Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: Latin Appendix II

"Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire," by Stefano de Giovanni, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

“Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire,” by Stefano de Giovanni, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Latin Appendix II

As long as there are true doctrines and sinful human beings, there will be heresy to be dealt with. Hobbes, as we would expect, has something of an idiosyncratic definition of heresy, linking it to the word “sect” (not etymologically inappropriately, even if perhaps not the best historical approach):

A sect is a number of men who follow the same master in the sciences, one whom they have chosen for themselves, at their own discretion. (II.4)

He then proceeds to outline a number of philosophical sects from the ancient world. Interestingly, Hobbes is fairly generous in his treatment of the ancient philosophers:

For though I think the founders of the sects themselves (Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, and Epicurus) really were philosophers so far as a pagan could be—i.e. men who were zealous in the pursuit of truth and virtue…—I still do not think their followers ought to be called philosophers. They understood nothing (except that they knew what their masters’ opinions were). (II.6)

This is not necessarily what we would expect given his dismissal of all pre-Hobbes political philosophy in the text of the Leviathan. I’m sure we’ve all encountered this in our modern setting—the Calvinist who holds to the five points without ever having cracked a Bible (to say nothing of the Institutes), the Catholic who knows the snippet of the pope’s latest speech from Facebook but hasn’t read the decretals or the encyclicals in full. In these cases we have to separate the followers from the source material and treat them with different levels of scrutiny.

But, as Hobbes’s imaginary interlocutor points out, in this discussion of source material versus later interpretations, Hobbes has left truth and error completely out of the equation:

For “heresy” denotes only an opinion which has been made known, whether it is true or false, in accordance with the law or contrary to it… Those sects of the Greek philosophers did not call one another heretics, but wicked, sacrilegious, thief, parricide, defiled, cursed, and the other names which men of the basest kind use when their anger flares up so much that they almost come to blows. But after heresies had arisen in the church, “heretic” was the greatest reproach of all. (II.8, 10)

Hobbes is somewhat cheating here, switching from the etymology of “heresy” to its use in the church without telling us, and so dodging the responsibility of having to say that “heresy is a teaching contrary to truth” and so preserving the background idea that “heresy is a teaching contrary to the order of the sovereign” without having to go fully relativist in his approach. (You never go full relativist.)

Heresy in the sense we mean it today enters the church when those in the Greek philosophical sects convert to Christianity and bring their pagan beliefs with them. Because they were often trained in rhetoric, they quickly become pastors and elders and so begin to divide the church against itself just as the Greek schools had been divided against each other. So “heretic” becomes the dirty word that it is today (II.18–19).

This tendency was especially pronounced when the methods of these competing schools were used to try to explain the mystery of the Trinity. (And here at least, Hobbes is certainly on to something—the Trinity is a mystery which reason cannot untangle, and which leads to heresy when too much reason is applied.) To help preserve the mystery and keep the church from collapsing, councils were called not to impose sovereignty, “but by the voluntary assembly of the bishops and pastors.” They defined “the catholic faith” and condemned heresy (II.20). Hobbes points out that by this definition,

there as many catholic churches as there are heads of churches. And there are as many heads as there are Christian kingdoms and republics. For in each region of Christians the prince in that region is the head of his subjects, and does not depend on any other head on earth. Therefore, there are as many heads of churches as there are visible churches. (II.22)

There is of course also the one universal invisible church headed by Christ Himself and bound together by the confession of the creed. Hobbes is again loosely on to something here, drawing a proper line between “visible” and “invisible” church, but incorrectly defining the former as being identical with the city of man (which we’ve already talked about extensively).

Hobbes then proceeds to give us a short historical theology of heresy. The notes do a good job of commenting on the accuracy and inaccuracy therein, so I’ll pass over that lengthy section (II.23–30).

The question of interest to Hobbes is the question of what the law ought to do with heretics. He admits that it seems wrong that heretics be executed by the state, particularly when the state claims to be Christian itself. “Still, it is absolutely necessary” (II.30). Which isn’t to say that everyone should be executed for the slightest hint of deviancy from orthodoxy. In fact, Hobbes draws some quite generous (for his time) guidelines, suggesting that before a heresy can be punished, it should be:

1) Intentionally held as heresy: “To err, to be deceived, to have unfortunate opinions, this is not, by its nature, a crime” (II.32).
2) Publicly proclaimed: “Nor can error become a crime, so long as it is kept within the breast” (II.32).
3) Against a clearly and plainly written law: “still, as a matter of equity the law of blasphemy should define plainly, both what constitutes the crime which the law condemns, and what the mode of punishment will be, so that the wicked may be frightened away from doing evil by the expectation of punishment. For the end of legitimate punishment is not to satisfy anger against a man, but to prevent as much injury as possible, for the convenience of the human race” (II.32).
4) Against a publicly declared and widely known law: “Unless the law is declared and promulgated, so as to remove every credible excuse of ignorance, not even what is done against the law can rightly be punished or called a crime” (II.32).
5) Against a civil law, not a natural law: “…whatever is done contrary to natural law is not usually called a crime, but a sin… [and] if one sinner punishes another just for his sin… that is like a civil war” (II.34).
6) Supported by public verbal or written evidence, not supposition or even (to some extent) public action, “So an atheist is not judged by his acts. Therefore, the only ground on which he can be accused is something he has said, either orally or in writing, viz. if he has straightforwardly denied that God exists” (II.36).

Atheism itself should be punished—as Locke would more famously say, they cannot be trusted to keep their word—but punished only with the strictest standards of evidence. The atheist must have intentionally published knowing that the work would lead to the conclusion that there is no God. Our rule here should be charity (II.38). Even in the punishment Hobbes argues for exile rather than death, “since sometimes he can be converted from his impiety. For what can a man not hope for, before he dies, from God’s forbearance. The like must be said of blasphemy…” (II.38).

All of these legal conditions raise the question of who ought to punish heresy. Anyone who has read Leviathan will most certainly not need to ask along  with Hobbes’s imaginary interrogator “I should also like to know by what power and how heresy has usually been punished, from its origin until now” (II.41). We’ll again skip Hobbes’s lengthy treatment (II.42–70) of excommunication, execution, the sovereign, and church authorities and note only that he gives pretty much the same arguments here that he had given in the work itself—albeit with a more historical foundation. As we would expect, Hobbes’s history is somewhat shaky (see the footnotes) but not necessarily through any fault of his own. Our ancient and medieval church history records are spotty at best.

What should jump out at us from this section is how… humane Hobbes seems. Oh sure, he still is willing to use the power of the state to punish heretics (Baptist aside: NO!, just…no), but the overall generosity of the piece does seem a bit out of character coming from the same man who gives the state absolute power and sees life as otherwise nasty, poor, brutish, and short. Perhaps as he aged Hobbes matured (as a believer?) and began to take a softer view of the world. Or maybe he was just being sneaky and trying to get us to think better of him as we read the Leviathan.


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

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