Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLVII (English)

“Cromwell at Dunbar” by Andrew Carrick Gow, Tate Britain, London.

IV.XLVII (English)

We’ve seen the first three foundations of the kingdom of darkness, where is the fourth? Hobbes had identified it as the reliance on tradition rather than scripture and reason. Rather than give it its own chapter, he collapsed it into chapter XLVI with the growth of bad philosophy in the Christian church. This is reasonable, given the relationship between philosophy and tradition—though we can wish Hobbes had given more attention to tradition than he did.

Instead, in chapter XLVII he moves on to discuss the beneficiaries of the kingdom of darkness and who might have an interest in its propagation. As with the previous chapter, because of how the Hackett edition presents the split we will cover first the English version and then in the next post the Latin version.

In this chapter, Hobbes asks who has motive to support the spread of darkness across the world?

For amongst presumptions there is none that so evidently declareth the author as doth the benefit of the action. (XLVII.1)

The original beneficiaries of this kingdom were the popes, who used it to justify their attempt to fill the sovereignty void left behind by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

This benefit of a universal monarchy (considering the desire of men to bear rule) is a sufficient presumption that the Popes that pretended to it, and for a long time enjoyed it, were the authors of the doctrine by which it was obtained… For that granted, it must be understood that Christ hath some lieutenant amongst us, by whom we are told what are his commandments. (XLVII.2)

And while the authority of the pope has receded in recent years as resistance to his claims has grown, the claims themselves have stuck around in other places. In England, this has become the position of the Presbyterians, who claim the authority to excommunicate—and of course even execute—the king.

The authors, therefore, of this darkness in religion are the Roman and the presbyterian clergy. (XLVII.4)

With that said, Rome bears the brunt of Hobbes’s accusation, while the Presbyterians end up being unwitting heroes in the undoing of the “kingdom of darkness” at least in England.

But in order to understand how movement away from darkness has been accomplished, Hobbes gives us first a recap of the theological, practical, and historical justifications that have been used to establish it in the first place. Following a list of “all those doctrines that serve them to keep the possession of this spiritual sovereignty after it is gotten” (XLVII.5)—including infallibility, sacramental marriage, celibate priests, etc.—Hobbes gives a brief historical outline of the death of freedom at the hands of the kingdom of darkness in three stages:

1) First, as the early church grew in size, its leadership met together to “consider what they should teach, and thereby obliging themselves to teach nothing against the degrees of their assemblies.” When Christians, whether pastors or congregants, refused to go along with the decrees of councils, they were excommunicated “not as being infidels, but as being disobedient.” That is, nonheretics were being disciplined for failure to obey the leadership of the church—leadership which under the apostles had authority on the basis of reverence for their “wisdom, humility, sincerity, and other virtues” but whose leadership now was claiming authority based on obligation. “And this was the first knot upon their liberty.”

2) As the numbers of elders in the churches grew, “the presbyters of the chief city or province got themselves an authority over the parochial presbyters, and appropriated themselves the names of bishops.” A hierarchy began to grow in the church. Where once it had been bottom-heavy in terms of authority, it now began to solidify at the top.

3) Finally, that solid structure was seized by the bishop of Rome as the head of the old imperial city, “which was the third and last knot, and the whole synthesis and construction of the pontifical power” (XLVII.19).

Now, for all his lumping of the Presbyterians in with the Roman Catholics, obviously they could have had no part in the historical creation of the kingdom of darkness. At worst they tried to take up its reins with the ouster of Roman Catholicism from England. Yet they didn’t even do this well, and instead saw to the complete unraveling of the kingdom of darkness in England. This too had three steps:

1) First, Queen Elizabeth finished what Henry VIII had started by destroying “the power of the Popes.” This does not mean that the power which the popes had exercised in England was gone, merely that it was transferred to the crown and exercised in the name of the monarch instead. “And so was untied the first knot” (XLVII.20). (Hobbes’s numbering here is confusing, as the “first knot” that gets untied is actually the third knot that was tied.)

2) Next, even that church structure (the episcopacy) was dismantled by the Presbyterians in the English Civil War. “And so was the second knot dissolved.”

3) Finally, the Presbyterians themselves lost power, “And so we are reduced to the independency of the primitive Christians, to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, every man as he liketh best” (XLVII.20).

Hobbes points out that Presbyterians should be perfectly okay with the situation they have created:

For there is none should know better than they that power is preserved by the same virtues by which it is acquired (that is to say, by wisdom, humility, clearness of doctrine, and sincerity of conversation), and not by suppression of the natural sciences and of the morality of natural reason, nor by obscure language, nor by arrogating to themselves more knowledge than they make appear, nor by pious frauds, nor by such other faults as in the pastors of God’s Church are not only faults, but also scandals, apt to make men stumble one time or other upon the suppression of their authority. (XLVII.20)

However much Hobbes loathed what the Presbyterians did to the English monarchy, he clearly had some sympathy with the unintended consequences their actions had on Christianity in England. Even with that, I think Hobbes is being too generous to the Presbyterians—despite the fact that on publication of the English edition of the Leviathan Cromwell’s mostly tolerant rule was still in place and the Great Ejection had not yet happened. As we’ll see in the next post, this section gets modified in the later Latin edition.

Hobbes concludes this chapter with a comparison of the Roman Catholic Church with the “Kingdom of Fairies.” Despite my deep and abiding love of the Harry Potter books, I can say nothing about whether Hobbes has correctly described the kingdom of the fairies. Fortunately, that’s not really his point anyway. He is arguing that

as fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people, rising from the traditions of old wives or old poets, so the spiritual power of the Pope (without the bounds of his own civil dominion) consisteth only in the fear that seduced people stand in of their excommunications, upon hearing of false miracles, false traditions, and false interpretations of the Scripture. (XLVII.33)

That is why it was so easy for Henry VIII and (especially) Elizabeth to drive out the Roman Catholic power. Hobbes does give warning that the kingdom of darkness under the command of the pope may be growing strong again in the New World and the Far East but at this point it is shattered in England. He also thinks that we need to remember the threat from within, “for it is not the Roman clergy only that pretends the kingdom of God to be of this world, and thereby to have a power therein distinct from that of the civil state.” (XLVII.34). Anyone who would try to immanitize the eschaton by putting the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now instead of as an eschatological reality is, according to Hobbes, laying the foundation for a civil war. And whatever value his analysis of the Catholic Church has (not much, in my opinion), that point is at least worth thinking about.


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

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