The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 17 Thomas Hobbes: Atheist. Materialist. Radical?

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Thomas Hobbes: Atheist. Materialist. Radical?

The two mainstays of American high school history education are overselling Napoleon III and lying about Thomas Hobbes. Every year, a new crop of students is informed that Hobbes was a bitter, reactionary conservative who believed that life is nasty, brutish, and short and that we should all live under a divine right, absolutist monarch. Then they’re told to write an essay comparing and contrasting John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, with Hobbes as the Snidely Whiplash to Locke’s virtuous, freedom-loving Dudley Do-Right.

In reality, Thomas Hobbes was perhaps the most daring and thorough-going materialist since Lucretius, with ideas about psychology and motivation that we’ve only caught up to in the neuroscience boom of the past few decades. Hobbes held that everything was corporeal, and all events the result of the motions of particles. The idea of a Cartesian dualism between body and soul struck him as clearly false, and he set out to demonstrate how all of our sense data are the result of the transference of motion from outside stimuli to our internal organs. The world rewrites our physical organism through stimulus bombardment, and all memory and imagination result from the physical accessing of these chemically stored sensations. Our thoughts are the result of the motion of physical entities, like everything else.

ThomasHobbesStarting from that premise, Hobbes ended up in some rather spectacular places. Whereas most writers of the era took reason as the fundamental property of humanity, Hobbes saw it as an appetitive, ordering force. We are driven forward on the legs of our desires, appetites, and fears, and it is the job of reason to evaluate and weigh the content of our various desire streams. Reason is the process of ordering and ranking desires, a definition of neural decision-making algorithms three centuries before its time.

Impressive enough, but it goes deeper. Because everything about our mental life is the result of motions and observations impressed on our organism from without, Hobbes concluded that the idea of an absolute state of ultimate happiness was psychologically naive. Happiness is not something you achieve, it is a social and comparative construct that must constantly find new ends if it is to last. Our emotional states are based on a constant monitoring of the success and failure of those around us. Envy and anger, joy and laughter, are all founded on an evaluation of how we are running the race of life relative to other people we know. There is no absolute good way of living, only a thousand daily acts of comparison and adjustment. This view, which was held for centuries as a far too cynical notion of humanity, is in the Facebook age receiving its first real experimental treatment. Every study that is released about so-called Facebook depression—the phenomenon of feeling depressed not because of bad events that are happening to you, but because of the ceaseless inundation of other people’s good status posts—is a stirring affirmation of Hobbes’s socially relativist emotional insight.

Now, because happiness is relative and largely competitive, that means that, left to our own devices, life becomes about an unchecked grab for the means of securing a greater share of happiness than those around us. Which gets super nasty, super fast. The state of nature for Hobbes is a place where nobody is safe, a realm of absolute equality  where murder was an effective and convenient means of getting what one wanted. You don’t need to be strong or smart to push a guy off a cliff when he’s not expecting it.

That state of nature leads into the one thing everybody thinks they know about Hobbes: his position on absolute government. And yes, it’s entirely true that he thought the only way to guarantee the safety of all individuals was to erect a central authority that held all of the legislative and executive power that humans could surrender. He preferred that authority to be a monarch, but didn’t leave out the possibility that it might be something else. The important thing was that in this system, no person and no group, no matter the size, has any natural right to dominance over anybody else. Again, I think he was ahead of his time.

People became so afraid of Hobbes’s vision of society that they responded with a majority-is-always-right approach to government which allowed minorities to get regularly ground to dust for the convenience of the majority. The idea that the job of government is to protect the minority from the majority by using its authority to override their massed power is the essence of the civil rights state, and is something present within the Hobbesean theory, but not in the diffuse democratic theories that dominated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American discourse. I don’t mean to say that Hobbes was a proto-minority-rights-enthusiast in the modern sense—he clearly had monarchs in mind, and said that our obedience is to them no matter how terrible they are, because the alternative was worse—but I will say that his concern with erecting a system powerful enough to protect the most vulnerable from the most rapacious is one that has interesting resonances with what we’ve come to view as government’s social role.

Materialist, clearly. Political visionary—if you squint a bit, I think so. But atheist? It’s true that Hobbes was accused of atheism on many occasions, but everybody who writes anything about religion is accused of being an atheist by somebody eventually. Yet his writings on religion were unique in their uncompromising application of materialism and causality, and if not atheistic in the limited sense of denying the existence of God, they were certainly anti-theistic in the sense of denying the ability of religion to say meaningful things.

As to God, Hobbes held that if there was a beginning of the universe, then God is the name you have to give to what started it. Beyond that, you can’t say anything useful or descriptive. He had no patience with the endless theorizing of scholasticism, or with attempts to establish ideas upon theological authority. What we take to be descriptions of God, he was among the first to point out, are really only honorifics. In a move that Feuerbach would extend to its fullest implications two centuries later, he insisted on rigorously examining the so-called divine attributes and finding their source in ourselves. A peripheral member of the Great Tew Circle, he recognized that what one authority held irrevocably true, a dozen deemed indubitably false, and that to seek unity from that hornet’s nest of opinion was to court futility.

If the universe had a beginning, and it might not have, it was because of God, and if God exists, then he must be a corporeal being, because nothing incorporeal exists. That’s about all that Hobbes is willing to assert as to the content of religion. As to religion’s temporal power, it must be entirely subservient to the monarch. Because religious doctrine is arbitrary and human, Hobbes infers, it doesn’t matter which one the monarch chooses for his people. Once the monarch picks, the people are compelled to follow all the outward norms of that religion, but they are free to believe whatever they want privately. In some places, he declares that a monarch can’t pick a religion that denies the divinity of Jesus, though that seems more of a concession to environment rather than a result of his basic theoretical structure.

For striking at the temporal power of religion, for branding superstition somewhat ironically as irrational fears that don’t happen to be officially sanctioned, and doubting the basic utility of religious statements, Hobbes was branded an atheist and had to spend much ingenuity warding off the attack, one of many hurled at him by an age that couldn’t yet understand what he was trying to do. His ninety-two years of life were unlike that of any figure we’ve looked at so far. Had he died at the age of fifty, he would be almost totally unremembered by history. The first decades of his life he spent as a tutor to William Cavendish’s son, William Cavendish, and after that to his grandson, William Cavendish. He went with his charges on the grand tours of Europe, translated Thucydides, wrote some unremarkable essays about Rome, and generally killed time as a typical, if bright, servant in a glorious household.

Then came the Civil War, the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, and the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. Hobbes fled to Europe before things could get too tight for a confirmed Royalist like himself, and while there he deepened his interest in the natural sciences and mathematics while watching the English tragedy play itself out. Leviathan, the work we know him for now, was not published until 1651, when he was already sixty-three years old, an inspiring fact for anybody younger than that who has yet to accomplish anything in particular. It was a more subtle reworking of points he had made in 1640’s Elements of Law, Natural and Political, and contained the full working out of his psychological, religious, and political beliefs, and how they all resulted in the need for a mutual transfer of power from glory-chasing individuals to a central authority. Hobbes would continue writing on these themes for the rest of his life, along with observations about the state of English universities, European science and, most unfortunately, outlandish mathematical claims to have squared the circle. Ridiculed for his mathematical pretenses, reviled for his theological skepticism, and taken to task for his relativistic stance on the existence of good and evil and his cynical view of human pleasure, the last decades of his life were spent in an almost constant state of defense.

And perhaps that was inevitable. How could an average seventeenth-century scholar know that memory and imagination are physical events; that decision making is the result of internal appetitive evaluations;, that good and evil are just terms people give to things they like and dislike as they seek that small bit of satisfaction that comes when you are a fraction of a nose ahead of your fellow runners in life’s race; and that the loose rhetoric of the popular will would result in as much oppression of the minority as liberty for the majority? To see all of that at the dawn of the seventeenth century would take a person devoted to the methods and assumptions of natural science, and possessed of the mental fortitude to see them through to even their most depressing and unfashionable ends. It would take a Thomas Hobbes. Unfortunately for him, there was only one of those around.


Further Reading

Hobbes scholars are, perhaps necessarily, an odd lot. It takes a bit of screwiness to look at the author of Leviathan and say, I’m going to make that guy my life’s work. But that very oddness also makes Hobbes books generally amongst the most fun to read for seventeenth-century philosophy. I’d start with Hobbes (1961) by Sir Leslie Stephen—it was the last book he wrote, and is a nice, brisk introduction to the many curious corners of Hobbes’s thought. Once you’ve read that, if you want to go into some more depth, A.P. Martinich’s Hobbes: A Biography (1999) is another great, fun book, which has the advantage of having been written after neuroscience began adding weight to many Hobbesean ideas that had been discarded as too mechanistic and dour for consideration. Then, when your kids come to you for help with their Hobbes-Locke paper, you can tell them to write, ” Thomas Hobbes was a rock star.”