Conspiratorial Hobbes

In his TLS review of Noel Malcolm’s three-volume edition of Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan , David Runciman summarizes the origins of Leviathan. Hobbes wrote the book in France, watching the civil war unfold, sometimes serving as tutor to the future Charles II. As he finished writing in 1650, he had concluded that a consistent royalist should endorse the Protectorate since “rulers should be obeyed, whoever they are.” He added a “Review and Conclusion” conceding that now that the Parliamentary rebels were in power, they constituted the sovereign and should be honored as such. That addendum gives, Runciman says, an “unsettling structure” to the political sections of the book; they seem driven by expediency rather than entirely by reason.

In between, Hobbes deals with religious subjects, and there he is “entirely uncompromising.” He sets out to “demolish all those claims to religious authority that he despised, whether coming from Presbyterians or Catholics, bishops or Bible-bashers. He deploys a combination of selective biblical citation and his own materialist philosophy to lay into every absurd religious idea he can find: demons, fairies, the holy spirit, the life everlasting, the immortal soul. Life, for Hobbes, means motion, and when motion ceases, there is only death.”

According to Malcolm, the religious upheavals of the ’40s seemed to involve an alliance of scholarly and popular errors. Runciman summarizes Malcolm’s argument: “The everyday human propensity to misunderstanding was being exploited by so-called purveyors of truth, with catastrophic political results. The churches were part of the plot, as were the universities, as were the lawyers. Malcolm compares this view to what the nineteenth-century radical William Cobbett called ‘the Thing.’ that all-pervasive, shadowy system of oppression that had its tentacles in everything. Perhaps the only other English philosopher who has ever come to see the failings of the country’s political life as evidence of such deep-rooted intellectual mendacity and vacuity was Jeremy Bentham, and even Bentham never ran the risks that Hobbes did. Hobbes’s assault on the conventional alliance between religion and politics succeeded in alienating almost everyone, and put his personal safety at jeopardy. By the 1660s, to be called a ‘Hobbist’ in England was at least as dangerous as being called a Communist in 1950s America: it could result in ostracism, or incarceration, or death.”

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