Henry Piper (all rights reserved)
We have previously considered two distinct views of metaphysics―of the nature of reality, of what is and why what is is the way it is. Plato we refer to as a metaphysical idealist because he argues that the only truly real things are eternal, unchanging ideas, because they are in Being and thus really are, whereas the material things as perceived by the physical senses are always changing and thus have no enduring reality and cannot be securely or reliably known. Descartes is a metaphysical dualist because he argues that there are two kinds of reality, namely the physical and the mental, as manifested in human beings by the distinction between body and mind. It might be reasonable to call Plato a dualist also, since he clearly distinguishes between the two realms of the material and the ideal, but we think of him as an idealist because he emphasizes so strongly how illusory the material world is, likening it to the shadowy recesses of a cave.
Materialism is the name for the metaphysical view that all reality is physical, that is, material: according to this view, nothing in the universe exists except material bodies moving according to the laws of the physical sciences, including physics, chemistry and biology. “Minds” and “souls,” humans and animals and all their thoughts and feelings, along with stars and planets and rocks, are nothing but physical things engaged in various physical motions outside in the world or inside the body and brain. This is the view espoused by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
Hobbes’s most famous work, entitled Leviathan, is primarily a work of political philosophy; however, it begins with an extensive account of human nature and a description of human beings in the state of nature, that is, the condition prior to law and civilized society; this account in turns provides the basis for Hobbes’s ultimate political argument. Though the politics of Hobbes’s time, and of Hobbes himself, were fluid and uncertain, Hobbes was primarily a royalist who sought to provide a firm, philosophical justification for the divine right of kings and thus the absolute authority of that king, and that justification depends on a particular view of human nature, which in turn depends on a particular, namely materialist, view of reality.
In what follows, I shall describe how Hobbes’s metaphysical materialism leads to his very definite views of human nature and human society and politics. We shall see that Hobbes’s views on these various subjects constitute a coherent whole, with his metaphysics providing the foundation for that whole.
The Materiality of Thought
Thus Hobbes explains his materialist metaphysics in the context of human actions and behavior, the subject of Part I of Leviathan, entitled “Of Man.” In brief, human thoughts are nothing but the effects of bodily sensation. A thought is simply the result in the brain of a sensible impression made on the body. We must note that advances in the physical sciences since Hobbes have taught us a great deal about the physical mechanics of sensation. Thus, for example, we have learned that sight is a function of physical light particles, called “photons,” bouncing off physical objects and colliding bodily with the human eye to create an electrical signal to the brain. Similarly, sound is the movement of physical waves, typically in air, though sound travels in any physical medium, liquid or solid, whereas there is no sound in the physical vacuum of space because there is no physical matter in which the waves could form and move. Smell, taste and touch all similarly depend on various physical particles contacting various physical receptors in the body, causing a movement within the body which becomes an electrical signal which passes through the nerves to the brain. The electrical signal itself is just a movement of physical particles called “electrons,” and neuroscientists can now detect at least some electrical indications or manifestations of the thought in the brain. Now, according to Hobbes’s materialist view, thought itself is nothing more than such physical impulses, thus for Hobbes our mental perception is nothing more than a physical imprint within us of these various movements of objects outside of us, the particles of smell, the sugars and acids of taste, the wave movements of sound, the pressing of the skin that is touch, along with the photons outside of us and the electrons and chemicals within. “The cause of sense is the external body or object which presseth the organ proper to each sense, either immediately as in taste and touch, or mediately, as in seeing, hearing and smelling.” By “mediate,” Hobbes refers to the fact that there must be some medium between the body sensed and the human body, as in the case of sight, modern science informs us, there are photons between the object and the human body and sound waves in the case of sound; by contrast, in the case of taste and touch, the object sensed touches the body directly without any “medium” in between.
To be clear, according to Hobbes everything that we would typically refer to as “mental” is just some kind of purely physical event, whether inside or outside the body and brain; Hobbes is a materialist, thus, on his view, everything is and can only be material. Thus “imagination” and “memory” he refers to as “decaying sense”; they are both essentially the same thing, with the term “memory” being used for the sensations that are more distant. Imagination can be “simple” or “compound,” the former being the result of a single sensation, the latter of various sensations that combine themselves in the brain. The combination and accumulation of imagination or memory over time constitutes “experience.”
The “decaying” of sense, says Hobbes, does not indicate that its motion slows or stops or that it is truly fading away, but that it becomes obscured by subsequent sensations, which become imagination, memory and experience in their turns; thus, the motion of a sensation never ceases, but later sensations pile upon it to make it less clear, as the light of a star does not fade with the rising of the sun, but becomes less apparent to us since the sunlight serves to obscure it―“the light of the sun being predominant, we are not affected by the action of the stars.” The persistence of the motions of sense, imagination and memory thus reappear in the form of dreams, which are the imaginations we have while asleep, which are simply jumbled collections of prior sensations we had while awake. Interestingly, Hobbes claims that we can tell dreams apart from waking sensations because my waking experience has greater continuity and coherence; moreover, “because waking I often observe the absurdity of dreams, but never dream of the absurdities of my waking thoughts, I am well satisfied that being awake I know I dream not, though when I dream I think myself awake.” (We should note that Hobbes does not concern himself with the doubt engendered by Descartes’s reflections about dreams, though we should note as well that Hobbes is content with being only “well satisfied” that he is awake, with which Descartes would surely agree, as this clearly qualifies as moral certainty, though just as clearly it does not qualify as metaphysical certainty that we are now awake.)
Just as the events of the outside world interact and affect one another, sometimes randomly, but sometimes with a semblance of order, so the thoughts within us interact and are connected in “trains” to one another, and such a “train of thoughts” can be either “unguided, without design, and inconstant,” or “regulated by some desire, and design.” Dreams seem frequently to constitute a largely unguided train of thoughts, but in waking too we all evidently experience the wandering or “wild ranging of the mind.” Sometimes, in fact, even the most random thoughts may be guided by some underlying if obscure thread. Indeed, though Hobbes himself does not seem to acknowledge it, we might well gain by letting the mind wander, since it sometimes leads us to something we were looking for but had forgotten or something altogether new that we hadn’t previously known to look for.
In the case of regulated thoughts, these are invariably directed to some purpose or desire. Animals, according to Hobbes, have such thoughts no less than human beings; indeed, for Hobbes there is ultimately no essential difference between humans and animals. But humans are capable of a greater sophistication than other animals in the regulation of their thoughts; thus, whereas animals and humans alike can follow one thought back to seek what caused it to occur, humans have a capacity for “foresight,” that is, for considering the different possible effects or consequences which a thought that is immediately before us might produce. As Hobbes puts it, a human being can consider “the event of an action,” that is, etymologically, what will “come out,” or what might result from certain things. The primary thing that separates humans from animals, for Hobbes, is our “invention of words and speech,” which enables “faculties” in humans that “may be improved to such a height as to distinguish men from all other living creatures.”
Still we remain merely animals, in essence, and, in distinction to Descartes (Meditation III), “whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea or conception of anything we call infinite.” According to Hobbes, all the world , including ourselves, is material and so limited by the bounds of physical reality, and “because whatsoever… we conceive has been perceived first by sense, either all at once or by parts, a man can have no thought representing anything not subject to sense.” In other words, not only is it only physical bodies that actually exist, but there is nothing we can even conceive that is not itself a direct effect of our sensation of a physical body.
“The Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions”
Since everything is physical, according to materialism, human beings are obviously entirely physical too, and everything we do, every move we make, must be the result of, and can be explained exclusively by, the mechanical laws of physical motion.
The chapter of Hobbes’s Leviathan devoted to the causes of human behavior is entitled “The Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions…,” followed by chapters on “Manners” and “the Natural Condition of Mankind….” Throughout, we see a consistent application of his materialist metaphysics in play. Thus, within the human body and brain there are countless extremely complex mechanical activities which constitute the “small beginnings” of motion within us, which Hobbes refers to as “endeavor” and to which we can trace everything we do. Humans, like all animals, receive physical signals through our five senses. These signals, as we noted above, constitute physical impressions upon our bodies of various kinds, and these impressions in turn cause physical reactions through our nerves to the brain, which register, as we have seen above, as “thought,” “imagination” and “ideas,” which are simply different terms for the recording and registering of these various physical signals and sensations. According to Hobbes, such impressions cause one of three kinds of “endeavor” within us: we react with desire or appetite for those impressions offering a positive physical feeling such as pleasure or comfort or the promise of physical security, or with aversion for those things offering pain or discomfort or which we fear and which we want generally to avoid, or with contempt for those things that affect us neither positively nor negatively. Thus what offers pleasure we reactively move toward and what offers pain we reactively move from.
It cannot be overemphasized that for Hobbes everything we do is a function exclusively of these kinds of physical sensations of physical pleasure and pain, material comfort or discomfort, desire for physical security or fear of physical threat; in Hobbes’s view it could not be otherwise because the world consists of nothing else than physical matter, so nothing can matter except matter. Thus, given Hobbes’s materialism, when we use a word like “good,” for example, this word can only reasonably refer to what will give pleasure as opposed to pain; moreover, the pleasure is entirely a function of the individual perspective of the speaker. Thus I call “good” what will give me physical pleasure, comfort or security, with no regard whatsoever for how anyone else feels about it. Thus what is “good” for me may very well be “evil” for you, and “these words of good, evil and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so….” In other words, there is no objective meaning to “good and evil,” rather each person is the judge of goodness and evil for herself based upon her own pleasure or pain, desire or aversion; indeed, “pleasure… is the appearance or sense of good, and displeasure… the appearance, or sense, of evil.” Effectively, “good” and “pleasure” are the same thing, like “evil” and “pain.” Moreover, the words “love” and “hate” are just additional terms for essentially the same thing, love just another word for my own physical desire for pleasure, comfort or security, and hatred the word for physical aversion to pain, discomfort or fear: “That which men desire they are also said to Love, and to Hate those things for which they have aversion. So that desire and love are the same thing, save that by desire we always signify the absence of the object; by love, most commonly, the presence of the same.”
Thus in Hobbes’s view of “the good” we can observe the way that his metaphysics is precisely contradictory to that of Plato. For Plato, we recall, “The Good” is an eternal, unchanging Idea, thus ideally the same for all, forever, or purely objective. But for Hobbes precisely the opposite is the case: “the good,” is an utterly empty idea, indeed it is merely a word one uses, purely subjectively, to designate what gives one pleasure in the moment. Thus even for the one person, the same thing might be “good” today and “evil” tomorrow” if the person’s tastes or circumstances change, and even more evidently, as we noted, what is “good” for me might constitute “evil” for you, and there is no objective or ideal standard that would make either of us right or wrong, for, according to Hobbes, it’s just a material world.
Humans, Like All Other Animals, Are Simply Mechanical Machines
Though Hobbes distinguishes “vital” motions, on the one hand, and “animal motion, otherwise called voluntary motion,” on the other, both kinds of motion are the effects of purely physical causes; the only difference between them is that animals, including human beings, have a wider range of physical motions than the “vital” movements that are totally automatic like the movements of plants, or of the heart and blood; thus “voluntary” motions originate, with seeming spontaneity, from the interior of the body and brain, as if they were truly “voluntary,” that is, freely chosen. But indeed human beings, no more than animals, are no more than essentially very complex, mechanical robots with very complex computer brains, thus exhibiting a wide range of behaviors and activities which can seem to be random or freely chosen, but are in fact just the result of the design of our hardware along with whatever conditioning has taken place over time (our “software”). The only thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is essentially that we humans have more advanced computer brains with faster processors and more RAM and hard-drive space, so to speak, so we can process more physical sensory information more quickly, and we have considerable memories permitting us to take the past and future into account in a way animals are entirely incapable of, enabling us, most notably, to create and share over time the faculty of speech, which profoundly extends our physical capacities.
Though, as noted above, the basic motivations of human and all animal motions are limited to the endeavors of desire and aversion, it may be objected that, at least in the case of humans, we often seem to behave in ways contrary to such primitive or purely instinctual impulses. Indeed, as adults we frequently refrain from indulging in the pleasure of instant gratification, or indeed we might even at times sacrifice our own pleasure or security for that of another. Doesn’t this, we might ask, tend to disprove Hobbes’s view of the materialistic basis for human actions?
In fact, the physical sensations we experience on a constant basis are so various and complicated that it is commonplace that the sensation of a single thing might offer various opportunities for both pleasure and pain. To take a trivial, but useful, example, when I see or smell a plate of fries I experience an instant desire, but I do not necessarily react automatically to seize and consume the fries. This is because my complex computing capacity also registers the possibility of discomfort or pain, indigestion or weight-gain, perhaps, if the instant pleasure is indulged; or if the fries are on someone else’s plate, that person might object violently and cause me pain if I seize them. In short, life, which in Hobbes’s view consists of nothing but physical events, presents a complicated array of such events, involving many types of pleasure and pain, short- and long-term. It is thus that we engage in what Hobbes refers to as “deliberation” upon encountering an object that offers pain or pleasure. Deliberation simply represents the mechanical weighing of all the possible pleasures and pains that a particular action might entail; thus, if the pleasure of grabbing the fries is judged, upon deliberation, to outweigh whatever pain might also be involved, I grab them, otherwise not. This term “deliberation” is what juries do, collectively, when weighing the guilt or innocence of the accused as they discuss the evidence together; and it is also what we each do, in our own minds, consciously or unconsciously, as we make decisions. Thus when we refer to someone as acting “deliberately” (or “intentionally”) or an action as “deliberate,” we are saying that the person must have weighed their options with sufficient care to make a conscious decision and that they are thus responsible for the action.
Ordinarily, when we talk about a deliberate action, it is fair to say that we assume the person acted by free choice, or with free will―in other words, that the person could have acted otherwise: thus we consider it justifiable to punish a person for a crime when we consider that he could have chosen not to do what he did―that is precisely what we mean by a “deliberate” action. However, on Hobbes’s account, strictly speaking, there is in fact no real free will as we ordinarily understand the term, since the will itself, according to Hobbes, is effectively determined only by the calculation of physical pleasure and pain; naturally, of course, it seems as if we are free and that we have complete control at least over the will itself, but this, according to Hobbes, is precisely what we do not have. Hobbes defines “will” as merely “the last appetite in deliberating”; in other words, far from representing a free, independent power or faculty, it is, rather, merely the name for the last step in the mechanical weighing of pleasure against pain, immediately prior to the actual action or movement toward the desired object.
So “deliberation” is by no means a mark of human freedom, but constitutes nothing more than a mechanical calculation. The calculations of this sort made by human beings, because of our extremely advanced computer power, are so complex and various as to seem “free,” indeed computers themselves are today rapidly catching up, it would seem, with human processing power so as to be programmed to appear human; but can computers think and feel as humans do? This is in fact today a subject of intense controversy among philosophers, theologians, computer scientists and robotics engineers. What do you think? Is your computer thinking the same thing about you? Are our computers looking forward to the day when they will be turning us off, perhaps for good? In any event, as Hobbes says, “beasts also deliberate,” reminding us that, to Hobbes, humans themselves are merely “beasts,” if very complex beasts; thus according to Hobbes’s materialist view, even human beings themselves do not really think or feel, at least not freely or “morally.” Again, in a purely material world we can be no more than highly complex, mechanical robots or animals moving toward physical survival and security and comfort and pleasure until we move no more.
The Motions of Man in “The State of
So for Hobbes, “life itself is but motion,” and the motion of life is motivated by nothing else than a movement toward pleasurable sensations and away from their opposites. We do not seek peace or serenity: “the felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied”; rather, “felicity,” or happiness, “is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.” Hobbes seems arguably to describe a condition of limitless greed or even addiction, we might say, as it would appear that one can never get enough―that the attainment of each pleasure is nothing but the motivation for going on to still further pleasures. Indeed, says Hobbes, “I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” “Power” refers to our ability to survive and thus continue and maximize our movement. Since with death comes the end of our movement and thus the end of everything, with nothing to survive us other than, perhaps, whatever post-mortem rippling our lives’ motions might leave behind, the primary concern of any living thing can only be to keep the motion going―physical survival must come before all else. It is not necessarily that one can expect ever greater pleasure, in fact, but we must seek more and more power and pleasure simply to maintain what we have and avoid death; thus, in our seeking of power, it “is not always that man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.”
We noted above that “love,” in Hobbes’s materialist view, is essentially just another word for my own pleasure. Most of us would probably object that we really love our mothers, for example, and that such love represents some deep bond, of a spiritual nature perhaps. However, Hobbes would say that to think so is to deceive yourself, for in a purely material world there can only be one kind of motivation, and that is material well-being. Moreover, if matter is all there is, and life is nothing but the continuation of my own bodily motion, then I can have no other reasonable concern than the perpetuation of my own material body. So when I say “I love my mother,” that can only mean, for Hobbes, that I am motivated to protect my mother insofar as she represents to me some assurance or extension of physical pleasure, comfort or security; thus of course I “love” my mother, Hobbes might say, because she offers me a hot meal or a roof over my head and clothes on my back, etc. But there can be no other legitimate meaning of “love” than that.
Hobbes’s View of Human Nature
So we see that Hobbes’s materialism leads to a view of human beings as intrinsically greedy, selfish and materialistic; but he goes further: “Competition of riches, honor, command or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity and war; because the way of one competitor to the attaining of his desire is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other.” So we are also naturally violent. Moreover, all human beings are essentially equal in natural physical and mental ability, says Hobbes: “as to strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, whether by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself,” and “as to the faculties of the mind… I find yet a greater equality…. For such is the nature of men that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves.” This seems to be a product of Hobbes’s own wit: Hobbes is suggesting that even the dimmest among us would nonetheless claim superior wisdom, thus suggesting that we all implicitly accept his argument as to our overall equality. In any event, Hobbes continues,
From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavor to destroy and subdue one another.
So we are all desperately grasping to assure our “conservation,” that is, survival, and when that is assured we also seek “delectation,” that is, pure pleasure. Indeed, says Hobbes, since all human beings are engaged in this relentless fight for survival and pleasure, it is only reasonable for each of us “to master the persons of all men he can,… such augmentation of a man’s dominion over men being necessary to a man’s conservation.” Finally, “men have no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company where there is no power to over-awe them all.” Thus, to the list of dubious characteristics we have already seen Hobbes attribute to human beings as being essential to their nature as denizens of a purely material world―selfish, greedy, materialistic, violent―we can now add domineering and anti-social.
The State of
: A “War of All Against All” Nature
Having so characterized human nature, it is now easy to see what the state of nature is likely to be, that is, the condition of humanity before society and the establishment of law and the institution of “a common power to keep them all in awe.” Simply stated, prior to civilization, according to Hobbes, the only “law” was that of “the jungle,” as we may today put it, or “survival of the fittest”; thus, claims Hobbes, humans at that time must have been “in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.” In such conditions, there is no reasonable possibility for anyone, through personal industry, to improve his condition, since “if one plant, sow, build or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labor but also of his life or liberty.” Thus, “In such a condition there is no place for industry,” no meaningful way for anyone to improve his lot against the forces of nature, and in sum, Hobbes says, we are condemned to a condition of “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In nature there is no general meaning to “good” and “evil,” as we have seen, thus, before laws, there is no “justice”:
To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.
Moreover, in nature, there is total “liberty,” the “freedom” to do anything, without restraint; indeed, for Hobbes, “liberty” is nothing more than “the absence of external impediments.” On the face of it, such a “negative freedom” has a certain appeal, particularly in a culture such as ours, where many decry the intrusions of government, the air is filled with pleas of “Don’t tread on me” and many seem to yearn for a return to the lawlessness of the frontier. On further consideration, however, where there is no limitation on anyone’s “right” to anything, as in Hobbes’s state of nature, “it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Thus my right to everything also implies everyone else’s right to everything, and nothing is “sacred,” not even personal bodily integrity. Such a world, where “might makes right,” is evidently a world of anarchy and chaos where a “right to everything” rapidly devolves into a real right to nothing.
Man in Society: The Great “Leviathan”
We have already observed that, according to Hobbes’s materialist view, there is no free will as such and the only “values” are our own material pleasure, comfort and security. But in this state of nature, in which everyone has a right to everything, we find ourselves condemned to a condition of “war of all against all,” clearly, where life is bound to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and where, evidently, there is little chance of achieving any reasonable measure even of basic physical security, much less of comfort or pleasure. Even the very strongest, who would thus enjoy the greatest opportunities, could never spare a moment’s unguarded rest. Thus this absolute “liberty,” this “negative freedom,” would seem to be a curse to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.
This is precisely the purpose of what Hobbes refers to as the “Laws of Nature.” His term is arguably misleading, for, as we have seen, in nature there is no law, as such, which is why conditions are bound to be so miserable; thus for Hobbes, the problem with nature is precisely the lack of law. So by “law of nature” Hobbes clearly seeks to emphasize that his proposed “laws” are the only reasonable means of escape from the misery of our natural condition.
So Hobbes proposes that it is only rational to consider that there are basic principles, which no one can fail to acknowledge, the adoption of which constitutes our only hope for avoiding the miseries of our natural condition. First, says Hobbes, “it is a precept, or general rule of reason that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.” From this, argues Hobbes, “is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down his right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”
This second law is the basis for “the social contract,” according to which we all surrender our natural liberties and agree mutually that we will all essentially leave each other alone: I won’t steal or trespass against or assault you if you agree not to do those things to me. Hobbes likens this principle to “the Golden Rule”―“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”―but it is a dubious association: the Golden Rule is clearly a principle of a positive morality, according to which we are all commanded to do good to one another, “to love our neighbor”; by contrast, Hobbes’s social contract is motivated not by concern for one another, but by the strictly selfish desire to protect ourselves, and simply to keep out of each others’ way. Indeed, Hobbes himself cites “that law of all men,”―“do not do to another what you do not want done to yourself”―which calls not for a positive concern for others but requires merely that we refrain from harm, and which more fairly captures the spirit of Hobbes’s social contract.
But Hobbes argues that it is clearly not sufficient that we all recognize the reasonableness of such a contract in order to make it work―that we will not respect our contractual obligation to leave each other alone if that obligation is based on no more than our word of honor or even a sacred oath. Hobbes’s argument seems reasonable enough, indeed, given his cynical assessment of human nature as utterly selfish, materialistic, greedy, violent, domineering and anti-social. Thus “the passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them”; we are not inclined to peace, in other words, out of our concern for our fellows or even out of the intrinsic rationality of it. Thus what is required of the social contract in order for us to feel “bound and obliged” to honor it are “bonds that have their strength, not from their own nature (for nothing is more easily broken than a man’s word) but from fear of some evil consequence upon the rupture.”
In other words, the social contract cannot have any hope of success if there is not some serious punishment to fear in the event that we violate its requirements to leave each other alone and respect the peace and industry of others. One kind of fear, says Hobbes, is the fear of the “power of spirits invisible,” the fear that would presumably attend the violation of one’s own honor or of a sacred oath to God. And though the power of God may be greater than the power of men, says Hobbes, yet “the greater fear” is that of men. In short, where there is not an all-powerful civil authority, residing ultimately in the absolute power of the king, there can be no real hope of the physical stability and security required for material prosperity, which is the only kind of prosperity there is in Hobbes’s purely material world. It is thus that Hobbes’s ultimate prescription is that we surrender all natural freedom to a single, all-powerful authority, thus Hobbes’s endorsement of “the divine right of kings.”
Hobbes frequently invokes the name of God, and even justifies the authority of the king as divinely sanctioned, but does Hobbes believe in God? This is clearly a relevant question with which to conclude a discussion of a system of metaphysics. The best answer would surely seem to be that Hobbes does not believe in God. As many of Hobbes’s contemporaries observed, his strict materialism cannot allow for any kind of “spirit,” thus any traditional notion of God would seem to be out of the question.
A Brief Summation: Hobbes’s Admirable, if Brutal, Consistency
Whatever one’s personal view of his materialist metaphysics might be, Hobbes deserves credit for the brutal honesty and unflinching logical consistency of his metaphysical materialism: he does not back down from following what seem to be clear and even obvious logical steps from his materialist view of reality, which leads logically to the material basis for human nature, which in turn leads to the limitation of social values to the need for material security. Thus human beings are purely materialistic, as we must logically be if materialism is true, and our actions and thoughts and feelings must also be of purely materialist origin and motivation; and thus our natures―the very essence of what we as human beings are―must be, as Hobbes insists, purely selfish and materialistic. Thus, how else but by the material threats of force and fear, which can only be effectively enforced by an all-powerful central authority, can we hope to protect ourselves from each other?
Our “Hobbesian” World
It is thus that Hobbes argues that political and economic power must be concentrated in the hands of a select few, or what today we might refer to as “the 1%”: the argument is that we, the masses, owe our only reasonable chance of physical survival to the power of those few to protect us from the political and economic anarchy that would result if the present structures and institutions of power were threatened (by excessive regulation, for example, or by taxing capital gains even as much as we tax labor). And, we might add, since, in a purely material universe, the only values that are real are material values, what need is there for the great freedoms of the spirit as recorded in the First Amendment―what real value is there in freedom of speech, religion or personal expression generally, especially when those might tend to weaken the mechanisms that purportedly protect our material survival and livelihood?
Indeed, we live in a world today in which we all seem ready and willing to surrender our basic civil liberties in order to protect and assure our own material security. It is thus that we willingly accept such conditions of corporate employment as drug tests, phone and email and bathroom monitoring in the workplace, background checks of all kinds, including ones that delve into personal and private matters; moreover, many of us accept without question that we owe our corporate employers complete loyalty even when away from the workplace, and we take it for granted that we deserve to be fired if we use even our own private time and resources to engage in criticism of our employer, which would otherwise constitute the basic exercise of free speech. And our willingness to give up civil liberties extends to the government even more obviously than to our employers, as we are often ready to submit “voluntarily” to airport searches, police questioning and the like if we feel that our physical security is being thereby protected. These are everyday examples, clearly, of our readiness to sacrifice “spiritual” values of free expression and self-determination when we feel a threat to our material condition.
We should note, by the way, as a matter of constitutional law, that at least against the government we have the protections of the Bill of Rights, if we know, or choose, to invoke them, whereas such protections do not apply against corporations, since corporations are private entities (even if they do have more power than the government itself) against which we have basically no defense other than our decision not to deal with them at all (which is difficult in a world where we increasingly depend on them for employment and the basic necessities of life).
In short, it seems that we today―in these times of perceived terrorist threat and economic insecurity, where our physical survival or livelihood might appear to be at risk―are much more concerned for our immediate, material survival than we are for our most fundamental civil liberties, the very liberties for which, at least according to public rhetoric, soldiers are willing to fight and die. Patrick Henry famously said, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” We admire these words because they suggest that there is a basic sort of “liberty,” or freedom―the freedoms of the spirit such as free thought, free expression, freedom of speech and religion and the press and assembly and petitioning our government (i.e. freedom of protest)―which is so much more important than any merely physical liberty that life would not be worth living without it. So why are we not all living that way?
Our Hobbesian World, Continued: Economic and Political Inequality
Ironically, perhaps, Hobbes, for his time, was in some sense remarkably liberal (in the sense of individual liberty), since he emphasized that the legitimacy of the central authority was based at least ostensibly on the voluntary consent of the governed and on the ability of the king to protect the citizenry. However, the extreme political and economic inequality we witness today, where the United States in particular has witnessed a dramatic widening of the gap in wealth separating “the 1%” from everyone else, not to speak of the global realities of such commonplaces as mass famine and sweatshop labor, bespeaks a Hobbesianism gone haywire. In addition, American foreign policy seems dominated by the imperial tradition of the Hobbesian “divine right of kings” and the associated principle “might makes right.” Thus we are told by the financiers who control our economy today that their wealth, and the decline in economic security suffered by the rest of us, is the price of “the free market,” and we are evidently willing to accept such extreme inequality as the price for physical security, bailing out the kings of finance, who are, almost divinely, “too big to fail,” so that they can remain too big to fail; and consider the profound level of materialism in our consumer culture, where the ultimate standard of “virtue” is “economic growth”―never mind if that economy is based substantially on products we don’t need, can’t afford and that frequently do us harm, such as junk food and soda. And when it comes to foreign policy, consider that we are the leading purveyor of weaponry in the world and that arguably our most profitable industry is war; thus it should not be surprising to hear our diplomatic, military and industrial leaders say such things as that we cannot afford to engage in diplomacy with our foreign neighbors, for “the only language they understand is force.” What else is this but the language of Hobbes raised as justification for military imperialism?
In other words, the version of Hobbesianism we see dominating today’s geopolitics and the multinational corporate marketplace is one that clearly champions and extends materialism, selfishness, greed, anti-socialism, violence and domination locally and globally, at the expense of the spiritual virtues of human freedom, opportunity and community, while the virtues and even possibilities of representational democracy, and the general security that would enable them, often seem to be left out of the public discourse as luxuries we cannot afford or as the naïve victims of realpolitik.
Conclusion: Does Experience Support Hobbes’s Cynical View of Human Nature and Society?
Given this apparent willingness to abandon the freedom of the spirit, as set forth in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (in "The Bill of Rights”), and to accept an extreme and increasing degree of economic and political inequality, we might conclude that Hobbes is right that material security, comfort and pleasure are the only things we really value because they are the only real values, and that might―military or financial―makes right. And consider the chronicles of history: are they not filled with tales of conquest, rape, pillage, domination, cruelty, bloodshed, torture and war? Isn’t it the rule, rather than the exception, that a strong nation, whose weaker neighbor has some resource―oil, for example―will invade, seize, dominate and control, even perhaps espousing high principles like democracy and freedom in the process? What is the lesson of history but that, what does one read of but conquest? Consider further the news closer to home: does one read on the front page of the daily newspaper of how yet another old lady was helped across the street, or of another like act of charity attesting to the peacefulness and goodwill of humanity?
More likely, the news is filled with tales of murder, and poisoning, and jealousy and greed, and precisely the litany of qualities that Hobbes is wont to attribute to all of us as constituting our very nature. And finally, when we walk down the street, do we see or expect to see people constantly going out of their way “to love their neighbor”? Do we not rather see people grabbing for whatever “piece of the pie” they can manage to secure, by hook or by crook? Hobbes himself makes these points to one who would object to his characterization of human nature:
Let him therefore consider with himself―when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house, he locks his chests…. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?
There may be, however, another side to this story.
Consider, after all, what it is that appears in the history books: do the events recounted there represent the typical, everyday affairs of most people, most of the time? We can fairly conclude, can we not, that precisely the opposite is the case―that in history we get accounts of precisely what is not typical, accounts only of that tiny minority of people who have inherited or seized great wealth and power? And surely this is truer still of the reports we hear on the daily news; indeed, the reports on the news are “newsworthy” precisely because they are not ordinary events but extraordinary, that is, precisely the exception and not the rule.
And we might well be further inclined to reject Hobbes’s views of love and of human nature generally as we point to innumerable counterexamples of people, now and through history, starting with Patrick Henry perhaps (or Jesus or Socrates or the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, soldiers risking their lives for freedom…) acting in a way clearly contrary to Hobbes’s view of us.
So there is a great deal of empirical support for Hobbes’s dire vision of humanity, including that to be observed in our own behavior; but there is also serious reason to doubt it. It is vital to understand it, I suggest, for the profound influence it evidently exerts on our own world today; however, when we turn to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we shall consider a point of view that gives us further perspective on, and reason to question, the metaphysical materialism, and the cynical view of human nature and society it entails, espoused by Thomas Hobbes.