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Old and Relevant: Leviathan

March 3rd, 2010 | 5 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.

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