Friday, 25 December 2009

Hobbes Great Thinkers on Modern Life Paperback by Hannah Dawson. Pegasus (14 Sept. 2015) ISBN-10: 1605988065

It takes a very skilled author to make a case for a writer who lived in the 17th century to having anything to say to us in the 21st century. Dawson’s book provides us with an interesting and thought inducing attempt. [G1] Her book concentrates solely on Hobbes’s Leviathan and is part of Alain de Botton's The School of Life Series. Other philosophers include Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron, and Bergson

From the beginning, Dawson is honest about her book. She wants to rehabilitate Hobbes and “reveal the insights that he possessed despite – and sometimes because of – the darkness, and the sparks that they might ignite in our albeit very different twenty-first-century minds”.[1]

It is well known that Hobbes was a significant figure in English philosophy. He was one of the first English materialist philosophers to put politics on a more scientific basis. Also very controversially at the time advocated a separation of state and religion. Some say he laid the foundations for modern sociology. Recently it has become fashionable to use Hobbes “on navigating society and politics today”.

As Dawson intimates in her book Hobbes‘s philosophical outlook has made a strong resurgence not so much in academic circles which have always taken a keen interest in his work but in today’s wider political circles. Even today Hobbes reputation provokes admiration and hatred in equal doses. In 2009, Corey Robin wrote in the Nation lumping Hobbes with Italian Futurists and Friedrich Nietzsche as a “blender of cultural modernism and political reaction”. [2]

Given today’s levels of social inequality, it is little surprising that Hobbes ideas are provoking an interest. For many people around the world human life has become ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The growing international protest against these conditions has seen the rise of Political figures such as Donald Trump who advocates a semi-fascist totalitarian state to maintain order and head off a revolution. It is safe to say the materialist side of Hobbes’ is not being resurrected.

Dawson is clearly heavily influenced by Hobbes. She explains why she decided to put her fascination of Hobbes into book form “Why on earth, then, have I chosen him for this book? What could he, nasty, brutish Mr. Hobbes, the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’, possibly have to teach us about how to live well? In a sense, it is precisely because of his gritty verdict on our human condition that we need to listen to him. While we do not want to let him take us all the way to the abyss of his authoritarian dystopia, we would do well to take note of his clear-eyed assessment of the psychological forces that pit us against one another, and the fact that, as uncomfortable as it is, we need to be restrained”.

She continues “I can whistle about the streets or, indeed, in the office or at home, safe in the knowledge that I probably won’t be hit or killed, in part at least because my would-be attackers are frightened of going to jail and therefore leave me alone. This is the civilized and civilizing foundation without which the fantastically plural coordination’s of society could not hope to get under way. It is on this foundation that I am free to make as much or as little of my life as I am able. This is why, Hobbes helped me to understand, and I should obey and value government. As the first great social contract theorist, he shows us why we consent – even tacitly – to authority.” [3]

I do not detect Dawson’s tongue in her cheek so I will take these comments at face value although it is hard to know where to start. There is a degree of complacency here that is very dangerous. I am sure Julian Assange would love to walk down the street and whistle. I am sure the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would like to walk down a British street free from want. I could go on.

A major weakness of the book is it is not a very realistic picture of class relations both in Hobbes time and ours. It also very simplistic to intimate that people get the government they deserve.

As the Russian revolutionary Marxist Leon Trotsky observed “There is an ancient, evolutionary-liberal epigram: Every people gets the government it deserves. History, however, shows that one and the same people may in the course of a comparatively brief epoch get very different governments (Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, etc.) and furthermore that the order of these governments doesn’t at all proceed in one and the same direction: from despotism – to freedom as was imagined by the evolutionists liberals. The secret is this, that a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do not express the systematically growing “maturity” of a “people” but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces – alliances, conflicts, and wars and so on. To this should be added that a government, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. It is precisely out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coup d’etats, counterrevolutions, etc. arise. [4]

Another danger contained in Dawson’s book is her attempt to lift Hobbes off his materialist's feet. She states "what he wants to teach us, in addition to how we can escape debilitating fear, is what it means to be free, and what it means to be good, to show us that – even at our most rational – we are pressed on by our desires, and that we must be ever watchful of the dangers of language and religion. Even if we violently disagree with Hobbes much or indeed most of the time, he can teach us to meditate more carefully than we are accustomed on the subjectivity, motivations, and opinions which structure our lives”.[5]

It is not in the realm of this review to examine the relationship between Hobbes and Locke but both were instrumental in establishing an early materialist world outlook. Dawson’s paragraph is a direct repudiation of much of the 17th century's  materialist philosophy.

As Dawson knows having written on John Locke (1632-1704) his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, disavowed the concept of innate ideas. Locke believed that man's thinking had an objective source, the external world. As the Marxist writer David North states “If there were no "innate" ideas, there could not be "innate" evil. Man's thinking, and, therefore, his moral character, was, in the final analysis, a reflexive product of the material environment which acted upon him. Contained within this conception of human cognition was a profoundly subversive idea: the nature of man could be changed and improved upon by changing and improving the environment within which he lived.[6]

How subversive was Hobbes? One biographer argued in 1691 that Leviathan had “corrupted half the gentry of the nation”[7].It can be said without a doubt the works of Hobbes provoked a storm of criticism certainly within his lifetime and also after it. So what was it about them that provoked such hostility?.There is an element of truth in the suggestion by Jon Parkin” that the response was so violent because Hobbes ideas went far beyond anything which his readers had come across before “.[8] During his lifetime and to a certain extent even today, his  name has become equated with materialism and worse still atheism,

The subject of Dawson’s book Leviathan was written by Hobbes during one of the bloodiest periods of English history. He was one of only a handful of writers who sought to understand the complex social economic and political development that was the English revolution.

Hobbes’s felt the fear of war and revolution more acutely than most and attempted to construct a scientific and materialist theory of politics. The Philosopher hated the war and remained a firm supporter of absolute monarchy at least up until the war ended then he like many ardent Royalists only tolerated the new Cromwellian Protectorate when it restored law and order. To say his work reflected this contradiction would be an understatement which is probably why it inspired both hatred and admiration.

Leviathan is a difficult book to master and it is very much a crossover book in the sense while containing his Royalist sympathies and anti-revolutionary sentiments he had to deal with the reality that was the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of a new class, the bourgeoisie. The book published in 1651 was seen in some quarters as Hobbes making peace with Cromwellian revolution. He was starting to come to terms with the fact that Cromwellian protectorate was the best chance of a peaceful stable government.

It is well known that he believed that humans during the 17th century were nasty, brutish and short and that mankinds nature is inherently competitive and selfish. The central theme of his work was to utilize these traits for the development of the early bourgeoisie.

Hobbes was not an isolated individual philosopher and had support from philosophers such as Spinoza on the continent. It is a shame from Dawson's book that you do not get a clear picture of Hobbes influence on writers from abroad, particularly in Europe. According to Quentin Skinner, the writers on the continent had a much clearer picture as to the importance of Hobbes work than in Britain. One of his most important readers was the writer Spinoza. According to Quentin Skinner, "it is a commonplace that Spinoza's Tractus Politicius shows the effects of critical reflection on Hobbes's theory in its content and terminology as well as method". Even his enemies had a grudging admiration for him, the third earl of Shaftesbury "I must confess a genius and even an original among these later leaders in philosophy".

He was also not without influence in England. As C B Macpherson wrote in the introduction to the Pelican version of Leviathan he edited “they thought it dangerous because of the widespread acceptance it was attaining amongst the reading classes”.[9]

At an early age rejected the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy. He said at university, the dominance of Aristotle meant that “the study is not properly philosophy but Aristolelelity”[10] He accused the universities of acting as a “handmaiden to the Roman religion”[11].

Hobbes was luckier than most philosophers of his generation in that he was able to secure valuable employment when he became a tutor to the Cavendish family, who gave him extensive use of their library. He would spend most of his long life as a teacher, secretary and to the Cavendish family. This was a  shrewd move by Hobbes as the job gave him access to some very influential people who also protected him when things got dangerous. According to Hobbes, the  time spent at the Cavendish’s was the most crucial in his intellectual development.

It is difficult to get an idea of the tremendous change in men’s minds during Hobbes’s time. As David North writes the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[12]

Hobbes was certainly connected profoundly with what was to be a massive leap in political and scientific knowledge, which would see the dissolution of the medieval world view to be replaced by one based on science and reason. The previous one having given mankind a somewhat limited understanding of his place in the universe.

Hobbes played a crucial role in laying the foundations for the Enlightenment his most important work Leviathan published in 1651 was one the first studies of what the early modern capitalist state would look like.

His book was groundbreaking in the sense it attempted lay the basis for scientific principles on which to base that state. As Dawson states, Hobbes was not democratically inclined[G26] . The ruler or rulers of his state would have to rule it with an iron fist because as mankind’s life was solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish and short he believed in order to overcome this   there had to be a “war against all”.

In Chapter 8 On Religion as a Human Construct Dawson is correct in pointing out that it is difficult to work out his thoughts on religion. Hobbes knew he was on dangerous ground. Given that men had fought a war and carried out a revolution because they believed they had god on their side.
Hobbes correctly believed that an understanding of religion was crucial in solving the problem that beset the English state.  His idea of a national religion in which the sovereign was head was a dangerous idea. 

As “G A J Rogers concurs” Hobbes materialism everything is either body or it is nothing and his mechanical determinism soon brought a charge of atheism. Although it would be wrong to regard him as strongly religious there is no reason to doubt his claim that he was an Anglican, albeit with Calvinist leanings. He is often regarded as sanctioning absolutism, but he would reply that all he had done was to describe the way in which societies actually work and that unless was recognized the outcome would be disorder and social disaster”.

While his philosophical writings were more important that his religious leanings. Their impact was to be momentous. His thoughts and emotions were a product of his environment and ideas remained in his brain long after they had been first stimulated. According to Hobbes, “words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them but they are the mony of fools. He believed that words must never be allowed to take a life of their own. He continues “the universe is corporal, body…. And that which is not body, is no part of the universe according to Roy Porter the implications were momentous, no spirit, no lords spiritual”.

 It is hard to separate Hobbes political views from his philosophical ideas. He was acutely aware to choose his words well. He drew definite conclusions from the civil war.

One aspect of the war which filled Hobbes with dread was the spread of ideas put forward by the English Dissenters. He believed their ideas were a form of madness. According to Frederick C Beiser “the ultimate source of enthusiasm, Hobbes is convinced, is the same as that for all human actions, the desire for power. Whether he is aware of it or not the enthusiast attempts to dominate people. He claims divine inspiration to win the allegiance of a superstitious multitude: and then he promises them eternal happiness if they obey his dictates”.[13]

Hopefully, in the future, Dawson will include other 17th seventeenth-century philosopher in the Life series as it is important to place Hobbes within the wider context of modern philosophy. Bacon would be a good choice while it was Hobbes who developed the idea of mechanical determinism in the latter half of the 17th century, it was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who was the true founder of English materialism.

Frederick Engel's described Bacon as "The real progenitor of English Materialism. To him, natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chief part of natural philosophy".  "Hobbes had systematized Bacon, without, however, furnishing a proof of Bacon's fundamental principle, the origin of all human knowledge from the world of sensation. It was Locke who, in his Essay on the Human Understanding, supplied this proof”.[14]

After his death in 1679, to be called a ‘Hobbist’ was one the  most diabolical insults. No one is called a Hobbist today so why should we show an interest in his ideas. As George Orwell once wrote, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” While there much to disagree with Dawson’s book it is nonetheless an important contribution to a deeper understanding of this philosopher leading to a deeper understanding of our world.


[1] Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.-
[2] Corey Robin, “The First Counter-Revolutionary”, Nation, October 19, 2009.
[3]     Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.-
[4] Leon Trotsky-The Class, the Party and the Leadership-From Fourth International, Vol.1 No.7, December 1940, pp.191-195.
[5] Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996
[7] The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought Quentin Skinner: The Historical Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1966), pp. 286-317
[8] Hobbism in the Later 1660s: Daniel Scargill and Samuel Parker-Jon Parkin-
 The Historical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 85-108
[9] Leviathan Thomas Hobbes- Pelican C A B Macpherson
[10] Images of Anarchy: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes's State of Nature-By Ioannis D. Evrigenis
[11] Leviathan-Hobbes
[12] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996-
[13] The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English-By Frederick C. Beiser
[14] Engels-Anti Duhring