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After the publication of his masterpiece of political theory, Leviathan, Or the Matter, and Power of Commonwealth Ecclesiastic and Civil, in 1651, opponents charged Thomas Hobbes with atheism and banned and burned his books. The English Parliament, in a search for scapegoats, even claimed that the theories found in Leviathan were a likely cause of the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.
For the modern reader, though, Hobbes is more recognized for his popular belief that humanity's natural condition is a state of perpetual war, with life being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Despite frequent challenges by other philosophers, Leviathan's secular theory of absolutism no longer stands out as particularly objectionable. In the description of the organization of states, moreover, we see Hobbes as strikingly current in his use of concepts that we still employ today, including the ideas of natural law, natural rights, and the social contract. Based on this work, one could even argue that Hobbes created English-language philosophy, insofar as Leviathan was the first great philosophical work written in English and one whose impact continues to the present day.
About the Author:
Thomas Hobbes was born on Good Friday in 1588. Despite growing up in an impoverished clerical family, he was precociously intelligent and completed a classical education at Oxford. He decided not to follow in his father's footsteps, though, and instead became a tutor within an aristocratic family. When these royalist political connections and a number of personal writings in support of monarchical authority got Hobbes centrally involved in the turmoil of the English Civil War, he feared for his safety and fled to France in 1640. It was while in exile in France that he wrote Leviathan, the work that cemented Hobbes' philosophical reputation as the pre-eminent modern theorist of secular absolutism.
About the Author
Philosopher, scientist, and historian Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a key figure in Britain's transition from medieval to modern thinking. His masterpiece, Leviathan, established the social contract theory that served as the foundation for most of Western political philosophy, and his view of mankind as essentially self-centered and competitive gave rise to the term "Hobbesian."
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Concerning the Thoughts of man, I will consider them first Singly, and afterwards in Trayne, or dependance upon one another. Singly, they are every one a Representation or Apparence, of some quality, or other Accident of a body without us; which is commonly called an Object. Which Object worketh on the Eyes, Eares, and other parts of mans body; and by diversity of working, produceth diversity of Apparences.
The Originall of them all, is that which we call Sense; (For there is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense.) The rest are derived from that originall.
To know the naturall cause of Sense, is not very necessary to the business now in hand; and I have else-where written of the same at large. Nevertheless, to fill each part of my present method, I will briefly deliver the same in this place.
The cause of Sense, is the Externall Body, or Object, which presseth the organ proper to each Sense, either immediatly, as in the Tast and Touch; or mediately, as in Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling: which pressure, by the mediation of Nerves, and other strings, and membranes of the body, continued inwards to the Brain, and Heart, causeth there a resistance, or counter-pressure, or endeavour of the heart, to deliver it self which endeavour because Outward, seemeth to be some matter without. And this seeming, or fancy, is that which men call Sense; and consisteth, as to the Eye, in a Light, or Colour figured; To the Eare, in a Sound; To the Nostrill, in an Odour; To the Tongue and Palat, in a Savour; And to the rest of the body, in Heat, Cold, Hardnesse, Softnesse, and such other qualities, as we discern by Feeling. All which qualities called Sensible, are in the object that causeth them, but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversly. Neither in us that are pressed, are they anything else, but divers motions; (for motion, produceth nothing but motion.) But their apparence to us is Fancy, the same waking, that dreaming. And as pressing, rubbing, or striking the Eye, makes us fancy a light; and pressing the Eare, produceth a dinne; so do the bodies also we see, or hear, produce the same by their strong, though unobserved action. For if those Colours, and Sounds, were in the Bodies, or Objects that cause them, they could not bee severed from them, as by glasses, and in Ecchoes by reflection, wee see they are; where we know the thing we see, is in one place; the apparence, in another. And though at some certain distance, the reall, and very object seem invested with the fancy it begets in us; Yet still the object is one thing, the image or fancy is another. So that Sense in all cases, is nothing els but originall fancy, caused (as I have said) by the pressure, that is, by the motion, of externall things upon our Eyes, Eares, and other organs thereunto ordained.
But the Philosophy-schooles, through all the Universities of Christendome, grounded upon certain Texts of Aristotle, teach another doctrine; and say, For the cause of Vision, that the thing seen, sendeth forth on every side a visible species (in English) a visible shew, apparition, or aspect, or a being seen; the receiving whereof into the Eye, is Seeing. And for the cause of Hearing, that the thing heard, sendeth forth an Audible species, that is, an Audible aspect, or Audible being seen; which entring at the Eare, maketh Hearing. Nay for the cause of Understanding also, they say the thing Understood sendeth forth intelligible species, that is, an intelligible being seen; which comming into the Understanding, makes us Understand. I say not this, as disapproving the use of Universities: but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a Common-wealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way, what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant Speech is one.
That when a thing lies still, unlesse somewhat els stirre it, it will lye still for ever, is a truth that no man doubts of. But that when a thing is in motion, it will eternally be in motion, unless somewhat els stay it, though the reason be the same, (namely, that nothing can change it selfe,) is not so easily assented to. For men measure, not onely other men, but all other things, by themselves: and because they find themselves subject after motion to pain, and lassitude, think every thing els growes weary of motion, and seeks repose of its own accord; little considering, whether it be not some other motion, wherein that desire of rest they find in themselves, consisteth. From hence it is, that the Schooles say, Heavy bodies fall downwards, out of an appetite to rest, and to conserve their nature in that place which is most proper for them; ascribing appetite, and Knowledge of what is good for their conservation, (which is more than man has) to things inanimate absurdly.
When a Body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something els hinder it) eternally; and whatsoever hindreth it, cannot in an instant, but in time, and by degrees quite extinguish it: And as wee see in the water, though the wind cease, the waves give not over rowling for a long time after; so also it happeneth in that motion, which is made in the internall parts of a man, then, when he Sees, Dreams, &c. For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, wee still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. And this is it, the Latines call Imagination, from the image made in seeing; and apply the same, though improperly, to all the other senses. But the Greeks call it Fancy; which signifies apparence, and is as proper to one sense, as to another. Imagination therefore is nothing but decaying sense; and is found in men, and many other living Creatures, as well sleeping, as waking.
The decay of Sense in men waking, is not the decay of the motion made in sense; but an obscuring of it, in such manner, as the light of the Sun obscureth the light of the Starres; which starrs do no less exercise their vertue by which they are visible, in the day, than in the night. But because amongst many stroaks, which our eyes, eares, and other organs receive from externall bodies, the predominant onely is sensible; therefore the light of the Sun being predominant, we are not affected with the action of the starrs. And any object being removed from our eyes, though the impression it made in us remain; yet other objects more present succeeding, and working on us, the Imagination of the past is obscured, and made weak; as the voyce of a man is in the noyse of the day. From whence it followeth, that the longer the time is, after the sight, or Sense of any object, the weaker is the Imagination. For the continuall change of mans body, destroyes in time the parts which in sense were moved: So that distance of time, and of place, hath one and the same effect in us. For as at a distance of place, that which wee look at, appears dimme, and without distinction of the smaller parts; and as Voyces grow weak, and inarticulate: so also after great distance of time, our imagination of the Past is weak; and wee lose (for example) of Cities wee have seen, many particular Streets; and of Actions, many particular Circumstances. This decaying sense, when wee would express the thing it self, (I mean fancy it selfe,) wee call Imagination, as I said before : But when we would express the decay, and signifie that the Sense is fading, old, and past, it is called Memory. So that Imagination and Memory, are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.
Much memory, or memory of many things, is called Experience. Againe, Imagination being only of those things which have been formerly perceived by Sense, either all at once, or by parts at severall times; The former, (which is the imagining the whole object, as it was presented to the sense) is simple Imagination; as when one imagineth a man, or horse, which he hath seen before. The other is Compounded; as when from the sight of a man at one time, and of a horse at another, we conceive in our mind a Centaure. So when a man compoundeth the image of his own person, with the image of the actions of an other man; as when a man imagins himselfe a Hercules, or an Alexander, (which happeneth often to them that are much taken with reading of Romants) it is a compound imagination, and properly but a Fiction of the mind. There be also other Imaginations that rise in men, (though waking) from the great impression made in sense: As from gazing upon the Sun, the impression leaves an image of the Sun before our eyes a long time after; and from being long and vehemently attent upon Geometricall Figures, a man shall in the dark, (though awake) have the Images of Lines, and Angles before his eyes: which kind of Fancy hath no particular name; as being a thing that doth not commonly fall into mens discourse.
The imaginations of them that sleep, are those we call Dreams. And these also (as all other Imaginations) have been before, either totally, or by parcells in the Sense. And because in sense, the Brain, and Nerves, which are the necessary Organs of sense, are so benummed in sleep, as not easily to be moved by the action of Externall Objects, there can happen in sleep, no Imagination; and therefore no Dreame, but what proceeds from the agitation of the inward parts of mans body; which inward parts, for the connexion they have with the Brayn, and other Organs, when they be distempered, do keep the same in motion; whereby the Imaginations there formerly made, appeare as if a man were waking; saving that the Organs of Sense being now benummed, so as there is no new object, which can master and obscure them with a more vigorous impression, a Dreame must needs be more cleare, in this silence of sense, than are our waking thoughts. And hence it cometh to passe, that it is a hard matter, and by many thought impossible to distinguish exactly between Sense and Dreaming. For my part, when I consider, that in Dreames, I do not often, nor constantly think of the same Persons, Places, Objects, and Actions that I do waking; nor remember so long a trayne of coherent thoughts, Dreaming, as at other times; And because waking I often observe the absurdity of Dreames, but never dream of the absurdities of my waking Thoughts; I am well satisfied, that being awake, I know I dreame not; though when I dreame, I think my selfe awake.
And seeing dreames are caused by the distemper of some of the inward parts of the Body; divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams. And hence it is, that lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object (the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the Brain being reciprocall :) And that as Anger causeth heat in some parts of the Body, when we are awake; so when we sleep, the over heating of the same parts causeth Anger, and raiseth up in the brain the Imagination of an Enemy. In the same manner; as naturall kindness, when we are awake causeth desire; and desire makes heat in certain other parts of the body; so also, too much heat in those parts, while wee sleep, raiseth in the brain an imagination of some kindness shewn. In summe, 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.
The most difficult discerning of a mans Dream, from his waking thoughts, is then, when by some accident we observe not that we have slept: which is easie to happen to a man full of fearfull thoughts; and whose conscience is much troubled; and that sleepeth, without the circumstances, of going to bed, or putting off his clothes, as one that noddeth in a chayre. For he that taketh pains, and industriously !ayes himself to sleep, in case any uncouth and exorbitant fancy come unto him, cannot easily think it other than a Dream. We read of Marcus Brutus, (one that had his life given him by Julius Cæsar, and was also his favorite, and notwithstanding murthered him,) how at Philippi, the night before he gave battell to Augustus Cæsar, hee saw a fearfull apparition, which is commonly related by Historians as a Vision: but considering the circumstances, one may easily judge to have been but a short Dream. For sitting in his tent, pensive and troubled with the horrour of his rash act, it was not hard for him, slumbering in the cold, to dream of that which most affrighted him; which feare, as by degrees it made him wake; so also it must needs make the Apparition by degrees to vanish: And having no assurance that he slept, he could have no cause to think it a Dream, or any thing but a Vision. And this is no very rare Accident: for even they that be perfectly awake, if they be timorous, and supperstitious, possessed with fearfull tales, and alone in the dark, are subject to the like fancies, and believe they see spirits and dead mens Ghosts walking in Church-yards; whereas it is either their Fancy onely, or els the knavery of such persons, as make use of such superstitious feare, to passe disguised in the night, to places they would not be known to haunt.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
|Part 1||Of Man|
|3||Of the Consequence or Train of Imaginations||8|
|5||Of Reason and Science||18|
|6||Of the Interiour Beginnings of Voluntary Motions Commonly Called the Passions; and the Speeches by which They Are Expressed||23|
|7||Of the Ends or Resolutions of Discourse||30|
|8||Of the Vertues, Commonly Called Intellectual, and Their Contrary Defects||32|
|9||Of the Severall Subjects of Knowledge||41|
|10||Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honour, and Worthinesse||43|
|11||Of the Difference of Manners||49|
|13||Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery||63|
|14||Of the First and Second Naturall Lawes and of Contract||66|
|15||Of Other Laws of Nature||74|
|16||Of Persons, Authors, and Things Personated||83|
|Part 2||Of Common-Wealth|
|17||Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Common-wealth||87|
|18||Of the Rights of Soveraignes by Institution||90|
|19||Of Severall Kinds of Common-wealth by Institution; and of Succession to the Soveraign Power||96|
|20||Of Dominion Parternall and Despoticall||104|
|21||Of the Liberty of Subjects||110|
|22||Of Systems Subject, Politicall, and Private||117|
|23||Of the Publique Ministers of Soveraign Power||126|
|24||Of the Nutrition, and Procreation of a Common-wealth||130|
|26||Of Civill Lawes||140|
|27||Of Crimes, Excuses, and Extenuations||154|
|28||Of Punishments, and Rewards||164|
|29||Of Those Things that Weaken, or Tend to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth||170|
|30||Of the Office of the Soveraign Representative||178|
|31||Of the Kingdome of God by Nature||189|
Thomas Hobbes was born on Good Friday, April 5, 1588, just outside of Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Despite growing up in an impoverished clerical family, Hobbes was precociously intelligent and managed, with the help of an uncle, to complete a classical education at Oxford. Afterhe graduated, however, he decided not to follow in his father's footsteps, and instead of pursuing a career in the Church, he, like John Locke and other later philosophers, became a tutor within an aristocratic family. When these royalist political connections and a number of personal writings in support of monarchical authority got Hobbes centrally involved in the turmoil of the English Civil War, he feared for his safety and fled to France in 1640. It was while in exile in France that he was able to most clearly enunciate the secular theory of absolutism that he laid out in Leviathan, the work that cemented Hobbes' philosophical reputation as the pre-eminent modern theorist of secular absolutism. In Leviathan, Hobbes argued that men were naturally self-centered creatures who stood in need of authority to tame them. Here Hobbes, personally affected by the English strife, wished to demonstrate that anarchy was a far greater political, social, and personal danger than despotism. Despite the fact that Leviathan was not exactly friendly to events in England, French clerics, who were offended by the attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, were even angrier than English politicians, and as a result, Hobbes returned home soon after its publication. Leviathan continued to be his most controversial work and even after his death in 1679, heated debates raged over Hobbes' purported atheism, materialism, and political ideology.
In historical retrospect, it is tempting to see Hobbes as primarily a political thinker, a man who was shaped by the tumultuous events of his era. Even the events surrounding his birth would seem to confirm this opinion. Rumors of the Spanish Armada's invading fleet and had been circulating in England since late in 1587, so by the time that Easter approached, Hobbes' mother thought the end was imminent. Not only was she, like many English, convinced that 1588 would be an apocalyptic year, but as a pregnant woman, she expected to suffer particular hardships. In his later life, Hobbes was known to remark that these fears were the cause of his mother's premature labor and "at that point my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear." Even though the Armada's invasion fleet was first delayed and then defeated by weather and the English navy, Hobbes' mother likely saw her son's birth, not incorrectly, as a harbinger of rocky times to come, for his life spanned an incredible ninety-one years that saw the execution of a king, the rise of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, the end of that Commonwealth, and the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England.
However much English political upheaval may have influenced the author of Leviathan, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also saw an equally influential revolution in science. While today we do not generally speak of political theorists such as Hobbes and Locke in the same breath as scientists such as Galileo and Newton, secular political theories such as that found in Leviathan also have an important foundation in the seventeenth-century science developed by René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. The new scientific methods described and developed by these thinkers and others like them had a clear and direct impact on Hobbes' writing, especially the Leviathan. Hobbes' philosophy was materialist, that is, he subscribed to the metaphysical view that the only things that exist (or can be known to exist) are physical bodies. Hobbes' materialism was the source of the charges of atheism, because materialist philosophy explained the universe only by reference to matter, not God's existence or that of souls. In his materialism, Hobbes argued that all change in the universe came about from one material object striking another. For this reason, freedom lay not in choice but in the ability to move without impediment. Human beings and their choices were no more or less mechanical than other material objects. Much as William Harvey (whose work was deeply interesting to Hobbes) described the circulation of the blood and Isaac Newton the motions of the planets and the effect of gravity, Hobbes' work described the motions of the political man.
Even before writing Leviathan, Hobbes had already conceptualized a sweeping account of the relationship between science and philosophy based on materialistic assumptions. In this grand work, called The Elements of Philosophy, he intended to set forth the principles of materialism, then discuss physical and natural science by analyzing the behavior of bodies (non-human in terms of mechanics and physics and human bodies in terms of physiology and psychology). His final section and the greatest part of his work was to be an analysis of the "body politic." Though readers eventually got a sustained analysis of political behavior or, as Hobbes called it, "civil philosophy," in Leviathan, his previous work makes it clear that even without the influence of civil war, much of the philosophical content of Leviathan would have been included in his other works.
The difference, then, between Leviathan and Hobbes' earlier works was the urgent need Hobbes felt, sparked by the civil and religious warring in England, to expand the political component of his philosophical system in order to explain the breakdown of society. This breakdown (and the explanation of a system that could avoid such crises) was the source of Hobbes' governmental pessimism. As a materialist philosopher and a student of the new science, Hobbes wanted to explain, in mechanistic terms, how individuals were driven by their desires and not by higher spiritual or moral ends. Despite this, Hobbes argued, they would, in order to meet their personal needs, agree to participate in rational government, or at least the type of political order that would decrease the possibility of social breakdown such as that seen in England.
A close examination of the original frontispiece image of the all-powerful ruler, or "that mortal god" known as Leviathan, further illustrates the way that Hobbes conceived of the relationship between ruler and subject. In this image, the ruler looms over the landscape of the nation, holding a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other to demonstrate his absolute power. The rest of the picture is tranquil and orderly, from the churches in the village to the outlying countryside. Perhaps most significantly, the ruler's body is composed of distinct citizens who, with their backs to the viewer, face the head of state. The sovereign is quite literally the head of state who enforces the laws of nature and the right of citizens to self-preservation while the individuals consent to his rule, giving him life and power.
The theory of government in Leviathan used as its basis not divine right, or the idea that the absolute head of state was put into place by God, but the idea of a social contract. Unlike divine right absolutism, social contract theory assumed that there was a state of nature that existed before the formation of society. It was in this state of nature, Hobbes argued, that men, being concerned to keep themselves safe and increase their power, would fight only for personal gain, taking what they could get, as their desires were allowed free rein. This "state of war" allowed for no protection of even the most basic rights and therefore was an intolerable system that people would not allow to continue. In order to avoid the inconveniences of the system of each for himself, with no external control, human beings would make a social contract, or an agreement to form a civil society where all people subjected their personal desires and judgments to those of one ruler (be it a single person or a legislative body) . This ruler would have the backing of all people and would then be able to protect citizens from foreign or domestic threats.
Because some men, despite having chosen to give up their freedom, might prefer to continue to fight for what they perceived as their own short-term gain as opposed to the good of the state, the Leviathan was empowered by necessity to prevent anarchy. This meant that his power was completely absolute and included the right to coerce members of society and/or protect the political body against challenges to its authority. Hobbes believed that challenges might come from anywhere, but he was especially concerned with restraining the divisive forces of religion (in his context, these were both Puritanical and Roman Catholic).
Hobbes' argument found opposition on many levels. It was evident to even a casual reader that Hobbes rejected tradition and religion as politically binding. Theologians were horrified by Hobbes' materialist philosophy as well as his subordination of religious power to a secular sovereign. Philosophers who supported the divine right of kings also criticized the materialist and secular basis of Leviathan's absolutism and were deeply troubled by the possibility that the secular sovereign of the social contract might be a legislature and not a monarch.
Despite all the royalist opposition, Hobbes was hardly popular with republicans, who were alarmed by the fact that his theory seemed just as willing to hand all political power over to a monarch as to a legislature, and even other secular philosophers who were supportive of constitutional monarchies, such as John Locke, took issue with what they saw as Hobbes' pessimism about human nature and corresponding willingness to take away personal freedom and choice. Locke, for example, did not agree that men's only natural right was self-preservation (life) but instead expanded natural rights to include property and liberty, or freedom of action, which would in any case have been unimportant to the materialist Hobbes.
However, as political philosophy became more secular, and religious and political power became increasingly separated over the course of the next hundred years, , the influence of the ideas in Leviathan grew. Despite his opposition to the specifics of Hobbesian theory, Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690) derived much of its force from an enunciation of the concepts discussed in Leviathan, particularly natural law, natural rights, and the social contract. Hobbes' belief in natural laws governing men's behavior also had a lasting effect on the political theories of Enlightenment philosophers such as the Baron de Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws (1748) served as the underpinning for the United States Constitution. Even the radical Rousseau, whose thought is frequently traced back to Locke, owes a great deal of his theory and formulation of the "general will" to Hobbes' conception of the formation of the state. In short, Hobbes' secular approach to politics, especially the condemnation of religious influence and the philosophy of the divine right of kings, is the basis for most political theory today, so much so that it is difficult to imagine any contemporary political philosophy that doesn't concern itself, like Leviathan, with safeguarding men's natural rights and the social order.
Jennifer J. Popiel is a teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
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Hobbes presents a compelling picture of the wrokings of the political. Despite his detractors, Hobbes' insights still prove relevant in a world run by megalomaniacs.
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