We often think of Hobbes as being an originator in English philosophy, a strikingly innovative thinker who burst on the scene with the first formulation of a social contract theory of government. And we sometimes think of his justification of absolute sovereignty as a fairly direct reaction to the disorders Britain experienced during its Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Richard Tuck’s Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction puts Hobbes into a much more nuanced position.
Fundamental to Tuck’s approach as a historian of philosophy is to problematize the idea of “philosophy”. Rather than assuming that the subject matter and methodology of philosophy were fixed once and for all by some traditional authority — perhaps Aristotle and Plato — Tuck takes the position that thinkers have defined themselves in ways that have eventually come to be described as “philosophy,” but that nonetheless cover a very wide range of intellectual approaches and concerns. Here is a particularly striking set of ideas from Tuck’s contextualization of Hobbes:
It is sometimes tempting to think that the heroes of the various histories of philosophy or ethics — men as different as St Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Kant, or Hegel — were all in some sense engaged in a common enterprise, and would have recognized one another as fellow workers. But a moment’s reflection reminds us that it is we who have made a unity of their task: from their own point of view, they belonged to very different ways of living and had very different tasks to perform. They would have seen themselves as intellectually kin to men who do not figure in these lists — priests or scholars who had on the face of it no great philosophical interest. (1)
I think his point here is an important and insightful one: philosophy was reinvented in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, and swerved dramatically away from ancient and medieval philosophy. It was a new project, motivated by different problems, assumptions, and goals.
The central feature of this literature was a pervasive scepticism about the validity of the moral principles by which an earlier generation had lived. (7)
The response of many of Lipsius’s generation (he was born in 1547) was to give up strongly held and publicly defended beliefs of all kinds, and to retreat to a dispassionate and skeptical stance. (9)
The ecclesiastical regime put into place by the new republic after 1649 was very close to what Hobbes seems to have wanted on general grounds, and which he may well have enthusiastically preferred to traditional episcopacy. This is because, like almost all the most interesting 17th-century political theorists (including Grotius and Locke), he seems to have feared the moral and intellectual disciplines of Presbyterian Calvinism far more than anything else. (39)
Hobbes’s primary object in arguing like this was to elevate the power of the sovereign over the churches — bands of fanatics (in his eyes) who wished to enforce absurd opinions upon their fellow citizens, and whose activities were primarily responsible for the civil wars of Europe. They could only be controlled if the soverign was empowered to determine public doctrine and silence disputes. (85)
[Grotius] could play the same role for him as Galileo’s Dialogues did for all members of the Mersenne circle, as a represntation for them of the kind of science which was to be put on their new, post-sceptical foundations. (25)
England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England’s Revolution of 1688-89 as a defining moment in England’s exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688-89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation. All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England’s Revolution of 1688-89. Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. (Introduction)