Thomas Hobbes Essay

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The life of Hobbes is given us in a quaint contemporary account: His father, Vicar of Charlton and Westport, was one of the ignorant Sir Johns of Queen Elizabeths time, (Piet Strydom, pp 90) who could only read the prayers and homilies of the church and valued not learning. So the son was educated by an uncle at a local school whence at the age of fourteen, with precocious skill in Latin verse, he was sent to Oxford.

Here, to his mind, the scholastic logic furnished nourishment fit only for worms and geometry was counted a black art. Because of this latter obstruction it was not until the age of forty that Hobbes fell in love with geometry (Piet Strydom, pp 90) on meeting with the works of Euclid. Reading the forty-seventh proposition of the first book, By God, he exclaimed, this is impossible, (Piet Strydom, pp 90) but referring back to other positions he was at last demonstratively convinced of that truth.

This meeting with a famous book was significant, but meeting with a famous man was more so. In the continental tour which Hobbes took as tutor with the third Earl of Cavendish he visited the great Galileo, then confined in his tower outside of Florence by the Inquisition. Through him an interest in physics was added to an interest in geometry and Hobbes from now on started to build up a mechanical philosophy of life.

Through this philosophy the actions of politicians could be explained as dearly as the actions of planets, and moral motives reduced themselves to veritable motions starting the very springs of conduct. From that mighty atom ” the state ” down to those tiny atoms ” men ” the whole of society can be seen to be nothing but a mechanism whose stresses and strains, actions and reactions, furnish sufficient reason for the behavior of the highest statesman as well as of the lowest yokel.

This sounds like the crudest kind of behaviorism, but traces of it are still to be found on all sides: in statecraft as the study of the balance of power between rival nations; in political science as the study of the political machine where the executive, legislative, and judicial powers are looked upon as so many weights and counterweights, and finally in morality as the pulling and hauling of conflicting motives.

These views may be crude as explanations, but they are serviceable as descriptions. Nowadays men still speak of wars as due to unfavorable trade balances, of elections being won by an overwhelming weight of public opinion, and of crimes being committed because of suppressed complexes or to relieve pent-up emotions. In short, statesmen, politicians, and psychologists still talk respectively in terms of mechanics, physics, and hydrostatics and in so far as they do this belong to the school of Hobbes.

Another influence on Hobbes ” sometimes denied but wrongly so ” was that of Francis Bacon, for Hobbess biographer particularly says: The Lord Chancellor loved to converse with him and his lordship would often say that he better liked Mr. Hobbess taking his thoughts than any of the others. (Piet Strydom, pp 177) Following his master, who advocated the advancement of learning, his secretary contended that it is not through metaphysics that advancement is made, but through mathematics and mechanics. Here, then, in the England of revolutionary days, when the King and Cromwell were at swords points, there were laid the foundations of a political ethics which had great influence on modern civilization.

Hobbess system, which began with the doctrine of the social contract ” agreed upon by primitive men in woods and deserts to prevent a war of all against all (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 67) ” was not only revolutionary in itself, but contained the seeds of future revolutions. In England it led to a study of the respective rights of king and people, in France to the watchwords of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and in America it was at the bottom of that terse advice of Benjamin Franklin to his fellow colonials, then in rebellion against the crown, Unless we all hang together we shall all hang separately. (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 69)

Hobbess influence was perhaps greater on his successors than on his contemporaries. This was because of his constitutional timidity, which made him a man of peace at any price. His biographer calls him a harmonicall soule, (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 73) which being interpreted means a compromiser. He was never, says the account, habitually a good fellow, for to drink every day with company spoils the brain, still he has been drunk in his life a hundred times, which, considering his great age, did not amount to above once a year.

Hobbess compromising spirit, which lay at the bottom of his principles such as the social compact, also extended to his practices. When his chief work, Leviathan, was counted suspect by a crown committee for the suppression of atheism and profanity he is reputed to have made a show of conformity to the established creed. And when some of the bigots made a motion to have the good old gentleman burned for a heretic he, says his biographer, fearing that his papers might be searched by their order, told me that he had burned part of them.

But Charles II was a friend of Hobbes and the Merry Monarch, in spite of his other weaknesses, stood by his friend. When the wits of the court were wont to bait the old philosopher, the King would say, Here comes the bear to be baited. (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77) And Hobbes would be marveflous happy and ready in his replies. (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77) So Hobbes lived on, for as his biographer again relates, he had a good eye which was full of life and spirit even to his last. (T. J. Hochstrasser, pp 77)

Hobbes had no such courageous outlook. According to his own account, fear pursued him from the cradle onward through life. He declared, it may be recalled, that at his birth myself and fear were twins. After the Restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, he records that he considered the great fire of London to be a divine warning against the impurity of the English court.

This persistent note of timidity is also to be found in his emphasis upon complaisance and caution as among the laws of nature and in his definition of Leviathan as that mortal God who hath the use of so much power and strength conferred upon him, that by terror thereof he is enabled to perform the wills of them all. (Criseyda Cox, pp 23)  In other words, Hobbess political ethics, which began with an insistence on natural rights and the equality of all men, degenerated into an instrument of peace at any price through non-resistance and passive obedience. So at least it was taken to be by the monarchy men and the advocates of the absolute power of the sovereign.

This is paradoxical. Hobbess great work is utilized by some as a document of reaction; by others as a charter of liberty. The latter use of it was made by the American colonists in their struggle against the arbitrary power of the British crown. Thus Jonathan Mayhew, a colleague of James Otis, delivered certain Discourses Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers ” With Some Reflections on the Resistance Made to Charles I. (Alan Hager, pp 92).

Similar views were expressed by William Livingstone, just twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, in his remarks on the divine rights of royal roguery. . . .Twas a damnable sin to resist the cutting of throats and no virtue more Christian and refulgent than that of a passive submission to butchery and slaughter.

To propagate such fustian in America argues a disposition prone to senility. . . . But there are two species of monarch. In absolute monarchies a vindication of the natural rights of mankind is treason, but in limited governments there are inherent rights and fundamental reservations. Therefore the right of self-defense is not a donation of law but a primitive right prior to all political institutions, resulting from the nature of man and inhering in the people till expressly alienated and transferred, if it be not in its nature inalienable. (Alan Hager, pp 94-97)

Hobbess system opens up two great vistas, one into the future and one into the past. In the latter case it exhibits the break with ecclesiastical ethics by going back to the original rights of mankind prior to revelation. Here the Dutch jurist Grotius, upon whom Hobbes partly depends, had expressed a view that natural law is a dictate of right reason, and that mans peculiar appetite for tranquil association with his fellows is as unalterable, even by God himself, as the truths of mathematics.

This law, discoverable by the light of nature, apart from revelation, was acknowledged even by Thomas Aquinas, who in turn received it from Cicero by way of Augustine. Cicero finally received it from his master, the Stoic Posidonius, who believed in an original state of nature, social in part, but not yet political, a state in which individuals or single families had lived side by side under natural laws prohibiting mutual injury and mutual interference with each others use of the goods that were common to all. (Gary L. Mcdowell, pp 16-18)

Views like these, embodied in the Leviathan, awakened suspicions of Hobbess loyalty to the throne. He had been mathematical tutor to Charles II during the latters exile in France. He now expressed a hope that the Leviathan would fall into the hands of a sovereign who would consider it himself without the help of any interested or envious interpreter, and by the exercise of entire sovereignty, in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation into the utility of practice.

But the Merry Monarch was not interested in the fiction of the original social contract, nor in the additional fiction that, in order to obtain the conservation of men in multitudes, (Alan Hager, pp 89) the people had virtually made a second contract by which their rights were perpetually vested in the person of the king. With customary official stupidity the book was burned by the common hangman and all that Hobbes could do was to derive a certain sardonic satisfaction, to judge from his quiet observation that the books price had gone up from six to thirty shillings.

Work Cited:

Alan Hager. The Age of Milton: An Encyclopedia of Major 17th-Century British and American Authors; Greenwood Press, 2004

Criseyda Cox. Thomas Hobbes: Was He an Atheist; History Review, 1997

Gary L. Mcdowell. Leviathan Harpooned: Aware of the Dangers Posed by Judges and the Law, Thomas Hobbes Offered a Solution; National Review, Vol. 49, June 30, 1997

Piet Strydom. Discourse and Knowledge: The Making of Enlightenment Sociology; Liverpool University Press, 2000

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