Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: I.XII

Ceiling Civitas Dei (City of God), Entrance of the Cathedral, Aachen, Germany.


Two whole sections of the Leviathan are devoted exclusively to Hobbes’s articulation of the church/state relationship, so when he includes a chapter “Of Religion,” there must be something else going on here. And in fact there is, for in this section Hobbes’s intent is to discuss the origin of religion in general and its place in shaping human passions, rather than the specific nature and role of Christianity that will come up in books III and IV.

As discussed in the last chapter, Hobbes notes that religion has its origin in the fact that human beings (and only human beings—religion is unique to man) desire to know the cause of things, to believe in origins, and to continue the good. When these three aspects of man come together, religion is born. When this religious sense is combined with our ignorance of causes and our fear of that which we do not know and cannot see, belief in spirits and the incorporeal world is born. More specifically, we take something we believe about ourselves and write it into this spiritual world, albeit bigger and more powerful than we know ourselves to be. We then carelessly slap words on these ideas, call them “orthodox dogma,” and are incensed when any dissent. We then assume that the inhabitants of this spiritual world want the kinds of honors we want as humans, and so develop a system of worship that looks remarkably… human. Finally, we begin to use this system to try to fulfill the very passions that created it, that is, our desire for a secure and known future. So prognostication is born:

And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of religion, which by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men hath grown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another. (XII.11)

With all this we can see why the charge of “atheist” gets flung against Hobbes. But so far, Hobbes has made no statement concerning the accuracy of this process, he has merely pointed out what he believes to be the anthropological process by which man becomes religious. In fact, if we were to take the next paragraph in isolation, our conclusion about Hobbes’s personal religion might run in the opposite direction—that of some form of fundamentalism:

For these seeds have received culture from two sorts of men. One sort have been they that have nourished and ordered them according to their own invention. The other have done it by God’s commandment and direction. But both sorts have done it with a purpose to make those men that relied on them the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former is a part of human politics and teacheth part of the duty which earthly kings require of their subjects. And the religion of the latter sort is divine politics, and containeth precepts to those that have yielded themselves subjects in the kingdom of God. Of the former sort were all the founders of commonwealths and the lawgivers of the Gentiles; of the latter sort were Abraham, Moses, and our blessed Saviour, by whom have been derived unto us the laws of the kingdom of God. (XII.12)

This is very close to Augustine’s division between the City of God and the city of man.

Also very like Augustine, Hobbes walks through an outline of how he thinks the founders of the various parts of the city of man (if we can keep using that language—Hobbes uses the title “Gentiles”) used each of the sources of religion to establish and secure their worldly state. As just one example,

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. (XII.20)

And so religion becomes a major factor—indeed, perhaps the essential factor—in the power of the state to shape and form the passions of men.

What about the City of God? Hobbes says that he will get back to that (chapter XXXV), noting here only that 1) God’s kingdom is a discrete place in the world; and 2) “God is king of all the earth by his power; but of his chosen people he is king by covenant” (XII.22).

Once a religion is established, Hobbes puts it under the microscope using the tools he had set up to study power. Reputation, reasonableness, and flexibility become critical to the life of a religion, along with some element of the miraculous. When these are absent, Hobbes thinks a specific religion loses its power and begins to collapse and be replaced with something which offers what it had lost. He gives several examples from Old Testament Israel and from the era of the Reformation. In both instances, the reason, flexibility, reputation, and miraculous surrounding religion were stripped away by vague or impossible doctrines so that everyone could see the naked power grab at work. The result was a general disillusionment with the existing religious authorities. In the case of Israel the legitimate prophets were replaced with a king and so the true religion was temporarily obscured (“they deposed their God from reigning over them,” XII.30). In the case of the Reformation, the corrupt Church of Rome with its incomprehensible Aristotelianism and clear lust for dominion was replaced with the restored Gospel—though Hobbes is quite clear that the Protestant churches are by no means innocent (“unpleasing priests…even in that church that hath presumed most of reformation,” XII.32).

Again, the point here is not to argue for or against any one religion, however much Hobbes clearly has his likes and dislikes. The point is to highlight how religion affects and shapes the passions, and the passions affect and shape religion in the context of civil society. Which in turn sets up for a discussion of basic human nature as the foundation for that society.


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

3 Responses to “Leviathan: I.XII”

  1. gabe

    Although I still view much of Hobbes as *commonplace* one must admit that he does sprinkle in little gems here and there. He is spot-on with the notion of the *miraculous* as an underlying element of successful religion. consider, if you will, the demise of the Mainline Protestant Church(es) in the US. It can be argued that once they decided to become “involved”, politically relevant”, etc. and moved away from a doctrinal approach and the “mystery” of religion, people soon lost interest.
    One thing I used to say to folks was that I was going to once again be a church goer, I would go to the Catholic church – I liked the Latinate mass, the pomp and ceremony and the mystery / miraculous associated with traditional services.
    Having attended in-laws services, it felt as if I were attending a local PTA meeting (no insult intended, just an observation). There is something to be said for “incense and mystery.”

    • Coyle Neal

      Oh, there’s no doubt that most mainline Protestant churches prefer social-feel-goodishness to anything remotely approach truth. (The same can be said for many Catholic Churches.) And there’s no doubt that my own Evangelical world has far to little respect for good church order–though I had to spend eight years at a fairly liturgical Baptist church to really learn to appreciate that point.
      Still, in my more contentions moments I’d point out that the smells, bells, and imperial hierarchy of the Catholic Church are no replacement for the Gospel, and, well, there will be plenty of time for those fights when we get to Book IV. 😛

      Or, to be maybe slightly more irenic (and to get a chance to quote one of Hobbes contemporaries with SOOO much better theology):
      “The first way that Satan tried to cast contempt on the work of the Spirit was by setting up a ministry without the Spirit. This was done by setting up a liturgical service to be read by the minister. No special gift of the Spirit is required to be read by the minister. No special gift of the Spirit is required to do this. So men were set apart to the ministry who had never once ‘tasted of the powers of the world to come’ (Heb. 6:5), nor received any gifts of the Holy Spirit for the work of the ministry. Those who claimed to pray by the Spirit were held in contempt and scorn was poured upon them.
      The second way that Satan tried to cast contempt on the work of the Spirit was by setting up the Spirit without a ministry. In the first case, it was sufficient for the Word to be read without either preaching or praying by the Spirit. Now the Spirit is enough without reading or studying the Word at all. In the first way, Satan allowed a literal embracing of what Christ had done in the flesh. Now he talks of Christ in the Spirit only, and denies that he ever came in the flesh. John warned Christians of this deceit (1 John 4:1).” John Owen, Communion With God, pg 194
      Traditional Catholics err on the side of the former, while modern Evangelicals can lean towards the latter.

      Quotation from this book:
      Communion With God

      • gabe


        The first part of Owen’s commentary (ministerial reading of the Scripture) brought to mind much of the criticism of the ancient Jews who complained (not unjustly) that the covenant was with His people – not with the priests or the King – and proceeded to lambast the powers that be for interfering with the Covenant with God.
        In fact, in S.E. Finer’s opus, “The History of Government from the Earliest Times” he has some rather interesting arguments concerning the effects on various types of political organizations (civilizations) when a State interposes an intermediary function between the people and God.
        I am still digesting it, so I claim no expertise, yet I would note that Hobbes is aware, to some extent, of this problem. Hmmm!!!!!

        This also is an interesting assertion:

        “Traditional Catholics err on the side of the former, while modern Evangelicals can lean towards the latter. ”

        There is a great deal of truth in both propositions and YET, would it not be fair to say that both, in their own way, may conduce to the sense of the mystical / miraculous?

        I think Hobbes and I agree that such a sense is necessary for a functioning religion (as well as a moral society).

        I would add a modern update to Owen.
        The Third Way to vitiate religious sensibility is to “co-opt” it by transforming it into an orgiastic frenzy of shopping with Christmas sales now starting on August 15th in some places. Thus, it becomes this: “Is it Christmas, if you do not get a gift.” Talk about *banal.*

        Anyway, no more from an old curmudgeon – off to harvest some of my blueberries!!!

        take care

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