History and Historicity in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes


Hobbes’ early moral and political views may be traced back to the Aristotelian tradition. If this is the case, then it can be said that these views are definitely the materials for his political philosophy but not the seeds for his political philosophy. But his later views are in direct contrast to Aristotelianism. If it may be contended that Hobbes’ taking of considerable elements from Aristotle paved the way for a later break with Aristotle, then a sense of fundamental defect with the Aristotelian philosophy was a must for this break. Hobbes later elaborated these modifications and presented them as systematic objections. This deep dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy must have forced Hobbes for turning to history and thus citing his case in his humanist period. His turning to history is revealed in his revolutionary early thought. His turning to history was definitely intentional with philosophical contentions.

According to Hobbes, philosophy and history are fundamentally different. Philosophy lays down precepts for the right behaviour of men, but then again precepts don’t prove their practical aspects efficaciously. History, not philosophy, gives man prudence.

‘…the principal and proper work of history (is) to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future…’ ‘…the nature of history is merely narrative…look how much a man of understanding might have added to his experience, if he had then lived a beholder of their proceedings, and familiar with the men and business of the time: so much almost may he profit now, by attentive reading of the same here written. He may from the narrations draw out lessons to himself’.

History widens men’s experiences by making men capable of applying the precepts in the individual cases. Hobbes takes it for granted that this philosophy rightly lays down the norms for human actions. He asserts that practical wisdom is at least the sine qua non for moral virtue and this wisdom is gained only through experience. The study of history widens the experience from service to the acquisition of wisdom and thus from service to moral education. Aristotle believes in rational precepts having no influence on most men. But according to Aristotle’s view, what is true of most men is not by any means true of free and noble minded characters who love honour; they obey precepts. As Hobbes doubts the effects of precepts altogether, does he not assert the impotence of reason with reference to all men; can we not say that the dicta of impotence of reason was thoroughly established in his mind, before his engagement with natural science?

The question, by which history originally breaks with philosophy, is the question of effectiveness of rational precept. It purely becomes a matter of application of precepts. These precepts were handed down by Aristotelian ethics. Since Aristotle satisfactorily explicated these precepts, the fundamental problem of philosophy was solved; this gave Hobbes the leisure and ample opportunity to give thought to the secondary problem of the application of precepts. In reference to this application the assertion is made that the precepts are not effective in themselves that they are not followed for their own sake, but under all circumstances it may be made plausible by making use of other measures to ensure their being followed. Hobbes of course does not question the necessity and effectiveness of laws. But now the teachings to be drawn from history slip in as it were midway between the precepts of philosophy and the laws.

‘…(history) doth things with more grace and modestie then the civill lawes and ordinances do: because it is more grace for a man to teach and instruct, then to chastise or punish’.

The teaching to be drawn from history has from now on to fulfill the function for noble natures which, according to Aristotle, was the task of philosophical precepts. The teachings of history replace the precepts of philosophy in the education of the aristocracy.

The opposition of philosophical precept and the historical example based on the doubt of the efficacy of the precept is punctuated in the literature of the sixteenth century. It need only mean, we must attribute to a regrettable shortcoming on the part of the majority of men that they do not obey the precepts of philosophy, that they do not love virtue for itself, but for all its reward, which is praise. This doubt also means that the true motive of virtue is honour and glory. It essentially implies aristocratic virtue. As a result of the close connection between history and honour or glory, the more virtue is envisaged as aristocratic virtue, the keener will be the interest in history. Hobbes often quotes Lipsius as an authority for his views on history. Through Lipsius’ political philosophy, Hobbes successfully accomplished turning to history. What is felt as a lack is not so much the scientific writing of history; it is recognized that from all time histories have been written which are adequate for every possible demand; not even directions for the writing of history, but above all methodical readings of the histories already in existence. With a view to the teaching of history by methodically reading it is to be gained for the right ordering of human actions. The only clear knowledge of the application of the norms, which obtain for human actions, which have taken place in the past. History seeks the application and realization of precepts, the conditions and results of that realization. Unlike poetry, whose main objective is to give pleasure, history and philosophy derives its objectivity in seriousness. Hobbes names history and philosophy as the two fundamental branches of human knowledge.

If the main emphasis of history is to instruct and enable men, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future, undertaking a methodic utilization of history implies that a methodic education for prudence is aimed at. This education of prudence is to be sought by placing the whole available experience of mankind at our disposal, there has to be no room for any elements of chance. To the question, ‘How is one to behave in an individual case?’, one is no longer to receive the Aristotelian answer of how a sensible man would behave, but one receives for the particular case concrete maxims gained from the study of history. In this education, words and actions are important only in reference to aims. It is only through history that the reader is to be taught which kinds of aims are salutary and destructive. The systematic transformation to history, finds its most complete expression in Bacon’s philosophy.

According to Bacon, moral philosophy as the study of virtue and duty has been perfectly worked out in classical philosophy. But he opines that the fundamental shortcoming of ancient philosophy is the limiting factor that imposes itself on the description of nature of good versus the heroical descriptions of virtue, duty and felicity. As Bacon expressly says of a particular desideratum; a doctrine of the vices peculiar to the individual vocations; but as he thinks in all cases, they will seek what men sought to do, but what men really do. Traditional philosophy is blind to these materials; but the real solace comes about in the study of history. So if the neglect of history is surmounted, one of the weightiest reasons for the inadequacy and uselessness of scholasticism is given way to. Bacon makes a plea for history of literature; which he thinks has been neglected and going into this study makes him sure of making men wise.

‘History is natural, civil, ecclesiastical, and literary; whereof the first three I allow as extant, the fourth I note as deficient. For no man hath propounded to himself the general state of learning to be described and represented from age to age…without which the history of the world seemeth to me to be as the statua of Polyphemus with his eyes out; that part being wanting which doth most shew the spirit and life of the person…The use and end of which work I do not so much design for curiosity and satisfaction of those that are the lovers of learning, but chiefly for a more serious and grave purpose; which is this in few words, that it will make learned men wise in the use and administration of learning. For it is not St. Augustine’s not St. Ambrose’s works that will make so wise a divine, as ecclesiastical history, thoroughly read and observed; and the same reason is of learning’.

Bacon’s interest in history is its applicative tendencies. Bacon vehemently advocated the philosophy’s turning to history. But why? is the question? The primary reason for such a turn augments the most important material for philosophy because philosophic intent is shifting from physics and metaphysics to morals and politics.

According to Aristotle’s assertion, this change of interest takes place as soon as man becomes the consideration of being the highest being in the world. If, however, one looks back to Plato, to whom moral and political problems are of incomparably greater importance than to Aristotle, and who yet no less than Aristotle raised his gaze away from man to the eternal order, one must hold that it is not the conviction man’s superiority to all existing creatures but the conviction of the transcendence of good over all being, which is the reason why philosophic investigation begins with the ethical and political problems, with the question of the right life and the right society. This turn is caused not by the enhanced interest in the question of the good and the best form of State; but by the enhanced interest in man. The division of philosophy into natural philosophy and human philosophy is based on the systematic distinction between man and the world, which Bacon makes in express controversy against ancient philosophy.

‘…the works of God…show the omnipotency and the wisdom of the Maker, but not his image: and therefore therein the heathen opinion differeth from the sacred truth; for they supposed the world to be the image of God, and man to be exact or compendious image of the world, but the Scriptures never vouchsafe to attribute to the world that honour, as to be the image of God, but only the work of His hands; neither do they speak of any other image of God, but man…’

When the man is considered as the most excellent work of nature; then man instead of eternal order which transcends man becomes the central theme of philosophy. The ideal of contemplative life when substituted with moral virtues still ends up in a fiasco for explaining of the turn of philosophy to history. It is not the substitution of the contemplative ideal by moral virtue, in particular by the Biblical demands for justice and charity, but the systematic doubt of the efficacy of precept, which is added to this substitution, is the reason why philosophy turns to history. Bacon doubts the efficacy of rational precepts. The ancient philosophers, he says, ‘fortified and entrenched virtue and duty, as much as discourse can do, against popular and corrupt opinions’.

The reason for the turning of philosophy to history is thus the conviction of the impotence of reason, added to the enhanced interest in man. The impotence of reason is not the incapacity to establish or justify norms. It is not the way in which precepts are given to men, whether by reason or by revelation, the difficulty, which leads to the study of history, would still remain. The fact is that man does not obey the transcendent norm, whether it be rational or revealed, which is the reason of the study of history. History is studied to remedy man’s disobedience. In the sixteenth century, the reason why philosophy turned to history is the repression of the morality of obedience. As long as the distinction between philosophic knowledge on the one hand and the applicative techniques on the other hand is retained; there is at least implicitly and in principle a recognition of the pre-eminence of obedience over every other motive for action. Induction from history teaches one to distinguish between aims which justify themselves and lead to success, and aims which come to grief. The receipts to be gained from history bear only on success and failure. According to Bodin, he says in his Works, history is the easiest and the most obscure of sciences and is independent of every other science. Its subject is the study of aims and projects. By the distinction between good and bad aims, it makes possible knowledge of the norms for human actions.

Hobbes’ political philosophy, which from this time was gradually maturing precisely, had the function of replacing history, as history was understood in Bodin’s words. Hobbes’ political philosophy in its fundamental parts aimed at distinguishing between the good and the bad and thus leading to the discovery of the norms. Thus from the time of the formation of the new political philosophy, history sinks back into its philosophic insignificance; with the important difference being; in the new political philosophy, in contrast to the traditional, history is taken up and conserved. From this point of view one can appreciate the fact that Hobbes, who was particularly preoccupied with history up to the time of his return to philosophy, gives less and less thought to history as his political philosophy develops. As late as the Elements of Law, it is emphasized in a special paragraph that

‘belief…in many cases is no less free from doubt, than perfect and manifest knowledge…there be many things which we receive from report of others, of which it is impossible to imagine any cause of doubt: for what can be opposed against the consent of all men, in things they can know, and have no cause to report otherwise than they are, unless a man would say that all the world had conspired to deceive him’.

The more Hobbes learns to distinguish sharply between what is and what should be, the more the ideal character of the Leviathan becomes clear in his mind, the less significance has history for him. As a result, the distinctions between history, which is serious and seeks truth, and poetry, and the superiority of history over poetry, lose their former justification. History is thrust into the background in the measure that the new political philosophy gains clarity. For the new political philosophy fulfils the function, which had to be fulfilled by history, as, long as traditional political philosophy was acknowledged as valid. The necessity of political philosophy is shown because most men do not obey precepts. And the same presupposition, which caused the turn to history, is the basis of Hobbes’ political philosophy: the replacement of the morality of obedience by the morality of prudence.

‘All that is required, both in faith and manners, for man’s salvation, is, I confess, set down in Scriptures as plainly as can be. “Children, obey your parents in all things…Let all men be subject to the higher powers…” are words of the Scripture, which are well enough understood; but neither children, nor the greatest part of men, do understand why it is their duty to do so. They see not that the safety of the commonwealth, and consequently their own, depends upon their doing it. Every man by nature, without discipline, does in all his actions look upon, as far as he can see, the benefit that shall redound to himself from his obedience….the Scripture says one thing, and they think another, weighing the commodities or incommodities of this present life only, which are in their sight, never putting into the scales the good and evil of the life to come, which they see not’.

Bacon’s criticism of the Aristotelian morals that it does not teach the realization of virtues therefore becomes an element also in Hobbes’ criticism of Aristotle. For the turn to history had taken place precisely because traditional philosophy showed no way to the application of norms. This failure is remedied by the new political philosophy, whose boast it is, that it, in contrast to traditional philosophy, teaches an applicable morality. Hobbes allows the validity of the aristocratic virtue, completing it by a morality, which is systematically applicable and which appeals to the greatest part of men. Hobbes acknowledges the binding force of the Ten Commandments and only denies that they are applicable without more detailed interpretation by the secular power. In the same way, Hobbes admits the natural inequality, and only contests that this inequality is of any practical importance. Hobbes also concedes that the Civil Government be ordained as a means to bring us to a spiritual felicity, and thus that all earthly things are means to eternal bliss. But he denies that from this hierarchy of things earthly and things eternal, anything can be deduced as to the relative position of the holder of secular power and the holder of spiritual power. With this, Hobbes lets us see that even if there were an eternal order, he would take into consideration only the actual behaviour of men, and that his whole interest is centered on man, on application, on the use of means.

The shifting of interest from the eternal order to man found its expression in turning of philosophy to history. Hobbes doesn’t have the intention justifying the traditional norms in a way more practicable for application than was the way of traditional philosophy; he altogether denies the applicability of traditional morals; whether of ancient philosophy or of Biblical Christianity.  He not only showed that Aristotle did not show the way to a way of realization of the norms, but also that he did not even rightly define the norms. Hobbes wishes to play the passions one against the other, in order to show the way for the realization of already established norms, he wishes to draw up a political philosophy which will be in harmony with the passions from the outset. And after Hobbes found in the fear of the violent death, a truly applicable principle of political philosophy, it is again in accordance with the interest in the application that he progresses from this foundation to the establishment of the law of nature. The right to defend life, which man has from nature by the reason of the inescapable fear of death, becomes a right to all things and all actions; since a right to the end is invalid without a right to the necessary means. In order to avoid the arbitrariness, the uncertainty of what a wise man would decide under unforeseen circumstances, he rules that each man has a right to all things and all actions, since anyone under some circumstances may consider that anything or action is a necessary means for the defence of his life. The express premise of this finding is the equality of all men. Since there is no natural order, the difference between the wise minority and the unwise majority loses the fundamental importance it had for traditional political philosophy. Hobbes’ political philosophy first pushes history back into its old insignificance for philosophy. To this extent, it is true to say that Hobbes’ political philosophy is unhistorical. To make this judgment cognizant is however, not so much that Hobbes took no interest in history as that he made incorrect assertions as to history being the basis of his political philosophy. Hobbes’ fundamental error was his assumption that man’s primitive condition was the war of everyone against everyone. Hobbes cannot rest content with findings as to the historical origin States, for they give no answer to the only important question, which concerns the right order of society. So in the criticism that Hobbes’ political philosophy is ‘unhistorical’, the only statement that is justified is that Hobbes considered the philosophic grounding of the principles of all judgment on political subjects more fundamental, incomparably more important than the most thoroughly founded historical knowledge.

Hobbes considers the State of nature not as an historical fact, but a necessary construction. It is essential to his political philosophy that it should begin with the description of the State of nature, and that it should let the State emerge from the State of nature.  But he acknowledges that the subject of his political philosophy, is a history, a genesis, and not an order, which is static and perfect. To clarify this point, one has to compare Hobbes’ ‘compositive’ method with Aristotle’s ‘genetic’ method. When Aristotle depicts the genesis of the city as the perfect community out of primitive communities, the understanding of perfect organism is the main presupposition for the understanding of its constituent parts, the more primitive communities. For Hobbes, the imperfection of the primitive condition, or the State of nature, is perceived not by looking to the already, even if only cursorily clarified, idea of the State as the perfect community, but by fully understanding the experience of the State of nature. As for Hobbes the primitive condition is irrational, so for Hegel

‘knowing as it is found at the start, mind in its immediate and primitive stages, is without the essential nature of mind, is sense-conciousness’.

Hobbes has no intention of measuring the imperfect by a standard that transcends it, but as they simply look on, while the imperfect by its own movement annuls itself, tests itself. This is the meaning of Hobbes’ argument that the man who wishes to remain in the State of nature contradicts himself, that the mutual fear that characterizes the State of nature is the motive for abolishing the State of nature. The premise for an immanent testing, which necessarily finds its expression within the framework of a typical history is for Hobbes, the rejection for the morality of obedience. For Hobbes, at all events, history finally becomes superfluous, because for him political philosophy itself becomes a typical history. His political philosophy becomes historical because for him order is not immutable, eternal, in existence from the beginning, but is produced only at the end of a process; because for him order is not independent of human volition, but is borne up by a human volition alone. For this, political philosophy no longer has the function, as it had in classical antiquity, of reminding political life of the eternally immutable prototype of the perfect State, but the peculiarly modern task of delineating for the first time the programme of the essentially future perfect State. The repression of history in favour of philosophy means in reality the repression of the past; of the ancient, which is an image of the eternal; in favour of the future.

If the order of man’s world springs from man’s will alone, there is no philosophical or theological security for that order. Man then can convince himself of his capacity to order his world only by the fact of his ordering activity. Therefore according to Hobbes’ assumptions, one must turn to real history. Thus, the State of nature, which at first was intended as merely typical, again takes on an historical significance; not, indeed, as a condition of absolute lack of order, but as a condition of extremely defective order. The real history has as its function to vouch for the possibility of further progress by perception of progress already made. After that; historically, perhaps even earlier; its function is to free man from the might of the past, from the authority of antiquity, from prejudices. Authority loses its prestige when its historical origin and evolution are traced; as a result of historical criticism man’s limitations show themselves as limits set by himself, and therefore to be over passed. It is by the doubt of the transcendent eternal order by which man’s reason was assumed to be guided and hence by the conviction of the impotence of reason, that first of all the turning of philosophy to history is caused, and then the process of historicizing philosophy itself.


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