Genesis and Evaluation of Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Part 2.


Hobbes recognizes the nature of the ideal of an exact philosophical morality,which is paradoxical and makes it the backbone of his political philosophy. In his moral philosophy also, the antithesis between the virtue and pseudo-virtue forms a constituent part. He also teaches that true virtue and pseudo-virtue differ only in their reason. Like Plato, he also recognizes only political virtues. Hobbes also distrusts rhetoric, in a way, which recalls Plato.

A pleader commonly thinks he ought to say all he can for the benefit of his client, and therefore has need of a faculty to wrest the sense of words from their true meaning, and the faculty of rhetoric to seduce the jury, and sometimes the judge also, and many other arts which I neither have, nor intend to study.

Basing his reason on Platonic approach, he thought that the difference between the analysis of ordinary values and of passions given in Aristotle’s rhetoric on the one hand, and the theory of ethics on the other, not nearly great enough. While in Aristotle’s view the common passionate valuations have a peculiar consistency and universality, Hobbes, by reason of his radical criticism of opinion as such, cannot but deny them this dignity. 

What Hobbes’ political philosophy owes to Platonism is the antithesis between truth and appearance, the fitting and the great, between reason and passion. From the very outset, Hobbes’ conviction was the antithesis between vanity and fear and for him, it was of fundamental importance for morals. But in the beginning, Hobbes understood this antithesis as an antithesis within the domain of the passions. But when he turned to Plato, he began to conceive this antithesis between vanity and fear as the antithesis between passion and reason. However, resolutely Hobbes demands a completely passionless, purely rational political philosophy, he desires, as it were, in the same breath, that the norm to be set by reason should be in accord with the passions. Respect for applicability determines the seeking after the norm from the outset. With this, Hobbes does not merely tacitly adopt Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s political philosophy but he goes much beyond Aristotle.

Primary reason for Hobbes’ opposition to Plato, is the motive for turning to Euclid as to the ‘resolutive-compositive’ method. In this method, the given object of investigation is first analysed, traced back to its reasons, and then by completely lucid deduction the object is again reconstituted. The axioms, which Hobbes gains by going back from the existing State to its reasons, and from there he deduces the form of the right State; are according to him, the man’s natural selfishness and the fear of death. Hobbes’ political philosophy differs from Plato in that, in the latter, exactness means the undistorted reliability of the standards, while in the former, exactness means unconditional applicability, under all circumstances. Hobbes took the ‘resolutive-compositive’ method over from Galileo. He believes that by this method he can achieve for political philosophy what Galileo achieved for physics. But the adequacy for physics does not guarantee its adequacy for political philosophy. For while the subject for physics is the natural body, the subject of political philosophy is an artificial body, i.e. a whole that has to be made by men from natural wholes. Thus the concern of political philosophy is not so much knowledge of the artificial body as the production of that body. Political philosophy analyses the existing State into its elements only in order that by a better synthesis of those elements the right State may be produced. Political philosophy thus becomes a technique for the regulation of the State. Its task is to alter the unstable balance of the existing State to the stable balance of the right State. The introduction of Galileo’s method into political philosophy from the outset renounces all discussions of the fundamental political problems, i.e. the elimination of the fundamental question as to the aim of the State.

Hobbes doesn’t question the necessity of political philosophy, i.e. he doesn’t ask first, ‘What is virtue?’ and ‘Can it be taught?’ and ‘What is the aim of the State?’, because for him, these questions are answered by tradition, or by common opinion. The aim of the State is for him as a matter of course peace, i.e. peace at any price. The underlying presupposition is that violent death is the first and greatest and supreme evil. After finding this presupposition as a principle when he analysed the existing State, he proceeds to deduce from it the right State; opposed to Plato, whose consideration of the genesis of the State seems superficially akin, but has the character of reflection, of deliberate questioning of what is good and fitting. Convinced of the absolutely typical character of the mathematical method, according to which one proceeds from axioms to self-evident truths/conclusions, Hobbes fails to realize that in the ‘beginning’, in the ‘evident’ presuppositions whether of mathematics or of politics, the task of ‘dialectic’ is hidden. Hobbes considers it superfluous, even dangerous, to take as one’s point of departure what men say about justice and so forth: ‘the names of virtues and vices…can never be true grounds of any ratiocination’. The application of the ‘resolutive-compositive’ method to political philosophy is of doubtful value as it prevented Hobbes from asking the questions as to the standard. He begins his political philosophy with the question as to the nature of the man in the sense of that which falls to all men before education. If the procedure of deducing the right State is to be significant, the principles themselves contain the answer to the question as to the right State, as to the standard. Hobbes characterizes the two principles viz., limitless self-love on the one hand and that of violent death on the other as he principles of the wrong and the principles of the right. But this characterization does not arise from the analysis, for the analysis can only show the principles of the existing State, and cannot, therefore, teach anything about the rightness and wrongness of those principles, and, on the other hand, this characterization is the presupposition of the synthesis, which as a synthesis of the right State cannot arise until it has been established what is the right. This qualification, which follows the analysis and precedes the synthesis, is certainly into the frame of the ‘resolutive-compositive’ method; but it is not to be understood from this method, either in general or even in particular. The justification of the standard, which is the fundamental part of the political philosophy, is hidden by the ‘resolutive-compositive’ method and even made unrecognizable.

What is justified in this way is indeed not a standard, an obligation; but a right, a claim. According to Hobbes, the basis of politics is not the ‘law of nature’, but the ‘right of nature’. This right is the minimum claim, which as such is fundamentally just, and the origin of any other just claim; more exactly, it is unconditionally just because it can be answered for in face of all men in all circumstances. A claim of this kind is only the claim to defend life and limb. Its opposite is the maximum claim, which is fundamentally unjust, for it cannot be answered for in face of any other man. The maximum claim, the claim man makes by nature, i.e. as long as he is not educated by ‘unforeseen mischances’, is the claim to triumph over all other men. This ‘natural’ claim is checked by fear of violent death and becomes man’s rational minimum claim, and thus ‘right of nature’ comes into being, or atleast comes to light. That is to say, the ‘right of nature’ is the first juridical or moral fact, which arises if one, starts from man’s nature i.e. from man’s natural appetite. The ‘law of nature’ belongs to a much later stage of the progress from human nature to the State: ‘natural right’ is dealt with in the first chapter of De Cive, ‘natural law’ in the second and third chapters.

The ‘law of nature’ owes all its dignity simply to the circumstances that it is the necessary consequence of the ‘right of nature’. We may ask the question as to what is the peculiarity of modern political thought in relation to the classical political thought?  While modern thought starts from the rights of the individual, and conceives the State as existing to secure the conditions of his development, Greek thought starts from the right of the State. Modern and classical political philosophy are fundamentally distinguished in that modern political philosophy takes ‘right’ as the starting point, whereas classical political philosophy has ‘law’ as its starting point.

Hobbes marked an epoch not only by subordinating law to right. He was at the same time ‘the first writer to grasp the full importance of the idea of sovereignty…he must take the credit of being the first to see that the idea of sovereignty lies at the very root of the whole theory of the State; and the first to realize the necessity of fixing precisely where it lies, and what are its functions and its limits’. By this also Hobbes stands in contrast to classical political philosophy: ‘Amongst the most notable omissions of Greek philosophy is the absence of any clear attempt to define the nature of sovereignty, to determine its seat, or settle the ultimate sanction on which it rests’. In classical times, the question, ‘who or what shall rule?’ has the antiquity answer running, ‘the law’. Philosophers who could not acquiesce in the Divine origin of the law justify this answer in the following way: the rational should rule over the irrational (the old over the young, the man over the woman, the master over the slave) and therefore law over men. Granting that there are men who by force of reason are undoubtedly superior to others, would those others submit to them merely on this ground, and obey them? Would they recognize their superiority? But doubt does not stop at that. It is denied that any considerable difference in reasonableness exists between men. Because reason is essentially impotent, it is not enough to reply that reason is the origin and the seat of sovereignty. Thus it becomes fundamentally questionable, which of the men who are equal and alike is to rule over the others, and under which conditions and within which limits, they have a claim to rule. Because all men a re equally reasonable, the reason of one or more individuals must arbitrarily be made the standard reason as an artificial substitute for the lacking natural superiority of the reason. Because reason is impotent, the rational ‘law of nature’ also loses its dignity. In its place we have the ‘right of nature’ which is, indeed, according to reason but dictated not by reason but by the fear of death. The break with rationalism is thus the decisive presupposition for the concept of sovereignty as well as for the supplanting of ‘law’ by ‘right’.

Hobbes in his writings conceives sovereign power not as reason but as will. Hobbes expressly turns against the view still predominant in his age that the holder of the sovereign power is in the same relation to the State as the head to the whole man. The holder of the sovereign power is not the ‘head’, that is, the capacity to deliberate and plan, but the ‘soul’, that is, the capacity to command, in the State. The explicit break with rationalism is thus the reason for the antithesis of modern political thought to classical and is characterized thusly: ‘the Greeks believed in the need of education to tune and harmonize social opinions to the spirit and tone of a fixed and fundamental law. The modern belief is the need of a representation to adjust and harmonize a fluid and changing and subordinate law to the movement of a sovereign public opinion or ‘general will’.

The view of classical rationalism, that only reason justifies dominion, found its most radical expression in Plato’s saying that the only necessary and adequate condition for the weal of a State is that the philosophers should be Kings and Kings philosophers. This amounts to stating that the setting up of a perfect commonwealth depends exclusively on ‘internal policy’ and not at all on foreign policy. From here on, Plato’s theory of justice can be summed up thus: there is no happiness for men without justice; justice means attending to one’s own business, bringing oneself into the right disposition with regard to the transcendent unchanging norm, to which the soul is akin, and not meddling into other people’s affairs; and justice in the State is not different from justice in the individual, except that the State is self-sufficient and can thus practice justice; attending to its own business; incomparably more perfectly than can the individual who is not self-sufficient. The citizens of the perfect State, for this very reason to foreigners, happen to be either allies to be esteemed or foes to be feared. Let us take Plato’s example; if the essence of the thing is to be preferred to its external conditions, to the self-realization and self-assertion of that thing against its external conditions, then, for instance, the right constitution of the body, its health, is to be preferred to its return to its health, to its recovery after its loss of health. By this example, Plato makes clear that the good statesman carries out his legislation with an eye to peace, which is to the good internal constitution of the State, and not with an eye to war, that is, to the assertion of the State against external conditions. Hobbes differs from Plato and asserts that the recovery of health is to be preferred to the undisturbed possession of health. While for Plato and to an extent for Aristotle, and in accordance with the primary interest they attach to home policy, the question of the number of inhabitants of the perfect State, that is, the limits set to the State by its inner necessity, is of decisive importance; Hobbes brushes this question aside in these words: ‘The Multitude sufficient to confide in for our security, is not determined by any certain number, but by comparison by the enemy we feare…’ The primacy of foreign policy is not specifically taught by Hobbes, but it is an integral part of all of modern political philosophy. Immanuel Kant in one of his works has a phrase, which runs like: ‘The problem of establishing a perfect civil constitution is dependent on the problem of a lawful external relation between the States and cannot be solved independently of the solution of the latter problem’.

The antithesis between Platonic and Hobbesian political philosophy, reduced to principle, is that the former orientates itself by speech and the latter from the outset refuses to do so. This refusal originally arises from what may be called natural valuations. While Plato goes back to the truth hidden in the natural valuations and thereof seeks to teach nothing new and unheard of, but to recall what is known to all but not understood, Hobbes, rejecting the natural valuations in principle, goes beyond, goes forward to a new a priori political philosophy, which is of the future and freely projected. Measured by Aristotle’s classical explanation of morals, Platonic moral philosophy is as paradoxical as Hobbes’. But whereas the paradoxical nature of Platonic moral philosophy is as irreversible as the  ‘cave’ existence of men bound to the body, Hobbes’ moral philosophy is destined sooner or later to change from paradox to an accepted form of public opinion. The paradoxical nature of Hobbes’ moral philosophy is the paradox of the surprisingly new, unheard of venture. Whereas Plato retraces natural morals and the orientation provided by them to their origin, Hobbes must attempt in sovereignty, and without this orientation, to discover the principles of morals. Hobbes travels the path, which leads to formal ethics and finally to relativist skepticism. The enormous extension of the claims made on political science leads at least to a denial of the very idea of political science and to the replacement of political science by sociology. Plato does not question the virtue character of courage, to which speech bears witness but simply opposes the over-estimation of courage, which underlies the popular opinion. Hobbes, because he renounced all orientation by speech, goes so far to deny the virtue character of courage. And just as disdain of speech finally leads to relativist skepticism, the negation of courage leads to the controversial position of courage, which becomes more and more acute on the way from Rousseau by Hegel to Nietzsche and is completed by the reabsorption of wisdom by courage, in the view that the ideal is not the object of wisdom, but the hazardous venture of the will.

Relinquishing orientation by speech does not mean that Hobbes ‘forgets’ the question of standards, but that he poses this question only as an afterthought, and, therefore, inadequately. Whereas Plato distinguishes between two kinds of reasons, the good and the necessary, Hobbes recognizes only one kind, the necessary. Since as a result of this he is obliged to take into account the inevitable difference between the good and the necessary within the necessary itself, the question of the standard, of the good, becomes for him the question of what is par excellence necessary, and he discovers the retreat from death as the necessary par excellence. For Hobbes, the denial of natural standards was irrefutably evident on the basis of his materialist metaphysics. Thus this metaphysics is the implicit pre-supposition even of his turning to Euclid, provided that the acceptance of the ‘mathematical’ method presupposes the negation of absolute standards. For the question arises; why did Hobbes decide in favour of materialism? On the ground of what primary conviction was materialism so vividly evident for him? The answer can be based on rough indications i.e. Hobbes’ turn to natural science is to be explained by his interest not so much in nature as in man, in self knowledge of man as he really is, i.e. by the interest that characterized him even in his humanist period. His scientific explanation of sense perception is characterized by the fact that it interprets perception of the higher senses by the sense of touch; and the preference for the sense of touch, which this presupposes is already implied in Hobbes’ original view of fundamental significance of the antithesis between vanity and fear. If Hobbes’ natural science is dependent on his ‘humanist’, that is moral, interests and convictions, on the other hand a particular conception of nature is the implicit basis of his views on moral and political philosophy. It is certain that the conception of nature, which is the presupposition of his political philosophy and the conception of nature, which he explains in his scientific writings, has a kinship and which in principle are to be kept separate. It is for these reasons that his scientific investigations could exert a powerful influence on the evolution of his political philosophy. He could not have maintained his thesis that death is the greatest and supreme evil but for the conviction vouched for by his natural science that the soul is not immortal. His criticism of aristocratic virtue and his denial of any gradation in mankind gains certainty only through his conception of nature, according to which there is no order, that is, no gradation in nature. From this standpoint we can understand the difference between Hobbes’ conception of Pride and the traditional conception. ‘Pride’ in the traditional sense means rebellion against the gradation of beings; it presupposes, therefore, the existence and the obligatory character of that gradation. Hobbes’ conception of ‘Pride’, on the other hand, presupposes the denial of natural gradation; this conception is, indeed, nothing other than a means of ‘explaining’, i.e. of denying that gradation: the allegedly natural gradation concerning the faculties of the mind proceeds from a ‘a vain concept of ones own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree, than the Vulgar’. The idea of civilization achieves its telling effect solely by reason of the presupposition that the civilization of human nature can go on boundlessly, because what tradition in agreement with common sense had understood as given and immutable human nature is for the main part a mere ‘natural limit’, which may be over passed. Very little is innate in man; most of what is alleged to come to him from the nature is acquired and therefore mutable, as conditions change; the most important peculiarities of man; speech, reason, sociality are not gifts of nature, but the work of his will. This example creates a duality in his political philosophy. The idea of civilization presupposes that man, by virtue of his intelligence, can place himself outside nature, can rebel against nature. The antithesis of nature and human will is hidden by the monist (materialist-deterministic) metaphysic, which Hobbes found himself forced to adopt simply because he saw no other possibility of escaping the ‘Kingdom of darkness’. This signifies that the moral basis of his political philosophy becomes more and more disguised, the farther the evolution of his natural science progresses. In other words, with the progressive evolution of his natural sciences, vanity, which must of necessity be treated from the moral standpoint, is more and more replaced by the striving for power, which is neutral and therefore more amenable to scientific interpretation. But Hobbes took great care not to follow this path as he thought that consistent naturalism would ruin his political philosophy. To compare Spinoza with Hobbes, Spinoza was more naturalistic than Hobbes. Spinoza relinquished the distinction between ‘might’ and ‘right’ and taught the natural right of all passions. Hobbes, on the other hand, by virtue of the basis of his political philosophy asserted the natural right only of the fear of death. On the other hand, if we consider Montesquieu, who carried the naturalistic analysis of the passions to its logical conclusion, came forward with the result that the State of nature cannot be the war of all against all this clearly exemplifies that if inconsistent naturalism is compatible with Hobbes’ political philosophy, the consistent naturalism, which Hobbes displays in his scientific writings cannot be the foundation of his political philosophy. This foundation must be another conception of nature, which although being related to naturalism is by no means identical to it.

Therefore, the foundation of Hobbes’ political philosophy, which is the moral attitude to which it owes its existence, is objectively prior to the mathematical scientific founding and presentation of that philosophy. The mathematical method and the materialistic metaphysics each in their own way contributed to disguise the original motivation to undermine Hobbes’ political philosophy. Hence, Leviathan is by no means an adequate source for an understanding of Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy, although the presuppositions and conclusions dealing with moral attitude are clearly manifest in the Leviathan.


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