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Source: Pogson Smith's essay from Hobbes’s Leviathan
reprinted from the edition of 1651 with an Essay by the Late W.G. Pogson
Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
THE PHILOSOPHY OF HOBBES: AN ESSAY
Wherein does the greatness of Hobbes consist? It is a question I often put to myself, as I lay him down. It was a question which exercised his contemporaries—friends or foes—and drove them to their wits’ end to answer. If I were asked to name the highest and purest philosopher of the seventeenth century I should single out Spinoza without a moment’s hesitation. But Spinoza was not of the world; and if a man will be perverse enough to bind the Spirit of Christ in the fetters of Euclid, how shall he find readers? If I were asked to select the true founders of modern science I should bracket Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, and resolutely oppose Hobbes’s claim to be of the company. If his studies in Vesalius prepared him to extend his approbation to Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of the blood, his animosity to Oxford and her professors would never allow him seriously to consider the claims of a science advanced by Dr. Wallis; the sight of a page of algebraic symbols never elicited any feeling but one of sturdy contempt, and the remark that it looked ‘as if a hen had been scratching there’. To the end of his days he dwelt among points of two dimensions, and superficies of three; he squared the circle and he doubled the cube. “Twas pity,’ said Sir Jonas Moore, and many more, ‘that he had not began the study of mathematics sooner, for such a working head would have made great advancement in it.’
Of inductive science he is very incredulous. Bacon, contemplating ‘in his delicious walkes at Gorhambury’, might indeed better like Mr. Hobbes taking down his thoughts than any other, because he understood what he wrote; he probably learnt to understand my Lord, who dictated his alphabet of simple natures, his receipts for the discovery of forms, his peddling experiments and his laborious conceits. I mention this because most German critics, with perhaps more than their usual careless audacity of assumption, find a niche for Hobbes as the spiritual fosterling of the great empiricist Bacon. Now if there was one thing for which Hobbes had neither sympathy nor even patience, it was experimental science. The possession of a great telescope was no doubt a curious and useful delight; but ‘not every one that brings from beyond seas a new gin, or other jaunty device, is therefore a philosopher’. Let the gentlemen of Gresham College, whose energy it must be granted shames the sloth of our ancient universities,—let them apply themselves to Mr. Hobbes’s doctrine of motion, and then he will deign to cast an eye on their experiments. He did not think their gropings would carry them very far. ‘Experience concludeth nothing universally.’ If he despaired of wringing her secret from Nature, he never doubted that he held the key to every corner of the human heart. He offers us a theory of man’s nature which is at once consistent, fascinating, and outrageously false. Only the greatest of realists could have revealed so much and blinded himself to so much more. You cry angrily—It is false, false to the core; and yet the still small voice will suggest, But how much of it is really true? It is poor, immoral stuff! so you might say in the pulpit, but you know that it probes very deep. It is only the exploded Benthamite philosophy with its hedonistic calculus tricked out in antique piquancy of phrase! If you really hold this, if you think that Hobbes’s man is nothing more than a utilitarian automaton led by the nose by suburban pleasures and pains, you have no sense of power, of pathos, or of irony. It is only the trick of the cheap cynic, you retort in fine. Yes, it is cynicism; but it is not cheap. Nature has made man a passionate creature, desirous not of pleasure but of power; the passions themselves are not simple emotions, but charged with and mastered by the appetite for power; honour consisteth only in the opinion of power; the worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; the public worth of a man, which is the value set on him by the commonwealth, is that which men commonly call dignity. Leave men to themselves, they struggle for power; competition, diffidence, vainglory driving them. Sober half-hours hush with their lucid intervals the tumult of the passions; even so on earth they bring no beatitude. Care for the future is never banished from thought; felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another.
‘So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.’
’For as Prometheus, which interpreted is, the prudent man, was bound to the hill Caucasus, a place of large prospect, where an eagle, feeding on his liver, devoured in the day as much as was repaired in the night: so that man, which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long, gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity; and has no repose nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.’
Such, then, is the lust and the burden of man. What is the deliverance? Spinoza found it in philosophy; the truth shall make you free: but Hobbes was a philosopher who had no faith in truth. Pascal found it in the following of Christ; but I doubt whether religion ever meant much more than an engine of political order to Hobbes. Rousseau, whose survey of human nature often strangely and suspiciously resembles that of Hobbes, advocated—in some moods at least—a return to nature. Rousseau’s ‘nature’ was a pig-sty, but Hobbes’s state of nature was something far worse than that.
Hobbes was never disloyal to intellect, grievously as he affronted its paramount claims; he was not of those who see virtue in the renunciation of mathematics, logic, and clothes. Passion-ridden intellect had mastered man in a state of nature; a passion-wearied intellect might deliver man from it. If man cannot fulfil his desire, he can seek peace and ensue it by the invention of fictions. It is not prudence, but curiosity, that distinguisheth man from beast. He wonders; he is possessed; a passionate thought leaps to the utterance; the word is born; the idea is fixed; from henceforth he will boldly conclude universally; science has come in the train of language. This most noble and profitable invention of speech, ‘without which there had been amongst men neither commonwealth nor society, nor contract nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves,’ is man’s proudest triumph over nature. By his own art he fetters himself with his own fictions—the fictions of the tongue. You shall no longer hold that men acquired speech because man was a reasoning animal; in truth man became capable of science, i.e. reason, because he invented speech. It was not nature which in secular travail brought reason to the birth; but man saw nature’s poverty of invention, and boldly substituted his own. He created reason in the interests of peace. Voltaire profanely said that if there were no God it would be necessary to invent one; convictions of similar cogency drove the Hobbean man to bow his neck to the dictatorship of the neologist. ‘The Greeks have but one word, λόγος, for both speech and reason; not that they thought there was no speech without reason, but no reasoning without speech.’ Truth is a necessity; but necessary truth is a will-o’-the-wisp. Seekers after truth—how Hobbes despised them, all that deluded race who dreamt of a law whose seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world: all things in heaven and earth doing her homage! Rather, boldly conclude that truth is not to be sought, but made. Let men agree what is to be truth, and truth it shall be. There is truth and truth abounding when once it is recognized that truth is only of universals, that there is nothing in the world universal but names, and that names are imposed arbitrio hominum. Fiction is not, as people hold, the image or the distortion of the real which it counterfeits; it is the very and only foundation of that reality which is rational. Here is Hobbes’s answer to that question which, in its varied phrasing, has never ceased to trouble philosophy. Are there innate ideas? What is the ultimate criterion of truth? Is there a transcendent reason? What is common sense? Are there any undemonstrable and indubitable axioms fundamental to all thought? How is a synthetic a priori judgement possible?
The same temper which leads him to stifle thought with language carries him on to substitute definitions for first principles. Prima philosophia—metaphysics in Aristotle’s sense—is first a body of definitions. These definitions are our points of departure: we must start by agreeing upon them. For ‘the light of human minds is perspicuous words, by exact definitions first snuffed and purged from ambiguity’. A definition must be held to be satisfactory if it be clear. The master claims a free and absolute right of arbitrary definition. The scholar queries: Is the definition true? is it adequate? does it assort with reality? To whom the master testily replies: You are irrelevant; your only right is to ask, Is it clear? Unless my definitions are accepted as first principles, science, i.e. a deductive system of consequences, is impossible, and inference foreclosed. Let me remind you again that agreement on definitions is the sine qua non of intelligible reasoning; and then for the sake of peace and lucidity let me beg—nay insist—that you accept my ruling on the use of names. Are they not arbitrary? Is not one man’s imposition as good as another’s? Mine therefore—at least for purposes of argument—rather better than yours? Hobbes knew what he was about; he was ‘rare at definitions’, said the admiring John Aubrey. It was because he very clearly saw that in the prerogative of definition lay the sovereignty in philosophy.
But, you say, he must recognize some real, unconventional, transcendent standard of truth somewhere: for otherwise by what right does he distinguish between truth and error? And what is the meaning of the charges ‘absurd’ and ‘insignificant’ so freely lavished on opinions with which he disagrees? I can only reply that his distinctions between truth and falsehood, sense and absurdity, are perfectly consistent with the doctrine I have been expounding. Man’s privilege of reason ‘is allayed by another: and that is, by the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only. ...for it is most true that Cicero saith of them somewhere: that there can be nothing so absurd but may be found in the books of philosophers.’ ‘As men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary... For words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever.’ The causes of this endowment of absurdity are but want of definition, want of adherence to definitions, want of the power of syllogizing. A glance at Hobbes’s relentless application of this fundamental principle will be sufficient. Good and evil are terms of individual imposition; by tacit agreement one may say they are left to a personal interpretation; there is no common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves. But the moral virtues and vices are universal names: they take their definition ex arbitrio hominum, i.e. from the will of the State. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice; and sometimes also with his tongue.’ The fool might arrive at his conclusion by an easy deduction from the principles of Hobbes. For if he had studied Hobbes’s code of nature with ordinary care he would have discovered that the justice of which Leviathan is begotten is carefully emptied of all ethical content. There is indeed a justice, an obligation arising out of contract, which naturally refuses to discuss its own title; and there is another justice, the parody of equity, which explains itself with a humorous grin as the fiction of equality playing the peace-maker. You, X, say you’re as good as any one else: Y says he’s quite your match, and he’ll take you on: permit me to assume then for purposes of codification a hypothesis of universal equality, and to refer you to the golden rule for your future behaviour!
At length man’s pride and passions compel him to submit himself to government. Leviathan is set on his feet; he is the king of the proud; but his feet are of clay; he too is a fiction. This time Hobbes resorts to the lawyers, borrows from them their mystico-legal fiction of the persona moralis, the corporation, and sends the mystical elements in it to the right about. ‘It is the unity of the representer, not the unity of the represented, that maketh the person one: ...and unity cannot otherwise be understood in multitude.’ The sovereign is the soul, the person, the representative, the will, the conscience of the commonwealth; i.e. the sovereign is the commonwealth in that fictional sense which alone is truth in science and in practice. Once again there is no such thing as objective right: therefore we must invent a substitute for it by establishing a sovereign who shall declare what shall be right for us. On this point Hobbes is unmistakably emphatic.
‘The law is all the right reason we have, and (though he, as often as it disagreeth with his own reason, deny it) is the infallible rule of moral goodness. The reason whereof is this, that because neither mine nor the Bishop’s reason is right reason fit to be a rule of our moral actions, we have therefore set up over ourselves a sovereign governor, and agreed that his laws shall be unto us, whatsoever they be, in the place of right reason, to dictate to us what is really good. In the same manner as men in playing turn up trump, and as in playing their game their morality consisteth in not renouncing, so in our civil conversation our morality is all contained in not disobeying of the laws.’ —Hobbes’s debate with Dr. Bramhall, Bishop of Derry.
‘For, but give the authority of defining punishments to any man whatsoever, and let that man define them, and right reason has defined them, suppose the definition be both made, and made known before the offence committed. For such authority is to trump in card-playing, save that in matter of government, when nothing else is turned up, clubs are trumps.’ —A Dialogue of the Common Laws.
It is idle to qualify or defend such a political philosophy: it is rotten at the core. It is valueless save in so far as it stimulates to refutation. We may be content to leave it as a precious privilege to the lawyers, who need definitions and have no concern with morality. And yet no thinker on politics has ever probed its fundamental conceptions more thoroughly; and I say it advisedly, if you would think clearly of rights and duties, sovereignty and law, you must begin with the criticism of Hobbes. For any philosophy which is worth the name must spring out of scepticism; and every system of philosophy which is worth serious attention must achieve the conquest of scepticism. It is only a very botcher in philosophy or a very genial personage who can really rest content with a merely sceptical attitude. Hobbes was no Carneades of riotous dialectic, no Montaigne of cheerful and humorous resignation. His logic plunged him into the abyss of scepticism; but the fierce dogmatism of his nature revolted against it. David Hume imagined that it was left for him to send philosophy to its euthanasia; but in truth Hobbes had seen it all, the whole sceptic’s progress—seen it, and travelled it, and loathed it long ago.
Hobbes clutched at mathematics as the dogmatist’s last straw. Spite of the wreck of objective ideals, what might not be effected with matter and motion! Here, if anywhere, certainty might be found; here reason, baffled and disillusioned, might find a punctum stans; a fulcrum to explain the universe.
Hobbes and Descartes.
Hobbes thought in an atmosphere of dualism—yet Hobbes was a resolute opponent of dualism. From 1637, the date of the Discours, the relation between matter and mind, body and soul, was a cardinal—the cardinal problem. Descartes had awarded to each substance co-ordinate, independent, absolute rights. The future business of Cartesianism was to find a trait d’union—an explanation for a relation in fact which had been demonstrated in theory inconceivable.
At first blush one might be inclined to say Hobbes remained untouched by the new method. Starting on a basis of empiricism he developed a materialistic philosophy in perfect independence of the current of idealistic thought which was flowing so strongly on the Continent. It would be a mistaken view. Hobbes is powerfully influenced by Descartes. Descartes prescribes for him his method—not Gassendi or Bacon. But with Descartes’ dualism he will not away. He suspected Descartes of paltering with philosophy to appease the Jesuits—his philosophy must find a corner for the mysteries of the Catholic faith, e.g. transubstantiation, pro salute animae; and was a system to be received which fell hopelessly apart in the middle, and which demanded a miracle to restore a unity which a philosophy worthy of the name was bound to demonstrate impossible?
A system—or philosophy—must be coherent at any price; a philosopher, whose business it was to define, should see to that: words are wise men’s counters, and the philosopher must play to win; coherence, not comprehension, is with Hobbes the touchstone of philosophy, the test of truth. To Hobbes, rationalism is the fundamental postulate; and a rational universe must be deduced from a single and simple principle. Dualism was the consecration of the irrational.
But Hobbes deals in back blows—he does not meet the dualist face to face; he refuses to see eye to eye with him; the problem shall be eluded, the position turned, in an emergency the question at issue begged. Sensation need offer no difficulties: sensation is only motion; it can only be caused by motion, it is only a form, a manifestation of motion. Fancy, memory, comparison, judgement, are really carried with sense—’sense hath necessarily some memory adhering to it.’
And reason—pure intellection—the faculty of science—surely here we must appeal to another source (cf. Descartes and Gassendi), surely we have passed into another realm. Hobbes emphatically assures us that it is this reason, this capacity for general hypothetical reason, this science or sapience, which marks man off from the brutes. The distinction between science and experience, sapience and prudence, is fundamental in his philosophy. And yet if we look more narrowly we shall find this marvellous endowment of man is really the child of language—that most noble and profitable invention. This bald paradox is a masterpiece of tactics. Speech is ushered in with the fanfaronade, and lo! reason is discovered clinging to her train. Instinct says, reason begets speech; paradox inverts, speech begets reason. Man acquires speech because he is reasonable )( man becomes capable of science because he has invented speech. A wonderful hysteron proteron.
Hobbes derives some account from his audacity.
- 1. We easily understand how error is possible—no need of tedious discussion—error dogs the heels of language.
- 2. Seeing that thought (science) depends on language, it is evident that to clarify thought we must purge language—re-definition the true task of philosophy.
In my necessarily harsh review I may have seemed to have found no answer to my opening question. Does it not involve a petitio principii? Is he great after all? I am content to rest the issue on one test alone—the test of style. I am adopting no superficial test, when I boldly affirm that every great thinker reveals his greatness in his style. It is quite possible—unhappily common—to cultivate style without thought; it is absolutely impossible to think really, deeply, passionately, without forging a style. Now Hobbes’s style is something quite unique in our literature. Of course I don’t mean it stands out of the seventeenth century; to read a paragraph is to fix its date. But no other seventeenth-century writer has a style like it: it is inimitable. It would be childish to measure it with the incommensurable; to pit it against the fluent magnificence of Milton or the quaint and unexpected beauties of Sir Thomas Browne. But it is fair to try Hobbes’s English by the touchstone of Bacon’s. Those critics who deny Bacon’s title to a primacy in philosophy are generally ready enough to acknowledge his high position as a writer. And Bacon and Hobbes are writers of the same order. They are both sententious; they are both grave and didactic; they both wield the weapons of imagery, apophthegm, and epigram; they are both—let us admit it—laboured stylists. It is, I think, highly probable that Hobbes learnt something of literary craftsmanship from Bacon in those Gorhambury contemplations. But Hobbes’s writing is just as decisively superior to Bacon’s, as his philosophy. Bacon aimed at concealing the poverty of his thought by the adornment of his style: he wrote for ostentation. When that solemn humbug, that bourgeois Machiavel, took up his pen to edify mankind, he first opened his commonplace books, stuffed with assorted anecdotes, quotations, conceits, and mucrones verborum, and then with an eye to the anthology, proceeded to set down ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’.
It must be admitted it reads remarkably well. The sentences are brave and brief at first inspection: you mistake terseness of language for condensation of thought. But read again. Many examples of this can be found in such an essay as ‘Of Study’. Now turn to Hobbes; but before you do so, open Aubrey and learn the open secret of his style.
‘He was never idle; his thoughts were always working.’
‘He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating, always with this rule, that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time (scilicet a weeke or sometimes a fortnight).’
‘He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a note booke in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entred it into his booke, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it.... Thus that book (the Leviathan) was made.’
In Hobbes the clauses are clean, the sentences jolt, the argument is inevitable. Bacon wrote to display his wit: Hobbes to convince and confute. Bacon invented epigram to coax the public ear; Hobbes found his epigram after he had crystallized his thought. In sum, the difference between the styles of Bacon and Hobbes is to be measured by the difference between ostentation and passionate thought. We can compare Hobbes’s own defence of his style and method.
‘There is nothing I distrust more than my elocution, which nevertheless I am confident, excepting the mischances of the press, is not obscure. That I have neglected the ornament of quoting ancient poets, orators, and philosophers, contrary to the custom of late time, (whether I have done well or ill in it,) proceedeth from my judgement, grounded on many reasons. For first, all truth of doctrine dependeth either upon reason, or upon Scripture; both which give credit to many, but never receive it from any writer. Secondly, the matters in question are not of fact, but of right, wherein there is no place for witnesses. There is scarce any of those old writers that contradicteth not sometimes both himself and others; which makes their testimonies insufficient. Fourthly, such opinions as are taken only upon credit of antiquity, are not intrinsically the judgement of those that cite them, but words that pass, like gaping, from mouth to mouth. Fifthly, it is many times with a fraudulent design that men stick their corrupt doctrine with the cloves of other men’s wit. Sixthly, I find not that the ancients they cite, took it for an ornament, to do the like with those that wrote before them. Seventhly, it is an argument of indigestion, when Greek and Latin sentences unchewed come up again, as they use to do, unchanged. Lastly, though I reverence those men of ancient time, that either have written truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out ourselves; yet to the antiquity itself I think nothing due. For if we will reverence the age, the present is the oldest. If the antiquity of the writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honour is given, were more ancient when they wrote, than I am that am writing. But if it be well considered, the praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead, but from the competition, and mutual envy of the living.’
Aubrey has more to tell us. For instance, about his reading:
‘He had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have knowne no more than other men.’
About his love of ‘ingeniose conversation’:
‘I have heard him say, that at his lord’s house in the country there was a good library, and bookes enough for him, and that his lordship stored the library with what bookes he thought fitt to be bought; but he sayd, the want of learned conversation was a very great inconvenience, and that though he conceived he could order his thinking as well perhaps as another man, yet he found a great defect.’
Studying Hobbes as we do in historical manuals of philosophy, with their extracted systems, we usually fail to recognize how strongly the blood of the controversialist ran in his veins. Yet the Leviathan is first and foremost a controversial episode—a fighting work. Hobbes himself professed regret that his thoughts for those ten years of civil war were so unhinged from the mathematics, but he certainly entered into the quarrel with alacrity. His interests were pre-eminently occupied with ecclesiastical problems. Born in 1588, an Oxford student at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, an indignant witness of the struggle of that age between religion and science, like every honest Englishman he pursued Pope and Jesuit with an undying hate. For the aversion to Rome and the Roman claims there was ample justification. By his Bull of Deposition in 1570 Pope Pius V had challenged the struggle, and rendered the position of English Catholics untenable. From a respected if prohibited faith they became recusants: from recusants, traitors. It was the Papal policy and its indefatigable agents the Jesuits which were to blame. What peace was possible with men who repudiated moral obligations, who hesitated at no crime ad maiorem Dei gloriam? The same dishonesty which covered their actions and their name with infamy for succeeding generations, rendered their apologetic literature the poorest trash and the most immoral stuff that was ever justly consigned to oblivion. Bellarmine and Baronius once were names to conjure with: does any one respect them now? Their only merit is that they called for answer—and some of the answers are among the most precious treasures of English Theology. Hobbes too must break a lance with Bellarmine in the Leviathan. And Hobbes was not the least vigorous or the worst equipped of the English champions.
For indeed Hobbes deserves a place among the Masters in English Theology. Strange company, it may seem. But if Hobbes be read in connexion with the line of great English apologists—apologists for Protestantism and apologists for Anglicanism, it will at once be evident to any unprejudiced mind that the lines of defence and attack on which the Fathers of Anglicanism—Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Laud, Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor—conducted the debate were adopted with a thoroughness all his own by Hobbes. He dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of the divines; sharpened their logic, sounded their inferences, and appended a few corollaries from which they themselves might have shrunk. The theory of a national and autonomous Church outlined by Jewel and compendiously stated by Hooker (‘the prince has power to change the public face of religion’), hardly allowed of clearer definition in Hobbes’s brief chapter on the identity of Church and Commonwealth and the consequences flowing therefrom.
Again, the distinction between the necessary and the variable, fundamentals and non-fundamentals, articles of faith and matters of opinion, was the real principle of the Reformation. For the constant effort of the Roman Church was to extend the list of matters which were de fide, and to minimize the variable element as far as possible. So that, when he asserts and proves that the unum necessarium, the only article of faith, which the Scripture maketh necessary to salvation, is this, that Jesus is the Christ, Hobbes is taking the Anglican position occupied for instance by Chillingworth and Jeremy Taylor. Not that he ever dreamt, as they did, of allowing the antithesis to become the premiss of religious freedom. With him—as with Laud—it drove to an opposite conclusion. If a practice, an opinion, is non-essential, then it is indifferent; if indifferent, then the commonwealth, i.e. the sovereign, must decide. What the rule was did not matter, all that mattered was that a rule there should be.
Once again, Anglican polemics had been constrained to welcome the aid of philology against controversialists who—let us charitably assume in ignorance of Greek—employed texts which were forgeries, and emended those which were not. Jeremy Taylor was more than doubtful as to the value of patristic testimony, and could not away with the Athanasian Creed.
Hobbes goes so far as to subject the whole canon of Scripture to a critical examination, which in its boldness anticipates the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza.
And yet the Church of England always viewed this self-constituted ally with something more than suspicion. His Erastianism was of a type which only Selden and a few lawyers could appreciate. Honest Baillie spoke of him as Hobbes the Atheist; there were those who hinted darkly that he was no other than Antichrist. It is true his views on the Trinity were of a Sabellian complexion; and in one famous passage he was incautious enough to make Moses one of the three persons thereof. In Hobbes’s time Legate and Wightman had been burnt for less. He himself would have made an unwilling martyr. ‘There was a report (and surely true),’ says Aubrey, ‘that in Parliament, not long after the king was settled, (in fact it was 1668), some of the bishops made a motion to have the good old gentleman burnt for a heretique.’ I don’t know that they actually went as far as that, whatever they thought; but certain it is they inquired into his books, that the University of Cambridge in 1669 compelled one Daniel Scargill, Fellow of Corpus Christi, to recant his Hobbism, and that Hobbes himself was grievously alarmed. And with some justice: for despite his eloquent legal defence, I doubt whether the common lawyers would have been deterred from issuing the writ de haeretico comburendo.
Happily the only result was to send up the price of his books—this from the good Pepys, who tried to buy them. What did Pepys think of them?
Hobbes may well have been uncomfortable: he knew, better probably than even the bishops, how thoroughly he deserved to be burnt. With sophistry and sense, with satire and suggestion, he had been fighting, single-handed, in the cause of the lay intellect. ‘When Mr. T. Hobbes was sick in France the divines came to him and tormented him (both Roman Catholic, Church of England, and Geneva). Sayd he to them, “Let me alone or else I will detect all your cheates from Aaron to yourselves.”’ The threatened attack—vivacious, detailed, and precise—was delivered in the last two books of the Leviathan. How thorough the assault was you may judge for yourselves if you will read them; the tone you may estimate from a few illustrations, which may perhaps encourage you to read further.
A good-natured critic will refuse to see in Hobbes anything more than the sturdy Protestant, the stalwart champion of national religion, denouncing with equal emphasis the frauds of priestcraft and the irresponsibility of private judgement. His friends certainly believed that ‘the good old gentleman’ was a sound Christian at heart. He may have been: it is more evident that he was an Erastian. Many of us—most of us in fact—are Erastians with certain limitations: Hobbes was an Erastian without limitations. It is customary to count him among the pioneers of Natural Religion and Rational Theology. For such a view I can find no evidence. Natural Law is indeed the law of reason—found out by reason: but National Religion is not the religion of reason. Nature indeed plants the seeds of religion—fear and ignorance; kingcraft and priest-craft water and tend it. The religion of reason is the religion of the State—and the State bids us captivate our reason. ‘It is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick: which swallowed whole have the virtue to cure; but chewed are for the most part cast up again without effect.’
Hobbes had his bitter jest with his contemporaries, and the whirligig of time has had its revenges. He has suffered much from his opponents, more from his defenders, most from his plagiarists. Oxford once burnt the Leviathan: she now prescribes it to her students; but the prescribed portion is very limited, and there is no reason to suppose that she has ever understood him. It was, after all, a nemesis well deserved. A great partisan by nature, Hobbes became by the sheer force of his fierce, concentrated intellect a master builder in philosophy. The stimulus of opposition roused him to think. He hated error, and therefore, to confute it, he shouldered his way into the very sanctuary of truth. But his hands were not clean, nor his spirit pure; patient research and absolute devotion were not in his nature to give; he never felt the ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’, and resolutely closed his eyes to the high vision. With all his intellectual power he is of the earth earthy; at best the Lydian stone of philosophy, and ‘rare at definitions’.