Genesis and Evaluation of Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Part 1.


The following five processes can broadly characterize the genesis of Hobbes’ political philosophy:

  1. The moving away from the idea of monarchy as the most natural form of State to the idea of monarchy as the most perfect artificial State.
  2. The moving away from the recognition of natural obligation as the basis of morality, law and the State to the deduction of morality, law and the State from a natural claim; thus denying every natural obligation.
  3. Moving away from the recognition of a superhuman authority; whether that being revelation based on Divine will or a natural order based on Divine reason, to the recognition of an exclusively human authority of the State.
  4. Moving away from the study of past and present States to the free construction of the future States.
  5. Moving away from honour as principle, to fear of violent death as principle.

 These movements have an inherent inner connection and the explanations of these connections are to be sought after for a proper analysis of Hobbes’ political philosophy. It becomes clear explicitly that the philosophy is rather an homogenous connection between the final stages of the movements mentioned. The unity of this connection is a derivative from the unity of Hobbes’ moral attitude.

The resulting political philosophy is the unfolding of the moral attitudes to its universal significance, thus bringing in, in its league the whole nexus comprising of its presuppositions and its consequences. Thus it seems that his moral attitude is not only objectively ‘prior’ to the argument and presentation of his political philosophy, but it precedes his pre-occupation with mathematics and exact sciences. However, there remains a fundamental question concerning the addition of ingredients thus furthering his political philosophy to take its final form.

Before Hobbes discovered Euclid, his belief lay in the Aristotelian moral and political philosophy. His investigation deals not so much with the essence of ‘virtue’ and avoiding ‘vice’. With the pre-supposition that reason is, in principle, impotent, the problem of application which took a back seat in the form of being secondary, itself became the central problem. Thus Hobbes turns to history. And in this, he is constantly taught by tradition about what man is, what man should be and what forces really determine him and in the end his endeavour to discover passions. Among the discovery of passions, the ones he pays strongest attention to are vanity and fear. According to him, vanity is the force, which makes man blind and fear, is the force, which makes him see. By emphasizing the antithesis of vanity and fear of violent death, Hobbes was already beyond the traditional horizon.

Apart from the historians and the poets that Hobbes had at disposal for the study of passions, he already knew of the passions in Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’, to which his political philosophy owed so much. Hobbes had an early scientific ambition whereby he would perhaps write on passions, in concomitance with the style of the ‘Rhetoric’ to further the theory of the application of the moral precepts. Hobbes’ approach to passions was divergent from that of Aristotle’s. For Aristotle, honourable and estimable passions are emphasized as base and culpable ones, Hobbes from the very beginning held ‘dissembled passions’ in condemnation. Aristotle was concerned with passions which ‘carry the greatest sway with men in their public conversation’, but for him the positive connection of a passion with public life does not mean a criticism of that passion, since passions in public life can be both estimable and despicable. Hobbes, on the other hand, finds from the beginning that the passions which counsels men well is hardly or at times not at all displayed in public. Such characteristic deviations from the rhetoric are found in the few sentences of the introduction to the translation of Thucydides, which touch upon themes of the Rhetoric. Some of the changes that Hobbes makes in Aristotle’s assertions cannot be explained by the influence of mathematics and natural sciences; these divergences may be taken as original reservations on Hobbes’ part against Aristotle.

A large part of the changes which Hobbes makes in his model stems from his fundamental opinion that fear of death, is the force, which makes men blind. This change in the estimation of fear is shown by the fact that Hobbes in his enumeration of good things mentions life as the first good in the first place, whereas on the other hand Aristotle mentions happiness in the first place and life only in the penultimate place. Hobbes speaks of good things as good because they serve as the protection of life, whereas Aristotle stresses good things which produce good, rather than good things, which preserve good. Hobbes declares the regaining of a lost good to be better than the undisturbed possession of that good; the memory that, that good was once imperiled is the condition of a sound estimation of it, just as the frightfulness of death rather than the sweetness of life reveals the value of living. The change in the estimation of vanity is shown by the fact that Hobbes in his discussion of emulation and envy makes no mention of the difference in the value of these two passions, according to which emulation is more nobler than envy. Besides, he traces the pleasure of victory to vanity, whereas Aristotle characterizes the reason for this pleasure as a conception of superiority. According to Aristotle, shame is no virtue, but a passion, but, nevertheless, it is that passion which holds noble youth in check, whereas according to Hobbes, shame, as confusion arising from disgrace endured, is only the opposite of satisfied vanity. According to Aristotle, the typical example of what is pleasant is the ease which constitutes a customary state; thus everything which one can do with ease and convenience, counts as pleasant, like, freedom from care, idleness, sleep, play, laughter etc. In his enumeration of pleasant things, Hobbes names in the first place progress; ease of any kind, in his opinion a state neither desirable nor attainable: ‘continual delight consisteth not in having prospered, but in prospering’, not in possession and enjoyment, but in successful striving and desiring. Thus, diverging from Aristotle, Hobbes names in his enumeration of pleasant things, work or occupation. According to Hobbes, the pleasant is not so much what is naturally pleasant, as the ‘pleasant’ movement from one pleasant thing to another pleasant thing.

Hobbes’ break with tradition was doubtless the result of his turning to mathematics and natural sciences. Precisely for this reason he became conscious of the antagonism of the new moral attitude of the whole tradition. Before turning to Galileo and Euclid, he in principle kept to the traditional political philosophy. It wasn’t the idea of political science, but its method that became a problem through the study of Euclid. This however, shows that the might of the scientific tradition is the reason why the need for a reform in political philosophy comes into being primarily as the need for a new reform in the spheres of political philosophy. This explicit break, which the whole tradition of political philosophy makes, thus becomes possible only after ‘Euclid’. Hobbes himself admits in his own view that the application of mathematical method to political philosophy elevates it for the first time to the rank of a science, a branch of rational knowledge the reason for this is that in politics up to that time, it was not reason but passions that held sway. The only completely passionless, purely rational science, and therefore the only science, which is already in existence, is mathematics; thus only by orienting oneself by mathematics, i.e. by progressing as mathematicians do from self evident principles by means of evident conclusions, can politics be reduced ‘to the rules and infallibility of reason’. Exact passionless mathematics is indifferent to passions; exact passionless political philosophy is in conflict with the passions. The need for exact political philosophy is justified by no means less only in reference to the failure of the old and traditional political philosophy, but especially in reference to the wrongness of opinions, which is betrayed first by the fact that most opinions are wrong. Now, since all opinion is as such wrong, the true knowledge of the good must be opposed to all opinion, must have exact knowledge and must be completely free of the character of opinion. Thus Hobbes’ political philosophy is against every system of morals, which is popular and pre-scientific. The ideal of exact scientific philosophy is thus asserting the fact that only science discloses to man the obligatory aims of his volition and action. One must try to define the philosophical meaning of turning to ‘Euclid’ on the basis of what that turning means to political philosophy.

During his humanist period, wherein Hobbes tried to remedy Aristotelian moral philosophy by studying history. Hobbes moved towards an exact moral and political philosophy. The confusion with regard to the good, the just, and the beautiful, which caused Aristotle to acknowledge and maintain the peculiar lack of definiteness of these subjects, which explain these confusions; this for Plato was a reason for transcending the whole field in which such confusion was possible. Whereas, Aristotle’s political philosophy is and means to be in harmony with the opinion as to the just, the beautiful and the good, and with political experience Plato’s political philosophy is in principle with full readiness to make demands, which cannot be fully justified by political experience. Thus, when Hobbes, stimulated by mathematics, demands an exact political philosophy, he is departing from Aristotle and going back to Plato. The most profound expression, which Hobbes finds for the difference between Aristotle and Plato, is that Plato’s philosophy starts from ideas, and Aristotle’s from words. But as for the difference between Plato and Aristotle, which develop in the course of an approach, which was common to them both, it consists rather in this, that Plato, much more than Aristotle, orientates himself by speech. When Hobbes says that Plato philosophizes not from ‘words’, but from ‘ideas’, he fundamentally misunderstands him. However, as Plato turns away from things, not to speech in itself, but to speech in its contradictoriness, it is certain that it is just the apparently pedantic allegiance to speech, which he observes, that brings him in opposition to what men usually say and believe. And, thus Hobbes’ conception of Plato is to a certain extent, justified. Let us first recall the significance of Plato’s moral philosophy to the antithesis between true and pseudo-virtue. True virtue has as its basis a complete change of objective, whereas pseudo-virtue is based entirely on ordinary human aims and interests. True virtue is essentially wisdom. True virtue differs from pseudo-virtue in its reason. Pseudo-virtue is pseudo virtue because its aim is not virtue itself, but the appearance of virtue, reputation for virtue, and the honour, which results from that reputation. In other words, it can be said that pseudo virtue seeks what is imposing and great, while true virtue seeks what is fitting and right. Thus, according to Plato, courage, the virtue of the warrior, is inseparable from military glory. No virtue seems more brilliant, more worthy even of reverence than courage; for courage is the standard ideal of the Lacedaemonian and Cretan laws. And yet it is the lowest virtue. Its problematic nature expounds itself in full clearness only when one considers it not in its archaic form, in which its sense is, narrowed and limited by obedience to law, and in which, for that very reason, it is hidden wisdom, but only when one considers it apart from its limitations, in itself. Courage, as it is usually understood, is the virtue of the man, his capacity, without fear or effeminacy, to help himself, to protect himself from injustice or injury, to assert and save himself. If we take this ideal, then the perfect man is the tyrant, who disposes of the greatest possible power to do what he will. In limitless self-love, in frenzied arrogance, the tyrant seeks to rule not merely over men, but even over Gods. It is not courage, which is the highest virtue; self-mastery stands higher, and higher still than self-mastery stand wisdom and justice. In itself wisdom stands supreme. Aristotle teaches that the ethical virtues, headed by justice, are available to men, whereas his true happiness, which to a certain extent transcends human limitations, consists in philosophy. Plato denies that the philosopher has a right to seek its own happiness, without a thought for the unphilosophic many. The law of the ideal State compels the philosophers to take thought for other men and to watch over them and not ‘to turn whither each will’.  Since the pursuit of philosophy as a human undertaking is under a higher order, justice, with regard to men, stands higher than wisdom. Whereas Aristotle, by unreservedly setting theoretic life higher than ethical virtue, unconditionally oversteps the limits of the State and thus indirectly attains the possibility of recognizing virtues, which are not really political virtues, but virtues of private life, for Plato there are only political virtues, i.e. to characterize popular virtue.


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