The ideas of Hobbes have never ceased to be a source of annoyance since their first bold and pugnacious presentation to the world in 1640. But even those most offended by Hobbes’s bleak account of human nature and of the most a reasonable man will hope for must admit his utility. No leading article of the more reflective sort about the current political life of Africa is complete without a reference to his state of nature, the war of all against all. Hobbesian man, in whom vainglorious illusions about himself are kept in check only by the influence of fear, is an indispensable type of anti-hero. So there is one achievement that cannot be denied to Hobbes: he has provided, in language of incomparable force and directness, a full account of one extreme possible view about the human condition. Those who would insist that it is nothing like the whole truth must at least accept it as a magnificent incarnation of an eternally recurrent form of error, and must admit that in some times and places it looks disconcertingly like the truth.
To his contemporaries Hobbes was above all a dangerously destructive theologian. As Samuel Mintz has shown in his valuable book on seventeenth-century reactions to Hobbes, The Hunting of the Leviathan, the main hostility of his more serious critics was to his atheism, together with his denial of the primacy of mind or spirit in the general scheme of things. A good deal is said about God in Hobbes’s writings but it is nearly all negative. The only rational knowledge we can have of him is that he exists, from which it must follow that he is some kind of vast material object. Beyond this he is incomprehensible. The traditional epithets that are ascribed to him must be seen as honorific, and we may attach a specific sense to them only in accordance with the articles of belief laid down by the political sovereign.
Most obnoxious in his own time for his dismissal of religious liberty, whether the Protestant freedom of faith and conscience from any sort of organizational control or the freedom of the Church from control by the State, Hobbes has been deplored by later ages for his contempt for liberty in general. He has been mainly considered as a social theorist, deriving a series of insufferable prescriptions for Church and State from an exaggeratedly low view of mankind.
Yet it is clear that Hobbes himself wanted to be seen as being as much an epistemologist and philosopher of nature, even a natural scientist, as he is a social theorist. What is more he professed that his doctrines about human nature and society were not only deducible from his theories of knowledge and nature in general but essentially presupposed those theories as the basis for whatever claim to being demonstrably certain his ideology might have. Such a claim to certainty was a crucial feature of the total Hobbesian project. As J.W.N. Watkins shows …
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