Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil Analysis

Thomas Hobbes

Additional Reading

Dietz, Mary G., ed. Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. A series of significant essays covering contemporary thinking on Hobbes, issued from the Benjamin Evans Lippincott symposium “The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, 1599-1988,” held at the University of Minnesota in 1988.

Johnston, David. The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. An important postmodern reading of Leviathan.

Mace, George. Locke, Hobbes and the Federalist Papers: An Essay on the Genesis of the American Political Heritage. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. A controversial work in that Mace argues that The Federalist reflects a more Hobbesian than Lockean view, and also that Hobbes was, indeed, the greater thinker of the two. Places both Locke and Hobbes in the context of the founding of the United States.

Macpherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Macpherson argues that both Hobbes and Locke reflected the possessive individualist premises of emerging capitalist society, mistaking these premises for eternal principles of human nature. The book, therefore, constitutes a critique of Hobbes’s “realism” about human nature.

Martinich, A. P. A Hobbes Dictionary. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1995. One in a series of invaluable Blackwell Philosophic Dictionaries.

Rogers, Graham Alan John, ed. Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. A collection of essays published in association with the important fourth centenary Hobbes conference organized by the British Society for the History of Philosophy.

Sorrell, Tom. The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An essential reference book by a leading British Hobbes scholar.

Sorrell, Tom. Hobbes. London: Routledge, Kegan, Paul, 1986. A useful introduction to the thought of Hobbes.

Wolin, Sheldon. The Politics of Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. A popular and stylish textbook on the history of political philosophy with a lengthy chapter on Hobbes. He is seen as a prophet of modern society, in which impersonal rules and competition between interests have come to replace notions of a close-knit political community.

Ira Smolensky David Barratt

Context

Leviathan is primarily a treatise on the philosophy of politics. It also contains important discussions—some brief, some extended—on metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, language, ethics, and religion. In this work, Thomas Hobbes develops his views from a metaphysics of materialism and a mechanical analogy in which everything is a particle or set of particles moving in accordance with laws. Though he was at one time secretary to English philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon, his inspiration came from Galileo, the Italian mathematician and physicist. Hobbes was unusual in being an early empiricist who recognized the importance of mathematics.

In Leviathan, the realism of Florentine man of affairs and political writer Niccolò Machiavelli, the emphasis on sovereignty of French legalist and politician Jean Bodin, and the attempt of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius to modernize the conception of natural law by relating it to mathematics and the new science are combined and developed with great originality, clarity, and flair for pungent statement to constitute one of the masterpieces of political philosophy.

Natural Philosophy and Civil Philosophy

Hobbes divides all knowledge into two classes, Natural Philosophy and Civil Philosophy. The former is the basis for the latter and consists in turn of two parts, First Philosophy, comprising laws of particles in general such as inertia, causation, and identity, and Physics, which deals with the qualities of particles. These particles, singly or in combination, may be permanent or transient, celestial or terrestrial, with or without sense, with or without speech. A person is a group of particles that is permanent, terrestrial, sensible, and loquacious. Physics contains not only optics and music, which are the sciences of vision and hearing in general, but also ethics, which is the science of the passions of people, poetry, rhetoric, logic, and equity. The four last are respectively the study of people’s use of speech in elevated expression, in persuading, in reasoning, and in contracting. Civil Philosophy deals with the rights and duties of the sovereign or of subjects.

The Mechanical Model

Hobbes makes extensive use of the mechanical model in constructing his system. Life is motion; therefore, machines have artificial life. The heart is a spring, the nerves are strings, and the joints are wheels giving motion to the whole body. The commonwealth is an artificial man in which sovereignty is the soul, officers are the joints, rewards and punishments are the nerves, wealth is its strength, and safety is its business; counselors are its memory, equity and law are reason and will, peace is its health, sedition is its sickness, and civil war is its death. The covenants by which it comes into being are the counterpart of the fiat of creation.

It is apparent that the model is highly oversimplified. That simplicity is, nevertheless, the basis for much of the force the model carries. Hobbes does not hesitate to ignore the model if ill suited to his purpose, as it is in many cases where he has to deal with the details of psychology, religion, and social and political relations.

Human Faculties

The simplest motion in human bodies is sensation, caused by the impact of some particle upon a sense organ. When sensations are slowed by the interference of others, they become imagination or memory. Imagination in sleep is dreaming. Imagination raised by words is understanding and is common to man and beast.

Ideas (“phantasms” for Hobbes) proceed in accordance with laws of association or of self-interest, as in calculating the means to a desired end. Anything we imagine or think is finite. Any apparent conception of something infinite is only an awareness of an inability to imagine a bound. The name of God, for example, is used that we may honor him, not that we may conceive of him.

Hobbes considered speech the noblest of all inventions. It distinguishes human beings from beasts. It consists in the motion of names and their connections. It is a necessary condition of society, contract, commonwealth, and peace. It is essential to acquiring art, to counseling and instructing, and to expressing purpose. It is correspondingly abused in ambiguity, metaphor, and deception.

When a person manipulates names in accordance with the laws of truth, definition, and thought, he or she is reasoning. Truth is the correct ordering of names—for example, connecting by affirmation two names that signify the same thing. Error in general statements is self-contradiction. Definition is stating what names signify. Inconsistent names, such as...

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Religion

Hobbes completes the foundations for the development of his political theory with an analysis of religion. It is invented by human beings because of their belief in spirits, their ignorance of causes, and their devotion to what they fear. This explains why the first legislators among the Gentiles always claimed that their precepts came from God or some other spirit, and how priests have been able to use religion for selfish purposes. Religion dissolves when its founders or leaders are thought to lack wisdom, sincerity, or love.

Natural Law

Hobbes develops his political theory proper in terms of the time-honored concepts of equality, the state of nature, natural law, natural rights, contract, sovereignty, and justice. In his hands, however, they receive treatment that is very different from that of his predecessors, the Greeks, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Jean Bodin, and Hugo Grotius, as well as from that of his successors, English philosopher John Locke and his followers in the liberal tradition. Machiavelli’s views on egoism and the need for absolute power in the sovereign anticipated Hobbes but were not developed in detail as a general political philosophy.

In their natural state, according to Hobbes, men are approximately equal in strength, mental...

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The Leviathan and the Sovereign

In working out the details of the second and third laws of nature, Hobbes maintains that to achieve peace, contentment, and security it is necessary that men agree with one another to confer their power upon a man or group of men of whose acts each man, even a member of a dissenting minority, will regard himself the original author:This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God, to which we owe under the Immortal God our peace and Defence.

One may consequently define a commonwealth asOne Person, of whose Acts a great multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and...

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The Christian Commonwealth

The all-important task of showing that there are not two different kingdoms and at the same time showing that the theorems of the first two parts of Leviathan are in fact laws, and as such binding obligations, are Hobbes’s main points in discussing the nature of a Christian commonwealth. The essential mark of a Christian is obedience to God’s law. God’s authority as lawgiver derives from his power. His laws, which are the natural laws, are promulgated by natural reason, revelation, and prophecy. In the first two parts of Leviathan, knowledge of natural laws and their implications have been found out by reason. Laws are, therefore, only conditional theorems. To be shown to be unconditional laws, they must be...

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Assessment and Influence

There are flaws in Hobbes’s philosophy. He is often crude in his vigor, achieving a logical solution of a problem by omitting recalcitrant details. His errors, however, are usually due to oversimplification, not to being muddleheaded, superstitious, or unclear. No matter how wrong, he is never unintelligible. Moreover, he could not in his own day, and cannot now, be ignored. The partisans of England’s civil war, the Puritans and Cavaliers, could both condemn him, but both Cromwell and Charles II could draw on his doctrines. U.S. president Abraham Lincoln appealed to Hobbes’s doctrines of covenant and unity of the sovereign power to justify the use of force in dealing with secession.

Hobbes’s philosophy, in its...

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Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Dietz, Mary G., ed. Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. A series of significant essays covering contemporary thinking on Hobbes, issued from the Benjamin Evans Lippincott symposium “The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, 1599-1988,” held at the University of Minnesota in 1988.

Johnston, David. The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. An important postmodern reading of Leviathan.

Mace, George. Locke, Hobbes and...

(The entire section is 347 words.)