Part I: Introduction to Thomas Hobbes

I have been asked to provide reading materials on the authors about whom I am writing. I have not done so in the past for the following reasons:

  • Given the limited number of words I have and the extent of my coverage, I did not want to distract from the main line of the narrative;
  • My blogs are not scholarly accounts requiring citations to support assertions and particular interpretations rather than others;
  • Though the range has been broad in the coverage, the focus has been narrow, namely the attitude towards and the influence of Jews;
  • I did not want to intimidate anyone.

Nevertheless, since I was asked, I am attaching a list of references on Thomas Hobbes, most drawn from my own personal library, to illustrate why I have been reluctant to provide a bibliography. I will continue to avoid quotations for the most part, and certainly citations. In the list attached, I have included only books directly on Hobbes and have excluded scholarly essays and the many references and discussions of Hobbes in scholars discussing issues rather than Hobbes directly.

At the same time as I have been dealing with singular voices, first from the sixteenth century and then from the seventeenth century, to explicate how these thinkers thought of Jews, I have been running a thesis to indicate that a main trajectory of these authors and innovators was to provide a foundation for modernity. For most of them, the aim was to free the modern world from the medieval world dominated by the sacred and Aristotelian scholasticism. The attitude towards Jews played a major role in that transition. In this tale of the separation of the secular from the sacred, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke play a singularly important role in freeing up modern political theory from any reliance on the authority of the sacred text altogether – the Old Testament and, in Judaism, the Tanach.

At the same time, tropes and themes from that ancient text have been drawn upon and reinvented for use in providing a new ground for epistemology, metaphysics and that which has been my major focus, political theory and ethics. In doing so, I have been sketching a thesis about the development of sovereignty, nationalism and republicanism for the modern nation state that is the basic political unit of the modern world. At the same time, ethical and political principles like liberty, responsibility and accountability have been touched upon. Further, as I have moved further and further towards the present, I have suggested that, in separating the secular from the sacred as the mark of modernity, something was lost along the way, and if not lost, preserved in a very weakened form – namely the phenomenon of a willing sacrifice.

In the seventeenth century, I will continue to use Baruch Spinoza as my foil as I explicate the role of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in providing foundations for modernity. Both authors cut the final umbilical cord to the sacred. There are many more other scholars, whom I have ignored or merely mentioned as an aside – such as three Frenchmen, René Descartes, Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi. In England, Hobbes was close friends with John Milton, William Harvey (of the circulation theory of the heart and blood vessels) and John Selden, an Erastian who held that the state was superior to the church, not just in secular matters, but in ecclesiastical matters as well.

I begin with Thomas Hobbes as the most conspicuous thinker linking Francis Bacon and John Locke. He is the only one of my authors to have written an autobiography – at the age of 84. (He lived to the age of 91, though in 1647 he almost died from a disease he contracted.) His father was a gregarious and beloved vicar who could read the Christian prayers and the homilies, but could neither interpret nor comment upon them, and, more importantly, would certainly have been unable to provide any defence of them for the brilliant critical thinking of his son, Thomas Jr. Why he deserted his wife and three children when they were very young is left unexplained, but one suggestion was that, as a parson, he was discovered to be a fraud.  

Thomas, supported by his uncle, entered Magdalen College at Oxford at the age of fifteen in 1603 when the university had almost reached the bottom of its decrepitude, obscurantism and irrelevance towards which it had been drifting for the previous two centuries. Then, it was dominated by Puritans. (In that same century, Oxford began the long road to recovery with the introduction of professorships in geometry and astronomy in 1619.) Hobbes made a practice of skipping classes. Fortunately, one of the richest men in England, Sir William Cavendish, became his patron. Cavendish became the first Earl of Devonshire in 1618 by buying the title from James I at the enormous sum then of £10,000. (Perhaps you have seen the 2008 film The Duchess about Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), who married the 5th Duke of Devonshire, a truly awful and ignorant man, five generations later; the movie provides a glimpse into the wealth of the Cavendish family.)

Like Francis Bacon, Hobbes was very much involved in the politics of the day and again, like Bacon, an enemy of the retarded scholasticism of the time. Unlike Bacon, he disdained the inductive method in favour of a deductive approach. He shared friendly hours with Francis Bacon in disputation and dialogue until his friend died in 1626. He traveled extensively in Europe. On his third tour with his pupil in tow, he visited Galileo in Italy in 1636, then under house arrest by the Inquisition. He had visited Venice, the government of which impressed him greatly. He had also immersed himself in the writings of Machiavelli. He visited Spinoza in Holland as well as Descartes, who had fled to Holland as a refugee from France. He visited Marin Mersenne in his monastic cell in Place Royale. Though the most personable, kind, witty and affable man of letters in all of Europe, who developed long and deep friendships in the process of his travels, he also became convinced that he was capable of founding a completely new system of thought from his own unaided genius.

Like Spinoza, he became convinced that there was one reality, but for Hobbes it was motion and not a leftover from scholasticism, substance. The basic view was that change was primary. Politically, though he is often represented as the father of modern authoritarianism, he had also become a Whig constitutionalist opposed to both absolute monarchy and what he regarded as radical parliamentarian views of democracy. Whigs, though wary of his powerful Leviathan, appreciated his anti-clericalism and opposition to religious persecution. They cited Hobbes to support their views on liberty, tolerance and reason,

It was a period of political turmoil in England when Charles was forced to recall parliament in April 1640 after an eleven year hiatus in order to raise the money to fight a new Scottish army. Given Hobbes’s intellectual background and the political challenges of the day, he built upon his earlier writings on the nature of humans and the world, a series of political tracts beginning with, Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640) and De Cive (1642), the same year in which The Third Earl of Cavendish was impeached and fled to Paris as a refugee.

In 1651, Hobbes published his masterpiece, The Leviathan. As tutor to the Prince of Wales, was it an apology for the monarchy? Or was it a rationale for the Puritan autocrat, Oliver Cromwell, who had Charles I beheaded on 30 January 1649? Was this volume Hobbes’ re-entry ticket from Paris back to London? But Cromwell did not become Protector until 1653. Like Machiavelli and his many successors, survival and submission to the dominant political faction was the order of the day “when the means of his life are within the guards and garrisons of the enemy.” Other than motive, there was a second problem – his deductive methodology. It only came to the fore in the De Corpore (1655) when he claimed a definitive geometric proof that had solved a problem that had baffled predecessors.

However John Wallis, the first professor of geometry at Oxford, and the one who, after Newton and Leibniz, contributed most to the advancement of differential calculus, demolished Hobbes’s claims, not only poking holes in his proof, but also upbraiding him for his incompetence, incapacity and ignorance in not only geometry and logic, but in his claimed expertise in Greek. Hobbes’s only retort (he was already in his seventies), Wallis was either a traitor or treacherous for he had boasted of deciphering the king’s dispatches. Just where the university was beginning to reform itself, Hobbes attacked it as if it was still under the absolute control of the clergy. Even a brilliant mind can grow into a fool, especially when intellectual audacity carried him over an intellectual cliff.

Thomas Hobbes, this agreeable and venerable intellect, was now exposed as a charlatan, a fool and a failure. Even when his old pupil, now the king with the Restoration, invited him back to court, he was teased by the king’s courtiers as a “bear ready to be baited.” Hobbes was saved from his ignominy by being adopted as a court intellectual by Louis XIV when he was the Sun King of Europe and before he made his fatal mistake of withdrawing his forces from a siege of English troops in 1688. Thus is the fate of brilliant minds determined in good part by the whims of political fortune. And external calamities seemed to precede and anticipate his decline – the plagues of 1665 and 1666, the fire of London allegedly started by Papists. Hobbes in 1668, his eightieth year, was forbidden to publish Behemoth: the history of the causes of the civil wars in England. This history of the Long Parliament was only published posthumously in 1681.  

Hobbes, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, wrote a book on law – he had never been a lawyer – to refute Francis Bacon’s Elements of the Common Law. His not quite finished Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England was perhaps his most consequential book, opening the gateway to significant legal reform. Except he ended by publishing at the age of 86 an inconsequential and marred translation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey (he had begun his career by translating Thucydides) because, as he wrote, he had nothing better to do. It seems that proud scholars are reluctant to go quietly into the night even as they put off the end with exercise, singing to himself and practicing his old instrument, the bass viol. Squeezed between Francis Bacon and John Locke, Hobbes would only be restored fully to the intellectual firmament in the twentieth century.

For Hobbes was an analyst of power. And the last two hundred years have been obsessed by power, how to harness, control and direct it. Hobbes tried to marry that understanding of power to a theory of natural rights, and rights have been the countervailing obsession of the last two centuries. The resurrection began after the American Civil War because Hobbes was an acute analyst of such wars and, further, offered a supposed scientific approach to the subject, an approach loved by the political science alcoholics of the post WWII period. Further, it was an age of “advertisements for myself,” and Hobbes demonstrated audacity in the public realm of trading intellectual shafts of thunder and lightning. Mainly, he focused on what was conceived to be the heart of the matter in politics – the reconciliation of might is right with illuminating light of rights.

We have lived in an era of endless war, but one that has repeatedly promised peace. Going back to basics might help, should help. Hobbes wrote in anticipation of a bourgeois market economy. How else can we explain the abject rejection of critical thought by the Republican legislators who have rallied behind their ruler? For Hobbes had preached obedience, obedience to whatever the power was at the time and provided the rationale for such obedience at the same time as he removed the final girders propping up the doctrine of the divine right of kings reinforced by cross beams of rights established by custom and common law. At the same time, he skewered the democratic appeal of a whole set of other rights established by custom and common law and the premise of a democracy built on the foundation of a social contract. While addressing the key questions of our modern age, he undermined the props that held it up. At the time, his works were used to justify the position of Charles I, then Parliament and the Protector and then the Restoration of Charles II.

What counted for his success? He had applied the scientific method of deduction borrowed from geometry to the messy and unscientific world of the jostling and thrust of power and politics. And he took from physics the notion of motion, that everything in nature is caused by motion that explained not only nature but man and society. What kind of government was required to maintain and maximize motion in men by understanding the laws governing that motion? That motion could be manipulated for the benefit of mankind. He had evolved from a classical humanist to a philosopher of human mechanics to explain and manage conflict.

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