Thomas Hobbes is first of all a Puritan

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Printed for Andrew Crooke, at the Green Dragon in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1651.

The introduction takes us directly into the subject. The general idea he states is that man is the central element of his thinking and this man is positioned in nature. We will have to clarify what he means by nature later on. The idea here is that man as an organism, as an architectural construction is the basis of any other construction that develops from man, that is developed by man. He thus identifies what he calls Leviathan, or the commonwealth or state, as being built on the model of our body and the concept of “sovereignty” is stated to be an “artificial soul.” This metaphor, because it is a metaphor, is even densified by comparing this Leviathan created by man to a simple machine or watch or clock, hence a complex mechanism created by man too. When we bring in the concept of God as the creator of man to his own image, we feel a contradiction. Man creates Leviathan or a watch to his own image, not God’s, though this man who is the model of the creations we are speaking of is the image of God, hence Leviathan should be the image of the image of God. Yet Hobbes divides his discourse between nature that governs or should govern us in daily life, man and his civil dimension that organizes the common-wealth for peace and prosperity, and God and the religious principles that govern the ultimate human society and morality. We have the impression God is something added to the previous two levels of nature and man and that it is a sort of wrapping up that reminds us of the creative dimension of this God and of the superior ethical dimension of this God. But the whole discourse has to do with the reality of nature and the civil society organized in some common-wealth and state. In fact, we could consider this approach as very modern if we just set aside the divine supplement and we see that man is extending his own body and his own capabilities into everything he does or creates. In fact, we have here the basic concept of the “extensions of man” developed by Marshall McLuhan.

I will then consider chapter 4 that deals with Speech. His starting point is that printing is not such a tremendous invention. He totally neglects the tremendous impact it had on education and all levels of social life, religion, politics, culture, and many others. This is surprising since his book is such an intervention in the field of politics and ethics that is bound to have an impact due to the number of copies that are going to be circulated. But instead of seeing what was caused by the printing press, he goes back in time (a typical and unscientific retrospective method) and considers that the invention of writing was a lot more important than printing. He traces alphabetical writing back to the Phoenicians, which is not false indeed, though that was not the invention of writing per se since there were non-alphabetical writing systems before this one. This Phoenician invention reached us through the Greek alphabet. He has a good point there because Homo Sapiens started emerging 300,000 years ago and writing was only invented something like a little bit more than 5,000 years ago. He is right when he speaks of isolating the sounds of speech to represent them with letters that become some kind of conceptual written forms of the isolated sounds. We are here at the root of modern phonemics and phonetics.

He is more surprising by the fact that he still goes back to speech, oral speech. He sticks to the idea of the speech incentive and energy being given to Adam by God though God gave Adam the mission of naming everything, and he considers this speech invention as “the noblest and profitable invention.” In spite of his referring to the Babel Tower myth, he clearly states here speech is an invention of man himself using his “tongue, Palate, lips, and other organs of speech” to produce it, though God is the real “author of speech.” The objective is to “register thoughts.” We can see he is modern in a way since he connects speech to the body though he ignores the larynx and other elements in the body that were developed not for speech but for bipedal long distance fast running. What is important is that he sees the organs he names as the organs of speech implying they were developed to produce speech, which is not the case at all. At the same time speech is used by man to register thoughts for sure but where do these thoughts come from? And by what process are words and sentences with syntactic and paradigmatic architectures produced? It is quite obvious that his reference to God and the Babel Tower myth is nothing but a necessary reference in his society and the fact that God is the author of speech while man is the inventor of it shows we can just get God out and say that the necessity to have a common-wealth to permit the survival of the species requires some kind of communication and man being what he is he uses his physiological resources to produce and invent language, speech if you want. The “author” is the necessary social dimension of man’s life and survival when emerging several hundred thousand years ago. That’s what he could call a “Law of Nature” as we are going to see. God is only a name glued to it and I wonder if it was only opportunistic or really believed.

He is very modern on the uses of language: to register past or present thoughts, findings and the acquisition of arts (old meaning of crafts and artistic productions); to communicate knowledge to others; to give orders and instructions; for pleasure. His conception of speech is centered on “names”, both “proper” or “common universal.” And he reduces what we are (“wise” or “foolish”) to the meaning of the words we use, neglecting the fact that the mind (what we are, wise or foolish) is just like language, it is developed from experience, through experience and by the invention and use of language which develops in the same way through that process.

For him, names can designate things, material or sensible and rational, hot or cold, moving or quiet. Then they can indicate the accidents or qualities we perceive in things, both concrete or abstract. And this is done through the properties of our own body. The eyes give sight that perceives color that becomes our idea or fancy of it in the considered thing. The ears give hearing that perceives sound that becomes our idea, fancy or conception of it, from noise to music. His approach is very interpretative and not genetic. The final use of names, hence of speech, is to be the meta-language describing language itself. As he says names can be “general, universal, special or equivocal” and speeches can be “an affirmation, an interrogation, a commandment; a narration; a syllogism, a sermon, an oration, and many others.” Here “speech” means either an utterance (sentence) or a discourse that can be one or several sentences. He even concludes that names are “inconstant” because they reflect the moods and states of mind of the speaker. All that is modern, refuses a frozen and congealed language but once again it is connected to circumstantial use, though there is no dialectic that would state the mind and language develop together one with the other, one development in the mind causing one development in language and vice versa. The approach then is very utilitarian: what we can use language for. That’s why he considers abuses of language which is one particular type of use and nothing else since the basic abuses of language are to say something that is a lie, hence not true, or to aggress and insult people.

If we turn to chapters 14 and 15, we come to the “Laws of Nature” that are in fact the central piece of this book. Let me list them with some comment. First, he defines the “right of nature” which is the fact that an individual has the right to do anything he needs to do in order to defend his life. This is the survival instinct but exclusively at the level of the individual. This is important because he does not see the fact that the species per se has a survival instinct and that human beings cannot survive as a species if they do not organize their life collectively. In other words, he misses the concept of survival instinct. Then he has to define his concept of “liberty” and it is for him “the absence of external impediments” which is a purely negative definition and he is going to show that such impediments are natural, implying there is no liberty, a conclusion he would absolutely refuse. He has to define the concept of “law” that he opposes to that of “right.” A law gives an obligation for him, whereas a right is a liberty for him. It sounds weird since a right is also established by society and its laws and regulations. He misses history that imposes onto people some limitations and opens to people some possible actions, hence some duties (have to do or have not to do) and some rights (can or may do). But this being said he can consider the laws of nature which are what the consideration of nature implies as for the organization of man’s life.

1- The first law of nature is that every man needs peace or otherwise it is a constant state of war for their individual survival (one against all).

2- The second law of nature is the reciprocal limitation of “the right to all things” to ensure peace. This is what he calls a covenant with the religious reference behind though these covenants are purely human and in no way divine. It is the simple observation that human beings ALWAYS live in groups of various types and even the individuals who live absolutely alone do so in reference to the groups they move out of and away from.

3- The third law of nature is that men have to perform their covenants. He comes then to a simple definition of “just” (what respects covenants) and “unjust” (what goes against covenants). Justice is then the keeping of covenants, hence and therefore the rule of reason. He states though there must be a coercive power to compel men equally to perform covenants. That is where the concept of common-wealth appears.

4- The fourth law of nature is gratitude.

5- The fifth law of nature is natural accommodation or complaisance.

6- The sixth law of nature is the facility to pardon.

7- The seventh law of nature is that in acts of revenge man must respect only the future good.

8- The eighth law of nature is against men’s contumely contempt to one another.

9- The ninth law of nature is against pride.

10- The tenth law of nature is against arrogance.

11- The eleventh law of nature is equity, to proceed equally when dealing with various men.

12- The twelfth law of nature is the equal use by all of the things that are common to all.

13- The thirteenth law of nature is “lot,” i.e. the priority of anything to first possession or possessor.

14- The fourteenth law of nature is Primogeniture and first seizing.

15- The fifteenth law of nature is about mediators.

16- The sixteenth law of nature is about one’s submission to arbitrament and arbitrators.

17- The seventeenth law of nature is the fact that no man can be his own judge

18- The eighteenth law of nature is No man can be a judge who has in himself a cause of partiality.

19- The nineteenth law of nature is about witnesses who are supposed to be as numerous as possible.

Hobbes adds a twentieth law of nature in his concluding remarks:

20- The twentieth law of nature is "that every man is bound by Nature, as much as in him lieth, to protect in Warre, the Authority, by which he is himself protected in time of Peace."

It is strange because it states clearly that the existing authority cannot be changed and that everyone is supposed to defend it if it is attacked. This is in full contradiction with the Puritan revolution that attacked the Authority of the King, though they will object that they represented the authority of Parliament that was under attack from the King, but then the Civil war was necessary since the supporters of each authority had the natural obligation to fight for it. What’s more, it implies that the Puritan Common-wealth cannot be changed and that all people will have to fight if an attempt is done to change it. Historically this principle is de facto unacceptable. The restoration took place and later the Glorious Revolution took place and the Jacobites were declared illegal and traitors.

We have to point out these laws of nature are based on individualistic considerations. They are laws of nature governing every individual and the social and political facts are only the consequences of this first principle. The second remark is that they are deeply anti-historical. If these laws of nature are the basic covenant of all human commonwealths, if respecting or implementing the covenant is the only basis for justice and finally if “the laws of justice are eternal,” meaning the laws that are devised in application and continuation of the twenty laws of nature, the very essence of any covenant which is the only basis for justice, then there is no possible historical change, which is absurd. He even goes further and declares that “the science of these laws is true moral philosophy.” Such laws are not a science. They are only his own reasoning, hence at best a theory. True enough we are dealing with ethics and nothing else, but ethics are not and cannot be “true” because they depend on too many personal choices that have nothing to do with truth, except that they are true at one particular moment in one particular situation for one particular person. And even when one of these ethical elements has been instated as a basic human right, for example, the right to enter a same-sex alliance, marriage or not, no one is forced to do it: it is a basic human right for those who choose to implement it for themselves. In other words, gay marriage is not becoming compulsory for everyone just because it is considered today as a basic human right. Note in the same way that plain marriage of any type is not compulsory either though it is a basic human right.

Then his discussion of “liberty” reveals a lot about his own philosophy.

1- For him, liberty is purely individualistic.

2- For him, liberty is defined negatively: absence of opposition, “not hindered to do what he has a will to do.” Note here the “he” pronoun is also very meaningful: he does not consider women, just as he does not consider blacks (who are slaves in the colonies), or Indians (who are being slaughtered already in the colonies) or even the Irish who are being ruthlessly colonized) and probably a few more like all Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus.

3- For him it is based on the fear of the law as the incentive to liberty, since liberty and necessity are consistent and here comes his basic religious fundamentalism: man has to do what God wants him to do and man has not to do what God does not want him to do, and beyond these two obligations (to do and not to do) man can and may do what is not covered or included.

4- When he is dealing with the “liberty of subjects” he does not see the contradiction between “liberty” and “subject” (someone who is subjected to another, who submits to the authority of another), even when he asserts “the liberty of sovereigns.” The only important liberty he asserts is the liberty for any man to defend his own body and body’s integrity. This is the Habeas Corpus principle that will only be passed in Parliament in 1679. For him, the liberty of subjects is in the silence of the law. This asserts the power of Judicature. This is the premise of what will become with Montesquieu judicial power. But he does not understand how it works: you are tried in a first level lower court. You can then appeal to an appeal court. You can finally appeal to some “supreme court” (House of Lords in England, Supreme Court in the USA) and their decision will edict a total ban on one activity, a total freedom to practice it, or an in-between regulated practice. The best example is abortion and how the US Supreme Court made history for the fifty states by ruling on an attempt to reduce the right to abort for women in Texas. (SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, Syllabus: WHOLE WOMAN’S HEALTH ET AL. v. HELLERSTEDT, COMMISSIONER, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICES, ET AL, CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT No. 15–274, Argued March 2, 2016—Decided June 27, 2016., accessed August 19, 2016)

5- He concludes his book with a call for leniency from the Censors since “there is nothing in this whole Discourse, as far as I can perceive, contrary either to the Word of God or to good Manners; or to the disturbance of the Publique Tranquillity. Therefore, I think it may be profitably printed, and more profitably taught in the Universities.”

This book then is essential to prove the historicity of such concepts as “liberty,” “common-wealth,” including those I did not consider like “democracy,” “monarchy,” “aristocracy,” tyranny,” and “oligarchy” in the direct political field. In England per se we can see that some principles are becoming established: distance from the purely fundamentalist religious approach, the idea that any state organization and social organization are the results of covenants (what J.J. Rousseau will call one century later “social contracts”), the idea that any covenant is the result of some general historical rules that govern the survival of the human species, of any human group and of any human individual, and finally the idea that all human activities are governed by the ability of man to speak, communicate, imagine and create crafts, arts, and sciences. We could add religion that probably came as belief in the supernatural and in a higher level of determinism as soon as Homo Sapiens developed language that enabled him to start his trip on the road to conceptualization.

We are, within this Puritan Common-wealth, at a real roundabout in history. There are several roads emerging in front of us and choices are both free and determined by the context.


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Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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