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84 Hobbes and the Just Man

so as, unless a man endeavours to preserve the faculty of HOBBES iDN THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
right reasoning he cannot observe the laws of nature, it
is manifest, that he who knowingly or willingly, doth KONALD. HEPBUI^
aught whereby the rational faculty may be destroyed or
weakened, he knowingly, and willingly, breaks the law
of nature . . . But they destroy and weaken the reason Hobbes wrote copiously oh the philosophy of religion:
ing faeulty, who do that which disturbs the mind from so cppiously that one would expect him tp haye madp
its natiual state; that which most manifestly happens to his vip^oint and attitude about reli^on abundantly
drunkards and gluttons. We therefore sin, in twentieth dear. Yet there could pot |iave been greater disagreemept
place, against the law of nature by .drunkenness.^ among his interpreters and critics, from his own. day to
Hobbes presents us with an account of the generation the present,. Many have seen hirri as a crypto-atheist,
of civilised man by a steady refinement of what look ini and all he wrote on Gods incomprehensible nature^ as
tially like rather unpromising materials. Part of the obliquely sceptical. If has been argued thaj, for all the
plausibility of this process results from the fact that in bulk of Hobbess yyriting about religion, the ^rpundipg
many ways it parallels the way in which society manu of his moral and political philosophy in no ,way depends
factures citizens out of babies. In Hobbes we have a pro upon theological beliefs. These beliefs, are idling wheels
found exploration of the pessimistic platitude that civili in, his system, and we can eliininate them without loss.
sation is merely a veneer over natural barbarismand But other commentatorssome of them very recent writ
earlier generations commonly took children as barbarians erstake an entirely, different view and see Hobbess
who had to be civilised by the stick. The end product.of theology as integral to his thought as a .whole. If Hobbes
this evolution resembles Spinozas rational man who has had wanted to construct an essentially secular system,
released himself from the bondage of the passions, and is they say, he would hardly have; made his theology so ar
distinguished by the fact that he is active, not passive. resting and confroversial a structure in its own right.
Similarlyj a generous nature is one with a firm and civi
On the other-hapd, it is not . so. eccentric a structiue
lised character pf his own, one not entirely at the mercy that .we cannot find echoes' in it of undoubtedly ^eriqus
of the ceaseless pressure of passion and environment. and .central theologians such as TertuUian, Aquinas, and
Calvin. Where Hobbes is agnostic, they are agnbsfic also.
31 De Cive, III, 25. The incompetence of natural reasoning about'Gods na-
toe and the Christians dependence upon scriptural rev
elation are themes common 'to late medieval fideism and
mid-twentieth-cehtury biblical theiology. There are post-
Wittgensteinian fideists: and even a Roman CathbHc
philosopher like.Peter Geach can seriously look for sup
port for his religious moral philosophy to Hobbess ac
count of morality and divine command, (God and the
Soul, 1969,.pp. iiyff).
This essay was written especially for this volume by R. W. Hep-
bum, Professor of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh.
86 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 87
To A. E. TayloA a certain kind of theism is absolutely covenant that creates sovereignty), that* doctrine comes
necessary to make [Hobbess] theory work, e.g., his the with the authority of the sovereign himself! (John Pla-
ory of natural law {Hobbes Studies, ed. K. C. Brown, menatz, in Hobbes Studies, p. 80.)
1965, p. 50). What Hobbess critics have often taken as On yet another view, Hobbess system requires athe
insincere verbiage on the topic of deity was in fact a ism, and only circumspection prevented him saying so.
very proper repudiation of anthropomorphism. Leo Strauss*sees Hobbess theory of natural law as de
With equal assurance, however, other writers have duced from the most powerful of all passionsnamely,
urged that such theologically solemn readings of Hobbes fear of violent death at the hands of "others. This fear,
are misguided and naive. It is often argued that Hobbess however, is reliably the most powerful, only if it is not
laws of nature can perfectly well be taken as rational, in competition with fear of supernatural powers. It is thus
prudential principles in need of no supernatural sanc an a-religious or atheistic society that Hobbess philoso
tion. D. P. Gauthier argues (in The Logic of Leviathan, phyreally requires, despite aU his theological protesta
1969) that Hobbess philosophy is a secular philosophy: tions {Hobbes Studies, pp. 12, 26f).
both its formal structure and its material content are in These brief samplings may serve to indicate the range
dependent of theologicalbeliefs (pp. 204f). All obhga- of disagreement over Hobbess philosophy of religion. I
tlons are human creations: in general an obligation not am not going to engage in debate with those rival inter-
to do X is created by laying down the natural right to do pretations seriatim, nor argue in detail over*the question
X (pp. 40f). This is not to deny that Hobbes saw the of Hobbess sincerity or insincerity. Rather, I shall Con
laws of nature as divine laws; but it is not as divine laws centrate on a small number of central themes in his phi
that the laws of nature enter into Hobbess moral the losophy of religion and ask the question How good or
ory (pp. 69f). bad is this part of HQbbess writing? 'The topics will be:
F. S. McNeilly (The Anatomy of Leviathan, 1968) be (1) Hobbess arguments for the existence of God; (2)
lieves that it is not of the least importance to Hobbes the problem of our knowledge of Gods nature: the in
... to regard God as author of the laws of nature (pp. competence of natural reasoning, and the incomprehen-
211 f). Hobbes could have denied Gods existence alto sibihty of God; (3) a tension between two moments in
gether, without weakening his arguments in the least de Hobbes^ theology, the one making God sublimely remote
gree. More generally, in Hobbess philosophy, and in and disengaged from the world, the other bringing him
most of the philosophy of his time, God was Mcked up into a very close relation -with nature; and (4) Hobbess
stairs: he was not assassinated, but retired into con fideism.
stitutional monarchy. He was hke a machine maker who It is easily shovm that Hobbes constructed his philoso
subsequently keeps his finger out of the works (p. 22). phy of religion out of theological materials that had a
Other writers have complained not simply that theism thoroughly respectable, indeed distinguished history.
idles in Hobbes, but that it is, rather, a positive soiuce Nevertheless, I want to argue, his peculiar way of put
of confusion. Hobbes speaks strangely of God, if his pur ting together these materials, the roles he wanted them
pose is to make use of him to explain why we obey our to play in his system, come very close to being self-
rulers; strangely, because appeal to an avowedly incom stultifying or self-undermining. Because there is confusion
prehensible being can hardly explain or clarify anything. at a fondamental level (in his discourse about God as
And if it is by revealed doctrine that we learn of divine such), Hobbess theological claims cannot serve him as
punishment hereafter (and thus that we should keep the a foundation or grounding for morals or pohtics.
88 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 89
Does this not open the way to seeing Hobbes as indeed any generation, ... or which is capable of composition
a sceptical propagandist, an oblique sceptic, who shows and resolution. Theology, in contrast, is concerned with
that a coherent theology cannot be fashioned? I am du the doctrine of God, eternal, ingenerable, incomprehen
bious about this, on two scores. First: the case against sible (English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmes
Hobbess sincerity is much weaker than has often been bury, Vol. I, p. 10. These volumes hereafter will be re
supposed (see, e.g., W. B. Glover, in Hobbes Studies, ferred to as E.W.). Equally certainly there are places
Chapter 7). Second: if it was his consistent intention to where Hobbes does allow philosophical reasoning the ca
show this incoherence, he had the wit, the subtlety, and pacity to show Gods existence. K. C. Brown quotes
certainly the courage to show it much more effectively Hobbess words in De Give, that by the light of nature it
than he did, even if still obliquely and under a front of may be known that there is a God (E.W., Vol. II, p.
theism. As it is, he missed many chances of sharpening 27). In its context this is a very unstressed and incidental
the sceptically tending side of his theological writing: remarkvidthin a discussion of oaths; but it is not unique.
too many for this to be a convincing interpretation of Hobbes wrote to Bramhall: It is agreed between us, that
his aim. right reason dictates there is a God (E.W., Vol. IV, p.
"It is most reasonable to see Hobbess philosophy of re 293; also noted by Brown, loc. cit.).
ligion as an tmsuccessful ventureunsuccessful either as Could not Gods nature be incomprehensible, and yet
construction or as destruction. One can pass that verdict the question of his existence be vrithin the scope of rea
upon the venture as a whole, but neve^eless see parts son? This is a familiar and tempting reconciling formula,
of it as retaining real philosophieal interest. and one expressly relied upon by Hobbes (e.g., E.W.,
Vol. IV, pp. 59!). But it is not a satisfactory view. Some
thing does have to be knowable about his nature before
1. Hobbess Arguments for the Existence of God we could even meaningfully identify the being whose
Various versions of causal and teleological arguments existence reason is investigating. It is true that Hobbes
are scattered about Hobbess writings. A recent discus admits the existence of countless beings whose nature he
sion of them appears in Hobbes Grounds for Belief in declares is unknowable to us by natural reason.
a Deity by K. C. Brown (in Philosophy, 1962). Hobbes In this natural kingdom of God, there is no other way
claimed we can know that God exists by the light of nat to know anything, but by natural reason, that is, from
ural reason, and (according to Brovm) he saw teleologi the principles of natural science; which are so far from
cal reasoning as the more fundamental form of argument. teaching us any thing of Gods nature, as they cannot
Brown repudiates Strausss claim that these arguments teach us our own natxue, nor the nature of the smallest
constitute only a residue of tradition which contradicts creature living. [E.W., Vol. HI, pp. 353 f.]
the whole of Hobbess philosophy. Hobbes in fact used
teleological arguments at the beginning of their period Hobbess scepticism about our knowledge of Gods na-
of greatest popularity. true, nevertheless, runs far more deeply than his scepti
On the power of natural reason to show Gods exist cism about generated beings: so deeply that it is a real
ence, Hobbes, it seems to me, has an equivocal position. problem whether he can say enough to conduct an argu
There are places where he restricts the scope of philo- ment about the divine existence.
'sophical reason to what is generated. The subject of In some contexts Hobbes does not make a contrast be
Philosophy ... is every body of which we can conceive tween Gods existence, knowable by reason, and Gods
C|o Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 91

attributes, incomprehensible. He includes existence an a posteriori argument from the design we find in the
among the divine attributes, and the contrast becomes world. In Leviathan, causal and teleological arguments
one between attributes that are and are not accessible do indeed appear together in one sentence. By the visi
to reason. This carries Hobbes at least to the borders of ble things in this world, and their admirable order, a
the Ontological Argument. It is manifest, we ought man may conceive there is a cause of them, which men
to attribute to him. existence. For no man can have the call God (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 93: cf. Brown, p. 342). But
will to honom: that, 'whieh he thinks not to have any it is hard to see Hobbes as giving any priority to the
being. . . There is but one name to signify our con teleplogical aspect, since many more words, earlier in the
ception of his nature, and that is, I AM (E.W., Vol. same paragraph, are given to the argument j6rom*the re
HI, pp. 350 f, 353; cf. E.W., Vol. II, p. 216). Hobbess gress of causal dependence. This regress leads of neces
language hesitates between offering a clarificationof nat sity ... to this thought at last, that there is some cause,
whereof there is no former cause, but is eternal; which it
ural religious thinking about God, and an ontological
argument in-the proper sense, whereby Gods existence is men call God. And in the next chapter Hobbes returns
is demonstrated from the conception of supreme per again to the specifically causal version. The acknowl
fection itself. Hobbes does not elaborate the latter possi edging of one God eternal [etc.] may more easily be de
bility-consistent though it would be with his great em rived from desire to know causes of natural bodies,
phasis on thinking worthily enough about God: it was than from fear (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 95).
very much less consistent with the empiricist side of his Two other teleological reflections are quoted by K. C.
thought. Brown. One is in Decameron Physiologicum (E.W., Vol.
Even if it were true that teleological-argument is, on VII, pp. 175 ff): "... it is very hard to believe, that to
the whole', more important to Hobbes than purely causal produce male and female, and all that belongs thereto,
argument, he nevertheless does deploy some arguments as also the several and curious organs of sense and mem
to God as the ultimate causal power. God is the first ory, could be the work of anything that had not under
I power of all powers and first cause of all causes (E.W., standing. Then in De Homine (Complete Latin Works
of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Vol. II, p. 6; hereafter
I Vol. IV, pp. 59 f). In order to explain the'various effects
referred to as L.W.) Hobbes declares how evident it is
we acknowledge naturally, we must presuppose some
thing existent that hath [the] power to produce them; that the mechanisms of generation and nutrition are
and this in turn, if it were not eternal, must needs have constructed by some mind [a mente aliqua]. The topic
been produced by somewhat before it ... till we come reappears on pp. 106 f: When men contemplated the
to an eternal, that is to say, the first power of all powers vastness of heaven and earth and the organorum in-
and first cause of all causes; and this it is which all men geniosissimam fabricam, they were moved both to a
conceive by the name of God (E.W., Vol. IV, pp. 59 f). sense of their own insignificance and to marvel at the
This type of argument is an integral part of Hobbess incomprehensibile illud, a quo condita sunt maxima.
While Hobbes certainly alludes in these places to tele
necessitarianism. God is the first link in the chains of
causality. By tfi^ word God we understand the worlds ological argumentation, and presents such an argument
in outline, his allusions are much too perfunctory and in
cause (E.W., Vol. II, pp. 213!). He does sound a possi
ble teleological note three sentences later, where hfe de cidental to provide a philosophical foundation for theism.
fends Gods government of the world of mankind; but He makes no attempt, for instance, to show that one
this is an a pricfri argument from divine perfection, not could identify a designer (some mind) with the one.
92 Hohbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 93
infinite,'eternal deity, perfect in his attributes. If one From Nothing can move itself it may rightly be in
looks at the contexts of the allusions to teleology, the ferred that there was some first eternal movent; yet it
impression of perfunctoriness is' confirmed. ThcpaSs^ge can never be inferred . . . that that movent was eter
in Decameron Physiologicum occurs in a discussion of nally immoveable, but rather eternally moved [aeter-
whether the earth has* retained the powfer of producing num motum^h.W., Vol. I, p. 336]. For as it is true,
new hving creatures. The teleological argument is brief, that nothing is moved by itself; so it is, true also that
naively presented, and in n6 ^aydefended against pos nothing is moved but by that which is already moved.
sible objections. Nor is it any more fully tre'ated in L.W., The questions, therefore about the magnitude and be
Vol. II, p. 6, where it occupies part of one.sehtence only, ginning of the world, are not to be determined by phi
though it is forceful in expression. The later reference in losophers, but by those that are lawfully authorized to
De Homine (L.W., Vol. II, pp. 106 f) occupies at least order the worship of God.
one long sentence; but here HobbesS main concefn is Hobbes therefore cannot commend people who boast
with tracing the origin of the Sense of natural piety they have demonstrated that the world had a beginning
(in a chapter entitled De Affectionibus), not with
(E.W., Vol. I, pp. 411-13).
advancing grounds fof theistic belief.-
How much damage, then, does Hobbes do here to
Does the specifically causal argument fare any better? his own use of causal arguments to God? K. C. Brown
It involves a formidable religious difiBcultynamely, argues that Hobbes is primarily concerned to chasten
whether a being who is involved in the Sferies of causes those who claim to demonstrate the existence of God
and efFects (even if as first member) can have suflBcient in a very strong sense. Where demonstration is impossi
transcendence to be the God of Christian theism. ble, the mind may yet be inclined to belief rather than
The most serious philosophical question to askabdut to unbelief. Hobbes does indeed inveigh against
Hobbess causal argument is whether he dompletely un would-be demonstrators. But he also denies that we can
dermined his own use of it, in the well-known passage determine any of the ultimate cosmological questions
in De Corpore, Chapter 26, Of the World and the Stars. by philosophical reasoning. Determining is a broader
In that chapter Hobbes states that only a yery few ques notion than that of quasi-mathematical demonstration
tions can be investigated aTrout the world as such, and as is evident from the fact that those cosmological ques
those we can determine, none. Considering the worlds tions are to be determined by religious authorities.
duration, we ask whether it had a beginning or be eter These latter will certainly not demonstrate them more
nal; and if it'had a beginning, then by what cause . . . geometrico.
and again whence that cause . . . till at last we come to Hobbes is surely expressing a deep scepticism about
one or many eternal cause or causes (loc. cit.). Now, our abihty to infer from given causal dependences to an
knowledge of the infinite is unattainable by a finite en eternal mover, not itself moved. Fatigue rather than logic
quirer. And though a man can prevents the regress of causal .explanation being indefi
ascend continually by, right ratiocination from cause nitely pursued. Even if we are able to postulate a first
to cause; yet he will not be able to proceed eternally, eternal movent, that being cannot without more ado,
but wearied will at last give over, without knowing be identified with God: for the eternal mover may
whether it were possible for him to pfoceed to an end eternally owe its motion to another. Hobbes does not
or not. go on to argue that a regress of eternally moved
94 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 95

movers is impossible; reason oannot, here, decide be some cause whereof there is no former cause, but is
tween one or many eternal cause or causes (E.W., Vol. eternal . . . (my italics in both quotations).^
I, pp. 411, 412). K. C. Brown states that in the last re Furthermore, iJF Hobbes wished seriously to defend the
sort Hobbesian matter cannot create itself by its own logic of argument from world to God, it is hard to under
motions, nor determine its own basic characteristics. Nor stand why he made no attempt in the De Corpore pas
indeed, one wants to say, can anything else. If we want sage to restrict its obviously sceptical implications: either
to reach theism, we have to rule out what Hobbes de on St. Thomas lineseven if the world were eternal, it
nies we can rule out, viz., the possibility that the eternal would be eternally insuflficient without Godor else by
cause of the world (whatever it might itself be a arguing that although causal argument is unreliable, the
movens, only because it is also, eternally, a motum. design argument is unaffected. If Hobbes saw teleologiqal
In Human Nature, as we saw, Hobbes did claim that considerations as fundamental to his theism, and saw the
the causa^ regress led reliabjy to an eternal, that is to ism as fundamental to his whole system, it is extraordi
say the first power of all powers, and first caue of all nary that he made no extended allusion to teleology in
causes . . . which all men conceive by the name of God a chapter on what can be known by reason about the
(E.W., Vol. IV, pp. 59 f); and in Leviathan he claimed world and the stars.
that which is eternal has no cause (E.W., Vol. HI, In a word, Hobbess natural religious arguments for
p. 351). H^e Hobbes ignores the possibility that what is Gods existence are not well presented or well defended.
eternal might, even so, be still moved itself, a motum. On the other hand, there is no strong case for seeing
To accept the De Corpore passage cannot fail to under them as consistently ironical and obliquely sceptical
mine these versions of the causal argument. though the De Corpore passage does make it hard to see
A rejoinder might be offered on these lines. Hobbes him as caring whether his reader retains belief in argu
is no more sceptical than St. Thomas Aquinas; for St. ments from the world to God.^
Thomas also denied that we can Icnow by natural reason
whether or not the world had a temporal beginning. We 11 stress the temporal reference in these contexts, in view of K. C.
can learn this by revelation alone. And that did not pre Brown's remark (itself looking back to A. G. Wemham) that
Hobbess concept of a cause had no necessary connection with
vent St. Thomas from making his First and Second antecedent motion, or with temporal antecedence at all (op. dt,
"Ways versions of eausal argument. Only they were not p. 341). Brown may well be right that the ambiguities of Hobbess
arguments from the impossibility of infinite temporal concept of cause made it difficult for him clearly to distinguish
causal regresses, but from the impossibility of an infinite between First Mover and Teleological types of argument.
regress of simultaneous causal conditions. A thing 2K. C. Brown wrote: the Argument from Design is immune to
the objections raised against proofs of the beginning of the world
which exists' always is not exempted from needing an in the De Corpore passage . . . since its whole assmnption is that
other in order to exist {Disputations III, De Pot., 13, one recognizes the possibility that the world might have had no
ad 1; trans. T. Gilby). Creator, but decides that the wonders of nature make this incredi
In the causal arguments we have sampled from ble (op. cit., p. 341).
Three comments: (i) I have not wished to deny that Hobbips
Hobbes, however, we do not find him exploiting this dis could consistently appeal to the Design Argument, in a dispute over
tinction. The regress of causes leads to some existent the scope of the sceptical arguments in De Corpore. ^
which, if it were not eternal, must needs have been pro (ii) I do wish to claim, however, that the De Corpore passage
duced by somewhat before it; and so back to God as (which I have quoted more fully than Brown) is more potentially
first cause (E.W., Vol. IV, pp. 59 f): or, in Leviathan, to sceptical than Brown brings out, or than Hobbes himself may haye
96 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 97
anthes replies: If our ideas ... be not just and ade
quate, and correspondent to [Gods] real nature, I know
z. Gods Nature as Incomprehensible not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is
We may know that God is, not what he is; for we have the name, without any meaning, of such mighty impor
no knowledge of infinites. Attributes we do apply to God tance? (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed.
are expressions either of our inabihty to comprehend him Kemp Smith, pp. 157f).
or of our desire to honour him. To speak, for instance, of Hobbes certainly saw the pertinence of this question,
Gods wisdom is to speak of an incomprehensible attri where the doctrines of schoolmen were concerned. Scho
bute given to an incomprehensible nature, for to honour lastic writings abounded in names without meaning. In
him (E.W., Vol. Y, p. 212). To philosophize about such corporeal spirit and eternal now were precisely that.
atttibutes necessarily results in deeper obscurity, not in Hobbes did wish, however, to accept many propositions
clarification. What we say about God must'be limited about Godnamely the propositions of Scripturewhile
to what the Scriptmes authorize u^ to say. This is a per himself acknowledging that many of those too were in
plexing position, for if Gods liature is altogether incom comprehensible! He relied, in doing so, on a distinction
prehensible, what meaning can our discomse about him between two sorts of incomprehensibilityof words
possesswhether or not the words we use of him are the and of the thing. When the nature of the thing is in
words of Scriptrue? comprehensible, I can acquiesce in the Scripture: but
The basic difficulty about divine attributes is nicely when the significance of words is incomprehensible, I
expressed by Hume in the Dialogues. Demea argues that cannot acquiesce in the authority of a Schoolman (An
if it appear more pious and'respectful (as it really is) Answer to Bishop Bramhall, E.W., Vol. IV, p. 314). He
-still to retain these terms, whefa we mention the supreme relied also on a distinction between what is contrartf to
Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in reason and what is above reason (E.W., Vol. Ill, p.
that case, is totally incomprehensible. To which Gle- 360). Can these distinctions, as Hobbes presents them,
bear the weight he required them to bear?
realized. The Argument from Design is not immune to the cri
God is described, for instance, as speaking to Moses
tique it presents in'outline. It is not tiU Hume that these difiScul- on Mount Sinai. To say God spake and appeared as he
ties are vividly seen and expressed (though Hume drew upon Strato is in his own nature, is to deny his infiniteness, invisibil
and Bayle): the chief problem being how to prevent a regress-of ity, incomprehensibility. . . . Therefore, Hobbes con
designing minds, if any move beyond the world is ventured at all. cludes, in what manner God spake ... is not intelli
{Cf. Dialogues IV.) But,' once more, I am not following those writ
ers who see Hobbes aS deliberately and* systematically sabotaging gible (E.W., Vol. HI, pp. 419 f). Here is Hobbes taking
his own theism, argument by argument. his own advice to captivate om: understanding to the
(iii) Brown has not feally persuaded me that although the First words [of Scripture] (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 360). Without
Mover Argument is an important supportingargument, the Argu- such captivating, Hobbes could have made as good a case
ment'from Design is the more fundamental to Hobbes. for this scriptural claim as being contrary to reason as he
Cf. A. G. N. Flew, Hobbes, in A Critical History of Western
Philosophy, ed. D. j. OConnor, 1964, p. 169: Revelation is at did with any scholastic metaphysical paradox.
most a way of learning that something is trfie; this problem is one But we have seen that the incomprehensibility is not
of understanding. Cf. also J.' S. Mill (against Mansel),: all trust limited to particular cruces: it afiFects virtually all dis
in a Revelation presup'poses a coiiviction that Gods attributes are course about God. How do we know that it is due to the
the same, in all but degree, with the best human attributes (Ex
amination of Sir William Hamiltons Philosophy, Chapter 7}. incomprehensibility of the thing and not mere incqm-
g8 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 99
prehensibilify of words? I do pot think this can be both the events and the possibility of their being \wt-
known, on Hobbess account. In order to Tmow it, we nessed are inconceivable.
should have to have some kind of independent access Hobbes does, on occasion, try to mitigate the prob
to, or experience of, the thing, by virtue of which we lem. It is to be noted, he wrote, that when God speaks
could then say, Our words fall sl^ort of their target; but to men concerning his wdl and other attributes, he speaks
our aim and direction are at least /oughly correct. Such of them as if they were hke to those of men, to the
end he may be understood (E.W., Vol. V; p. 14). But
an account may be open to a waiter who accepts a hier
archical ontology, and admits enough continuity between this claim that we do understand, at least sometimes, is
hard to reconcile with the other and repeated claim that
predication in the human and in the divine spheres for in revealed discourse about God the mind is incapable
a doctrine of analogy to be possible. In most contexts, of any notion at all from the words spoken. It implies,
however, Hobbes so emphasizes discontinuity that this once again, a continuity between ordinary and theistic
route is quite barred to him. Moreover, the whole bias of senses of words, which elsewhere Hobbes emphatically
Hobbess philosophy of human nature runs against his repudiates. Besides, it introduces a new logical problem.
admitting any range of distinctively religious experiences If we are to accept that God speaks of his attributes as
from which one could extrapolate so as to obtain some if they were like human attributes, we must already be
.inkling of a divine mode of being, freed from the limiting able to attach sense to the proposition God speaks
conditions of human existence.'The task is to have faith i.e., we must understand personhood and speech as at
reposed in him that speaketh (in the Scriptures), tributes of the infinite God. But since this prior condition
though the mind be incapable of any notion at all from is not in fact fulfilled, we are not in a position to take
the words spoken (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 360). Discourse anthropomorphic discourse as a reliable guide to under
about God seems, in such a view, to break down alto standing Gods nature and will.
Hobbes might reply by repeating his claim that the In many contexts Hobbes looks for guidance about
force of such discourse is to honour, not to describe, what can and caimot be said of God to the notion of
God; it signifies neither true nor false . . . but the rever divine perfection. Leaving aside the question of justi
ence and devotion of our hearts (E.W., Vol. V, p. 6). fying this procedure, .let us consider what Hobbes in fact
Honoming and revering are certainly intelligible per does with this important notion. The logic of religious
formances. But on what grounds is it said that God should discourse is a logic of superlatives: we honour not God
be honoured and revered? This relevant question car worthily, if we ascribe less power or greatness to him
ries us back again, inevitably, to scriptural narrative. The than possibly we can (E.W., Vol. II, p. 2x4). We have
scriptural authors testify to Gods mighty acts, to reveal to eliminate aU attributions that signify some finite and
ing events. Some at least of these crucial narratives, how limited thing (ibid.). We cannot say, therefore, that
ever, rely upon language that is avowedly incomprehen God has shape, or parts. Such concepts as sight, knowl
sible. It is hard, therefore, to see how we can find a edge, or understanding, in any sense we can understand,
basis here for judging whether or not honorific epithets involve the ideas of passivity and dependence. What they
' are the appropriate ones. While it makes sense to speak could be in Deity we have no conception whatever
of relying on witnesses of events remote from us in space (E.W., Vol. II, pp. 214-16).
111 or in time, it does not make sense to speak of this when A reader might well wonder whether Hobbes is slyly
100 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn lol
exploiting the theme of divine perfection, in the inter
ests, ultimately, of scepticism. Bearing in mind that
Hobbes also claimed that God was corporeal spirit, his 3. A Tension in Hobbess Account of God
corporeality is (to say the least) on the brink of being One of the chief problems for any theism is to develop
qualified to nothing: no parts, no shape. But I do not see the themes of divine transcendence and perfection to
internal or external evidence to show that Hobbes him the fullest possible extentyet without allowing discourse
self meant his reader to take his writing in this way. Such about God to become sublimely empty. As already noted,
a reading would, I dare say, be compatible with Hobbess Hobbes has been seen by some critics as wanting pre-
use of the perfection argument to support his corporeal cisely'that: t6' escort God safely upstairs, to sky him. Or
spirit doctrine itself. Immaterial-or incorporeal sub assert so radical a discontinuity between world and God
stances were postulated by Plato and Aristotle, hea that his existence rhakes no difference to us and can be
thens, who mistook those ^n inhabitants of the brain altogether discounted. Certainly, the skying movement is
they see in sleep for so many incorporeal men. . . . Do present in Hobbess writing: but I have argued that it is
you think it an honour to God to be one of these? not consistently directed to this end. It needs to be added
(E.W., Vol. IV, pp. 426f). that the whole transcending, skying, movement of
Nonetheless, Hobbes does not consistently and cun Hobbess theology is in tension with another movement,
ningly seize upon any and every use of the perfection no less important to himin which God is attached
argument to increase the offence to reasonwhether by firmly to this worlds let us say, earthed. These are in
piling up the paradoxes or by reducing theological claims tension, because although one could easily enough recon
to nuUity. He will not allow, for instance, that God is cile the two movements in a verbal formula, God is both
infinite in all his attributes, though such a claim has transcendent and immanent, Hobbes gives no real help
the prima facie ring of a perfection argument. It is in in bringing them into a convincingly unified account.
fact unscriptural nonsense (E.W., Vol. V, p. 344). So too Rather, his concept of God splits into two irreconcilable
is the nunc starts account of Gods eternity, with which parts, the one transipendent to the point of sheer incom-
it is logically cgnnected. prehensibihty; and the other involying God too closely
It looks, once again, as if an increase in honour is with nature, as part of nature itself.
paid to God when a theologian says that God is not Hobbes argues, expressly against the total disengage
just, but justice itself; not eternal, but eternity itself; not ment of God from his creation; and he invokes, inter
wise but wisdom itself. On the contrary, Hobbes claims, estingly, a perfection argument to make his point.
these are They . . . have a wretched apprehension of God, ^^ho
unseemly words to be said of God, that he is not imputing idleness to him, do take from him the govern
just . , . eternal . . . wise; and cannot be excused by ment of the world and of mankind. . . . If he mind not
any following but, especially when the but is followed these inferior things, [then] . . . what is above us; doth
by that which is not to be understood. Can any man not concern us.
understand how justice is just, or wisdom wise? [E.W., God would be to men as though he were not at all
Vol. V, p. 342.] (E.W., Vol. II, p. 214).
What, then,, does the earthing movement amount to?
God, once more, is corporeal, since nothing other than
102 Hobhes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 103
body exists. So God acts as body upon body. Although any version of theism, and may possibly be intractable
the most thoroughgoing qualification is required when for theism as such.
concepts hke wisdom, knowledge, love are applied to
God, Hobbes speaks much more directly and assuredly
4. Hobbess Fideism
about Gods power. It does have its mysterious aspects,
since Gods irresistible power, unlike any limited When our reasons, for which we assent to some prop
power, is held to justify all Gods acts. But tius power osition, derive not from the proposition itself, but from
is clearly exerted (as we saw in section i) as causal the person propounding . . our assent ... is called
agency. In addition, Gods "immediate hand is at work faith (E.W., Vol. II, pp. 304 f). Acknowledgment of
in miracles (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 432); and he will causally Scripture to be the Word of God is not evidence, but
act in the setting up, upon earth, of his final kingdom. faith, and faith consisteth in the trust we have of other
Man, at the resurrection,- shall be revived by God, and men; . . . the men so trusted are the holy men of God s
raised to judgment (E.W., Vol. IV, p. 353 ) church, succeeding one another from the time of those
raise a dad carkasse to fife again, and continue him that saw the wondrous works of God Almighty iti the
ahve for ever (E.W.,-Vol. Ill, p. 615). The power of flesh (E.W., Vol. IV, p. 65). The authors of the Bible,
the agent and the efficient cause are the same thing being imbued with one and the same spirit, can be
(E.W., Vol. I, p. 127).^ trusted as giving true registers of the acts of prophets
This earthing movement does constitute an impor and apostles (E.W., Vol. Ill, pp. 375 O-
tant part of Hobbess'theology; for there are close con The criteria for authentic prophecy, to Hobbes, are tbe
nections among' his claims that God is corporeal spirit, performance of miracles and teaching in conformity with
that his etemality is endless existence in time rather than religion already established (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 362). As
timeless being, that the world is a deterministic structure both criteria are necessary, it is difficult to imagine how
with God as its first cause, and that eschatology is to be a religion could be first estabhshed, or (once established)
read in terms of a this-worldly kingdom of God. Con reformed. But the question is idle, since miracles now
tinuity betweeii Gods action and the events of the uni cease and prophets hkewise (E.W., Vol. HI, p. 365).
verse is purchased, however, at a high price. We are to rely solely upon the Holy Scriptures. To raise
To put it another way, Hobbes seems to have bur questions about scriptural authority is ultimately to raise
dened himself with the drawbacks of both the defences questions about law.
of theism in Hmnes Dialogues: with the insufficient He ... to whom God hath not supematurally re
transcendence of Cleanthes designer, and with the ex vealed that [the Scriptures] are his . . . is not obliged
cessive transcendence of Demeas sublimely incompre to obey them, by any authority, but his whose com
hensible Deity. It is only fair to add-that ffithough the mands have already the force of laws
difficulty is particularly glaring in Hobbes, it confronts i.e., the sovereign (E.W., Vol. IH, p. 378). For in
Christian cities, the judgment both of spiritual and tem
^Cf., yet again (in general drift, if not in detail). Mill against poral matters belongs unto the civil authority (E.W.,
Mansel: the doubt whether words applied to God have their hu
man signification is onlj^ifelt when die words relate to his moral Vol. II, p. 297). The question about scriptural authority
attributes; it is never heard of in regard to his power (op. cit.. is the question;' By what authority they are made law
Chapter 7). (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 378)-
104 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 105
We cannot here adequately sample Hobbess biblical those that saw the wondrous works of God Almighty in
theology in action. Against School-argument Hobbes the flesh (E.W., Vol. IV, p. 65). There is a problem,
persistently sets his Scripture-argument (E.W., Vol. IV, ahea'dy noted earHer, as to how anyone could be said
p. 306). The corporeahty of God, for instance, can be to have seen, witnessed, those wondrous works, like
defended by appeal to Scripture. St. Paul wrote: In Gods speaking to Moses, which Hobbes declares to be
[Christ] dwelleth dU the ftdlness of the Godhead bodily incomprehensible. Some scriptural teaching, on the
(E.W., Vol. IV, p. -306). The word incorporeal is not other hand, refers to what is at least prifna facie intelligi
found in Scripture (Ibid., p. 305). The concreteness of ble. The law apart, have we good reason to accept the
biblical language is Hobbess touchstone, and his lever scriptural authors as reliable witnesses? Hobbes sees no
against the abstract and ill-formed formulae of scholasti reason to believe substantial distortion of the record has
cism. Even Hobbess own physiologically centred account occurred (E.W., Vol. Ill, pp. 375 f); but, overall, his
of human nature, though certainly belonging to his own treatment of alleged ancient authorities may well leave
day as an extension of explanation in terms of matter- his readers confidence diminished rather than aug
m-motion, is at the same time reminiscent of Old Testa mented. He fails effectively to insulate the claims of
ment psychology with its unabashed stress on the Scripture from two sorts of sceptical challenge. Hobbes
physical (boweis, heart, reins, as seats of the emo himself characterizes these types of challenge eloquently
tions). To Hobbes, delight is motion about the heart, and incisivelywith reference, of course, to ancient
which helps the vital motion; pain is motion [that] , authorities other than the scriptural authors: but the
weakeneth or hindereth the vital motion (E.W., Vol. IV, way is left open for challenging these also on similar
P- 31)- , , . 1 lines. This possibility is, of course, particularly distmrbing
Serious though fideism is as a Rheological approach, for a Hobbesian theology, since the overwhelming weight
Hobbes himself cannot be said to have made strenuous of its apologetic has been left to rest on scriptural author
efforts to ground and justify his version of it, far less to ity alone.
have succeeded. Consider again the question of scrip One challenge is to the authenticity of alleged claims
tural authority. Have we seen the miracles? Hobbes by individuals to have had divine revelations. Such
rhetorically asKs. Have we any other assurance of their i claims are, to put it mildly, difficult to sustain. For if a
certainty than tho authority of the Church? And the au man pretend to me, that God hath spoken to him super-
thority of the Church? It is one with the authority of naturally and immediately, and I make doubt of it, I
the commonwealth. That authority, in turn, rests with cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce,
the head of the commonwealth, and it is an authority to oblige me to believe it (E.W., Vol. HI, p. 361). Stiff
given him by th^ members (E.W., Vol. V, p. 179). This bolder is the famous remark: To say [God] hath spoken
is an extraordinary account. For the ultimate authority to [someone] in a dream, is no more than to say he
is traced to citizens who have not seen the miracles, and dreamed that God spake to him; which is not of force to
who can be credited with no peculiar wisdom for dis win belief from any man who knows possible naturalistic
criminating authentic from inauthentic claims to revela explanations (E.W., Vol III, p. 361). He ... to whom
tion. God hath not supematuraffy reveled that [the Scrip
I quoted, however, that other derivation of scriptural tures] are his ... is not obliged to obey them, by any
authority, which lodges authority in the holy men of authority, but the civil sovereign (E.W., Vol. HI, p.
Gods church, succeeding one another from the time of 378): Ostensibly, Hobbes has expressed doubts about the
io6 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God Ronald Hepburn 107
possibility of vindicating to others, and convincing others, spoken (E.W., Vol. Ill, p. 360). And he does hot see
that one has had a supernatural revelation: in fact the the Scriptures as setting us in a better way to find out the
same reflections may equally well prompt scepticism in nature of God by ourselvesso that we may in the end
any person about the authenticity of what he has taken intrinsically judge of the matter. We are to remain de
as a revelation to himself. So we should be thrown back pendent on Scripture.
on the sovereigns authorizing the Scriptures. Hobbes speals, and has to speak, of the Scriptures as
If we are dubious about grormding flie authority of
the Word and Commandment of God (e.g., E.W., Vol.
Scripture either upon individual revelation or upon the V, p. 12). But how God can command, how he can com
decree of the civil power, presumably we consider the municate through a Word, is entirely incomprehensi
Bible as an ancient document among other documents. ble, according to Hobbess accormt itself. If Scripture
Hobbes, however, has the harshest things to say (at the speaks of God as speaking, willing, commanding, then
very end of Leviathan) about claims to authority on be these expressions are authorized as appropriate. But we
half of ancient writings in general. He tells his reader cannot presuppose their propriety when we are trying
that he has to decide what to make of the Scriptures themselves in
neglected the ornament of quoting ancient poets, ora toto; for this is a question of how to relate the Scriptures
tors, and philosophers. ... For all truth of doctrine to reality outside the domain of Scripture itself. Hobbes
depends on reason or upon Scripture, . . . There is needs, therefore, "to mitigate once again his doctrine of
scarce any of those old writers that contradicteth not divine incomprehensibihty, not merely in order to give
sometimes both himself and others. . . . Such opinions piore scope for a natural theology, but even to allow for
as are taken only upon credit of antiquity, are not the establishing of his fideism itself: or at the very least
intrinsically the judgment of those that cite them, but to save it from extreme arbitrariness. This problem too
words that pass, like gaping, from mouth to mouth. is not at all unique to Hobbes; any theology will en
[E.W., Vol. HI, p. 711 f.] counter it, which tries to combine a biblical fideism with
scepticism over the meaningfulness of religious discourse.
We need more reason than Hobbes ever provides us for I doubt if Hobbes had a dear view of the extent and
not permitting that last-quoted sentence to erode con gravity of the problem.
fidence in the supposed authority of the Scripture itself. A thorough study of Hobbess philosophy of religion
For scriptural claims, again, were transmitted, by the demands discussion of many topics not touched upon in
holy men of Gods Church, passing their words from this chapter: his detailed and idiosyncratic interpretation
mouth to mouth and from pen to pen. of Scripture; his account of miracles; his treatment of
Hobbes reverenced those ancient writers that either natural law as divine command; his moral philosophy in
have written truth perspicuously, or set us in a better relation to Christian ethics; his philosophy of man in rela
way to find it out omselves; yet to the antiquity itself, tion to the Christian doctrine of man; and (perhaps most
he wrote, I think nothing due. For if we reverence the important of all) his treatment of the relation between
age, the Present is the Oldest (E.W., Vol. HI, p. 712). Church and state.
Hobbes has repeatedly admitted, however, that Scrip The topics this chapter has explored are fundamental
ture is not perspicuous, since it speaks often incompre ones; and I think Hobbess treatment of them supports
hensibly of an incomprehensible being; and our minds the appraisal I suggested at the outset. There are unex-
are incapable of any notion at aU from the words ceptionally orthodox ingredients in Hobbess philosophy
io8 Hobbes on the Knowledge of God
of religion; yet, although this should check extravagant THE CONTEXT OF HOBBESS THfeORY
attempts to see Hobbes as an out-and-out sceptic, it cer OF POLITICAL OBLIGATION^
tainly does not mean that his own reworking and com
bining of these ingredients are either orthodox or suc QUENTIN SKINNER
cessful. He does present arguments for Gods ejdstence,
but they are not adequately defended against sceptical
reflections that Hobbes himself records elsewhere. He
writes of God as a being whose transcendence of om: ex I
perience is so thorou^going that we can only bow the Two assumptions about the original reception of
knee and utter words without truth-value; but he writes Hobbess pohtical theory seem to be generally accepted.
of God also as a being whose immanence, whose continu The first is that the theory bore virtually no relation to
ity with the world, is so thoroughgoing that he becomes any other political ideas of its time.* It was an isolated
a natural cause among causes. Hobbes does not show us phenomenon in English thought, without ancestry or pos
how to accommodate our vision so as to bring these two terity. The second is that the theory proved completely
images into a single focus. Lastly, the philosophical scep unacceptable. Hobbess boldness and originality merely
ticism about God is to be compensated for by the biblical provoked intense opposition,'* so that no man of his
fideism: but that scepticism is so intense that it gets in time occupied such a lonely position in the world of
the way of establishing the fideism itself; and so far- thought. My aim in what follows is to show that both
reaching that it carries incomprehensibility into the very these claims are mistaken. One reason for producing this
content of revelation. A writer who is struck by this
evidence is of course to provide an historically more ac
self-undermining character of Hobbess writing on reli
curate picture of Hobbess intellectual mUieu. In particu
gion may readily be tempted to see that character as pre
lar, I wish to suggest that the intentions of HobbCss
cisely what Hobbes aimed to insinuate. This is a just
conceivable reading, but neither the internal nor external critics, as well as the positive ideological purchase of
his owil theory, have been somewhat misunderstood. My
evidence is strong enou^ to make it a likely one. A writer
with no anti-religious intent whatever might have ar main reason, however, is to 'suggest that a knowledge
gued in basically the same fashion as Hobbes. And quite
a number of features of Hobbess theology would appear 1 An abbreviated and much altered version of an article which ap
peared in The Historical Journal, IX, 3 (1966), pp. 286-317. For
quite gratuitously and bafflingly controversial if his con providing me with extra references I am most grateful to Conrad
sistent aim had been to sabotage traditional Ghristian Russell, Keith Thomas, and J. M. Wallace. For discussions about
theism by displaying it as a self-stultifying structure. the original essay I am particularly indebted to John Dunn, as well
as to Peter Laslett and J. G. A. Pocock. Note: in all citations from
seventeenth-century sources, any translations are mine, and all
spelling and punctuation have been modernised.
2E.g., C. Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (London, 1958), p. 91.
3H. R. Trevor-Roper, Thomas Hobbes," in Historical Essays
(London, 1957). P- 233- , , , ,
*S. I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Cambridge, 1962),
^G.^P. Gooch, Political Thought in England: Bacon to Halifax
(London, 1915), p. 23.