Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: Latin Appendix III

Detail of the original cover of “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes

Latin Appendix III

Given the religious causes and historical events of the English Civil War, Hobbes finds it not at all surprising that there have been many objections made to the Leviathan. Being generous to himself, he has his imaginary questioner ask:

The author of the book mentioned above was already living in Paris, using the freedom to write now made generally available. And of course he defended admirably the rights of the king, both in temporal matters and in spiritual. But while he was trying to do this, from Sacred Scripture, he slipped into unusual doctrines, which most theologians accused of heresy and atheism. (III.1)

These heresies include his refutation of:

  • the existence of ghosts,
  • the rites of exorcism,
  • the idea of incorporeal substances,
  • the immortality of the soul,
  • the present worldly existence of the Kingdom of God,
  • the use of religious superstition to control the people,
  • the eternal punishment of the wicked,
  • the separation of church and state,

All of this is in addition to an apparent rejection of the Trinity (III.2–40). Hobbes responds to each by repeating in shorter form the arguments given in the Leviathan, supported by historical examples.

Because this appendix is so short and really contains nothing new, I think it will be useful to spend just a bit of time reflecting on the Leviathan as a whole. I’m not necessarily convinced that this book deserves its title as the greatest work of philosophy in English, though I can certainly see why people believe that it is—and for that matter, I don’t have a book to suggest as an alternative. Also, I’ve not read Collingwood’s updated version, so perhaps judgment ought to be reserved to some extent.

So, having spent six months reading and writing about the Leviathan, I offer the following observations in no particular order:

  • Books III and IV and the theological appendices, despite Hobbes’s own claims about them, are perhaps best viewed as a historical oddity rather than something with intrinsic intellectual value. Which in some sense makes the whole work more impressive, since the majority of its import has to fall on just over half the text. It is hard to see how Plato’s Republic would have survived if the last third of it were considered complete rubbish.
  • In Books I and II, we can functionally see much of what is good and bad about the modern world in seed form. This includes:

1. the concern to keep what is best of the past, while simultaneously disdaining everything and everyone before us;
2. the mistrust of all power, while simultaneously creating the Leviathan that consumes all (to misquote Kirk);
3. a vision of the universe as radically atomistic from the very smallest to the very largest things, while simultaneously being deeply concerned for the common good and the unity of society;
4. a genuine desire to resist evil and the horrors that come with modernization and the collapse of the Medieval worldview, combined with the certainty that this collapse is a good thing and that we can only be moving forward (dare we say “progressing”?);
5. a concern to be clear and precise in how we approach government powers and structures, combined with a vague faith that those in power can be trusted to do their jobs honestly and competently without going too far.
6. the separation of power and morality when it comes to politics, followed by a deep concern over the results of that separation.

  • Hobbes is, as he points out, quite aware that he is a part of a long tradition of thought about life, the universe, and everything. Granted, he thinks that he’s is the culmination and replacement of that tradition, but he is still aware of it. For that matter, I think we’re safe assuming that he even enjoys it and wants to pass it on (given his translation work). Losing this is perhaps what is most regrettable about the heirs of Hobbes. It’s one thing to support the Leviathan because you have done the hard work of examining the alternatives and come to the conclusion that it is genuinely better. It is quite another to simply dismiss everything from the past because it is past in the name of getting what we want. That, at least, is a kind of arrogance Hobbes does not exhibit.

No doubt there’s nothing here original or unique—but then I wouldn’t be much of a traditionalist if I were always coming up with new ideas or interpretations of old texts. That would be far too…Hobbesean.

Thanks to all of you who faithfully read along the past few months! Keep an eye on Nomocracy in Politics in mid-January for an announcement of our projects for 2016. If you want to get a head-start on the reading, in the first half of the year we’ll be going through Plato’s Laws (the Saunders translation).

 

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

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