Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLIV.1–16

Detail of Hell from the “Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence.


Whatever we think of Hobbes’s theology, we can hardly deny that part IV has one of the greatest titles in all of political philosophy:

Of the Kingdom of Darkness.

If there is a “Kingdom of God” that ought to be attended to, then it is reasonable to discuss its inverse: the kingdom of darkness. What is this kingdom?

…the kingdom of darkness… is nothing else but a confederacy of deceivers that, to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavour by dark and erroneous doctrines to extinguish in them the light, both of nature and of the gospel, and so to disprepare them for the kingdom of God to come. (XLIV.1)

We must not, however, think of this kingdom as being only something “out there” and working against us. The kingdom of darkness is the natural home of all mankind. And although the light of the Gospel has broken into that darkness, we are still somewhat in the shadows:

The darkest part of the kingdom of Satan is that which is without the Church of God… But we cannot say, that therefore the Church enjoyeth… all the light which, to the performance of the work enjoined us by God, is necessary. (XLIV.2)

This is the cause of the infighting among Christians that has plagued the church from the time of the apostles to our own day. The fact that we do not know (or at least forget from time to time) that we live in the darkness just shows how strong a hold it has upon us, since “no man can conceive there is any greater degree of it [light] than that which he hath already attained unto” (XLIV.2). The fact that we can see slightly better than those totally mired in darkness is not the same thing as saying that we are fully in the light. Unfortunately, such is human nature that we tend to assume that the little we can see is all there is, and so end up being only a little better off than those fully in darkness.

All of which to say we need to think carefully about this kingdom, realizing our own limitations and the nature of the residents of that kingdom who would draw us into it ranks.

So, whence comes the kingdom of darkness? What are its causes that entrap mankind? Hobbes identifies four:

1) The abuse of scriptures;
2) The adoption of pagan supernaturalism, the “demonology of the heathen poets”;
3) The comingling of Christianity and pagan philosophy, “especially of Aristotle”;
4) The addition to these first three of “false or uncertain traditions, and feigned or uncertain history.”

When these four things are taken together, “we come to err by ‘giving heed to seducing spirits'” (XLIV.3).

This chapter (XLIV), broken here into two posts, deals with the first of these causes.

The worst abuse of scripture that helps build the kingdom of darkness is, according to Hobbes,

the wresting of it to prove that the kingdom of God, mentioned so often in Scripture, is the present Church (or multitude of Christian men now living or that, being dead, are to rise again at the last day)… (XLIV.4)

In reality, the kingdom of God was 1) a past institution from the time of Moses until the Israelites demanded a king, and will be 2) a future institution when the direct rule of God is established by the return of Christ. When we assume that the kingdom of God exists in the here and now, we begin to fight over who is its legitimate sovereign and who its legitimate subjects—to the point where the argument

putteth out the light of nature, and causeth so great a darkness in men’s understanding that they see not who it is to whom they have engaged their obedience. (XLIV.5)

As a result of this error, the pope tries to fill the vacuum and remove the darkness by claiming all authority for himself, dividing clergy from laity, and setting canon law in tension with civil law (XLIV.6–10).

In addition to confusing the kingdom of God with the church in this world,

A second general abuse of Scripture is the turning of consecration into conjuration or enchantment. (XLIV.11)

Specifically, Hobbes here is taking aim at the doctrine of transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration. He (quite rightly) points out that the doctrine of the Real Presence had only been “settled” by the Roman Catholic Church in the time of Innocent III—though even then Hobbes is being generous, since the debate was by no means “settled” among believers even in the late Middle Ages. The same false mysticism, Hobbes tells us, has been mixed with baptism, marriage, and other ceremonies of the church as a result of the poor reading of scripture. For example:

The words “This is my body” are equivalent to these: “this signifies or represents my body”; and it is an ordinary figure of speech. But to take it literally is an abuse; nor, though so taken, can it extend any further than to the bread which Christ himself with his own hands consecrated. For he never said that, of what bread soever, any priest whatsoever should say “This is my body,” or “this is Christ’s body,” the same should presently be transubstantiated. (XLIV.11)

Instead, when we talk about the “consecration” of wine and bread (or grape juice and oyster crackers, for my Baptist friends) what we mean is not that something magical has happened to the ontological structure of the elements. Rather, what we mean is that these objects are no longer primarily being used as the fuel of human sustenance but instead are symbolic representations of the spiritual life we have in Christ. Just as we find our physical lives in the bread and wine we consume, so we find our spiritual lives in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.

A third error from the misreading of scripture is “from the misinterpretation of the words ‘eternal life,’ ‘everlasting death,’ and the ‘second death'” (XLIV.14). This section is vague in Hobbes, and if we can’t quite seem to figure out what he’s getting at, at least we’re in good company.

We should remember his earlier metaphysical declarations that there can be no such things as “incorporeal objects.” In the same way, there is no such thing as a soul without a body. When we strip the body from the soul, and say that the soul departs to another place while the body rots, we open the door and

[give] entrance to the dark doctrine, first, of eternal torments, and afterwards of purgatory, and consequently of the walking abroad… of the ghosts of men deceased, and thereby to the pretences of exorcism and the conjuration of phantasms, as also of invocation of men dead, and to the doctrine of indulgences… (XLIV.16)

The point here is that by separating body and soul a chasm has opened in human nature which allows all manner of false doctrines to rush in with an eye to buttressing the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Though of course Catholics are by no means the only ones who have used superstitions to their own advantage; Protestants can be as guilty of that as anyone. Without endorsing what Hobbes is doing here, we can at least be refreshed in getting to hold the orthodox union of body and soul up against a different viewpoint than the monolithic Gnosticism that has come to dominate our current age.

So what does Hobbes believe the true doctrine should be? What corrective is there in our reading of scripture that can battle the kingdom of darkness? That is the subject of the next post.


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

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