Aristotelian Influence on Hobbes

Let us begin by surveying the forces, which exercised a decisive influence on Hobbes before he turned to Mathematics and Natural Sciences. From 1603 to 1608 he studied at Oxford. During this time, dissatisfied with academic teaching, he turned to classical texts, which he had already read. He read them with the interpretations of grammarians. His purpose in this study was to develop a clear Latin style. The continuation and conclusion of this study was the English translation of Thucydides, which was gradually published in 1628.

At Oxford Hobbes was introduced to scholastic philosophy. He himself recounts that he studied Aristotle’s logic and physics. He makes no mention of studying Aristotle’s morals and politics. According to the traditional curriculum, the formal disciplines viz., grammar, rhetoric, and logic were in the foreground. We may therefore assume that scholastic studies were for Hobbes in the main formal training, and that he acquired the more detailed knowledge of scholasticism, which he afterwards needed for the polemical defence of his own theories. Later on, he did not take up the studies of scholastic studies as he defected to the studies of humanities.

There were four major influences on Hobbes viz., humanism, scholasticism, Puritanism, and aristocracy. But humanism in Hobbes’ youth was the most prominent of all the influences. Hobbes after the end of his university studies read not only classical poets and historians but also classical philosophers. Which philosophers? In a foreword to his translation of Thucydides he say:

It hath been noted by divers, that Homer in poesy, Aristotle in philosophy, Demosthenes in eloquence, and others of the ancients in other knowledge, do still maintain their privacy: none of them exceeded, some not approached, by any in these later ages. And in the number of these is justly ranked also our Thucydides; a workman no less perfect in his work, than any of the former.

Hobbes later considered Plato to be the best philosopher, not the best philosopher of all, but the best philosopher of antiquity. But at the end of his humanist period he repeats without raising any objection the ruling opinion according to which Aristotle is the highest authority in philosophy. The break with Aristotle was completed only when Hobbes took to the studies of mathematics and natural sciences. The polemic against Aristotle is definitely not as violent as it is in Hobbes’ Leviathan and De Cive. In the Elements of Law, in his definition of the State, Hobbes asserts the aim of the State to be, along with peace and defence, common benefit. With this he tacitly admits Aristotle’s distinction between the reason of the genesis of the State and the reason of its being. In the later stages, Hobbes rejects the common benefit and thus defects from the above mentioned Aristotelian distinction. The linkage of Aristotle with Homer, Demosthenes, and Thucydides provides the answer i.e. Aristotle seen from the humanist point of view. Fundamentally it means the shifting of interests from Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics to his morals and politics. It also means the replacement of theory with the primacy of practice. Only if one assumes a fundamental change of this kind does Hobbes’ turning away from scholasticism to poetry and history cease to be a biographical and a historical peculiarity. Even after natural science had become Hobbes’ favourite subject of investigation, he still acknowledged the precedence of practice over theory and of political philosophy over natural science. The joys of knowledge for him was not the justification of philosophy, but rather the justification only in relation of being beneficial to man, i.e. the safeguarding of man’s life and the increase of human power. Where Hobbes develops his own view connectedly, he manifestly subordinates theory to practice. He did not, like Aristotle, attribute prudence to practice and wisdom to theory. He says: ‘Prudence is to wisdom what experience is to knowledge; wisdom is the knowledge ‘of what is right and wrong and what is good and hurtful to the being and the well-being of mankind… For generally, not he that hath skill in geometry, or any other science speculative, but only he that understandeth what conduceth to the good and Government of the people, is called a wise man’. The contrast with Aristotle has its ultimate reason in Hobbes’ conception of the place of man in the universe, which is diametrically opposed to that of Aristotle. Aristotle justified his placing of the theoretical sciences above moral and political philosophy by the argument that man is not the highest being in the universe. This ultimate assumption of the primacy of theory is rejected by Hobbes; in his contention man is ‘the most excellent work of nature’. In this strict sense Hobbes always remained a humanist, and only with the essential limitation which this brings could he recognize Aristotle’s authority in his humanist period.

Even when Hobbes had come to the conclusion that Aristotle was ‘the worst teacher that ever was’, he excepted two works from his condemnation: ‘but his rhetorique and discourse of animals were rare’. It would be difficult to find other classical work whose importance for Hobbes’ political philosophy can be compared with that of the Rhetoric. The central chapters of Hobbes’ anthropology, those chapters on which, more than on anything else he wrote, his fame as a stylist and as one who knows men rests for all time, betray in style and contents that their author was a zealous reader of the Rhetoric. In the 10th chapter of Leviathan, Hobbes treats under the heading ‘Honourable’ with what Aristotle in the Rhetoric discusses. Aristotle says ‘And honourable are the works of virtue. And the sign of virtue. And the reward whereof is rather honour. And those things are honourable which, good of themselves, are not so to the owner…And bestowing of benefits…And honourable are…victory…And things that excel. And what none can do but we. And possessions we reap no profit by. And those things which are had in honour…And the signs of praise’. In reply to this Hobbes comments ‘…victory is honourable…Magnanimity, Liberality, Hope, Courage, Confidence, are Honourable…Actions proceeding from Equity, joyned with losse, are Honourable’.

Let us try to chart out a dependence of Hobbes’ theory of the passions on the Rhetoric. In the Rhetoric, Anger is desire of revenge, joined with grief, for that he, or some of his, is, or seems to be neglected. While in the Elements of Hobbes, Anger hath been commonly defined to be grief proceeding from an opinion of contempt. To kill is the aim of them that hate, revenge aimeth at triumph. In the Rhetoric Pity is a perturbation of the mind, arising from the apprehension of hurt or trouble to another that doth not deserve it, and which he thinks may happen to himself or his. And because it appertains to pity to think that he, or his, may fall into the misery he pities in others; it follows that they may be most compassionate: who have passed through misery. And such as think there be honest men…Less compassionate are they that think no man honest and who are in great prosperity. In Hobbes’ Elements, Pity is imagination or fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man’s present calamity; but when it lighteth on such as we think does not deserve the same, the compassion is the greater, because then there appeareth the more probability that the same may happen to us. The contrary of pity is the hardness of heart, proceeding from extreme great opinion of their of their own exemption of the like calamity, or from hatred of all, or most men.

In Rhetoric, indignation is the grief for the prosperity of a man unworthy. In the Rhetoric, envy is grief is for the prosperity of such as ourselves, arising not from any hurt that we, but from the good that they receive. Emulation is grief arising from that our equals possess such goods as are had in honour, and whereof we are capable, but have them not; not because they have them, but because not also we. No man therefore emulates another in things whereof himself is not capable. In the Elements, Emulation is grief arising from seeing one’s self exceeded or excelled by his concurrent, together with hope to equal or exceed him in time to come.

Hobbes in his later writings uses passages from the Rhetoric, of which he had made no use of in his earlier writings, it follows that when composing all his systematic expositions of anthropology he studied Aristotle’s Rhetoric afresh each time. Hobbes’ pre-occupation with the Rhetoric can be traced back as far as about 1635. in 1635, Hobbes had considered the writing of personal exposition of the theory of the passions and as just seen, his earliest treatment of the theory of the passions was clearly influenced by Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In addition, he himself recounts that he instructed the third Earl of Devonshire in rhetoric.

Hobbes’ closer study of Aristotle’s Rhetoric may be proved with certainty only for the 1630s, i.e. in the time in which he had overtly completed the break with Aristotelianism. Moreover, one gathers from his introduction to the translation of Thucydides that the phenomenon of eloquence on the one hand, and of the passions on the other, occupied his mind even in the humanist period of his. On the whole, it seems to us more correct to assume that the use and appreciation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which may be traced in Hobbes’ mature writings, are the last remnants of the Aristotelianism of his youth. Hobbes after exclusive pre-occupation with poets and historians


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