Hobbes Selections, ed. Frederick J. E. Woodbridge (1930)
Thomas Hobbes, by publishing in London, in 1651, a book with the title, Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil, made a place for himself among those writers on social and political subjects who find many readers in lands and times besides their own. The book can be read with profit without any knowledge of its author. There are in it, to be sure, quaintnesses and allusions which require an understanding of the conditions under which it was written, and of the man who wrote it, if they themselves are to be understood. These, however, affect so little what we call the philosophy of the book, that a reader can find that philosophy for himself, and find in it a vigorous challenge to his own thinking about man, society, and government. This is because Hobbes has asked and answered questions which are neither local nor temporary. They are questions men repeatedly ask when they become curious about human institutions. What are rights and obligations? How do they arise? How reasonable are they? On what basis do they rest? What are good and evil? What are justice and injustice? What is law? What authority is back of it? What respect and obedience are due it? What is liberty? Why should personal liberty be surrendered? What is government? Why do men submit to it? Questions like these Hobbes asks and answers. They are recurring questions. They are still asked. His answers are his own, but they are made in a way which makes the reader consider them as possible answers to be sifted and weighed. The reader may find fault with them. He is pretty sure, in this day, to find fault with that picture "of the natural condition of mankind as concerning their felicity and misery" -- that war of every man against every man -- which Hobbes paints with vividness and power, but of which no anthropologist has as yet been able to find the suitable original. But the attentive reader will not miss Hobbes's own comment on the matter. He will find himself driven to ask why then are locked doors, police, courts, armies, navies; why nations, "because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state and position of gladiators; having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another?" Why do men seek to protect peace? As long as peace is an armistice, Hobbes might have said, there is ample evidence of the natural condition of mankind. He compels the reader to think in terms of peace and war, and to remember the lock on the door and the battleship in the harbor. He wanted peace passionately and was ready to pay an extravagant price for it. The reader has to make his own estimate of the cost.
The Leviathan is, then, a book which can be read by the student of politics immediately, without an introduction and without a commentary. This fact and the book's power, keep it in the select library of masterpieces in government. For an understanding of Hobbes, the man, it is not, however, the book with which to begin. I have mentioned it at the beginning of this introduction to the selections from Hobbes's writings which follow, because I think there is profit in distinguishing between men and their books. When an author produces a book which history takes out of his place and his time, and puts into the library of great intellectual possessions, it has ceased to be his book and become ours, ours to read, ponder, and enjoy in the realm of our own thinking, to be worked with and played with, not for an understanding of the author but for a clarification of our own ideas. This is what great books are for. They are companions for the mind. As we walk and talk with them, we may see things their authors never saw, and find things they never intended. These consequences are the tests of the greatness of the books. It proves that they are not dead, but living, even if their authors are forgotten, or belonged to ages long ago and lived amid institutions long disused. There is at least one book of Hobbes like that.
It was, however, his book when he made it. Thinking of this, we turn to the man and ask questions we would not otherwise ask. Who was he and what was he like? What else did he write, and how did this book, in which we can forget him, fit into his own life and his own time ? We pass out of the realm of our own reflective ideas and enter the realm of history. We experience a radical change of attitude. Now our thinking is controlled by the facts we find. We become observers of a personality, and are curious about the forces which worked upon him and made him what he was. As we succeed in finding these out, we become more and more conscious of the difference there can be between men and books, and how men may work for one end and their books for another; how they die while their books live. And this consciousness is no small part of what philosophy is -- an attempt genuinely to appreciate the interplay between the world of ideas and that world of the body in which we respond to circumstances and forces which we try to control.
"Thomas Hobbes," to quote from the interesting life of him by his friend, John Aubrey, [Lives of Eminent Men, the London edition of 1813. There is a later edition of this interesting book: J. Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. A. Clarke, Oxford, 1898.]
"was second son of Mr. Thomas Hobbes, vicar of Charlton and Westport, juxta Malmesbury. -- Thomas, the father, was one of the ignorant Sr. Johns of Q. Elizabeth's time, could only read the prayers of the church, and the homilies; and valued not learning, as not knowing the sweetness of it. He had an elder brother whose name was Francis, a wealthy man, and alderman of the borough; by profession a glover, which is a great trade here, and in times past much greater. Having no child, he contributed much to, or rather altogether maintained, his nephew Thomas, at Magdalen-hall, in Oxon; and when he dyed gave him agellum, a pasture, called Gasten-ground, lying neer to the horse-faire, worth 16 or 18 poundes per annum."His ancestry was not conspicuous, but, as Aubrey remarks, "his renowne has and will give brightness to his name and familic." He was born in Westport, that English village with the glovers' trade, on April 5, 1588, while the Spanish Armada was off the coast of England bringing terror to the hearts of English men and women. Hobbes thought that this terror had influenced his life. In an autobiography written in Latin verse late in his life he says:
Atque metum tantum concepit tune mea mater,He and fear, like twins, were born together. His birth and life were shadowed by war. He died on December 4, 1679. Those ninety-one years of his life were coincident with a very important period of English history -- the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, the trouble with the Stuarts, the Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration. The "glorious revolution" of 1688, which put William, prince of Orange, and Mary, daughter of Charles I of England, on the throne on February 13, 1689, Hobbes did not live to see. He liked to think of himself as a scholar, a philosopher, a man of science and letters, temperamentally aloof from turbulent scenes, but the troubles of his country would not let his mind be at peace to compose, in orderly fashion, the system he had planned. Its order was interrupted. He tells us in a comment on his De Cive -- a forerunner of the Leviathan : "I was studying philosophy for my mind's sake, and I had gathered together its first elements in all kinds; and having digested them into three sections by degrees, I thought to have written them, so as in the first I would have treated of body and its general properties; in the second of man and his special faculties and affections; in the third, of civil government and the duties of subjects. Wherefore the first section would have contained the first philosophy, and certain elements of physic; in it we would have considered the reasons of time, place, cause, power, relation, proportion, quantity, figure, and motion. In the second, we would have been conversant about imagination, memory, intellect, ratiocination, appetite, will, good and evil, honest and dishonest, and the like. What this last section handles, I have now already showed you. Whilst I contrive, order, pensively and slowly compose these matters; (for I only do reason, I dispute not;) it so happened in the interim, that my country, some few years before the civil wars did rage, was boiling hot with questions concerning the rights of dominion and the obedience due from subjects, the true forerunners of an approaching war; and was the cause which, all those other matters deferred, ripened and plucked from me this third part. Therefore it happens, that what was last in order, is yet come forth first in time. (English Works, Moles worth ed., vol. ii, p. xix.) Thus his controlling interest in stable government and established peace was like an offspring of that dread of war in which he was born.
He seems to have been a precocious child, "playsome enough," but with a "contemplative melancholinesse; he would get him into a corner, and learn his lesson by heart presently. His haire was black, and the boys, his schoolfellows, were wont to call him Crowe." Aubrey tells us that he went to school in Westport when four years old, and could, at that time, read well, and number four figures. With the help of his teachers, and particularly of a Mr. Latimer, "a good Grecian, and the best that came into our parts since the Reformation," he was ready to go to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, at the age of fourteen, having already, if we can believe the story, "turned Euripides' Medea out of Greek into Latin Iambiques." The teaching at Oxford bored him after a while. Aristotelian logic amused him and Aristotelian physics bewildered him. Apparently he did nothing with mathematics, a subject which later much occupied his mind, and led him into a bitter controversy with the Oxford professors over such problems as squaring the circle and duplicating the cube. Aubrey tells us: "He was forty years old before he looked on geometry, w'ch happened accidentally." He found, in a gentleman's study, a copy of Euclid open at Bk. I, Prop. 47. "So he reads the proposition, 'By G -- ,' says he, 'this is impossible!' So he reads the demonstration of it, w'ch referred him back to another, w'ch he also read, et sic deinceps, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that truth. This made him in love with geometry." It was not from the teaching of Oxford that he seems to have profited, but from its book-stores, where he read about men and the world, and would gaze for hours at maps, feeding his mind on pictures of the globe and the stars. Yet he was admitted as a bachelor in 1608, and was well enough thought of by the University to be recommended as tutor to the son of William Cavendish, later the second Earl of Devonshire.
With this family he formed a life-long intimacy. Their social position and political fortunes carried him into the turmoil of public life in which his opinions were formed. The travels, incident to this connection, enlarged his mind and made him acquainted with the work of such men as Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes. His imagination was fired by the "new learning" which was producing men of such evident genius. He would be of their number. In Francis Bacon he saw a man to admire and emulate. So in teaching, travelling, meeting the leaders in thought and action, reading, now at home in the thick of political strife, now abroad in the interest of personal safety or public affairs, his project of a system of philosophy which would embrace the principles of all knowledge, was conceived. It is no small wonder that he succeeded in rounding it out in terms of the outline which he made -- De Corpore, De Homine, De Cive. And it is a greater wonder that he wrote so much besides.
In 1675 he left London, cum animo nunquam revertendi, and spent the remainder of his days with the Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth and Hardwick in contemplation and study. In the latter place he died after an illness lingering through October to December, 1679. Hobbes is described by his friend and contemporary, John Aubrey, as six feet high and something better; with a good eye of hazel colour; with a head of mallet form approved by the physiologers, and with a temperament "sanguineo-melancholicus," similarly approved; of temperate and regular habits; as an harmonical soul and not a woman-hater, although never married; of a sharp wit which was also sure and steady; as one who contemplated more than he read, and who remarked "that if he had read as much as other men, he should have been as ignorant as they"; and as a man who "would have the worship of God performed with musique."
Hobbes may have spoken contemptuously of those who read many books, as Aubrey declares, but it is evident from his writings that he read much, that he had a taste for literature, and that he developed an exceptionally clear and forceful English prose. He knew how to use his mother-tongue with effect and beauty. The books he read which influenced him most are difficult to discover. He writes like one familiar with the field he is exploring, but keeps hidden from the reader the sources of that familiarity. It is clear, however, from his life, that he learned from books and men, from his own experience as he went about, and not from what we call research and experiment. He was naturally fertile in ideas and his experiences quickened their activity. He had an ingenious mind which played freely and freshly with a subject, and suggested a competence which he did not really have unless that subject happened to be, like the political situation in the England of his day, something which forced facts upon his attention and stimulated his keen perception of men and affairs. Clearly he knew more about human nature than about nature at large, more about human history than the history of the stars, more about the motions of men than the motions of bodies. Much of this knowledge he must have gained directly from observation and experience, for it rings true to such a source, and implies an insight original and keen. Yet that story of the boy turning the Medea of Euripides out of Greek into Latin iambics may point to a source of ideas from which his imagination was early stored. His first published work, in 1628, was a translation of eight books of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Later he translated the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. In his Latin autobiography he speaks of his early years in the service of the Duke of Devonshire, "who was not only his Lord but truly his friend," as that part of his life by far the sweetest, and often recurring in his dreams, years when he read the histories of Greeks and Romans and their poetry -- Flaccus, Virgil, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Plautus, Aristophanes, and more. Of the many historians Thucydides pleased him most because he showed him how inept democracy is. Here was a whole library on human nature. Here were men portrayed in legend, in story, on the stage, in action, in adventure, in war, in all their heroisms, egotisms, intrigues, enmities, friendships, triumphs, plottings, violences. Hobbes, twin brother to fear, brought up in an almost illiterate household and in a little village, going to college at fourteen to read histories and look at maps, then, in his early manhood, storing his mind from that library on human nature, did not look out upon troubled England with eyes unprepared.
He had, indeed, for a political writer, as good a preparation as the time afforded. We must, of course, grant him some genius and also what may be called a personal bias, for it is evident enough that the reading of Greek and Latin literature is not itself the promise of a great achievement to come as a consequence. Many read and do no more. Their attitude towards life may be little affected by Homer or Thucydides. With Hobbes, however, the circumstances of his life and his habit of mind -- what Aubrey calls his "contemplative melancholinesse"- -- point in a quite different direction. He was timid in action, but courageous in reflection. The melancholy was contemplative, not gloomy. He saw the human struggle for security and peace as a human struggle, and so seeing it, could see in Greece and Rome and England illustrations of something universal about man as distinct from those historical circumstances which make him a Greek or a Roman or an Englishman. His bias was for a strong government which would secure peace and order, and it appears from things said about him that he was willing to accept either a Cromwell or a Stuart if that desired security would thereby be attained. He was thus a political philosopher rather than a politician. He lifted experience into the realm of ideas to get as clear a vision as he could of what experience is like. And in his case the realm of ideas had been colored by that reflective melancholy which fed first on the doings of men as portrayed in Greek and Latin literature.
His education and early reading make it difficult to believe that his doctrines of human nature and the state were originally conceived as part of a complete system of philosophy. Certainly the system which he did develop finds little echo in his education. That system owns a close kinship with mathematics and its application to the problems of bodies in motion. But it was only in middle life that Hobbes's interest in mathematics was aroused, and it is not until his second visit to the continent in 1629 that we find clear indications of an interest in problems of motion. And his third visit in 1634 finds him eagerly seeking the acquaintance of such men as Galileo and Mersenne, reading the new science, discussing with learned men and corresponding with them. In Paris he joined a circle about Mersenne, •who was living in a monastery near the Place Royale, and whose cell became the resort of local scholars and distinguished foreigners. In 1641 he published in Paris a number of objections to Descartes' Meditations, in which the beginnings of his later doctrine of bodies and motion are readily recognized. There is a story told, but difficult to date, that at a gathering of "learned men" the question was asked, What is sense? Hobbes was surprised that no one seemed able to answer. Reflecting on the matter he was led to the conviction that the causes of all things must be sought in the differences in the movements of bodies. This is the cardinal principle of his systematic philosophy. From such facts as these, the conclusion seems fairly certain that the philosophy of Hobbes, as distinct from his political theory, was the consequence of impressions received in middle life. These impressions may have been strong enough to make him resolve to compose a system which would have the state as its culmination. We may take his word for it that he was diverted from this resolve by finding his country "boiling hot with questions of the rights of dominion," so that what was last in order came forth first in time. The De Cive of 1647 gives clear evidence, however, that its doctrine of mutual fear did not depend on any antecedent metaphysics.
There would thus seem to be two basic motivations of Hobbes's thinking, different in their origin and independent in their character. The one was derived from his vision of that effort of human beings to adjust their mutual fears, compose their antagonisms, control their egotisms, and secure their lives and property, which effort is both the source and the justification of government. This vision was a consequence of his reading of history, his observation, and his experience. The other motivation was derived from his acquaintance with such men as Galileo and their work. Here his vision was not, first of all, of the human struggle, but of bodies in motion, that vision of the world which Newton later was to round out with such astonishing completeness. In this matter Hobbes's experience may have been a little unusual. The new physics not only revealed to him an unsuspected world, but revealed it to a mind with little or no antecedent prejudice about the constitution of things. The Aristotelian physics which was taught at Oxford, and in contrast to which the new physics was both new and a protest, had apparently not impressed him. It had not filled his mind with a stock of ideas of which he had first to rid himself. He found in the new physics a fresh and unhampered interest. He let his imagination play with it freely. As one reads his "explanations" of the tides, of heat, cold, sound, color, and other physical phenomena, one gets the impression of a mind ingeniously sporting with solutions of problems which had sorely vexed the more competent. Dauntlessly he squares the circle and doubles the cube. He flays the Oxford mathematicians. And because in his own group of the emancipated, Aristotelian physics was obnoxious, he joins in the condemnation of it. His politics was one thing, his physics another. It may be said he could have had the former without the latter, but having the latter, he made it contribute a framework in which the former could be set.
The passage from physics to politics was bridged by Hobbes with the aid of a distinction of which much was made in the physics itself, the distinction between the motion of bodies "when left to themselves" and their motion when influenced by that of other bodies. The former were their natural, and the latter their compounded motions. The problem set by this distinction was to discover how the compounded motions result from the natural. Its implication was, obviously, that there are natural motions which can be ascertained and defined. It seemed fully evident, for example, that a body in motion will "naturally" continue to move in the direction of its own motion unless it is interfered with by some other body; and, given this interference, the resulting change of motion should be calculable. In analogy with the principle of this distinction between natural and compounded motions, Hobbes asks, What will men do "when left to themselves"? What are their "natural" motions? What is the "natural" condition of mankind? Out of the natural motions he discovers, he compounds the movements of men in society. He makes of the body politic a body quite literally. It is a great body, made up of many lesser bodies, and its motion is compounded out of theirs. The frontispiece to the Leviathan represents a giant with a crown upon his head, a sword in his right hand and a crosier in his left, rising from behind the hills which overlook a city. Above, there is this legend from Chapter XLI of the Book of Job wherein the leviathan is described: Non est potestas super terrain qui comparetur ei. The body of the giant in the picture is composed of little men. Sometimes Hobbes speaks of the state -- that great leviathan -- as an "artificial" body, something which men make, but he construes their making of it as a consequence of their natural motions in conflict. It is the supreme culmination of the simple motions that bodies naturally have as they move from place to place and give place to one another in the space that contains them.
True to this passage from physics to politics, Hobbes divides his system into its three major parts, de corpore, de homine, de cive -- body, man, state. Strictly speaking, each deals with a body, lifeless body, living body, civil body. The second is made to mediate between the first and the third. Hobbes seems to have been little disturbed by possible difficulties here, or to have suppressed them if he was. He seems to have been content to take the world as he found it, to believe that God had created it and, having created it, left it to follow and compose the motions natural to its parts. The situation, however, imposed upon him a doctrine of human movements or actions. He needed what we call a psychology or science of human behaviour. This he supplied. Looked at from the point of view of today, it is remarkable for its anticipations of many a later writer who has followed his course of reasoning without knowing it. The psychology needs, and really receives, little support from the physics. Hobbes links them together more by terminology than by evidence, stressing motions of the mind as if the word, when so used by him, was in no sense metaphorical. But the politics depends heavily on the psychology. Hobbes might have admitted, possibly, if pressed, that human beings are naturally gregarious, sociable as well as egotistical, with feelings disposing them to friendship as well as enmity, but he sees them primarily in a position of peril, and, consequently, with a desire for power after power which ceases only in death. It is this insatiate desire which impels them and drives them against their will to submit themselves to a power of their own making which will protect them from themselves. So he has a passionate psychology. Emotions are the driving forces of human nature. They awaken reason in their own interest, and for their own guidance, and it is only with difficulty and labor that reason carries men eventually into that civilized condition in which science and philosophy can flourish. These things are among the blessings of government. So governments must first exist as the organized control of human emotion. The politics is thus, in a sense, the psychology enlarged and socialized.
Hobbes' physics is the weakest part of his system. It contains little in the way of a contribution to the sciences of his own day or since. It is interesting chiefly because of its attempt to align the psychology and the politics with that temper of mind which has produced our natural sciences. And it is interesting as a part of Hobbes's system. He would keep a unity in nature from the movements of bodies in space to the movements of thought in a sovereign's mind. There is often novelty in his explanations of physical occurrences, but there is little novelty in his general conception of what the physical world is like In this he shared the views of those with whom he associated. He shared their views in general, but with the method by which they supported them -- mathematical theory and experimentation -- he had so little sympathy, and of it so little knowledge, that he wasted many years and many words in attacking those -- like Boyle, for example -- whom his professions should have led him to support, and in whom he might have found friends instead of enemies. In the matter of the new physics, he was less an aid than a hindrance.
Science and philosophy are, according to Hobbes, generated out of sense, experience, and memory, by means of reasoning and language. He consequently begins the exposition of his system with a consideration of "Computation or Logic." Although in this section of his work, he shows clearly the influence of the logic he had read, and owes more to Aristotle than he would admit, he has a highly individual manner of working out his convictions. He is direct and forceful. He makes his peace with opposite schools of thought by keeping close to a distinction between knowledge of fact and knowledge of the consequences which flow from propositions. Error is abundant in the former and quite real, but error in the latter is only another name for absurdity or senseless speech. He finds small excuse for the poor reasoner. His sense of language is acute. He demolishes many an apparent profundity by reducing it to clear expression. And he used language, both his own and the Latin, with logical power and with beauty of expression. He wrote a rhetoric. He had the sense of style which marks the literary man. The selections from his writings in this volume are so arranged that the reader can follow through Hobbes's system from the logic to the politics after the manner he himself conceived it, and with the aid of extracts in the notes which bring to bear upon the text parallel passages from the other writings.
The impression which Hobbes seems to have made upon his own time was that of a man who ought not to be doing what he did. There was a small circle of friends who genuinely admired him both for his personality and for the acuteness of his mind. At the close of his life, his general reputation seems to have been that of an irresponsible thinker, who might be important mainly because his influence might be bad. He was for giving sovereigns too much power, and he looked to many like an atheist. He had opponents rather than supporters. There was a popular impression that to be a "Hobbist" was to be something quite disgraceful. The term, like our own "materialist," was sufficient to damn a man. He was denounced, among others, by the University of Oxford in 1683. As a philosophical thinker he was speedily eclipsed by John Locke (1632-1704) who, rather than Hobbes, was to become the force which energized British philosophy. Although Hobbes was highly and continuously esteemed on the continent as a political writer, he was well-nigh forgotten in England until the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, when revived interest in social and political questions, and the growing attention to psychology, brought him into consideration. He was then recognized as a man who had something important to say on human nature and society, in spite of the weakness of a system of philosophy which rested on a foundation so naively conceived and so inadequately developed.
Although Hobbes may be, as he frequently is, classified as a materialist -- if one means thereby a man who conceives that all ultimate explanations of nature and human nature should be in terms of material bodies and motion -- the classification obscures and does not clarify those portions of his philosophy which, once read, hold the attention of the reader and stimulate his reflection. The Leviathan really needs neither an antecedent physics nor metaphysics to support it. For any genuine appreciation of its value and power, the reader will do well to forget the larger setting in which Hobbes would place it. The worth of the book lies in the picture of man in his social and political relations which its author draws. It is a book about man, the "political animal." As such, it should be read. And as one reads, it is not some system of philosophy which should be used to defend or attack the positions there set forth. It is, rather, history, ancient and modern, the record of man in his social relations, as that record is exposed in books and to daily observation. It is far more profitable, for a critical insight, to look at Russia, Italy, and the United States, than to that system of the physical world with which such names as Galileo and Newton are associated.
FREDERICK J. E. WOODBRIDGE