Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher whose work emphasized society and politics. He’s often described as the founder of modern political philosophy, although some attribute that honor to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).
Hobbes makes a distinction between knowing that God is and knowing what God is. From this, the Catholic scholar Fr. Frederic Coppleston says it’s misleading to say that Hobbes is an atheist, even though many still do.
Hobbes was, in fact, embroiled in controversy from ongoing accusations of being an atheist and, by implication, a heretic. His fear of being found guilty of the latter charge compelled him to burn some of his writings and study, very carefully, the existing laws of his day.
Fortunately, King Charles II liked Hobbes. Hobbes had taught the future King, and the monarch Charles played a role in keeping Hobbes safe.
The king was important in protecting Hobbes when, in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness. That same year, on 17 October 1666, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred “should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness… in particular… the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan“¹
The debate continues to this day, nobody really knowing how Hobbes stood on the point of God’s existence.
In his seminal work, Leviathan (1651), Hobbes study of the commonwealth deals mostly with civil philosophy. And civil philosophy itself has two forms: ethics (relating to the individual) and politics (relating to society).
Hobbes also imagines what society would be like without a governing body. In so doing he distinguishes two types of bodies, the natural body and the commonwealth.
The natural body is, so Hobbes envisions, what life would be like without a political system.
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.²
In Leviathan Hobbes spells out his belief that human beings are rational and, above all, seeking self-preservation. If left to our natural devices, however, we would become ruthless power seekers, each seeking to gratify his or her own interests, culminating in countless wars. Because this kind of existence would be intolerable, human beings agree to submit their individual wills to a Sovereign.
Not a few writers say that Hobbes claims that life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” but they obviously haven’t done their homework. As noted, Hobbes describes life this way when estimating what things would be like without any government. Left to its natural state, mankind would be beastly. But politics apparently saves us.
Hobbes also maintains that the knowledge gained from philosophizing brings personal power. This could be seen as foreshadowing the 2oth century thinker Michel Foucault’s idea that “knowledge is power.” Both Hobbes and Foucault believe that power should be expressed through social action.
But unlike Hobbes, Foucault also says that “power is knowledge,” meaning that those with more social power have a greater ability to impose their particular norms and values on the rest of society; and society is composed of people who, in many instances, would rather abide by a different set of norms and values.
By way of contrast, Hobbes says that power gained from knowledge should be applied to the common good, a perspective which, in the 20th century, Foucault might have regarded as simplistic or, at least, idealistic.
² Leviathan XIII “Chapter XIII.: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery.” http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=585&layout=html#chapter_89842
- How Google & Facebook May Have Taught Us About Hobbes (gameofroles.wordpress.com)
- Foucault and Hobbes on Politics, Security, and War (2011) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- Hobbes Leviathan: Analysis of Human Behaviour (socyberty.com)
- Hobbes’ Leviathan and the absolute Sovereign (theedexperience.wordpress.com)
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- What Is a State, and What Are Its Powers? (anationbeguiled.wordpress.com)
- Really, Hobbes? (gameofroles.wordpress.com)