Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes; drawing by David Levine

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, Hobbes regarded the chaos of baseless and fantastic ideologies by which Englishmen were intoxicated in the period preceding the Civil War as the main cause of that lamentable event.

The most important conclusion of Hobbes’s theory of knowledge is the distinction he draws between science or rational knowledge and what he calls prudence, which is the passively acquired, almost animal, habit of expecting things to go on much as they have always been. True science, for him, is the awareness of necessary conceptual relationships. But he does not interpret necessary truths in the manner of traditional, Aristotelian rationalism; they do not record the results of a purely intellectual scrutiny of objective essences. The function of these truths is, rather, to set out the consequences of the conventions of language that men have adopted. For Hobbes all thought above the animal level requires language, and language is a free human contrivance in which what is present to the senses is named: it is not the depiction of an objective order in things. Science is the product of reasoning, reasoning is “reckoning with names,” and names are conventional labels for what is sensed. This forcefully instrumental view of language made Hobbes very alert to the possibilities of insignificant speech.

HOBBES’S METAPHYSICS is an unusually obstinate effort to interpret everything there is in terms of the mechanically caused motions of matter. The triumphs of Galilean physics led other seventeenth-century philosophers, most conspicuously Descartes, to go some way in this direction, to the conclusion that the non-mental world, at any rate, consists of material bodies, endowed only with the mathematical properties of shape, size, mass, and motion, causally influencing one another by impact. Hobbes, impressed by Harvey’s mechanical theory of the circulation of the blood, went a good deal further. For him mental processes were also mechanically caused material motions, although on a very small scale. From this it followed that all mental activity is causally explainable and that every conceivable subject matter is amenable to one scientific method of investigation. Hobbes is a complete determinist and a believer in the unity of science.


There are several reasons why Hobbes’s unequivocally systematic professions should have been ignored. In the first place, his political and religious ideas are more interesting, emotionally, to all but a small minority than his mechanical materialism or his nominalist theory of knowledge. Secondly, among the few people concerned with logic and metaphysics there has been a tacit convention that the materialist view of the world, of which Hobbes is among the handful of major exponents, should be ignored as unworthy of serious discussion. Plato, according to Diogenes Laertius, would have liked all the works of Democritus to have been burnt. Epicurus, despite the version of his system given in the poem of Lucretius, is thought of as a handy personification of hedonism and not as the propounder of an empiricist theory of knowledge (his “canonic”) and of a variant of the Greek atomists’ philosophy of nature. The critics of idealism, which has, after all, been the main gift of formal philosophy to religious belief, have remained, from Hume to Russell and beyond, unshakeably loyal to fundamental idealist presuppositions, in particular to the principle that all we directly and certainly know is the contents of our own minds.

Thirdly, Hobbes himself did much to undermine the claims of his metaphysics to serious attention. As a mathematician and scientist he was an over-weeningly combative amateur and came off very much the worse in a noisy and protracted battle of words over squaring the circle, mainly with John Wallis, a really professional mathematician. Finally there is the influence of Leviathan itself. There is hardly any of his materialism in it and only a brief sketch of his theory of knowledge, tucked into the middle of Book I. Published in 1650, five years before De Corpore, his main metaphysical work, it was produced out of order because of its direct relevance to the events of the time. Hobbes justified this premature delivery of the final part of his system: “I saw that, grounded on its own principles sufficiently known by experience, it would not stand in need of the former sections.” From a literary point of view Leviathan is Hobbes’s masterpiece. This helps to explain why it should generally have been supposed to contain the essentials of his thought.

VARIOUS RECENT COMMENTATORS have attempted to give a rational justification for this habit of ignoring Hobbes’s non-social philosophy. In 1936 Leo Strauss published his ingenious development of a stray remark by Croom Robertson, Hobbes’s excellent nineteenth-century biographer, a remark, incidentally, that Robertson in effect withdrew in a footnote. Hobbes’s political doctrine, Robertson wrote, “doubtless had its main lines fixed when he was still a mere observer of men and manners, and not yet a mechanical philosopher.”

Out of this Strauss excogitated a view of Hobbes, the admirer and translator of Thucydides, as being mainly original as a tough secular moralist. For Strauss Hobbes’s materialism is an irrelevant fad with which he became obsessed after forming his moral and political ideas and which merely obstructed their exposition with paradoxes and inconsistencies. In other words, Hobbes’s metaphysics is historically posterior to his social philosophy and is logically incongruous with it.

An even more influential tradition of interpreting Hobbes against his own apparently systematic and naturalistic intentions was started by the distinguished historian of philosophy, A. E. Taylor, in an article published in 1938. In Taylor’s opinion Hobbes’s references to natural law must be taken at their face value. Hobbes’s fundamental law of nature is that “every man ought to endeavor Peace”; his second law, that every man should be prepared to give up all his natural rights but self-defense, provided that other men do so as well; his third, that “men performe their Covenants made.” Hobbes says that a law of nature is “a Precept, or general Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life.” He dissents pretty plainly from the idea that natural laws are in a conventional sense divine commands. “There be some that proceed further.” he says “and will not have the Law of Nature, to be those Rules which conduce to the preservation of mans life on earth; but to the attaining of an eternal felicity after death.” Holders of this view are crisply disposed of.

Nevertheless Taylor does proceed further. He takes Hobbes’s account of men as preoccupied with self-preservation to be an answer to the question of why men can be expected in fact to obey natural laws, and he professes to find a quite different answer to the question of why men morally should obey them. Men in the state of nature, and sovereigns among them, have moral duties which are imposed on them by God. This doctrine, shorn of such excesses as the view that Hobbes is a Kantian moralist, proclaiming duty for duty’s sake, is the basis of Howard Warrender’s impressively thorough interpretation of Hobbes’s political philosophy, which was published in 1957.


Both J. W. N. Watkins in Hobbes’s System of Ideas and M. M. Goldsmith in Hobbes’s Science of Politics defend what would appear to be Hobbes’s own view about the logical unity and connection of his thought. They pursue their common aim by very different paths. Watkins’s book is brief, lively, polemical, and replete with interesting and original ideas. It is an excellent guide to the present condition of Hobbes studies, but there is much more to it than that. Goldsmith’s book is a considerably more pedestrian affair which conducts, rather self-effacingly, a guided tour through the whole range of Hobbes’s thought. Watkins meets those who would carve Hobbes up with headon counter-argument and turns the tables on them by tracing some illuminating connections among different parts of Hobbes’s work. Goldsmith largely remits controversy to footnotes and a few brief appendices.

Watkins deals concisely but firmly with Strauss’s view that Hobbes’s metaphysics are causally independent of and logically at odds with his social theory. Hobbes’s Short Tract on First Principles, the first but unequivocal draft of his materialism, was written in 1630, only a year after the publication of his translation of Thucydides, his only earlier piece of political writing. Furthermore, in the Introduction to his Thucydides, Hobbes employs a merely empirical and comparative method which is replaced in all his mature political works by deduction from the first principles of a mechanist psychology. The main political preference expressed in the early work is for monarchy, and this, though present in De Cive and Leviathan, is emphatically stated by Hobbes to be no part of their demonstrable content but to rest on merely persuasive arguments.

To the thesis of Taylor and Warrender that Hobbes’s theory of obligation rests on theistic foundations, Watkins brings a series of powerful objections. By resting natural laws, the basic rules of conduct, on individual conceptions of God’s will instead of on their scientific self-evidence, the Taylor-Warrender thesis forfeits the claim that natural laws are certain and not rationally disputable. According to Watkins, their thesis arises from the mistaken idea that the alternative to interpreting natural laws as full-bloodedly and conventionally moral, and thus as divine commands, is to take them to be merely factual descriptions of the general tendency of human behavior, without any prescriptive implications about how men should conduct themselves. But there is a third possibility: natural laws can be seen as principles of practical wisdom, specifying what it would be reasonable or sensible or prudent for men to do. Watkins compares them to doctor’s orders. He agrees that for Hobbes all laws, strictly so called, are commands and that Hobbes does describe natural laws as divine commands. But this, he argues, is a largely ornamental addition to Hobbes’s theory of natural law. As Goldsmith neatly puts it, Hobbes’s description of the laws of nature as divine commands does nothing to explain our knowledge of their content (for we have no rational knowledge of God beyond the fact of his existence) or to explain our obligation to obey them (for Hobbes nowhere invokes the characteristically divine sanctions of salvation and eternal punishment; his prescriptions always rest on the altogether this-worldly sanction of the fear of violent death).

WATKINS GOES ON to elucidate three major ways in which aspects of Hobbes’s non-social philosophy are indispensable to the fully developed form of his social doctrines. First, Hobbes’s treatment of politically organized society as a mechanical artefact is the result of applying to the analysis of society the “resoluto-compositive” method of the Paduan philosophers of science. The point is made by an effective comparison between Hobbes’s analysis of society and Galileo’s analysis of the trajectory of a projectile. Galileo showed how certainty could be attained about the laws of motion of ordinary gross material objects; Hobbes believed the same could be done with the behavior of men in society.

Secondly, Watkins shows Hobbes’s account of human nature, his egoistic psychology, to be an application of his metaphysical principle that all causation is literal impact. For him all mental activity is minute or incipient motions within the body. Animal motion, ordinary voluntary behavior, is the effect of invisible but nonetheless material motions or “endeavors” within the agent. In circumstances favorable to the organism, external stimuli are felt as pleasant and give rise to endeavors to persist in those circumstances, in other words to desire. In the opposite case, displeasure is felt and contrary endeavor or aversion is set up. Hobbes wanted to show, according to Watkins, that men were more or less uniform and that they were egocentric. Egocentricity explains why they come into collision and what motives they have for avoiding conflict. Uniformity explains why the mutual forbearances of citizenship are the only sure protection against the danger of sudden death, for it entails that every man is naturally vulnerable to every other man. Men are uniform because they are all mechanisms; they are egocentric because the ultimate determinant of all their actions is the overall endeavor toward self-preservation, a speculative adaptation by Hobbes of Harvey’s theory of the role of the heart in the economy of the human body.

Finally, Watkins goes on from a short but suggestive examination of Hobbes’s nominalist theory of meaning and insecurely conventionalist theory of truth to argue that, since for Hobbes there are no objective moral characteristics in the nature of things, all moral utterances must have their meanings fixed by the fiat of the sovereign. Thus Hobbes’s mechanical conception of society is derived from his Galilean theory of scientific method; his egoistic psychology is derived from his materialism; and his moral and legal positivism is derived from his logic.

There are several reasons for dis-satisfaction satisfaction with Hobbes’s apparent derivation of prescriptions for conduct from an egoistic psychology and, beyond that, from a materialist view of nature. The first is that the derivation commits the “naturalistic fallacy” of purporting to extract an ought from an is. Even if this were a fallacy, as Watkins agrees that it is, it would not follow that Hobbes must be interpreted so as not to have committed it. It is an anachronism to suppose that he would have been in the least disturbed by this piece of Edwardian philosophical chic. Secondly, there is a difficulty about providing a ground for the obligation to keep promises on which men’s duty to obey the sovereign rests. It cannot be the sovereign’s command that justifies keeping promises, since the sovereign’s commands have no rational force unless some men, the police say, admit an obligation to obey him. At least. Hobbes’s apparent view—that keeping promises is justified by its natural consequence of safeguarding one’s self-preservation—is a better solution to the problem than is the invocation of an incomprehensible God wielding inscrutable sanctions.

Yet, finally, Hobbes does constantly refer to God, and this cannot be brushed aside as verbiage insincerely scattered about to obstruct potentially dangerous opponents. In Goldsmith’s book there are hints of interpretation of Hobbes’s theology which would close the gap between his main naturalistic drift and his religious vocabulary. For Hobbes, God is knowable as the first cause of the natural order. Goldsmith observes in passing that to believe in him is, for Hobbes, simply to believe in the causal orderliness of the world. This idea could be developed into the thesis that Hobbes is a kind of deist, much in the way that Descartes and even Berkeley are, but one who, less cautiously than Descartes and less irrelevantly than Berkeley, saw that a purely rational deity of his kind was not the proper object of personal attitudes of devotion and submission. On this view, natural laws are based on the causal fact that our primary aversion is to violent death and on the causal laws which specify the necessary conditions of its avoidance. But these are also divine commands because natural causality is the only language in which a Hobbesian God can speak to men.

FOR THOSE WHO WISH to pursue these and other problems in the continuously fascinating pursuit of the interpretation of Hobbes, K. C. Brown’s collection Hobbes Studies is a most convenient aid. It includes a stylish essay by Strauss in which the main theme of his monograph of 1936 is conspicuously absent. Taylor’s influential essay, the first sketches of Watkins’s book and of the part of C. B. Macpherson’s Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that concerns Hobbes, an excellent historical critique by Keith Thomas, equipped with no fewer than 405 footnotes, of the view, held by Macpherson, Strauss, and others, that Hobbes’s ethical preferences were of an essentially bourgeois character, and an exchange between John Plamenatz and Warrender about the latter’s book. It is no criticism of the editor that his selections nearly all focus exclusively on Hobbes’s social philosophy (though it is odd and perhaps symptomatic that in his prefatory apology for the selectiveness of his selection the editor does not mention this bias). The fact is that Hobbes’s metaphysics (apart from Brandt’s great treatise) and, even more, his epistemology have received nothing like the critical attention given to his social doctrines. Goldsmith’s early chapters on this neglected area are the weakest and most summary of his book, and it is a particular virtue of Watkins’s treatment of Hobbes that he has thought enough about Hobbes’s non-social philosophy to raise the question of its connection or lack of connection with the rest of his thought in a genuinely illuminating way.

The two sides of Hobbes’s general philosophy do not rest their claim to attention on the mere fact that they exist: both raise live issues. His linguistically oriented theory of thought and knowledge is a uniquely thorough anticipation of a leading theme in the analytic philosophy of this century. He was the first philosopher in history to give to language that first place in the study of the powers of the mind that would now be widely accepted as proper to it. Even if his conventionalism is exaggerated, it has the merit of giving an account of the capacities of human reason that was not improved upon until Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. As for his bold extrapolation of materialism from inanimate nature to the human mind, this was rejected in his own time as both morally and intellectually monstrous, and has been ignored until very recently by all but a handful of more or less isolated and marginal thinkers, usually reflective scientists unable to break through the protective barriers of the philosophical profession. But developments within science have rendered increasingly insecure the dualistic presumptions of even the least spiritually minded of philosophers. Darwinism in the last century, molecular biology and cybernetics in this, have undermined the Cartesian immunity of spirit to the kind of investigation the rest of nature has been exposed to. There is now an active body of dissenting philosophical opinion which argues that mental events are in fact occurrences in the brain and nervous system, and which tends to deduce from this many of the major features of Hobbes’s system: his deterministic view of human conduct, his account of value in terms of desire and aversion, his belief that there can be a science of society.

Hobbes’s political prescriptions depend for their more unattractive qualities on his poorly argued principle that there is no fate worse than death. We can reject this without making the very large remainder of what he has to say otiose. By no major philosopher has the intention of interpreting the world systematically with the smallest possible number of clear ideas and obviously true assumptions, the attitude behind the progress of science, been more boldly and resolutely pursued. At the end of a period in which brilliance and dexterity of argument have been achieved at the expense of fragmentation and inconclusiveness, his Elizabethan intellectual pride is a timely reminder of what is possible to the human mind.

This Issue

May 18, 1967