Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXIV

“Jacob’s Dream” by Giorgio Vasari, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.


We have already seen the great importance Hobbes gives words and their definitions. In chapter XXXIV he explores the various theological meanings of words necessary to understanding the Kingdom of God. These definitions, he notes,

in the doctrine following dependeth not (as in natural science) on the will of the writer, nor (as in common conversation) on vulgar use, but on the sense they carry in the Scripture… (XXXIV.1)

Specifically, Hobbes examines the words that are of a more heavenly nature, including “spirit,” “angel,” and “inspiration.”

“Spirit,” in the way we regularly use the word, is usually set in opposition to “body.” That is, we think that things we can see and touch have physical substance and so are called “bodies”; while the things which we know exist but have no physical substance are called “spirit.” The crasser sorts of common people might even go so far, Hobbes thinks, as to call such substances as “wind” and “breath” by the name of “spirits,” since they in a technical sense cannot be directly seen. When we are especially careless with our words, we thoughtlessly use phrases like “possessed with a spirit” when what we really mean is “insane” (XXXIX.3).

None of these definitions, whether the more sophisticated contrast with body or the more plebeian contrast with visible things, in Hobbes’s opinion, “can satisfy the sense of that word [spirit] in Scripture” (XXXIV.4). Instead, what we know is that

The word body, in the most general acceptation, signifieth that which filleth or occupieth some certain room or imagined place, and depeneth not on the imagination, but is a real part of that we call the universe. For the universe, being the aggregate of all bodies, there is no real part thereof that is not also body, nor anything properly a body that is not also part of… the universe. (XXXIV.2)

Where, then, does God fit in? Is Hobbes arguing that God is a part of the material universe? Not exactly, though that accusation does get leveled—as does the charge of atheism. Yet Hobbes doesn’t go so far. Instead, he says

For the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is; and therefore, the attributes we give him are not to tell one another what he is, nor to signify our opinion of his nature, but our desire to honour him with such names as we conceive most honorable amongst ourselves. (XXXIV.4)

In this extreme existentialist view, Hobbes argues that once we go beyond the physical world and try to understand the nature of God, we have entered the incomprehensible realm of faith where rather than relying on the guidance of our reason we must simply bow our heads in submission. This is especially the case, Hobbes argues, given that scripture uses the phrase “spirit” to mean many things, including:

1) The effects of God’s will on the natural world—especially on the wind (XXXIV.5);
2) Inspired understanding and exceptional skill, including in trades and crafts (XXXIV.6);
3) Great religious zeal (XXXIV.7);
4) The ability to prophesy the future (XXXIV.8–9);
5) Life as opposed to death (XXXIV.10);
6) Legitimate authority (XXXIV.11–14);
7) An “aerial body,” by which Hobbes seems to mean a physical body composed of solidified air. Not a ghost in the popular sense, but a being which has enough matter to it that light reflects off of it and can be perceived by our eyes (XXXIV.15).

All of these, again, by contrast with the popular definition which Hobbes thinks is simply incoherent—”substance incorporeal are words which, when they are joined together, destroy one another…” (XXXIV.2). Besides that, this sort of idea does not seem to “satisfy the sense of that word [spirit] in Scripture” (XXXIV.4). “Is God a body or a spirit?” is a question which, for Hobbes, is unanswerable through reason and so must be embraced in faith.

If we can’t affirm rationally that God is an unbodied spirit, it makes sense that Hobbes is going to have a word or two to say about angels as well. Specifically,

By the name of Angel is signified generally, a messenger, and most often, a messenger of God; and by a messenger of God is signified, anything that makes known his extraordinary presence, that is to say, the extraordinary manifestation of his power, especially by a dream or vision. (XXXIX.16)

Hobbes correctly notes that the Bible has little to say about the creation or nature of angels, focusing instead on their function and only referencing them as “spirits.” But by that, Hobbes suggests we don’t want to incorporate [heh heh] Greek ideas about substanceless beings into Christian theology. The Bible according to Hobbes treats angels either as actual physical beings with the ability to help or harm in the real world, “permanent creatures of God,” as real-world substances being used to pass information along, or as communications between God and the imagination of men (XXXIV.18, 20). So the cloud and pillar of fire that followed the Israelites out of Egypt acted as an “angel” in the strictest sense of the word, but were also a cloud and a pillar of fire with dimension and divisible characteristics. The dream that Jacob had of angels on the ladder to heaven was just that, a dream acting as a messenger directly from God to Jacob. If there are actual angels, as we see in Ezekiel or Daniel, then Hobbes would say that they are creatures of dimension and mass. If you or I bumped into them we would fall down. Or be incinerated.

And so if everything that exists has a body, we have to reconsider the word “inspiration.” It must have meaning, but that meaning cannot be “a non-corporeal spirit infusing our bodies,” since by definition Hobbes has argued that there are no noncorporeal anythings (aside from God, maybe). Rather, we should understand “inspiration” to be a metaphorical description of what God does physically to His people. So when believers receive the Holy Spirit, that is “a sign of the spiritual graces he gave unto them” (XXXIV.25). When the Holy Spirit was said to “fall” at Pentecost, that wasn’t like water being poured into a bucket. It was instead

an external sign of God’s special working on their hearts, to effect in them the internal graces and holy virtues he thought requisite for the performance of their apostleship. (XXXIV.26)

So where does all of this leave us? While Hobbes certainly has an idiosyncratic view of scripture and the natural world, is it openly heretical? If Hobbes showed up at my church on Sunday and applied for membership, would he be allowed to join? His retreat into mystery combined with his insistence on reading the natural into the supernatural is certainly troubling from the perspective of traditional Christian theology. And yet, Hobbes is standing at the beginning of a way of interpreting the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world that will be embraced by figures like John Locke, Isaac Newton, Cotton Mather, and to a lesser extent Nicolas MalebrancheJonathan Edwards, and (later than the rest) Immanuel Kant. While none of these individuals could be called Hobbesean in their political theory, some are perfectly orthodox theologians and some are perfectly respectable scientists (some are both). I don’t know where that leaves us with Hobbes, but it does at least suggest that this may not be the place to shout “heretic.” Which isn’t to say there’s no place to level such a charge.


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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: