin” 26—but because man is by nature more individualistic than social. Hobbes did not agree with Aristotle that man is “a political animal”—i.e., a being equipped by nature for society. On the contrary, he conceived an original “state of nature” (and therefore the original nature of man) as a condition of competition and mutual aggression checked only by fear, not yet by law. We can visualize that hypothetical condition (said Hobbes) by observing international relations in our own age: nations are still for the most part in “a state of nature,” not yet subject to a superimposed law or power.
In all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointed, and their eyes fixed, on one another—that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns on the frontiers of their kingdoms—and continual spies upon their neighbors; which is a posture of war. . . . Where there is no common power there is no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the cardinal virtues. 27
So, Hobbes believed, individuals and families, before the coming of social organization, had lived in a condition of perpetual war, actual or potential, “every man against every man.” 28 “War consisteth not in battle only, . . . but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently shown.” 29 He rejected the theory of Roman jurists and Christian philosophers that there is, or ever was, a “law of nature” in the sense of laws of right and wrong based upon the nature of man as a “reasonable animal”; he admitted that man was occasionally rational, but saw him rather as a creature of passions—above all, the will to power—using reason as a tool of desire, and controlled only by fear of force. Primitive life—i.e., life before social organization—was lawless, violent, fearful, “nasty, brutish, and short.” 30
From this hypothetical “state of nature,” men, in Hobbes’s vision, had emerged by an implicit agreement one with another to submit to a common power. This is the “social-contract” theory made popular by Rousseau’s treatise under that title (1762), but already old and battered in Hobbes’s day. Milton, in his tract On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), had just interpreted the contract as an agreement between a king and his subjects—that they would obey him, and that he would properly fulfill the duties of his office; if he failed in this, said Milton (like Buchanan, Mariana, and many others), the people would be justified in deposing him. Hobbes objected to this form of the theory on the ground that it established no authority empowered to enforce the contract, or to determine when it had been broken. He preferred to think of the social compact as made not between ruler and ruled, but among the ruled, who agreed
to confer all their power and strength [their right to the use of force upon one another] upon one man, or upon one assembly of men. . . . This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH. This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather . . . of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defense. For by this authority, given him by every . . . man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof he is enabled to form the wills of them all . . . to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense. And he that carryeth this Person is called Sovereign, and said to have Sovereign Power; and every one besides, his Subject. 31
The theory rashly assumed, among the “nasty and brutish” savages aforementioned, a degree of order, rationality and humility sufficient for an agreement to surrender their powers. Hobbes wisely allowed for alternative origins of the state:
The attaining to this Sovereign Power is by two ways. One, by natural force, as when a man . . . maketh his children to submit themselves, and their children, to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will. . . . The other is when men agree among themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others. This latter may be called a Political Commonwealth. 32
However based, the sovereign, to be really sovereign, must have absolute power, for without it he cannot ensure individual security and public peace. To resist him is to violate the social contract which every person in the community has implicitly agreed to by accepting the protection of its head. The theoretical absolutism may admit of some actual limitations: a sovereign may be resisted if he orders a man to kill or maim himself, or to confess a crime, or if the ruler is no longer able to protect his subjects. “The obligation of subjects to the Sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” Revolution is always a crime until it succeeds. It is always unlawful and unjust, for both law and justice are determined by the Sovereign; but if a revolution establishes a stable and effective government, the subject is bound to obey the new power.
The king does not rule by divine right, since his power is derived from the people; but his authority must not be limited by a popular assembly, or by law, or by the Church. It should extend also to property; the sovereign should determine property rights, and may reappropriate private property for what he deems the public good. 34 Absolutism is necessary, for when power is shared, as between king and parliament, there will soon be conflict, then civil war, then chaos, then insecurity of life and property; and since security and peace are the ultimate needs of a society, there should be no separation, but full unity and concentration, of governmental powers. Where powers are divided there is no sovereign, and where there is no sovereign there will soon be no state. 35
Consequently the only logical form of government is monarchy. It should be hereditary, for the right to choose his successor is part of the sovereign’s sovereignty; again the alternative is anarchy. 36 Government by an assembly might serve, but only on condition that its power be absolute, not subject to the shifting desires of an uninformed populace. “A democracy is no more than an aristocracy of orators.” 37 The people are so readily moved by demagogues that control must be exercised by the government over speech and press; there should be strict censorship of the publication, importation, and reading of books. 38 There is to be no nonsense about individual liberty, private judgment, or conscience; anything that threatens the sovereign authority, and therefore the public peace, should be contracepted at the source. 39 How could a state be governed, or protected in its foreign relations, if every individual remained free to obey or not to obey the law according to his private opinion?
4. Religion and the State
The sovereign must also control the religion of his people, for this, when taken to heart, can be a disruptively explosive force. Hobbes offers a summary definition: “Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed [is] Religion; not allowed, Superstition.” 40 This reduces religion to fear, imagination, and pretense; but elsewhere Hobbes ascribes it to an anxious inquiry into the causes and beginnings of things and events. 41 Ultimately this pursuit of causes leads to the belief that “there must be (as even the heathen philosophers confessed) one First Mover, i.e., a First and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God.” 42 Men naturally supposed that this First Cause was like themselves, a person, soul, and will, only much more powerful. They attributed to this Cause all events whose natural determinants they could not yet discern, and they saw, in strange events, portents and prophecies of the divine will.
In these four things, opinion of ghosts [spirits], ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostications, consisteth the natural seed of religion, which, by reason of different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another. 43
Hobbes was a deist rather than an atheist. He acknowledged an intelligent Supreme Being, 44 but added, “Men . . . may naturally know that God is, though not what he is.” 45 We must not conceive of God as having figure, for all figure is finite; or as having parts; or as being in this or that place, “for whatsoever is in place is bounded and finite”; nor that he moves or rests, for these ascribe to him place; nor (except by metaphor) that he partakes of grief, repentance, anger, mercy, want, appetite, hope, or any desire. 46Hobbes concluded that “the nature of God is incomprehensible.” 47 He would not describe God as incorporeal, for we cannot conceive anything to be without body; probably every “spirit” is subtly corporeal. 48
Having put religion and God in their place, Hobbes proposed to make use of them as instruments and servants of government. For this he claimed prestigious precedents.
The first founders and legislators of commonwealths amongst the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience and peace, have in all places taken care: First, to imprint in their minds a belief that those precepts which they gave concerning religion might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some God, or other Spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortals, that their laws might be more easily received: So Numa Pompilius pretended to receive the ceremonies he instituted among the Romans from the nymph Egeria; and the first king and founder of the Kingdom of Peru pretended himself and his wife to be the children of the sun; and Mahomet, to set up his new religion, pretended to have conferences with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. Secondly, they have had a care to make it believed that the same things were displeasing to the gods, which were forbidden by the laws. 49
Lest anyone conclude that Moses used similar devices in ascribing his laws to God, Hobbes adds, with a certain allergy to fire, that “God himself, by supernatural revelation, planted religion” among the Jews.
But he feels himself justified, by historical examples, in recommending that religion be made an instrument of government, and that, in consequence, its doctrines and observances be dictated by the sovereign. If the Church were independent of the state there would be two sovereigns, therefore no sovereign; and subjects would be torn between two masters.
Seeing the ghostly [spiritual] power challenges [assumes] the right to declare what is sin, it challenges by consequence to declare what is law (sin being nothing but the transgression of the law). . . . When these two powers [Church and state] oppose one another, the Commonwealth cannot but be in great danger of civil war, and dissolution. 50
In such a conflict the Church will have an advantage, “for every man, if he be in his wits, will in all things yield that man an absolute obedience, by virtue of whose sentence he believes himself to be either saved or damned.” When the spiritual power moves the subjects “by the terror of punishment and hope of reward” of this supernatural sort, “and by strange and hard words suffocates their understanding, it must needs thereby distract the people, and either overwhelm the commonwealth by oppression, or cast it into the fire of civil war.” 51 The only escape from such turmoil, Hobbes thinks, is to make the Church subject to the state. As the Catholic Church had the opposite solution, Hobbes, in Part IV of The Leviathan, attacks it as the ultimate and most powerful foe of his philosophy.
He enters upon some “Higher Criticism” of the Bible—questions Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch, and dates the historical books much later than in orthodox tradition. He suggests that Christianity should require of its adherents only a faith in “Jesus the Christ,” and that for the rest it should allow public opinion to vary within the safe bounds of public order. To a creed so chastened he offers not only the support of the government, but the full force of the state to propagate it. He agrees with the pope that only one religion should be tolerated in a state. 52 He advises the citizens to accept the theology of their sovereign without critical hesitation, as a duty to morality and the state. “For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick, which, swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure, but, chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.” 53 The most powerful assault that any Englishman had yet made upon Christianity ended with Christianity established as the inescapable law of an absolute state.
5. Baiting the Bear
“And thus,” said the final paragraph of The Leviathan, “I have brought to an end my Discourse of Civil and Ecclesiastical Government, occasioned by the disorders of the present time, without partiality . . . and without other design than to set before men’s eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience.”
The impartiality was not widely recognized. The emigrés who gathered about Charles II in France welcomed Hobbes’s defense of royalty, but condemned his materialism as indiscreet if not blasphemous, and they regretted that their unmanageable philosopher had spent reams attacking the Catholic Church just when they were soliciting the aid of a Catholic king. The Anglican divines who were among the refugees from the triumphant Puritans raised such an outcry against the book that Hobbes “was ordered to come no more to court.” 54 Finding himself now friendless and unprotected in France, Hobbes decided to make his peace with Cromwell and return to England. According to Bishop Burnet, he made some changes in the text of The Leviathan “to gratify the Republicans.” 55This is not certain; certain it is, however, that the doctrine of revolution as unlawful in origin, but sanctified by success, fitted imperfectly, like patchwork, with the basic doctrine of absolute obedience to an absolute monarch. The final “Review and Conclusion,” which looks like an afterthought, explained the conditions under which a subject formerly loyal to a king might in time gracefully submit to the new regime that had deposed the king. The book was published in London (1651) while Hobbes was still in Paris. At the end of that year, amid a severe winter, he crossed to England, and found a familiar haven with the Earl of Devonshire, who had long since submitted to the revolutionary Parliament. Hobbes sent in his own submission; it was accepted; and the philosopher, supported by a small pension from the Earl, moved to a house in London, because in the countryside “the want of learned conversation was a very great inconvenience.” 56 He was now sixty-three years old.
Slowly, as his book found readers, a swarm of critics gathered around his head. One clergyman after another came to the defense of Christianity, and asked who was this “Malmesbury animal” who set himself up against Aristotle, Oxford, Parliament, and God? Hobbes was timid, but he was a fighter; in 1655 he restated, in The Elements of Philosophy, his materialistic and deterministic views. John Bramhall, the learned bishop of Derry, cast his hook for Hobbes in The Catching of the Leviathan (1658), and aimed so well, according to another bishop, that “the hook is still in Hobbes’s nose.” 57 The attacks continued in almost every year till Hobbes’s death. The Earl of Clarendon, after his fall from power as chancellor, amused his exile by publishing A Brief View and Survey of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors, in Church and State, in Mr. Hobbes’s Book entitled Leviathan (1676); through 322 pages it followed the volumes systematically, answering argument with argument in lucid and majestic prose. Clarendon spoke as a man with long experience in political office, and smiled Hobbes’s philosophy away as that of one who had had no responsible posts to temper his theorems with practice; and he hoped that “Mr. Hobbes might have a place in Parliament, and sit in Council, and be present in Courts of Justice and other Tribunals, whereby it is probable he would find that his solitary cogitations, how deep soever, and his too peremptory adhering to some Philosophical Notions, and even Rules of Geometry, have misled him in the investigation of Policy.” 58
Not all the attacks were so even-tempered. In 1666 the House of Commons ordered one of its committees “to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy, and profaneness, or against the essence and attributes of God, and in particular the book published in the name of White [a former Catholic priest who questioned the immortality of the soul], and the book of Hobbes called The Leviathan.” 59 “There was a report (and surely true),” says Aubrey, “that in Parliament . . . some of the bishops made a motion to have the good old Gentleman burnt for a heretic.” 60 Hobbes destroyed such of his unpublished papers as might further embroil him, and wrote three dialogues arguing learnedly that no court in England could try him for heresy.
The restored King came to his rescue. Shortly after reaching London, Charles II noticed Hobbes in the street, recognized him as his former tutor, and welcomed him to the court. The Restoration court, already inclined to religious skepticism, and defending royal absolutism against Parliament, found some congenial elements in Hobbes’s philosophy. But his bald head, white hair, and Puritanlike garb invited taunting. Charles himself called him “the Bear,” and, as Hobbes neared, said, “Here comes the Bear to be baited.”61Nonetheless the witty King relished Hobbes’s ready repartees. He had the old man’s portrait painted, placed it in his private chambers, and gave him a pension of a hundred pounds a year. Though this was irregularly paid, it sufficed, with fifty pounds a year from the Cavendish family, to meet the philosopher’s simple needs.
Aubrey describes him as sickly in youth but healthy and vigorous in old age. He played tennis till he was seventy-five; when a tennis court was not available he took a daily walk long and brisk enough to give him a “great sweat, and then he gave the servant some money to rub him.” He ate and drank moderately; after seventy no meat and no wine. He bragged that he “had been in excess in his life a hundred times,” but Aubrey calculated that as this came to little more than once a year, it was not egregious. He never married. He appears to have had an illegitimate daughter, for whom he made generous provision. 62 He read little in these later years, and “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than” they. “At night, when he was abed, and the doors made fast, and was sure nobody heard him, he sang aloud (not that he had a very good voice, but) for his health’s sake; he did believe it did his lungs good, and conduced much to prolong his life.” 63 However, as early as 1650, “he had a shaking palsy in his hands,” which grew so bad that by 1666 his writing became almost illegible.
He continued to write nevertheless. Reverting from philosophy to mathematics, he slipped incautiously into controversy with an expert, John Wallis, who made short work of the old man’s claim to square the circle. In 1670, aged eighty-two, he publishedBehemoth, a history of the Civil War; he wrote several replies to his critics, and lovingly translated The Leviathan into Latin. In 1675 he composed an autobiography in verse, and rendered all the Iliad and the Odyssey into English rhymes (1675), because “there is nothing else for me to do.”
In that year, aged eighty-seven, he returned from London to the country, and he spent the remainder of his life at the Cavendish estate in Derbyshire. Meanwhile his palsy increased, and he suffered from strangury—painful difficulty in urination. When the current Earl moved from Chatsworth to Hardwick Hall, Hobbes insisted on going with him. The trip proved exhausting. A week later his paralysis spread, putting an end to his speech. On December 4, 1679, having received the Sacrament as an obedient Anglican, he died, four months short of completing his ninety-second year.
Hobbes’s psychology was a masterpiece of deduction from inadequate premises. Logical as it seems at first view, its joints creak with loose assumptions that further inquiry might have corrected. Determinism is logical, but it may be determined by the mold of our logic, formed by dealing with things rather than ideas. Hobbes found difficulty in conceiving anything to be incorporeal; it seems equally difficult to conceive thought or consciousness as corporeal; yet these are the only realities directly known to us—everything else is hypothesis. Hobbes passed from object to sensation to idea without shedding much light upon the mysterious process whereby the apparently corporeal object generates the apparently incorporeal thought. Mechanistic psychology falters in the face of consciousness.
Nevertheless it was in psychology that Hobbes contributed most to our legacy. He cleared the field of some metaphysical ghosts like the Scholastic “faculties”—though these could be readily interpreted not as separate mental entities but as aspects of mental activity. He established the more evident principles of association, but underestimated the role of purpose and attention in determining the selection, sequence and persistence of ideas. He gave a helpful description of deliberation and volition. His analysis and defense of the passions was a brilliant summary, and it paid to Spinoza the debt that it owed to Descartes. From these psychological pages Locke developed his more careful and detailed Essay concerning Human Understanding. It was in answering Hobbes (rather than Filmer) that Locke evolved his treatises on government.
Hobbes’s political philosophy reformulated Machiavelli in terms of Charles I. It stemmed from the successful absolutism of Henry VIII and Elizabeth in England, and of Henry IV and Richelieu in France; and doubtless it took some warmth from ducal friends and royal refugees. In immediate effect it seemed justified by the happy restoration of a Stuart King still claiming unlimited authority, and ending an erosive anarchy. But some able Englishmen felt that if the consent of “nasty and brutish” savages sufficed to create a government, the consent of men in a presumably more advanced condition might rightly check or topple it. So in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the philosophy of absolutism fell before the reassertion of Parliament, and was soon replaced by the liberalism of Locke preaching the limitation and separation of powers. After a nineteenth century of relative democracy growing in an England guarded by the Channel and in an America protected by the seas, a modified absolutism returned in totalitarian states exercising governmental control over life, property, industry, religion, education, publication, and thought. Invention transcended mountains and moats, frontiers vanished, national isolation and security disappeared. The absolutist polity is a child of war, and democracy is a luxury of peace.
We do not know if Hobbes’s “state of nature” ever existed; perhaps social organization antedated man. The tribe preceded the state, and custom is older, wider, deeper than law. The family is the biological ground of an altruism that enlarges the ego and its loyalties; Hobbes’s ethic might have been kindlier if he had brought up a family. To let the state define morality (though this too has passed into the totalitarian regimes) is to destroy one of the forces improving the state. The moral sense sometimes enlarges its area of co-operation or devotion, and then prods the law to widen its protection accordingly. In a distant future it may be possible for a state to be Christian, as was once that of Ashoka, who was a Buddhist.
Hobbes’s strongest influence was his materialism. From intellectual groups “Hobbism” flowed into the professional and business classes; the irate Bentley reported in 1693 that “the taverns and coffeehouses, nay, Westminster Hall [Parliament], and the very churches, were full of it.” 64 Many men in the government privately accepted it, but publicly covered it with a conspicuous respect for the Established Church as a beneficent form of social control that only reckless fools would destroy. In France the materialistic philosophy affected Bayle’s skepticism, and came to bolder developments in La Mettrie, d’Holbach, and Diderot.
Bayle ranked Hobbes as “one of the greatest geniuses of the seventeenth century.” 65 Honored or denounced, he was recognized as the most powerful philosopher that England had produced since Bacon, and as the first Englishman to present a formal treatise in political theory. One clear debt we owe him: he formulated his philosophy in logical order and lucid prose. Reading him and Bacon and Locke, or Fontenelle and Bayle and Voltaire, we perceive again what the Germans had made us forget, that obscurity need not be the distinguishing mark of a philosopher, and that every art should accept the moral obligation to be intelligible or silent.