Role and Nature of Religion in Thomas Hobbes


Hobbes’ three presentations of political philosophy may be with less justice called theological-political treatises. Hobbes with dual intentions becomes an interpreter of the Bible, in the first place in order to make use of the Scriptures for his own theory, and in the second place in order to shake the authority of the Scriptures. When Hobbes grants the theological motivation of political philosophy a last refuge in the discussion, which treats of the natural State, he indicates the connection between theology and the natural State in particular. As the natural State becomes less and less important to Hobbes, the theological arguments also become less and less important. Originally, when he had not yet conceived the idea of an artificial State, he was incomparably more under the spell of the theological tradition.

The space devoted to the criticism of religion increases considerably on the way from the Elements of Law to Leviathan and is accompanied by the deepening of the criticism. The fundamental question: On what authority does one believe that Scripture is the word of God? Is answered differently in different presentations. In the Elements of Law: On the authority of the Church, the successors of the Apostles. In De Cive: Not on the authority of the Church, but on that of Jesus. In the Leviathan: On the authority of the teachers whose teaching is permitted and organized by the sovereign power, i.e. one confesses verbally, for thoughts are free, that Scripture is the word of God, because secular authority commands this confession. But in all three presentations, Hobbes contends that all that is needed for salvation is the belief in Jesus as Christ. In earlier presentations, the belief in the immortality of soul belongs to these premises; whereas in the later works, the resurrection of the body is tacitly substituted for the immortality of the soul. The Leviathan finally openly opposes the resurrection of the body to the immortality of the soul and admits only the first as grounded in the Scriptures. Hobbes declares that unconditional obedience to the secular power is the bounden duty of every Christian. His question: is the Christian obliged to obey the secular power when that power forbids him the profession of his faith? is answered in the earlier presentations with the finding that the right and duty of the Christian in such a case is only passive resistance and martyrdom, while the Leviathan denies the obligation and even the right of martyrdom to the ordinary Christian who has not the special vocation of preaching the Gospel. In the De Cive it is a Christian dogma that Christ’s Kingdom is not of Earth but that of Heaven; in the Leviathan on the other hand, the Kingdom of God under the Old and also under the New Covenant is to be understood as a purely earthly Kingdom. In the Elements of Law, Hobbes defends the Episcopal constitution of the Church, whose rightness is proved by the fact that Christ in virtue of his sovereignty enthroned his Apostles. He also denies that in the Christian hierarchy there was a high priest to whom the individual bishops were subordinate. In the later presentations he rejects the Episcopal constitution, even the view that officials of the Church can be instituted by any ecclesiastical authority which is not in every respect dependent on the secular authority. The apparent contradiction of the general tendency of the Elements of Law on the one hand and of the later presentations on the other, is explicated by the fact that in the later writings, Hobbes attaches much less value to conformity with the teachings of the Scriptures. That Scripture vouches for priestly rule is from now on not an argument for priestly rule, but an argument against Scripture. Thus the single apparent exception is in reality the strongest corroboration of the assertion that on the path from the elements of Law via De Cive to the Leviathan Hobbes drew farther and farther away from the religious tradition. One may say, that Hobbes kept pace in his way, which was not very edifying, with the development from Anglican Episcopalianism to Independentism.

In the earlier presentation of his political philosophy, Hobbes is relatively close to Anglican Episcopalianism. Hobbes’ personal attitude to positive religion was at all times the same: religion must serve the Sate and is to be esteemed or despised according to the services or disservices rendered to the State. This view may be seen as early as the introduction to the translation of Thucydides where Hobbes defends his author:

In some places of his History he noteth the equivocation of the oracles; and yet he confirmeth an assertion of his own, touching the time this war lasted, by the oracle’s prediction. He taxeth Nicias for being too punctual in the observation of the ceremonies of their religion, when he overthrew himself and his army, and indeed the whole dominion and liberty of his country, by it. Yet he commandeth him in another place for his worshipping of the gods…So that in his writings, our author appeareth to be, on the one side not superstitious on the other side not an atheist’.

The fact that Hobbes accommodated utterances of his unbelief to what was permissible in a good, prudent subject justifies the assumption that in the decades before the Civil war, Hobbes for political reasons hid his true opinions and was mindful of the maintenance of theological convention. He says:

‘I long infinitely to see those books of the Sabbaoth, an am of your mind they will put such thoughts into the heads of the vulgar people, as will confer little to their good life. For when they see one of the Ten Commandments to be jus humanum merely, (as it must be if the Church can alter it), they will hope also that the other nine may be so too. For every man hitherto did believe that the Ten Commandments were the moral, that is, the eternal law’. It is noteworthy that Elements of Law defend a much more conservative ecclesiastical policy than do other writings.

As for the natural religion, he was skeptical originally and throughout which is more than the maintained its skeptical outlook. He considered any natural knowledge of God, which is more than the knowledge that a First Cause exists, completely impossible. Thus he systematically excluded revealed and natural theology from philosophy. To keep up an appearance that he attacked only scholastic theology and not the religion of the Scripture itself, Hobbes fought his battle against natural theology in the name of strict belief in the Scriptures and at the same time undermining that belief by his historical and philosophical criticism of the authority of the Scriptures. An apparent progress in his Biblicism indicated of his real progress in his criticism of natural theology, and thus was a proof that he originally judged natural theology more favourable than revealed theology. According to the Elements of Law, the binding force of natural law is based on natural knowledge of God; according to the later presentations it is based on revelation. The Elements of Law bring forward the proofs of the existence of God more emphatically and in more detail than does the Leviathan; for if one compares the formulation of these two works, one positively begins to suspect that in the Leviathan the argument is not seriously meant. The connecting link in this case as so often is in De Cive, where Hobbes says that without revelation atheism is almost inevitable. The traditional arguments for the supremacy of the monarchy, which are atleast mentioned in the earlier presentations, rest on assumptions of natural theology. Finally: in the elements of Law, there is a remark countering the ‘supernaturalists’ hostility to reason, to, which there is practically no parallel in the later works. Hobbes also fought his battle against supernaturalism with his weapons of materialism. At all events, as early as in 1641 in his correspondence with Descartes he defends the conclusions of his materialism with reference to God and the Soul. Before the complete elaboration of his materialism and particularly during his humanist period, when he had not yet freed himself from the authority of Aristotle, he in principle recognized natural theology.


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