Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: I.VIII-IX

One must speak clearly and simply or run the risk of being considered a mad man.


Having briefly touched on faith in VII, Hobbes now turns his full attention to an analysis of the intellect, its functions, and the virtues we associate with it. This, in turn, means we get our first glimpse of Hobbes on the nature and qualities of virtue:

Virtue, generally, in all sorts of subjects, is somewhat that is valued for eminence, and consisteth in comparison. For if all things were equally in all men, nothing would be prized. (VIII.1)

If everyone were equally courageous, we could not reasonably have a category for “courage” as a virtue any more than we could have a category for “breathing” as a virtue. More than being rare, however, virtues are “valued for eminence,” which as the editor’s definition points out carries the idea that in order to be a virtue, a rare quality must not be merely “present” in an individual, it must be undeniably and greatly on display. In this sense, we might think of “courage” not just as what the average soldier has, but as what that rare soldier has who manages to impress even his comrades in arms by his bravery.

Hobbes suggests that there are two sorts of intellectual virtues: natural and acquired. We have to be a little bit careful here, because Hobbes has something of an idiosyncratic definition of each of these:

By natural I mean not that which a man hath from his birth… But I mean that wit which is gotten by use only, and experience, without method, culture, or instruction. This Natural Wit consisteth principlally in two things: celerity of imagining… and steady direction to some approved end. (VIII.2)

In other words, when Hobbes discusses the virtue of “natural intelligence” he doesn’t mean the student who quickly catches on to what Kant, Aristotle, or Heidegger are getting at. Rather, he means something akin to Aristotle’s common sense. That is, there are some individuals who without any formal education at all are highly competent individuals and manage to do a good job in everything they put their hand to.

This particular virtue has its source, as we should expect, in the passions. Hobbes suggests that we all have some combination of two things at work in our minds with respect to natural intelligence: fancy and judgment. Both of these have their place, though Hobbes does admit that judgment is something of a higher faculty than fancy, since it can be a virtue by itself. People of high natural intelligence will instinctively know how to temper their fancy and channel it into constructive directions. People of low natural intelligence (or even those who lack it all together) will be the sorts who let their fancy run wild. At the extreme we even find that

a great fancy is one kind of madness… [such] that entering into any discourse, [they] are snatched from their purpose by everything that comes in their thought, into so many and so long digressions and parentheses that they utterly lose themselves… (VIII.3)

Hobbes further explores the balanced relationship between fancy and judgment with an aside about how some styles of writing require more fancy and less judgment (e.g., epic poetry), and others more judgment and less fancy (such as history). The point is, some individuals naturally balance this well—when they use this natural intelligence for good we call them “prudent,” and when they use their abilities dishonestly we call them “crafty.” We should be sure to notice how Hobbes has subtly—or perhaps not so subtly—separated the virtue from the function of the mind.

What then of acquired intelligence?

As for acquired wit (I mean acquired by method and instruction), there is none but reason, which is grounded on the right use of speech, and produceth the sciences. (VIII.13)

Since Hobbes has already discussed reason and science in previous chapters, he moves on to the source of the difference between natural and acquired intelligence:

The causes of this difference of wits are in the passions; and that difference of passions proceedeth, partly from the different constitution of the body, and partly from different education. (VIII.14)

This is the only way Hobbes thinks we can explain the differences between human beings: we are shaped both by nature and by nurture. This explains the diversity we find in the world which cannot be explained by nature alone.

And yet, while there is diversity, there is also unity in that all mankind are driven by the same thing:

The passions that most of all cause the differences of wit are principally: the more or less desire of power, of riches, of knowledge, and of honour. All which may be reduced to the first, that is, desire of power…. For the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies, to range abroad and find the way to the things desired; all steadiness of the mind’s motion, and all quickness of the same, proceeding from thence. (VIII.15-16)

What is it that ultimately drives our intelligence? The desire for power. This is the end that is the focus of both natural and acquired intelligence, and anyone who does not have this desire is intellectually deficient—Hobbes uses the word “dull.” On the other hand, there are those who have specific passions which are more extreme than the common course of mankind—these individuals we say are insane, or “mad.” Such individuals are to those with intellectual virtue what Plato’s tyrant is to the philosopher king: the inverse or negative picture. Just as the virtuous individual will stand eminently above the crowd for his rare character and ability to achieve what we all desire, in exactly the same way the madman will stand out as an aberration who pursues what no one else wants. Or to say it in a slightly different way, he pursues what we all want with passions that we believe to be counterproductive to the stated ends. To give just one of Hobbes’s many examples, we could consider the difference between religious inspiration and revelation. Hobbes says that the former is when an individual believes something that begins in his own mind and then is externalized:

[Inspiration] called commonly “private spirit,” begins very often from some lucky finding of an error generally held by others, and not knowing, or not remembering, by what conduct of reason they came to so singular a truth…. they presently admire themselves, as being in the special grace of God Almighty, who hath revealed the same to them supernaturally, by his Spirit. (VIII.22)

The latter, such revelation as came to Moses or Abraham, is not a voice inside ourselves at all but an external speaking to the listening prophet or patriarch. When God speaks to His people, according to Hobbes, He spoke not “in them, but to them… not [by] possession, but [by] command” (VIII.25). The madman is the person who listens to himself and hears the voice of God; the believer is the one who hears the spoken Word of God and adjusts his passions—and so the rest of himself—accordingly. One can easily imagine Luther sitting in the background nodding as Hobbes wrote this, whatever his opinion of the rest of Hobbes’s religious reflections might be.

There is much more that could be said here about Hobbes’s religious reflections, particularly on the question of demonic possession and the miraculous healings in the Gospels. But for our purposes we should note that the main sources of madness according to Hobbes are physical defects (which is what Christ was adjusting when he healed people who were “possessed,” according to Hobbes) and poor teaching, particularly teaching based on the works of the Scholastics, who write so densely and with such unclear definitions that Hobbes says the only rational conclusions are that they are wicked or mad or both.

And, Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism aside (we’ll certainly get back to that before the work is finished), there is an important point here. Speech, like the Christian faith, is to be something that can be grasped by everyone. If we are using words in such a way that the average person cannot understand them or are defining the basic doctrines of a faith in such a way that makes them inaccessible to the common man, we may very well be mad or wicked—at least in a religious sense. Now, we might want to add a disclaimer about the state of modern American education and how the “average person” in twenty-first century America is no longer living under the shadow of the British reformers who swore that every farm boy would know the Bible better than the pope, but the basic principle remains sound. If we are not to be judged mad or wicked, we must speak plainly, simply, and correctly in such a way that true communication can take place and good results can be achieved by our words. This is not to say that everything simply stated is true; but it is to say that all truth should be simply stated.

Once we’ve got our intellectual virtues sorted, we’ve got to think about what we are to think about. Which Hobbes does in chapter IX by structuring a hierarchy of knowledge and the sciences. As he has already noted, this is at heart the ability both to have a basic understanding of reality and to be able to project consequences of actions into the future. The chart he provides is useful enough that I won’t go into detail here (this post is too long already anyway). We should simply notice two things in conclusion:

1) That religion is largely left off the list (depending on what we do with the sciences of ethics, rhetoric, and justice), to some extent anticipating Kant’s final separation of faith and reason;

2) That once Hobbes is finished with his discussion of how human passions are shaped (in the next few chapters), we are going to be focusing almost exclusively on “civil” rather than “natural” philosophy.

More on this in the next few weeks.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

2 Responses to “Leviathan: I.VIII-IX”

  1. gabe


    Surprised you did not comment more on Hobbes’ contention that the drive to “power” is the basic predicate for human “action.”
    Considering where ole Hobbesie ends up, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the strength of this assertion.

    • Coyle Neal

      Honestly, I don’t know what I think. I certainly believe that “sin” is the basic predicate for human action, but I don’t know whether that is necessarily synonymous with “power.” Hobbes seems to mean that we long for power to protect ourselves, and I’d suggest that we long for power to be gods. Are those the same thing? It would depend on the moral filters Hobbes and I are each using, but Hobbes goes out of his way not to discuss his moral filters. [shrug] Sorry not to have a clearer answer, but I think the fault is Hobbes’ and not mine.


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