Overview of Leviathan
More than most works published during the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) stands as a transition piece between the Medieval and modern ages. Written at the end of the English Civil War, Leviathan exhibits a fair appraisal of human dignity while also exposing the dangers of traditional democracy. His theory of a “social contract” celebrated the rights and powers of the individual without completely dispensing with the idea of a monarchy. Forged by the spirit of his age, the cosmopolitan Hobbes was, according to Crawford MacPherson, “an acute analyst of power and peace.” This epithet for Hobbes provides a proper lens through which to view his work. Leviathan is a political book in the purest sense. For Hobbes, even friendship and love were forms of power. (150) Therefore, perhaps the best summary thesis for the entire book is found at the beginning of the second section entitled “Of Commonwealth,” when Hobbes begins to shape his political science from his anthropology found in section one. According to Hobbes, the final “end” of humanity is found in “getting themselves out from the miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shown) to the natural passions of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of covenants, and observation of those laws of nature.” (223) Leviathan is a blueprint for the establishing of just such a power, in any of its three forms: monarchy, democracy, or aristocracy. Hobbes isn’t just writing a book on polity; he’s answering the most ultimate questions concerning mankind.
According to John Frame, Hobbes’ “fundamental principle, like that of Descartes and Locke, is the autonomy of human reason.” Especially similar to Descartes, Hobbes’ view of human reason was inextricable from the concept of mathematics, particularly geometry. Consequently, scholars have debated whether to classify Hobbes more as a rationalist or an empiricist. The answer is most likely both. In Leviathan, the author makes his most basic arguments under the fundamental assumption of human reason and observation. Despite the fact that Hobbes defined war as the common condition of every human being apart from a commonwealth, he also believed that the state itself was an “artificial man” and that one could educate herself on the finer points of political science by looking inward. (185, 81-82) Hobbes’ anthropology informed his political science. To begin elsewhere is to “decipher without a key.” (83)
According to Hobbes, if the state is an “artificial man,” the sovereign power is the “artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.” (81) Both the human body as well as the commonwealth itself are composed of parts in motion. This dynamistic model is largely how Hobbes interpreted all of life: in terms of motion. “But that when a thing is in motion, it will eternally be in motion.” (87) Hobbes even posits that “life itself is but motion.” (130) In Hobbes’ mechanistic view of the human body, the heart is but a spring, the nerves strings, and the joints are wheels. Therefore, in turn, a political map could be drawn in equally mechanistic terms. This is exactly what the author attempts to do in Leviathan. In order to govern a state, one must search his own body, heart, and soul. Hence chapter one is largely an exposition of Hobbes’ doctrine of humanity. After the introduction, Leviathan is divided into four parts: “Of Man,” “Of Commonwealth, “Of a Christian Commonwealth,” and “Of the Kingdom of Darkness.”
At the heart of social contract theory are the themes of liberty, covenant, and power. Contrary to many writers, Hobbes defines liberty as “the absence of external impediments” rather than an ability to do otherwise. (similar to Jonathan Edwards) “Law and right, differ as much as obligation and liberty,” the author states. (189) Natural law, as Hobbes defines it, is “the liberty each man has, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature.” Hobbes spends considerable space detailing the various laws of nature, the first being that every mean ought to endeavor peace, and when he cannot obtain it, utilize the advantages of war. The laying down of rights is an act that Hobbes views as foundational to social contract theory. This is a divesting of one’s liberty, of hindering another of the benefit of his own right to the same. One may either renounce or transfer his right. The mutual transferring of right is what Hobbes calls “contract.” (192) All contract is mutual translation or change of right. This “covenant” is void without a common power set over the two covenanters to “compel performance.” Liberty, Covenant, Power.
In Plato’s The Republic, the author attempts to find a correspondence between the nature of the state and the nature of the individual: “I accordingly propose that we start our inquiry with the community, and then proceed to the individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger.” Whereas Plato’s Socratic method began with the community and worked its way to the individual, Thomas Hobbes’ dialectic proceeds in the opposite direction. Leviathan begins in chapter one with the nature of man and then progresses to the commonwealth in chapter two. According to Hobbes, “He that is to govern a whole nation must read in himself, not this or that particular man, but mankind.” One must “read thy self” in some sense. To do otherwise is to “decipher without a key.” (83) Thus Hobbesian anthropology informs the political science of Leviathan. The author even calls the state an “artificial man.” (81) For Hobbes, the Sovereign is not simply the civil leader; he is the absolute Representative, the Actor, the Legislator, the “soul,” or “the essence of the Commonwealth.” (228) Leviathan is an extremely methodical book, precisely because its author believes in the power of human reason to ascertain truth. Despite the fact that Hobbes believes war is the common condition of all men apart from socially contracted government, he holds a high view of humanity in its ability to understand and judge truth and falsehood. (185) He leaves this judgment for his readers.
Hobbes’ view of power in the human life is so pervasive that even love and friendship do not escape its shadow. In fact, all of human life is to be viewed in terms of power and movement: “Life itself is but motion.” (130) The motif of motion is perhaps the bedrock foundation for Hobbes’ parallel between the state and the individual. Like Descartes, Hobbes sees the human in mechanistic terms, and this mechanical lens extends to everything else…including the commonwealth. Hobbes’ especially high view of humanity is also found in his view of human rights. Oddly enough, despite his inevitably war-minded, anarchist perspective of the natural world, Hobbes believes that “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” (190) This of course leads to his view of social contract and the “laying down” of one’s rights for a monarchial, aristocratic, or democratic Commonwealth. For Hobbes, the only two alternatives to social contract are war or the “law of the Gospel.” (190) Whereas the Westminster Confession (penned just a few years before Leviathan) defines the “end” of mankind as glorifying and enjoying God forever, Hobbes defines the “end” of humanity as “getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war.” (223) The only possible way to achieve this, according to Hobbes, is by a coercive power able to implement obedience, fear being the only thing that can impel subjects to obedience.
Leviathan is truly a transition piece between the Medieval and modern ages. It is both democratic and monarchial, both religious and secular. For example, though Hobbes repeatedly addresses human rights, he also speaks of the absolute sovereignty of a monarch. Moreover, even though he recognizes that God’s kingdom is not of this world, he is unwilling to adopt, for example, Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” view of government whereby the church and state hold distinct spheres of authority. Apparently Hobbes does not see the contradiction in establishing God’s political kingdom while honoring that kingdom as otherworldly. According to Hobbes, “the Policy and civil laws are a part of religion; and therefore the distinction of temporal and spiritual domination has no place here.” (178) Hence, despite Hobbes’ Enlightenment views regarding individual rights, he has no place for a 21st century evangelical approach to “separation of church and state.” Furthermore, Hobbes’ anthropology does not ascribe inherent or essential value and dignity to human beings. Instead, in a statement somewhat shocking to any modern reader, Hobbes states, “For let a man (as most men do) rate themselves as the highest value they can; yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others.” (152)
What is not so obvious at first becomes clearer with each chapter in Leviathan: Hobbes’ view of social contract theory isn’t simply a prescription for the pitfalls of politics. Social contract imbues his social view of human ethics as well. Consequently, the value of the Sovereign is so much that it appears he is afforded divine status in his Legislation: “The Sovereign of a Commonwealth, be it an Assembly or one man, is not subject to the civil laws.” (313) In light of the relationship between natural law and civil law that he recognizes further in the book, this only begs the question how the Sovereign can transcend civil law unless the monarch is divine or Hobbes is a political theonomist. Such a social view of human ethics has dangerous implications, especially when the Sovereign is accorded such lofty status that absolutely no evil speech against him is tolerated and human worth is only as much as others define it. As seen in the German Third Reich or in Plato’s The Republic, such views of power and ethics have the potential for eugenics or totalitarianism at the very least. Hobbes defines moral philosophy as “nothing else but the science of what is good and evil, in the conversation and society of mankind.” (216) From such a definition it is evident that Hobbes views even morality itself as relative to the Commonwealth, not in the being and character of God. What is noticeably lacking in Leviathan is a biblical definition of humanity and the imago Dei.
Aside from his social contract theory, perhaps Hobbes is most well known today for his materialism. The author is so committed to this materialist philosophy that he categorizes the phrases “incorporeal body” and “incorporeal substance” as “contradictory” or “inconsistent” speech. (108) In his mind, to say that something has a body yet is immaterial is nonsensical. His materialist bent also influences his biblical hermeneutic. When the Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit in man, Hobbes believes that it is merely speaking to man’s spirit inclined toward godliness. (143) Hobbes singles out the Jews for their explaining of natural causes with Spirit language. Taking an almost anti-supernatural approach, Hobbes believes that Christians should not approach the Bible as a modern science textbook, but as a guide for obedience to civil and natural law. While this belief appears quite orthodox on its face, underneath is Hobbesian materialism. Therefore, for example, when Scripture records stories involving demoniacs, Hobbes is convinced that these are not people possessed with actual demons, but simply madmen with physical and psychological affliction. (146) Hobbes’ materialism is so all-consuming for his worldview that he can state plainly, “the opinion that such spirits were incorporeal, or immaterial, could never enter into the mind of any man by nature.” (171) For Hobbes, materialism is common sense and completely in accord with human reason. To think otherwise is against reason. However, John Frame points to the inconsistency in Thomas Hobbes’ logic when he observes, “it is interesting to know here how many questions Hobbes leaves unanswered. For one thing, if the world consists entirely of matter and motion, on what basis does Hobbes speak of rights, laws, and obligations?” Even in his argumentation, the author cannot avoid using immaterial language. What appears odd is Hobbes’ insistence that modern philosophers first define terms in their inquiries, while not applying this dictum to his own investigation. Another indication of Hobbes’ materialism is his commitment to nominalism, “there being nothing in the world Universal but names, for the things named are every one of them individual and singular.” (102) However, oddly enough, Hobbes can speak of the Sovereign as the “essence” of the Commonwealth, as if to suggest that the Sovereign makes up something other than himself. (228) This is either an example of the limitations of language or another testament to the fact that Hobbesian materialism is untenable.
Lastly, another distinguishing facet of Hobbesian rationalism is his emphasis upon speech. True and false, for example, are “attributes of speech” according to Hobbes. (105) The author even keenly points to the Greek word λογος and its dual meaning for speech and reason, implying that one cannot be adequately explained without accounting for the other (106) Understanding itself is a conception of speech, says Hobbes. Even personhood is defined by Hobbes in terms of speech and action. (217) Yet this leaves another question: what of those human beings who cannot speak? Does this absence of speech preclude them from “true” humanity? While Hobbes’ inclusion of speech into the privileges of mankind is particularly insightful, it also demands further explanation regarding his anthropology. Ultimately, Leviathan recognizes one phenomenon that is also recognized and explained in Scripture: the human tendency toward factiousness and war. Leviathan is an attempt to present a way out of such a condition. However, despite Hobbes’ essentialist understanding of human sin, his political prescriptions fail to account for immaterial spiritual warfare and the otherworldly kingdom of God that cannot be contained inside any commonwealth.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985)