On Hobbes’ Leviathan

[The following two lectures, prepared by Ian Johnston for students in Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain, released May 1999, and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged. The lectures were last edited (slightly) in December 2002]

[References to the text of The Leviathan are to the Collier Macmillan book edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an Introduction by Richard S. Peters]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


Recent comments from students have suggested that they would like, from time to time, more attention paid to contextual questions. These are not, as is obvious, a major concern of Liberal Studies, but for the first part of this lecture I would like to address this request. That is, I want to preface my observations about Hobbes’s text with some general reflections on Hobbes’s context. So what I have to say falls into two parts: (a) some general and inevitably cursory comments on Europe in the seventeenth century and (b) some direct remarks on how Hobbes fits into these observations.

Europe in the Seventeenth Century: General Observations

To begin with, let me ask a very obvious question: Why is it that we are spending so much time with artists from the seventeenth century? We have, in effect, skipped and briefly dipped into other centuries, but when we get to the seventeenth, we are stopping for prolonged sample: Shakespeare, Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Bach, Handel. Why here rather than elsewhere?

The answer to that which I propose is this: the seventeenth century is a particularly decisive moment in the history of Western culture because it marks a crucial step in the emergence of some major features of our modern culture. And that first step is the start of the destruction of the traditional notions of community—the model that goes back to Plato and Aristotle and, beyond them, to Homer and the Old Testament, and which was adapted with modifications to fit medieval political theory and social life.

This traditional notion of community depended upon three key factors, all of which came under strain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and eventually (in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) the strain broke the model. Virtually everyone we read from this point on is, implicitly or explicitly, reacting to this social revolution.

The Loss of Religious Uniformity

The first key feature of the traditional community is that it was based upon religious uniformity. Essential to the notion of a common shared life together was a shared religious faith and the public expression of that faith in the shared rituals of a common church with a recognized and traditional structure of religious authority and meaning.  From time to time, there had been serious strains in that traditional faith, of course, but by a variety of means, ranging from serious modifications to outright persecution, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church had been retained.

This faith was challenged decisively by Martin Luther in 1517, when he nailed up his 95 Theses to the church doors in Wittenburg. Luther was not initially a revolutionary; he was a Catholic monk fed up with what he perceived to be the degenerate corruption of the Catholic establishment. What he wanted was a thorough reform of doctrine and practices of a Papacy which, in his view, was becoming increasingly preoccupied with secular grandeur, political power, and economic issues, at the expense of the faith.

Luther was by no means the first such reformer. There had, over the centuries, been many similar attempts to challenge and to reform the conduct of the church establishment (notable Jan Hus about one hundred years earlier in Bohemia, the present Czech Republic). In general, the Church authorities had successfully dealt with such challenges in two ways: either incorporating the reform movement into the Church (e.g., by the creation of the mendicant orders) or by forceful repression (e.g. the Cathars and Hus, who was burned).

There is little reason to doubt that Luther would have been quite unsuccessful in his challenge but for one key factor which the earlier reformers had lacked, namely, by the time he launched his reform in the early sixteenth century there were a number of secular rulers who were equally tired of the economic demands of the papacy and who welcomed the chance to stop the constant drain of money to Rome. The growing power and extravagance of the Papacy was becoming something secular rulers, particularly in some German states, were increasingly angry about.

At any event, Luther’s actions were the opening round in what turned into a century and a half of extraordinarily bloody religious warfare, culminating in the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, in which for the first and last time, the European Christian states entered into a prolonged war with each other over religious questions. The war pitted Catholics against Protestants and different Protestants sects against each other, often in a shifting set of confusing alliances, and it ended quite inconclusively.

The result of this was that by the mid-seventeenth century, many people, especially in Germany, the Netherlands, and England, were determined never again to go to war over religious questions. They acknowledged that they had to learn to live with the fact that there was no unanimity on religious questions and that, therefore, to the extent that people needed some intellectual and spiritual authority to answer questions and organize their communities, it was going to have to be something other than a shared understanding and of and agreement about scripture or a common religious authority.

Underneath the work of Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, and Newton (and many others) is clearly a desire to seek for an understanding of nature and the religious life in something other than traditional interpretations of scripture and established religious authority. Scripture and old authority had failed, and a new basis for a shared understanding had to be discovered. This understandable challenge to traditional ways, especially to traditional religious faith, however, obviously weakened enormously one of the main elements in keeping the traditional community together.

The desire for a new shared understanding of things helped to transform the traditional understanding of nature from something alive in which there was a divine order manifested, something which could reassure us about the existence of a Natural Order, into something mechanical, matter governed by rational laws of cause and effect, like a watch. The greatest single attraction of the analogy of nature to a mathematically governed machine was at first not its explanatory power but its apparently universal persuasiveness. To adopt it required no moral assumptions, no contentious readings of Scripture about the nature of human life or natural order. As such, the mechanical metaphor had the great advantage of allowing people of varying denominations to arrive at an understanding of the creator as a Divine Mechanic. Mathematics was something that provided rational demonstrations which were less contentious than scriptural interpretation.

The Growth of Capitalism

The second feature of the traditional Aristotelian community is that it was small and generally quite poor, based on the chancy business of agriculture and constantly in danger of famine. In 1600, the vast majority of Europeans—well over 80 percent—lived in communities of under 3000 people, rural societies without much contact beyond their immediate vicinity, in which the inhabitants, in many cases, pursued work that had not substantially changed for thousands of years.

The structure of authority in the community had not changed much either. They shared a language, a belief, a common cultural heritage, a distribution of the land, and an understanding of authority—and there was little expectation that their lifestyle would ever change. Communities could switch from a Catholic faith to a Protestant or Anglican faith, without much disruption to the daily realities of their lives.

But the discovery of the New World in 1492, the development of European interests in India and Africa, and the sudden opportunities these trends offered for capital profits on a grand scale suddenly began to transform the traditional ways. For the first time in its history Europe started to become rich, very rich. This development may well have started in the big cities, but it didn’t end there.  The first evidence of this, of course, is the importation of gold in massive quantities into Spain. But the Spanish king was more interested in fighting European wars than in investing his money prudently, so all Europe became wealthy on Spanish gold—and, by a curious irony, Spain went into something a steep decline once the supply of gold lessened.

The English and Dutch attitude to the new world was, however, significantly different from that of the Spanish. They saw the New World as an opportunity for business—and they carefully organized their colonization of the New World not to bring glory to the monarch but to generate profits for investors. The French, at least in their attitude to Canada, were much more like the Spanish than the English, and it is not insignificant that, while the French got much of the glory for the exploration in the New World, the English ended up controlling the place. In organizing and fostering a long-term capital project, like a colony in the New World, the kings proved no match for the merchant bankers. Bankers understood that for a project to succeed in the long term, the profits had to be reinvested; kings tended to take the short-term profits to pay for European wars. In addition, bankers understood the importance of paying back one’s debts. European monarchs with war on their minds tended to be sometimes quite cavalier in their treatment of their debts. This attitude was to culminate in the French Revolution, which occurred largely because the administration of France was bankrupt.

The English had been the first to sort out just who was to call the shots in the new capitalistic world.  Many members of the newly emerging middle class had gone to war against their king in order to make sure that Parliament—the representative body of middle-class wealth—controlled the country, rather than the king. The English Civil War, which resulted in the execution of Charles I, and the resulting republic with Cromwell as Lord Protector, may have ended up restoring the monarch Charles II, but it was clear under the terms of the Restoration who was to be in charge henceforward.

That shift is nicely reflected in the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Where in the old city the gothic structure of St. Paul’s Cathedral had been the central focus, in the new plans the central structure was the Royal Exchange, the stock market. It is also reflected in the enclosure movement, something which started in earnest in the seventeenth-century and continued throughout the eighteenth century—the application of capitalist principles to farming. This process struck at the very heart of traditional communities because it involved removing land from common use, the commons, in order to create larger and more efficient private farms based on new principles.

At any rate, as a result of a vastly accelerating trade, all of a sudden there was a lot of money to be made, not by aristocratic military adventurers but by middle-class businessmen. And more money meant a greater demand for leisure time in which to spend it and all sorts of luxury goods from sugar, to coffee, to silks, to large collections of books, to pianos, to large private homes, and so forth. The result was the growth of a powerful middle class, more concerned about what Hobbes calls “commodious living” than in traditional community life. For the first time, privacy becomes not only desirable but attainable.

In the seventeenth century, the artist starts to emancipate himself from patronage, to become a free lancer (e.g., Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe)—a process that was to continue throughout the eighteenth century, with Pope being the first major English poet to support himself well on his writing without patronage and Mozart the first major free-lance musical composer.

Hence, the distribution of wealth no longer matched as closely as before the various gradations of rank (which tended to be based on traditional holdings of land). Some tradesmen might become considerably wealthy and yet still have virtually no power to affect legislation or to deal with what they might perceive as oppressive regulations serving only the interests of the aristocracy who controlled the government. Thus, there was strong economic pressure in some quarters for some fundamental changes in the distribution of power.

The Transformation of the Population

The third major factor contributing to the overthrow of the old order was demographic. People were beginning to move, and by the end of the eighteenth century the population was starting to explode, an unprecedented increase that was to continue for over a century, so that by 1900 the population of England had more than quadrupled and the majority of people now lived in huge industrial cities.

The effects of this dislocation are impossible to overestimate. At first, people were driven off the land in order to make room for a new and improved agriculture, governed by efficiencies of scale and with no regard for the traditional use by the poorer agricultural classes of the common land. This trend, called the Enclosure Movement, was well underway at the time of Hobbes, and it continued with devastating results, fueled by the invention of farm machinery and improved methods of raising animals and harvesting and planting crops.

The causes of the population increase are much discussed. It antedates the initial stages of the industrial revolution. In a sense, the industrial revolution was easier to implement because the workers, displaced from traditional occupations, were already available. And once rolling, the new factory system obviously drew people from areas of the country in which they could no longer earn a subsistence living. As horrible as we know conditions were in many of the factory towns, by and large they seem to have been better than what remained for the peasant back on the farm.

The effects of this on the old order are clear enough. For the traditional community-based lifestyle requires stability. It could not adapt quickly to rapid change. Increasingly, however, communities were transforming themselves within a single generation, the population was changing faster than people could keep up with, and traditionally small and stable communities were becoming huge impersonal cities filled with strangers and committed to factory industries.

The dislocating effects of this change in the population had already started in the seventeenth century, but it did not grow to be perceived as a major social crisis until the mid-eighteenth century, by which time extreme poverty in the countryside, the increasingly oppressive work conditions in the factory towns, a staggering increase in urban crime, and the constant dangers of violence in the face of these facts of life created a climate that fostered widespread talk of revolution.

If we remember, too, that there were no accurate statistics nor any way of thinking about people in general or society as a whole, we can see why for much of this period people were bewildered by what was happening. The old ways were disappearing year by year, and yet nothing seemed to be able to offer a convincing reason for, let alone a solution to, problems which by the mid-eighteenth century were acute.

The Invention of Tolerance

These three major features of seventeenth-century life (the collapse of religious uniformity throughout Europe, the growth of capitalistic opportunities and the new wealth, and the accelerating changes in the population) encouraged what was to turn out to be one of the most important of Europe’s new features: the invention of tolerance.

It’s probably fair to say that people are not by nature tolerant or, if they are, they can be quickly turned into very intolerant creatures. And one feature of the traditional community is that it is a recipe for intolerance: it has little room for outsiders or the importation of different lifestyles. Where traditional structures, beliefs, and ways of living have held sway for a long time, innovation is not welcome.

But if religious differences of opinion became an unavoidable fact of life and if, after 150 years of inconclusive but very bloody slaughter, people began to realize that they wanted to end the warfare, and if, in addition, there was a lot of money to be made if people could set aside their religious differences and cooperate in profitable speculative ventures, then tolerance became, however unwelcome in some quarters, necessary. Tolerance, in a word, was good for business and necessary for civil peace. The constant invasion of the community by strangers simply increased the need.

This is not to suggest that discrimination ceased or that tolerance took hold quickly and universally. That is clearly not true. But at least many Europeans stopped killing each other over religious matters and tended to allow people (with or without restrictions) to go about their business. In this respect, Holland and England were clearly the leaders, Spain the least tolerant, and France wavered (permitting Protestants to worship freely by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, and then, by Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, expelling them).

The Seventeenth Century as a Turning Point

Given what was happening to the traditional community, the seventeenth century is a decisive turning point in the switch to what we might call modern society. One way to appreciate this quickly is to compare the overall tone of some of the books we have read and are going to read.

One notices, for example, that Hildegard’s Christian vision is supremely confident. She has no doubts about the reality of Christ’s presence in her life, and her imaginative interaction with the external world is daily living confirmation of her faith. So, too, in Dante and Chaucer. Although there is in both writers a clear sense that money is a grave threat to Christian principles, nevertheless they can both finally offer a comic vision because they sense that the true faith will remain secure.

Montaigne’s Essays by contrast, in the mid-sixteenth century, indicate a significant loss of faith in the old order. The old certainties of king and pope have become the source of civil wars, families are killing each other over doctrinal disputes, and there is no coordinating certainty or agreement any more. Montaigne, as we saw, addresses the question of how we might live our lives in this transformed spiritual and political landscape: do not seek dogmatic certainty, follow the political and religious traditions of your community, not because they are true but rather because they are the habitual ways of living in your part of the world, arrange that part of your life over which you do have control, and live, above all, for that.

Montaigne is clearly something of a transitional figure. He is not ready to define a new question for us, but he wishes to call into question the validity of some of the old answers and to direct us away from certain attempts to find new ones. Because he can see no way of regaining what is been lost and the bloody consequences of simply trying to impose a solution are inevitable, Montaigne urges us to limit our attempts to correct the injustices of society. Not surprisingly, people have often detected beneath all the urbane irony and learning and wit, a note of resignation in his stance.

The writers we are now looking at in the mid-seventeenth century address this question: Where is our sense of communal order and an understanding of the world which is needed to sustain the required sense of order to come from, now that our traditions are failing? They had two clear choices. They could, as many did, seek to re-establish that traditional order, if necessary at the cost of much bloodshed and reactionary legislation—burning heretics and their books, reinvigorating traditional religion, insisting with all the power at their command that the medieval view of church and kingship was the true way. Alternatively, they could seek for a new basis for faith: they could turn away from the revealed world of God as interpreted by various doctrines and turn to the one thing that appeared to transcend all these doctrinal differences: faith in reason.

When we read Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, and Newton (among others) we are confronting people wrestling with the most serious issues of their age: How do we deal with the most urgent questions of faith, understanding of nature, and civil order at a time when our traditions no longer command people’s allegiance in the old manner? In that sense their situation is not unlike that of Plato after the Peloponnesian War and the execution of Socrates. And, although this is a comparison to be undertaken with some care, the connections between the efforts of these seventeenth-century rationalists and Plato are interesting to consider.

Like Plato, they tended to reject much of their tradition and to start their inquiries or critiques with new rational assumptions about the nature of the world and about human beings. On the basis of these assumptions, they then constructed new understandings of the natural world and of human psychology. The central idea coordinating them all was that the human community could flourish again if people would put their faith in what transcended all religious differences—the power of the human intellect to reach shared rational truths (although what that meant exactly was a matter of constant argument).

It’s important to stress that most of these thinkers were extremely devout: Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Newton, even perhaps Hobbes (although his religious stance is more ambiguous)—these men were putting their faith in reason as a way to guarantee a shared religious life free of the internecine warfare of competing irrationalities based on interpretations of scripture. When we read Descartes’ Meditations, we need always to bear in mind the full title of the volume and his stated purpose: to make room for God and the new science through the power of reason, without an appeal to tradition.

At any rate, what is truly remarkable about the seventeenth century was the extent to which the efforts to base society on a new order were so quickly successful. No century in European history has opened with such universal despair about what was going on and finished with such a sense of triumph. At the start of the seventeenth century, Europe was divided over religious questions, racked with religious wars, and about to launch the terrible Thirty Years War, relatively poor, and in many places filled with a sense that the world as people knew it was coming apart. Predictions that the end of the world was nigh were not uncommon. By the end of the century, Europe was becoming rich, there was an enormous sense of confidence that the new science was on the right track, religious warfare had largely ceased, and a concerted international effort to control warfare had started. In England and Holland the business class was firmly in control of the political agenda, and had settled the role that religion was to play in the life of the community. England had removed a monarch (James II) over this issue and had done so without major disturbance or bloodshed. There was an enormous self-assurance in the growing powers of money and reason.

It’s only in the light of this sort of context that one can understand the amazing importance in all areas of culture of Isaac Newton—whose achievements appeared to be a universal testimony to the rightness of the new way. For Newton seemed to have demonstrated to the satisfaction of reasonable people that the entire cosmos operated by rational principles and thus was obviously the work of a Divine Creator, for no power short of the Almighty could have created such an enormous, mathematically regular, and beautiful system as that explained in Newton’s Principia.

The most obvious example of this new spirit of confidence is the Baroque Music we have been listening to. It’s most commonly noted characteristics are its power, grandeur, and self-assurance. This is the best expression of a culture very sure of its values and confident that it is on the right track. Even in an aria as solemn and sad as Dido’s lament before her death, there is the assured sense that she is doing the right thing, the calmly heroic acceptance of her death, the measured sense of pathos lacks any sense of hysteria or doubt or questioning. In its way, it is as assured and uplifting as Handel’s Messiah, the most famous and lasting popular example of Baroque music.

One postscript before returning to Hobbes. This transformation did not occur unopposed. Traditional Christians were alarmed by the growing secularization of human thinking and by the dangerous reliance on reason at the expense of faith and by the (to them) naive optimism of the new science. We are not following this resistance in any detail, but we will be ending the semester with one of the most famous early eighteenth-century manifestations of it: Gulliver’s Travels.

Thomas Hobbes

In the remaining part of this lecture I wish to do two things: firstly, to offer a rough sketch of how Hobbes exemplifies some of these aspects of seventeenth-century life. I want to do this by looking at some stages in the argument of his Leviathan and then by considering briefly why this argument remains very important to us.

Seen in the light of the above very cursory remarks on the context of the seventeenth century, Hobbes clearly is a pivotal example of the new thinking. His book The Leviathan, published in 1651, has as its central purpose the desire to put to rest the traditional Aristotelian-Christian community as the basis for our social, business, and political life, and to set that life on a firmly rational basis.  And the reason he wants to do this is obvious. Hobbes wants, above all, to make the community secure from self-destruction. Having lived through the English Civil War and witnessed the Thirty Years War, Hobbes has no faith in the idea that the traditional community can meet its primary purpose, a secure existence for all its members.

In assessing Hobbes, one need not adopt the position that he is attacking what is already in existence (although he is, in fact doing that). In a sense, his work is also descriptive. He sees the transformations being wrought in the traditional society, the enormous changes being effected by capitalism and religious differences, and is concerned to put this transformation on the most secure rational footing.

He sees quite clearly that the main threat to the stability of the community is the passionate difference of religious opinions, and thus the single most important thrust of his argument is that reason must replace revelation and that our understanding of God and nature must be directed by reason and not by tradition (the entire second half of the book is devoted to issues arising out of the interpretation of scripture). His book is designed to extend that insight into politics, in the same way that Descartes and others were directing a similar method onto our understanding of the natural world.

Some Comments on the Structure of The Leviathan

The basic structure of Hobbes’s argument bears some resemblance to Plato’s structure in the Republic, but the details are very different. Like Plato, Hobbes begins with some assumptions about the nature of human beings. Then, on the basis of these assumptions, he speculates about the origins of the state. Having considered the purposes of organizing a state, he offers his rational analysis of how states should be constructed in order to function properly (given that human beings are the way he describes them).

Hobbes quite clearly sees himself following in Plato’s footsteps and, like Plato, he is not sure whether or not his advice will ever be taken up. But he does hope that his advice is useful. In considering whether or not he succeeds in this ambition, I would like, first, to sketch very quickly some main features of his argument and then, second, to reflect on just how useful these might be. In doing this, I would like to call attention to some of the other thinkers we have studied.

Hobbes’s Theory of Human Nature

In his initial discussion of man, Hobbes applies, as is well known, the new mechanical model of the natural world to an understanding of human psychology. The net result of this is an understanding of human nature as something driven by mechanical actions to seek power:

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

The only effective check on this ceaseless quest for power is that human beings have other mechanically driven desires:

Desire of ease, and sensual delight, disposeth men to obey a common power. . . . Fear of death and wounds disposeth to the same.

In other words, Hobbes has an extraordinarily reductive view of human beings, not unlike Machiavelli’sthey are power hungry, acquisitive, destructive, competitive animals, restrained only by fear and desire for pleasure.

It is important to note that Hobbes is not basing his argument here, as Machiavelli claims to be doing, on observation. Hobbes offers virtually no historical examples or empirical evidence for this claim. His theory rests on a rationally deduced model, arising from his first mechanical principles applied to introspection (somewhat in the manner of Descartes). So, although we might legitimately claim that Hobbes’s own lifetime experiences of Civil War played an important part in his desire for a new order, evidence from those experiences plays no part in his theory of the state, which arises deductively out of his axioms about how human beings work.

There is, however, some dispute about this. Some writers have argued that Hobbes is, in fact, taking his understanding of human nature from his observations of what is going on in the new commercial spirit of capitalism and that, thus, his model of human nature is not a direct result of introspection, as Hobbes claims, but is rather a selective model derived from his experience with the life of the seventeenth- century business world.

Hobbes and His Predecessors

Hobbes’s theory of human nature is of great interest to those following the use of the new mechanical models to understand all natural phenomena, but from the point of view of political theory, if that were all there was to Hobbes, then he would be of little interest. After all, a number of other thinkers had started from the assumption that human beings were not to be trusted. Plato seems very suspicious of human nature, many Christian thinkers assumed that human beings had fallen into a state of corruption, and Machiavelli had put on the table a vision of human nature very similar to Hobbes’s. What makes Hobbes a truly original thinkers and a very important father of the modern state is how he moves from these assumptions about human nature to an understanding of how the modern state really works (or should work).

Plato had taken the route that, given the imperfections of human nature, the best thing to do would be to select the best citizens (for human beings were not naturally equal in abilities), train them, breed selectively to produce them, and rigorously structure their social environment so that they would be truly virtuous and thus able to handle power in the best ways to serve both the overall purpose of the state and the moral virtue of everyone in it. In other words, Plato puts his faith, in the Republic, in the capacity of training in virtue to bring out the best in human nature (at least in the most capable citizens, the elite) so that the state might be governed effectively (i.e., fulfill its appropriate function). And Aristotle, though in a different fashion, sees education in virtue for the best of the citizens as the basis for proper government of the state, so that it can arrive at its proper function.

The traditional Christian view was not unlike this traditional Greek view, in the sense that proper Christian virtue was the essential ingredient in wise ruling. And for this the wisdom and guidance of the Church were essential—the virtue of the ruler, the Christian virtue embodied in his character and actions, was the only safeguard for the state, and the Church was the only reliable source of the learning necessary for such virtue. Hence, the central issue in political justice was the virtue in the ruler.

In this classical and Christian tradition, a major emphasis in political thought was placed on men’s duties, those things necessary for a human being to carry out in order to realize his or her most important excellence. That human life had a purpose was a given. The function of the state was to further the attainment of that function. Given the assumption that all human beings were inherently political (that is, members of a human community) and unequal, there was no need to discuss questions of rights—what mattered was how one discharged the particular duties associated with one’s station in life (responsibilities for those below you and duties owed to those above you). And this was so because civil society was prior to the individual and therefore essential to the attainment of human excellence. Those duties appropriate to one’s position in life were established by tradition and well known; they came, so to speak, with the social territory in which one grew up. Hence, if challenged to answer a basic question of political science, “Why should I obey the state,” someone raised in this vision of life would have no trouble answering: “Because it is God will that I obey the traditional order He has given the world.”

Machiavelli, as we have read, dispenses with virtue to concentrate on power. If the Prince concerns himself, by whatever means are necessary (including murder, lying, and so on), solely with increasing and preserving his power, then good government will automatically follow. The Prince needs to be politically efficient, rather than good (in a truly moral sense). The former quality requires a complex set of practical skills (which Machiavelli calls virtu), hence the saying about his views: there is no virtue in virtu. As Leo Strauss has observed, Machiavelli deliberately lowered the standards of political life from the great classical notions of virtue in order to increase the possibility of attaining stability. The great question which Machiavelli does not address and which is central in Hobbes is the issue of why anyone would obey such a Prince. Why would not others, as ambitious as the Prince and as aware of the means available, simply disrupt his rule so that they could take over and thus satisfy their lust for power? Given the Prince’s tactics, wouldn’t people have to do that or else allow themselves to become victims of the Prince’s endless quest for security?  That question Machiavelli leaves unexamined, and the fact that he provides no answer is a grave objection to the practical wisdom of following Machiavelli’s advice.

The Basis of Hobbes’s Theory

Hobbes begins in somewhat the same way as Machiavelli by abandoning traditional notions of virtue and political wisdom—lowering the aim of politics, once again, in order to achieve more success. He does this, not because he does not admire or believe in the existence of such virtue (he very clearly does) but rather because he believes it is comparatively rare in human conduct and therefore is no fit basis for government: there are simply not enough virtuous people around.

Hobbes, in contrast to Machiavelli, makes the question of obedience to the authority of the government the central issue of his political theory and, whether one agrees with his analysis or not, the issues it raises have played and continue to play a vital role in our understanding of our own state. For that reason, it is not stretching things to see in Hobbes the first architect of the modern Liberal State.

If we consider the question mentioned above (“Why should I obey the state?”) Hobbes comes up with four answers. I will briefly (and inadequately) list the answers here and then discuss how he arrives at them. The first is that I should obey the state because I have agreed to do so. The second is that I should obey the state because it is in my best interests to do so. The third is a latent utilitarian insistence that such a scheme is more of a benefit to everyone than any other. And the fourth, and most blunt, is that I am are going to be hurt if I don’t. The way he sets about establishing these answers to the basic question is the most famous part of his book.

The State of Nature

Given the nature of human beings as ceaselessly motivated by greed and a desire for power, then without any community order we exist in what Hobbes calls a state of nature, with every person against every other in a constant quest for power. There are no rules to this game, no laws, no conception of justice. Everything is allowed. As a result, human life, ruled by force, is a constant struggle for survival, and our lives are ruled by destruction, aggression, and fear. Hobbes’s famous view of this state of nature indicates that he has no romantic illusions about such a state of absolute freedom from political rule:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (100)

Hobbes makes no appeal to evidence here for the historical existence of such a state (apart from a reference on the next page to the savages of America and, of course, to civil wars, which Hobbes sees as the return to such a condition). This state of nature is a thought experiment not a particular historical state of affairs for which he has any evidence. But it’s an important part of his argument which follows directly from his view of human nature. Without any external controls, the state of nature is the inevitable consequence of human beings behaving normally (that is, under the influence of their basic emotions, as he has described them).

The first important point to notice here is the denial of the classical assumption that civil society exists prior to the individual. Hobbes begins his analysis with the individual outside of society and assigns to that individual certain rights to take whatever he can obtain by force, to be truly free from any natural restraint (there is no moral order in a state of nature). This notion that political theory starts with the free individual existing outside of any civil authority represents a radical reorientation of traditional political thought, since now an essential quality of the state is going to be how it treats the rights the individuals possessed before the institution of civil society.

This view holds that there is no Natural Justice, no social order given in the world before human beings artificially create one. Individual life and individual rights predate society (the right to take whatever you can get and keep it as long as you can). In the State of Nature, Act III of King Lear is an accurate picture of the reality, and the most fundamental right is that everyone has a right to whatever he or she can obtain by force. This view of nature is, for example, in direct contrast with, say, Hildegard’s. It provides no evidence for a structure of order, a higher meaning, any responsibilities other than those we accord to to our own passions.

The State as a Contract

The state of nature ends, according to Hobbes, when people come to realize that they have more to gain by forming a community than by continuing to kill each other. For Hobbes this awareness comes naturally—it does not require scriptural enlightenment or education. People have sufficient reason to come to understand this on their own. He calls the process by which this happens a Law of Nature. The awareness is a dictate of reason. It is based on self-interest (i.e., it arises out of the natural selfishness of human beings and their desire for power and ease and their fear of death). Thus, it represents no particular virtue, and is available to everyone equally.

As a result of this awareness, the state is born by a voluntary contract among those in a state of nature, who all agree to appoint a third person or institution to govern them. They hand over all power for independent action to this third party and agree to obey whatever that third party (the Sovereign) shall determine.

It’s important to note the nature of this contract. The contract is among those who are to be governed. The Sovereign (whether monarch or legislature) is not a party to the contract and thus cannot be held accountable. In other words, other than one specific right, the governed now have no way to call the ruler into account (except as the ruler shall determine). In such an arrangement, all the power of the assembled human beings rests with the Sovereign.

The Implications of this View

Once this idea is placed on the table, Hobbes’s chief concern is to point out what this redistribution of power amounts to in the modern state. There isn’t time to discuss the particulars here, and we shall go into it in more detail next time, but there are a few key ideas to explore:

Under this model, what matters is the contractual obligations of the parties to the contract, each of whom is bound equally to obey. This is a radically egalitarian model, which has no room in it for different classes of citizens divided on the basis of their origins, talents, money, or virtue (as in Homer, Plato, and Aristotle). There is no traditional rank involved, and hereditary customs are abolished, leaving as a guiding force for human conduct only one thing—the law of the Sovereign.

The central issue in political life is the obligation of each citizen to the Sovereign’s laws. What has disappeared from political thinking is the notion of “bonding”—the horizontal links between citizens. These Hobbes is particularly concerned to eliminate (as causes of faction). The family, clan, neighbourhood, religious order, or any traditionally “unwritten laws” determined by custom as the basis for political life are forbidden, unless the sovereign permits them.

What matters now are not particular forms of government but the institutionalization of the concepts of power and obligation. Hobbes clearly has a preference for monarchical government, but he repeatedly stresses that the essential point in the commonwealth must be the clearest possible understanding of the rights and duties of the ruler and the ruled. Politics thus becomes a question, not of virtue, but of rights and obligations to be sorted out through reason (and not by appeals to tradition) and obedience to the law of the Sovereign.

Hobbes likes his scheme particularly because he believes anyone can understand it. It is based on the natural passions (which we can all understand by simple introspection) and on simple reason. Thus, Hobbes, unlike Plato and Aristotle, sees no need to stress education for citizenship or for ruling. Any citizens can understand their political obligations (because they are codified in the Sovereign’s laws) and will obey them, because the reasons for the obedience are obvious and because the citizen’s natural desire for money and commodious living will lead him or her to agree. Thus, the citizen is released from all sorts of obligations central to traditional views of politics (e.g., friendship, neighbours). If I attend only to my clearly stipulated obligations to the ruler (as defined in law), then I am free to go about my business without regard to what anyone else thinks.

In this connection, one of the most important ideas in Hobbes’s view of the state is that what is not forbidden by the sovereign is permitted. This, as many have pointed out, is the beginning of an important principle of secular liberalism. Hobbes quite clearly wants to free each citizen so that he can carry out his work with as little interference from his neighbours as possible, while at the same time minimizing any disruptions the citizen might be tempted to make to civil order.

Notice what happens in this view to the idea of Justice. The traditional notion of justice as having something to do with “essential” qualities of human beings or divine requirements or any standards independent of the human will (like Natural Order) is gone. In its place, Justice becomes the fulfillment of one’s contracts and obedience to the law of the sovereign. Beyond the contracts established with the government and the voluntary contracts I enter into with citizens (as the Sovereign permits), I have no other obligations. Society thus becomes “atomized” into countless individual, equal components, bound by equal obligations to the sovereign and otherwise free to go about their business.

Finally, what is particularly modern about Hobbes’s analysis and what was particularly difficult for many of his readers to accept, the state is an artificial creation, put together like a machine. It requires neither scriptural authority nor any correspondence with natural order. The state is put together as the product of human reasoning, not inherited from our ancestors or dictated to us from God. Individual existence is prior to the state, and the state owes its existence to a contract voluntarily entered into by free individuals with rights for their own individual convenience and security. Politics is, in other words, a thoroughly secular, individualistic, legal concern—like business contracts—rather than inextricably bound up with religion and theology and communal interactions. And what matters in this artificial creation is not a particular model but the essential rational principles which will hold it together.

Four Problems in the Theory

Hobbes’s theory is ruthlessly logical, starting from his first assumptions about the mechanical nature of human psychology. But there are at least four puzzling points in it.

The first concerns the power of the government. How can we be sure that this power will not be turned against the people, and how are we to protect ourselves if it does? This, of course, was a central concern of Plato’s—the old question about power corrupting—and for Plato, as for Aristotle, the best defense was the education in virtue given to the rulers.

Hobbes’s answer is twofold. First, he believes that a government will recognize that its strength depends upon the vitality and hard work of its citizens (who produce the money which keeps the state strong) and that, therefore, the ruler will not interfere with them so as to prevent their natural greed and desire for glory from turning itself to commodious living, which will benefit the state. Otherwise put, harnessing the greed of the citizens makes the state rich; so the state will not interfere to the point of restricting the citizens in their individual attempts to exercise their liberty to turn a profit.

Secondly, Hobbes checks the power of the state in one important respect: it cannot demand your life, and if it does, for any reason, you are entitled to fight back. Since the contract you entered into was designed to protect your life, the moment your life becomes threatened by the state, you are released from your obligations.

It is also clear, however, that the dangers of a tyrannical sovereign for Hobbes are considerable more attractive than what will occur if there is no state or if the state falls apart. The state of nature, or its modern equivalent in a civil war, renders life for most people insupportably bad. Thus, in many cases a tyrannical Sovereign, although unwelcome, is still preferable to the absence of a Sovereign.

The second important question in Hobbes concerns the Laws of Nature. What are these, and how are they going to work? If human beings are really as Hobbes describes them in his state of nature, then how would they ever agree with each other to submit all their power to a common ruler? As one contemporary of Hobbes’s put it: if human beings are like sheep, I don’t see why they need a ruler; if human beings are like wolves, I don’t see how they will tolerate a ruler.

The Laws of Nature, Hobbes argues, which all essentially boil down to one law (Do not do unto others what you would not like done to you), will transform the state of nature into an artificial commonwealth. But if nature is essentially anarchic, what is the status of these laws? Are these rules divinely ordered? If so, then is there a higher order shaping the state? If not, where do they come from?

Although he calls the basic impulse to form a commonwealth a Law of Nature, which suggests something inexorable and deterministic (and thus perhaps of divine origin), Hobbes qualifies this idea all the time by stressing that the term Law of Nature really means “a precept or general rule found out by reason” (103), which “bind[s] to a desire they should take place” (123). This makes them sound like prudential assumptions, arising out of self-interest rather than universal binding principles.

What Hobbes appears to believe is that in a state of nature, reason would eventually persuade people to come together into a mutually agreeable and equal contract. It would do this because such an arrangement, they would come to realize, is the only reasonable way to cope with their desire for commodious living and their fear of death. There is no irresistible force compelling them to do so, but their own inclination for ease, commodious living, and their fear of each other will lead them finally to such a contract.

A third question concerns the evidence for such laws of nature and a voluntary contract. What evidence does Hobbes offer for the operation of a state of nature? As usual, he offers no empirical evidence. Like Descartes, as Peters observes, his chief defense is introspection. If we look into ourselves, Hobbes seems to be saying, we will perceive the truth of these rational ideas. That is why it is no particularly serious objection to Hobbes’s Laws of Nature to question whether or not such a state of nature has ever existed or to make the claim that no one in present society entered into the contract as a free act in history. Hobbes would presumably reply that he is not claiming all this as a historical event (although, as he repeatedly mentions, Civil Wars are close approximations): forming a contract to get out of the state of nature by discovering within oneself the Laws of Nature is obviously reasonable to anyone who thinks about what he is proposing. It is not history that validates his Laws of Nature, he seems to be claiming, but the operations of the human mind. It is reasonable to act as if such a contract had really taken place, because, upon reflection, that’s the only way we can think our way to a rational model of political life which will keep us safe.

There is a fourth major problem with Hobbes’s analysis, one which obviously bothered him considerably. How is his theory going to work for someone who fears eternal damnation more than an immediate earthly death? Why should someone who fears God more than the Sovereign obey the Sovereign rather than God? Hobbes saw his way to solve this contradiction: the fear of invisible powers is stronger than the fear of violent death as long as people believe in invisible powers, i.e., as long as they are under the spell of delusions about the true character of reality; the fear of violent death comes fully into its own as soon as people have become enlightened.

This implies that the whole scheme suggested by Hobbes requires for its operation the weakening or, rather, the elimination of the fear of invisible powers. It requires such a radical change of orientation as can be brought about only by the disenchantment of the world, by the diffusion of scientific knowledge, or by popular enlightenment. Hobbes’s is the first doctrine that necessarily and unmistakably points to a thoroughly ‘enlightened’, i.e., a-religious or atheistic society as the solution of the social or political problem. (Strauss)

That accounts also for the inordinate attention he gives to dealing with religious questions, especially to the problems of inferring political doctrines from scripture (a concern of over half the entire book).

The Importance of Hobbes

The importance of Hobbes stems primarily from the nature of his attempt to create a political philosophy. Few people have ever consciously tried to emulate Hobbes’s principles as the basis for erecting a new Commonwealth, and in that sense the Leviathan has been relatively unimportant. But the assumptions he uses and the method have been enormously influential (and continue to be so).

In the first place, he sought to free political thinking from tradition and from religion and from any previous moral convictions, to bring political thinking into line with the new mechanistic philosophy of nature. This was indeed radical and created as much trouble for Hobbes as any of his conclusions: the idea that a state could be a rational creation from first principles about the nature of human beings, an arbitrary construct based upon discovered rational principles of rights and obligations, interpreted as the form of a contract.

This encouraged a shift in attitude to authority. Instead of owing allegiance to a particular person or place, in Hobbes’s scheme one gave obedience to an office, to a legally defined relationship between the subject and the office. And this Authority had to be understood as being grounded in reason rather than in tradition or irrational belief. If I obey the mayor of my community, I do so, not because the mayor is Mr. Jones or Ms Smith, but because the office of mayor represents the Sovereign’s power (which I have agreed to obey). Once Mr. Jones or Ms Smith step out of the office of mayor, I am not obliged to obey them at all. My obligation is now to the next mayor—since my political obligations are to the offices of government established by the sovereign, not to the people temporarily in those offices.

It may well be that Hobbes’s view of human nature is excessively reductive and that he places far too much reliance on rational analysis as a method. But he left us with the legacy that the modern state had to start with people as they really are and to institutionalize power and rights, so that civil security depended not upon the virtue of the citizens or a shared traditional order but upon a common rational awareness, in the rulers and ruled, of the operation of their mutual self-interest as that had become institutionalized in the rational authority structures (in law). And that structure had to justify itself in terms of the rights of individuals who had entered into the contract for their own self-interest and self-preservation.

Hobbes also left us with the legacy that the best way to enrich society was to emancipate us (if necessary by force) from divisive religious doctrines and that the best way to do this was thorough the application of reason, to enlighten people through science as to the extent to which they might be easily deluded by mere words into forgetting what they should truly be afraid of: civil war.

And Hobbes launches in the West the supremely powerful rational idea that the way to organize a state is to emancipate people’s passionate self-interest and desire for increased power, money, fame, commodious living, in short, their greed, in order to enrich the state (rather than vainly trying to educate people to be virtuous in their commercial activities, Hobbes wants us to harness their lack of virtue and put it to effective use). The function of government is not to make people better but to impose the necessary rules so that they can function best as independent entrepreneurial individuals in creating wealth for themselves and for the state. If the price of such emancipation is the eradication of all significant notions of traditional communities, friendships, interpersonal obligations, beliefs, and ways of living—in short, all those things upon which Aristotle and traditional Christian moralists place so much reliance in their ethical and political systems—so much the better.

In saying this, Hobbes is not necessarily an enthusiastic advocate of the new capitalism, so much as the devisor of a political system to deal with the new capitalism. And given that capitalism inevitably encourages individual greed and atomizes individuals in their search for commodious living, Hobbes is surely right to stress that if public security is to be maintained, we need a new concept of strong central sovereignty. Hobbes understood clearly that the old customs were going and that, therefore, a much stronger central authority was necessary to keep people working peacefully to satisfy their naturally selfish inclinations.

Hobbes’s understanding of capitalism was necessarily somewhat simple; there were many things about what capitalism did to social relations which he did not take into account. But he did understand very clearly just how ineffective the traditional ways were going to be against it and how necessary it was to secure some new rational agreement on sovereignty if the explosive energies of religion and capitalism were not going to rend society apart once again.

Second Lecture on Hobbes

[This is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in LBST 302 on Wednesday, March 13, 1996, by Ian Johnston. This document is in the public domain, released May 1999]


As we make our way through the Liberal Studies main reading list, we often make some big jumps, moving, for example, over most of Roman culture and Middle Ages, and paying relatively little attention to the early Renaissance. Yet, in some respects, the biggest and most dislocating jump we experience is moving from Shakespeare’s Tempest in one week to Hobbes’s Leviathan in the next.

That’s odd in some ways, because Hobbes and Shakespeare were contemporaries. Hobbes, who was born in 1588, was a young man aged 22 at the time of the writing of the Tempest, but if he knew the play, he was obviously unwilling to attend at all to its vision of the world when he came to write the Leviathan. For him that view of human nature and the community is already clearly out of date and unworkable.

Consider for a moment some of the differences. At the end of the Tempest we are still clearly in the old world, in a society held together by traditional notions of virtue. The family has been reunited and is moving back together to take up traditional roles in an aristocratic society in Europe. This has come about only because the characters, or most of them, have clearly acknowledged that, as human beings, they are socially bonded to other human beings, and that the essential part of the good life is to reassert those bonds in the manner indicated by orthodox Christian faith. It doesn’t take much interpretative skill to defend a reading of the end of the Tempest which sees in it a firm endorsement of the most famous Christian rules of all: those about faith, hope, and charity and about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.

To move from here to the Leviathan is suddenly to have to confront something totally different. In Hobbes’s state, traditional virtues and social obligations have disappeared, the familiar hierarchy of society no longer exists, and something that doesn’t feature at all in the Tempest is the central concern, namely, money, the blood of the commonwealth. Hobbes’s state rests on and legitimizes an aspect of human life which the Tempest apparently expressly condemns: the rational self-interest and the irrational greed of human individuals.

Hobbes’s view is so close us, so familiar, that we may not recognize as clearly as we should the enormous change that has occurred between his vision and that of Shakespeare in the Tempest. So today I want to pause for a while to consider that change and to offer some contextual reflections on how it might have come about. In other words, I want to ponder for few minutes this question: How did conditions so change that we moved with such apparent speed from the world view which has obvious roots in Aristotle and the New Testament to one which has room for neither of those and reduces the vision of the legitimate human community to the empowerment and defense of human greed, competitiveness, and fear.

In order to offer some initial insight into this question, I want to suggest that the movement from Act V of the Tempest to the Leviathan, which marks, in effect, the movement from a medieval world view to the modern age, rests on three important and very closely related historical developments: first, the society has to change its attitude towards money, second, the market place has to be wrestled away from the control of the king and the Pope and opened up to the middle class, and, thirdly, the understanding of political life and the legitimizing of the official power in the state have to change to accommodate the new economic realities.

Hobbes’s text is clearly the most important document addressing the third of these developments, because it offers a thorough defense of a new kind of society, one which legitimizes in an unprecedented way the unceasing activities of everyone equally in search of personal economic betterment. What I’d like to do before looking at Hobbes’s text is to explore the first point I mentioned: the transformation of social attitudes towards money which created the social context for Hobbes’s book.

I’m doing this not only to illuminate Hobbes but also with an eye to the reading coming up, especially to Robinson Crusoe, which we will be reading after Descartes, because that novel is one of the greatest and most popular celebrations of a view of life which made Hobbes’s vision possible. And any proper understanding of why Canada has become the country it has requires considerable attention to why a book like Robinson Crusoe has become such a lasting feature of our culture.

Money as the Root of All Evil

When you think about it, it should strike you as odd that European Christianity could become the centre for the most powerful wealth-generating society ever known. After all, as we have seen in reading Matthew and Romans, Jesus’s ministry has a very strong message about money. We are not to lay up for ourselves treasure on earth; instead we are commanded to give away what we have or to share our resources. Spiritual treasure is the essence of the message, and there is a pronounced and continuous hostility expressed to any suggestion that the good life for the Christian involves a commitment to acquiring a personal material fortune.

This message is repeated endlessly in the Middle Ages, where among the most popular texts for sermons is the Latin slogan radix malorum est cupiditas (greed is the root of all evil), and everyone had dinned into them the notion that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries sought strictly to control economic activity, to subordinate it to the spiritual and social requirements of the community, by setting standards for the just price and the fair wage, by prohibiting Christians from lending money for interest, and by stressing communal charity, alms, and a shared sense of the importance of the spiritual life as far more important than a dedication to amassing wealth.

Of course, the spiritual life of the Christian was, in the last analysis, an individual matter, but it realized itself in public actions: in public Church worship and religious festivals, in communal acts of charity, in public pilgrimages, in acts involving one’s neighbour, above all, in charity. In the Catholic lists of saints, many of the most celebrated actions are those done for people or on behalf of the Christian community. That applied as much to the uses of money as to anything else.

We have seen in Dante and Hildegard the clear sense that money corrupts the spiritual life. The usurers in Hell are several circles below the murderers. This emphasis reflects the same profound suspicion of money. Using money for excessive private gain at the expense of one’s neighbour was profoundly antithetical to the message of Jesus.

Of course, the official doctrine was not always in line with the practice. Through much of the Middle Ages, society was predominantly agricultural and poor. But at the start of the Renaissance, Europe began to get wealthy, very wealthy, and there was a surplus of money. Such a surplus, in the traditional view, should be spent in two ways: glorifying God and his representatives on earth (King and Pope) and fighting heathens. Hence, the function of surplus wealth was still communal and social. Europe is littered with remaining tributes to that ethic, everything from hundreds of expensively decorated cathedrals and royal residences, to the fabulous Palace of Versailles or the Vatican Museum and, in Canada, the fortress of Louisberg—symbols of the massive spending of surplus money to celebrate the glory of God or of his representative on earth, the secular monarch. Surplus money thus serves the interest of the Christian community.

Even in times of the great economic bonanza of the importation of huge amounts of gold from the New World, the first impulse of the most zealously Christian monarch, the King of Spain, was to spend that money to extend and firm up the old order—through war against heretics, especially in the Netherlands, and symbols of glory for the Catholic monarch and the Roman Catholic Church.

In such societies, there was always poverty. And the solution to poverty remained the same for centuries: charity. The Christian individual and the community had a duty to give alms, to help those in need, who were everyone’s spiritual equals, no matter how economically or socially inferior they might be. Avarice, the hoarding of one’s money, was a grievous sin, which one could avoid only by public manifestations of charity. This ethic was not simply a lofty moral sentiment constantly contradicted by practice (although it often was that); it also was a basis for Church law and for a great deal of Church practice, especially, for example, in the establishment of the monastic orders with the express purpose of extending Christian charity to the urban and rural poor.

Such a view is profoundly static. It does not encourage individuals to direct all their energies into economic advancement. Not only is this spiritually suspect, it is also politically unwise, since it is, in effect, a contravention of the established natural order. Of course, one can point to many individual exceptions, especially in the commercial towns, but those exceptions generally prove the rule. The function of the Christian life was to accept one’s station and to work to fulfill the public moral responsibilities of the traditional Christian life. Let the unchristian business of money lending be handled by the Jews (one of the few professions open to them).

Supporters of such a traditional Christian view, were, naturally enough, horrified by Hobbes’s proposals, especially his sense that the public religion of the artificial state must serve the need for security to protect the selfish economic interests of the individuals composing it. Such traditionalists, still a very significant power in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century, gave Hobbes’s book a very hostile reception and saw to it that his name was closely associated with the Devil for at least a century. And certainly if such traditionalists were the only audience, then Hobbes’s text would be nothing more than a footnote to the history of political thought.

Hobbes’s real audience, however, is very different. It is made up of those who recognize the emergence of a revolutionary new person, someone who is more responsible for creating our society than anyone else, the person who sees the unremitting struggle to make money as the very essence of being a good Christian, the person for whom money is not the root of all evil but the most evident proof that one is serving God properly. Who is this person, and where did he come from? These are the questions I would now like to address.

Religion and Capitalism

The answer to that question is to be found in the Reformation, the establishment of the various Protestant sects in the break up of the Catholic unity of Europe. It is a complex question, for the developments did not occur overnight. So what I am offering here is something of a simplified and condensed summary.

When we use the term Protestant, we have to be very careful to remember that the term covers a very wide spectrum of religious and political views. At one end, a good deal of the new Protestant religion did not differ all that much in its social and political and much of its theological views from mainstream Catholicism. The Anglican Church, for example, which was created during the reign of Elizabeth, was essentially a conservative, traditional establishment church designed to serve two functions: to emancipate the English Church from the Papacy and to preserve the social, hierarchical, and politically conservative nature of traditional Catholicism. In the centre were the Lutherans, theologically revolutionary but politically traditionalists. At the other end of the spectrum were Protestants whose faith was radically individualistic, often fiercely democratic, and potentially explosive politically (the Levellers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Calvinists, Diggers, Fifth Monarchy Men). These are only a few of the major positions staked out as a result of Luther’s movement.

My concern today is with that radical end, specifically with a group which in England came to be called the Puritans or sometimes the Dissenters. These were not a unified religious group. The term usually refers to those Protestants in England for whom the Anglican Church had not gone far enough in its reforms of Catholic doctrine. For the Puritans, the Anglican Church looked still too much like a centrally authoritarian religious authority, with a liturgy and sacraments not very different from the despised ceremonies of the Catholic Church. And no matter what their particular religion, the Puritans were unremitting in their hostility to Queen Elizabeth’s creation. For many Puritans the liturgy of the Anglican Church was too moderate, too tepid, too obviously a social creation to gratify the ruling aristocracy, without the passionate conviction of a true commitment to the faith.

The heart of the Puritan’s understanding of Christianity was the Epistle to the Romans, especially Paul’s doctrine of grace. This doctrine they took literally and pushed to its logical limits. Christianity to them was overwhelmingly a matter of the personal relationship between the individual Christian and God, with no need for an intervening Church or a hierarchy of bishops and ministers or even, in many cases, a church building or specific religious community. What determined that relationship with God was grace, the free gift of God to certain members of the Christian community, the elect, who would gather in heaven while all others perished in hell. Nothing a Christian could do could earn the grace of God, for, as Paul points out in his arguments against Mosaic Law, one can never put God in one’s debt; whether one became one of the elect or not was a predetermined matter resting solely with God.

Such a faith places all its emphasis on the inner life of the individual. What matters there is not one’s interaction with others, nor any sense of Aristotelian self-realization through a celebration of one’s material well being, but rather one’s inner spiritual value. Life is a constant test of one’s spiritual strength, since one can never be sure that one has attained grace. Life is full of temptations and tests. The true Christian is a lonely individual who must, through the sheer exercise of his will, continue, day by day, to surmount such obstacles by imposing his will on the world, aided by nothing other than faith, for which the only supports are solitary prayer, scriptural readings, and a Herculean effort to resist any tempting diversions. And this is a high-stakes contest, because without grace, no one could enter heaven.

Now, it might seem to the logical mind that if grace is a matter of predestination about which I can do nothing, then I am free in my conduct to do what I like. If the matter of my salvation is out of my hands, why should I then concern myself about it? In practice, however, that is not how the Puritans interpreted the matter. Grace might come at any moment. One had to prepare oneself to receive it. Even if one was as certain as one might be that one had God’s blessing, one could never be sure. One had to keep oneself in a constant state of readiness to be worthy of receiving or maintaining God’s favour. And that preparation meant cleansing from one’s life anything that might compromise one’s spiritual purity. The best way to do that was to live a life as empty as possible of material distractions and to dedicate oneself to work without the forms of relaxation which led human beings into sin (like festivals, holidays, theatrical entertainment, or luxuries).

A key notion here was the idea of a “calling.” God “called” us to carry out certain work in the world, and it was our duty, as a preparation for the grace which we might or might not receive, to work at that “calling” with all the energies we could command. Anything which distracted us from that “calling” was luring us away from the strenuous task of preparing ourselves for the possibilities of divine grace and an eternal life in the Celestial City. Thus, life becomes a testing ground of the individual will in constant pursuit of a divinely sanctioned work.

In this crucible of radical Protestantism, a new vision of the good life was formed. It had always been around, but under the influence of the new doctrine it successfully merged extreme individualism, at the expense of community responsibility, and the spiritual life. It transformed the traditional vision of life into a radically individualistic struggle, in which the isolated individual must channel his energies into an appropriate calling, remove all distractions from that task, and pray constantly for the grace of God. Any success one enjoyed in the struggle was no evidence for one’s superiority, but rather an indication that one was on the right track. Hence, success in business becomes an important sign of spiritual progress and a further inducement to try even harder. For any relaxation in the fight, any let up in the concentrated struggle might create an opportunity for sin.

The consequences of this religious revolution were extraordinary. To give you a sense of that let me read from an economist who has explored the link between religion and capitalism most thoroughly. This quotation is from Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by R. H. Tawney:

While the revelation of God to the individual soul is the centre of all religion, the essence of Puritan theology was that it made it, not only the center, but the whole circumference and substance, dismissing as dross and vanity all else but this secret and solitary communion. Grace alone can save, and this earthy grace is the direct gift of God, unmediated by any earthly institution. The elect cannot by any act of their own evoke it; but they can prepare their hearts to receive it, and cherish it when received. They will prepare them best, if they empty them of all that may disturb the intentness of their lonely vigil. Like an engineer, who, to canalize the rush of the oncoming tide, dams all channels to save that through which it is to pour, like a painter who makes light visible by plunging all that is not light in gloom, the Puritan attunes his heart to the voice from Heaven by an immense effort of concentration and abnegation. To win all, he renounces all. When earthly props have been cast down, the soul stands erect in the presence of God. Infinity is attained by a process of subtraction.

To a vision thus absorbed in a single intense experience, not only religious and ecclesiastical systems, but the entire world of human relations, the whole fabric of social institutions, witnessing in all the wealth of their idealism and their greed to the infinite creativeness of man, reveal themselves in a new and wintry light. The fire of the spirit burns brightly on the hearth; but through the windows of his soul the Puritan, unless a poet or a saint, looks on a landscape touched by no breath of spring. What he sees is a forbidding and frost-bound wilderness, rolling its snow-clad leagues towards the grave--a wilderness to be subdued with aching limbs beneath solitary stars. Through it he must take his way, alone. No aid can avail him: no preacher, for only the elect can apprehend with the spirit the word of God; no Church, for to the visible Church even reprobates belong; no sacrament, for sacraments are ordained to increase the glory of God, not to minister spiritual nourishment to man; hardly God himself, for Christ died for the elect, and it may well be that the majesty of the Creator is revealed by the eternal damnation of all but a remnant of the created.

His life is that of a soldier in hostile territory. He suffers in spirit the perils which the first settlers in America endured in body, the sea behind, the untamed desert in front, a cloud of inhuman enemies on either hand. Where Catholic and Anglican had caught a glimpse of the invisible, hovering like a consecration over the gross world of sense, and touching its muddy vesture with the unearthly gleam of a divine, yet familiar beauty, the Puritan mourned for a lost Paradise and a creation sunk in sin. Where they had seen society as a mystical body, compact of members varying in order and degree, but dignified by participation in the common life of Christendom, he saw a bleak antithesis between the spirit which quickened and an alien, indifferent or hostile world. Where they had reverenced the decent order whereby past was knit into present, and man to man, and man to God, through fellowship in works of charity, in festival and fast, in the prayers and ceremonies of the Church, he turned with horror from the filthy rages of human righteousness. Where they, in short, had found comfort in a sacrament, he started back from a snare set to entrap his soul. . . .

Those who seek God in isolation from their fellowmen, unless trebly armed for the perils of the quest, are apt to find, not God, but a devil, whose countenance bears an embarrassing resemblance to their own. The moral self-sufficiency of the Puritan nerved his will, but it corroded his sense of social solidarity. For, if each individual destiny hangs on a private transaction between himself and his Maker, what room is left for human intervention? A servant of Jehovah more than of Christ, he revered God as a Judge rather than loved him as a father, and was moved less by compassion for his erring brethren than by impatient indignation at the blindness of vessels of wrath who “sinned their mercies.” A spiritual aristocrat, who sacrificed fraternity to liberty, he drew from his idealization of personal responsibility a theory of individual rights, which, secularized and generalized, was to be among the most potent explosives that the world has known. He drew from it also a scale of ethical values in which the traditional scheme of Christian virtues was almost exactly reversed, and which, since he was above all things practical, he carried as a dynamic into the routine of business and political life.

For, since conduct and action, though availing nothing to attain the free gift of salvation, are a proof that the gift has been accorded, what is rejected as a means is resumed as a consequence, and the Puritan flings himself into practical activities with the daemonic energy of one who, all doubts allayed, in conscious that he is a sealed and chosen vessel. Once engaged in affairs, he brings to them both the qualities and limitations of his creed in all their remorseless logic. Called to God to labor in his vineyard, he has within himself a principle at once of energy and of order, which makes him irresistible both in war and in the struggles of commerce. Convinced that character is all and circumstances nothing, he sees in the poverty of those who fall by the way, not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion--though like gifts they may be abusedbut the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will. Tempered by self-examination, self-discipline, self-control, he is the practical ascetic, whose victories are won, not in the cloister, but on the battlefield, in the counting house, and in the market. (Tawney, 189-192)

The result of this was the production of an individual unparalleled in the history of the world as an economic agent dedicated to the production of wealth. Here we have an individual who sees all of life as a personal struggle which can only be met by an unremitting dedication to work, the more unpleasant and demanding the work, the greater the challenge. All obstacles, including even successes, are a test of his spiritual worth, and he must dedicate his entire life to a personal triumph over them, unhindered by any notion of communal limits. Any failure is a sign of his spiritual deficiency. No matter what the cost, his eternal life depends upon the directing of all his energies to the task of the “calling.” Material success in the endeavour is a sign that he is on the right track but no excuse for relaxing.

To this is added the inestimable economic power that he cannot spend any of the money so generated upon himself, for any celebration of worldly goods is a diversion from the task at hand. Hence, the surplus cash which his efforts produce must be reinvested, to make the economic success even greater, for the struggle never ends. The purpose of such money is not to be compromised by such traditional concerns as charity or lavish churches or personal displays of magnificence. The business of the true Christian is business.

Charity might enter into your activities if that was your “calling.” In practice, this often applied more to women than to men, and many dissenting sects were famous for the amazing energies they released from women bent on a charitable “calling.” A good deal of the popularity of the Puritan sects among the working classes emerged from these often extraordinary efforts of women who channeled into social improvements the same fierce and narrow energy that their husbands put into business. It is no accident that one of the first great social political protest movement of the middle class, the agitation against the slave trade, was spearheaded by the dissenters and that many of those most active in that movement learned lessons that their immediate descendants would apply to temperance agitation (i.e., prohibition of alcohol) and the incipient movement for women’s rights.

Finally, to add to this formidable economic power, the Puritan welcomes the new science and technology. In the struggle against all obstacles one cannot turn away from the tools which God gives us to conquer nature or those who might stand in our way. Nor should we let any misplaced traditional respect for nature or human communities, those like our own or very strange ones, stand in the way of imposing our wills upon the world. Given the cash to purchase the technology, the urge to acquire it, the spiritual duty to use it in the life-long struggle without regard for traditional communal concerns, and expressly forbidden from channeling the wealth into personal consumption or relaxation, the Puritan becomes the greatest worker for capitalism the world has ever seen, and thus the agent more responsible than any other for making us what we have become.

And Now Back to Hobbes

So what all this to do with Hobbes? Well, he is clearly no Puritan himself; in fact, he is extremely concerned to contain many aspects of the Puritan world view which he sees all around him (for the dissenting Protestants are a major part of the population, especially in the commercial and manufacturing centres). And the Puritans are no fans of Hobbes, given what he has to say about faith in invisible spirits. But Hobbes had the genius to realize long before many others that the economic power of the new Protestant capitalists and the political dangers that their growing numbers represented simply could not be wished away or expelled or accommodated within the Anglican Church or any form of traditional authority. He had lived through the English Civil War and had witnessed the process by which the business classes had wrestled control of the government away from the traditional monarchy. And he had seen Cromwell’s Protestant alliance fall apart because the Puritan sects were not willing to compromise their beliefs. With the Restoration, there was no going back. The new economic classes had to be acknowledged, harnessed, and controlled. Left to themselves, there would be no end of warfare.

The modern state, Hobbes saw, was going to be driven by the spirit of economic individualism at the heart of the Puritan enterprise. The challenge was to legitimize this fact in a state which could cope with the potential political fragmentation and fighting which such a commitment to individualism brings with it. Or alternatively put, Hobbes addressed himself to this question: How can we harness the wealth and power generated by the Puritan spirit (which whether we like it or not is a modern fact of life), without leading to the political anarchy inherent in all Protestantism (of the sort he had seen in the English Civil War and throughout Europe)?

Hobbes’s answer was brilliant, logically ruthless, for a long time extremely unpopular (especially among those dreaming of a restoration of the old order or those who found his vision of human beings morally unacceptable), but ultimately extraordinarily influential in creating the modern liberal state.

Hobbes’s whole theory rests on a gamble, namely, that human beings love money and the things it purchases (commodious living) more than they love anything else. Thus, if one can legitimize an arrangement where they are as free as possible to make money, the potential sources of divisiveness will not be strong enough to overthrow the state. Hobbes, in other words, wants security more than anything else. He puts his faith in human greed, not because he himself is necessarily a greedy man, but because greed, along with fear, is the essence of human nature. If we can legitimize the greed and manipulate the fear, then all sources of divisiveness will, if not disappear, at least not become strong enough for another civil war.

Hobbes recognizes clearly what these sources of divisiveness are. The major ones are religious. For if people fear something more than they fear violent death and love something more than they love commodious living, then everything falls apart. That’s why so much of Hobbes’s text is taken up with instructions about how we should interpret religious texts and how we should control the language used in the public forum and how we need to attack belief in invisible powers. He clearly wants to restrict the hellfire and damnation and Celestial City rhetoric, which is the major obstacle preventing people from understanding his materialistic view of human beings as self-interested, greedy, fearful creatures. In the eternal fight between God and Mammon, if the modern state can give Mammon a chance, questions about God would sort themselves out. In fact, disputes about God would disappear from the public realm.

Hobbes saw his way to solve this contradiction [of the fear of hell overcoming the fear of death]: the fear of invisible powers is stronger than the fear of violent death as long as people believe in invisible powers, i.e., as long as they are under the spell of delusions about the true character of reality; the fear of violent death comes fully into its own as soon as people have become enlightened. This implies that the whole scheme suggested by Hobbes requires for its operation the weakening or, rather, the elimination of the fear of invisible powers. It requires such a radical change of orientation as can be brought about only by the disenchantment of the world, by the diffusion of scientific knowledge, or by popular enlightenment. Hobbes’s is the first doctrine that necessarily and unmistakably points to a thoroughly “enlightened”, i.e., a-religious or atheistic society as the solution of the social or political problem. (Strauss)

Hobbes’s answer to this problem of accommodating the differences of religious opinion was original, reductive, and deceptively simple (at least to us who have been so profoundly influenced by his ideas). Simply put, he casts aside all traditional religious and political authority over the public sphere and, in the concept of a social contract, assigns that realm to the Sovereign, who has all the power to enforce obedience to the laws which the Sovereign shall deem appropriate. By insisting that the forms of public speech answer to clear definitions and rational thinking, Hobbes is emptying the public space of religious rhetoric and filling it with the language of lawyers, scientists, and economists.

Tradition here has no place. The ancient principle of Roman Law—non mos, non ius (if it’s not a tradition, it’s not the law)—is simply abandoned. Similarly all traditional unwritten laws and social codes are cast aside. In what for me is one of the most important ideas in the Leviathan, Hobbes asserts a key principle of the modern liberal state: What is not forbidden is allowed. In one stroke he removes as an operative principle from the pubic realm all forms of control not expressly enshrined in the law as enacted by the Sovereign.

He does this for a clear reason. He wants to protect from all interference a private space in which human beings can do what they most desire, pursue their economic self-interest to secure commodious living. He wants to drive a stake through the heart of the Aristotelian and Christian notions that we are somehow responsible to the community, that the full realization of the good life depends upon our human relationships with our friends or our neighbours, that the community legitimately controls our private economic activities. What now unites us is a common obligation to obey the laws which apply equally to us all and a common spirit of competitiveness, each in our protected private space striving to better ourselves in the ways we see most appropriate. That is the rational thing to do. And since our irrational understanding is false and divisive, that is what all thinking people thus ought to do.

What I particularly like about Hobbes is the ruthlessness of his logic. He never shrinks from any of the consequences which his readers might find objectionable. For instance, Hobbes gives to the sovereign the power to adjudicate in matters of public worship. If that means the Sovereign creates an official religion offensive to me, then that is too bad for me. I must go along with the arrangement in public; in my private sphere I can conduct my religious business as I see fit.

Similarly, he denies that we owe any allegiance to anyone in society for any reason other than the Sovereign’s legal authority. In other words, he establishes the important Liberal principle that we give our obedience not to the person, but to the office, not because of any virtue or power in the office, but because the office is a legal manifestation of the Sovereign’s authority and power. At one stroke, Hobbes seeks to eliminate centuries of authority enshrined in family and in particular people. This insight is the basis of a revolution in our attitudes to authority and in the legitimization of the structure of public authority.

And we give this allegiance because we have consented to it in order to gratify our own self-interest. With this insight, Hobbes puts on the table the limits to the Sovereign’s authority. For, strong as the Sovereign’s power is, it has no legal authority to force me into situations where the original reasons for my entering into the contract are contradicted. Hence, as an individual I have certain rights against the Sovereign, rights that have nothing to do with tradition or religion, but which are grounded in reason.

I think it is evident to us that Hobbes’s views were extraordinarily prescient, so much so that once the economic potential of this model began to realize itself many of the things which Hobbes feared, in effect, disappeared at least for while from public concern. So the private space could be enlarged to include freedom of speech and freedom of public worship (things which Hobbes would not permit because he sensed that they were too socially disruptive). Various forms of association could be legally permitted (in fact, the freedom to associate could be granted as a civil right). It has turned out that what human beings are prepared to fight about will indeed diminish enormously if they perceive that tolerance, shared obedience to the sole authority of the Sovereign, and competitiveness are good for their own economic self-interest. The Puritan impulse could indeed be secularized, and we owe much of our wealth to that fact (especially in this country), although we are beginning to wonder just how much that secularization has eaten into the work ethic central to it.

In fact, for most of us, I suspect, our idea of freedom is derived more from Hobbes than from anyone else. When we use the term, we tend to mean private freedom, the ability to do as I like in my own private space, the freedom to choose without answering to anything but the law necessary to provide security in the public sphere. For most of us, the sort of freedom described by Aristotle or by Moses is, if we understand it at all, far less important than the freedom Hobbes describes and legitimizes (no doubt because we take our freedom to rule ourselves for granted).

It is evident, however, that Hobbes’s model comes at a price. Most of us have been eager to pay that price, but there have always been severe critics of the model for its erosion of communal attachments, its endorsement of atomistic competitiveness as the basis for social life, and the emptying from the public realm of the moral and religious values associated with traditional views of justice. We are going to be reading one of the great protests against Hobbes’s views when we come to the last text of this semester, Gulliver’s Travels, the reaction of a conservative Anglican moralist to the social and individual effects of such atomistic and competitive materialism. That protest had little effect. However, even today, as Canada struggles with the question of maintaining the traditional liberal state in the face of communitarian challenges from Quebec and many native communities, the issues Hobbes puts on the table are at the centre of the national debates.

Nevertheless, for all questions we might like to raise about that price, the modern Liberal state is still the one most of us believe in, largely for the very reasons Hobbes puts forward. We may find his vision of human nature overly reductive and we may desiderate the erosion of moral values from the public realm, but most of us freely confess that, to the extent that we still obey the law voluntarily, we do so because it is in our self-interest to do so or that we are afraid of the state’s punishments, and that, in some fundamental way, that is an arrangement we have agreed to in order to enable us to flourish in a protected private space without having to deal with the destructive impulses of our fellow human beings.