Hobbes’ Leviathan is 350 Years Old!

Lynne Kiesling

Actually it’s over 350 years old, but as the Economist points out this week, there’s a new critical edition of Leviathan for the first time in 350 years. The Economist article is a good reminder that what was shocking about Hobbes in the 17th century — his mechanistic materialism — isn’t quite as shocking now as it was then.

Above all, though, it was Hobbes’s scientific materialism that rendered him an anathema. Like Descartes, and other devotees of the “new philosophy” pioneered by Galileo, Hobbes regarded nature as a machine. But he took this idea further than anyone else and maintained that absolutely everything is physical. There are no immaterial spirits: man’s immortality begins with the resurrection of his body. And God himself is a physical being. This is what made Hobbes an “atheist” to practically everyone except himself. For most of history an “atheist” was a man who worshipped the wrong God, not no God at all; a physical God, as imagined by Hobbes, was not really God.

But Hobbes is still relevant, still taught and read, and still controversial, more for his political theory than his materialism. His view of human nature is, to my mind, so uni-dimensional, so narrow, so negative that he cannot imagine civil society in a lawless society. He was grist for the Scottish Enlightenment development of emergent order, of the institutions of civil society arising out of “human action, but not human design“, based on the innate human desire for sympathy and mutual sympathy.

We carry these opposing views of human nature, and the tensions in them, to this day.