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The Political Theory of Lowered Spiritual Expectations

by Cameron Wybrow

Most of the old books I've discussed here are books I endorse. Today I discuss a book that I don't endorse—Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651).

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 26

If you want to know exactly where modern thought differs from Classical and Christian thought, there is no better guide than Hobbes. The teachings of pre-modern philosophy and theology become luminously clear when they are read alongside Hobbes's critique of those teachings.

For example, we learn from Aristotle (Politics, 1253a) that "man is by nature a political animal." But Hobbes has a different idea of what man is "by nature"; by nature man is individualistic, selfish, and always actually or potentially at war with other men:

 . . . in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence [awareness of one's vulnerability]; Thirdly, Glory. The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third, for Reputation. . . . Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. . . .  And thus much for the ill condition, which man by meer Nature is actually placed in. . . . (Lev., Pt. I, Ch. XIII, pars. 6,7,8,13)

For Hobbes, people can be persuaded, by fear of punishment, not to make war on each other, but human nature remains fundamentally selfish, not cooperative. This idea has permeated Western society, as phrases like "the virtue of selfishness" and "the law of the jungle" testify. We think of ourselves differently because of what Hobbes wrote.

Here is another example. Both Greek philosophers and Christian saints and mystics have testified to a supreme good—"knowing that one knows" for the Greeks, direct perception of the divine or of the kingdom of heaven for the saints and mystics—a good that is, if only fleetingly, realizable in this life. But Hobbes teaches us that in this world only finite ends are achievable:

For there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost ayme,) nor Summum Bonum, (greatest Good,) as is spoken of in the Books of the old Morall Philosophers. . . . Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later. The cause whereof is, That the object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire. . . . So that . . . I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death. (Lev., Pt. I, Ch. XI, pars. 1,2)

Hobbes bids us to lower our expectations. On the other side of death, the highest good may await us; but the only "felicity" available to us here and now is continual worldly success. The long-term effect of Hobbes's teaching is that the saint and the philosopher (not to mention the poet and the artist) have become marginal figures, no longer cultural ideals. If one seeks "felicity," he should not spend his life seeking God or a glimpse of the eternal Ideas; he should try to become, e.g., a movie star, an NBA player, a pop singer, or the owner of Microsoft, because only such people can continually accumulate wealth and power and thus experience life as a string of delights.

Many more examples of Leviathan's influence could be given, but I must summarize. In this important book, Hobbes gives us a lucid, extended philosophical justification for a civilization that channels rather than corrects human selfishness. This civilization can provide order, comfort, science, and progress, but it must be oblivious to the claims of the Eternal. Leviathan can teach us the price the West has paid for the choices it has made. 

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