Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLVI (English)

Aristotle and his disciples

IV.XLVI (English)

The third foundation of the kingdom of darkness, after poor interpretation of scripture and the blending of Christianity with pagan spiritualism, is the blending of Christian doctrine with pagan philosophy. Or, as Hobbes titles chapter XLVI, “Of Darkness from Vain Philosophy and Fabulous Traditions.” (We should note that here “fabulous” means “fake,” and not anything a more modern usage might suggest.)

So how does Hobbes understand philosophy to be a corrupting agent? First, he defines his terms:

By Philosophy is understood the knowledge acquired by reasoning from the manner of the generation of anything to the properties, or from the properties to some possible way of generation of the same, to the end to be able to produce, as far as matter and human force permit, such effects as human life requireth. (XLVI.1)

So philosophy, like politics, is an agent of human survival. It takes information that we have and applies reason either backward into causes or forward into effects with the goal of facilitating human existence. This definition, Hobbes tells us, excludes several things normally attributed to the field:

1) “Prudence,” which Hobbes had defined earlier and which does have value but should not be part of philosophy “because it is not attained by reasoning, but found as well in brute beasts as in man” (XLVI.2);
2) False conclusions, since they are based on false reasoning (XLVI.3);
3) “Supernatural revelation, because it is not acquired by reasoning” (XLVI.4);
4) Authority from books, “because it is not by reasoning… but [is of] faith” (XLVI.5).

With the nature of philosophy established, Hobbes proceeds to give a quick overview of the history of the discipline. He notes that while all peoples have some true philosophy in germ form, it is not until there exists a commonwealth that provides some level of leisure for reflection that true philosophy takes off:

“Leisure” is the mother of philosophy; and “Commonwealth,” the mother of peace and leisure. Where first were great and flourishing cities, there was first the study of philosophy. (XLVI.6)

This pursuit begins in India and Egypt, spreads to Greece, then to Rome and the Hellenistic world. Schools became the centers of philosophy, including among the Jews. Yet Hobbes sees these schools not as bastions of knowledge and reason, but as corruptors of human learning:

The natural philosophy of those schools was rather a dream than science, and set forth in senseless and insignificant language, which cannot be avoided by those that will teach philosophy without having first attained great knowledge in geometry… To conclude, there is nothing so absurd that the old philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained. (XLVI.11)

In the name of “ethics” these schools codified their preferred passions; in the name of “logic” they played word games. Even the one actual science they did know—geometry—was a prerequisite for attendance rather than a result of learning. The worst of the worst, as far as Hobbes is concerned, was Aristotle and his metaphysics, politics, and ethics. It is from Aristotle that Hobbes believes most of the modern errors that lead to the kingdom of darkness have crept into the world.

Before examining those errors, just a quick word about Hobbes’s analysis of the ancient schools. Of course if we assume that the culmination of philosophy is physical science, Hobbes is entirely right. The ancient Greeks were masters of geometry, and absolutely wretched at everything else. Which isn’t to say we should adopt Hobbes’s assumption, just that it’s not necessarily an incoherent one. If you want to read good introductions to the subject, I recommend W. W. Tarn’s Hellenistic Civilisation; Peter Green’s Hellenistic Age; Sarton’s Hellenistic Science and Culture; or Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews.

So just what philosophical errors have helped build up the kingdom of darkness? Hobbes gives us such a full battery of them that it wouldn’t be a good use of time to go over them in detail, but when we list them in outline form we can see why he thinks them to be such grievous errors when compared to his materialistic worldview—errors which he lays at the feet of the universities, which like their ancestors, the philosophical schools, have codified their passions rather than taught proper reasoning, to the point that “if any man by the ingenuity of his own nature had attained to any degree of perfection therein, he was commonly thought a magician and his art diabolical” (XLVI.13).

What errors, then, have replaced true philosophy?

1) The error of deferring to the written works of Aristotle and his interpreters, and mistaking their unclear vagaries for supernaturally inspired wisdom (XLVI.14).
2) The error of separating “essence” from “body” and creating a category of incorporeal beings, rather than holding the truth that “the world… is corporeal… And consequently every part of the universe is body, and that which is not body is no part of the universe” (XLVI.15). Excepting God, who is beyond human comprehension (though not beyond our respect and honor), matter is all there is. The false doctrine of Aristotle that there is a separation between the real existence of spirit and the real existence of matter is what leads to supernaturalism and, ultimately, our disobedience to the state:

And upon the same ground they [those who buy into the Aristotlean worldview] say that faith, and wisdom, and other virtues are sometimes poured into a man, sometimes blown into him from heaven—as if the virtuous and their virtues could be asunder—and a great many other things that serve to lessen the dependence of subjects on the sovereign power of their country. For who will endeavour to obey the laws, if he expect obedience to be poured or blown into him? (XLVI.18)

And again, Hobbes notes that this leads to all sorts of odd beliefs that distract us from right living in the world by getting us caught up in philosophical and theological sophistry. We worry about where in our bodies our true essence resides when we should be worrying about serving God and loving our neighbor (XLVI.19).
3) The error of trying to understand eternity through the filter of finite human time (XLVI.22). I wish Hobbes had talked more about this one, but he moves on quickly, merely noting the absurdity of “time” existing forever.
4) The error of transubstantiation, where it is claimed that one body can be many places simultaneously (XLVI.23).
5) The error of gravity, where Aristotle’s speculations are used to explain how the world works contrary to reason (XLVI.24).
6) Numerous errors of causality, some of which are beyond me (it’s been a while since I’ve studied that part of Aristotle), but all of which according to Hobbes at best are empty and vain, and at worst corrupt our view of the world (XLVI.25–31).
7) The error of turning the law of the appetite as found in the state of nature into the foundation for ethics and politics (XLVI.32).
8) The error of abstracting the law from people who govern—this is a variation on the separation of spiritual essences from physical matter which likewise undermines the state, since it gives disgruntled citizens the option to claim “I’m not rebelling against the law, just against the people in government.” There can be, Hobbes argues, no government separated from the people who fill it and no law not executed by the agents of the state (at least, no law that matters). This is just grounds for revolution, nothing more (XLVI.36).
9) One error apparently not from Aristotle was the error that claimed that “the work of marriage is repugnant to chastity or continence.” This comes not from vain philosophy, Hobbes argues, but from the naked greed and lust for power of the popes of the Middle Ages and their wish to be the only heirs of church possessions (XLVI.33–34).
10) Another error in politics not from Aristotle is the attempt to “extend the power of the law, which is the rule of actions only, to the very thoughts and consciences of men, by examination and inquisition of what they hold, notwithstanding the conformity of their speech and actions” (XLVI.37). This comes dangerously close to—if not actually reaching—allowing the government to re-create the state of war between itself and otherwise law-abiding citizens. Laws should govern actions only, not the conscience.
11) Another error not from Aristotle is the idea that law must endorse our actions before they are legitimate, rather than merely being a negative restraint on actions the state does not wish us to take (XLVI.39).
12) The error of incorporation of tradition into the place rightfully occupied by reason (XLVI.41).

This last really summarizes all of Hobbes’s objections to “vain philosophy.” “With the introduction of false, we may join also the suppression of true philosophy…” (XLVI.42). As we absorb these false ideas, the truth as discovered and explored by reason withers and dies and human life becomes nastier, poorer, more brutish, and shorter. This problem is compounded when church authorities steal sovereignty and use it to punish those who would disagree with them without even bothering to explore whether or not the disagreement is grounded in truth.

Because this post is so long already, I’ll reserve reflections for the next post, which covers the Latin version of the same chapter.


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

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