For Thomas Hobbes, Politics Was Simply About Doubt and Faith

Four hundred years ago, an English intellectual developed political ideas different to what we may recognize as familiar.

1. Schmitt and Hobbes

In his celebrated treatise, The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) reduced public life to that of friend or enemy. Enemies are the ‘other.’ If we are threatened by an ‘other,’ Schmitt claimed, we will herd together with political ‘friends.’ In my new book, Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt, I argue that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – who greatly influenced Schmitt – employed a similar division to describe politics and political authority. However, as opposed to the distinction of friend/enemy, Hobbes used the criterion of doubt/faith in his most famous book Leviathan.

2. Doubt and Faith

What is meant when we say that Hobbes saw the question of authority as one of doubt and faith? One way of understanding this is that Hobbes understood the relationship between government and its citizens as like that between God and the Children of Israel. In the same way as the Hebrews trusted all affairs to God without necessarily understanding His commandments, subjects should obey the sovereign (“God’s lieutenant”) even without understanding his judgement. Specifically regarding a Biblical judgement, but generally applicable to all sovereign decisions, Hobbes states that

when anything therein written is too hard for our examination, we are bidden to captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labour in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science (L. III, 32). 

3. Modern Perspective

To put into perspective how odd that sounds to our contemporary ears, let’s consider the general ethic of politics and critical theory in the modern world. Let’s take the specific example of the free press. The free press is supposed to harrass and constantly question power. Secrets are frowned upon and citizens should comprehend any action they are asked to undertake. This is part of the media’s political role although the press are not tasked with sovereign decision-making.

4. Countering the Sceptics

Hobbes disputes that a non-sovereign entity like the free press has the privilege of endless scepticism without public responsibility. We have laid down our personal rights of self-preservation upon entering society, according to Hobbes. Although everyone on their own, fighting for their own survival, would be aware of the dangers they face and opportunities for personal glory, a public authority senses danger and opportunities on behalf of the collective. A culture of political scepticism is inappropriate because individuals have placed their faith and trust in the sovereign. While they have a right to know of decisions and gain a deeper understanding of what such judgements command them, they have no right to disobey such measures provided they benefit from the peace and civilization sovereignty brings.

Hobbes would have loathed the modern free press – not necessarily because it sows doubt – but because its ethic is doubt itself. As a rule, the media believes that the government should represent the desires and wishes of the populace. A government not fulfilling this task is illegitimate.

Although there were no New York Times or Washington Post in the Jacobin, Caroline, or Cromwellian periods of English history, there were the Christian churches, natural rights theorists, and philosophers influenced by Aristotle, not to mind powerful public figures. These subjected power to standards of law, Christian morality, or freedom. Hobbes reserved scathing criticism for all of them. Perhaps the clearest sign of this is that Hobbes believed the sovereign should wield both the sword of power and the staff of religion. By controlling what people are allowed to believe and practise publicly, the sovereign can in turn mould the public, guiding them to have faith in his judgement.

5. Descriptive View

Another way of looking at Hobbes’s theory of politics is that it’s descriptive. Governments – however ineffectively – do exert maximal efforts to make the public believe in their sovereignty. They construct myths, institute national symbols, guard public buildings, and do their best to steer the national debate. No government can exist without there being faith in their legitimacy. Intuitively, all states understand the basic lesson an English philosopher taught us.

Reading Hobbes During the Era of Fake News and Authoritarianism

My newly published book Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt: Sovereign Belief in Hobbes’s Leviathan is a must-read for understanding how politics is linked to belief. Hobbes would have understood the current battle for public opinion in America and elsewhere as a question of religion.

1. Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt

My latest non-fiction book, titled Beyond Reason, Beyond Doubt: Sovereign Belief in Hobbes’s Leviathan, has just been published. I started researching it about two years ago and was inititally interested in the project because I noticed how much Thomas Hobbes – the controversial 17th century jurist, historian, scientist, philosopher and classicist – discussed questions of religion and faith in his celebrated political work, Leviathan (1651). Although it certainly wasn’t uncommon for political works of the time to be interspersed with religious musings, Hobbes’s modern approach to politics combined with his immersion in questions of faith is noteworthy.  

Hobbes split questions of belief into religion – which was public and thus fell under sovereign control – and faith – which were privately and sincerely held (though not necessarily true) convictions. Initially I intended to merely examine how Hobbes approached the division of religion and faith. As the project moved on, however, the focus shifted. Hobbes, it seems, had sought a totality of what may be termed ‘sovereign faith.’ 

2. Hobbes’s Goal

Although the Catholic Church was his greatest foe, he essentially agreed with the Roman clergy that church and state should be united (although he drew the line at heresy, which is essentially an inquiry into private faith). Hobbes tried to erect a barrier of impregnability around the government. He attacked decentralizing forces who wanted to subjugate the sovereign to reason or Scripture, or who simply wanted to divide power. Avoiding a crisis of authoritarian faith was critical. He allowed a private space for belief but wanted control of the public faith to stave off such a crisis. For him the English Civil War was rooted in controversies of authority, not merely power politics.

3. Hobbes and Us

What lessons does Hobbes have for us in the age of autocrats and (mis-?) information? As an example, let’s take one common factor uniting authoritarian leaders like Trump, Erdogan, and Netanyahu. That is their war on sources of supposedly objective information, the media. Media usually see themselves as authoritative and beyond reproach. As a corollary, dictators like Putin and Dutette are suspect. The war on the press (‘enemy of the people’) by such leaders is a war on one authority – a source which the public believes in – so that the government will have more authority. 

4. Final Thoughts

Although the ‘press’ in Hobbes’s day would have been limited to philosophers like himself and religious preachers, we can take it that he would have understood the current war between autocrats and the media as more about belief than democracy or freedom. Trump’s labelling of the liberal media as ‘fake news’ is a dumbed-down tactic of Hobbes protecting sovereign faith. And it as much a religious strategy as a political one.

Click here to find out more about my latest book. 

Similar War Theories of Hobbes and Schmitt

1. Introduction
Currently, I’m researching Thomas Hobbes’s (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651) for a book I’m writing. I noticed that Hobbes’s theory of war in one chapter of Leviathan (Book I, 13) resembles that of one of his closest followers, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the controversial German jurist. Schmitt discussed war in numerous places. But the theory of war most similar to Hobbes is contained in his classic essay The Concept of the Political (1927). 

What united both authors was the conviction that war really wasn’t about military conflict as such. It was more a state of mind, of which war offered a ‘limiting case.’ This common view supported their broader philosophical outlooks, both of which were divergent. 

2. Hobbes and Civil War

Hobbes’s main concern is justifying peace and order. To achieve this he contrasts a state of anarchy to one of peace. In the state of nature all men pursue their separate interests and run the risk of clashing with one another. Although Hobbes does discuss the right of sovereigns to make foreign war in numerous passages of Leviathan (e.g. kings are in a “posture of war” with one another (L, I, 13))global conflicts are an afterthought to which Hobbes offers little insight. By far, Hobbes’s leading concern is with the possibility of civil war, the language of which is nihilistic. Warfare is part and parcel of a pre-political condition which occurs when there is no common guardian standing over men and is synonymous with civil war. But the thrust of Hobbes’s polemic with respect to the state of nature is directed against liberty which he says runs counter to law. War is merely another phenomenon which occurs when men are free. 

3. Schmitt and the Political

For Schmitt, war is a ‘given’ whenever there are political units who distinguish each other according to his celebrated friend/enemy criterion. As opposed to many other political thinkers who portray politics as servicing a common good, Schmitt’s concept of politics is inherently sectarian; war thus appears as a natural element of politics. 

Unlike Hobbes, Schmitt never contemplates the idea that there could ever be a state of total anarchy. Even civil war involves well-identified groups (CP, 32). He always sees organization as emerging with respect to war, and this is also true with respect to groups who are outwardly ‘anti-war.’

If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacifists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy (CP, 36).

4. Comparative Similarity

While Schmitt doesn’t construct a fictional state of nature, he agrees with Hobbes that the looming threat of war motivates man’s behaviour in critical ways. Let’s compare passages from both Hobbes and Schmitt. 

For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known (L, I, 13).

War is neither the aim nor the purpose nor even the very content of politics. But as an ever present possibility it is the leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking and thereby creates a specifically political behavior (CP, 34).

These examples reveal the key similarity. For Hobbes and Schmitt, war is not the fact of actual fighting but an aggressive suspiciousness and preparedness for conflict. People are battle-ready, even if not at war. Military conflict doesn’t have independent meaning although it forms a critical element in their outlooks. Hobbesian or Schmittian philosophy sans guerre would be incomprehensible but it would be wrong to see them as reducing politics to militarism. War is the most important consideration for men or political entities but it is subordinate to either (a) the will of man to live at liberty, for Hobbes, or (b) the natural tendency of groups, for Schmitt, to live within the political domain. 

5. Radical Differences 

War is vital to both theories as a perspective but in radically different ways. War for Hobbes is a ‘floor’ to which men can sink in the absence of fear with respect to a common power. Even those who know little of Hobbes have probably read the following lament concerning war in a news article.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (L, I, 13).

War is merely destruction and uncertainty for Hobbes. His theory recognizes war but is concerned with removing its spectre. By contrast, war for Schmitt is the climax of human existence.

There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings … The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy (CP, 67).

Whereas Hobbes consistently views war as offering a window into man’s psychological deficiencies, Schmitt shows little interest in exploring this aspect. War is an ongoing political reality and is accepted as a given. Men are inherently political; war comes with political territory and is reduced to a means. Schmitt has no interest in abolishing war, forms a realistic view of its existence, and at times glorifies it. Hobbes generally conceptualizes war as a nihilistic condition and he condemns it.  

6. Conclusion

It is perhaps not surprising that Schmitt shows a Hobbesian influence in his assessment of war. His theory of authoritarianism, for example, is largely Hobbesian. Yet Schmitt’s concept of politics is radically dissimilar to Hobbes but the two men yet find common ground in using and conceptualizing war in near identical ways within their variant philosophies. 

Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan

I am working on a book about the religious beliefs of Thomas Hobbes as expressed in his masterpiece Leviathan. The following is a short biography of Hobbes, along with some information on Leviathan.

Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. He was the son of a minor clergyman who acquired a reputation for alcoholism and aggressive behaviour. Despite his tumultuous family environment Hobbes’s uncle, Francis, saw the academic potential in Thomas. In 1603, Uncle Francis paid for his nephew to be educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. In later years, Hobbes registered negative memories concerning the decadence of university life and the pernicious influence (as he saw it) of Aristotle and the general tenor of late Scholasticism, complaints which may have been exaggerated although not wholly unfounded.[1] 

Graduating in 1608, Hobbes went to work for William Cavendish (1552–1626), aka Baron Cavendish of Hardwick, to tutor his eldest son (1590–1628) of the same name. Both Hobbes and the younger Cavendish were close in age, with the choice of Hobbes by the elder Williamdeliberately designed to kill two birds with one stone, i.e. to simultaneously educate young William and provide companionship for the boy. The appointment of the freshly graduated tutor sparked a life–long association between Hobbes and the Cavendishes. Hobbes went on the Grand Tour with the family, shared in business ventures, and had his later academic pursuits bankrolled by the the Cavendishes.[2] 

                                          Paolo Sarpi

Hobbes moved in scholarly circles both in England and on the Continent, encountering the great minds of the age. He met the Venetian ‘reason of state’ philosopher Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), discussed natural philosophy with great scientists like Galileo (1564–1642), and did secretarial work for arguably the outstanding British mind of the age, Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Despite his exposure to the cutting edge natural philosophy of the time, Hobbes would refuse to completely join in with the spirit of experimental science if it conflicted with his broader metaphysical and religious outlook. This tendency would see him all but excluded from the Royal Society in his later years. However, he did produce an atomic theory which seems to have been arrived at independently of both Descartes (1596–1650) and Galileo. His first major work was a translation of the works of the ancient historian Thucydides (ca. 460–400 B.C.) from the original Greek, a book published in 1629. Hobbes was dismissed from employment with the Cavendishes around this time following the death of the younger William. He went to work for a friend of another Cavendish, renewing his employment with the late William’s widow, the Countess of Devonshire, in 1631.[3] 

Hobbes developed his scientific, philosophical, religious, legal, and political ideas during the 1630s. In 1640 and 1642, respectively, he published the first editions of The Elements of Law and De Cive (On the Citizen), works which were precursors to his political masterpiece, Leviathan, which was first published in English in 1651. His preoccupation with politics was related to the concrete situation in England where the reign of King Charles I (1600–1649) generated resistance and then civil war. For his part, Hobbes was a Royalist although the circumstances which eventually brought Cromwell (1599–1658) to act as the last English dictator would later cause him to modify his support for monarchy. Such was his immersion in politics at this time that Hobbes even stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Derby in 1640.[4] 

                                   Depiction of English Civil War
Civil war forced Hobbes to stay on the Continent for much of the conflict and interregnum, a full eleven years from 1640 to 1651. Fittingly, he witnessed the beginning of the reign of the young Louis XIV (1638–1715), an absolute monarch whose long rule could be seen as a metaphor for Hobbesian autocracy. Hobbes tutored the future Charles II (1630–1685) while in Paris. He also found more support for his ideas amongst European philosophers than British ones, and this was a trend that would continue both in his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Nonetheless, certain critics like Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) recognized that the genius of Hobbes was coupled with an more than an element of autocracy, a brutal anthropology and unorthodoxy. Long before Leviathan was published, Grotius said in a letter to his brother regarding De Cive that 

I like what he says in favour of kings, but I cannot approve the foundation on which he builds his opinions. He thinks that all men are naturally at war with one another, and has some other principles which differ from my own. For example, he thinks it is the duty of each private individual to follow the official religion of his country – if not with internal assent, then at least with outward observance.[5]

Despite general admiration for his ideas in Europe, attacks on the Catholic Church in Leviathan in the religiously charged atmosphere of the time meant Hobbes had to leave the Continent in 1651 and return to England. Back in his native land, it was not the excessive criticism of Rome which would land him in trouble but the atheism and heresy he seemed to promote. There were even charges of secretly spreading Islamic ideas. Yet, in his writings and in his personal life, Hobbes avoided neat categorization as either a Protestant or Catholic. That is not to say either that his beliefs were fluid or constantly shifting and the best appraisal of Hobbes is that he was a devout, if independently minded, theist. He subscribed to a scholarly interpretation of Christianity based on Scripture, justification by faith, as well as Divine election, all staples of 17th century Protestantism. What distinguished him from other Protestants was the radically different political perspective Hobbes drew from such beliefs, the culmination of which meant investing the sovereign with total power while, at the same time, never deprecating the freedom of the Christian believer to pursue his own faith. It was the more controversial aspects of his philosophy that come to the fore, however, and for most of the last quarter century of his life, Hobbes lived under a cloud of suspicion, with his books burnt by opponents, mild forms of censorship being imposed at times, and the threat of death for heresy a real, if perhaps not a near–certain, possibility. A long–running intellectual struggle with John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry (1594–1663), over Hobbes’s espousal of predestination was a particularly intense feud. 

                                          Bishop Bramhall

The hostility directed towards Hobbes meant that events like the Fire of London were even laid at his door by some opponents. Hobbes excited hatred and individuals accused of ‘Hobbism’ could suffer institutional humiliation in the form of having to recant their Hobbist views. Generally, the defenders of clerical independence were his greatest enemies while Hobbes’s espousal of absolute sovereignty provided useful material to those in power. By the time of his death in 1679, he had a reputation as an intelligent but dangerously immoral thinker and his apologists were on the back foot in the face of powerful and well–connected critics. He suffered the same lampooning in popular culture by the end of the 17th century as Machiavelli (1469–1527) had a century before.[6] A modern author, Parkin, summarized Hobbes’s journey from inoffensively respectable scholar to reviled outcast in the following terms:

In 1640 Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, the 52-year-old secretary to the Earl of Devonshire, had a minor reputation as a respected translator and pastoral poet. To a small number of his friends he was also known as a promising mathematician and natural philosopher, perhaps even England’s answer to Descartes. By 1700 all of this had changed. Hobbes had an international reputation, but not as an acclaimed scientist. Indeed, that reputation lay largely in ruins. He was widely known as the most notorious philosopher that England had ever produced. His name had become a byword for atheism, immorality and a whole range of unacceptable political views. To his English readers, he was the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’, the ‘Devil’s Secretary’, an ‘Agent of Hell’ and as one writer put it ‘Nature’s Pest’ and ‘unhappy England’s Shame’ … By the end of the century Hobbes had managed to acquire an extraordinary and perhaps even unique place in the English imagination as the bête noire of his age.[7]

                             Frontispiece of Leviathan

As for Leviathan itself, it’s unclear when exactly Hobbes began work on his masterpiece, but it’s safe to say 1649 was the latest date. At this stage, Hobbes had moved from becoming a respected academic to a famous writer, a perception largely because of his 1647 edition of De Cive, a version which defined the philosophy of Hobbes on the continent for several centuries hence. Leviathan completed his political writings which started with Elements. A large part of his project was to refute Cardinal Bellarmine’s (1542–1621) Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei Adversus Hujus Temporis Haereticos (Disputations Concerning the Controversies of the Christian Faith Against the Heretics of this Time). A revised Latin edition was published in 1668. Most of the revisions and clarifications related to aspects of religious doctrine. While his earlier political works were unashamedly royalist,Leviathan adopted a more ambiguous tone towards other forms of government, a policy motivated by a mixture of concerns for his own personal safety, a desire to see an end to conflict in England, and an acknowledgement of the reality that the days of absolute monarchy in England were numbered. A measure of his slightly modified royalism is that the future King Charles refused to grant an audience to Hobbes shortly after Leviathan’s publication. What disturbed many royalist readers of Leviathan, such as Robert Filmer (1588–1653), was that the foundation of Hobbes’s political theory was decidedly democratic – resting as it did on a social contract – and this seemed to justify rebellion against the king. At the same time, Hobbes felt compelled to square his new turn with his previous opinions. Leviathan still gave the sovereign – be it a monarch or popular assembly – control over religion and he still portrayed authority in personal terms, something conducive to monarchy more than other government forms. Leviathan focused more on promoting heterodox religious positions, such as denying the incorporeality of the soul, relative to previous works and he also attacked the Catholic church with added gusto in the book. Hobbes showed himself particularly astute at both justifying total power while at the same time arguing that Christians sacrifice none of their fundamental beliefs in being pliant subjects. In other parts of Leviathan, Hobbes seemed to condone statue–worship and he made significant contributions to theories of representative government. Upon the release of Leviathan, enemies were stirred to action and there were petitions as early as 1652 to parliament to ban Hobbes’s maguum opus. Amongst Presbyterian book–sellers Leviathan was effectively banned. For many critics of Hobbes, the book would be their first serious proof that they were dealing with a truly rebellious intellectual. Apart from justifying arbitrary sovereignty and a diminution of clerical authority, Leviathan seemed to critics like Bramhall to be a ‘rebel’s catechism’ because monarchy had no Divine basis. Like the author himself, Leviathan stirred a vast panoply of mostly negative commentary but a not insignificant number of admirers. Curiously, even those who refuted this classic of early modern literature couldn’t help but be influenced to a degree by its systematic and logical–deductive arguments.[8] 

Endnotes

[1] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 1–2; Malcolm. Reason of state; 1–2.

[2] Malcolm. Reason of state; 3–8, 14–15. [3] Biletzki. Talking wolves; 5–7; Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 2–7, 12–13; Malcolm. Reason of state; 8–15; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 215–222; Shapin & Schaffer. Leviathan and the air-pump.

[4] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 8–9; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 18–32; Tuck. The Utopianism of Leviathan. In Leviathan after 350 years; 126–127. 

[5] Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 34–35.

[6] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 9–14, 68–83; Hobbes et al. Hobbes and Bramhall on liberty and necessity; Lessay. Hobbes’s Protestantism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 265–294; Martinich. The two gods of Leviathan; 1–7; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 1–11, 35–71, 112–357; Thornton. State of nature or Eden?; 6–11; Wright. Religion, politics and Thomas Hobbes; 251–259.

[7] Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 1.

[8] Glover. God and Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes et al. Hobbes: “On the Citizen”; xxxiii; Lessay. Hobbes’s Protestantism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 270–287; Malcolm. Leviathan, the Pentateuch, and the Origins of Modern Biblical Criticism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 15–30; 256–260; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 85–193; Schumann. Leviathan and De Cive. In Leviathan after 350 years; 15–30.

References

Biletzki, A., & Biletzki, A. (1997). Talking wolves: Thomas Hobbes on the language of politics and the politics of language. Dordrecht: Springer.

Bunce, R. E. (2009). Thomas Hobbes (Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers). Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Foisneau, L., & Sorell, T. (2005). Leviathan after 350 years. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Glover, W. B. (1960). God and Thomas Hobbes. Church History, 29(03), 275.

Hobbes, T., Bramhall, J., & Chappell, V. C. (2003). Hobbes and Bramhall on liberty and necessity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, T., Tuck, R., Silverthorne, M., Geuss, R., & Skinner, Q. (1998). Hobbes: “On the Citizen”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malcolm, N. (2010). Reason of state, propaganda, and the Thirty Years War: an unknown translation by Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Martinich, A. (2002). The two gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on religion and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parkin, J. (2010). Taming the Leviathan: the reception of the political and religious ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England 1640-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Shapin, S., & Schaffer, S. (2018). Leviathan and the air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thornton, H. (2005). State of nature or Eden?: Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries on the natural condition of human beings. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Wright, G. H. (2006). Religion, politics and Thomas Hobbes. Dordrecht: Springer.