Leviathan; or the Matter and Form of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes’s treatise on Government contains, in their earliest and stiffest form, his theory of the conditions of stable equilibrium in the body politic. Assuming that all change is to be regarded as an evil, and that permanent tranquillity is the very essence of a political society and the great object for which it exists, he investigates the inferences which are to be drawn from this principle.
The Leviathan covers a much wider space. It discusses not merely the principles of government, but those of human nature on which government is founded, as well as those of religion. It also contains, under the quaint title of the 'Kingdom of Darkness,' a treatise on the principal forms of error, which is perhaps the most curious part of the book. The Leviathan, in short, is Hobbes's general system, and includes the result of all his previous works on politics, human nature, and metaphysics.
It was published when he was sixty-three years old, eleven years after the book upon Government. It is thus one of the ripest, the most complete, and the most perfectly well-written books of the sort in the whole range of literature. Hardly any magnum opus of the speculative kind has been so maturely weighed, so completely thought out, and so deliberately fashioned to express in every point the whole mind of its author. For these reasons it is much to be preferred to the earlier works. There is less of that mathematical stiffness about it which makes the work on Government such hard reading; and the liveliness of the style, produced by continual thought and the rejection of everything that on mature consideration appeared superfluous, is wonderful in itself, and carries the reader on with singularly little effort.
There is only one peculiarity about it which gives it an archaic character. This is its quaint wit, which frequently recalls Hobbes's master, Bacon. Take, for instance, the following consolation under the necessary evils of government. 'All men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses—that is, their passions and self-love—through which every little payment appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses—namely, moral and civil science—to see afar off the miseries which hang over them, and cannot without such payments be avoided.'
The following, though less pleasant, is wonderfully quaint. 'Another infirmity of a commonwealth is . . . the great number of corporations, which are, as it were, so many lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man. To which may be added the liberty of disputing against absolute power by pretenders to political prudence, which, though bred for the most part in the lees of the people, yet, animated by false doctrines, are perpetually meddling with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the commonwealth, like the little worms which the physicians call ascarides.'
Hobbes's whole object being to trace out the resemblance of the State to the individual, there is a singular felicity in finding such an unsavoury comparison for the special objects of his animosity.
Apart from its style, and even from its substance, the Leviathan has a claim to notice on account of its position in the history of speculation. When it was written, Hobbes had before his eyes hardly any modern authorities who had treated the subject from any other than a scholastic point of view, like Suarez, or from one more or less technically theological, like Hooker and Bellarmine. Bodin and Grotius had indeed handled kindred topics in what may be called a comparatively modern spirit, but, for reasons upon which we cannot now enter, their writings were not likely to be of much use to Hobbes.
Hobbes, however, was pre-eminently the man of his age. The task of his life was to apply to human nature and to religion the methods which had been devised, not by Bacon only, but by many other persons of equal or superior merit, whose united achievement is symbolised to us in England by Bacon's fame. The distinctive feature of the book is its intensely modern spirit— a spirit which Hobbes no doubt imbibed to a great extent during his long residence on the Continent, and which the peculiar circumstances of his age enabled him to express in England with far greater freedom than was then, or for some time afterwards, accessible in other parts of the world. The book, however, cannot be read with intelligence without perceiving how many spirits in prison there must have been in the first half of the seventeenth century, who utterly rebelled against the religion and philosophy of their time, and especially against the 'Church philosophy,' as Hobbes calls the technical divinity then current.
The Leviathan is divided into four parts. The first treats of Man, the second of a Commonwealth, the third of a Christian Commonwealth, and the last of the 'Kingdom of Darkness.' We will try to give such an account as can be given in a reasonable compass of this astonishing work, the greatness of which must grow upon every diligent student of it in proportion to the time which he gives to its study. We hope, in a subsequent article, to notice Hobbes's minor works, and we reserve till then the few observations which we shall think it necessary to add on the deficiencies of this system. These are more apparent in his reflections on historical facts than in his abstract inquiries.
His first book is on Man, and his style is so firm, so clear, and so beautifully compact that a very good idea of it can be given by extracting and collecting its cardinal propositions. Going to the beginning of things at once, he sets out with an inquiry into the nature of thought. 'Concerning the thoughts of man I will consider them first singly, and afterwards in train or dependence upon one another. Singly they are every one a representation or appearance of some quality or other accident of a body without us, which object worketh on the eyes, ears, and other parts of a man's body; and by diversity of working produceth diversity of appearance. The original of them all is that which we call sense.'
Thoughts thus originate in sense, and raise images. 'After the object is removed or the eye shut we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. . . . This decaying sense when we would express the thing itself, I mean fancy itself, we call imagination . . . but when we would express the decay, and signify that the sense is fading, old, and past, it is called memory.'
So much for thoughts considered singly. As for thoughts considered 'in train or dependence upon one another,' they are of two kinds. In some cases the train of our thoughts is 'unguided, without design,' yet even then there is a real, though generally an unperceived, connection of ideas. Hobbes illustrates this by the man who, talking of the civil wars, asked the value of a Roman penny—the connecting links being Judas's thirty pieces of silver, and the sale of Charles I. by the Scotch.
Hobbes, we believe, was the first person who attached anything like its true importance to the association of ideas thus exemplified, or who advanced the doctrine which has steadily made its way since his time—though even now it is hardly ever realised to its full extent — that reasoning is only a case of it. This, however, is distinctly his doctrine, for he adds that 'the second' sort of mental discourse 'is more constant, as being regulated by some desire or design.' 'From desire ariseth the thought of some means we have seen produce the like of that which we aim at; and from the thought of that the thought of means to that mean, and so continually till we come to some beginning within our own power.'
This, he says, is common to man and beast; but to reverse the process, 'when, imagining anything whatsoever, we seek all the possible effects that can by it be produced,' is peculiar to man. There is more to be learnt from this observation than from acres of Coleridge's argumentations about reason and understanding. With his wonted terseness Hobbes sums up his psychology in two lines. 'Besides sense and thoughts and the train of thoughts, the mind of man has no other motion.'
From this analysis of thought, which reduces it to systematised imagination, Hobbes passes to the consideration of language, the external symbol of thought. His chapters on this subject appear to us the most remarkable in his whole book. Both the thought and the style are so close and profound that it is impossible to abridge them, but a general notion of them may be given shortly as follows.
Words are the names of mental images which they serve to recall. If, and in so far as, the mental image is clearly discerned, the word which produces it is intelligible, and may be understood, for understanding 'is conception caused by speech.' Of these words many are ambiguous, because the images excited by them in the minds of different men are themselves different. 'One man calleth wisdom what another calleth fear;' 'one cruelty, what another justice,' etc. (This anticipates Bentham's famous distinction about eulogistic and dyslogistic terms.)
Reasoning is the addition or subtraction of words— their combination, that is, in complex images more or less varied according to the words used. 'Reason is nothing but reckoning—that is, adding and subtracting of the consequences of general names,' ascertaining how they modify the mental images which they affect. The great source of error is the use of words which are either insignificant or raise an image not fully representing the thing imagined. 'Words whereby we conceive nothing but the sound, are those we call absurd, insignificant, and nonsense.' Man is the only animal which reasons, but ‘this privilege is alloyed by another, and that is by the privilege of absurdity.' Men alone are misled by fallacies. When we have 'a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand, that is it which men call science.'
Hobbes, upon the whole, conceives of science as a collection of general imaginations as to the ways in which things happen, denoted bywords which call them up distinctly, and so as to be apprehended in their application to the causes and effects of particular facts.
Having thus considered man as capable of knowledge, Hobbes passes to the consideration of him as capable of action. Here, again, he sets out with the imagination, which 'is the first internal beginning of all voluntary motion.' Some imaginations being pleasing and others displeasing, the first dispose us to move towards the object imagined, the others from it. Desire and aversion signify our disposition towards an absent object, and love and hate our disposition towards the same object when present. Objects of desire are beautiful, pleasant, or useful, according as we contemplate, enjoy, or seek them; and in the same way objects of aversion are hateful, unpleasant, or obstructive. He resolves all the passions in this way into cases of desire or aversion for particular things, and there is no part of his work in which his genius is more profusely displayed.
A single specimen will show the beauty and force of his thoughts on this subject. 'Love of one singularly, with desire to be singularly beloved—the PASSION OF LOVE. The same, with fear that the love is not mutual, JEALOUSY.' Was there ever a more perfect or a shorter definition?
Many of these definitions have given much offence; for instance: 'Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION. And when the power imagined is truly such as we imagine, TRUE RELIGION.'
The definition, after all, errs only by defect; substitute for 'fear' ' affections towards,' and it becomes as nearly true as any such definition can be.
The passions end in action. 'When in the mind of man appetites and aversions, hopes and fears concerning one and the same thing, arise alternately; and divers good and evil consequences of the doing or omitting the thing propounded come successively into our thoughts, so that sometimes we have an appetite to it, sometimes an aversion from it, sometimes hope to be able to do it, sometimes despair or fear to attempt it; the whole sum of desires, aversions, hopes, and fears, continued till the thing be either done or thought impossible, is that we call Deliberation.'
This is the foundation of the famous definition of the Will. 'Will is the last appetite in deliberating.'
This analysis of the passions is followed by an analysis of the states of mind in which mental discourse may end, such as judgment, doubt, science, opinion, conscience, and faith. His account of conscience is the most remarkable. Conscience, he says, properly means the knowledge by more persons than one of the same fact; and inasmuch as a fact known by several persons must be very sure, it is wrong to speak against it, or persuade others to do so.
'Afterwards men made use of the same word metaphorically for the knowledge of their own secret facts and secret thoughts. . . . And last of all, men vehemently in love with their own new opinions, though never so absurd, and obstinately bent to maintain them, gave those their opinions also that reverenced name of conscience, as if they would have it seem unlawful to change or speak against them.'
After some chapters of less importance, Hobbes proceeds to the subject of morals, or, as he prefers to call them, manners, and his treatment of this is the most characteristic part of his book. According to his invariable method he treats the whole question as one of fact, applying himself to determine what in fact is the end of morality, the object of human wishes. It is in relation to this matter that he is led into what is usually considered as his greatest paradox. 'In the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.' In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand what Hobbes meant by power, for he uses the word in a technical sense, and this fact is generally overlooked. 'The power of a man, to take it universally, is his present means to obtain some future apparent good.'
Elsewhere he says: 'There is no such finis ultimus, utmost aim, nor summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live whose desires are at an end than he whose senses and imagination are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another.'
The universal desire of power is only a name for this continual striving. Neither his critics nor Hobbes himself always bear this in mind. So great a writer as Butler appears to have misunderstood him completely on this point, and there are no doubt passages in the Leviathan in which the word 'power' is used without reference to the general definition of it just quoted.
Such is Hobbes's conception of men considered as individuals, and he argues from this that their natural state is a state of war, each against all the rest. Inhuman as this sounds, it means no more than that, if all society, all religion, all law, and all morals were taken away, universal anarchy would prevail; for religion, law, morals, and all the other relations of society are, as Hobbes himself teaches, produced by men's sense of the misery of that state of war which would exist without them. The step from the one state to the other in his theory is the perception of the laws of nature, which he investigates at length, and finally defines as follows.
'These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly; for they are but conclusions or theorems, concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others.'
The laws of nature are, according to Hobbes, the terms upon which a compromise between the conflicting desires of different men can practically be made.
From this conception of human nature he proceeds to discuss the nature of the commonwealth, 'that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, that mortal God to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence.' I have before described his views on this subject, and it is therefore unnecessary on the present occasion to do more than refer to them in a very summary manner.
The commonwealth, or Leviathan, is with him the ideal sovereign who is, and by the nature of things always must be, the supreme disposer of coercive power. Change its character and form as you will, the thing itself will always remain, just as there will always be a centre of gravity in every mass of matter.
This is the central idea of the whole book, and the rest of it may be considered as little more than an examination of the ways in which the coercive sanction may be applied. It can, for instance, regulate all conduct. It can regulate the expression of opinion; it can regulate all external processes of education and the like, by which opinion is formed; but, except to this extent, it cannot reach the thoughts of men's hearts. These, indeed, are beyond all coercive authority whatever, even that of God himself.
Hobbes expressly says, in speaking of Revelation: 'We are bidden to captivate our understanding by the words, but by the captivity of our understanding is not meant a submission of the intellectual faculty to the opinion of any other man, but of the will to obedience where obedience is due. For sense, memory, understanding, reason, and opinion are not in our power to change, but always and necessarily such as the things we see, hear, and consider suggest unto us, and therefore are not effects of our will, but our will of them. We then captivate our understanding and reason when we forbear contradiction, when we so speak as by lawful authority we are commanded, and when we live accordingly, which in sum is trust and faith reposed in him that speaketh, though the mind be incapable of any notion at all from the words spoken.'
By this remarkable device Hobbes reconciled the utmost latitude of private opinion with the strongest theories as to sovereign power over opinions. It is obvious, from many other passages, that he not only highly valued this freedom, but wished to see it protected by what he regarded as the only sure shield for it, the natural indifference of the civil power to controversies which do not disturb the peace.
After writing the history of the decline of the power of the Popes, the Bishops, and the Presbyterians, he says: 'And so we are reduced to the independency of the primitive Christians to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollo, every man as he liketh best; which if it be without contention ... is perhaps the best.'
After describing at length the conditions of political equilibrium, Hobbes proceeds to consider how they are affected by Christianity. His speculation on this subject is perhaps the most famous part of the whole book. It may be described in a few words as the earliest and one of the most complete specimens of rationalism to be found in literature. The general effect of it is to reduce Christianity to the position of a supernatural sanction to natural morality, without in any way contesting the truth of the Bible, which he assumes to be the exclusive receptacle of the Christian religion.
This is well pointed out by Warburton in a note to Book I. chap. v. of the Alliance: 'Hobbes' (he says) 'is commonly supposed to be an enemy to all religion, especially the Christian. But it is observable that in his attacks upon it (if at least he intended his chapter of the Christian Commonwealth, in the Leviathan, for an attack) he has taken direct contrary measures to those of Bayle, Collins, Tyndal, Bolingbroke, and all the other writers against Revelation. They endeavoured to show the Gospel system as unreasonable as their extreme malice could make it, he as reasonable as his admirable wit could represent it.'
It must be recollected that in Hobbes's day, and indeed long afterwards, every one rationalised — Bossuet and Bellarmine as much as Hobbes or Jeremy Taylor. Admit that all truth upon the greatest subjects of human inquiry is somehow or other to be extracted from the Bible, and, whatever may be your system, you will have to treat the Bible in the strangest way before you can 'prove' it. Hobbes adapts the Bible to his general purposes with supreme ingenuity, and a great deal of what he says is quite true, though it ought to be connected with many other truths.
Christianity embarrassed him thus: If God has established a divine society and a divine system of morality, how can the civil ruler be supreme, and how can the rules thus laid down fail to override all human laws? The principal devices by which he avoids this difficulty are the following. He admits that 'it is madness' to obey the civil power at the expense of damnation. What then, he asks, is necessary to salvation? He answers, two things — faith and obedience. Faith that Jesus is the Christ is what all Christian sovereigns admit in various forms, though infidel Powers deny it. Under Christian Powers, therefore, no difficulty arises. Under infidel Powers, the precedent of Naaman, who bowed down to Rimmon but worshipped the true God in his heart, may safely be followed. As to obedience, Christianity is not a system of laws but of counsels, one of which is to obey the laws to which we are subject, which are the law of nature as interpreted by the sovereign of our country. As to the clergy, they are only advisers, and in no sense rulers. Their only power is that of excommunication, which, when you analyse it, means no more than the power of expressing disapproval.
It is easy to understand how, by the proper use of these principles, and by interpreting the language of the Bible according to his own view, Hobbes was able to give to his whole system an air of orthodoxy to which it is, on the whole, as well entitled as many other systems which have a much more orthodox reputation.
The last book, on the 'Kingdom of Darkness,' is an examination of the various deceptions and superstitions by which men have been ruled. Amongst these Hobbes reckons up the prerogatives of the Pope and his clergy, belief in ghosts and devils, the belief in scholastic philosophy, belief in the doctrine of eternal punishments (he urges nearly all the modified interpretations of the texts on this subject so well known in our day, and protests against the cruelty of the common doctrine), belief in Aristotle's doctrine 'that not men but law governs,' and a variety of other beliefs which he regarded as injurious.
The chapter ends with an elaborate comparison 'of the Papacy with the kingdom of fairies.' There is not to be found in all English literature a stranger performance than this chapter. The most profound philosophy, the most singular shrewdness, the strangest freaks of grotesque humour, almost prophetic anticipations of the course of subsequent thought, are all connected together by a framework, the conception of which is so quaint, that there is a difficulty in understanding how it came to be written in sober earnest.
To give specimens of these characteristics would swell our article to an unconscionable length; but the following references may be worth notice. As an instance of profundity, take chapter xlvi., on Scholastic Metaphysics. Passages at pp. 677, 678 of Vol. III. of Sir W. Molesworth's edition afford an admirable specimen of humour, and of anticipation of the course of modern thought. As for shrewdness, at p. 663 there is a passage about the Romish and Pagan ceremonial which anticipates Middleton's famous tract; and as for grotesqueness, the passage about the kingdom of the fairies (697-700) might have come bodily out of the Sapientia Veterum or Fuller.
These few remarks are enough to give a sort of notion of one of the greatest of all books, and the very oddest of all great books in English literature; but nothing but careful and repeated study of the book itself can give a true conception of its magnitude, or of the richness of the 'admirable wit' which produced it.
Saturday Review, September 29, 1866.