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Hobbes and Descartes . - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1909 ed) 
Hobbes’s Leviathan reprinted from the edition of 1651 with an Essay by the Late W.G. Pogson Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909).
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Hobbes and Descartes.
Hobbes thought in an atmosphere of dualism—yet Hobbes was a resolute opponent of dualism. From 1637, the date of the Discours, the relation between matter and mind, body and soul, was a cardinal—the cardinal problem. Descartes had awarded to each substance co-ordinate, independent, absolute rights. The future business of Cartesianism was to find a trait d’union—an explanation for a relation in fact which had been demonstrated in theory inconceivable.
At first blush one might be inclined to say Hobbes remained untouched by the new method. Starting on a basis of empiricism he developed a materialistic philosophy in perfect independence of the current of idealistic thought which was flowing so strongly on the Continent. It would be a mistaken view. Hobbes is powerfully influenced by Descartes. Descartes prescribes for him his method—not Gassendi or Bacon. But with Descartes’ dualism he will not away. He suspected Descartes of paltering with philosophy to appease the Jesuits—his philosophy must find a corner for the mysteries of the Catholic faith, e.g. transubstantiation, pro salute animae; and was a system to be received which fell hopelessly apart in the middle, and which demanded a miracle to restore a unity which a philosophy worthy of the name was bound to demonstrate impossible?
A system—or philosophy—must be coherent at any price; a philosopher, whose business it was to define, should see to that: words are wise men’s counters, and the philosopher must play to win; coherence, not comprehension, is with Hobbes the touchstone of philosophy, the test of truth. To Hobbes, rationalism is the fundamental postulate; and a rational universe must be deduced from a single and simple principle. Dualism was the consecration of the irrational.
But Hobbes deals in back blows—he does not meet the dualist face to face; he refuses to see eye to eye with him; the problem shall be eluded, the position turned, in an emergency the question at issue begged. Sensation need offer no difficulties: sensation is only motion; it can only be caused by motion, it is only a form, a manifestation of motion. Fancy, memory, comparison, judgement, are really carried with sense—’sense hath necessarily some memory adhering to it.’1.
And reason—pure intellection—the faculty of science—surely here we must appeal to another source (cf. Descartes and Gassendi), surely we have passed into another realm. Hobbes emphatically assures us that it is this reason, this capacity for general hypothetical reason, this science or sapience, which marks man off from the brutes. The distinction between science and experience, sapience and prudence, is fundamental in his philosophy. And yet if we look more narrowly we shall find this marvellous endowment of man is really the child of language—that most noble and profitable invention. This bald paradox is a masterpiece of tactics. Speech is ushered in with the fanfaronade, and lo! reason is discovered clinging to her train. Instinct says, reason begets speech; paradox inverts, speech begets reason. Man acquires speech because he is reasonable )( man becomes capable of science because he has invented speech. A wonderful hysteron proteron.
Hobbes derives some account from his audacity.
1. We easily understand how error is possible—no need of tedious discussion—error dogs the heels of language.
2. Seeing that thought (science) depends on language, it is evident that to clarify thought we must purge language—re-definition the true task of philosophy.
In my necessarily harsh review I may have seemed to have found no answer to my opening question. Does it not involve a petitio principii? Is he great after all? I am content to rest the issue on one test alone—the test of style. I am adopting no superficial test, when I boldly affirm that every great thinker reveals his greatness in his style. It is quite possible—unhappily common—to cultivate style without thought; it is absolutely impossible to think really, deeply, passionately, without forging a style. Now Hobbes’s style is something quite unique in our literature. Of course I don’t mean it stands out of the seventeenth century; to read a paragraph is to fix its date. But no other seventeenth-century writer has a style like it: it is inimitable. It would be childish to measure it with the incommensurable; to pit it against the fluent magnificence of Milton or the quaint and unexpected beauties of Sir Thomas Browne. But it is fair to try Hobbes’s English by the touchstone of Bacon’s. Those critics who deny Bacon’s title to a primacy in philosophy are generally ready enough to acknowledge his high position as a writer. And Bacon and Hobbes are writers of the same order. They are both sententious; they are both grave and didactic; they both wield the weapons of imagery, apophthegm, and epigram; they are both—let us admit it—laboured stylists. It is, I think, highly probable that Hobbes learnt something of literary craftsmanship from Bacon in those Gorhambury contemplations. But Hobbes’s writing is just as decisively superior to Bacon’s, as his philosophy. Bacon aimed at concealing the poverty of his thought by the adornment of his style: he wrote for ostentation. When that solemn humbug, that bourgeois Machiavel, took up his pen to edify mankind, he first opened his commonplace books, stuffed with assorted anecdotes, quotations, conceits, and mucrones verborum, and then with an eye to the anthology, proceeded to set down ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’.
It must be admitted it reads remarkably well. The sentences are brave and brief at first inspection: you mistake terseness of language for condensation of thought. But read again. Many examples of this can be found in such an essay as ‘Of Study’. Now turn to Hobbes; but before you do so, open Aubrey and learn the open secret of his style.
‘He was never idle; his thoughts were always working.’1.
‘He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating, always with this rule, that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time (scilicet a weeke or sometimes a fortnight).’2.
‘He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a note booke in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entred it into his booke, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it.... Thus that book (the Leviathan) was made.’1.
In Hobbes the clauses are clean, the sentences jolt, the argument is inevitable. Bacon wrote to display his wit: Hobbes to convince and confute. Bacon invented epigram to coax the public ear; Hobbes found his epigram after he had crystallized his thought. In sum, the difference between the styles of Bacon and Hobbes is to be measured by the difference between ostentation and passionate thought. We can compare Hobbes’s own defence of his style and method.
‘There is nothing I distrust more than my elocution, which nevertheless I am confident, excepting the mischances of the press, is not obscure. That I have neglected the ornament of quoting ancient poets, orators, and philosophers, contrary to the custom of late time, (whether I have done well or ill in it,) proceedeth from my judgement, grounded on many reasons. For first, all truth of doctrine dependeth either upon reason, or upon Scripture; both which give credit to many, but never receive it from any writer. Secondly, the matters in question are not of fact, but of right, wherein there is no place for witnesses. There is scarce any of those old writers that contradicteth not sometimes both himself and others; which makes their testimonies insufficient. Fourthly, such opinions as are taken only upon credit of antiquity, are not intrinsically the judgement of those that cite them, but words that pass, like gaping, from mouth to mouth. Fifthly, it is many times with a fraudulent design that men stick their corrupt doctrine with the cloves of other men’s wit. Sixthly, I find not that the ancients they cite, took it for an ornament, to do the like with those that wrote before them. Seventhly, it is an argument of indigestion, when Greek and Latin sentences unchewed come up again, as they use to do, unchanged. Lastly, though I reverence those men of ancient time, that either have written truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out ourselves; yet to the antiquity itself I think nothing due. For if we will reverence the age, the present is the oldest. If the antiquity of the writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honour is given, were more ancient when they wrote, than I am that am writing. But if it be well considered, the praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead, but from the competition, and mutual envy of the living.’1.
Aubrey has more to tell us. For instance, about his reading:
‘He had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have knowne no more than other men.’1.
About his love of ‘ingeniose conversation’:
‘I have heard him say, that at his lord’s house in the country there was a good library, and bookes enough for him, and that his lordship stored the library with what bookes he thought fitt to be bought; but he sayd, the want of learned conversation was a very great inconvenience, and that though he conceived he could order his thinking as well perhaps as another man, yet he found a great defect.’2.
Studying Hobbes as we do in historical manuals of philosophy, with their extracted systems, we usually fail to recognize how strongly the blood of the controversialist ran in his veins. Yet the Leviathan is first and foremost a controversial episode—a fighting work. Hobbes himself professed regret that his thoughts for those ten years of civil war were so unhinged from the mathematics, but he certainly entered into the quarrel with alacrity. His interests were pre-eminently occupied with ecclesiastical problems. Born in 1588, an Oxford student at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, an indignant witness of the struggle of that age between religion and science, like every honest Englishman he pursued Pope and Jesuit with an undying hate. For the aversion to Rome and the Roman claims there was ample justification. By his Bull of Deposition in 1570 Pope Pius V had challenged the struggle, and rendered the position of English Catholics untenable. From a respected if prohibited faith they became recusants: from recusants, traitors. It was the Papal policy and its indefatigable agents the Jesuits which were to blame. What peace was possible with men who repudiated moral obligations, who hesitated at no crime ad maiorem Dei gloriam? The same dishonesty which covered their actions and their name with infamy for succeeding generations, rendered their apologetic literature the poorest trash and the most immoral stuff that was ever justly consigned to oblivion. Bellarmine and Baronius once were names to conjure with: does any one respect them now? Their only merit is that they called for answer—and some of the answers are among the most precious treasures of English Theology. Hobbes too must break a lance with Bellarmine in the Leviathan. And Hobbes was not the least vigorous or the worst equipped of the English champions.
For indeed Hobbes deserves a place among the Masters in English Theology. Strange company, it may seem. But if Hobbes be read in connexion with the line of great English apologists—apologists for Protestantism and apologists for Anglicanism, it will at once be evident to any unprejudiced mind that the lines of defence and attack on which the Fathers of Anglicanism—Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Laud, Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor—conducted the debate were adopted with a thoroughness all his own by Hobbes. He dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of the divines; sharpened their logic, sounded their inferences, and appended a few corollaries from which they themselves might have shrunk. The theory of a national and autonomous Church outlined by Jewel and compendiously stated by Hooker (‘the prince has power to change the public face of religion’), hardly allowed of clearer definition in Hobbes’s brief chapter1. on the identity of Church and Commonwealth and the consequences flowing therefrom.
Again, the distinction between the necessary and the variable, fundamentals and non-fundamentals, articles of faith and matters of opinion, was the real principle of the Reformation. For the constant effort of the Roman Church was to extend the list of matters which were de fide, and to minimize the variable element as far as possible. So that, when he asserts and proves that the unum necessarium, the only article of faith, which the Scripture maketh necessary to salvation, is this, that Jesus is the Christ, Hobbes is taking the Anglican position occupied for instance by Chillingworth and Jeremy Taylor. Not that he ever dreamt, as they did, of allowing the antithesis to become the premiss of religious freedom. With him—as with Laud—it drove to an opposite conclusion. If a practice, an opinion, is non-essential, then it is indifferent; if indifferent, then the commonwealth, i.e. the sovereign, must decide. What the rule was did not matter, all that mattered was that a rule there should be.
Once again, Anglican polemics had been constrained to welcome the aid of philology against controversialists who—let us charitably assume in ignorance of Greek—employed texts which were forgeries, and emended those which were not. Jeremy Taylor was more than doubtful as to the value of patristic testimony, and could not away with the Athanasian Creed.
Hobbes goes so far as to subject the whole canon of Scripture to a critical examination, which in its boldness anticipates the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza.
And yet the Church of England always viewed this self-constituted ally with something more than suspicion. His Erastianism was of a type which only Selden and a few lawyers could appreciate. Honest Baillie spoke of him as Hobbes the Atheist; there were those who hinted darkly that he was no other than Antichrist. It is true his views on the Trinity were of a Sabellian complexion; and in one famous passage he was incautious enough to make Moses one of the three persons thereof. In Hobbes’s time Legate and Wightman had been burnt for less. He himself would have made an unwilling martyr. ‘There was a report (and surely true),’ says Aubrey, ‘that in Parliament, not long after the king was settled, (in fact it was 1668), some of the bishops made a motion to have the good old gentleman burnt for a heretique.’1. I don’t know that they actually went as far as that, whatever they thought; but certain it is they inquired into his books, that the University of Cambridge in 1669 compelled one Daniel Scargill, Fellow of Corpus Christi, to recant his Hobbism,2. and that Hobbes himself was grievously alarmed. And with some justice: for despite his eloquent legal defence, I doubt whether the common lawyers would have been deterred from issuing the writ de haeretico comburendo.
Happily the only result was to send up the price of his books—this from the good Pepys, who tried to buy them. What did Pepys think of them?
Hobbes may well have been uncomfortable: he knew, better probably than even the bishops, how thoroughly he deserved to be burnt. With sophistry and sense, with satire and suggestion, he had been fighting, single-handed, in the cause of the lay intellect. ‘When Mr. T. Hobbes was sick in France the divines came to him and tormented him (both Roman Catholic, Church of England, and Geneva). Sayd he to them, “Let me alone or else I will detect all your cheates from Aaron to yourselves.”’3. The threatened attack—vivacious, detailed, and precise—was delivered in the last two books of the Leviathan. How thorough the assault was you may judge for yourselves if you will read them; the tone you may estimate from a few illustrations, which may perhaps encourage you to read further.1.
A good-natured critic will refuse to see in Hobbes anything more than the sturdy Protestant, the stalwart champion of national religion, denouncing with equal emphasis the frauds of priestcraft and the irresponsibility of private judgement. His friends certainly believed that ‘the good old gentleman’ was a sound Christian at heart. He may have been: it is more evident that he was an Erastian. Many of us—most of us in fact—are Erastians with certain limitations: Hobbes was an Erastian without limitations. It is customary to count him among the pioneers of Natural Religion and Rational Theology. For such a view I can find no evidence. Natural Law is indeed the law of reason—found out by reason: but National Religion is not the religion of reason. Nature indeed plants the seeds of religion—fear and ignorance; kingcraft and priest-craft water and tend it. The religion of reason is the religion of the State—and the State bids us captivate our reason. ‘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.’1.
Hobbes had his bitter jest with his contemporaries, and the whirligig of time has had its revenges. He has suffered much from his opponents, more from his defenders, most from his plagiarists. Oxford once burnt the Leviathan: she now prescribes it to her students; but the prescribed portion is very limited, and there is no reason to suppose that she has ever understood him. It was, after all, a nemesis well deserved. A great partisan by nature, Hobbes became by the sheer force of his fierce, concentrated intellect a master builder in philosophy. The stimulus of opposition roused him to think. He hated error, and therefore, to confute it, he shouldered his way into the very sanctuary of truth. But his hands were not clean, nor his spirit pure; patient research and absolute devotion were not in his nature to give; he never felt the ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’, and resolutely closed his eyes to the high vision. With all his intellectual power he is of the earth earthy; at best the Lydian stone of philosophy, and ‘rare at definitions’.2.
The Matter, Forme, & Power
ByThomas Hobbesof Malmesbury.
Printed for Andrew Crooke, at the Green Dragon in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651.
[1. ] Molesworth, i. 393.
[1. ] Aubrey, i. 351.
[2. ] Ibid., i. 339.
[1. ] Aubrey, i. 334.
[1. ] pp. 555–6.
[1. ] Aubrey, i. 349.
[2. ] Ibid., i. 337–8.
[1. ] Chapter xxxix, pp. 361–3.
[1. ] Aubrey, i. 339.
[2. ] Somers Tracts, ed. 1809–12, vol. vii, p. 371.
[3. ] Aubrey, i. 357.
[1. ] Cf. on Inspiration, pp. 312–14; on Hell, p. 351; on the Soul, p. 526; on the Hot-houses of Vain Philosophy, p. 518; on Aristotelity and Theology, pp. 523–4; on the Universities, p. 523. Cf. his sketch of the origin and history of Universities, p. 523.
[1. ] p. 287.
[2. ] Aubrey, i. 394.