Hobbes in context

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.

Tuck gives a good deal of attention to Hobbes’s biography, with the implication that these historical, social, and familial circumstances contributed to shaping the philosophical imagination of the maturing thinker.  The situation of service as tutor and secretary to the household of William Lord Cavendish that occupied Hobbes for most of his life plays an important role in his intellectual development.  It also provided him with direct access to some of the great intellectuals and scientists of France and Venice, including eventually Mersenne, Descartes, and Galileo.
A central intellectual theme in the air during Hobbes’s early development was that of humanist skepticism about empirical and ethical knowledge.

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)

Tuck argues that Hobbes defined his thought in terms of an effort to create a new, though more modest, basis for knowledge in both empirical and ethical matters.  He was greatly influenced by the example and thinking of Galileo.  Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World appeared in 1632, and during 1634 Hobbes purchased a copy of the book for Newcastle.  One of the key issues in the philosophical world was whether the senses deceive us; and Hobbes followed Descartes in holding that the observable features of the world (color, smell) should not be understood to directly correspond to real characteristics of the invisible reality of the object.  Hobbes was interested in optics and mathematics — the areas of science that appeared to be most relevant to the question of the real features of the world. In fact, Tuck leaves the impression that philosophy of science is as important in Hobbes’s work as the philosophy of politics.
Another core theme in Hobbes’s itinerary is a visceral opposition to government religion — religious requirements embodied in the state.  And Tuck shows with repeated examples why this issue was so important during the Civil War; the struggle between contending sides had very much to do with the scope of religious discipline to be imposed by the state.  Hobbes was opposed to religious law and mandates of belief, and therefore found himself in roughly the camp of the Tolerationists.

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)

Tuck argues that Hobbes’s earliest and most important influence on Hobbes in the area of moral and political philosophy was Hugo Grotius and his book, The Laws of War and Peace.  Tuck describes this influence in these terms:

[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)

Tuck summarizes Grotius’s core theory in two fundamental principles: “All men would agree that everyone has a fundamental right to preserve themselves, and wanton or unnecessary injury to another person is unjustifiable” (26).  Tuck finds that these principles have counterparts in Hobbes’s arguments in Leviathan.
So Tuck seems to be putting forward several important strands of interpretation that run against the grain of the customary telling of Hobbes’s philosophy: first, that his philosophy of science and sensation plays a larger role than we might have thought; and second, that his most famous theory, the theory of unlimited sovereignty, has rather specific roots in Hobbes’s immediate intellectual context (Grotius) and political environment (struggles over the extent of religious legislation).  It is not the result of a purely abstract reflection on the situation of rational persons in a state of nature, but rather a complex argument that intertwines with England’s own political tensions in mid-seventeenth century.
Steven Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a nice complement to this line of thought, in that it offers a fundamentally new reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.  Here is how Pincus describes his project:

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)

(Two articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes’s philosophy are worth reading (linklink).)



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