Philosophial Depth of Thomas Hobbes’ Novel Leviathan

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

While atrocities like witch hunts, diseases, the “mini” ice age, and a multitude of wars emerged in the 17th century, so did one of the most important works of modern philosophy and politics- Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Contrary to the general consensus of the English population at the time, Hobbes was a royalist who strongly believed in the commonwealth during the reign of King Charles I of England. In the 1640s, it was evident that King Charles would face opposition from the once dissolved parliament alongside the English civilians in the near future. Out of fear, Hobbes fled to France where he would write Leviathan, his most famous work, and published it in 1651. Though he knew it would strike a nerve in the extremely politically charged times, he vocalized his royalist political and philosophical stance in complete depth. Divided into four parts, Hobbes’ Leviathan, covers different ideas in each section; “Of Man”, “Of Commonwealth”, “Of a Christian Commonwealth” and “The Kingdom of Darkness”.

Part one “Of Man” covers Hobbes’ philosophy of humans and how they operate on a fundamental level. He believes humans are perpetually in motion, whether it be involuntarily (ex: blood, the pulse, breathing) or voluntary, which he calls animal motion. Hobbes states that humans are merely complicated machines. While they believe they are much more sophisticated and intelligent than animals, humans operate on a primal basis of appetites and aversions, making them inherently bad. If humans find something profitable, it will be sought out by any means possible. If found unprofitable, it will be averted. It is stated that the only difference between love and desire is that “by desire, we always signify the absence of the object; by love, most commonly the presence of the same.” The same applies to aversion and hate. This concept is drawn to the oppositions of good/evil and mutual trust/invalid trust, and how all of these are the driving factors for humans to take any action in life.

While this concept is rather broad, it is crucial to understanding his political reasonings in the following parts. Moreover, it is a direct account of the human behaviour Hobbes must have observed in the 17th century. With monetary inflation, a quickly growing population, rising food prices, and a weak economy, the English population in the early to mid-1600s was in disarray, and with good reason. The Thirty Years War, having ended just 3 years before Leviathan was published, greatly influenced the type of society Hobbes found himself in at the time. The average citizen in western Europe in the early 1600s would have been disrupted in almost every aspect of life (food, finance, military, family) and would have acted accordingly. It is these circumstances that would lead Hobbes to believe that human nature is a war-centric, unforgiving, primal way of existence. Any decision could mean life or death and in order to survive such awful conditions of the time period, citizens would have to operate out of self-preservation.

The second part, “Of Commonwealth”, defines the different types of commonwealths and why they are the superior form of government. Hobbes states that the commonwealth gives enough strength to one man or body to scare the public and thus confirm the wills of many done by any means possible. This connects to his claims in “Of Man” about how humans are ruthless and without proper power over them, war is the natural consequence. He makes it clear on several occasions throughout the chapter that the sovereign power is the interpreter of civil law withought being subject to civil law, as well as the active legislator. When sovereign power ceases, all crime ceases as well, as there is no way to be accountable- these crimes would become “sins”. The law is presented as something flexible; sometimes not present, and sometimes excusable. The one concrete point of accountability remains the sovereign power, always present and never excusable. Hobbes states that this system works under the contract theory, which Hobbes describes as “the mutual transferring of right.” In the place of natural law, this system allows the state to provide citizens with protection and freedoms within its own definitions. He recognizes, however, that it is not a formal agreement as people are born into pre-existing societies without a choice. Yet, the model explains that a state will serve its citizens as long as the citizens serve the state.

These claims are all directly linked to examples of King Charles’ rule and his eventual defeat. Charles was widely disliked for his marriage to a catholic woman, Henrietta Maria, and was unfavourable among protestants regarding his religious policies. Charles also lost public support over welfare issues, which effected thousands of civilians. Under a Hobbesian commonwealth, Charles would have been able to scare his opposition and civilians into agreement and assimilation. However, such was not the case as Charles acted out of his own will, not out of concern for his poeple. Virtually every person in England turned against him as he dissolved parliament and struggled to rule on his lonesome during the Eleven Years Tyranny. However, if religion were in control by the state, and had the king concerned himself with civillian issues rather than his own, England could have been a fully realized Hobbesian state in the 17th century.

This chapter also serves as explination as to why Hobbes would prefer France over England in the 17th century. It was at this time period where France was under absolutist rule with the concentration of sovereignty, power, and rights in the hands of a monarch. Kings like Louis XIV had power over the military and virtually all administration in the government. This lead to the creation of absolutist culture within France. In Versailles, gardens were built in grandeur to acknowledge the power of the sovreign ruler, large balls were thrown and infamous parties took place, all while French noblemen reaped the rewards of such acknowledgement. Though Louis XIV was not able to hold his ground until the end of his rule, the French standard for sovreignty greatly clashed with that of England at the time Hobbes was writing Leviathan. Before the conflicts with the protestants in 1685, France was an effeciently centralized government and was recognized as the most powerful country in Europe at the time.

Parts three and four, “Of a Christian Commonwealth” and “The Kingdom of Darkness” diverge from Hobbes’ original tactics of logic and reasoning as he steers towards his ideas of the application of religion to the state. Hobbes asserts a stance reminiscent of deism, as he talks about the coexistence of both natural laws as well as laws set out by God. As the deist belief explains, God created the universe and is all-knowing as the conventional God-like figure is usually recognized. However, in this view, God does not interact with his creation on Earth. With this in mind, Hobbes states that one should approach with caution when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle or to be a prophet. By this logic, a member of the kingdom of the sovereign can also serve as a member of the kingdom of God without conflicting rules. By obeying both sovereign and divine powers, the system of the commonwealth would function in Hobbes’ ideal view. This is due to his prior observations in “Of Man”, when he writes that organized religion is a necessity for humans, as “this fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion”. If everyones fears are placed into said religion, and the religious faith of the people is placed in the hands of the sovereign, the sovereign leader will possess the utmost power over his population. However, Hobbes emphasises in part four that the church itself is not free from darkness. He writes that through “1) abusing and putting light out of scriptures, 2) introducing demonology without any real nature of its own, 3) mixing scripture with vain and errenous philisophy of the greeks, and 4) mingling history or uncertain traditions into philosophy and religion.”

Hobbes’outlined view of the proper form of Christianity are historically relevant as religion was incredibly subjective in the 17th century as England had broken from the Roman Catholic Church. In the previous century, it was nationally mandated to belong to the church of England. Yet in 1600s, independant churches begam forming, alongside developping ideas of faith. The first Baptist Church in England met for thr first time in 1612. His writing provokes anti-catholic ideas, trying to steer away from scripture and stating dieblief in casual intervention from God. This could be an attempt to appeal to a wider protestant or calvanist audiance within England. It could also be a recation to the corruptions within the Catholic church from the Dark Ages with the selling of offices and indulgences disguised as spiritually valuble.


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