The thing I like about Thomas Hobbes is that he published translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey when he was 86 years old. Having disliked Scholasticism while studying at Oxford, he turned to the classics instead.
However, he did so in an era when the influence of Bacon (whom he met with occasionally) on British philosophers was profound. Going beyond Bacon, and being quite a bit more dogmatic than Bacon, Hobbes declared:
The universe is corporeal; all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real.
Naturally, this proto-Carl Sagan (or maybe it would be more accurate to call Sagan a paleo-Hobbesian?), by denying that anything immaterial existed, could find no room in his soul for immaterial things like reason, will, or direct perception of truth.
In France, Rene Descartes had tried to be a scientist and a Christian by creating a dualistic structure of the cosmos. He separated the soul and the body and put severe restrictions on their interaction.
Hobbes would have none of it. There is the material world, and that is all. For Hobbes, the Copernican revolution was not about the place of the earth in relation to the sun, but about the place of man in relation to the cosmos.
Hobbes had worked with and been strongly influenced by Galileo in Italy in the 1630’s. Based on their discussions, or at least influenced by them, Hobbes developed his materialistic social theory on his understanding of the principles of natural science and the patterns of geometric reasoning.
The result of his commitment to materialism was his “Great Book,” one of the great destructive forces in human history, Leviathan.
Because only matter exists, human behavior can be explained as the interactions of material things. Reason and will, in the Scholastic version (which he grew up learning), do not exist. Instead, we are able to calculate (thus his passion for geometry) and we have desires.
Both calculation and desire are bodily adaptations to the world around us. Desire is what we would now call a chemical or a neurological response to stimuli.
How does one build a social theory on such principles? With cold rationality.
For the materialist, freedom is the right to do what you want. All the Christian and classical talk about reason ordering the soul is vacuous – meaningless words that seem to satisfy a desire to be greater than others. Self-governance is a fantasy based on a fairy tale notion of the law of nature or of God.
In fact, the law of nature is what has come to be called, by Spencer, survival of the fittest. For Hobbes, the state of nature, a phrase which he coined, is “bellum omnium contra omnes” or “the war of all against all.”
In other words, by nature we are all at war with each other. If there were no government, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Life is about satisfying desires, as much for man as for the beasts. But recognizing the nastiness and shortness of such a life, some intelligent people calculated the advantage of joining in a “social contract” that would enable them to live more pleasant lives in a community for a longer time if they were willing to sacrifice some of their immediate desires.
What is good? What you desire.
What is evil? What you don’t desire.
One can find much bracing, cold-hearted common sense in Hobbes’s analysis, but it demands throughout that you accept the reduction of man to a brute beast with greater powers of calculation than the others.
And as with every form of materialism, Hobbes’s, the political prototype, leads to Leviathan, a monstrously vast government that turns liberty into a euphemism and begins a long tradition of doublespeak.
Hobbes simplified existence to what he could get his mind around. By reducing everything to matter, he brought it into the realm where he could at least hope to conquer it intellectually, to bring it into submission to his powerful mind.
Since man is governed by his powerful appetites, the hypothetical state of nature is brutal. Desires must be satisfied to make compromises that lead to a social contract. There is no constitutional limitation on the powers of government. All social relations are negotiated settlements among interested parties.
Perhaps that is why modern friendship seems to have become short, lethal, and temporary.
Hobbes was influential from the beginning, especially in England which, from its love of money, was always inclined toward materialistic and pragmatic philsophies.
However, the tyrannical implications of his philosophy were more or less limited until the triumph of naturalism in the late 19th century.
Hobbes was a “realist” in the modern sense of being unwilling to believe anything beyond what the senses could perceive, much like CS Lewis’s dwarves in The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.
The person plays it safe by emptying himself of a non-material soul. Freedom becomes a mere word, a counter in the power game that is life. Language is encoded grunts. Perceptions of the eternal are sublimated lusts.
The trouble with Naturalism is that it renders its devotees powerless except in their relations to other men, and in those only temporarily. It eliminates the hope that Truth can be known and experienced, it robs man of his honor (which, for Hobbes, is “whatsoever possession, action, or quality is an argument and sign of power), and it strips him of the very possibility of freedom, having reduced it to something as empty and unsatisfying as the ability to do what you want.
The only people who can tolerate such an empty philosophy are those who gain from it and want a cover for their power-lust. Such people will always consolidate power in there own hands, whether they run Microsoft or Congress.
The rest are spiritually castrated or at least starved, subjected to shameless manipulation (for what is there to be ashamed of when you satisfy your own natural desire for gain by giving somebody else his natural desire for pleasure?), and even led to martyrdom.
When the pursuit of a Truth beyond what the senses can perceive is scoffed out of face, things like justice, freedom, love, and humanity are not taken seriously.
This is the internal logic and impulse of Leviathan. It is an evil, de-humanizing idea.
As a result, Naturalism is an unstable philosophy that serves as a middle point – a primer for the paint to follow, or rather a sanding of the paint to be removed. It is a solvent, not a solution.
The human spirit has not and will not evolve the capacity to endure naturalism.
You cannot build an integrated, personal society that rightly inspires devoted, active, disinterested love by naturalism.
You cannot sustain the faithful, simple, earthy values of a Hobbit on a naturalism that causes everyone anxiety about his place in society and the cosmos – and the economy.
When life is reduced to legal persuasion and interested parties, the joie de vivre for which we are created finds no room in our anxious, calculating minds.
So something will replace it.
When Leviathan is constructed by naturalists, some form of tyranny will replace, and probably thank them by beheading them, those naturalists.
Prior to the rise of radical Islam that might have seemed an extreme statement to the modern sentimentalist who lives on the feelings Christianity nurtured and wants to apply them to defend their self-indulgence.
No longer. How long ago was divershme practiced?
In fact, the perception of naturalism as a solvent can be seen with increasing clarity in the law courts. It is rather obvious that British law is permeated by the specifically Christian legal tradition and that the American constitution was strongly influenced by that British system.
Reducing law to nothing but negotiated settlements (the quasi-partial-achievement of 20th century legal theorists) does not lead to human flourishing.
Thus Socrates and Jesus are, once again, the most important figures in western civilization. While they had their differences, the commitment of each to Truth, Justice, Freedom, and Humanity was sufficient to lead them to death.
Christ went further in His devotion to personhood and to love as willing and laboring for and even dying for the blessedness of its object, but He and His great apostles Paul, Peter, and John affirmed much of what Socrates had proposed.
Each of them transformed the world by dying, Socrates by planting seeds of the quest for wisdom and respecting the human soul, Christ by securing grace and the Spirit of God for mankind.
Modern man can feel terribly sophisticated by his refusal to believe in anything his senses don’t perceive and by his capacity to reduce all reality to matter and calculation. He can look down on us hobbits who love the soil as soil and God as God and neighbor as neighbor. We constantly miss out on the gains a more cynical attitude could have secured.
But their devotion to change will be rewarded when their unsustainable beliefs are replaced by something more respectful of the human spirit. I only hope the new world is filled with Christian charity and a commitment to forgiveness and not some other less humane religion that thinks less of man.