Hobbes (1588–1679) is a philosopher whom it is difficult to classify. He was an empiricist, like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, but unlike them, he was an admirer of mathematical method, not only in pure mathematics, but in its applications. His general outlook was inspired by Galileo rather than Bacon. From Descartes to Kant, Continental philosophy derived much of its conception of the nature of human knowledge from mathematics, but it regarded mathematics as known independently of experience. It was thus led, like Platonism, to minimize the part played by pure thought. English empiricism, on the other hand, was little influenced by mathematics, and tended to have a wrong conception of scientific method. Hobbes had neither of these defects. It is not until our own day that we find any other philosophers who were empiricists and yet laid due stress on mathematics. In this respect, Hobbes's merit is great. He has, however, grave defects, which make it impossible to place him quite in the first rank. He is impatient of subtleties, and too much inclined to cut the Gordian knot. His solutions of problems are logical, but are attained by omitting awkward facts. He is vigorous, but crude; he wields the battle-axe better than the rapier. Nevertheless, his theory of the State deserves to be carefully considered, the more so as it is more modern than any previous theory, even that of Machiavelli.
Hobbes's father was a vicar, who was ill-tempered and uneducated; he lost his job by quarrelling with a neighbouring vicar at the church door. After this, Hobbes was brought up by an uncle. He acquired a good knowledge of the classics, and translated The Medea of Euripides into Latin iambics at the age of fourteen. (In later life, he boasted, justifiably, that though he abstained from quoting classical poets and orators, this was not from lack of familiarity with their works.) At fifteen, he went to Oxford, where they taught him scholastic logic and the philosophy of Aristotle. These were his bugbears in later life, and he maintained that he had profited little by his years at the university; indeed universities in general are constantly criticized in his writings. In the year 1610, when he was twenty-two years old, he became tutor to Lord Hardwick (afterwards second Earl of Devonshire), with whom he made the grand tour. It was at this time that he began to know the work of Galileo and Kepler, which profoundly influenced him. His pupil became his patron, and remained so until he died in 1628. Through him, Hobbes met Ben Jonson and Bacon and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and many other important men. After the death of the Earl of Devonshire, who left a young son, Hobbes lived for a time in Paris, where he began the study of Euclid; then he became tutor to his former pupil's son. With him he travelled to Italy, where he visited Galileo in 1636. In 1637 he came back to England.
The political opinions expressed in the Leviathan, which were Royalist in the extreme, had been held by Hobbes for a long time. When the Parliament of 1628 drew up the Petition of Right, he published a translation of Thucydides, with the expressed intention of showing the evils of democracy. When the Long Parliament met in 1640, and Laud and Strafford were sent to the Tower, Hobbes was terrified and fled to France. His book, De Cive, written in 1641, though not published till 1647, sets forth essentially the same theory as that of the Leviathan. It was not the actual occurrence of the Civil War that caused his opinions, but the prospect of it; naturally, however, his convictions were strengthened when his fears were realized.
In Paris he was welcomed by many of the leading mathematicians and men of science. He was one of those who saw Descartes' Meditations before they were published, and wrote objections to them, which were printed by Descartes with his replies. He also soon had a large company of English Royalist refugees with whom to associate. For a time, from 1646 to 1648, he taught mathematics to the future Charles II. When, however, in 1651, he published the Leviathan, it pleased no one. Its rationalism offended most of the refugees, and its bitter attacks on the Catholic Church offended the French Government. Hobbes therefore fled secretly to London, where he made submission to Cromwell, and abstained from all political activity.
He was not idle, however, either at this time or at any other during his long life. He had a controversy with Bishop Bramhall on free will; he was himself a rigid determinist. Over-estimating his own capacities as a geometer, he imagined that he had discovered how to square the circle; on this subject he very foolishly embarked on a controversy with Wallis, the professor of geometry at Oxford. Naturally the professor succeeded in making him look silly.
At the Restoration, Hobbes was taken up by the less earnest of the king's friends, and by the king himself, who not only had Hobbes's portrait on his walls, but awarded him a pension of £100 a year—which, however, His Majesty forgot to pay. The Lord Chancellor Clarendon was shocked by the favour shown to a man suspected of atheism, and so was Parliament. After the Plague and the Great Fire, when people's superstitious fears were aroused, the House of Commons appointed a committee to inquire into atheistical writings, specially mentioning those of Hobbes. From this time onwards, he could not obtain leave in England to print anything on controversial subjects. Even his history of the Long Parliament, which he called Behemoth, though it set forth the most orthodox doctrine, had to be printed abroad (1668). The collected edition of his works in 1688 appeared in Amsterdam. In his old age, his reputation abroad was much greater than in England. To occupy his leisure, he wrote, at eighty-four, an autobiography in Latin verse, and published, at eighty-seven, a translation of Homer. I cannot discover that he wrote any large books after the age of eighty-seven.
We will now consider the doctrines of the Leviathan, upon which the fame of Hobbes mainly rests.
He proclaims, at the very beginning of the book, his thorough-going materialism. Life, he says, is nothing but a motion of the limbs, and therefore automata have an artificial life. The commonwealth, which he calls Leviathan, is a creation of art, and is in fact an artificial man. This is intended as more than an analogy, and is worked out in some detail. The sovereignty is an artificial soul. The pacts and covenants by which 'Leviathan' is first created take the place of God's fiat when He said 'Let Us make man'.
The first part deals with man as an individual, and with such general philosophy as Hobbes deems necessary. Sensations are caused by the pressure of objects; colours, sounds, etc., are not in the objects. The qualities in objects that correspond to our sensations are motions. The first law of motion is stated, and is immediately applied to psychology: imagination is a decaying sense, both being motions. Imagination when asleep is dreaming; the religions of the gentiles came of not distinguishing dreams from waking life. (The rash reader may apply the same argument to the Christian religion, but Hobbes is much too cautious to do so himself.1) Belief that dreams are prophetic is a delusion; so is the belief in witchcraft and in ghosts.
The succession of our thoughts is not arbitrary, but governed by laws—sometimes those of association, sometimes those depending upon a purpose in our thinking. (This is important as an application of determinism to psychology.)
Hobbes, as might be expected, is an out-and-out nominalist. There is, he says, nothing universal but names, and without words we could not conceive
any general ideas. Without language, there would be no truth or falsehood, for 'true' and 'false' are attributes of speech.
He considers geometry the one genuine science so far created. Reasoning is of the nature of reckoning, and should start from definitions. But it is necessary to avoid self-contradictory notions in definitions, which is not usually done in philosophy. 'Incorporeal substance', for instance, is nonsense. When it is objected that God is an incorporeal substance, Hobbes has two answers: first, that God is not an object of philosophy; second, that many philosophers have thought God corporeal. All error in general propositions, he says, comes from absurdity (i.e. self-contradiction); he gives as examples of absurdity the idea of free will, and of cheese having the accidents of bread. (We know that, according to the Catholic faith, the accidents of bread can inhere in a substance that is not bread.)
In this passage Hobbes shows an old-fashioned rationalism. Kepler had arrived at a general proposition: 'Planets go round the sun in ellipses'; but other views, such as those of Ptolemy, are not logically absurd. Hobbes has not appreciated the use of induction for arriving at general laws, in spite of his admiration for Kepler and Galileo.
As against Plato, Hobbes holds that reason is not innate, but is developed by industry.
He comes next to a consideration of the passions. 'Endeavour' may be defined as a small beginning of motion; if towards something, it is desire, and if away from something it is aversion. Love is the same as desire, and hate is the same as aversion. We call a thing 'good' when it is an object of desire, and 'bad' when it is an object of aversion. (It will be observed that these definitions give no objectivity to 'good' and 'bad'; if men differ in their desires, there is no theoretical method of adjusting their differences.) There are definitions of various passions, mostly based on a competitive view of life; for instance, laughter is sudden glory. Fear of invisible power, if publicly allowed, is religion; if not allowed, superstition. Thus the decision as to what is religion and what superstition rests with the legislator. Felicity involves continual progress; it consists in prospering, not in having prospered; there is no such thing as a static happiness—excepting, of course, the joys of heaven, which surpass our comprehension.
Will is nothing but the last appetite or aversion remaining in deliberation. That is to say, will is not something different from desire and aversion, but merely the strongest in a case of conflict. This is connected, obviously, with Hobbes's denial of free will.
Unlike most defenders of despotic government, Hobbes holds that all men are naturally equal. In a state of nature, before there is any government, every man desires to preserve his own liberty, but to acquire dominion over others; both these desires are dictated by the impulse to self-preservation. From their conflict arises a war of all against all, which makes life 'nasty, brutish, and short'. In a state of nature, there is no property, no justice or injustice; there is only war, and 'force and fraud are, in war, the two cardinal virtues'.
The second part tells how men escape from these evils by combining into communities each subject to a central authority. This is represented as happening by means of a social contract. It is supposed that a number of people come together and agree to choose a sovereign, or a sovereign body, which shall exercise authority over them and put an end to the universal war. I do not think this 'covenant' (as Hobbes usually calls it) is thought of as a definite historical event; it is certainly irrelevant to the argument to think of it as such. It is an explanatory myth, used to explain why men submit, and should submit, to the limitations on personal freedom entailed in submission to authority. The purpose of the restraint men put upon themselves, says
Hobbes, is self-preservation from the universal war resulting from our love of liberty for ourselves and of dominion over others. Hobbes considers the question why men cannot co-operate like ants and bees. Bees in the same hive, he says, do not compete; they have no desire for honour; and they do not use reason to criticize the government. Their agreement is natural, but that of men can only be artificial, by covenant. The covenant must confer power on one man or one assembly, since otherwise it cannot be enforced. 'Covenants, without the sword, are but words.' (President Wilson unfortunately forgot this.) The covenant is not, as afterwards in Locke and Rousseau, between the citizens and the ruling power; it is a covenant made by the citizens with each other to obey such ruling power as the majority shall choose. When they have chosen, their political power is at an end. The minority is as much bound as the majority, since the covenant was to obey the government chosen by the majority. When the government has been chosen, the citizens lose all rights except such as the government may find it expedient to grant. There is no right of rebellion, because the ruler is not bound by any contract, whereas the subjects are.
A multitude so united is called a commonwealth. This 'Leviathan' is a mortal God.
Hobbes prefers monarchy, but all his abstract arguments are equally applicable to all forms of government in which there is one supreme authority not limited by the legal rights of other bodies. He could tolerate Parliament alone, but not a system in which governmental power is shared between King and Parliament. This is the exact antithesis to the views of Locke and Montesquieu. The English Civil War occurred, says Hobbes, because power was divided between King, Lords, and Commons.
The supreme power, whether a man or an assembly, is called the Sovereign. The powers of the sovereign, in Hobbes's system, are unlimited. He has the right of censorship over all expression of opinion. It is assumed that his main interest is the preservation of internal peace, and that therefore he will not use the power of censorship to suppress truth, for a doctrine repugnant to peace cannot be true. (A singularly pragmatist view!) The laws of property are to be entirely subject to the sovereign; for in a state of nature there is no property, and therefore property is created by government, which may control its creation as it pleases.
It is admitted that the sovereign may be despotic, but even the worst despotism is better than anarchy. Moreover, in many points the interests of the sovereign are identical with those of his subjects. He is richer if they are richer, safer if they are law-abiding, and so on. Rebellion is wrong, both because it usually fails, and because, if it succeeds, it sets a bad example, and teaches others to rebel. The Aristotelian distinction between tyranny and monarchy is rejected; a 'tyranny', according to Hobbes, is merely a monarchy that the speaker happens to dislike.
Various reasons are given for preferring government by a monarch to government by an assembly. It is admitted that the monarch will usually follow his private interest when it conflicts with that of the public, but so will an assembly. A monarch may have favourites, but so may every member of an assembly; therefore the total number of favourites is likely to be fewer under a monarchy. A monarch can hear advice from anybody secretly; an assembly can only hear advice from its own members, and that publicly. In an assembly, the chance absence of some may cause a different party to obtain the majority, and thus produce a change of policy. Moreover, if the assembly is divided against itself, the result may be civil war. For all these reasons, Hobbes concludes, a monarchy is best.
Throughout the Leviathan, Hobbes never considers the possible effect of periodical elections in curbing the tendency of assemblies to sacrifice the public interest to the private interest of their members. He seems, in fact, to be thinking, not of democratically elected Parliaments, but of bodies like the Grand Council in Venice or the House of Lords in England. He conceives democracy, in the manner of antiquity, as involving the direct participation of every citizen in legislation and administration; at least, this seems to be his view.
The part of the people, in Hobbes's system, ends completely with the first choice of a sovereign. The succession is to be determined by the sovereign, as was the practice in the Roman Empire when mutinies did not interfere. It is admitted that the sovereign will usually choose one of his own children, or a near relative if he has no children, but it is held that no law ought to prevent him from choosing otherwise.
There is a chapter on the liberty of subjects, which begins with an admirably precise definition: liberty is the absence of external impediments to motion. In this sense, liberty is consistent with necessity; for instance, water necessarily flows down hill when there are no impediments to its motion, and when, therefore, according to the definition, it is free. A man is free to do what he wills, but necessitated to do what God wills. All our volitions have causes, and are in this sense necessary. As for the liberty of subjects, they are free where the laws do not interfere; this is no limitation of sovereignty, since the laws could interfere if the sovereign so decided. Subjects have no rights as against the sovereign, except what the sovereign voluntarily concedes. When David caused Uriah to be killed, he did no injury to Uriah because Uriah was his subject; but he did an injury to God, because he was God's subject and was disobeying God's law.
The ancient authors, with their praises of liberty, have led men, according to Hobbes, to favour tumults and seditions. He maintains that, when they are rightly interpreted, the liberty they praised was that of sovereigns, i.e. liberty from foreign domination. Internal resistance to sovereigns he condemns even when it might seem most justified. For example, he holds that St Ambrose had no right to excommunicate the Emperor Theodosius after the massacre of Thessalonica. And he vehemently censures Pope Zachary for having helped to depose the last of the Merovingians in favour of Pepin.
He admits, however, one limitation on the duty of submission to sovereigns. The right of self-preservation he regards as absolute, and subjects have the right of self-defence, even against monarchs. This is logical, since he has made self-preservation the motive for instituting government. On this ground he holds (though with limitations) that a man has a right to refuse to fight when called upon by the government to do so. This is a right which no modern government concedes. A curious result of his egoistic ethic is that resistance to the sovereign is only justified in self-defence; resistance in defence of another is always culpable.
There is one other quite logical exception: a man has no duty to a sovereign who has not the power to protect him. This justified Hobbes's submission to Cromwell while Charles II was in exile.
There must, of course, be no such bodies, as political parties or what we should now call trade unions. All teachers are to be ministers of the sovereign, and are to teach only what the sovereign thinks useful. The rights of property are only valid as against other subjects, not as against the sovereign. The sovereign has the right to regulate foreign trade. He is not subject to the civil law. His right to punish comes to him, not from any concept of justice, but because he retains the liberty that all men had in the state of nature, when no man could be blamed for inflicting injury on another.
There is an interesting list of the reasons (other than foreign conquest) for the dissolution of commonwealths. These are: giving too little power to the sovereign; allowing private judgment in subjects; the theory that everything that is against conscience is sin; the belief in inspiration; the doctrine that the sovereign is subject to civil laws; the recognition of absolute private property; division of the sovereign power; imitation of the Greeks and Romans; separation of temporal and spiritual powers; refusing the power of taxation to the sovereign; the popularity of potent subjects; and the liberty of disputing with the sovereign. Of all these, there were abundant instances in the then recent history of England and France.
There should not, Hobbes thinks, be much difficulty in teaching people to believe in the rights of the sovereign, for have they not been taught to believe in Christianity, and even in transubstantiation, which is contrary to reason? There should be days set apart for learning the duty of submission. The instruction of the people depends upon right teaching in the universities, which must therefore be carefully supervised. There must be uniformity of worship, the religion being that ordained by the sovereign.
Part II ends with the hope that some sovereign will read the book and make himself absolute—a less chimerical hope than Plato's, that some king would turn philosopher. Monarchs are assured that the book is easy reading and quite interesting.
Part III, 'Of a Christian Commonwealth', explains that there is no universal Church, because the Church must depend upon the civil government. In each country, the king must be head of the Church; the Pope's overlordship and infallibility cannot be admitted. It argues, as might be expected, that a Christian who is a subject of a non-Christian sovereign should yield outwardly, for was not Naaman suffered to bow himself in the house of Rimmon?
Part IV, 'Of the Kingdom of Darkness', is mainly concerned with criticism of the Church of Rome, which Hobbes hates because it puts the spiritual power above the temporal. The rest of this part is an attack on 'vain philosophy', by which Aristotle is usually meant.
Let us now try to decide what we are to think of the Leviathan. The question is not easy, because the good and the bad in it are so closely intermingled.
In politics, there are two different questions, one as to the best form of the State, the other as to its powers. The best form of State, according to Hobbes, is monarchy, but this is not the important part of his doctrine. The important part is his contention that the powers of the State should be absolute. This doctrine, or something like it, had grown up in Western Europe during the Renaissance and the Reformation. First, the feudal nobility were cowed by Louis XI, Edward IV, Ferdinand and Isabella, and their successors. Then the Reformation, in Protestant countries, enabled the lay government to get the better of the Church. Henry VIII wielded a power such as no earlier English king had enjoyed. But in France the Reformation, at first, had the opposite effect; between the Guises and the Huguenots, the kings were nearly powerless. Henry IV and Richelieu, not long before Hobbes wrote, had laid the foundations of the absolute monarchy which lasted in France till the Revolution. In Spain, Charles V had got the better of the Cortes, and Philip II was absolute except in relation to the Church. In England, however, the Puritans had undone the work of Henry VIII; their work suggested to Hobbes that anarchy must result from resistance to the sovereign.
Every community is faced with two dangers, anarchy and despotism. The Puritans, especially the Independents, were most impressed by the danger of despotism. Hobbes, on the contrary having experienced the conflict of rival fanaticisms, was obsessed by the fear of anarchy. The liberal philosophers who arose after the Restoration, and acquired control after 1688, realized both dangers; they disliked both Strafford and the Anabaptists. This led Locke to the doctrine of division of powers, and of checks and balances. In England there was a real division of powers so long as the King had influence; then Parliament became supreme, and ultimately the Cabinet. In America, there are still checks and balances in so far as Congress and the Supreme Court can resist the Administration. In Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, the government has had even more power than Hobbes thought desirable. On the whole, therefore, as regards the powers of the State, the world has gone as Hobbes wished, after a long liberal period during which, at least apparently, it was moving in the opposite direction. In spite of the outcome of the present war, it seems evident that the functions of the State must continue to increase, and that resistance to it must grow more and more difficult.
The reason that Hobbes gives for supporting the State, namely that it is the only alternative to anarchy, is in the main a valid one. A State may, however, be so bad that temporary anarchy seems preferable to its continuance, as in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1917. Moreover, the tendency of every government towards tyranny cannot be kept in check unless governments have some fear of rebellion. Governments would be worse than they are if Hobbes's submissive attitude were universally adopted by subjects. This is true in the political sphere, where governments will try, if they can, to make themselves personally irremovable; it is true in the economic sphere, where they will try to enrich themselves and their friends at the public expense; it is true in the intellectual sphere, where they will suppress every new discovery or doctrine that seems to menace their power. These are reasons for not thinking only of the risk of anarchy, but also of the danger of injustice and ossification that is bound up with omnipotence in government.
The merits of Hobbes appear most clearly when he is contrasted with earlier political theorists. He is completely free from superstition; he does not argue from what happened to Adam and Eve at the time of the Fall. He is clear and logical; his ethics, right or wrong, is completely intelligible, and does not involve the use of any dubious concepts. Apart from Machiavelli, who is much more limited, he is the first really modern writer on political theory. Where he is wrong, he is wrong from over-simplification, not because the basis of his thought is unreal and fantastic. For this reason, he is still worth refuting.
Without criticizing Hobbes's metaphysics or ethics, there are two points to make against him. The first is that he always considers the national interest as a whole, and assumes, tacitly, that the major interests of all citizens are the same. He does not realize the importance of the clash between different classes, which Marx makes the chief cause of social change. This is connected with the assumption that the interests of a monarch are roughly identical with those of his subjects. In time of war there is a unification of interests, especially if the war is fierce; but in time of peace the clash may be very great between the interests of one class and those of another. It is not by any means always true that, in such a situation, the best way to avert anarchy is to preach the absolute power of the sovereign. Some concession in the way of sharing power may be the only way to prevent civil war. This should have been obvious to Hobbes from the recent history of England.
Another point in which Hobbes's doctrine is unduly limited is in regard to the relations between different States. There is not a word in Leviathan to suggest any relation between them except war and conquest, with occasional interludes. This follows, on his principles, from the absence of an international government, for the relations of States are still in a state of nature, which is that of a war of all against all. So long as there is international anarchy, it is by no means clear that increase of efficiency in the separate States is in the interest of mankind, since it increases the ferocity and destructiveness of war. Every argument that he adduces in favour of government, in so far as it is valid at all, is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction.