Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXVII

Not every talking horse is miraculous.


For Thomas Hobbes, a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. Which does not quite make them subjective, but still raises a few questions that are worth considering.

Miracles, Hobbes tells us, are “the admirable works of God; and therefore they are also called wonders” (XXXVII.1). The characteristics that make them so wondrous and admirable are:

1) their rarity;
2) their apparent disconnect from visible natural causes.

So, Hobbes tells us, “if a horse or cow should speak, it were a miracle” (XXXVII.3). Yet if that “speaking horse” is Mr. Ed, we know that no miracle has occurred because it is neither rare nor inexplicable through natural causes.

Interestingly, Hobbes does not use a direct action of God in the natural world as his definition of “miracle.” He points out that if we were to see a person turn to stone we would count it as a miracle, but the petrified wood we find all the time doesn’t count. In both cases God’s mysterious providence governs the action in question, but the miracle comes in the one case and not in the other. Which should make us ask why are some things dropped in the miracle category, while others are not? This question must be answered by an examination of the purpose of miracles (after briefly dealing with the superstitious types who see miracles around every corner, XXXVII.5).

Scripture on this point is clear: the purpose of miracles is to convince God’s people of the truth of the message being proclaimed. Hobbes notes four critical aspects of a miracle:

1) It is done as confirmation of the Divine authority of God’s messenger (XXXVII.6).
2) It is done for “such as God had determined should become his subjects,” not for all mankind (XXXVII.6).
3) It is a direct action of God, rather than the result of the “virtue in the prophet” (XXXVII.8).
4) It cannot be performed by any being other than God, “no devil, angel, or other created spirit, can do a miracle” (XXXVII.9).

All of this gives us Hobbes’s clarified definition of a miracle:

A Miracle is a work of God (besides his operation by the way of nature, ordained in the creation), done for the making manifest to his elect the mission of an extraordinary minister for their salvation. (XXXVII.7)

So Hobbes has not totally dismissed the supernatural, he has simply limited it to a very discrete sphere: miracles are those things done by God contrary to the normal operations of nature as evidence of the truth of the Gospel to believers. Any claims to miraculous powers by demons, false prophets, or heretical religions are simply the trumped-up effects of natural processes being used to delude the gullible and superstitious masses.

For such is the ignorance and aptitude to error generally of all men (but especially of them that have not much knowledge of natural causes, and of the nature and interests of men) as by innumerable and easy tricks to be abused. (XXXVII.12)

Those who know astronomy and math will appear to be wizards at every eclipse if they speak only to the ignorant. This is why, Hobbes argues, God tells us in the scriptures (Deut. 13 and 18) to be so careful about listening to self-proclaimed prophets and to test their words and signs so closely:

…when it is done, the thing they pretend to be a miracle, we must both see it done, and use all means possible to consider whether it be really done; and not only so, but whether it be such as no man can do the like by his natural power, but that it requires the immediate hand of God. (XXXVII.13)

Of course when the question is in doubt—perhaps sometimes even when it’s not—we ought to defer to “God’s lieutenant, to whom in all doubtful cases, we have submitted our private judgments” (XXXVII.13). So if,

for example, [a] man pretend that after certain words spoken over a piece of bread, that presently God hath made it not bread, but a god or a man (or both), and nevertheless it looketh still as like bread as ever it did, there is no reason for any man to think it really done, nor consequently to fear him, till he enquire of God, by his vicar or lieutenant, whether it be done or not… (XXXVII.13)

As individuals Hobbes maintains our right to skepticism and doubt even in the face of the declaration of our theological sovereign, “but when it comes to confession of that faith, the private reason must submit to the public, that is to say, to God’s lieutenant” (XXXVII.13). Who this lieutenant is Hobbes will take up later—though by this point his identity should be no surprise.

This is a fascinating attempt by Hobbes to balance his Christianity—whether genuine or affected—with his political theory. He clearly doesn’t want to completely dismiss miracles given their place in scripture (for a fascinating discussion of that, see the history of a splinter group of the Unitarian Universalists in early nineteenth-century America). Yet neither does he want to have to base sovereignty on the miraculous. Instead, he turns the discussion around and subjects miracles to the authority of the sovereign after encouraging us to be skeptical about them in the first place. Likewise he doesn’t want to grant potential sovereignty to any being other than God by suggesting they have the power to work miracles.

And I think I’ve got some limited sympathy with this—Christians have been both too quick to embrace the pseudomiraculous with a well-intentioned but misguided piety and too quick to reject the miraculous in the name of Enlightened hyperrationality. Likewise, especially American Christians are too quick to reject the authority of the church in hashing out theological issues rather than understanding the delicate position the congregation is in when it comes to regulating the spiritual health of its members.

None of that is to say that I think the proper corrective is a religious Leviathan telling us all what to believe, it’s just to say I can at least understand why Hobbes is concerned to write the way he does.


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

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