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The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

I. General Notions

Hobbes' system is a synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism. The fundamental points of Hobbes' doctrine are: (1) All reality is matter and derived from matter; (2) Matter is endowed with intrinsic movement; (3) Intellectual, moral and political life are the object of mathematical calculus, and hence are made up of nothing but combinations of matter in motion.

II. Life and Works

Thomas Hobbes (picture) was born in Malmesbury in 1588. He was educated at Oxford University, which was at the time a center of nominalistic Scholasticism. As tutor for a noble English family he had opportunities for travel. At Florence he came into contact with the thought of Galileo; in France he knew Mersenne, the great friend of Descartes. It was Mersenne who induced Hobbes to write his critical observations on the Meditations of Descartes.

Hobbes returned to England in 1637 with the intention of writing. When the struggle between Parliament and the King broke out, Hobbes, who was a supporter of the absolute monarchy, retired to France, where he lived for ten years. Granted an amnesty, he returned to England in 1651 and was reconciled with Cromwell. When Charles II, whom Hobbes had tutored, ascended the throne, the King granted a pension to his former teacher. Hobbes died in 1679, having lived beyond the age of ninety.

Thomas Hobbes wrote one great philosophical work, which he divided into sections and published at three different times: De cive (On the Social and Political Organism), a work that was further developed and later published under the title The Leviathan; De corpore (On the Body); and De homine (On Man). The vigorous thought of Hobbes made a deep impression in his native country and abroad. The Leviathan is generally considered his masterpiece.

III. Theory of Knowledge

The whole of human knowledge is contained within the limits of sensation. Sensations are due to an external movement which generates an internal reaction in our organism. Concepts are representations of qualities common to several distinct sensations, which in speech are expressed by a common name (Nominalism). The mind operates on such concepts through analysis and synthesis, composing and dividing them into their elements. For example, by adding the concept of animality to that of rationality, we have the concept man; by subtracting from the concept man the concept of rationality, we have the concept animal. This system is pure mechanical nominalism.

Nevertheless, Hobbes does not deny the value of science, of knowledge of abstract causes. This science will be attained in fact as soon as we have an analytical knowledge of the elements and a synthetic understanding of their combinations. Thus Hobbes believed that he had saved science as an absolute value, even though such a value is only phenomenal, being an operation of the mind and not an objective contact with external reality.

IV. Metaphysics

Of the two Cartesian substances, Hobbes accepts extended material substance and denies the spiritual; or, rather, he makes the spiritual substance a derivative of material substance. Matter is not passive, as it was for Descartes. On the contrary, it is endowed with motion, and this motion is from within. Thus for Hobbes there are two metaphysical elements: matter and motion, which can be reduced to one, dynamic matter. The intrinsic motion of matter has given origin to the diversity of the inorganic and organic world. Life is thus a product of matter and motion, and the human soul is a composite of very subtle atoms. Hobbes does not deny the existence of God, but he is decidedly opposed to any positive revealed religion, including Christianity. Even the moral life does not exceed the limits of matter and of motion. Sensations, passing to the heart, generate pleasure and hate, that is, inclinations and repulsions. Men naturally tend to pleasure considered as a form of self-satisfaction. But such a tendency must be rationalized by calculation, in order that it may bring greater pleasure. This is possible only in the state.

V. Politics

The civil state, that is, the result of the passage of primitive man from the state of nature to a social life, derives from a contract the purpose of which is to procure the greatest possible pleasure, a pleasure which could not be had in the state of nature. The state of nature in which man lived before the formation of society, was founded on a savage egoism which drove man to secure a maximum of pleasure without hindrance from a norm of justice or mercy toward other men ("homo homini lupus est"). Every man was continually engaged in war against all other men ("bellum universale").

With the dawn of reason, man understood that he could not live in eternal warfare and that if he wished to satisfy his instinct of egoism he must seek peace ("pax quaerenda"). The means of attaining peace consisted in man's ceding his natural rights ("jus non retinendum") in favor of an authority which would ensure this peace and allow the greatest possible pleasure. Once man had ceded his rights to this authority, he was bound to obey ("pactis standum").

This contract having been made, authority came into being in the person of the sovereign, who had not ceded his natural rights. The members of the state, then, have given up their rights in favor of the ruler, while the ruler alone still enjoys the same unlimited and absolute power which belonged to all men in their primitive condition. The ruler must retain this power if he is to have the authority and strength to dominate the instincts and passions of individuals and to ensure the maximum of good for all.

This massing together of individuals, dominated by force, is the state, the symbol of which Hobbes believed he had found in the monstrous Biblical animal, the leviathan, which was capable of devouring all other animals. Thus Hobbes named his greatest work The Leviathan.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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