Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Leviathan
  Literary style and method of work Theory of human nature and of sovereignty  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 10. Leviathan.


The title-page of this book depicts its purpose. The upper half of the page has, in the foreground, a walled town with tall church spires; behind, the country rises towards a hill out of which emerges the figure of a man from the waist upwards; a crown is on his head; his right hand wields a sword, his left grasps a crosier; his coat of mail consists of a multitude of human figures, with their faces turned to him, as in supplication. On the lower half of the page, on either side the title, are represented a castle and a church, a coronet and a mitre, a cannon and lightning, implements of war and weapons of argument, a battle-field and a dispute in the schools. Over all runs the legend Non est potestas super terram quae comparetur ei. This is the design “of the great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that mortal God,” whose generation and power Hobbes sets out to describe.   23
  The figure of the leviathan dominates the whole book, and Hobbes argues over and over again that there is no alternative between absolute rule and social anarchy. Its lurid picture of the state of nature, contrasted with the peace and order instituted by sovereign power, undoubtedly reflects the troubles and emotions of the time; but it is no mere seventeenth century version of In darkest England and the way out. Far less is Hobbes’s whole philosophy to be put down to the fear of civil tumult and the desire to think out a theory of government adequate to its restraint. Leviathan is a work of great and enduring importance just because it is not a mere political pamphlet. It owes life and colour to the time at which it was written; but another force also contributed to its making— a conception of larger scope, which gives it the unity of a philosophical masterpiece.   24
  This underlying conception and all the author’s most striking ideas are to be found in the treatise completed in 1640—when political troubles were obviously at hand, but, as yet, no personal danger threatened. In logic and lucidity, this earlier treatise is not surpassed by the later work, though it fails to give the same constant impression of reality. It is a text-book such as philosophers have sometimes written for statesmen, to instruct them in the principles of their craft; and it did not entirely escape the usual fate of such efforts. Before Hobbes set about writing it, the fundamental idea of a philosophy had taken root in his mind; and this idea he owed to the new mechanical theory, and, in particular, to Galileo’s teaching. Motion, he came to think, was the one reality; all other things are but “fancies, the offspring of our brains.” He did not now, or, indeed, afterwards, work out a mechanical theory of the physical universe, as Descartes, for instance, was doing. But he had a bolder—if an impossible—project. Descartes restricted mechanism to the extended world, maintained the independence of mental existence and held the latter to be of all things most certain. Hobbes did not thus limit the applications of his new idea. He thought he could pass from external motions to “the internal motions of men,” and, thence, to sovereignty and justice. This is his own account, and it agrees with what we know otherwise. Neither the mechanical theory, nor the psychology, is an afterthought introduced to bolster up a foregone political conclusion. They have their roots too deep in Hobbes’s mind. It is true, the desired transitions could not logically be made, and Hobbes found out the difficulty later. But, when civil disturbance forced his hand and led to the elaboration of his ethical and political doctrine, this doctrine was found to be in harmony with the idea from which his view of the universe started. The external and mechanical character of the political theory is an indication of its unreality, but it bears witness, also, to the unity of conception that dominates the whole philosophy.   25
  All things, according to Hobbes, “have but one universal cause, which is motion.” But, for him, as for other writers of his day, “motion” is not a merely abstract conception; it includes movement of masses or of particles. From geometry, which treats of abstract motion, he thus passes, without a break, to physics, and, thence, to moral philosophy; for the “motions of the mind” have physical causes. And, by this synthetical method, proceeding from principles, we “come to the causes and necessity of constituting commonwealths.” This method he always kept in view, and it gives unity to his theory. But he never carried out the impossible task of applying it in detail. He admits that there is another and an easier way:
For the causes of the motions of the mind are known, not only by ratiocination, but also by the experience of every man that takes the pains to observe those motions within himself.
If he “will but examine his own mind,” he will find
that the appetites of men and the passions of their minds are such that, unless they be restrained by some power, they will always be making war upon one another.
By adopting this method, Hobbes thinks he can appeal to each man’s experience to confirm the truth of his doctrine.
  26
  Leviathan is divided into four parts, which treat, respectively of Man, of a Commonwealth, of a Christian Commonwealth and of the Kingdom of Darkness. Man comes first, for he is both the matter and the artificer of the Leviathan; and, at the outset, he is considered alone, as an individual thing played upon by external bodies; “for there is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.” Diverse external motions produce diverse motions in us; and, in reality, there is nothing else; “but their appearance to us is fancy,” though this name is commonly restricted to “decaying sense.” The thoughts thus raised succeed one another in an order sometimes controlled by a “passionate thought,” sometimes not. By
the most noble and profitable invention of speech, names have been given to thoughts, whereby society and science have been made possible, and also absurdity: for words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.
Reason is but reckoning; addition and subtraction are its processes, logic is “computation.” So far, man is regarded as if he were a thinking being only. But he is also active. The internal motions set up by the action of objects upon the senses become reactions upon the external world; and these reactions are all of the nature of tendencies towards that which “helps the vital motion,” that is, ministers to the preservation of the individual, or tendencies away from things of an opposite nature. Thus, we have appetite or desire for certain things, and these we are said to love, and we call them good. In a similar way, we have aversion from certain other things, which we hate and call evil. Pleasure is “the appearance or sense of good”; displeasure, “the appearance or sense of evil.” Starting from these definitions, Hobbes proceeds to describe the whole emotional and active nature of man as a consistent scheme of selfishness. The following characteristic summary comes from Elements of Law:
The comparison of the life of man to a race, though it holdeth not in every point, yet it holdeth so well for this our purpose, that we may thereby both see and remember almost all the passions before mentioned. But this race we must suppose to have no other goal, nor other garland, but being foremost; and in it: To endeavour, is appetite. To be remiss, is sensuality. To consider them behind, is glory. To consider them before, humility. To lose ground with looking back, vain glory. To be holden, hatred. To turn back, repentance. To be in breath, hope. To be weary, despair. To endeavour to overtake the next, emulation. To supplant or overthrow, envy. To resolve to break through a stop foreseen, courage. To break through a sudden stop, anger. To break through with ease, magnanimity. To lose ground by little hindrances, pusillanimity. To fall on the sudden, is disposition to weep. To see another fall, disposition to laugh. To see one out-gone whom we would not, is pity. To see one out-go we would not, is indignation. To hold fast by another, is to love. To carry him on that so holdeth, is charity. To hurt one’s-self for haste, is shame. Continually to be out-gone, is misery. Continually to out-go the next before, is felicity. And to forsake the course, is to die.
  27

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Literary style and method of work Theory of human nature and of sovereignty  
 
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