Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”,”Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth”

So, people, selfish and mean as they are, are willing to give up some of their liberty to the sovereign so as to avoid killing one another. Without the civil power which keeps all the nasty instincts in check, we descend into chaos. Hobbes proves it by giving as the example the sparsely populated lands where only small families live – there robbery is considered no dishonour, but on the contrary, the more you rob your neighbours, the more famous you are and the only thing that keeps people in check is the code of honour which makes them let the robbed men live and leave them the tools they need for their survival. (I think Hobbes contradicts himself here – the code of honour is apparently something people follow out of their own volition, otherwise why shouldn’t they murder and plunder?) Joining together in confederacies is not an answer because, first, the enemy can always muster a bigger force, and secondly, once the danger is past and people are not united against the common enemy, they are bound to fight with one another, because as Hobbes has already made abundantly clear, people ain’t no good.

But why can ants and bees live in complex societies without a sovereign? (I’m not sure how aware Hobbes was of it, but of course the so-called queens are in these societies just breeding machines.) Hobbes answers this in points, and I think with a note of dry humour. 1. men compete with one another, while insects don’t. 2. there is no difference for these creatures between the common good and the private one. 3. they have no reason and so they don’t find fault with their administration, like men do. 4. they can communicate by some sounds but they can’t speak, and thus they can’t lie to one another, presenting bad things as good and the other way round. 5. it is enough for their happiness to be physically comfortable, while “man is then most troublesome when he is most at ease”, because when they have it too good, they love to show off their wisdom and find fault with others. 6. the agreement of these creatures is in their nature, while any covenant, or social contract, is an artificial construct imposed on human nature.

Summing up, people in order to move past the eternal state of war, agree to give a part of their liberty to a man or an assembly of men who represent them politically. Thus the Leviathan is formed, the beast consisting of multiple people who subject all their individual wills to the will of one man or one government, and he who carries the power is called the sovereign. This ends my readings of Thomas Hobbes, not the most optimistic of philosophers, but a very clear-sighted man.

Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”, “Of the First and Second Natural Laws”, “Of Other Laws of Nature”

We are getting into some hard-core philosophy and I did find some of the excerpts rather heavy-going. “The Right of Nature” is the liberty to protect oneself in any way possible. Hobbes defines liberty as the lack of impediments to do whatever one wants to do. Now, :a Law of Nature is a general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do things which can kill him or which can deprive him of means of protecting himself, or to pass over the best means of preserving his life. The difference between the Right and the Law is that you may choose to exercise your right or not, but the law binds you to do or not to do something. Now, the Right of Nature tells us we can use anything at our disposal to preserve our lives, even other men’s bodies. But of course in the natural state of war it would mean everybody would die a violent death sooner or later, no matter how strong or cunning. So the first law of nature is that we should seek peace as far as we are able, but if we are not able, then we should get ready for war, thus combining the Law and the Right. From this rule follows the second one, that is to keep peace we are willing to limit ourselves to take only as much liberty with other people as we would like them to do with us, that is the Golden Rule of “do as you would be done by”.

But how do we move past the state of war to the state of peace? Here comes the third rule, that is that “men perform their covenants made”. And why do people keep their covenants? Because in the original state of war, without any civil power to make you keep your word, making alliances with other people was the only mode of survival. So a man who broke his word was an outcast and we could reasonably assume his life was short, because nobody would want to make him an ally after that, unless they were ignorant of what he had done. And of course it’s a sin, too, adds Hobbes as an afterthought. And as for rebellion, it’s against reason because it teaches other people to rebel, too, writes Hobbes undoubtedly thinking about the bitter outcome of the Civil War.


Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery”

This is probably the most famous part of Leviathan, as it is the one that encapsulates Hobbes’ philosophy. I have to observe here that Hobbes here uses the word “men” consistently and I am afraid he does mean “men”, not people in general. He starts with the claim that all men are more or less equal physically and intellectually, aside from a rare talent for literature or scientific talent, which takes a lot of specialist training and is not available to just anyone. But except for that, we are more or less equal, and if we fancy ourselves “above average”, we just flatter ourselves – we are not in Lake Wobegon. So if we have equal strength and intellect, we have equal hopes of getting something we desire. When two or more men desire the same thing, the conflict is inevitable. And since some men are more greedy than others, even those who would be satisfied with what they have, have to be constantly prepared to fight to defend it. The company of other men is also no pleasure, because every man thinks others should value him as highly as he values himself, and when they  don’t, for obvious reasons, it leads to quarrels. (That is why I think “men” for Hobbes means indeed males, but he was never married, so I’m not sure if he had any interest in women at all. Also, is it really like that in men’s heads? Because it’s pretty grim, and I thought I had a high tolerance for grimness. I wonder if there are any feminist readings of Hobbes.) So all these factors lead to the state of constant war “every man against every man” and as a consequence “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Is it too bleak for you? asks Hobbes. Well, when you travel, don’t you make sure to travel armed and with company? Don’t you lock your door when you go to sleep? And don’t you lock your chests? And this in a society with a working policing and legal system. So this shows what opinion you have of your fellow citizens and even of your own children and servants. (I have to say, the world did improve since Hobbes’ times, although taking into account what is going on right now, we may be soon back to the 17th c. or worse. But so far, even though we do lock our houses and cars, most people I know travel unarmed, and they have no locked chests, unless we speak of some rich people who have their own safes. Although it has to be admitted, most people don’t have servants either.) Also, Hobbes admits, there may never have been such a state of nature all over the world, but when we look at the lives of American “savage people”, they are pretty much close to this picture, except when they are restrained by natural family ties. Also the whole states are still in this constant state of war or being prepared for war, and if it is not as detrimental to them as to individuals, it is because a lot of people are kept occupied by these actions, not just one man.

But, says Hobbes in a passage that probably shocked a lot of his readers, let’s keep the notion of right and wrong out of it. This is human nature and you can’t speak of right and wrong until you have laws deciding what is right or wrong. The notions of “just” and “unjust” work only in a society, not in the state of “every-man-fend-for-himself”. The same goes for property – in the Hobbesian state of nature there is no “mine” and “thine”, something belongs to you only as long as you can keep it. And significantly enough, he does not mention the word “sin” even once.

P.S. Of course there are feminist readings of Hobbes! Although judging by this review, at least in this book nobody answers my concern.

Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”, “Of Senses”

In this excerpt Hobbes explains his theory of the senses, which seems pretty much in agreement with what neuroscience tells us. He starts by claiming that all our thoughts are the responses to sensory stimuli, and he is going to explain briefly how these are produced. He believes that all the things we perceive “press” our sensory organs, which pressure is then transmitted to the brain and heart, which in turn relieve the pressure by transmitting the image to the eye, the sound to the ear and so on. So he may not be entirely right on the role of the brain (and the heart) but the general tenets of his sense theory seem OK. He also emphasizes that all the sensory impressions are formed in our body, so to say. So the images of real things are not really that different from the images we see in our dreams, because both are the products of our brains. He criticizes the post-Aristotelian belief that objects emanate some kind of essence which is then picked up by our senses.

Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan” (excerpts)

The first excerpt from the major work of political philosophy starts promisingly: Hobbes claims that all life is just motion and therefore mechanical animals are just as alive as real animals. (Descartes wrote something similar, but the other way round – the animals are just complex machines.) Which leads to all the sort of interesting thoughts about what Hobbes would make of Blade Runner, but also if life is “but a motion of limbs”, then does it mean a clock is “alive” according to this definition as well? But that is just my digression, because Hobbes uses it to segue to another thought: “that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth or State” is like a huge artificial man, whose all members correspond to various parts of the body. So people employed in the legal system are like the joints, the system of reward and punishment stands for the nerves, the individual wealth of all the members of society are like the body’s strength and so on. Despite the fact that Hobbes was widely suspected of being an atheist, he mentions God in this short excerpt twice: as the creator of the world, and the pacts and covenants through which the body politic is formed are compared to the words with which God created first man.

Thomas Browne – “Hydrotaphia, or Urn-Burial” (the end)

Even stars, apparently immutable, cannot give one a hope of immortality, because even if you have a constellation named after you, the names change constantly. But! Christianity provides far better hopes of immortality than anything in this world. Epitaphs and tombs get destroyed, but Moses, whose tomb is unknown, lives perpetually with God. The only true death will happen to the condemned at the Last Judgement. Truly pious people consider this world as meaningless as the primordial chaos before it, because it is the eternal life after death that truly matters. So, summing up, it is only pagans who had to care about their funeral monuments and perpetuating their name, but for true Christians these things don’t matter and death is something they can really look forward to.

Thomas Browne – “Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial” (excerpts)

The discovery of several ancient burial urns near Norwich prompted Browne to write this sober meditation about mortality and fleeting nature of all things. Browne starts by comparing the long life of these urns with everything that was going on above ground – they outlasted people, houses, and survived three military conquests. The random nature in which some artefacts survive and some don’t illustrate the larger truth about the random nature of historical and human memory. Some names are recorded for posterity, like Hippocrates’ patients, but what’s the point of being only known by your name, without any further information about what kind of person you were? Moreover, we remember the names of some wicked men, while we totally forget the good ones: everybody knows Herostrates, who burnt the great temple of Diana in Ephesus only to become famous, while hardly anybody knows the name of its architect. So I would like to say after the NAEL footnote that his name was Chersiphon. I hope this contributes in a tiny way to redressing this historical injustice. Every hour and every day add to this growing oblivion, consuming everything. This historical forgetfulness is reflected in our own personal forgetfulness – in time we forget all, both good and bad things, and that in a sense is a blessing, because how could we live if we constantly remembered all the pains and wounds constantly inflicted on us by life? The ancients comforted themselves with the belief about the transmigration of souls, which is a nice idea, because it gives us hope for some kind of development. Others believed that when we die, we melt into a kind of common soul, so we return to our divine origins. Egyptians believed that as long as they can preserve their bodies, they can preserve their souls, but taking into account that in Browne’s times powdered mummies were a popular medicine (see Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy”), fate played a cruel joke on them.