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THOMAS HOBBES.

Born: 1588, Westport, Wilshire, England

Died: 1679, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, England

Major Works: De Cive (1642), Leviathan (1651), De Corpore (1655), De Homine (1658)

Major Ideas

Knowledge is derived from sense experience and from reason: From sense experience we derive historical knowledge and prudence, and from reason we derive scientific and philosophical knowledge and wisdom.

Scientific or philosophical reason is essentially the same as that which is employed in mathematics, moving from definitions, axioms, and postulates to theorems derived logically from them.

Thought, sensation, memory, and imagination are nothing but a motion of some substance inside our heads; they are generally caused by motions of things outside us; consequently, secondary qualities (such as colors) do not exist in things, but are purely mental events caused by minute motions that stimulate our minds to produce certain sensations.

Only matter exists; there is no such thing as a purely spiritual being: This includes God.

Religion arises out of fear, ignorance, and efforts by rulers to maintain their advantage over their subjects.

Good and evil are simply what people desire or dislike; right and wrong are what are permitted or forbidden by law

Human actions arise out of a desire for self-preservation, and the laws of nature permit any action reasonably intended for that purpose.

Monarchy is the best form of government.

Thomas Hobbes grew up during a time of considerable turmoil in England. His mother said that he was born prematurely because she was terrified at news of the approach of the Spanish Armada and feared an invasion by murderous idolaters. His father, a vicar, was evidently a drunk and had a rather pugnacious disposition. After staying up too late one Saturday night, he fell asleep in the middle of his service the following morning. Upon awakening, he announced to the congregation that clubs were trumps. After becoming involved in a brawl in front of his church with another clergyman, he fled to London and disappeared, leaving his family to fend for themselves. Thomas's education was looked after by a rich uncle, who sent him to Oxford University when Thomas was fourteen years old. He later served as tutor to a wealthy young man, and enjoyed the benefits of a splendid library and foreign travel associated with that position. Hobbes was disenchanted with Aristotelianism even as a student, but became thoroughly con vinced of the inadequacies of Aristotle's philosophy during his visits to the Continent. At the same time, he was introduced to the earth-shaking discoveries of the great scientific and philosophical minds of the time: Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi, Harvey, and Bacon.

Hobbes rejected the theories concerning the nature of things that most ancient and medieval philosophers held. Contrary to the traditional view, he held that common nouns do not represent things. They are merely names that enable people to generalize about individual things that happen to have certain resemblances to one another.

He held that logic is never a source of knowledge as such. Knowledge of the existence of things comes only through sense perception. Logic provides a method for arriving at the relations between things--particularly causal relationships.

Sensations, he believed, are merely the result of the motions of objects pressing upon our sense organs. There is nothing but matter and the motions of material things, both outside our bodies and within them. Thus, even though we may be inclined to think that the images of our imaginations and dreams are immaterial things, that is not the case.

Once an object (for example, a tolling bell or a fluttering moth) has set up a motion within us, creating the sensation of sound or sight, that motion may continue for a considerable time, like the wave of the ocean. With our eyes shut, we may continue to see an image of the thing we have stared at because of the motion it has initiated; and during our sleep, those same motions, more attenuated am "decayed, may give birth to new images. Memory is simply the resonance of an old, fading motion There is a constant interaction between the brain and other parts of the body, so that certain trains of thought (motions within the brain) can either b initiated by stimuli to other parts of the body or lead to arousal of those parts.

Only Matter Exists

It was an essential part of Hobbes's system that there are no disembodied spirits or souls. Only matter exists. He held that the idea of an "incorporeal substance" is self-contradictory Hence, God must be a "most pure, simple, invisible, spirit corporeal."

The properties of things are what determine the sorts of things they are. Most properties, however, are variable, and are simply the effects those things have upon our sense organs and brains. Thus, though we customarily say that an apple is red, the "redness" does not exist in the apple itself--it is merely the effect the apple has on the eyes of a normal person. only qualities that inhere in things themselves are extension (occupancy of a certain amount of space in various directions) and figure (a certain shape). The implication of this is that an objects extension and figure are independent of anyone's perceptions of it but its other qualities are not.

Hobbes attributed man's religious inclinations to fear and ignorance, especially ignorance of the causes of things When people do not understand what brings about good or evil fortune, they tend to make up imaginary causes or to trust the authority of others whom they believe are wise in such matters. When they lack understanding of the causes of things that frighten them, they assume that there must be some invisible power that controls their destinies. Clever men, eager to use any device to control others, have exploited these propensities to superstition to persuade others to obedience, peace, and civility. "The first founders and legislators of commonwealths...have in all places taken care, first, to imprint in their minds a belief that those precepts which they gave concerning religion might not be thought to proceed from their own device but from the dictates of some god or other spirit, or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortals, that their laws might the more easily be rec eived....Secondly, they have had a care to make it believed that the same things were displeasing to the gods which were forbidden by the laws." And finally, they prescribed various ceremonies and festivals by which the gods' anger was supposed to be appeased, thus deflecting from themselves onto their insufficiently observant subjects the blame for defeat in war and for other calamities that might have afflicted their people. Thus the people were "less apt to mutiny against their governors" and being entertained by festivals and rituals in honor of the gods would be kept from "discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the state."

Hobbes believed that all human beings are equal--not in their bodily strength or in their mental capacity but in their vulnerability to being killed by others. The weakest, he said, have strength enough to kill the strongest, and the least intelligent enough practical wisdom to kill the most intelligent. Since all persons want more or less the same things, they are in constant competition. Sometimes this competition is for things that are essential for the preservation of their lives, but at other times it may simply be for what will give them pleasure. If one person has more than others, he may expect his neighbors to unite in order to deprive him, "not only of the fruit of his labor, but also of his life or liberty."

People are inclined to fight with one another to gain what they do not yet have or to protect what they do have against others who want to take it from them, and sometimes simply for glory, for "trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue."

The War of All Against All

Thus, as long as there is no common power to maintain order, all people are in a state of war with one another-a war of all against all. This war exists even when no arms are being employed; it is a kind of cold war, in which everyone is in constant danger from everyone else and constantly apprehensive about that danger. This situation, which Hobbes calls the state of nature, is such that no one can trust anyone else, and everyone is in constant fear of violent death. Consequently, none of the benefits of civilization are possible in that state-no agriculture, no education, no exports or imports, no society, and, worst of all, "the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Put in another way, the state of nature is one in which there is no government, no law, no sense of right and wrong. It is a state of anarchy, in which everyone has a right to anything, even to another's body. Where there is no law, there is no right or wrong, no justice or injustice. Everything is permitted because there is no force, except each individual's own ability, to stop anyone from doing anything he or she pleases.

Hobbes maintains that all persons have a natural liberty or right to do whatever is necessary, in their own judgment, to preserve themselves. Reason leads to certain Jaws of nature that forbid a person to do anything that may be self-destructive or to omit doing anything that may preserve oneself. From this, Hobbes writes, it follows that everyone ought to seek peace. Because life in the state of nature is so precarious, it is necessary to do whatever one can to get out of that state and into a safer one. To get out of the state of nature, which is a state of war, it is necessary to seek peace.

Law and the Social Contract

Since the state of nature is one in which there is no law, it follows that a state of peace must be one in which there is law. And since a state in which there is law is one in which people do not have a right to all things (for law imposes duties on people and places restrictions on them), in order to get out of the state of nature it is necessary for each person to give up some of the rights he or she has and assume some obligations.

This is not to say that people should give up all of their rights, for Hobbes makes it clear that some rights are inalienable-that is, cannot be given to anyone else. The rights of life, liberty, and having "the means of so preserving life as not to be weary of it" are inalienable, for they are the very purpose for which other rights are given up.

Therefore, Hobbes says, people should enter into a social contract, a voluntary agreement in which each person gives up certain rights on the condition that others do so as well. No contract, however, has any meaning unless there is someone to enforce it. Consequently, the contracting parties must agree with one another to appoint or elect some person whose duty it will be to enforce the conditions of their agreement. Once this is done, that person is known as the sovereign, and the others are the subjects. it is important to remember that the contract is between the subjects and that the sovereign is not a party to it. The sovereign remains outside the contract, for his task is to enforce the agreement. If the sovereign were a party to the contract, it would be necessary to find another person to enforce the agreement between the "sovereign" and the subjects. Since this leads to an infinite regress, Hobbes avoids it by leaving the sovereign in the state of nature. Thus, the sovereign can commit no injustice , for injustice is a violation of the law and the sovereign is not subject to the law.

Sovereigns have a wide range of powers, according to Hobbes, and they cannot forfeit them since they cannot breach a covenant they have never entered into. Hobbes was firmly opposed to any separation of powers. Lie argued that the best government is one in which the sovereign enjoys the powers of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, for it is the most efficient and the most stable, so long as the sovereign remains physically and mentally fit. Hobbes believed that one of the most important of the sovereign's powers is the power of censorship, for actions proceed from opinions, and if peace is to reign, it is essential that subversive opinions be repressed.

Finally, Hobbes believed that the sovereign should have the power to punish wrongdoers. Moreover, Hobbes's conception of punishment was rather specific. He argued that penalties must be carefully designed to fulfill a specific purpose: "that the will of men may thereby the better be disposed to obedience." Thus, a penalty that is too light would be nothing more than a fee for the privilege of committing a wrong, while the imposition of one that is too heavy Hobbes characterized as an act of hostility. In any case, he believed that the aim of punishment is not revenge, but deterrence--a far cry from the theory advocated a century later by Immanuel Kant, who believed that the only morally acceptable justification for punishment is retribution.

It is appropriate to conclude by noting that Hobbes anticipated many of the major principles that went into the founding of the American republic, including not only the doctrine of inalienable rights, but also such a specific right as the right not to be compelled to testify against oneself, incorporated into the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless, Hobbes was no believer in democracy. On the contrary, he was a powerful and consistent advocate of a virtually unlimited monarchy He did not place a high value on personal liberty. Efficiency, law and order, and above all the preservation of peace are the principal aims of good government. Hobbes did not believe that freedom of the press, freedom of speech, or even freedom of religion are necessary constituents of individual happiness. More important than all of these is the preservation of the state itself and the struggle to avoid slipping back into the state of nature, that dreadful situation in which everyone is at war with everyone else.

Further Reading

Brown, K. C. Hobbes Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. This volume contains some exceptionally fine discussions of various aspects of Hobbes's philosophy by some outstanding Hobbesian scholars, including Leo Strauss, A. E. Taylor, Stuart M. Brown, Jr., John Plamenatz, Howard Warrender, and others. Among the topics considered are Hobbes's analysis of "liberty," his views on God, his political theories, and his theory of punishment. In addition, there are extended discussions of the Taylor thesis, that Hobbes's ethical theory is logically independent of his egoistic psychological theory, and the Warrender thesis (see below).

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Age of Louis XIV, The Story of Civilization, vol. 8. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963. Chapter 20 on English philosophy contains a brief but excellent summary of Hobbes's life and thought, written in the Durants' usual lucid style.

Flew, A. G. N. "Hobbes." D. J. O'Connor, A Critical History of Western Philosophy. New York: Free Press, 1964. This is in every way the best all-around short introduction to Hobbes that one is likely to find. It is well-organized, well-written, and quite thorough, containing a good summary of Hobbes's major works and of his principal theories on matter, metaphysics, language, liberty, and politics. Flew places each of these theories in its historical context, gives helpful accounts with generous quotations from Hobbes's contemporary critics, and adds an insightful critique of his own.

Peters, Richard. Hobbes. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1956. An excellent introduction to Hobbes's life and thought. Peters is a distinguished philosopher himself. He writes clearly, intelligently, perceptively, and critically.

Warrender, Howard. The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957. An extremely influential and controversial book, thorough, fascinating, and well written. Warrender's thesis is that according to Hobbes, people are obliged to obey the laws of nature even in the state of nature, for they are God's commands, and that it is only because they are God's commands that people can bind themselves by a valid covenant to obey a human ruler.
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Author:LEISER, BURTON M.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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