Victor Nuovo: Hobbes on religion
Editor’s note: This is the 17th essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought, focusing on the great political thinkers.
In his own day, Hobbes was suspected of atheism. There is no historical evidence supporting this suspicion, neither in his writings, nor in any other surviving historical records about him. Nonetheless, this suspicion is a historical fact. His detractors, who were many, called him “the Monster of Malmesbury,” and held him in contempt.
It is instructive to consider their reasons. Keep in mind that the label “atheist” was applied loosely in those times, which is not surprising, because it was used as much as a political label as a religious one; it was an odious label, on which political discourse, then as now, seems to thrive. Strictly speaking, an atheist was supposed to be someone who believed that there was no God, or, even if there were one, that God did not create the world, did not exercise providential governance over it, and had not the least interest in the welfare of mankind. These, it may be recalled were the opinions of Lucretius. Hobbes wrote nothing promoting these beliefs; indeed, he condemned them. Moreover, he described the ideal civil state as a kingdom of God, not the eternal kingdom promised by Christ to an elect body of Christians, which is not of this world, but an earthly realm of limited duration. I will say more about this shortly.
Hobbes was suspected of atheism because he professed materialism or corporealism. The natural universe is the aggregate of all bodies, and nothing else; the study of nature is based on the observation of the relative motion and impact of bodies and their effects; its method is strictly empirical. The seventeenth century marked the beginning of the scientific revolution in Europe, and all its advocates, among them Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, held similar opinions. But Hobbes carried them much further and applied them more rigorously and consistently. He denied the existence of spiritual or immaterial bodies. The very idea of one is impossible, for bodies are sensible objects that occupy space. He believed that the human soul is material, and also mortal. He believed that even thoughts are physical things, and thinking is a computational process, and the mind a mere machine. These and other material beliefs made him odious to others. He noted that the very word “spirit” is derived from the Latin “spiritus” which means breath or wind, which are sensible and hence corporeal. He argued from the Bible that angels or messengers from God are corporeal, for they appear in various guises, their figures are visible, their voices audible, their touch tangible. Moreover, the notion of an immaterial spirit is unbiblical; it is a relic of Greek philosophy; Hobbes supposed it originated with Plato. He argued from this that the many Gods of Greek and Roman mythology were mere idols of the mind, like images in a mirror, they are fantasies posing as mysterious bodies only to the credulous, to those who would believe anything, of which there were many then as now. Likewise, popular beliefs in fairies, sprites, demons, and various and sundry aerial spirits, and all other things that bring enchantment to the world, along with magic, alchemy, and the occult, are mere objects of an overworked brain, or of a mind untutored by truth, which if it is truth about nature, is to be discovered by experimental natural science.
What about the Holy Spirit? Hobbes observed that it is reported in the Gospels when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, that the spirit of God descended on him like a dove, and a voice was heard from heaven; it was the voice of God declaring Jesus to be his only son; and that thereupon Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. His explanation is consistent with Trinitarian orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit is the power of God, and Jesus and the Spirit are distinct persons, although of the same substance, that is, both are God, along with God the Father. Likewise, in the book of Genesis, when God created the world, it is written that the spirit of God moved across the face of the primal chaos. That spirit was the creative power of God. Likewise, when Christians are baptized, they are supposed to receive the Holy Spirit, which is to say, the power or grace to live a Christian life. All of this suggests that Hobbes acknowledged the existence of God, the Holy Spirit, and the incarnate Christ, One God.
Did Hobbes suppose that God was corporeal? No, he did not. He confessed that he had no idea of what God was like. The divine nature is incomprehensible to us. After that, there is nothing more to say. How, then, could he be sure that there was a God? Hobbes invoked a standard philosophical argument, based on the common assumption that nothing happens without a cause, and that therefore, the universe itself must have a cause, for he assumed that nature is neither eternal nor self originating. This brings us back to his notion of the Kingdom of God by nature.
Remember Hobbes claimed that a civil state originates when a group of persons covenant with each other to form a society, over which they place a sovereign power, a monarch or a supreme assembly, who has supreme power legislative and judicial power. Yet Hobbes believed that to be a citizen in such a civil state involves more than mere obedience. We are rational beings and should have the capacity to discover a universal law of nature, for if a state of universal and lasting peace is ever to be achieved, all persons everywhere must agree on a common law, a law of nature, a law enacted and enforced not only by monarchs but by the supreme power of the universe, namely God. This he calls “the right of nature, whereby God reigneth over men, and who punisheth those that break his laws,” and he derives it not from the fact that God is the first cause or creator of the world, as though he needed gratitude from us for this, “but from his irresistible power.” Conscious awareness of God’s omnipotence or irresistible power is supposed keep us all in line, citizens and monarchs. In the light of all this, Hobbes concluded that the only stable civil society is a theocracy, a Kingdom of God in nature.
So why would anyone suppose that Hobbes was an atheist? Scholars who continue to maintain this opinion acknowledge that Hobbes professed theism, but they insist that Hobbes didn’t mean what he said, that his professions of theism were ironic, that he meant just the opposite of what he professed, that he was a very clever atheist. Atheist or not, Hobbes was surely clever.
Postscript: For anyone interested in Hobbes reputed duplicity, and for a strong case against it, there are two recent works worth reading: Jon Parkin, Taming the Leviathan, and A.P. Martinich, The Two Gods of Leviathan. They are scholarly works, but very readable. Consult your local bookstore.
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