Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLV.1-9

“The Exorcism,” from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.


If the first foundation of the kingdom of darkness is the poor exegesis of scripture, the second is the blending of the Christian faith with pagan superstition. But what is pagan superstition and where does it come from? To help us understand this, Hobbes gives us a quick recap of his epistemology:

The impressions made on the organs of sight by lucid bodies… produceth in living creatures in whom God hath placed such organs an imagination of the object from whence the impression proceedeth; which imagination is called sight, and seemeth not to be a mere imagination, but the body itself without us… (XLV.1)

Usually these impressions are the results of objects external to us that our eyes have perceived, or the memories of such objects. Sometimes, however, they are illusions created by our eyes internally and explained by our imaginations as being real, even though what we have “seen” is for all intents and purposes the equivalent of the lights and lines we see when we rub our eyes too hard.

Because the “ancient pretenders to natural knowledge” never truly understood how the human eye and imagination work, “it was hard for men to conceive of those images in the fancy and in the sense otherwise than of things really without us” (XLV.2). Thus the false doctrines of spirits, demons, and “incorporeal… forms” was born (XLV.2). Hobbes has no patience for this, telling us that it is as reasonable

as if one should say, he saw his own ghost in a looking-glass, or the ghosts of the stars in a river, or call the ordinary apparition of the sun, of the quantity of about a foot, the demon or ghost of that great sun that enlighteneth the whole visible world. (XLV.2)

Out of this failure of reason grows the whole of pagan religion—a growth which we can even trace in the Western world by reading ancient histories and mythologies. (We should remember here that Hobbes was something of an expert on ancient Greece.)

From the Greeks, this doctrine transferred to the Jews, who in turn confused it with their own revealed religion calling wicked spirits “demons” and subsuming all good spirits into “the person or actions of God.” “And therefore, they called ‘demoniacs’…such as we call madmen or lunatics” (XLV.4). So, for example, when Jesus cast out “spirits” in the Bible, he was really curing lunacy or other diseases. This is not to say that scripture is wrong, just that Hobbes believes we are missing the point when we read too much supernaturalism into it. Such narratives in the Bible are not intended, so Hobbes claims, to teach us about incorporeal spirits; they are intended to teach us “the power of God’s word” (XLV.5). And, while I disagree with Hobbes’s dismissal of spirits, he is certainly right about the overall point. If we get hung up on the nature of possession and exorcism and miss the obvious lesson that Jesus is superior and sovereign over all things (spirits and madness alike), we really have missed the point of the passage.

Now, we might ask—if Hobbes is correct and the Jews were so off in their beliefs about spiritual beings, why didn’t Jesus set them straight? Because He was busy making hell for people who ask stupid questions.

Okay, okay, Hobbes doesn’t directly quote Augustine in response, but he certainly embraces the same spirit:

But such questions as these are more curious than necessary for a Christian man’s salvation. Men may as well ask why Christ (that could have given to all men faith, piety, and all manner of moral virtues) gave it to some only, and not to all—and why he left the search of natural causes and sciences to the natural reason and industry of men, and did not reveal it to all (or any man) supernaturally—and many other such questions. (XLV.8)

Like Augustine, Hobbes does go on to propose a few answers to the question after charging us not to work too hard at doing so. Maybe, God wanted us to have to exercise our reason and put some effort into theology, instead of just handing it all to us in one piece. Maybe God didn’t want to add a necessary doctrine to “Jesus is the Christ”—a proposition which one can believe regardless of one’s stance on incorporeal bodies.

None of this is to say that Hobbes denies the existence of angels and demons:

I find in Scripture that there be angels and spirits, good and evil, but not that they are incorporeal (as are the apparitions that men see in the dark, or in a dream, or vision…). And I find that there are spirits corporeal (though subtle and invisible), but not that any man’s body was possessed or inhabited by them, and that the bodies of the saints shall be such… (XLV.8)

Nor is this to deny the practice of exorcism or the existence of the “possessed,” especially in the early church. Hobbes simply believes that these individuals were insane rather than inhabited by another being and that “exorcism” was the miraculous curing of their insanity rather than the driving out of an evil spirit.

This in turn raises the question of why such events are rare today in comparison with the early church. This is obviously a question that Christians of all stripes kick around quite a lot. I would point out that it wasn’t actually all that common even in the Bible—supernatural activity other than the direct action of God is exceedingly rare, particularly when we compare scripture to other religious texts from the same time. (Compare, say, the book of Ezra with the later Book of Enoch; or the Gospels of the Bible with the later Gnostic Gospels.) Hobbes goes a different direction:

And it is probable that those extraordinary gifts were given to the Church for no longer a time than men trusted wholly to Christ, and looked for their felicity only in his kingdom to come; and consequently, that when they sought authority and riches, and trusted to their own subtlety for a kingdom of this world, these supernatural gifts of God were again taken from them. (XLV.9)

In other words, the power to perform miracles has been removed from the church because God is punishing it for no longer believing like Hobbes. At least, that is the uncharitable reading of his text. A more generous read is perhaps slightly more orthodox: God withdraws His supernatural blessings as the Church becomes more focused on the natural world.

Spiritualism is not, however, the only way pagan religion has corrupted Christianity and created the kingdom of darkness. It has helped to establish idolatry and the worship of images as well, which we will look at in the next post.


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

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