Hobbes Introduction


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This is the brief essay which I wrote for the first version of this course thirty-six years ago. In the Keynote the introductory slides illustrate these points. When teaching the class this spring I will hand out this introduction during the preceding class and invite students to read it in preparation for viewing the slide show.

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Hobbes Introduction

  1. 1. Justice & Power session v Hobbes Little more than a century separates Machiavelli and our next philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Theepicenter of Western Civilization has moved westward from Greece to Italy, and now to England.Two major phenomena which were only beginning during the final years of Machiavelli’s life are ofprime significance for Hobbes and all the thinkers who follow: the Reformation and the ScientificRevolution. Both of these complex movements stemmed from the breakup of medieval order. Both took shapein the intellectual climate of discovery which the printing press• and the voyages to the New Worldfostered. Both were bitterly resisted as intolerable challenges to the status quo. Both ushered in theconditions which we take for granted in America: no one “owns” the truth; ultimately, the individualis responsible for his own beliefs. The awesome power represented by knowledge is not a statemonopoly administered by the state religion. Hobbes became an enthusiastic student of “the newlearning.” He discussed his views with such luminaries as Francis Bacon• and Galileo. His efforts todevelop theories of human behavior which didn’t require a theological foundation and his willingnessto engage in academic disputes earned him the epithet “father of atheists.” In an influential twentieth century study, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas S. Kuhn•describes what he calls “dominant paradigms.” Every period operates with a characteristic way ofperceiving reality, according to Kuhn. This “dominant paradigm” is embodied in an unquestioned,tacit understanding widely shared and transmitted, not by overt “teaching” but by the type of modelswhich people use to conceptualize everyday tasks. Hobbes’ age was the time when a traditional,organic paradigm was being replaced by a largely mechanical one as being the more useful image tohave of the universe. Perhaps man is not the “political animal” of Aristotle. Perhaps he is a robotcapable of a wholly mechanical explanation, if only we give the scientist enough data. Hobbes lived during the final years of the Wars of Religion. Like all the men we will study, hisinterest was not narrowly focused on politics. Although most widely recognized today as a defenderof absolutism, he is ironically the first writer to argue “scientifically” that all men are equal. Theviolence of his age should give us empathy for his stress on the primacy of order in society. A fittingtribute to his significance is given by William Ebenstein: “The Leviathan is not an apology for theStuart monarchy, nor a grammar of despotic government, but the first general theory of politics in theEnglish language.” (Great Political Thinkers, p. 358). Hobbes use of language is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s. For both you must read carefully and beaware that meanings of some words have changed since the seventeenth century. Try to savor theirony and force which Hobbes achieves when he practices economy and careful choice of words. Asyou compare his conclusions with those of the three we have already studied, consider also how hehas arrived at these views. How does he argue for them? Does he make his case?