On Hobbes, Virtue Ethics, and Liberty

Thomas Hobbes revolutionized our thinking about politics by challenging the long tradition of virtue politics and by offering a new blueprint for the modern state.

Thomas Hobbes revolutionized our thinking about politics by challenging the long tradition of virtue politics and by offering a new blueprint for the modern state.

To conclude there is nothing so absurd, that the old Philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained. And I beleeve that scarce any thing can be more absurdly said in naturall Philosophy, than that which now is called Aristotles Metaphysiques, nor more repugnant to Government, than much of that hee hath said in his Politiques; nor more ignorantly, than a great part of his Ethiques. (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XLVI)((All quotations from Leviathan are from The Project Gutenberg eBook of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes)).

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), England’s preeminent political philosopher, goes to some lengths in his Leviathan (1651) to point out that reading the classics has seriously misled students of Greece and Rome about the meaning of the word liberty:

The Libertie, whereof there is so frequent, and honourable mention, in the Histories, and Philosophy of the Antient Greeks, and Romans, and in the writings, and discourse of those that from them have received all their learning in the Politiques, is not the Libertie of Particular men; but the Libertie of the Common-wealth. . . . it is an easy thing, for men to be deceived, by the specious name of Libertie; and for want of Judgement to distinguish, mistake that for their Private Inheritance, and Birth right, which is the right of the Publique only. . . (Chapter XXI)

A free citizen, Hobbes points out, was a citizen of a state that governed itself without external interference; the phrase tells us nothing about that citizen’s personal freedom to do as he pleases.

There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS [Liberty]; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Common-wealth be Monarchicall, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same. (Chapter XXI).

Hobbes emphasizes this point because he wants his readers to understand that misconceptions about what the classical writers mean by the term liberty have often led to violent civil unrest “with the effusion of so much blood; as I think I may truly say, there was never any thing so deerly bought, as these Western parts have bought the learning of the Greek and Latine tongues” (Chapter XXI). Here Hobbes is not merely displaying his preoccupation with precise definitions, for his hostility to elements of the classical past, particularly his contempt for Aristotle’s politics and ethics, like his scorn for Scholasticism and the Papacy (which he compares in great detail to the “Kingdom of Fayries”), is part of a sustained challenge to the long tradition of pagan and Christian virtue ethics or, as he puts it, ”the Venime of Heathen Politicians, and the . . . Incantation of Deceiving Spirits.”

This tradition, first explored by Plato and (especially) Aristotle and later developed into a moral system compatible with Christianity, sees human beings as political and social creatures capable of developing a virtuous character (ethos), which will enable them to reach the goal of a fully realized and successful human life (eudaimonia) within a political community((The word eudaimonia, from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the goal of human striving. It is difficult to translate into English. Often it is rendered by “happiness,” but that word does not include the important notion of a rich and successful personal and civic life. One commentator has remarked that we can best understand the word as meaning the quality of life we would wish for our children.)).  Such a life will be marked by an ability to understand through practical reasoning (phronesis) the complexities of any situation which presents itself and by a desire to take the morally appropriate action. In the most virtuous characters there will be no tension between one’s practical reasoning, desires, and actions, because a training in virtuous habits has made the process effortless((Less virtuous characters understand what they ought to do but have to overcome their desires that make them reluctant to act in the most appropriate manner. In Christian teaching, these people (who have to overcome temptation) are commonly considered particularly virtuous. Not so with Aristotle.)).

This ethic becomes easier to comprehend if we consider a common misreading of Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics he explains how a virtuous character will select a course of action which is the mean in relation to him between an excess and a deficiency. For example, in facing danger he will act with courage; that means he will choose a course of action somewhere between an excess, recklessness, and a deficiency, apprehension or fear. This has often been interpreted to mean the choice of a middle course, an arithmetical mean, between the two extremes (i.e., “everything in moderation”). But that is not what Aristotle states. The truly virtuous person will select a course of action appropriate to the circumstances and to his own abilities, and there are occasions when the morally correct action may need to be reckless or apprehensive. There is no fixed rule about courage that fits every situation((The word mesotes can mean a central position or a state between two extremes. Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean in time became the Golden Mean. See, for example, Horace, Ode 2.10 (Auream quisquis mediocritatem. . . .), which dates from about 20 BCE, 300 years after the death of Aristotle.)). The same holds true for the other virtues (temperance, liberality, righteous indignation, magnanimity, and so on―Aristotle lists about eighteen). The virtuous citizen not only possesses these qualities; he also understands how to manifest them in ways appropriate to whatever the particular circumstances demand.

Hobbes’s emphasis is on creating a commonwealth that seeks to prevent them from becoming any worse than they already are.

The overarching principle in this moral tradition may be summed up by the maxim: “What is not permitted is forbidden.”((I borrow this principle from Leo Strauss who is reported to have used it in his lectures on Aristotle. See https://www.reddit.com/r/ancientgreece/comments/8syhqf/what_is_not_allowed_is_forbidden.)) This tautology implies that there is a standard of permissible behaviour which the virtuous citizen ought not to violate, a standard determined by laws and traditions, especially by traditional role models acknowledged for their excellence and celebrated in the stories, religious practices, ritual performances, and collective memories of the community. Such a moral code, much of which consists of unwritten legislation, not only provides a standard for citizens to emulate but can also carry a very effective coercive power, because those who ought to live up to the shared standard and who fail to do so run the risk of being shamed and publicly humiliated.((The best example of virtue ethics at work nowadays is a professional sports team. There the players have to obey not only the written rules of the game but also (and more importantly) the unwritten traditions of the team and the game.))

The importance of unwritten rules is borne out by the way in which the Greeks and Romans did not carefully distinguish between unwritten customs and written laws. For the Romans the meanings of the words lex (law), mos (custom), and ius (right) overlapped, and the words were often used interchangeably. The mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors, “was the persistent and ageless criterion by which [Roman] society and its institutions were judged.”((Michael C. Mittlestadt, “Tacitus on the Moral Dimensions of Political Freedom,” International Social Science Review 70.1/2, pp. 34-42.)) Similarly the Greek word nomos refers to laws and to traditions, so that, when Pericles praises the greatness of Athens, he pays tribute to the importance of both―and in doing so acknowledges the power of shame:

But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this, fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws . . . whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace. (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.37)

The greatest and most influential poem in classical literature, Homer’s Iliad, celebrates a society without any written laws, a way of life based entirely on a traditional unwritten warrior code and held together by a desire for excellence and, above all, by a fear of shame (nemesis). Even though the warriors sometimes express an aversion to warfare, they have all willingly embraced its demands and endorse the moral code that enables them to demonstrate their virtue, as they face the constant threat of a sudden, brutal death.

The virtue ethic of the Greeks was passed down to the Romans, who, recognizing that they could never match the literary and philosophical achievements of the Greeks, in their works of history, oratory, poetry, and education stressed the importance of role models derived from their republican past.

But it is not only the content of such studies as these [philosophical questions] which we should know and constantly turn over in our minds; even more important are the records of the notable sayings and actions of the past. Nowhere is there a larger or more striking supply of these than in the history of our own country. Could there be any better teachers of courage, justice, loyalty, self-control, frugality, or contempt for pain and death than men like Fabricius, Curius, Regulus, Decius, Mucius, and countless others? Rome is as strong in examples as Greece is in precepts; and examples are more important. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratorio, 12.3).((See also Anchises’s advice to Aeneas in Aeneid 6: “Others (I can well believe) will hammer out bronze that breathes/ with more delicacy than us, draw out living features/ from the marble: plead their causes better, trace with instruments/ the movement of the skies, and tell the rising of the constellations:/ remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power,/ (that will be your skill) to crown peace with law,/ to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud” (translated A. S. Kline).))

In maintaining the tradition of virtue ethics by focusing on the excellence of famous ancestors, Rome was spectacularly successful, not only in producing generations of splendid public servants who helped to administer and defend its vast empire (in spite of the frequent corruption and incompetence at the imperial court) but also in establishing what was to become in future centuries a core element of education in Europe and the New World. The importance of Latin in the school curriculum ensured that all school children would learn the rudiments of virtue ethics by snaking their way through Caesar, Livy, Virgil, and Cicero. It is no accident that George Washington modeled his conduct on the virtues of republican Rome or that his compatriots, before turning him into a national deity gazing down upon them from the ceiling of the Capitol, saluted him with the name of a fifth century BCE Roman dictator, Cincinnatus.((From across the Atlantic Lord Byron added his voice to the rechristening of America’s first president: “Where may the wearied eye repose/ When gazing on the Great;/ Where neither guilty glory glows,/ Nor despicable state?/Yes – One – the first – the last – the best –/ The Cincinnatus of the West,/ Whom Envy dared not hate,/ Bequeathed the name of Washington, / To make man blush there was but one!” (“Ode to Napoleon,” 1814).))

After the fall of the Roman empire, the Greek philosophical texts were lost to western Europe and interest in Aristotle’s moral teaching virtually disappeared. But gradually, thanks in no small part to the work of Islamic scholars, by the mid-thirteenth century the task of interpreting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics so as to make his ethical writings compatible with Christian doctrine was well underway. The work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher, established Aristotle as an essential part of the curriculum in Catholic universities, and the most important Platonic-Aristotelian virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance) became the four cardinal virtues and were combined with the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity), derived from the New Testament, to create the Seven Heavenly Virtues, a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine in the schools and the pulpit. The first four could be acquired through virtuous habits, excellent role models, and practical reasoning; the last three were gifts from God. Some of Europe’s most philosophically astute thinkers offered lengthy commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics (Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Nicole Oresme, among many others), a tradition that continued until the late seventeenth century: in the (roughly) one hundred and fifty years before Hobbes’s death in 1679, more than fifty commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics were published―and that number includes only those written by Protestants. Such works served the eager demands of the Lutheran and reformed academies and universities, where the heart of the curriculum in moral education remained the exposition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.((David S. Sytsma, David (2021). “Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Protestantism.” Academia Letters, Article1650. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL1650.))

Hobbes looks upon this tradition with considerable scorn and amused contempt. In his view, it is unscientific and foolish, full of “the frivolous Distinctions, barbarous Terms, and obscure Language of the Schoolmen ” (Chapter XLVII). The universities “which have been all erected and regulated by the Popes Authority,” are full of “insignificant speech.”

For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other Doctor whatsoever, if but a man. (Chapter IV)

He is determined to tidy up the logic and language of political and moral philosophy by insisting on clear definitions, rigorous deductive logic, and scientific clarity.

The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; Reason is the Pace; Encrease of Science, the Way; and the Benefit of man-kind, the End. And on the contrary, Metaphors, and senslesse and ambiguous words, are like Ignes Fatui [will-o’-the-wisps]; and reasoning upon them, is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention, and sedition, or contempt. (Chapter V)

Hobbes is a materialist “in love with geometry.”((The story of Hobbes’s Damascene conversion is well known but worth retelling: “He was . . . 40 yeares old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman’s library …, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the 47 El. libri I. He read the proposition. By G—,’ sayd he, ‘this is impossible!’ So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps [and so on one after another], that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth.” This made him in love with geometry.” (John Aubrey, Brief Lives).)) Everything real is the result of matter and motion, and science demands we deduce our explanations from that starting point. He rejects the teleological assumptions fundamental to traditional morality: there is no ultimate purpose or greatest good for human life. Nor is the state or commonwealth a natural or divinely sanctioned entity; it is, by contrast, something artificial, constructed, like a machine, by human beings. As for traditions, as often as not they are unreliable: people invoke them when they wish to reinforce specious arguments “inconsistent with the duty of a Subject.”((Hobbes had little interest in experimental science of the sort advocated by Francis Bacon (for whom he briefly worked as a secretary, translating his essays into Latin). He argued that those who wanted empirical proof of his views on human nature should simply contemplate their own characters.))

Hobbes’s view of human beings is notoriously reductive: they are matter and motion, in constant thrall to their desire to procure and assure a contented life and always desperately afraid of losing what they have:

So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. And the cause of this, is not alwayes that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. (Chapter XI)

The human animal possesses reason, acquired by applying arithmetical and geometric logic to words; in this way people can learn to infer conclusions and come to a rational understanding of things. Experience and the “Memory of the like things, and their consequences heretofore” (Chapter VIII) teach prudence. But human reasoning is frequently fallible or abused (deliberately or not) by those who fail to define their terms precisely, or who defer to the authority of ancient texts, or who uncritically accept what other people say.

Before the creation of a civil government, in a state of nature, human beings are isolated individuals in a war, “and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” There is no moral order; each person is totally free, has a right to everything, and is entitled to keep whatever he acquires for as long as he can. The result is summed up in the most famous sentence of the book:

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, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Chapter XIII)

To escape these desperate conditions, Hobbes asserts, human beings, prompted by fear for their security and by reason, eventually seek peace by entering into a contract in which each person agrees to hand over virtually all his or her power to a Sovereign authority, provided everyone else does the same. The Sovereign will then establish civil laws and enforce peace in a new commonwealth.

Hobbes does not stipulate a particular form of sovereignty. He prefers monarchy but insists that what he is proposing also works with an assembly of oligarchs or of popular representatives. It is important to note that the commonwealth comes into being only with the consent of its subjects and that the Sovereign is not a party to the contract, which is made by the subjects among themselves. Hence the Sovereign’s power is unconditional. No subject has any right to challenge the Sovereign’s authority, except when the Sovereign threatens that subject’s life, family, or property (i.e., no longer provides the safety and security for which the subject agreed to the contract in the first place).((This last provision runs counter to Hobbes’s entire proposal (as was pointed out in the first responses to the book). If it is up to the subject to judge whether or not the Sovereign threatens his life and if he is justified in rebelling against the Sovereign when he thinks his life is in danger, Hobbes’s argument becomes a “rebel’s catechism” (Bishop John Bramhall).)) Hobbes does not entertain the notion, so important to his liberal successors, of dividing up the sovereign power. To him that would be inviting civil conflict. Hence, all power in the state (legislative, judicial, executive, and religious) rests entirely with the Sovereign, and everyone has an equal obligation to obey the Sovereign’s laws. Whatever problems there may be with this arrangement, Hobbes points out, such a commonwealth is always preferable to civil war. This strenuous insistence on the importance of obedience to civil laws highlights a major difference between Hobbes’s ethics and traditional morality: whereas, virtue ethics strives to create a polity which encourages subjects to become better than they might otherwise be, Hobbes’s emphasis is on creating a commonwealth that seeks to prevent them from becoming any worse than they already are.

The idea of a social contract justifying the citizen’s obedience to the laws is, at least in a rudimentary form, as old as Socrates, who, in the Crito, explains that he cannot leave Athens (and thus escape a death sentence) because by living all his life in the city he has implicitly agreed to abide by its laws and, as a just man, he must honour that agreement. Hobbes expands considerably on the idea. It is reasonable and natural, he declares, for human beings in a state of nature to establish a commonwealth in the way he suggests: the new state satisfies their fervent desire for peace and their rational self-interest in securing their possessions. Moreover, since those party to the contract all sign on willingly, each of them is “Author of all the Actions, and Judgements of the Soveraigne” (Chapter XVIII) and therefore cannot justly complain about the Sovereign’s decisions. Nor can they seek to change the form of Sovereignty, because “they that have already Instituted a Common-wealth, being thereby bound by Covenant, to own the Actions, and Judgements of one, cannot lawfully make a new Covenant, amongst themselves, to be obedient to any other, in any thing whatsoever, without his permission” (Chapter XVIII).

-a Protestant mob threw two Catholic royal governors and their secretary out of a window of Hradčany Castle. The three victims survived the seventy-foot drop. Catholics attributed their survival to the intersession of the Virgin Mary; Protestants responded by pointing out that the three had fallen into a huge pile of shit.

Whether Hobbes believes the state of nature and the formation of a commonwealth are historical events is not entirely clear. At one point he refers to “the savage people in many places of America” living without any government other than small families; elsewhere he suggests that even if the state of nature did not take place as he depicts it, we can infer what life would be like without a commonwealth by looking at how sovereign states are in a similar condition of mutual enmity (“in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another,” (Chapter XIII) or else we can consider what happens when sovereign authority breaks down and civil war ensues.

Hobbes’s views on Sovereignty obviously owe a great deal to the turbulent times in which he lived. For he was writing on politics during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when several central European states and principalities (about seventeen in all) for the first and last time fought a ferociously destructive war over religion, and then during the English Civil War (1642-1651), which pitted supporters of Parliament against supporters of the monarchy.((In 1640, as Civil War loomed, Hobbes left England (in his own words, “the first of those that fled”) and spent the next eleven years in Paris, where he became for a brief period the mathematics tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II.)) Both conflicts featured a bewildering variety of religious sects: Puritans, Anabaptists, Barrowists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Behmenists, Brownists, Levellers, Diggers, Enthusiasts, Familists, Dissenters, Fifth Monarchy Men, Grindletonians, Muggletonians, Philadelphians, Ranters, Sabbatarians, Seekers, Socinians, and others).((The immediate cause of the Thirty Years War set the tone. In the Third Defenestration of Prague (1618), a Protestant mob threw two Catholic royal governors and their secretary out of a window of Hradčany Castle. The three victims survived the seventy-foot drop. Catholics attributed their survival to the intersession of the Virgin Mary; Protestants responded by pointing out that the three had fallen into a huge pile of shit.)) So there was no lack of evidence all around Hobbes of the horrific nature of civil war, of the consequences of divided or weak power in the governing of a state, and of the viciously quarrelsome nature of competing religious sects.

The loss of religious uniformity produced competing visions of human virtue and this, in turn, made (and continues to make) traditional virtue ethics difficult to sustain in a large heterogeneous population. Hobbes tackles this issue by, in effect, dismissing virtue and insisting that the Sovereign’s law trumps everything.((Hobbes admires virtue but does not think there is enough of it to maintain peace in the Commonwealth: “That which gives to humane Actions the relish of Justice, is a certain Noblenesse or Gallantnesse of courage, (rarely found,) by which a man scorns to be beholding for the contentment of his life, to fraud, or breach of promise. (Chapter XV))) The subject’s only obligation is to obey the civil laws. If there is a conflict between an individual’s religious beliefs and the laws or the doctrines of a state religion imposed by the Sovereign, the latter take precedence, at least in public (Hobbes is not as concerned about the variety of religious opinions as he is about the appearance of religious differences). Beyond that, Hobbes lists nineteen Laws of Nature relating to human conduct, most of which boil down to a single maxim, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe” (Chapter XV). It is not altogether clear whether he sees these laws as divinely ordained rules, or precepts discovered by reason, or both. Nor, given Hobbes’s description of human nature, is it clear how a sufficient number of subjects would be able to reason their way to acting with Justice, Gratitude, Complaisance, Equity, and the rest.

Hobbes becomes particularly interesting in those sections discussing the liberty of subjects, especially when he announces, almost casually: “As for other Lyberties, they depend on the silence of the Law. In cases where the Sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the Subject hath the liberty to do, or forbeare, according to his own discretion” (Chapter XXI). In other words, ‘Whatever is not expressly forbidden by the Sovereign’s law is allowed,’ a bold new constitutional principle, whose ramifications are truly emancipating, because it creates a space in which subjects are free from any restraints imposed by outside influences (especially by communal traditions). In this private space, for example, subjects are free to work, to dress, to socialize, to entertain themselves, and to practise religion, as they choose.((Hobbes’s views on religious toleration are ambiguous. He is obviously against any religious doctrine that poses a threat to the Sovereign and is extremely suspicious of the clergy (Catholic and Protestant). However, he recognizes that religion is important to a great many people and recommends that the commonwealth should make room for different professions of faith: “And so we are reduced to the Independency of the Primitive Christians to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, every man as he liketh best: Which, if it be without contention . . . is perhaps the best: First, because there ought to be no Power over the Consciences of men, but of the Word it selfe, working Faith in every one, not alwayes according to the purpose of them that Plant and Water, but of God himself, that giveth the Increase: and secondly, because it is unreasonable in them, who teach there is such danger in every little Errour, to require of a man endued with Reason of his own, to follow the Reason of any other man, or of the most voices of many other men. . . .” (Chapter XLVII).))

Hobbes himself offers no specific suggestions in Leviathan about what subjects should do with this new liberty (now commonly called Negative Liberty, a term coined by Isaiah Berlin in 1958) or about how generous a Sovereign should be in providing it (he concedes that the amount will vary from one sovereign to another). He seems to assume that, if subjects have sufficient liberty to do whatever they wish in a peaceful commonwealth, they will concentrate on acquiring the “power and means to live well,” enjoying a “harmelesse liberty; For supreme Commanders can conferre no more to their civill happinesse, than that being preserved from forraign and civill warres, they may quietly enjoy that wealth which they have purchased by their own industry.”((De Cive XIII.VI De Cive (public-library.uk))) Their desire to create and sustain a commodious life for themselves and the energies they devote to that end will generate and circulate wealth, which is “as it were the Sanguification of the Common-wealth: For naturall Bloud is in like manner [as gold and silver] made of the fruits of the Earth; and circulating, nourisheth by the way, every Member of the Body of Man” (Chapter XXI). And a shrewd Sovereign who takes Hobbes’s advice about always enacting legislation that has in mind the public good will realize that his own wealth and power are augmented by the getting and spending of his subjects. It is a political arrangement tailor-made for the new spirit of capitalism, and it illuminates the nature of Hobbes’s great political gamble: given the chance, most people would rather make a comfortable life for themselves than kill each other over religion.

Hobbes himself is aware that what he is proposing is a gamble, for if people fear the torments of hell more than they fear death or love the putative rewards of Eternal Salvation more than the delights of a commodious life, the Commonwealth cannot survive:

It is impossible a Common-wealth should stand, where any other than the Soveraign, hath a power of giving greater rewards than Life; and of inflicting greater punishments than Death. Now seeing Eternall Life is a greater reward, than the Life Present; and Eternall Torment a greater punishment than the Death of Nature; It is a thing worthy to be well considered, of all men that desire (by obeying Authority) to avoid the calamities of Confusion, and Civill war, what is meant in Holy Scripture, by Life Eternall, and Torment Eternall; and for what offences, against whom committed, men are to be Eternally Tormented; and for what actions, they are to obtain Eternall Life. (Chapter XXXVIII).

Roughly half of Leviathan is taken up with a detailed exegesis of Biblical passages, in an attempt to show, among other things, that key scriptural texts are to be understood as metaphorical rather than as literal depictions of what lies in store for people after death. The space he devotes to this exercise is a clear indication of how important he considers it. Hobbes, by his own admission a timid man, was treading on dangerous ground here, inviting a charge of atheism. And, in fact, he came perilously close to suffering severe punishment when (in 1666) a committee of parliament was “impowered to receive Information touching such Books as tend to Atheism, Blasphemy, or Profaneness . . . and, in particular . . . the Book of Mr. Hobbs, called The Leviathan. . . .”((House of Commons Journal Volume 8: 17 October 1666 | British History Online (british-history.ac.uk). By this time the monarchy had been restored and Hobbes had been granted a pension by Charles II, his old pupil.)) As a result of this enquiry, Hobbes was not allowed to publish in England any more books dealing with human conduct. In some quarters, he was attacked as an “atheistical monster,” “the spawn of our Age, and the Plague of our unhappy Nation,” and the term Hobbism became a perjorative epithet aimed at those perceived to be enemies of the established church.((Quoted in Stefan W. Brown, “Enlightened Hobbism: Aspects of the Eighteenth-Century Reception of Hobbes in Britain,” Stefan W. Brown, PhD Thesis, p.1, https://qspace.library. queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/27745/Brown_Stefan_W_202004_PHD.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.))

But the 18th century, a period of intense arguments about social reforms, revolutionary politics, and the role of religion in government, could hardly ignore the writer who had redefined discussions of the subject. While few of Hobbes’s successors found his vision of human nature or his views on the absolute power of the Sovereign congenial, they adopted his notion of a state formed by an association of equals who willingly enter into a social contract to form a strong central government, and they endorsed equality, negative liberty, the importance of reason and science, the rule of law, and scepticism about ecclesiastical authority―all central to the drafting of the American Constitution (1787).((John Locke (1632-1704), Hobbes’s contemporary and most famous successor, for many years claimed he had not read Hobbes–a claim that (to borrow a comparison from Stuart Gillespie vis-à-vis Darwin and Lucretius) is about as credible as Milton insisting that before writing Paradise Lost he had not read the Book of Genesis. However, the recent discovery of an 18th century manuscript strongly suggests that Locke was not telling the truth. (https://www.theguardian.com /books/2021/jun/24/lost-memoir-paints- revered – philosopher-john-locke-as-vain-lazy-and-pompous).)) Indeed, so pervasive were the ideas first introduced by Hobbes that one can make a case that the Enlightenment was “fundamentally Hobbesian because of its acceptance of the assumption that humanity was comprised of atomized, pleasure-seeking individuals” or “that . . .[it] might be construed as Hobbesian because of its rejection of the other worldly for the temporal.”((Brown, op. cit, p.362)) And Hobbes is now widely regarded, along with John Locke, as the father of classic liberalism, a dominant presence in our political life ever since.

That liberal tradition has been vigorously challenged by those who are dissatisfied with, among other things, the notion of Negative Liberty and who insist that real freedom means more than simply the absence of external obstacles. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), for example, did not accept the idea that the citizens’ true liberty was staying at home enjoying their wealth, a condition which, in his view, robbed them of their moral freedom and thus their full stature as human beings. His remedy was full and continuous participation in the political process, so that citizens could achieve true freedom, because each of them would then be a stakeholder in the process that determined the general will and passed the laws by which they all had to live. A citizen who proved recalcitrant would be “forced to be free” (Social Contract, Chapter VII). Karl Marx (1818-1883) called attention to the fact that increasing numbers of ostensibly “free” citizens were anything but that, given that the material conditions of their lives kept them in a state of grinding poverty and alienating labour, something that could be addressed only by an inevitable revolutionary change. T. H. Green (1836-1882) argued that true freedom is a means to an end, the self-realization of all members of society, not just of one select group:

But we rightly refuse to recognize the highest development of an exceptional individual or exceptional class, as an advance of the true freedom towards man. If the ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all members of human society alike to make the best of themselves, we are right in refusing to ascribe the glory of freedom to a state in which the apparent elevation of the few is founded on the degradation of many.((Quoted in “Thomas Hill Green: Bio, Life and Political Ideas.” Thomas Hill Green: Bio, Life and Political Ideas (politicalsciencenotes.com)))

The political programme of these “progressive” liberals (often called social or socialist liberals) advances an agenda designed to increase what, to use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology once more, has come to be called Positive Liberty: “the eager maintenance of that atmosphere in which men have the opportunity to be their best selves” (Harold Laski, 1893-1950). Such a programme seeks to address through government intervention a wide range of factors that prevent a citizen who may enjoy a measure of Negative Liberty from taking control of her life because she is poor, or ill, or unskilled, or hungry, or homeless, or hampered by oppressive social attitudes (racism, homophobia, antisemitism, sexism, xenophobia, and so on).

Since an increase in Positive Liberty for one group always comes at the expense of Negative Liberty for another, the conflict between classic liberals and social liberals are frequent and intense. They have largely defined our domestic politics for the last two hundred years (at least): one side routinely promoting Negative Liberty (lower taxes, less government interference, fewer regulations) and the other routinely promoting Positive Liberty (higher minimum wage, medical benefits, increased welfare and unemployment insurance, stricter labour laws, higher taxes, affordable housing). It is misleading, of course, to suggest that there are only two camps, since, as John Charvet points out, nowadays liberalism is best thought of as a political movement “. . . along a continuum of possible social forms, all based on the liberal principle of equal liberty. At one extreme of this continuum is libertarian anarchy with no government at all, which is followed by . . . increasing levels of government intervention all the way to the government ownership of the means of production at the other extreme”.(((Liberalism – Some Issues In Liberal Theory And Practice – Press, Women, University, and Cambridge – JRank Articles)))

The success of this political movement is a tribute to how handsomely Hobbes’s gamble has paid off. In the west all our serious political options are now on the liberal continuum (in North America we have no political traditions from before Hobbes, other than those of our indigenous populations), and attaining and retaining a comfortable and free existence in our own suitably furnished private spaces has long been the most widely shared measure of a flourishing life.

Still, one has to wonder how long this success will continue, for it rests on the promise of a commodious lifestyle and equal liberty for all, and capitalism, the economic engine that has so far made that possible, is now a major cause of the growing wealth gap (which makes a commodious life unattainable for increasing numbers of citizens) and of the climate crisis (which threatens to make large tracts of the earth uninhabitable). Resolving these two urgent global problems (and others) will almost certainly require draconian remedies and a degree of enforced international cooperation between countries that at present are mutually hostile. It is difficult to imagine how we are to muddle our way through these hazards without measures that seriously encroach on the “harmlesse” liberties we have come to expect as our birthright.