Role and Nature of Religion in Thomas Hobbes

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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.

Monarchy in Hobbes, or The Role of Sovereign

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Hobbes took up to History and carried on his historical studies with a view of politics in mind. He always considered Thucydides as his favourite author and commented on him as ‘the most political historiographer that ever writ’. Hobbes wished to communicate to his fellow citizens that Democracy is faulty and Monarchy is to be preferred. In the introduction to the translation of Thucydides, Hobbes summarizes Thucydides, ‘opinion touching the Government of the State’ to the effect that ‘Thucydides ‘least of all liked the Democracy’ and ‘best approved of the regal Government’.  Thus from the very outset, Hobbes was an ardent opponent of Democracy and an upholder of a monarchic form of Government. This view he held till the rest of his life. In the introduction to the translation of Thucydides, he formally considers the monarchic Government of Peisistratos and the nominally democratic but monarchic Government of Pericles as equivalent.  But he considers in all his expositions of political philosophy the possibility of elective monarchy, comparing it with the Roman institution of dictatorship, under which the people is ‘sovereign in property’, but not ‘in use’. Hobbes regarded absolute monarchy and dictatorship as the only practical form of Government.

Hobbes’ position with regards to monarchy never changed throughout his life, but his conception of the term ‘monarchy’ did change. In earlier presentations, Hobbes makes mention of the traditional arguments, according to which monarchy is the only natural, original form of authority, the only form which corresponds to the nature’s original order, whereas Aristocracy and Democracy are artificially produced by men, namely ‘cemented’ by human wit. Moreover, he maintained till the end of his life that paternal authority and consequently patrimonial monarchy is, if not the legal, nevertheless the historical origin of all or majority of the States. 

Hobbes at all times maintained the distinction between the natural and the artificial State. He distinguished between ‘Commonwealth by acquisition’, which is based on natural force, and ‘Commonwealth by institution’, which comes into being by voluntary subjection to an elected Government i.e. artificially. In discussing the artificial State he treats of institutional and therefore artificial State monarchy. But a noteworthy difference is compounded in the Leviathan, the right of succession is treated as a specific problem of monarchy in the discussion of ‘Commonwealth by institution’, but in the earlier presentations it is mentioned only in connection with the distinction of the natural State. Since in Hobbes’ original point of view, monarchy and the natural State were identical, this specific problem of monarchy was included in the discussion of the basis for a natural State.

Hobbes distinguishes between two kinds of natural State: the despotic State, which is based on conquest, and the patrimonial monarchy, which is based on paternal authority. The monarchy, which, Hobbes originally identified with the natural State, was patrimonial monarchy and not despotic monarchy. For Hobbes, monarchy and patrimonial kingdom were originally identical. Later on, he did come to consider, the monarchy based on paternal authority and the monarchy based on conquest as identical. This turn is the result of his conception of the idea of an instituted monarchy; compared with all forms of authority, which are not of artificial production and are not based on voluntary delegation, seem natural. In the ‘Elements of Law’, it is said in passing: ‘the monarch’s subjects are to him as his children and servants’. Monarchy is to cease to be personal Government in any higher degree than Democracy and Aristocracy. The more sharply Hobbes elaborates the idea of representation, the more clarity he achieves as the essence of institutional monarchy and the differences between the King as the natural person and the King as the political person, the less important does the natural State, patrimonial monarchy, and the affinity between monarchy and the paternal authority become for him. Towards the end, despotic Government and monarchy are diametrically opposed: ‘The King though as a father of children, and a master of domestic servants command many things which bind those children and servants; yet he commands the people in general never but by a precedent law, and as a politic, not a natural person’.

Initially, Hobbes considered Democracy as a primary form of the artificial State. In the Elements of Law, it is said: ‘Democracy precedeth all other institutions of Government’. Aristocracy and institutional monarchy are developed from the original Democracy. Thus, according to Hobbes’ original opinion, the artificial State is primarily democratic, as the natural State is the patrimonial monarchy.

It happens that the earliest systematic exposition of Hobbes’ views is the most democratic. That the precedence of Democracy over the other artificial forms of state is addressed most decisively in the Elements of Law. In the Elements of Law, Aristotle’s assertion that the object of Democracy is freedom meets with more justice at Hobbes’ hands, in spite of his rejection of that opinion, than it does later. In the Elements of Law, there is a remark about the artificial State which seems to be a residue of an argument in favour of democracy. In the Elements of Law, he says,

The subjection of them who institute a commonwealth amongst themselves, is no less absolute, than the subjection of servants. And herein they are in equal estate; but the hope of those is greater than the hope of these. For he that subjecteth himself uncompelled, thinketh there is a reason he should be better used, than he that doth it upon compulsion; and coming in freely, calleth himself, though in subjection, a Freeman; whereby it appeareth, that liberty is…a state of better hope than theirs that have been subjected by force and conquest.

From this, this opinion seems to be implied: the motive that leads to the natural State is fear; the motive that leads to the artificial State is hope or trust. This antithesis, in so far as Democracy is the primary form of an artificial State, means the preference for Democracy over patrimonial monarchy.

It is probable from the outset that Hobbes was open to democratic ideas in his humanist period. In the later years he always named the classical authors as the chief causes of democratic ideas in his age. It is not to be assumed that, at a time when he was occupied with these authors, before he could confront their authority with his own political philosophy which raised a claim to mathematical certitude, and when only the authority of Thucydides was on his side, he was as steady in his rejection of the democratic tradition as he later became, to say nothing of the fact that Thucydides after all was not an absolutely indisputable authority for Hobbes’ view in favour of absolute monarchy. The earliest presentation of Hobbes’ political philosophy is at one and the same time the one most in favour of patrimonial monarchy and Democracy. The paradox disappears if one reflects that the ideas of patrimonial monarchy and of Democracy, which are brought out most clearly in the Elements of Law, are traditional ideas, that the untraditional union of these ideas, was not fully successful until the Leviathan, and that, therefore, these ideas are of necessity imperfectly united in the earlier presentations, and as a result, stand side by side in self-contradiction. In his humanist period, Hobbes had not yet found the means of reconciling these opposed traditional ideas i.e. he had not yet developed his final conception of institutional artificial monarchy with sufficient clarity. From the starting, Hobbes’ theory of the State represents the union of two opposed traditions. Hobbes follows the monarchist tradition, in so far as he contends that patrimonial monarchy is the only natural, and thus the only legitimate form of State. In its contrast, the democratic State contends that all legitimacy has its origin in the decree of the sovereign people. With reference to natural states he follows to the end the monarchist tradition, at least as far as the historical origin of already existing states is concerned. With reference to artificial states, he follows, at least to begin with, the democratic tradition, taking pains from the beginning to show that Democracy can do no better than to transform itself into an absolute monarchy.

As far as sovereignty is concerned, Hobbes reconciles two fundamental theories of sovereignty. In one, sovereignty is the right, which is finally based on the authority of the father, thus completely independent of the will of the individual. In second, all sovereignty is to be traced back to the voluntary delegation of authority on the part of the majority of free citizens. In Hobbes’ final theory of sovereignty, the involuntary as well as the voluntary nature of subjection is more systematically reconciled; the individuals and not the fathers; at the founding of the artificial State delegate the highest power to the man or an assembly from mutual fear, in itself compulsive, is consistent with freedom. Compulsive mutual fear is voluntarily replaced by the again compulsive fear of a neutral third power, the Government, and thus they substitute for an immeasurable, endless, and inevitable danger; the danger threatened by an enemy; a measurable, limited and avoidable danger which threatens only the law breakers from the courts of law. When Hobbes reconciled the two opposed theories of sovereignty, he did reject as illegitimate those governments whose foundations could be explained neither by the traditional monarchy, nor by the traditional democratic principles. He says in the translation of Thucydides: Thucydides ‘commandeth (the Government of Athens), both when Peisistratos reigned (saving that it was an usurped power), and when in the beginning of the war it was democratical in name, but in effect monarchical under Pericles’. So Hobbes could distinguish between legitimate and usurped power and thus he originally considered only the patrimonial monarchy as the natural State, and not the despotic rule of the conqueror. His final theory is effective in the sense that it is legitimate in nature thus paving way for ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’ to lose all significance.

Hobbes also assumed legal limits to sovereign power. He did mention in the introduction to the translation of Thucydides that a mixed contribution of Democracy and Aristocracy deserves primacy over Democracy on the one hand and over Aristocracy on the other. In the Elements of Law, he admits the possibility not of a division of sovereignty but of the division of the administration of sovereignty into monarchist control and an aristocratic and a democratic council. His original opinion was based on the fact that the absolute monarch is by no means obliged, but would do well, to set up an aristocratic or a democratic council, and thus unite the advantages of monarchy with those of Aristocracy and Democracy. Hobbes did recognize the obligatory limitations of sovereignty. Although it is true that in all the three presentations he rejected the view that sovereign is bound by Civil laws, and even the view that the sovereign nay be under given conditions be called to account by the subjects; but originally he did not espouse sovereignty as nearly so absolute as it is seen in the Leviathan. Finally he considered that the sovereign has no obligation of any kind; for the law of nature, which is apparently binding on the sovereign, takes on full binding force only by the command of the sovereign; and no one can be bound to himselfe; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely, is not bound. Hobbes asserts that the law of nature is obligatory not only on the basis of a sovereign command but also as ‘delivered in the word of God’. But later, according to his own assertion, the word of God itself becomes binding only on the basis of sovereign command. The theory of the Elements of Law contradicts this; as according to it natural law is binding not only by the reason of revelation but also on account of the natural knowledge of God, and thus obliges all men as rational beings and in particular the sovereign. As far as the duties of the sovereign are concerned, Hobbes originally mentions solicitude for the eternal salvation of the subjects.