Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLVI (Latin)

“Triumph of Achilles,” in the Achilleion, Corfu, Greece by Franz von Matsch. Own work by רנדום, 2011-08-27. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

IV.XLVI (Latin)

The Latin version of chapter XLVI begins with a very different tone than its English counterpart, even if the result remains the same:

Do not, reader, expect here that I shall heap abuse on philosophy or philosophers. “What, then, are you doing?” I distinguish between philosophers and non-philosophers, and between true philosophy, the wisest guide of human life, the peculiar distinction of human nature, and that painted, chattering whore which has for so long now been regarded as philosophy. (XLVI.1)

Despite sounding much more positive about philosophy in general, Hobbes repeats his definition of true philosophy as the reason-based study of causes and effects for the purpose of bettering human existence and its contrast with the philosophy that is based on experience, prudence, revelation, and faith (XLVI.2–3). And again, Hobbes gives a quick overview of the history of philosophy that is largely dismissive of, well, most of it. “But what was the use of the Greek schools to the human race?” (XLVI.6). Perhaps because of how utterly awful he considers it, Hobbes spends less time on Greek and Roman philosophy and focuses instead on the history of Christian philosophical development. Which, incidentally, he gets wrong:

But among the Greeks, Greek philosophy, and especially Aristotelian philosophy, was held in the highest honor at the time of the early church, when Greeks were daily accepting the Christian faith in great number. (XLVI.9)

While Aristotle was not unknown to the era of the early church, he certainly was not held in the “highest honor.” In fact, the philosophers of that time were pretty unimpressed by Aristotle, preferring instead first the Stoics and then the Neoplatonists.

The proper place of Aristotle aside, Hobbes sees the first heresies arising out of the infusion of pagan philosophy into Christian doctrine and then trying to explain our beliefs in a way that conforms to the worldview held by that philosophy. Which is where, Hobbes argues, we get explanations of the Incarnation by appeal to the body/soul relationship. Hobbes has no problem with the Incarnation—that we can not understand it is irrelevant, we are commanded to believe it. He, as we have seen repeatedly, has a problem with the body/soul division:

The constitution of a man from flesh and soul was never considered a mystery. But Christ in the flesh is the greatest mystery. No one says that a man is his soul or his body separately; but each is rightly said of Christ, that he is man and that he is God. Where do we read in Scripture that a Christian man is to be damned unless he is content with the comparison of the incarnation with the soul and flesh of a man? (XLVI.11)

Again, this is something I’ve not encountered before. We live in an age when many philosophers (or nonphilosophers) are quite happy to deny any kind of soul or spiritual reality. But I don’t know that I’ve encountered anyone who tries to be orthodox in their Christology and doctrine of God, but denies the spiritual aspects of human existence. Must one believe that the soul and body can be separated in order to be an orthodox believer, so long as one continues to believe in eternal life and eternal death, the Trinity, the atonement, etc.? I don’t know…

From Greece and Rome bad philosophy continues to hound the church, especially with the later rediscovery of Aristotle and the transfer of power from the Roman Empire to the papacy. Again Hobbes’s history is not necessarily the best, but his objections to the injection of Aristotelian metaphysics into Christian doctrine is a reflection of a longstanding argument in Christianity. Hobbes argues that it is contrary to scripture, not least because “the language of the Hebrews does not allow it” (XLVI.17). Where Aristotle had invented ideas based on words about nonexistent things, the scriptures, in the mind of Hobbes, deal only with physical reality when they are describing the universe. From this Aristotelian injection grow all manner of superstitious beliefs, unbiblical practices, and irrational conclusions. As just one example, Aristotle causes some to believe

That the will is the cause of willing, i.e., that the power is a cause of the act, is Aristotelian, and accepted by the Scholastics, so as to maintain man’s free will (though God’s dominion over the human will is taken away). (XLVI.20)

This has already been discussed in detail earlier; here we see why Hobbes thinks the doctrine of free will has taken such hold on so many Christians.

Hobbes concludes with a rejection of Aristotelian politics and ethics, and as in the English version concludes that they do little more than provide justification for revolution:

Such was the cost of having learned Greek and Latin eloquence and philosophy. And unless the preachers teach the people better, and our universities, the preachers themselves, perhaps Great Achilles will again be sent to Troy. (XLVI.24)

As the note points out, that last line is an allusion to Virgil that suggests civil war will follow if Hobbes’s advice is not heeded.

So what are we to make of Hobbes’s third support for the kingdom of darkness? Specifically, his rejection of Greek philosophy, and even more specifically his rejection of Aristotle? I’ve got some sympathy with Hobbes here—but not much. I tend to think that we can and should make use of Aristotle’s political philosophy; we should be attentive to and interested in his ethical philosophy; and reject completely any attempt to blend his metaphysics with Christian theology. Here I’m taking the side of Luther more than Hobbes, but leaving Hobbes a tiny bit of wiggle room on this one subject. (Feel free to disagree in the comments.) Fortunately, because Hobbes’s theology has not caught on, we have no practical need to come to any solid conclusion about it at this point. It is unlikely that I will have to decide whether to vote for a theological Hobbsean’s admission to—or excommunication from—my local church. So at least one headache is avoided in this case.


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

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