Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Old and Relevant: Leviathan

March 3rd, 2010 | 4 min read

By Tex

When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan, the English were in the midst of a series of civil wars, battling their brothers over religious and political issues.  Charles I struggled with a Puritan Parliament that, among other things, aimed to build a polity sharply shaped by the Scriptures.  The civil war was so odious to Hobbes and detrimental to life in England that he determined to re-think the political theories that were in vogue; he set out to write a political treatise that dispensed with religious considerations completely and rested upon a universally available deductive logic.  The appeal of such a position is readily apparent to anyone who has lived through the events and consequences of religiously motivated conflicts and wars.

It often seems that the world would be a much better place, and more peaceful, if men were not divided by religious sentiments and diverse opinions.  Of course, one of the great and sobering lessons of the 20th century is that the common ground of reason is itself a tenuous foundation upon which to build an edifice of human solidarity and community.  But more of that later.

Hobbes deductive approach to anthropology and political theory began with a theory of language.  Briefly, this theory states that all that we know is what we say.  Our concepts, understanding, and knowledge are wrapped up in the words we use and, by carefully defining our terms, we come to know things more fully.  Reasoning is the activity of defining our terms.  “For Reason, in this sense, is nothing but Reckoning (that is, Adding and Substracting) of the Consequences of generall names agreed upon, for the Marking and Signifying of our thoughts.”

All this might seem quite vague and irrelevant, the meandering thoughts of an irrelevant old Englishman.  However, it becomes quite exciting when this linguistic and ontological theory is played out in ethical considerations.

Thomas Hobbes states that there is no final end, ultimate aim, or greatest good that men ought to move towards.  He dispenses with the notion of the summum bonum in the classical sense (which I discuss at length here), claiming that such an idea is the purview of the old moral philosophers but untenable given the new truth about men which has been discovered and made clear through the use of deduction.

The new truth about men is that their life consists of their limbs being in motion and that this motion can be reduced to likes and dislikes, or Desire.  Hobbes begins his Leviathan by comparing man to a machine built by Nature, whose hearts, limbs, joints, and so on, are analogous to the springs, joints, and wheels of a watch.    The motions of man are directed towards his Desires and, so long as he remains in motion, he can be said to be alive.  Since men Desire life, they must devote themselves to remaining in motion, or towards continually seeking to attain their desires and upon successful attainment, turn their motion towards attaining new desires.

Hobbes states, “there is no such Finis Ultimus, (utmost ayme,) nor Summum Bonum, (greatest good)” but argues that the aim of men is to stay in motion, to remain alive.  According to Hobbes, Desire is conterminous with Life; when desire stops, death comes, for when desire stops, motion ceases as well.  If men are to live they must remain in motion and therefore must continue to have desires.  To say that a man desires life is synonymous with saying that he desires desires.  Thus the good life, and the only life, is one that is a great succession of desiring, succeeding in obtaining the object of desire, and desiring something else.  This good life, or happiness, is understood only with reference to the life that man has before he dies since, at death, his desires and happiness are ended.

Hobbes concept of the summum bonum stands in stark contrast with Augustine’s conception of the same.  Augustine argues that man is both a soul and a body and his life comes from God.  Where Hobbes saw life in the motion of limbs, Augustine saw the motion of limbs as one evidence of a living mover who controlled the bodily limbs.  The summum bonum for a man who is both body and soul has little to do with desiring desire in order to continue an earthly existence.  Augustine posits eternal life as the supreme Good, and locates that life in God Himself.  Thus, the highest good for a man is to attain to eternal life.  Interestingly, the attainment of eternal life requires that man subject his desires to the will of God and, rather than pursue desire, man must consider the object of his desires and rid himself of those desires which lead to separation from God while cultivating a desire for God Himself.

The results and implications of Hobbes’ rejection of a human teleology defined by God and replaced with desire remain with us today, albeit in a variety of forms.  While others have documented in great detail the real and supposed deleterious effects of Enlightenment philosophy, and especially Rationalism, my aim is to point out the major problem of the Hobbesian project.  Basing his political theory in a deductive rationalism, Hobbes separates the rational and non-rational elements of man in such a way that they have little bearing upon one another.

Hobbes’ rational approach to a political theory based on human desire seems odd but is understandable by reference to his teleological assumptions.  Believing that there is no greater good than the desiring of desire, Hobbes builds an anthropology that bends all of man’s faculties towards the successive attainment and pursuit of his desires.  The rational faculty is but one tool that man can use to attain his ends rather than a part of man that is fulfilled and gives fulfillment as it directs, limits, and illuminates human endeavor.

The Leviathan remains relevant in its function as a signpost pointing towards the 20th century’s tragic political events and our fractured societies.  Once subsumed by desire, deductive reasoning only provides justification to the whims and fancies of men; it cannot unify men and lay the groundwork for global cooperation if men are machines governed by desire.