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Source: Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, foreword by Paul Franco (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). Chapter: 1: Introduction to Leviathan
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Introduction to Leviathan
“We are discussing no trivial subject, but how a man should live.”
—Plato, Republic, 352d.
Thomas Hobbes, the second son of an otherwise undistinguished vicar of Westport, near Malmesbury, was born in the spring of 1588. He was educated at Malmesbury where he became an exceptional scholar in Latin and Greek, and at Oxford where in the course of five years he maintained his interest in classical literature and became acquainted with the theological controversies of the day, but was taught only some elementary logic and Aristotelian physics.
In 1608 he was appointed tutor (and later became secretary) to the son of William Cavendish, first Earl of Devonshire. For the whole of his adult life Hobbes maintained a close relationship with the Cavendish family, passing many of his years as a member of the household either at Chatsworth or in London. In these circumstances he came to meet some of the leading politicians and literary men of his day, Bacon and Jonson among them. The year 1610 he spent in France and Italy with his charge, getting a first glimpse of the intellectual life of the continent and returning with a determination to make himself a scholar. The next eighteen years, passed mostly at Chatsworth, were the germinating period of his future intellectual interests and activities. There is little record of how precisely they were spent, and the only literary product of this period of his life was the translation of Thucydides, published in 1629: but there can be no doubt that philosophy occupied his mind increasingly.
On the death of the second Earl of Devonshire in 1628, Hobbes accepted the position of tutor to the son of Sir Gervase Clinton, with whom he stayed three years, two of which were spent on the continent. It was at this time that Hobbes discovered for himself the intellectual world of mathematics and geometry, a world so important to the continental philosophers of his time, but of which hitherto he had been entirely ignorant. The discovery gave renewed impetus and fresh direction to his philosophical reflections, and from then philosophy dominated his mind.
In 1631 Hobbes returned to the Cavendish household as tutor to the new earl, with whom he made his third visit to the continent (1634–37). It was on this visit that he met Galileo in Florence and became acquainted with the circle of philosophers centred round Mersenne in Paris, and particularly with Gassendi. And on his return to England he completed in 1640 (but did not publish until 1650) his first important piece of philosophical writing, the Elements of Law. He was fifty-two years old, and he had in his head the plan of a philosophy which he desired to expound systematically.
The next eleven years were spent in Paris, free for a while from extraneous duties. But instead of embarking at once on the composition of the most general part of his philosophy—his philosophy of nature—he wrote De Cive, an exposition of his political philosophy, which was published in 1642. Paris for Hobbes was a society for philosophers; but in 1645 it became the home of the exiled court of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Hobbes was appointed tutor to the prince. His mind still ran on the philosophy of politics, and in 1651 his masterpiece, Leviathan, was published.
In 1652 he returned to England, took up his place (which he was never again to leave) in the household of the Earl of Devonshire, and set about the composition of the rest of his philosophical system. In 1655 was published De Corpore, and in 1658 De Homine. He had still twenty years to live. They were years of incessant literary activity and of philosophical, mathematical, theological, and political controversy. After the Restoration he was received at Court, and he spent much of his time in London. In 1675, however, perceiving that he must soon retire from the world, he retired to Chatsworth. He died in the winter of 1679 at the age of ninety-one.
The Context of Leviathan
Leviathan is the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language. And the history of our civilization can provide only a few works of similar scope and achievement to set beside it. Consequently, it must be judged by none but the highest standards and must be considered only in the widest context. The masterpiece supplies a standard and a context for the second-rate, which indeed is but a gloss; but the context of the masterpiece itself, the setting in which its meaning is revealed, can in the nature of things be nothing narrower than the history of political philosophy.
Reflection about political life may take place at a variety of levels. It may remain on the level of the determination of means, or it may strike out for the consideration of ends. Its inspiration may be directly practical, the modification of the arrangements of a political order in accordance with the perception of an immediate benefit; or it may be practical, but less directly so, guided by general ideas. Or again, springing from an experience of political life, it may seek a generalization of that experience in a doctrine. And reflection is apt to flow from one level to another in an unbroken movement, following the mood of the thinker. Political philosophy may be understood to be what occurs when this movement of reflection takes a certain direction and achieves a certain level, its characteristic being the relation of political life, and the values and purposes pertaining to it, to the entire conception of the world that belongs to a civilization. That is to say, at all other levels of reflection on political life we have before us the single world of political activity, and what we are interested in is the internal coherence of that world; but in political philosophy we have in our minds that world and another world, and our endeavour is to explore the coherence of the two worlds together. The reflective intelligence is apt to find itself at this level without the consciousness of any great conversion and without any sense of entering upon a new project, but merely by submitting itself to the impetus of reflection, by spreading its sails to the argument. For any man who holds in his mind the conceptions of the natural world, of God, of human activity and human destiny which belong to his civilization will scarcely be able to prevent an endeavour to assimilate these to the ideas that distinguish the political order in which he lives, and failing to do so he will become a philosopher (of a simple sort) unawares.
But, though we may stumble over the frontier of philosophy unwittingly and by doing nothing more demonstrative than refusing to draw rein, to achieve significant reflection, of course, requires more than inadvertence and more than the mere acceptance of the two worlds of ideas. The whole impetus of the enterprise is the perception that what really exists is a single world of ideas, which comes to us divided by the abstracting force of circumstances; is the perception that our political ideas and what may be called the rest of our ideas are not in fact two independent worlds, and that though they may come to us as separate text and context, the meaning lies, as it always must lie, in a unity in which the separate existence of text and context is resolved. We may begin, probably we must begin, with an independent valuation of the text and the context; but the impetus of reflection is not spent until we have restored in detail the unity of which we had a prevision. And, so far, philosophical reflection about politics will be nothing other than the intellectual restoration of a unity damaged and impaired by the normal negligence of human partiality. But to have gone so far is already to have raised questions the answers to which are not to be found in any fresh study of what is behind us. Even if we accept the standards and valuations of our civilization, it will be only by putting an arbitrary closure on reflection that we can prevent the consideration of the meaning of the general terms in which those standards are expressed; good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. And, turning, we shall catch sight of all that we have learned reflected in the speculum universitatis.
Now, whether or not this can be defended as a hypothetical conception of the nature of political philosophy, it certainly describes a form of reflection about politics that has a continuous history in our civilization. To establish the connections, in principle and in detail, directly or mediately, between politics and eternity is a project that has never been without its followers. Indeed, the pursuit of this project is only a special arrangement of the whole intellectual life of our civilization; it is the whole intellectual history organized and exhibited from a particular angle of vision. Probably there has been no theory of the nature of the world, of the activity of man, of the destiny of mankind, no theology or cosmology, perhaps even no metaphysics, that has not sought a reflection of itself in the mirror of political philosophy; certainly there has been no fully considered politics that has not looked for its reflection in eternity. This history of political philosophy is, then, the context of the masterpiece. And to interpret it in the context of this history secures it against the deadening requirement of conformity to a merely abstract idea of political philosophy.
This kind of reflection about politics is not, then, to be denied a place in our intellectual history. And it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a sombre view of the human situation: they deal in darkness. Human life in their writings appears, generally, not as a feast or even as a journey, but as a predicament; and the link between politics and eternity is the contribution the political order is conceived as making to the deliverance of mankind. Even those whose thought is most remote from violent contrasts of dark and light (Aristotle, for example) do not altogether avoid this disposition of mind. And some political philosophers may even be suspected of spreading darkness in order to make their light more acceptable. Man, so the varied formula runs, is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both—
O miseras hominum mentes, O pectora caeca
—and the civil order appears as the whole or a part of the scheme of his salvation. The precise manner in which the predicament is conceived, the qualities of mind and imagination and the kinds of activity man can bring to the achievement of his own salvation, the exact nature and power of civil arrangements and institutions, the urgency, the method and the comprehensiveness of the deliverance—these are the singularities of each political philosophy. In them are reflected the intellectual achievements of the epoch or society, and the great and slowly mediated changes in intellectual habit and horizon that have overtaken our civilization. Every masterpiece of political philosophy springs from a new vision of the predicament; each is the glimpse of a deliverance or the suggestion of a remedy.
It will not, then, surprise us to find an apparently contingent element in the ground and inspiration of a political philosophy, a feeling for the exigencies, the cares, the passions of a particular time, a sensitiveness to the dominant folly of an epoch: for the human predicament is a universal appearing everywhere as a particular. Plato’s thought is animated by the errors of Athenian democracy, Augustine’s by the sack of Rome, and what stirs the mind of Hobbes is “grief for the present calamities of my country,” a country torn between those who claimed too much for Liberty and those who claimed too much for Authority, a country given over into the hands of ambitious men who enlisted the envy and resentment of a “giddy people” for the advancement of their ambitions. , And not being surprised at this element of particularity, we shall not allow it to mislead us into supposing that nothing more is required to make a political philosopher than an impressionable political consciousness; for the masterpiece, at least, is always the revelation of the universal predicament in the local and transitory mischief.
If the unity of the history of political philosophy lies in a pervading sense of human life as a predicament and in the continuous reflection of the changing climate of the European intellectual scene, its significant variety will be found in three great traditions of thought. The singularities of political philosophies (like most singularities) are not unique, but follow one of three main patterns which philosophical reflection about politics has impressed upon the intellectual history of Europe. These I call traditions because it belongs to the nature of a tradition to tolerate and unite an internal variety, not insisting upon conformity to a single character, and because, further, it has the ability to change without losing its identity. The first of these traditions is distinguished by the master-conceptions of Reason and Nature. It is coeval with our civilization; it has an unbroken history into the modern world; and it has survived by a matchless power of adaptability all the changes of the European consciousness. The master-conceptions of the second are Will and Artifice. It too springs from the soil of Greece, and has drawn inspiration from many sources, not least from Israel and Islam. The third tradition is of later birth, not appearing until the eighteenth century. The cosmology it reflects in its still unsettled surface is the world seen on the analogy of human history. Its master-conception is the Rational Will, and its followers may be excused the belief that in it the truths of the first two traditions are fulfilled and their errors find a happy release. The masterpiece of political philosophy has for its context, not only the history of political philosophy as the elucidation of the predicament and deliverance of mankind, but also, normally, a particular tradition in that history; generally speaking it is the supreme expression of its own tradition. And, as Plato’s Republic might be chosen as the representative of the first tradition, and Hegel’s Philosophie des Rechts of the third, so Leviathan is the head and crown of the second.
Leviathan is a masterpiece, and we must understand it according to our means. If our poverty is great, but not ruinous, we may read it not looking beyond its two covers, but intend to draw from it nothing that is not there. This will be a notable achievement, if somewhat narrow. The reward will be the appreciation of a dialectical triumph with all the internal movement and liveliness of such a triumph. But Leviathan is more than a tour de force. And something of its larger character will be perceived if we read it with the other works of Hobbes open beside it. Or again, at greater expense of learning, we may consider it in its tradition, and doing so will find fresh meaning in the world of ideas it opens to us. But finally, we may discover in it the true character of a masterpiece—the still centre of a whirlpool of ideas which has drawn into itself numberless currents of thought, contemporary and historic, and by its centripetal force has shaped and compressed them into a momentary significance before they are flung off again into the future.
The Mind and Manner
In the mind of a man, the σύνολον of form and content alone is actual; style and matter, method and doctrine, are inseparable. And when the mind is that of a philosopher, it is a sound rule to come to consider the technical expression of this unity only after it has been observed in the less formal version of it that appears in temperament, cast of mind, and style of writing. Circumstantial evidence of this sort can, of course, contribute nothing relevant to the substantiation of the technical distinctions of a philosophy; but often it has something to contribute to the understanding of them. At least, I think this is so with Hobbes.
Philosophy springs from a certain bent of mind which, though different in character, is as much a natural gift as an aptitude for mathematics or a genius for music. Philosophical speculation requires so little in the way of a knowledge of the world and is, in comparison with some other intellectual pursuits, so independent of book-learning, that the gift is apt to manifest itself early in life. And often a philosopher will be found to have made his significant contribution at an age when others are still preparing themselves to speak or to act. Hobbes had a full share of the anima naturaliter philosophica, yet it is remarkable that the beginning of his philosophical writing cannot be dated before his forty-second year and that his masterpiece was written when he was past sixty. Certainly there is nothing precocious in his genius; but are we to suppose that the love of reasoning, the passion for dialectic, which belong to the gift for philosophy, were absent from his character in youth? Writers on Hobbes have been apt to take a short way with this suggestion of a riddle. The life of Hobbes has been divided into neat periods, and his appearance as a philosopher in middle life has been applauded rather than explained. Brilliant at school, idle at the university, unambitious in early life, later touched by a feeling for scholarship and finally taking the path of philosophy when, at the age of forty, the power of geometric proof was revealed to him in the pages of Euclid: such is the life attributed to him. It leaves something to be desired. And evidence has been collected which goes to show that philosophy and geometry were not coeval in Hobbes’s mind, evidence that the speculative gift was not unexercised in his earlier years. Yet it remains true that when he appears as a philosophical writer, he is already adult, mature in mind; the period of eager search of tentative exploration, goes unreflected in his pages.
The power and confidence of Hobbes’s mind as he comes before us in his writings cannot escape observation. He is arrogant (but it is not the arrogance of youth), dogmatic, and when he speaks it is in a tone of confident finality: he knows everything except how his doctrines will be received. There is nothing half-formed or undeveloped in him, nothing in progress; there is no promise, only fulfilment. There is self-confidence, also, a Montaigne-like self-confidence; he has accepted himself and he expects others to accept him on the same terms. And all this is understandable when we appreciate that Hobbes is not one of those philosophers who allow us to see the workings of their minds, and that he published nothing until he was fifty-four years old. There are other, more technical, reasons for his confidence. His conception of philosophy as the establishment by reasoning of hypothetical causes saved him from the necessity of observing the caution appropriate to those who deal with facts and events. But, at bottom, it springs from his maturity, the knowledge that before he spoke he was a match for anyone who had the temerity to answer back. It belonged to Hobbes’s temperament and his art, not less than to his circumstances, to hold his fire. His long life after middle age gave him the room for change and development that others find in earlier years; but he did not greatly avail himself of it. He was often wrong, especially in his light-hearted excursions into mathematics, and he often changed his views, but he rarely retracted an opinion. His confidence never deserted him.
But if the first impression of Hobbes’s philosophical writing is one of maturity and deliberateness, the second is an impression of remarkable energy. It is as if all the lost youth of Hobbes’s mind had been recovered and perpetuated in this preeminently youthful quality. One of the more revealing observations of Aubrey about him is that “he was never idle; his thoughts were always working.” And from this energy flow the other striking characteristics of his mind and manner—his scepticism, his addiction to system, and his passion for controversy.
An impulse for philosophy may originate in faith (as with Erigena), or in curiosity (as with Locke), but with Hobbes the prime mover was doubt. Scepticism was, of course, in the air he breathed; but in an age of sceptics he was the most radical of them all. His was not the elegiac scepticism of Montaigne, nor the brittle net in which Pascal struggled, nor was it the methodological doubt of Descartes; for him it was both a method and a conclusion, purging and creative. It is not the technicalities of his scepticism (which we must consider later) that are so remarkable, but its ferocity. A medieval passion overcomes him as he sweeps aside into a common abyss of absurdity both the believer in eternal truth and the industrious seeker after truths; both faith and science. Indeed, so extravagant, so heedless of consequences, is his scepticism, that the reader is inclined to exclaim, what Hobbes himself is said to have exclaimed on seeing the proof of the forty-seventh theorem in Euclid, “By God, this is impossible.” And what alone makes his scepticism plausible is the intrepidity of Hobbes himself; he has the nerve to accept his conclusions and the confidence to build on them. Both the energy to destroy and the energy to construct are powerful in Hobbes.
A man, it is generally agreed, may make himself ridiculous as easily by a philosophical system as by any other means. And yet, the impulse to think systematically is, at bottom, nothing more than the conscientious pursuit of what is for every philosopher the end to be achieved. The passion for clearness and simplicity, the determination not to be satisfied with anything inconsequent, the refusal to relieve one element of experience at the cost of another, are the motives of all philosophical thinking; and they conduce to system. “The desire of wisdom leadeth to a kingdom.” And the pursuit of system is a call, not only upon fine intelligence and imagination, but also, and perhaps preeminently, upon energy of mind. For the principle in system is not the simple exclusion of all that does not fit, but the perpetual reestablishment of coherence. Hobbes stands out, not only among his contemporaries, but also in the history of English philosophy, as the creator of a system. And he conceived this system with such imaginative power that, in spite of its relatively simple character, it bears comparison with even the grand and subtle creation of Hegel. But if it requires great energy of mind to create a system, it requires even greater not to become the slave of the creation. To become the slave of a system in life is not to know when to “hang up philosophy,” not to recognize the final triumph of inconsequence; in philosophy, it is not to know when the claims of comprehension outweigh those of coherence. And here also the energy of Hobbes’s mind did not desert him. When we come to consider the technicalities of his philosophy we shall observe a moderation that, for example, allowed him to escape an atomic philosophy, and an absence of rigidity that allowed him to modify his philosophical method when dealing with politics; here, when we are considering informally the quality of his mind, this ability appears as resilience, the energy to be perpetually freeing himself from the formalism of his system.
Thinking, for Hobbes, was not only conceived as movement, it was felt as movement. Mind is something agile, thoughts are darting, and the language of passion is appropriate to describe their workings. And the energy of his nature made it impossible for him not to take pleasure in controversy. The blood of contention ran in his veins. He acquired the lucid genius of a great expositor of ideas; but by disposition he was a fighter, and he knew no tactics save attack. He was a brilliant controversialist, deft, pertinacious and imaginative, and he disposed of the errors of scholastics, Puritans, and Papists with a subtle mixture of argument and ridicule. But he made the mistake of supposing that this style was universally effective, in mathematics no less than in politics. For brilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment. Always to play to win is to take one’s standards from one’s opponent, and local victory comes to displace every other consideration. Most readers will find Hobbes’s disputatiousness excessive; but it is the defect of an exceptionally active mind. And it never quite destroyed in him the distinction between beating an opponent and establishing a proposition, and never quite silenced the conversation with himself which is the heart of philosophical thinking. But, like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition. There is sagacity in Hobbes, and often a profound deliberateness; but there is no repose.
We have found Hobbes to possess remarkable confidence and energy of mind; we must consider now whether his mind was also original. Like Epicurus, he had an affectation for originality. He rarely mentions a writer to acknowledge a debt, and often seems oversensitive about his independence of the past in philosophy. Aristotle’s philosophy is “vain,” and scholasticism is no more than a “collection of absurdities.” But, though he had certainly read more than he sometimes cared to admit—it was a favourite saying of his that if he had read as much as other men he should have known no more than other men—he seems to have been content with the reading that happened to come his way, and complained rather of the inconvenience of a want of conversation at some periods in his life than of a lack of books. He was conscious of being a self-taught philosopher, an amateur, without the training of a Descartes or the background of a Spinoza. And this feeling was perhaps strengthened by the absence of an academic environment. One age of academic philosophy had gone, the next was yet to come. The seventeenth century was the age of the independent scholar, and Hobbes was one of these, taking his own way and making his own contacts with the learned world. And his profound suspicion of anything like authority in philosophy reinforced his circumstantial independence. The guidance he wanted he got from his touch with his contemporaries, particularly in Paris; his inspiration was a native sensitiveness to the direction required of philosophy if it were to provide an answer to the questions suggested by contemporary science. In conception and design, his philosophy is his own. And when he claimed that civil philosophy was “no older than my own book De Cive,” he was expressing at once the personal achievement of having gone afresh to the facts of human consciousness for his interpretation of the meaning of civil association, and also that universal sense of newness with which his age appreciated its own intellectual accomplishments. But, for all that, his philosophy belongs to a tradition. Perhaps the truth is that Hobbes was as original as he thought he was, and to acknowledge his real indebtedness he would have required to see (what he could not be expected to see) the link between scholasticism and modern philosophy which is only now becoming clear to us. His philosophy is in the nature of a palimpsest. For its author what was important was what he wrote, and it is only to be expected that he should be indifferent to what is already there; but for us both sets of writing are significant.
Finally, Hobbes is a writer, a self-conscious stylist and the master of an individual style that expresses his whole personality; for there is no hiatus between his personality and his philosophy. His manner of writing is not, of course, foreign to his age; it belongs to him neither to write with the informality that is the achievement of Locke, nor with the simplicity that makes Hume’s style a model not to be rejected by the philosophical writer of today. Hobbes is elaborate in an age that delighted in elaboration. But, within the range of his opportunities, he found a way of writing that exactly reflected his temperament. His controversial purpose is large on every page; he wrote to convince and to refute. And that in itself is a discipline. He has eloquence, the charm of wit, the decisiveness of confidence and the sententiousness of a mind made up: he is capable of urbanity and of savage irony. But the most significant qualities of his style are its didactic and its imaginative character. Philosophy in general knows two styles, the contemplative and the didactic, although there are many writers to whom neither belongs to the complete exclusion of the other. Those who practice the first let us into the secret workings of their minds and are less careful to send us away with a precisely formulated doctrine. Philosophy for them is a conversation, and, whether or not they write it as a dialogue, their style reflects their conception. Hobbes’s way of writing is an example of the second style. What he says is already entirely freed from the doubts and hesitancies of the process of thought. It is only a residue, a distillate that is offered to the reader. The defect of such a style is that the reader must either accept or reject; if it inspires to fresh thought, it does so only by opposition. And Hobbes’s style is imaginative, not merely on account of the subtle imagery that fills his pages, nor only because it requires imagination to make a system. His imagination appears also as the power to create a myth. Leviathan is a myth, the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.
In Hobbes’s mind, his “civil philosophy” belonged to a system of philosophy. Consequently, an enquiry into the character of this system is not to be avoided by the interpreter of his politics. For, if the details of the civil theory may not improperly be considered as elements in a coherence of their own, the significance of the theory as a whole must depend upon the system to which it belongs, and upon the place it occupies in the system.
Two views, it appears, between them hold the field at the present time. The first is the view that the foundation of Hobbes’s philosophy is a doctrine of materialism, that the intention of his system was the progressive revelation of this doctrine in nature, in man, and in society, and that this revelation was achieved in his three most important philosophical works, De Corpore, De Homine, and De Cive. These works, it is suggested, constitute a continuous argument, part of which is reproduced in Leviathan; and the novel project of the “civil philosophy” was the exposition of a politics based upon a “natural philosophy,” the assimilation of politics to a materialistic doctrine of the world, or (it is even suggested) to the view of the world as it appeared in the conclusions of the physical sciences. A mechanistic-materialist politics is made to spring from a mechanistic-materialist universe. And, not improperly, it is argued that the significance of what appears at the end is determined at least in part by what was proved or assumed at the beginning. The second view is that this, no doubt, was the intention of Hobbes, but that “the attempt and not the deed confounds him.” The joints of the system are ill-matched, and what should have been a continuous argument, based upon a philosophy of materialism, collapses under its own weight.
Both these views are, I think, misconceived. But they are the product not merely of inattention to the words of Hobbes; it is to be feared that they derive also from a graver fault of interpretation, a false expectation with regard to the nature of a philosophical system. For what is expected here is that a philosophical system should conform to an architectural analogue, and consequently what is sought in Hobbes’s system is a foundation and a superstructure planned as a single whole, with civil philosophy as the top storey. Now, it may be doubted whether any philosophical system can properly be represented in the terms of architecture, but what is certain is that the analogy does violence to the system of Hobbes. The coherence of his philosophy, the system of it, lies not in an architectonic structure, but in a single “passionate thought” that pervades its parts. The system is not the plan or key of the labyrinth of the philosophy; it is, rather, a guiding clue, like the thread of Ariadne. It is like the music that gives meaning to the movement of dancers, or the law of evidence that gives coherence to the practice of a court. And the thread, the hidden thought, is the continuous application of a doctrine about the nature of philosophy. Hobbes’s philosophy is the world reflected in the mirror of the philosophic eye, each image the representation of a fresh object, but each determined by the character of the mirror itself. In short, the civil philosophy belongs to a philosophical system, not because it is materialistic but because it is philosophical; and an enquiry into the character of the system and the place of politics in it resolves itself into an enquiry into what Hobbes considered to be the nature of philosophy.
For Hobbes, to think philosophically is to reason; philosophy is reasoning. To this all else is subordinate; from this all else derives. It is the character of reasoning that determines the range and the limits of philosophical enquiry; it is this character that gives coherence, system, to Hobbes’s philosophy. Philosophy, for him, is the world as it appears in the mirror of reason; civil philosophy is the image of the civil order reflected in that mirror. In general, the world seen in this mirror is a world of causes and effects: cause and effect are its categories. And for Hobbes reason has two alternative ends: to determine the conditional causes of given effects, or to determine the conditional effects of given causes. But to understand more exactly what he means by this identification of philosophy with reasoning, we must consider three contrasts that run through all his writing: the contrast between philosophy and theology (reason and faith), between philosophy and “science” (reason and empiricism), and between philosophy and experience (reason and sense).
Reasoning is concerned solely with causes and effects. It follows, therefore, that its activity must lie within a world composed of things that are causes or the effects of causes. If there is another way of conceiving this world, it is not within the power of reasoning to follow it; if there are things by definition causeless or ingenerable, they belong to a world other than that of philosophy. This at once, for Hobbes, excludes from philosophy the consideration of the universe as a whole, things infinite, things eternal, final causes and things known only by divine grace or revelation: it excludes what Hobbes comprehensively calls theology and faith. He denies, not the existence of these things, but their rationality. This method of circumscribing the concerns of philosophy is not, of course, original in Hobbes. It has roots that go back to Augustine, if not further, and it was inherited by the seventeenth century (where one side of it was distinguished as the heresy of Fideism: both Montaigne and Pascal were Fideists) directly from its formulation in the Averroism of Scotus and Occam. Indeed, this doctrine is one of the seeds in scholasticism from which modern philosophy sprang. Philosophical explanation, then, is concerned with things caused. A world of such things is, necessarily, a world from which teleology is excluded; its internal movement comprises the impact of its parts upon one another, of attraction and repulsion, not of growth or development. It is a world conceived on the analogy of a machine, where to explain an effect we go to its immediate cause, and to seek the result of a cause we go only to its immediate effect. In other words, the mechanistic element in Hobbes’s philosophy is derived from his rationalism; its source and authority lie, not in observation, but in reasoning. He does not say that the natural world is a machine; he says only that the rational world is analogous to a machine. He is a scholastic, not a “scientific” mechanist. This does not mean that the mechanistic element is unimportant in Hobbes; it means only that it is derivative. It is, indeed, of the greatest importance, for Hobbes’s philosophy is, in all its parts, preeminently a philosophy of power precisely because philosophy is reasoning, reasoning the elucidation of mechanism, and mechanism essentially the combination, transfer, and resolution of forces. The end of philosophy itself is power— scientia propter potentiam. Man is a complex of powers; desire is the desire for power, pride is illusion about power, honour opinion about power, life the unremitting exercise of power, and death the absolute loss of power. And the civil order is conceived as a coherence of powers, not because politics is vulgarly observed to be a competition of powers, or because civil philosophy must take its conceptions from natural philosophy, but because to subject the civil order to rational enquiry unavoidably turns it into a mechanism.
In the writings of Hobbes, philosophy and science are not contrasted eo nomine. Such a contrast would have been impossible in the seventeenth century, with its absence of differentiation between the sciences and its still unshaken hold on the conception of the unity of human knowledge. Indeed, Hobbes normally uses the word science as a synonym for philosophy; rational knowledge is scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, Hobbes is near the beginning of a new view of the structure and parts of knowledge, a change of view which became clearer in the generation of Locke and was completed by Kant. Like Bacon and others before him, Hobbes has his own classification of the genres of knowledge, and that it is a classification which involves a distinction between philosophy and what we have come to call “science” is suggested by his ambiguous attitude to the work of contemporary scientists. He wrote with an unusually generous enthusiasm of the great advances made by Kepler, Galileo, and Harvey; “the beginning of astronomy,” he says, “is not to be derived from farther time than from Copernicus”; but he had neither sympathy nor even patience for the “new or experimental philosophy,” and he did not conceal his contempt for the work of the Royal Society, founded in his lifetime. But this ambiguity ceases to be paradoxical when we see what Hobbes was about, when we understand that one of the few internal tensions of his thought arose from an attempted but imperfectly achieved distinction between science and philosophy. The distinction, well known to us now, is that between knowledge of things as they appear and enquiry into the fact of their appearing, between a knowledge (with all the necessary assumptions) of the phenomenal world and a theory of knowledge itself. Hobbes appreciated this distinction, and his appreciation of it allies him with Locke and with Kant and separates him from Bacon and even Descartes. He perceived that his concern as a philosopher was with the second and not the first of these enquiries; yet the distinction remained imperfectly defined in his mind. But that philosophy meant for Hobbes something different from the enquiries of natural science is at once apparent when we consider the starting-place of his thought and the character of the questions he thinks it necessary to ask. He begins with sensation; and he begins there, not because there is no deceit or crookedness in the utterances of the senses, but because the fact of our having sensations seems to him the only thing of which we can be indubitably certain. And the question he asks himself is, what must the world be like for us to have the sensations we undoubtedly experience? His enquiry is into the cause of sensation, an enquiry to be conducted, not by means of observation, but by means of reasoning. And if the answer he proposes owes something to the inspiration of the scientists, that does nothing to modify the distinction between science and philosophy inherent in the question itself. For the scientist of his day the world of nature was almost a machine, Kepler had proposed the substitution of the word vis for the word anima in physics; and Hobbes, whose concern was with the rational world (by definition also conceived as the analogy of a machine), discovered that some of the general ideas of the scientists could be turned to his own purposes. But these pardonable appropriations do nothing to approximate his enquiry to that of Galileo or Newton. Philosophy is reasoning, this time contrasted, not with theology, but with what we have come to know as natural science. And the question, What, in an age of science, is the task of philosophy? which was to concern the nineteenth century so deeply, was already familiar to Hobbes. And it is a false reading of his intention and his achievement which finds in his civil philosophy the beginning of sociology or a science of politics, the beginning of that movement of thought that came to regard “the methods of physical science as the proper models for political.”
But the contrast that finally distinguishes philosophy and reveals its full character is that between philosophy and what Hobbes calls experience. For in elucidating this distinction Hobbes shows us philosophy coming into being, shows it as a thing generated and relates it to its cause, thereby establishing it as itself a proper subject of rational consideration. The mental history of a man begins with sensation, “for 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.” Some sensations, perhaps, occupying but an instant, involve no reference to others and no sense of time. But commonly, sensations, requiring a minimum time of more than a single instant, and reaching a mind already stored with the relics of previous sensations, are impossible without that which gives a sense of time—memory. Sensation involves recollection, and a man’s experience is nothing but the recollected after-images of sensations. But from his power to remember man derives another power, imagination, which is the ability to recall and turn over in the mind the decayed relics of past sensation, the ability to experience even when the senses themselves have ceased to speak. Moreover imagination, though it depends on past sensations, is not an entirely servile faculty; it is capable of compounding together relics of sensations felt at different times. Indeed, in imagination we may have in our minds images not only of what we have never actually seen (as when we imagine a golden mountain though we have seen only gold and a mountain), but even of what we could never see, such as a chimera. But imagination remains servile in that “we have no transition from one imagination to another whereof we never had the like before in our senses.” Two things more belong to experience; the fruits of experience. The first is History, which is the ordered register of past experiences. The second is prudence, which is the power to anticipate experience by means of the recollection of what has gone before. “Of our conceptions of the past, we make a future.” A full, well-recollected experience gives the “foresight” and “wisdom” that belong to the prudent man, a wisdom that springs from the appreciation of those causes and effects that time and not reason teaches us. This is the end and crown of experience. In the mind of the prudent or sagacious man, experience appears as a kind of knowledge. Governed by sense, it is necessarily individual, a particular knowledge of particulars. But, within its limits, it is “absolute knowledge”; there is no ground upon which it can be doubted, and the categories of truth and falsehood do not apply to it. It is mere, uncritical “knowledge of fact”: “experience concludeth nothing universal.” And in all its characteristics it is distinguished from philosophical knowledge, which (because it is reasoned) is general and not particular, a knowledge of consequences and not of facts, and conditional and not absolute.
Our task now is to follow Hobbes in his account of the generation of rational knowledge from experience. In principle, experience (except perhaps when it issues in history) is something man shares with animals and has only in a greater degree: memory and imagination are the unsought mechanical products of sensation, like the movements that continue on the surface of water after what disturbed it has sunk to rest. In order to surmount the limits of this sense-experience and achieve reasoned knowledge of our sensations, we require not only to have sensations, but to be conscious of having them; we require the power of introspection. But the cause of this power must lie in sense itself, if the power is to avoid the imputation of being an easy deus ex machina. Language satisfies both these conditions: it makes introspection possible, and springs from a power we share with animals, the physical power of making sounds. For, though language “when disposed of in speech and pronounced to others” is the means whereby men declare their thoughts to one another, it is primarily the only means by which a man may communicate his own thoughts to himself, may become conscious of the contents of his mind. The beginning of language is giving names to afterimages of sensations and thereby becoming conscious of them; the act of naming the image is the act of becoming conscious of it. For, “a name is a word taken at pleasure to serve as a mark that may raise in our minds a thought like some thought we had before.”
Language, the giving of names to images, is not itself reasonable, it is the arbitrary precondition of all reasoning: the generation of rational knowledge is by words out of experience. The achievement of language is to “register our thoughts,” to fix what is essentially fleeting. And from this achievement follows the possibility of definition, the conjunction of general names, proposition, and rational argument, all of which consist in the “proper use of names in language.” But, though reasoning brings with it knowledge of the general and the possibility of truth and its opposite, absurdity, it can never pass beyond the world of names. Reasoning is nothing else but the addition and subtraction of names, and “gives us conclusions, not about the nature of things, but about the names of things. That is to say, by means of reason we discover only whether the connections we have established between names are in accordance with the arbitrary convention we have established concerning their meanings.” This is at once a nominalist and a profoundly sceptical doctrine. Truth is of universals, but they are names, the names of images left over from sensations; and a true proposition is not an assertion about the real world. We can, then, surmount the limits of sense-experience and achieve rational knowledge; and it is this knowledge, with its own severe limitations, that is the concern of philosophy.
But philosophy is not only knowledge of the universal, it is a knowledge of causes. Informally, Hobbes describes it as “the natural reason of man flying up and down among the creatures, and bringing back a true report of their order, causes and effects.” We have seen already how, by limiting philosophy to a knowledge of things caused (because reasoning itself must observe this limit) he separates it from theology. We have now to consider why he believed that the essential work of reasoning (and therefore of philosophy) was the demonstration of the cause of things caused. Cause for Hobbes is the means by which anything comes into being. Unlike any of the Aristotelian causes, it is essentially that which, previous in time, brings about the effect. A knowledge of cause is, then, a knowledge of how a thing is generated. But why must philosophy be a knowledge of this sort? Hobbes’s answer would appear to be, first, that this sort of knowledge can spring from reasoning while it is impossible to mere experience, and, secondly, that since, ex hypothesi, the data of philosophy are effects, the only possible enlargement of our knowledge of them must consist in a knowledge of their causes. If we add to the experience of an effect a knowledge of its generation, a knowledge of its “constitutive cause,” we know everything that may be known. In short, a knowledge of causes is the pursuit in philosophy because philosophy is reasoning.
The third characteristic of philosophical knowledge, as distinguished from experience, is that it is conditional, not absolute. Hobbes’s doctrine is that when, in reasoning, we conclude that the cause of something is such and such, we can mean no more than that such and such is a possible efficient cause, and not that it is the actual cause. There are three criteria by which a suggested cause may be judged, and proof that the cause actually operated is not among them. For reasoning, a cause must be “imaginable,” the necessity of the effect must be shown to follow from the cause, and it must be shown that nothing false (that is, not present in the effect) can be derived. And what satisfies these conditions may be described as an hypothetical efficient cause. That philosophy is limited to the demonstration of such causes is stated by Hobbes on many occasions; it applies not only to the detail of his philosophy, but also to the most general of all causes, to body and motion. For example, when he says that the cause or generation of a circle is “the circumduction of a body whereof one end remains unmoved,” he adds that this gives “some generation [of the figure], though perhaps not that by which it was made, yet that by which it might have been made.” And when he considers the general problem of the cause of sensations, he concludes, not with the categorical statement that body and motion are the only causal existents, but that body (that is, that which is independent of thought and which fills a portion of space) and motion are the hypothetical efficient causes of our having sensations. If there were no body there could be no motion, and if there were no motion of bodies there could be no sensation; sentire semper idem et non sentire ad idem recidunt. From beginning to end there is no suggestion in Hobbes that philosophy is anything other than conditional knowledge, knowledge of hypothetical generations and conclusions about the names of things, not about the nature of things. With these philosophy must be satisfied, though they are but fictions. Indeed, philosophy may be defined as the establishment by reasoning of true fictions. And the ground of this limitation is, that the world being what it is, reasoning can go no further. “There is no effect which the power of God cannot produce in many several ways,” verification ad oculos is impossible because these causes are rational not perceptible, and consequently the farthest reach of reason is the demonstration of causes which satisfy the three rational criteria.
My contention is, then, that the system of Hobbes’s philosophy lies in his conception of the nature of philosophical knowledge, and not in any doctrine about the world. And the inspiration of his philosophy is the intention to be guided by reason and to reject all other guides: this is the thread, the hidden thought, that gives it coherence, distinguishing it from Faith, “Science,” and Experience. It remains to guard against a possible error. The lineage of Hobbes’s rationalism lies, not (like that of Spinoza or even Descartes) in the great Platonic-Christian tradition, but in the sceptical, late scholastic tradition. He does not normally speak of Reason, the divine illumination of the mind that unites man with God; he speaks of reasoning. And he is not less persuaded of its fallibility and limitations than Montaigne himself. By means of reasoning we certainly pass beyond mere sense-experience, but when imagination and prudence have generated rational knowledge, they do not, like drones, perish; they continue to perform in human life functions that reasoning itself cannot discharge. Nor, indeed, is man, in Hobbes’s view, primarily a reasoning creature. This capacity for general hypothetical reasoning distinguishes him from the animal, but he remains fundamentally a creature of passion, and it is by passion not less than by reasoning that he achieves his salvation.
We have considered Hobbes’s view of philosophy because civil philosophy, whatever else it is, is philosophy. Civil philosophy, the subject of Leviathan, is precisely the application of this conception of philosophy to civil association. It is not the last chapter in a philosophy of materialism, but the reflection of civil association in the mirror of a rationalistic philosophy. But if the genus of civil philosophy is its character as philosophy, its differentia is derived from the matter to be considered. Civil philosophy is settling the generation or constitutive cause of civil association. And the kind of hypothetical efficient cause that civil philosophy may be expected to demonstrate is determined by the fact that civil association is an artifact: it is artificial, not natural. Now, to assert that civil association is an artifact is already to have settled the question of its generation, and Hobbes himself does not begin with any such assertion. His method is to establish the artificial character of civil association by considering its generation. But in order to avoid false expectations it will be wise for us to anticipate the argument and consider what he means by this distinction between art and nature.
Hobbes has given us no collected account of his philosophy of artifice; it is to be gathered only from scattered observations. But when these are put together, they compose a coherent view. A work of art is the product or effect of mental activity. But this in itself does not distinguish it securely from nature, because the universe itself must be regarded as the product of God’s mental activity, and what we call “nature” is to God an artifact; and there are products of human mental activity which, having established themselves, become for the observer part of his natural world. More firmly defined, then, a work of art is the product of mental activity considered from the point of view of its cause. And, since what we have to consider are works of human art, our enquiry must be into the kind of natural human mental activity that may result in a work of art; for the cause of a work of art must lie in nature; that is, in experience. It would appear that the activities involved are willing and reasoning. But reasoning itself is artificial, not natural; it is an “acquired” not a “native” mental activity, and therefore cannot be considered as part of the generation of a work of art. We are left, then, with willing, which, belonging to experience and not reasoning, is undoubtedly a natural mental activity. The cause (hypothetical and efficient, of course) of a human work of art is the will of a man. And willing is “the last desire in deliberating,” deliberating being mental discourse in which the subject is desires and aversions. It is a creative activity (not merely imitative), in the same way as imagination, working on sensations, creates a new world of hitherto separated parts. Both will and imagination are servile only in that their products must be like nature in respect of being mechanisms; that is, complexes of cause and effect. Moreover, will creates not only when it is single and alone, but also in concert with other wills. The product of an agreement between wills is no less a work of art than the product of one will. And the peculiarity of civil association, as a work of art, is its generation from a number of wills. The word “civil,” in Hobbes, means artifice springing from more than one will. Civil history (as distinguished from natural history) is the register of events that have sprung from the voluntary actions of man in commonwealths. Civil authority is authority arising out of an agreement of wills, while natural authority (that of the father in the family) has no such generation and is consequently of a different character. And civil association is itself contrasted on this account with the appearance of it in mere natural gregariousness.
Now, with this understanding of the meaning of both “civil” and “philosophical,” we may determine what is to be expected for a civil philosophy. Two things may be expected from it. First, it will exhibit the internal mechanism of civil association as a system of cause and effect and settle the generation of the parts of civil association. And secondly, we may expect it to settle the generation, in terms of an hypothetical efficient cause, of the artifact as a whole; that is, to show this work of art springing from the specific nature of man. But it may be observed that two courses lie open to anyone, holding the views of Hobbes, who undertakes this project. Philosophy, we have seen, may argue from a given effect to its hypothetical efficient cause, or from a given cause to its possible effect. Often the second form of argument is excluded; this is so with sensations, when the given is an effect and the cause is to seek. But in civil philosophy, and in all reasoning concerned with artifacts, both courses are open; for the cause and the effect (human nature and civil association) are both given, and the task of philosophy is to unite the details of each to each in terms of cause and effect. Hobbes tells us that his early thinking on the subject took the form of an argument from effect (civil association) to cause (human nature), from art to nature; but it is to be remarked that, not only in Leviathan, but also in all other accounts he gives of his civil philosophy, the form of the argument is from cause to effect, from nature to art. But, since the generation is rational and not physical, the direction from which it is considered is clearly a matter of indifference.
The Argument of Leviathan
Any account worth giving of the argument of Leviathan must be an interpretation; and this account, because it is an interpretation, is not a substitute for the text. Specific comment is avoided; but the implicit comment involved in selection, emphasis, the alteration of the language, and the departure from the order of ideas in the text cannot be avoided.
The nature of man is the predicament of mankind. A knowledge of this nature is to be had from introspection, each man reading himself in order to discern in himself, mankind. Civil philosophy begins with this sort of knowledge of the nature of man.
Man is a creature of sense. He can have nothing in his mind that was not once a sensation. Sensations are movements in the organs of sense which set up consequent movements in the brain; after the stimulus of sense has spent itself, there remain in the mind slowly fading relics of sensations, called images or ideas. Imagination is the consciousness of these images; we imagine what was once in the senses but is there no longer. Memory is the recollection of these images. A man’s experience is the whole contents of his memory, the relics of sensations available to him in recollection. And Mental Discourse is images succeeding one another in the mind. This succession may be haphazard or it may be regulated, but it always follows some previous succession of sensations. A typical regulated succession of images is where the image of an effect calls up from memory the image of its cause. Mental discourse becomes Prudence or foresight when, by combining the recollection of the images of associated sensations in the past with the present experience of one of the sensations, we anticipate the appearance of the others. Prudence is natural wisdom. All these together may be called the receptive powers of a man. Their cause is sensation (into the cause of which we need not enquire here), and they are nothing other than movements in the brain.
But, springing from these there is another set of movements in the brain, which may be called comprehensively the active powers of a man; his emotions or passions. These movements are called voluntary to distinguish them from involuntary movements such as the circulation of the blood. Voluntary activity is activity in response to an idea, and therefore it has its beginning in imagination. Its undifferentiated form is called Endeavour, which, when it is towards the image from which it sprang is called Desire or Appetite, and when it is away from its originating image is called Aversion. Love corresponds to Desire; Hate to Aversion. And whatever is the object of a man’s desire he calls Good, and whatever he hates he calls Evil. There is, therefore, nothing good or evil as such; for different men desire different things, each calling the object of his desire good, and the same man will, at different times, love and hate the same thing. Pleasure is a movement in the mind that accompanies the image of what is held to be good, pain one that accompanies an image held to be evil. Now, just as the succession of images in the mind is called Mental Discourse (the end of which is Prudence), so the succession of emotions in the mind is called Deliberation, the end of which is Will. While desire and aversion succeed one another without any decision being reached, we are said to be deliberating; when a decision is reached, and desire is concentrated upon some object, we are said to will it. Will is the last desire in deliberating. There can, then, be no final end, no summum bonum, for a man’s active powers; human conduct is not teleological, it is concerned with continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desires, and success lies not only in procuring what is desired, but also in the assurance that what will in the future be desired will also be procured. This success is called Felicity, which is a condition of movement, not of rest or tranquillity. The means by which a man may obtain this success are called, comprehensively, his Power; and therefore there is in man a perpetual and restless desire for power, because power is the conditio sine qua non of Felicity.
The receptive and the active powers of man derive directly from the possession of the five senses; the senses are their efficient cause. And since we share our senses with the animals, we share also these powers. Men and beasts do not have the same images and desires; but both alike have imagination and desire. What then, since this does not, differentiates man from beast? Two things: religion and the power of reasoning. Both these are at once natural and artificial: they belong to the nature of man because their generation is in sense and emotion, but they are artificial because they are the products of human mental activity. Religion and reasoning are mankind’s natural inheritance of artifice.
The character of reasoning and its generation from the invention of speech has already been described. Here it need only be added that, just as Prudence is the end-product of imagination and Felicity of emotion, so Sapience is the end-product of reasoning; and Sapience is a wealth of general hypothetical conclusions or theorems, found out by reasoning, about the causes and consequences of the names of sensations.
The seed of religion, like that of reasoning, is in the nature of man, though what springs from that seed, a specific set of religious beliefs and practices, is an artifact. The generation of religion is the necessary defect of Prudence, the inexperience of man. Prudence is foresight of a probable future based upon recollection, and insight into a probable cause also based upon recollection. Its immediate emotional effect is to allay anxiety and fear, fear of an unknown cause or consequence. But since its range is necessarily limited, it has the additional effect of increasing man’s fear of what lies beyond that limit. Prudence, in restricting the area in the control of fear, increases the fear of what is still to be feared; having some foresight, men are all the more anxious because that foresight is not complete. (Animals, having little or no foresight, suffer only the lesser evil of its absence, not the greater of its limitation.) Religion is the product of mental activity to meet this situation. It springs from prudent fear of what is beyond the power of prudence to find out, and is the worship of what is feared because it is not understood. Its contradictory is Knowledge; its contrary is Superstition, worship springing from fear of what is properly an object of knowledge. The perpetual fear that is the spring of religion seeks an object on which to concentrate itself, and calls that object God. It is true that perseverance in reasoning may reveal the necessity of a First Cause, but so little can be known about it that the attitude of human beings towards it must always be one of worship rather than knowledge. And each man, according to the restriction of his experience and the greatness of his fear, renders to God worship and honour.
The human nature we are considering is the internal structure and powers of the individual man, a structure and powers which would be his even if he were the only example of his species: we are considering the character of the solitary. He lives in the world of his own sensations and imaginations, desires and aversions, prudence, reason, and religion. For his thoughts and actions he is answerable to none but himself. He is conscious of possessing certain powers, and the authority for their exercise lies in nothing but their existence, and that authority is absolute. Consequently, an observer from another world, considering the character of our solitary, would not improperly attribute to him a natural freedom or right of judgement in the exercise of his powers of mind and body for the achievement of the ends given in his nature. In the pursuit of felicity he may make mistakes, in his mental discourse he may commit errors, in his reasoning he may be guilty of absurdity, but a denial of the propriety of the pursuit would be a meaningless denial of the propriety of his character and existence. Further, when our solitary applies his powers of reasoning to find out fit means to attain the ends dictated by his emotional nature, he may, if his reasoning is steady, light upon some general truths or theorems with regard to the probable consequences of his actions. It appears, then, that morally unfettered action (which may be called a man’s natural right to exercise his natural powers), and the possibility of formulating general truths about the pursuit of felicity, are corollaries of human nature.
Two further observations may be made. First, in the pursuit of felicity certain habits of mind and action will be found to be specially serviceable, and these are called Virtues. Other habits will hinder the pursuit, and these are called Defects. Defects are misdirected virtues. For example, prudence in general is a virtue, but to be overprudent, to look too far ahead and allow too much care for the future, reduces a man to the condition of Prometheus on the rock (whose achievements by night were devoured by the anxieties of the day), and inhibits the pursuit. And the preeminently inhibiting defect from which human beings may be observed to suffer is Pride. This is the defect of Glory, and its other names are Vanity and Vainglory. Glory, which is exultation in the mind based upon a true estimate of a man’s powers to procure felicity, is a useful emotion; it is both the cause and effect of well-grounded confidence. But pride is a man’s false estimate of his own powers, and is the forerunner of certain failure. Indeed, so fundamental a defect is pride, that it may be taken as the type of all hindrances to the achievement of felicity. Secondly, it may be observed that death, the involuntary cessation of desire and the pursuit which is the end of desire, is the thing of all others the most hateful; it is the summum malum. And that which men hate they also fear if it is beyond their control. Prudence tells a man that he will die, and by taking thought the prudent man can sometimes avoid death by avoiding its probable occasions, and, so far, the fear of it will be diminished. But death will outdistance the fastest runner; in all its forms it is something to be feared as well as hated. Yet it is to be feared most when it is most beyond the control of prudence: the death to be most greatly feared is that which no foresight can guard against—sudden death. It would appear, then, that Pride is the type of all hindrances to the achievement of felicity, and death the type of all Aversion.
Now, the element of unreality in the argument so far is not that the solitary, whose character we have been considering, is an abstraction and does not exist (he does exist and he is the real individual man), but that he does not exist alone. This fact, that there is more than one of his kind, must now be recognized; we must turn from the nature of man to consider the natural condition of man. And it is at this point that the predicament of mankind becomes apparent; for, apart from mortality, the character of the solitary man presents nothing that could properly be called a predicament.
The existence of others of his kind, and the impossibility of escaping their company, is the first real impediment in the pursuit of felicity; for another man is necessarily a competitor. This is no mere observation, though its effects may be seen by any candid observer; it is a deduction from the nature of felicity. For, whatever appears to a man to belong to his felicity he must strive for with all his powers, and men who strive for the possession of the same object are enemies of one another. Moreover, he who is most successful will have the most enemies and be in the greatest danger. To have built a house and cultivated a garden is to have issued an invitation to all others to take it by force, for it is against the common view of felicity to weary oneself with making what can be acquired by less arduous means. And further, competition does not arise merely when two or more happen to want the same thing, for when a man is among others of his kind his felicity is not absolute but comparative; and since a large part of it comes from a feeling of superiority, of having more than his fellow, the competition is essential, not accidental. There is, at best, a permanent potential enmity between men, “a perpetual contention for Honour, Riches, and Authority.” And to make matters worse, each man is so nearly the equal of each other man in power, that superiority of strength (which might set some men above the disadvantage of competition: the possibility of losing) is nothing better than an illusion. The natural condition of man is one of the competition of equals for the things (necessarily scarce because of the desire for superiority) that belong to felicity. But equality of power, bringing with it, not only equality of fear, but also equality of hope, will urge every man to try to outwit his neighbour. And the end is open conflict, a war of all against all, in which the defects of man’s character and circumstances make him additionally vulnerable. For, if pride, the excessive estimate of his own powers, hinders a man in choosing the best course when he is alone, it will be the most crippling of all handicaps when played upon by a competitor in the race. And in a company of enemies, death, the summum malum, will be closer than felicity. When a man is among men, pride is more dangerous and death more likely.
But further, the relationship between these self-moved seekers after felicity is complicated by an ambiguity. They are enemies but they also need one another. And this for two reasons: without others there is no recognition of superiority and therefore no notable felicity; and many, perhaps most of the satisfactions which constitute a man’s felicity are in the responses he may wring from others. The pursuit of felicity, in respect of a large part of it, is a procedure of bargaining with others in which one seeks what another has got and for which he must offer a satisfaction in return.
The predicament may now be stated precisely. There is a radical conflict between the nature of man and the natural condition of mankind: what the one urges with hope of achievement, the other makes impossible. Man is solitary; would that he were alone. For the sweetness of all he may come by through the efforts of others is made bitter by the price he must pay for it, and it is neither sin nor depravity that creates the predicament; nature itself is the author of his ruin.
But, like the seeds of fire (which were not themselves warm) that Prometheus brought mankind, like the first incipient movements (hardly to be called such) that Lucretius, and after him Hobbes, supposes to precede visible movement, the deliverance lies in the womb of nature. The saviour is not a visitor from another world, nor is it some godlike power of Reason come to create order out of chaos; there is no break either in the situation or in the argument. The remedy of the disease is homeopathic.
The precondition of the deliverance is the recognition of the predicament. Just as, in Christian theory, the repentance of the sinner is the first indispensable step towards forgiveness and salvation, so here, mankind must first purge itself of the illusion called pride. So long as a man is in the grip of this illusion he will hope to succeed tomorrow where he failed today; and the hope is vain. The purging emotion (for it is to emotion that we go to find the beginning of deliverance) is fear of death. This fear illuminates prudence; man is a creature civilized by fear of death. And what is begun in prudence is continued in reasoning; art supplements the gifts of nature.
For, as reasoning may find out truths for the guidance of a man in his pursuit of felicity when he is alone, so it is capable of uncovering similar truths in respect of his competitive endeavour to satisfy his wants. And since what threatens to defeat every attempt to procure felicity in these circumstances is the unconditionally competitive character of the pursuit (or, in a word, war), these truths found out by reason for avoiding this defeat of all by all may properly be called the articles of Peace. Such truths, indeed, have been uncovered, and they are all conditions qualifying the competitive pursuit of felicity which, if they are observed by all, will enhance the certainty, if not the magnitude of the satisfaction of each. They are sometimes called the “laws of nature,” but this is a misnomer except in special circumstances (to be considered later) when they are recognized to be the commands of a God or of a civil sovereign. Properly speaking, they are only theorems, the product of reasoning about what conduces to the optimum satisfaction of human wants. And they are fruitless until they are transformed from mere theorems into maxims of human conduct and from maxims into laws; that is, until they are recognized as valid rules of conduct of known jurisdiction, to be subscribed to by all who fall within that jurisdiction and to which penalties for nonsubscription have been annexed and power to enforce them provided. But this transformation also lies within the scope of human art. Such rules of conduct are neither more nor less than the product of an agreement to recognize them as rules, and human beings endowed with the faculty of speech may not only communicate their thoughts to one another but also make agreements; indeed, their association is solely in terms of agreements. In short, moved by fear of ill-success in procuring the satisfaction of their wants, instructed by the conclusions of reasoning about how this ill-success may be mitigated, and endowed with the ability to set these conclusions to work, human beings enjoy the means of escaping from the predicament of mankind.
The substantial conclusions of human reasoning in this matter Hobbes sums up in a maxim: do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself. But, more important than this, is its formal message, namely, that where there is a multitude of men each engaged in unconditional competition with the others to procure the satisfaction of his own wants, and of roughly equal power to obtain each what he seeks, they may succeed in their respective endeavours only when its unconditionality is abated. The abrogation of the competition is, of course, impossible; there can be no common or communal felicity to which they might be persuaded to turn their attention. But this race, in which each seeks to come first and is also unavoidably and continuously fearful of not doing so, must have some rules imposed upon it if it is not to run everyone into the ground. And this can be done only in an agreement of those concerned.
Now, in the day-to-day transactions in which human beings seek the satisfaction of their wants this message of reason may often be listened to and acted upon. They make ad hoc agreements about procedures of bargaining, they enter into formal relationships, they even make and accept promises about future actions and often keep them. And although such arrangements cannot increase the magnitude of their felicity they may make its pursuit less chancy. But this abatement of uncertainty is at best marginal and at worst delusive. These ad hoc formal relationships of mutual agreement between assignable persons are evanescent; remotely they may reflect generally accepted theorems about rational conduct, but as rules they are the products of specific and temporary agreements between the persons concerned. And further, they are always liable to be undermined by the substantial relationship of competitive hostility. And even if such agreements contain penalty clauses for the nonobser-vance of the conditions they impose upon the conduct of a transaction, these (in the absence of an independent means of enforcing them) add nothing to the certainty of the sought-for outcome. And this is particularly the case where a promise to respond in the future is made by one who has already received a conditional benefit: the abatement of uncertainty it purports to offer depends upon the expectation of its being fulfilled, that is, upon whether or not it is in the interest of the respondent to keep his promise when the time comes to do so. And this, in Hobbes’s view, must always be insufficiently certain for a reasonable man to bank upon it. In short, these ad hoc devices to increase the certainty of the satisfaction of wants, when taken alone, are themselves infected with uncertainty; where there is a present and substantial agreement about mutual interests they may be a convenience, where this is absent they provide merely an illusion of security.
What, then, is lacking here, and what is required for a “constant and lasting” release from the impediments which frustrate the common pursuit of individual felicity, is settled and known rules of conduct and a power sufficient to coerce those who fall within their jurisdiction to observe them. How may this condition of things be imagined to be “caused” or “generated”? First, it can be the effect only of an agreement among the human beings concerned. It is human beings associated in a particular manner, and all human association is by agreement. Secondly, it can be the effect of only a particular kind of agreement; namely, one in which a number of men, neither small nor unmanageably large, associate themselves in terms of a covenant to authorize an Actor to make standing rules to be subscribed to indifferently in all their endeavours to satisfy their wants and to protect the association from the hostile attentions of outsiders, and to endow this Actor with power sufficient to enforce these conditions of conduct and to provide this protection. Or, if this is not the only imaginable cause of the desiderated condition of peace and security, then at least it is a possible cause.
Such a covenant requires careful specification if it is to be shown not itself to inhibit the pursuit of felicity and not to conflict with the alleged characters of those who enter into it. And it is susceptible of various descriptions. It may, in general, be recognized as an agreement of many to submit their wills every one to the will of an Actor in respect of “all those things which concern the common peace and safety.” More precisely it may be identified as an agreement in which each participator surrenders his natural right to “govern himself” (or, “to be governed by his own reason”) which derives from his natural right to the unconditional pursuit of his own felicity. But if so, the character of this surrender must be specified: it must be not a mere laying down of this right, but a giving up of it to another. The right of each to “govern himself” (that is, to determine the conditions upon which he may pursue his felicity) is transferred to an Actor; that is, to one authorized in the agreement to exercise it. But who must this Actor be? Not a natural person, one among those who covenant to surrender their right to govern themselves, for that would be merely to place the government of their conduct in the hands of one moved only by his appetite to satisfy his own wants. The Actor is an artificial man who represents or “bears the person” of each of those who, by agreeing among themselves to do so, creates him and authorizes all his actions. What is created and authorized in this covenant is an Office which, although it may be occupied by one or by more than one office-holder, remains single and sovereign in all its official actions and utterances. Thus, the condition of peace and security is said to be the effect of “a covenant of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” Or again, it may be recognized as a covenant in which the covenanters agree among themselves “to confer all their strength and power upon one [artificial] man,” thus providing the power to enforce recalcitrants to submit to the will and the judgement of an office-holder authorized to deliberate and to decide upon the conditions to be observed by all in their several adventures in pursuit of felicity. And here it is a covenant not merely to transfer a right (which could notionally be effected in a single once-for-all pronouncement), but to be continuously active in supplying the power required to exercise it—for the Office can have no such resources of its own.
This covenant, then, purports to create an artifact composed of a sovereign Ruler authorized and empowered by covenanters who thereby become “united in one person,” transform themselves into Subjects and thus release themselves from the condition of war of all against all. This artifact is called a Commonwealth or civitas.
This is Hobbes’s account of the hypothetical efficient cause of civil association. There are refinements I have not mentioned and, no doubt, also, difficulties; but the rest of the civil philosophy consists of an exhibition of this artifact as a system of internal causes and effects, joining where necessary parts of its structure to particular features of the predicament from which it is designed to rescue mankind. This may be conveniently considered under four heads: (1) the constitution of the sovereign authority, (2) the rights and “faculties” of the sovereign authority, (3) the obligations and liberties of subjects, (4) the civil condition.
(1) The recipient of the transferred rights, whatever its constitution, is a single and sovereign authority. But this Office may be occupied by one or by many, and if by more than one either by some or by all. Thus a civil authority may have a monarchical, an aristocratic (or oligarchical), or a democratic constitution. Which it is to be is solely a matter of which is most likely to generate the peace for which civil association is instituted. The advantages of monarchy are obvious. But if the Office is occupied by an assembly of men, this cannot be because such an assembly is more likely to “represent” the variety of opinion among subjects, for a ruler is not the interpreter of the various wants of his subjects but the custodian of their will for peace. However, no kind of constitution is without its defects. Reason gives no conclusive answer, but tells us only that the main consideration is not wise but authoritative rule.
(2) The rights of the occupant of the sovereign office are those which the covenanters confer upon him. They are the right to rule and the right to enjoy the support of those who, in the agreement, have created themselves Subjects. These rights are both limited and unconditional. The covenanters have not surrendered their right to pursue felicity; they have surrendered only their right each to do this unconditionally, or (which is the same thing) on conditions which each decides for himself. But the rights with which they have endowed the sovereign are not retractable, and since he is not himself a party to any agreement he does not “bear their persons” on condition that he observes the terms of an agreement. Nor may any man exclude himself from the condition of Subject, on the grounds that he did not himself assent to the covenant, without declaring himself an “outlaw” and forfeiting the protection of the sovereign. The right to rule is the right to be the sole judge of what is necessary for the peace and security of subjects.
The business of ruling is the exercise of this right. And the most important part of it is to make rules for the conduct of Subjects. In a civitas the sovereign is the sole legislative authority; nothing is law save what he declares to be law, and it is law solely in virtue of that declaration. A law, in Hobbes’s understanding of it, is a command, the expression of the Will of the Sovereign. Not every command of the sovereign is law, but only those commands which prescribe a rule of conduct to be subscribed to indifferently by all Subjects.
In general, the contents of civil law corresponds to the theorems which natural reason has uncovered about what conduces to peaceful relationships between human beings. In certain circumstances (with which we are not now concerned) these theorems may properly be called “natural laws” and the legal virtue or validity of the declarations of a civil sovereign may be thought to derive, at least in part, from their correspondence with these “natural laws”; but here the civil sovereign has nothing but theorems of natural reason to guide him and the legal validity of the rules he makes lies solely in their being his commands. In short, in civil association the validity of a law lies neither in the wisdom of the conditions it imposes upon conduct, nor even in its propensity to promote peace, but in its being the command of the sovereign and (although this is obscure) in its being effectively enforced. There may be unnecessary laws and even laws which increase rather than diminish contention, and these are to be deplored, but no valid law can, strictly speaking, be “unjust.” “Just” conduct is identifiable only in terms of law and in civil association there is none but civil law. And if, as Hobbes suggests, the law which identifies the conditions upon which a man may rightfully call anything his own and upon which he may recognize the rights of others in this respect is the most important branch of civil law, this is because in each man coming to know what he may call his own and in being protected in his enjoyment of it the most fruitful cause of human contention is abated.
Together with the right to make laws goes the right to interpret them, to administer them, and to punish those who do not observe them. All law requires interpretation; that is, decision about what it means in contingent circumstances. This decision must be authoritative. And, in Hobbes’s view, laws lose all their virtue if their observance is not enforced by inescapable penalties. This “faculty” of the civil sovereign is exercised in courts of law presided over by himself or his agents. The sovereign’s relationship to civil law is that as its maker he is legibus solutus (having unconditional authority to make or to repeal), but in respect of his judicial office he is bound by the law as it is. He may pardon some offences.
Besides the sole right to make, repeal, interpret, administer, and enforce rules, the sovereign is the judge of what is necessary for the peace and security of his subjects in respect of threats to the association coming from without: the right to negotiate, make war, conclude peace, levy taxes to defray the expenses of war, and raise an army of volunteers of such dimensions as he shall think fit. He has the right to choose his own counsellors and agents, and he is himself the commander-in-chief of such military force as the association disposes.
Lastly, the civil sovereign, although he cannot dictate the beliefs of his subjects, has the right to inspect and to govern all expressions of opinion or doctrine among his subjects (especially those addressed to large audiences) in relation to their propensity to promote or to disrupt the peace of the association. This censorship is not directly concerned with the truth or falsity of the opinions uttered, but “a doctrine repugnant to peace, can no more be true, than peace and concord can be against the law of nature.”
It should be noted that the office of Sovereign has no rights of “lordship”; its dominium is solely regale.
(3) Civil Subjects are persons who, in a mutual agreement, have transferred the right of each to govern himself to a sovereign Actor; they have covenanted with one another to authorize all his actions, each to avouch every such action as his own, to submit their judgements and wills to his judgement and will in all that concerns their peace and security, to obey his commands, and to pledge all their strength and power to support the exercise of his authority. Thus, in a mutual agreement, they have each and all undertaken an obligation. Each in agreement with all others has bound himself in advance to a specified course of conduct in relation to one another and in relation to a ruler and his acts of ruling. In what respect may a civil Subject be said to be free?
Freedom means the absence of external impediment to movement; and a man, whose movement is the performance of actions he has willed to perform, is properly said to be free when “in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, [he] is not hindered to do what he has willed to do.” Human freedom is a quality of conduct itself, not of will. To find no external stop in doing what he has a will to do is to be a free man.
Cives, however, are subject to artificial impediments which stand in the way of their doing what they wish to do; namely, civil laws and the penalties which attach to not observing them, even the penalty of death, which is a stop to all conduct. They are in a situation of being compelled to do what they may not wish to do. And in this respect their freedom is curtailed.
But, it may be observed, first, that this situation is one of their own choosing; they may have chosen it out of fear of the alternative (the perpetual and unregulated obstruction of their actions by others), but this does not make the covenant any the less a free action. Whatever impediments they suffer on this account have been authorized by themselves. And further, their covenant was an act designed to emancipate them from certain external impediments to the pursuit of felicity, and if it were to be conscientiously observed by all there would be a net gain of freedom; fewer and less disastrous impediments to their willed actions.
More to the point, however, are the following considerations. Civil authority, the regulation of human conduct by law, does not and cannot prescribe the whole of any man’s conduct. Apart from the fact that rules can be observed only in choosing to perform actions which they do not themselves prescribe, there is always an area of the conduct of civil Subjects which, on account of the silence of the law, they are free to occupy on their own terms; to do and to forebear each at his own discretion. And the “greatest liberty” of civil subjects derives from the silences of the law. Furthermore, civil subjects enjoy a freedom which Hobbes calls their “true freedom,” which derives from the precise form of the covenant; in specifying their obligations the covenant specifies also a freedom. Each covenanter has surrendered his right to govern himself and has undertaken to authorize the actions of the sovereign ruler as if they were his own. The terms of the covenant exclude, and are designed to exclude, any undertaking to surrender rights which cannot be given up without a man risking the loss of all that he designed to protect in making the covenant; that is, his pursuit of felicity and even his life. Thus, the covenanter authorizes the sovereign to arraign him before a court for an alleged breach of the law, but he has no obligation to accuse himself without the assurance of pardon. And although, if convicted, he authorizes the infliction upon himself of the lawful penalty, even the penalty of death, he is not obliged to kill himself or any other man. And it is in the enjoyment of all those rights which he has not surrendered that the “true freedom” of the Subject lies. Finally, although he cannot himself retract the authorization he has given, he retains the right to protect himself and his interests by such strength as he may have if the authorized ruler is no longer able to protect him.
(4) The civil condition is an artifact. And since it is human beings associated in terms of the authorization of the decisions and the actions of a single Sovereign, Hobbes calls it an Artificial Man. It is association articulated in terms of settled and known laws which define the conditions of a “just” relationship between its members. And since “justice,” strictly speaking, is a function of having rules which cannot be breached with impunity, and since in default of a civitas there are no rules with penalties annexed to them but only unconditional competition for the satisfaction of wants together with some theorems about how this competition might become more fruitful from which nothing more than general maxims of prudent conduct may be rationally derived, “justice” and the civil condition may be said to be coeval.
But if human beings may find in civil association a condition of “peace” in which the frustrations and anxieties of an unconditional competition between men for the satisfaction of wants are relieved, these are not the only anxieties they suffer and this is not the only “peace” they seek. They are dimly aware of inhabiting a world in which nothing happens without a cause and they think and speak of this world, metaphorically, as the “natural kingdom of God,” the first or master cause of all that happens being identified as the will of this God. But they are acutely aware of their ignorance of the efficient causes of occurrences and of their consequent inability to move about this world with confidence, assured of achieving the satisfaction of their wants. They are gnawed by an anxiety, distinguishable from that which arises from their lack of power to compete unconditionally with their fellows, and they seek relief not only in a pax civilis but in a pax dei. They attribute to this God nothing but what is “warranted by natural reason,” they acknowledge his power (indeed his omnipotence), they do not (or should not) dishonour him by disputing about his attributes, and they address him in utterances of worship—and all this in a design to ingratiate themselves with what they cannot control and thus abate their anxieties. In the civil condition this worship may be in secret and thus of no concern to the civil sovereign, or by private men in the hearing of others and thus subject to the conditions of civility. But since a civil association is a many joined in the will and authorized actions of a Sovereign authority, it must display this unity in the worship of this God. He is to be recognized and honoured in a public cultus and in utterances and gestures determined by the civil Sovereign. In a civitas the pax dei is an integral part of the pax civilis.
Now, even an attentive reader might be excused if he supposed that the argument of Leviathan would end here. Whatever our opinion of the cogency of the argument, it would appear that what was projected as a civil philosophy had now been fulfilled. But such is not the view of Hobbes. For him it remains to purge the argument of an element of unreality which still disfigures it. And it is not an element of unreality that appears merely at this point; it carries us back to the beginning, to the predicament itself, and to get rid of it requires a readjustment of the entire argument. It will be remembered that one element of unreality in the conception of the condition of nature (that is, in the cause of civil association) was corrected as soon as it appeared; the natural man was recognized to be, though solitary, not alone. But what has remained so far unacknowledged is that the natural man is, not only solitary and not alone, but is also the devotee of a positive religion; the religion attributed to him was something less than he believed. How fundamental an oversight this was we shall see in a moment; but first we may consider the defect in the argument from another standpoint. In the earlier statement, the predicament was fully exhibited in its universal character, but (as Hobbes sees it) the particular form in which it appeared to his time, the peculiar folly of his age, somehow escaped from that generality; and to go back over the argument with this in the forefront of his mind seemed to him a duty that the civil philosopher owed to his readers. The project, then, of the second half of the argument of Leviathan is, by correcting an error in principle, to show more clearly the local and transitory mischief in which the universal predicament of mankind appeared in the seventeenth century. And both in the conception and in the execution of this project, Hobbes reveals, not only his sensitiveness to the exigencies of his time, but also the medieval ancestry of his way of thinking.
The Europe of his day was aware of three positive religions: Christianity, the Jewish religion, and the Moslem. These, in the language of the Middle Ages, were leges, because what distinguished them was the fact that the believer was subject to a law, the law of Christ, of Moses, or of Mahomet. And no traditionalist would quarrel with Hobbes’s statement that “religion is not philosophy, but law.” The consequence in civil life of the existence of these “laws” was that every believer was subject to two laws— that of his civitas and that of his religion: his allegiance was divided. This is the problem that Hobbes now considers with his accustomed vigour and insight. It was a problem common to all positive religions, but not unnaturally Hobbes’s attention is concentrated upon it in relation to Christianity.
The man, then, whose predicament we have to consider is, in addition to everything else, a Christian. And to be a Christian means to acknowledge obligation under the law of God. This is a real obligation, and not merely the shadow of one, because it is a real law—a command expressing the will of God. This law is to be found in the Scriptures. There are men who speak of the results of human reasoning as Natural Laws, but if we are to accept this manner of speaking we must beware of falling into the error of supposing that they are laws because they are rational. The results of natural reasoning are no more than uncertain theorems, general conditional conclusions, unless and until they are transformed into laws by being shown to be the will of some authority. If, in addition to being the deliverance of reasoning, they can be shown to be the will and command of God, then and then only can they properly be called laws, natural or divine; and then and then only can they be said to create obligation. But, as a matter of fact, all the theorems of reasoning with regard to the conduct of men in pursuit of felicity are to be found in the scriptures, laid down as the commands of God. Now, the conclusion of this is, that no proper distinction can be maintained between a Natural or Rational and a Revealed law. All law is revealed in the sense that nothing is law until it is shown to be the command of God by being found in the scriptures. It is true that the scriptures may contain commands not to be discovered by human reasoning and these, in a special sense, may be called revealed; but the theorems of reasoning are laws solely on account of being the commands of God, and therefore their authority is no different from that of the commands not penetrable by the light of reasoning. There is, then, only one law, Natural and Divine; and it is revealed in scripture.
But Scripture is an artifact. It is, in the first place, an arbitrary selection of writings called canonical by the authority that recognized them. And secondly, it is nothing apart from interpretation. Not only does the history of Christianity show that interpretation is necessary and has been various, but any consideration of the nature of knowledge that is not entirely perfunctory must conclude that “no line is possible between what has come to men and their interpretation of what has come to them.” Nothing can be more certain than that, if the law of God is revealed in scripture, it is revealed only in an interpretation of scripture. And interpretation is a matter of authority; for, whatever part reasoning may play in the process of interpretation, what determines everything is the decision, whose reasoning shall interpret? And the far-reaching consequences of this decision are at once clear when we consider the importance of the obligations imposed by this law. Whoever has the authority to determine this law has supreme power over the conduct of men, “for every man, if he be in his wits, will in all things yield to that man an absolute obedience, by virtue of whose sentence he believes himself to be either saved or damned.”
Now, in the condition of nature there are two possible claimants to this authority to settle and interpret scripture and thus determine the obligations of the Christian man. First, each individual man may claim to exercise this authority on his own behalf. And this claim must at once be admitted. For, if it belongs to a man’s natural right to do whatever he deems necessary to procure felicity, it will belong no less to this right to decide what he shall believe to be his obligations under the law natural and divine. In nature every man is “governed by his own reason.” But the consequences of this will be only to make more desperate the contentiousness of the condition of nature. There will be as many “laws” called Christian as there are men who call themselves Christian; and what men did formerly by natural right, they will do now on a pretended obligation to God. A man’s actions may thus become conscientious, but conscience will be only his own good opinion of his actions. And to the secular war of nature will be added the fierceness of religious dispute. But secondly, the claim to be the authority to settle and interpret the scriptures may be made on behalf of a special spiritual authority, calling itself, for the purpose, a church. And a claim of this sort may be made either by a so-called universal church (when the claim will be to have authority to give an interpretation to be accepted by all Christians everywhere), or by a church whose authority is limited to less than the whole number of Christians. But, whatever the form of the claim, what we have to enquire into is the generation of the authority. Whence could such an authority be derived? We may dispose at once of the suggestion that any spiritual authority holds a divine commission to exercise such a faculty. There is no foundation in history to support such a suggestion; and even if there were, it could not give the necessary ground for the authority. For, such an authority could only come about by a transfer of natural right as a consequence of a covenant; this is the only possible cause of any authority whatever to order men. But we have seen already that a transfer of rights as a consequence of a covenant does not, and could not, generate a special spiritual authority to interpret scripture; it generates infallibly a civil society. A special spiritual authority for settling the law of God and Nature, cannot, then, exist; and where it appears to exist, what really exists is only the natural authority of one man (the proper sphere of which is that man’s own life) illegitimately extended to cover the lives of others and masquerading as something more authoritative than it is; in short, a spiritual tyranny.
There is in the condition of nature, where Christians are concerned, a law of nature; and it reposes in the scriptures. But what the commands of this law are no man can say except in regard to himself alone; the public knowledge of this law is confined to the knowledge of its bare existence. So far, then, from the law of nature mitigating the chaos of nature, it accentuates it. To be a “natural” Christian adds a new shadow to the darkness of the predicament of the condition of nature, a shadow that will require for its removal a special provision in the deliverance.
The deliverance from the chaos of the condition of nature as hitherto conceived is by the creation of a civil association or Commonwealth; indeed, the condition of nature is the hypothetical efficient cause of a Commonwealth. And when account is taken of this new factor of chaos, the deliverance must be by the creation of a Christian Commonwealth; that is, a civil association composed of Christian subjects under a Christian sovereign authority. The creation of this requires no new covenant; the natural right of each man to interpret scripture and determine the law of God on his own behalf will be transferred with the rest of his natural right, for it is not a separable part of his general natural right. And the recipient of the transferred right is the artificial, sovereign authority, an authority which is not temporal and spiritual (for, “ Temporal and Spiritual government are but two names brought into the world to make men see double, and mistake their lawful sovereign”), but single and supreme. And the association represented in his person is not a state and a church, for a true church (unlike the so-called churches which pretended their claims to be independent spiritual authorities in the condition of nature) is “a company of men professing Christian Religion, united in the person of one Sovereign.” It cannot be a rival spiritual authority, setting up canons against laws, a spiritual power against a civil, and determining man’s conduct by eternal sanctions, because there is no generation that can be imagined for such an authority and its existence would contradict the end for which society was instituted. And if the Papacy lays claim to such an authority, it can at once be pronounced a claim that any other foreign sovereign might make (for civil associations stand in a condition of nature towards one another), only worse, for the Pope is a sovereign without subjects, a prince without a kingdom: “if a man consider the original of this great Ecclesiastical Dominion, he will easily perceive, that the Papacy, is no other, than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof: For so did the Papacy, start up on a sudden out of the ruins of that great Heathen Power.”
It remains to consider what it means to be a Christian sovereign and a Christian subject. The chief right of the sovereign as Christian is the right to settle and interpret scripture and thus determine authoritatively the rules that belong to the Law of God and Nature. Without this right it is impossible for him to perform the functions of his office. For, if he does not possess it, it will be possessed either by no one (and the chaos and war of nature will remain) or by someone else who will then, on account of the preeminent power this right gives, wield a supremacy both illegitimate and destructive of peace. But it is a right giving immense authority, for the laws it determines may be called God’s laws, but are in fact the laws of the sovereign. With this right, the sovereign will have the authority to control public worship, a control to be exercised in such a way as to oblige no subject to do or believe anything that might endanger his eternal salvation. He may suppress organized superstition and heresy, because they are destructive of peace; but an inquisition into the private beliefs of his subjects is no part of his right. And, as with other rights of sovereignty, he may delegate his right of religious instruction to agents whom he will choose, or even (if it be for the good of the society) to the Pope; but the authority thus delegated is solely an authority to instruct, to give counsel and advice, and not to coerce. But if the sovereign as Christian has specific rights, he has also obligations. For in the Christian Commonwealth there exists a law to which the sovereign is, in a sense, obliged. What had previously been merely the rational articles of peace, have become (on being determined in scripture) obligatory rules of conduct. The sovereign, of course, has no obligations to his subjects, only functions; but the law of God is to him (though he has made it himself), no less than to his subjects, a command creating an obligation. And iniquity, which in a heathen sovereign could never be more than a failure to observe the conclusions of sound reasoning, in the Christian sovereign becomes a breach of law and therefore a sin, punishable by God.
The subject as Christian has a corresponding extension of his obligation and right. The rule of his religion, as determined by the authoritative interpretation of scripture, creates no new and independent obligations, but provides a new sanction for the observation of all his obligations. The articles of peace are for him no longer merely the conclusions of reasoning legitimately enforced by the sovereign power; they are the laws of God. To observe the covenant he has made with his fellows becomes a religious obligation as well as a piece of prudential wisdom. The freedom of the Christian subject is the silence of the law with regard to his thoughts and beliefs; for if it be the function of the sovereign to suppress controversy, he has no right to interfere with what he cannot in fact control and what if left uncontrolled will not endanger peace. “As for the inward thought and belief of men, which human governors take no notice of (for God only knoweth the heart), they are not voluntary, nor the effect of the laws, but of the unrevealed will and of the power of God; and consequently fall not under obligation.” It is a darkly sceptical doctrine upon which Hobbes grounds toleration.
The argument is finished: but let no one mistake it for the book. The skeleton of a masterpiece of philosophical writing has a power and a subtlety, but they are not to be compared with the power and subtlety of the doctrine itself, clothed in the irony and eloquence of a writer such as Hobbes.
Some Topics Considered
(1)The Criticism of Hobbes. Most great philosophers have found some defenders who are prepared to swallow everything, even the absurdities; but Hobbes is an exception. He has aroused admiration in some of his readers, horror in others, but seldom affection and never undiscriminating affection. Nor is it surprising that this should be so. He offended against taste and interest, and his arrogance invited such a consequence. He could not deny himself the pleasure of exaggeration, and what were remembered were his incautious moments, and the rest forgotten. His doctrines, or some of them, have received serious attention and criticism from the time when they first appeared; but his critics have for the most part been opponents, and his few defenders not conspicuous for their insight into his meaning. On the whole it remains true that no great writer has suffered more at the hands of little men than Hobbes.
His opponents divide themselves into two classes; the emotional and the intellectual. Those who belong to the first are concerned with the supposed immoral tendencies of his doctrines; theirs is a practical criticism. The second are concerned with the theoretical cogency of his doctrines; they wish to shed light and sometimes succeed in doing so.
With the critics of the first class we need not greatly concern ourselves, though they still exist. They find in Hobbes nothing but an apostle of atheism, licentiousness, and despotism, and express a fitting horror at what they find. The answers to Leviathan constitute a library, its censors a school in themselves. Pious opinion has always been against him, and ever since he wrote he has been denounced from the pulpit. Against Hobbes, Filmer defended servitude, Harrington liberty, Clarendon the church, Locke the Englishman, Rousseau mankind, and Butler the Deity. And a writer of yesterday sums up Hobbes’s reflections on civil philosophy as “the meanest of all ethical theories united with unhistorical contempt for religion to justify the most universal of absolutisms.” No doubt some responsibility for all this attaches to Hobbes himself; he did not lack caution, but like all timid men he often chose the wrong occasion to be audacious. It is true that his age excused in Spinoza what it condemned in Hobbes; but then Spinoza was modest and a Jew, while Hobbes was arrogant and enough of a Christian to have known better. And that the vilification of Hobbes was not greater is due only to the fact that Machiavelli had already been cast for the part of scapegoat for the European consciousness.
The critics of the second class are more important, because it is in and through them that Hobbes has had his influence in the history of ideas. They, also, are for the most part his opponents. But, in the end, if Hobbes were alive today he would have some reason to complain (as Bradley complained) that even now he must “do most of his scepticism for himself.” For his critics have shown a regrettable tendency to fix their attention on the obvious errors and difficulties and to lose sight of the philosophy as a whole. There has been a deplorable overconfidence about the exposure of faults in Hobbes’s philosophy. Few accounts of it do not end with the detection of a score of simple errors, each of which is taken to be destructive of the philosophy, so that one wonders what claim Hobbes has to be a philosopher at all, let alone a great one. Of course there are inconsistencies in his doctrines, there is vagueness at critical points, there is misconception and even absurdity, and the detection of these faults is legitimate and useful criticism; but niggling of this sort will never dispose of the philosophy. A writer like Bentham may fall by his errors, but not one such as Hobbes. Nor is this the only defect of his critics. There has been failure to consider his civil philosophy in the context of the history of political philosophy, which has obscured the fact that Hobbes is not an outcast but, in purpose though not in doctrine, is an ally of Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas. There has been failure to detect the tradition to which his civil philosophy belongs, which has led to the misconception that it belongs to none and is without lineage or progeny. And a large body of criticism has been led astray by attention to super-ficial similarities which appear to unite Hobbes to writers with whom, in fact, he has little or nothing in common.
The task of criticism now is to make good some of these defects. It is not to be expected that it can be accomplished quickly or all at once. But a beginning may be made by reconsidering some of the vexed questions of the civil philosophy.
(2)The Tradition of Hobbes. Hobbes’s civil philosophy is a composition based upon two themes, Will and Artifice. The individual who creates and becomes the subject of civil authority is an ens completum, an absolute will. He is not so much a “law unto himself” as free from all law and obligation which is the creature of law. This will is absolute because it is not conditioned or limited by any standard, rule, or rationality and has neither plan nor end to determine it. This absence of obligation is called by Hobbes, natural right. It is an original and an absolute right because it derives directly from the character of will and not from some higher law or from Reason. The proximity of several such individuals to one another is chaos. Civil association is artificial, the free creation of these absolute wills, just as nature is the free creation of the absolute will of God. It is an artifice that springs from the voluntary surrender of the unconditional freedom or right of the individual, and consequently it involves a replacement of freedom by law and right by obligation. In the creation of civil association a sovereignty corresponding to the sovereignty of the individual is generated. The Sovereign is the product of will, and is himself representing the wills of its creators. Sovereignty is the right to make laws by willing. The Sovereign, therefore, is not himself subject to law, because law creates obligation, not right. Nor is he subject to Reason, because Reason creates nothing, neither right nor obligation. Law, the life of civil association, is the command of the Sovereign, who is the Soul (the capacity to will), not the head, of civil association.
Now, two things are clear about such a doctrine. First, that its ruling ideas are those that have dominated the political philosophy of the last three hundred years. If this is Hobbes’s doctrine, then Hobbes said something that allied him to the future. And secondly, it is clear that this doctrine is a breakaway from the great Rational-Natural tradition of political philosophy which springs from Plato and Aristotle and found embodiment later in the Natural Law theory. That tradition in its long history embraced and accommodated many doctrines, but this doctrine of Hobbes is something it cannot tolerate. Instead of beginning with right, it begins with law and obligation, it recognizes law as the product of Reason, it finds the only explanation of dominion in the superiority of Reason, and all the various conceptions of nature that it has entertained exclude artifice as it is conceived by Hobbes. For these reasons it is concluded that Hobbes is the originator of a new tradition in political philosophy.
But this theory of Hobbes has a lineage that stretches back into the ancient world. It is true that Greek thought, lacking the conception of creative will and the idea of sovereignty, contributed a criticism of the Rational-Natural theory which fell short of the construction of an alternative tradition: Epicurus was an inspiration rather than a guide. But there are in the political ideas of Roman civilization and in the politico-theological ideas of Judaism strains of thought that carry us far outside the Rational-Natural tradition, and which may be said to constitute beginnings of a tradition of Will and Artifice. Hobbes’s immediate predecessors built upon the Roman conception of lex and the Judaic-Christian conception of will and creation, both of which contained the seeds of opposition to the Rational-Natural tradition, seeds which had already come to an early flowering in Augustine. And by the end of the middle ages this opposition had crystallized into a living tradition of its own. Hobbes was born into the world, not only of modern science, but also of medieval thought. The scepticism and the individualism, which are the foundations of his civil philosophy, were the gifts of late scholastic nominalism; the displacement of Reason in favour of will and imagination and the emancipation of passion were slowly mediated changes in European thought that had gone far before Hobbes wrote. Political philosophy is the assimilation of political experience to an experience of the world in general, and the greatness of Hobbes is not that he began a new tradition in this respect but that he constructed a political philosophy that reflected the changes in the European intellectual consciousness which had been pioneered chiefly by the theologians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Leviathan, like any masterpiece, is an end and a beginning; it is the flowering of the past and the seed-box of the future. Its importance is that it is the first great achievement in the long-projected attempt of European thought to reembody in a new myth the Augustinian epic of the Fall and Salvation of mankind.
(3)The Predicament of Mankind. In the history of political philosophy there have been two opposed conceptions of the source of the predicament of man from which civil society springs as a deliverance: one conceived the predicament to arise out of the nature of man, the other conceived it to arise out of a defect in the nature of man. Plato, who went to what he believed to be the nature of man for the ground and structure of the polis, is an example of the first. And Spinoza, with his insistence on the principle that nothing in nature must be attributed to a defect of it, adheres, in his different convention, to the same project of deducing civil society from “the very condition of human nature.” For Augustine, on the other hand, the predicament arises from a defect in human nature, from sin. Where does Hobbes stand in this respect? The widely accepted interpretation of Hobbes’s view is that, for him, the predicament springs from the egoistical character of man and that therefore it is vice and depravity that create the chaos. Moreover, it is a genuinely original depravity, for the Fall of man (or anything to take its place) is no part of Hobbes’s theory. But when we look closer, what was distinguished as egoism (a moral defect) turns out to be neither moral nor a defect; it is only the individuality of a creature shut up, without hope of immediate release, within the world of his own imagination. Man is, by nature, the victim of solipsism; he is an individua substantia distinguished by incommunicability. And when this is understood, we are in a position to accept Hobbes’s own denial of a doctrine of the natural depravity of man; and he appears to take his place, on this question, beside Plato and Spinoza, basing his theory on the “known natural inclinations of mankind.” But not without difficulty. First, the striving after power which is characteristic of the human individual may, in Hobbes’s view, be evil; it is so when it is directed by Pride. And Pride is so universal a defect in human nature that it belongs to the constitutive cause of the predicament. And, if by interpreting it as illusion Hobbes deprives Pride of moral significance, it still remains a defect. And since Pride (it will be remembered) is the Augustinian interpretation of the original sin, this doctrine of Hobbes seems to approximate his view to the conception of the predicament as springing from, not nature, but defect in nature. But secondly, the predicament for Hobbes is actually caused, not by an internal defect in human nature, but by something that becomes a defect when a man is among men. Pride in one may inhibit felicity, but it cannot produce chaos. On this point, then, I think our conclusion must be that Hobbes’s conception of the natural man (apart from his defects) is such that a predicament requiring a deliverance is created whenever man is in proximity to man, and that his doctrine of Pride and the unpermissible form of striving after power only increases the severity of the predicament.
(4)Individualism and Absolutism. Individualism as a gospel has drawn its inspiration from many sources, but as a reasoned theory of society it has its roots in the so-called nominalism of late medieval scholasticism, with its doctrines that the nature of a thing is its individuality, that which makes it this thing, and that both in God and man will is precedent to reason. Hobbes inherited this tradition of nominalism, and more than any other writer passed it on to the modern world. His civil philosophy is based, not on any vague belief in the value or sanctity of the individual man, but on a philosophy for which the world is composed of individuae substantiae. This philosophy, in Hobbes, avoided on the one hand atomism (the doctrine that the individual is an indestructible particle of matter) and on the other hand universalism (the doctrine that there is but one individual, the universe), and involved both Hobbes and his successors in the conception of a scale of individuals in which the individuality of sensations and images was preserved while the individuality of the man was asserted. The human being is first fully an individual, not in respect of self-consciousness, but in the activity of willing. Between birth and death, the self as imagination and will is an indestructible unit, whose relations with other individuals are purely external. Individuals may be collected together, may be added, may be substituted for one another, or made to represent one another, but can never modify one another or compose a whole in which their individuality is lost. Even reason is individualized, and becomes merely the reasoning of an individual without power or authority to oblige acceptance by others: to convince a man is not to enjoy a common understanding with him, but to displace his reason by yours. The natural man is the stuff of civil association which, whatever else it is, is an association that can comprehend such individuals without destroying them. Neither before nor after the establishment of civil association is there any such thing as the People, to whom so much previous theory ascribed sovereignty. Whatever community exists must be generated by individual acts of will directed upon a single object, that is, by agreement: the essence of agreement is, not a common will (for there can be no such thing), but a common object of will. And, since these individual wills are in natural opposition to one another, the agreement out of which civitas can spring must be an agreement not to oppose one another, a will not to will. But something more is required; merely to agree not to will is race suicide. The agreement must be for each to transfer his right of willing in some specific respect, to a single artificial Representative, who is thenceforth authorized to will and to act in place of each individual. There is in this association no concord of wills, no common will, no common good; its unity lies solely in the singleness of the Representative, in the substitution of his one will for the many conflicting wills. It is a collection of individuals united in one Sovereign Representative, and in generation and structure it is the only sort of association that does not compromise the individuality of its components.
Now, the common view is that though Hobbes may be an individualist at the beginning, his theory of civil association is designed precisely to destroy individualism. So far as the generation of civil association is concerned, this is certainly not true. To authorize a representative to make a choice for me does not destroy or compromise my individuality; there is no confusion of wills, so long as it is understood that my will is in the authorization of the representative and that the choice he makes is not mine, but his on my behalf. Hobbes’s individualism is far too strong to allow even the briefest appearance of anything like a general will.
Nor is the effect generated, the Leviathan, a designed destruction of the individual; it is, in fact, the minimum condition of any settled association among individuals. The Sovereign is absolute in two respects only, and neither of them is destructive of individuality: first, the surrender of natural right to him is absolute and his authorization is permanent and exclusive; and secondly, there is no appeal from the legitimacy of his command. The natural right surrendered is the unconditional right, on all occasions, to exercise one’s individual will in the pursuit of felicity. Now, an absolute right, if it is surrendered at all, is necessarily surrendered absolutely: Hobbes refused the compromise which suggests that a part of the right had to be sacrificed, not because he was an absolutist in government, but because he knew a little elementary logic. But to surrender an absolute right to do something on all occasions, is not to give up the right of doing it on any occasion. For the rest, Hobbes conceives the Sovereign as a law-maker and his rule, not arbitrary, but the rule of law. And we have already seen that law as the command of the Sovereign holds within itself a freedom absent from law as Reason or custom: it is Reason, not Authority, that is destructive of individuality. And, of course, the silence of the law is a further freedom; when the law does not speak the individual is sovereign over himself. What, indeed, is excluded from Hobbes’s civitas is not the freedom of the individual, but the independent rights of spurious “authorities” and of collections of individuals such as churches, which he saw as the source of the civil strife of his time.
It may be said, then, that Hobbes is not an absolutist precisely because he is an authoritarian. His scepticism about the power of reasoning, which applied no less to the “artificial reason” of the Sovereign than to the reasoning of the natural man, together with the rest of his individualism, separate him from the rationalist dictators of his or any age. Indeed, Hobbes, without being himself a liberal, had in him more of the philosophy of liberalism than most of its professed defenders. He perceived the folly of his age to lie in the distraction of mankind between those who claimed too much for Authority and those who claimed too much for Liberty. The perverse authoritarians were those who forgot, or never understood, that a moral authority derives solely from an act of will of him who is obliged, and that, since the need for authority springs from the passions of men, the authority itself must be commensurate with what it has to remedy, and who therefore claimed a ground for authority outside the wills and desperate needs of mortal men. The perverse libertarians were those whose illusions led them to cling to a natural right in religion which was destructive of all that was achieved by the surrender of the rest of natural right.Autres temps, autres folies: if Hobbes were living today he would find the universal predicament appearing in different particulars.
(5)The Theory of Obligation. Under the influence of distinctions we are now accustomed to make in discussing questions of moral theory, modern critics of Hobbes have often made the mistake of looking for an order and coherence in his thoughts on these questions which is foreign to the ideas of any seventeenth-century writer. Setting out with false expectations, we have been exasperated by the ambiguity with which Hobbes uses certain important words (such as obligation, power, duty, forbid, command), and have gone on, in an attempt to understand his theory better than he understood it himself, to interpret it by extracting from his writings at least some consistent doctrine. This, I think, is the error that lies in attributing to him a theory of civil obligation in terms of self-interest, which is an error, not because such a theory cannot be extracted from his writings, but because it gives them a simple formality which nobody supposes them to possess. Even if we confine ourselves to Leviathan, we are often met with obscurity and ambiguity; but Hobbes is a writer who encourages the expectation of consistency, and the most satisfactory interpretation will be that which gives as coherent a view as is consistent with all of what Hobbes actually wrote.
Hobbes begins with the natural right of each man to all things. Now, this right is always at least as great as a man’s power to enjoy it; for, when power is sufficient a man acts, and nothing that a man does can exceed what he has a natural right to do. It follows that power and natural right are equal to one another only when the power is irresistible. This is so with God, in whom right and power are equal because his power is as absolute as his right. But it is not so with men; for, in the unavoidable competition, a man’s power, so far from being irresistible, is merely equal to the power of any other man. Indeed, his natural right, which is absolute, must be vastly greater than his power which, in the circumstances, is small because it is uncertain. It appears, then, that while natural right is absolute, power is a variable quality. Natural right and the power to enjoy it are, therefore, two different considerations; neither is the cause of the other, and even where (as in God) they are equal, they are still not identifiable with one another. Might and Right are never the same thing.
According to Hobbes, for a man to be “obliged” is for him to be bound, to be constrained by some external impediment imposed, directly or indirectly, by himself. It is to suffer some specific self-inflicted diminution of his freedom which may be in respect of his right to act or of both his right and his power to act. And in this connection to do and not to do are alike to act.
First, then, were a man to be constrained from willing and performing a certain action because he judged its likely consequences to be damaging to himself, he would suffer no external constraint and therefore could not properly be said to be “obliged” to refrain from this action. Here the so-called constraint is internal, a combination of rational judgement and fear, which is aversion from something believed to be hurtful. Neither his right to do what he wills to do nor his power to do it have suffered any qualification: he remains “governed by his own reason.” Thus, no man may be said to be “obliged” to act rationally so long as rationality is understood in terms of theorems about the likely consequences of actions; and fear, even if it is fear of being thwarted by the power of another man, is, as we have seen, a reason for acting or refraining from a particular action, not an external constraint upon conduct. Secondly, were a man to will to perform an action which he is unable to perform from his own lack of power to do so (e.g. to lift a weight beyond his capacity to lift), he could not properly be said to be “obliged” to refrain from the action. He is deprived of nothing: his right to will remains intact and he never had the power he lacks. And thirdly, a man prevented by the power (and not merely the fear of the power) of another from performing an action he has willed and is otherwise able to perform, or one compelled by another to move in a manner he has not chosen to move, is certainly constrained, and his freedom is in some specific respect diminished. But here the constraint is solely in respect of this power; it leaves unimpaired his right to do as he wills. He is deprived of one of the qualities of a free man, the exercise of his ability to do as he wishes. But, although the constraint here is certainly external and although his freedom is substantially diminished, this constraint and this diminution are not self-imposed and consequently he cannot properly be said to be “obliged” to do what he is compelled to do or to desist from what he is prevented from doing.
In order to be obliged, then, or (avoiding the confusion of common speech) in order to have an obligation, a man must himself perform an action which obligates him: there is, strictly speaking, “no obligation on any man, which ariseth not from some act of his own.” This act must be one which acknowledges or imposes constraint upon his unconditional right to do whatever he wills and has power to do, thus diminishing his natural freedom. The constraint imposed or acknowledged must be limited and specific: to surrender his right completely would be to obliterate himself and there would be nothing left to be obligated. That is, the act must be a surrender not of the right but of the unconditionality of the right. Further, if (as it must be) this constraint is to be external it cannot arise from merely putting-by the unconditionality of the right; it must be the giving up of whatever is given up to another who then has the right to enjoy it. And lastly, an obligation undertaken cannot lapse merely by a failure to fulfil it; it can be ended only in an agreement that it shall be terminated or (if it is temporary) in reaching its natural terminus—a promise fulfilled.
Now, since to undertake an obligation is always to perform a voluntary act of self-denial, it must always be done in the hope of acquiring some benefit. No man can voluntarily “despoil” himself of any part of his unconditional right knowing that it will be to his disadvantage. And the only “good” any man can recognize is the satisfaction of his wants and the avoidance of that greatest of all dissatisfactions, death. It is to this end that men bind themselves, undertake duties and become capable of injustice or injury to others which are the outcomes of not observing obligations. Thus, they make promises to one another and enter into agreement of mutual trust, designing thereby to make more secure the satisfaction of their wants. These obligations are genuine; they are voluntary undertakings which, on that account, ought not to be made void by those who undertake them. Nevertheless, the situation of one who accepts a promise or one who is the first performer in an agreement of mutual trust remains hazardous, for the strength of the bonds of obligation lies not in themselves but in the fear of the evil consequences of breaking them. And, in the circumstances, these evil consequences are nothing more than what lies within the power of the party bilked to impose and the fear of them is, therefore, not notably compelling.
But there is a way in which human beings may acquire less transitory obligations, although these also are the outcome of voluntary actions. If the theorems of natural reason about prudent conduct (theorems such as “honesty is, on the whole, the best policy”) were to be recognized as the laws of a God, and if further this God were to be recognized as their God and they to lie within the jurisdiction of these rules, they would have acknowledged their conduct to be subject to these rules and would have obligated themselves to observe them. In this situation they are alike bound by a known external impediment to the exercise of their unconditional right to do what each wills and has power to do. In a voluntary act of acknowledgement they would have submitted themselves to the rule of divine commands. They have not authorized God to make rules for their guidance and they have not endowed him with power to enforce these rules, but they know that he exists, that he is a law-giver and omnipotent, and they have acknowledged themselves to be his Subjects. Henceforth the reason why, for example, they ought to keep the agreements they have undertaken is not merely that they ought not “to make void voluntary acts of their own” but that God has ruled that agreements made ought to be kept. And the advantage they hope to gain from this acknowledgement is the benefit of the approval of the ruler of the universe and perhaps also “reward in heaven” for obeying his commands. What they have handed over in this acknowledgement is the right of each to rule himself according to his own natural reason. But they remain free to disobey these divine laws and, so far as life on earth is concerned, with a fair chance of impunity. This God is omnipotent, but he has no agents on earth equipped with power to enforce penalties for disobedience. This obligation, and transitory obligations such as those which arise from making promises to private persons, may be said to be examples of pure but imperfect “moral” obligation. Nothing is given up save the right of a man to govern his own conduct; nothing is provided save a bare rule of conduct.
What, then, is civil obligation? Like all other obligations, it arises from a voluntary act. This act is a notional covenant between many in which the right of each to govern himself by his own reason is surrendered and a sovereign Actor (the occupant of an artificially created office) is authorized to exercise it on their behalf; that is, to declare, to interpret, and to administer rules of conduct which the covenanters pledge themselves in advance to obey. The persons concerned are under no obligation to make any such agreement among themselves; they are merely instructed to do so by reason and fear. Thus, civil obligation is a “moral” obligation; it arises from a genuine surrender of right. Furthermore, it comprehends all other moral obligation. It is true that the subjects of a civil sovereign may have acknowledged themselves to be obligated to the laws of a God known to them by their natural reason and even to one whose will is also revealed in prophetic utterances (scripture). But first, a civil subject cannot know where his duty lies if he understands himself to be obligated by two possibly divergent sets of laws; and secondly, God has not himself provided an authoritative apparatus (a court of law) for deciding the meaning of his laws in contingent circumstances, and while this is so the obligations they entail remain imperfectly specified; what they mean is almost anybody’s guess. Consequently, on both these counts, it falls to the civil sovereign to specify his subjects’ obligations; he must assimilate divine to civil law and he must provide an official interpretation of the meaning in contingent circumstances of all the rules which govern his subjects’ conduct. And there is something more which distinguishes civil obligation. In addition to binding themselves each to surrender his right to govern himself, the covenanters who thus create a civitas pledge themselves to use all their strength and power on behalf of the civil sovereign; that is, they obligate themselves not only in respect of their right to govern themselves, but in respect also of the use of their power. This, then, is the unique characteristic and special virtue of civil obligation and civil association: a subject obligated both in respect of his right to act and his power to act, and an association equipped with known and authoritative rules of conduct which cannot be breached with impunity.
(6)Civil Theology. Long before the time of Hobbes the severance of religion from civil life, which was one of the effects of early Christianity, had been repealed. But the significant change observable in the seventeenth century was the appearance of states in which religion and civil life were assimilated to one another as closely as the universalist tradition of Christianity would permit. It was a situation reminiscent at least of the ancient world, where religion was a communal cultus of communal deities. In England, Hooker had theorized this assimilation in the style of a medieval theologian; it was left to Hobbes to return to a more ancient theological tradition (indeed, a pagan tradition) and to theorize it in a more radical fashion.
In the later middle ages it had become customary to divide Theology, the doctrine concerning divine things, into a part concerned with what is accessible by the light of natural reason (and here the doctrine was largely Aristotelian in inspiration), and a part concerned with what is known only through the revelation of scripture. Theology, that is, was both Rational and Revealed. This way of thinking had sprung, by a long process of mediation, from the somewhat different view of the genera theologiae that belonged to the late Roman world for which the contrast was between Rational Theology (again largely derived from Aristotle) and Civil Theology. This last was the consideration of the doctrines and beliefs of religions actually practised in civil communities. It was not concerned with philosophic speculation or proof, with first causes or the existence of God, but solely with the popular beliefs involved in a religious cultus. It is to this tradition that Hobbes returned. Of course, the immediate background of his thought was the political theology of the late middle ages and the Reformation; and, of course, scripture was the authoritative source to which he went to collect the religious beliefs of his society. And it is not to be supposed that he made any conscious return to an earlier tradition, or that his way of thinking was unique in his generation. What is suggested is that he has more in common with the secular theologians of the Italian Renaissance than with a writer such as Erastus, and that he treats the religion of his society as he finds it in the scriptures, not in the style of a Protestant theologian, but rather in the style of Varro.
Hobbes’s doctrine runs something like this. Religious belief is something not to be avoided in this world, and is something of the greatest practical importance. Its generation is from fear arising out of the unavoidable limits of human experience and reasoning. There can be no “natural knowledge of man’s estate after death,” and consequently there can be no natural religion in the accepted meaning of the term. Natural religion implies a universal natural Reason; but not only is reasoning confined to what may be concluded from the utterances of the senses, but it is never more than the reasoning of some individual man. There is, then, first, the universal and necessary lack of knowledge of things beyond the reach of sense; secondly, innumerable particular expressions of this lack of knowledge in the religious fears of human beings; and thirdly, the published collection in the Christian scriptures of the fears of certain individuals, which has become the basis of the religious idiom of European civilization. And the result is confusion and strife; confusion because the scriptures are at the mercy of each man’s interpretation, strife because each man is concerned to force his own fears on other men or on account of them to claim for himself a unique way of living.
To those of Hobbes’s contemporaries for whom the authority of medieval Christianity was dead, there appeared to be two possible ways out of this chaos of religious belief. There was first the way of natural religion. It was conceived possible that, by the light of natural Reason, a religion, based upon “the unmoveable foundations of truth,” and supplanting the inferior religions of history, might be found in the human heart, and receiving universal recognition, become established among mankind. Though their inspiration was older than Descartes, those who took this way found their guide in Cartesian rationalism, which led them to the fairyland of Deism and the other fantasies of the saeculum rationalisticum, amid the dim ruins of which we now live. The other way was that of a civil religion, not the construction of reason but of authority, concerned not with belief but with practice, aiming not at undeniable truth but at peace. Such a religion was the counterpart of the sovereign civil association. And civil philosophy, in its project of giving this civil association an intellectual foundation, could not avoid the responsibility of constructing a civil theology, the task of which was to find in the complexities of Christian doctrine a religion that could be an authorized public religion, banishing from civil association the confusion and strife that came from religious division. This was the way of Hobbes. He was not a natural theologian; the preconceptions of natural theology and natural religion were foreign to his whole philosophy; he was a civil theologian of the old style but in new circumstances. For him, religion was actual religious beliefs, was Christianity. He was not concerned to reform those beliefs in the interest of some universal, rational truth about God and the world to come, but to remove from them the power to disrupt society. The religion of the seventeenth century was, no less than the religion of any other age, a religion in which fear was a major constituent. And Hobbes, no less than others of his time—Montaigne and Pascal, for example—felt the impact of this fear; he died in mortal fear of hell-fire. But whereas in an earlier age Lucretius conceived the project of releasing men from the dark fears of their religion by giving them the true knowledge of the gods, no such project could enter the mind of Hobbes. That release, for him, could not come from any knowledge of the natural world; if it came at all it must be the work of time, not reason. But meanwhile it was the less imposing task of civil theology to make of that religion something not inimical to civilized life.
(7)Beyond Civility. Political philosophy, I have suggested, is the consideration of the relation between civil association and eternity. The civitas is conceived as the deliverance of a man observed to stand in need of deliverance. This, at least, is the ruling idea of many of the masterpieces of political philosophy, Levia-than among them. In the Preface to the Latin edition Hobbes says: “This great Leviathan, which is called the State, is a work of art; it is an artificial man made for the protection and salvation of the natural man, to whom it is superior in grandeur and power.” We may, then, enquire of any political philosophy conceived on this plan, whether the gift of civil association to mankind is, in principle, the gift of salvation itself, or whether it is something less, and if the latter, what relation it bears to salvation. The answers to these questions will certainly tell us something we should know about a political philosophy; indeed, they will do more, they will help us to determine its value.
When we turn to make this enquiry of the great political philosophies, we find that, each in its own convention, they maintain the view that civil association is contributory to the fulfilment of an end which it cannot itself bring about; that the achievement in civil association is a tangible good and not, therefore, to be separated from the deliverance that constitutes the whole good, but something less than the deliverance itself. For both Plato and Aristotle civil association is not man’s highest activity, and what is achieved in it must always fall short of the best life, which is a contemplative, intellectual life. And the contribution of the civitas to the achievement of this end is the organization of human affairs so that no one who is able may be prevented from enjoying it. For Augustine the justitia and pax that are the gifts of civil association are no more than the necessary remedy for the immediate consequences of the original sin; they have a specific relation to the justice of God and the pax coelestis, but they cannot themselves bring about that “perfectly ordered union of hearts in the enjoyment of God and one another in God.” For Aquinas a communitas politica may give to man a natural happiness, but this, while it is related to the supernatural happiness, is not itself more than a secondary deliverance from evil in the eternal life of the soul. And Spinoza, who perhaps more completely than any other writer adheres to the conception of human life as a predicament from which salvation is sought, finds in civil association no more than a second-best deliverance, giving a freedom that cannot easily be dispensed with, but one not to be compared with that which belongs to him who is delivered from the power of necessity by his knowledge of the necessary workings of the universe.
Now, in this matter Hobbes is perhaps more suspect than any other great writer. This alleged apostle of absolutism would, more than others, appear to be in danger of making civil association a hell by conceiving it as a heaven. And yet there is little justification for the suspicion. For Hobbes, the salvation of man, the true resolution of his predicament, is neither religious nor intellectual, but emotional. Man above all things else is a creature of passion, and his salvation lies, not in the denial of his character, but in its fulfilment. And this is to be found, not in pleasure—those who see in Hobbes a hedonist are sadly wide of the mark—but in Felicity, a transitory perfection, having no finality and offering no repose. Man, as Hobbes sees him, is not engaged in an undignified scramble for suburban pleasures; there is the greatness of great passion in his constitution. The restless desire that moves him is not pain, nor may it be calmed by any momentary or final achievement; and what life in another world has to offer, if it is something other than Felicity, is a salvation that has no application to the man we know. For such a man salvation is difficult; indeed what distinguishes Hobbes from all earlier and most later writers is his premise that a man is a moving “body,” that human conduct is inertial, not teleological movement, and that his “salvation” lies in “continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desires.” And certainly civil association has no power to bring this about. Nevertheless, what it offers is something of value relative to his salvation. It offers the removal of some of the circumstances that, if they are not removed, must frustrate the enjoyment of Felicity. It is a negative gift, merely making not impossible that which is sought. Here, in civil association, is neither fulfilment nor wisdom to discern fulfilment, but peace, the only condition of human life that can be permanently established. And to a race condemned to seek its perfection in the flying moment and always in the one to come, whose highest virtue is to cultivate a clear-sighted vision of the consequences of its actions, and whose greatest need (not supplied by nature) is freedom from the distraction of illusion, the Leviathan, that justitiae mensura atque ambitionis elenchus, will appear an invention neither to be despised nor overrated. “When the springs dry up, the fish are all together on dry land. They will moisten each other with their dampness and keep each other wet with their slime. But this is not to be compared with their forgetting each other in a river or a lake.”
1946 and 1974