John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (the end)

Locke apologizes for his text, which some readers may find too long or too short. If it’s too short, he says, I hope it inspires the reader to do some thinking on their own. If it’s too long, it’s because it was composed in fits and starts, so whenever he put pen to paper, he had some new observations to write down, and what he initially thought could be fit on one sheet of paper grew into this long text. He says also modestly that he does not intend to compete with some giants of thought – he name-checks Newton and Boyle, among others – but just to clear the field for them so that science can develop unimpeded by obscure and and out-of-date language. In the last fragment, added to the fourth edition, he explains why he chose to use the word “determined” or “determinate” ideas instead of “clear and distinct”. First of all, everybody uses “clear and distinct” while not knowing really what they mean. Locke chooses to use the word “determinate”/”determined” (he seems to use them interchangeably) to illustrate better what he means: the simple ideas perceived by human minds and connected with the words corresponding to them. As for complex ideas, he defines them as a collection of simple ideas combined together. He is really keen on the thought that language of academic discourse should be clear and I guess he would not take kindly to much of the jargon which plagues postmodern critical theory and philosophy.


John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (fragments)

Today I’ve got some serious philosophy, although the editors of the NAEL picked probably the most literary part of Locke’s Essay, that is “The Epistle to the Readers”. In this introduction Locke notices courteously that he hopes his readers are going to have at least half as much fun in reading it as he had in writing it. It’s not because he is so puffed up about its value, but because he really thinks the hunt for truth is a lot of fun, much more than the real hunting or hawking and much more profitable. He addresses his book to those who like to think for themselves and not to rely on the thoughts of others, but he also notices modestly that this book is not addressed  to those who already mastered the subject. He explains the origins of this project, which was apparently started by a discussion with a few friends on an unrelated subject and which was brought to a standstill. Locke and his nameless friends decide that before they discuss the subject, they have to “examine [their] own abilities, and see what objects [their[ understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” He noted down some hasty thoughts before their next meeting and worked on them on and off for many years before creating the final version of this test.

John Milton – “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”

So now a writer from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Robert Filmer – John Milton. People who want to succumb to tyranny are vicious, he argues, and tyrants will always prefer bad men, who are naturally servile, than honest men. Some of these bad men may even join for some time good ones, when it is financially profitable for them, but will hesitate to remove the cause of tyranny, notwithstanding the fact that the tyrant in reversed circumstances would not hesitate to kill them. So off with Charles’s head! He does not write that explicitly, but that’s his general drift. In the second excerpt  The second excerpt is Milton’s theory of government: man was born free, but because of Adam’s fall we cannot do as we please, so the need for the government, either that of a king or magistrates arose. They in turn, being also fallible men, had to be bound by laws and oaths they took to upkeep the laws, and if the king or the magistrate is unfaithful to the laws, the people are entitled not to obey him anymore.

Robert Filmer – “Patriarcha” (excerpts)

The texts which follow in this section are a selection of political writings of the period. They all start with the same book – the Bible – but they reach very different conclusions. Robert Filmer in his book wordily titled Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People traces all the origins of earthly power to Adam and argues that all the Papist and Reformed theologians who said that the earthly power was the result of a democratic contract of some kind, were dead wrong. It’s interesting, as the editors of the NAEL observe in the introduction to this section, that in the 17th c. it is the Catholic church which takes the pro-liberty stance, mainly through Robert Bellarmin. Of course you could argue Catholics didn’r practise what they preached because Bellarmin argued for the freedom of religion for the Catholic subjects of the British monarchy, but would he have argued the same for Protestants in predominantly Catholic countries? Anyway, Filmer is having none of it: OF COURSE fathers have power to rule their children (not just until they are eighteen but until they die, at which point the eldest brother takes over the part of the father). The Old Testament patriarchs passed sentences, led wars and engaged in peace talks, which shows they were pretty much the kings over their family and kin. And even though contemporary kings are not literally the fathers and grandfathers of their people, OF COURSE  they have the right to exercise as much power over them as Abraham had over his family. The king, like the father of his family, takes care to “preserve, clothe, feed, instruct” his people. The excerpt does not explain what about the kings who fail to fulfill their end of the contract – are their subjects as much obligated to be subservient to them? But as we can see, Filmer’s reasoning is based on taking a lot of things for granted.

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 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” (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.