The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, Part I: Of Man, Language, and “Morality”

Thomas Hobbes is one of the most consequential and important modern philosophers.  In many ways he helped to shift Western consciousness in philosophy from God, the Transcendentals (the Good, True, and Beautiful), and the soul to materialism, physicalism, and mechanicalism.  This shift is what historian and philosopher Mark Lilla calls “the great separation” in his tremendous history The Stillborn God.  Hobbes is also one of the fathers of liberal political philosophy, social contract theory, and modern physiology, remembered for his declaration on human equality, definition of freedom, and two famous sayings that life in the state of nature was “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short” and “war of all against all.”  He is also famous for being among the first modern philosophers who attempted to synthesize the new findings of Baconian and Newtonian science with philosophy.  His most famous work is Leviathan.  Today we begin our reading over some of the basic themes and ideas contained therein.

Leviathan was written during the height of the English Civil Wars.  In many ways the task of the work was to restore the modus vivendi which had been lost because of sectarian and political chaos and violence.  Hobbes was a peaceful individual and desired a restoration of a peaceable commonwealth.  This was the primary political task of Leviathan.  But the book is much more than just a work of statist political philosophy.  It is a work of anthropology.  Hobbes merges the science of his day with a revolutionary new understanding of man: The Artificial machine.  Leviathan breaks down into four parts, or four books: Of Man (I), Of Commonwealth (II), and the lesser known second half Of a Christian Commonwealth (III) and Of  the Kingdom of Darkness (IV).  The first two books are the most well-known and studied.  The other two books are lesser known and lesser studied, but also of tremendous importance.  We will begin our reading of Leviathan dealing with Hobbes’s anthropology, Of Man, because understanding his anthropology is important to understanding his political philosophy.

The Man Machine and the Political Machine (Introduction)

The Introduction to Leviathan posits two unique views of man and politics, though they are the same view just separated between concerning the nature of man and the nature of politics.  In the Introduction Hobbes states that man is like an artificial machine brought to life:

Nature (the art whereby God has made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things so in this imitated, that it can make an artificial animal.  ([Hobbes is referencing the “stewardship ethic” found in Genesis whereby God creates the world and then creates man as the pinnacle of creation and gives man dominion over the world and then withdraws, thereby leaving humanity as the stewards, or governors, of the Cosmos.])  For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as does a watch) have an artificial life?

Why is man a form of artificial life in other words?  “For what is the heart, but a spring, and the nerves, but so many strings, and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body.”  This is Hobbes’s basic portrait of humanity: a machine in motion, e.g. “matter in motion.”

Politics is also likened to a well-constructed machine.  “For by art is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth, or State, which is but an artificial man.”  If man seeks efficient motion by being a well-oiled machine, so too is the state seeking efficient operation.  That efficient operation allows for the enjoyment of wealth, peace, and security as Hobbes states.

It is important to know that Hobbes is deeply influenced by Francis Bacon’s New Science (Novum Organum), which will give way to the science of Isaac Newton.  The Enlightenment conception of science – that mathematical, rigid, and mechanical science – is what coincides with the rise of liberal philosophy: The view that everything is matter, a mathematical equation to be solved, follows prescriptive rules and laws of operation, is fine-tuned for efficiency, etc.  This is displacing the previous Greek conception of science which was teleological: That science aimed for an end.  This should be known when reading through Leviathan because it helps one to understand Hobbes’s perpetual commentary about everything literally being motion and mathematically based.  It will also help one understand the later Whig mentality of fetishistic optimistic mathematical progressivism.

Man in Motion (Chapters 1-5)

Influenced, again, by the ‘new science’ emerging in the seventeenth century, the early chapters of Leviathan deal with the question of quid sit homo: ‘what is man’?  Hobbes answers that man is a ball of mass, essentially, in motion.  Everything about him is motion.  The senses are motion.  Human thought is motion (e.g. cognitive motion of the mind).  More revolutionarily, Hobbes articulates the view that everything derives from matter. Man, in essence, is a sensory machine! Man is defined by his sensations.

In the first chapter Hobbes also rebukes Aristotle, Plato, and the broader Christian tradition in philosophy insofar that man is a blank-slate, “The original of them all, in that which we call sense; (For there is no conception in a man’s mind, which has not at first, totally, or parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.)  The rest are derived from that original.”  Understanding of the good life is not the concern of philosophy, as it had been for the classics through the Christians.  Instead, it is about the efficient life.  Why? is not the important question for Hobbes.  The important question is how man is to use his senses.

Having established man as a sensory machine in motion, he turns to explanations of senses and cognitive thought and concludes, unsurprisingly, that this is all motion too.  Imagination and memory is the mind in motion.  The mind is in motion in the form of thought, thinking, or recollecting.  Memory, as the result of experience, is what the mind recalls.

Turning to imagination Hobbes states, “the imaginations of them that sleep, are those we call dreams.”  In sleep the body is not tranquil or in stasis.  The mind is still in motion.  The motions within the mind are what produce dreams.  So while the body may be at rest physically, and at first glance, the internal organs of man are still in motion – including the mind, which produce dreams or other such imaginative thoughts and as a result.  Hobbes also states that the mind in motion includes: Memory; Dreams; Apparitions; Cognition (e.g. understanding).

Man’s natural condition is a body in perpetual motion.  Freedom is about non-constricted motion.  As Hobbes himself defines in Part II, “Liberty, or freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion)…a free man, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and  wit  he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”  This is already being set up in the early chapters of Part I.  Even when man seems to be “in rest” he is not, his internal organs, like machine parts, are still operating (hence in motion).  Only in death does motion ever truly cease.  In sum, man is matter in motion.  Everything can be reduced to this.  Everything is reducible to matter in motion.  From our actions, to our thoughts, to even what we call good and bad – which Hobbes explains in greater detail in Chapter 6.

Since thought is really a form of sensory motion, Hobbes turns to a discussion to a new understanding of the irrational and rational.  Irrationality is unregulated motion – it is to do whatever in the spur of the moment (e.g. to be controlled by the motion of the passions).  Regulated motion is rational because it aims for something.  As he writes, “The second is more constant; as being regulated by some desire, and design.  For the impression made by such things as we desire, or fear, is strong, and permanent, or, (if it cease for a time,) of quick return: so strong it is sometimes, as to hinder and break our sleep.  From Desire, arises the Thought of some means we have seen produce the like of what which we aim at; and from the thought of that, the thought of means to that mean; and so continually, until we come to some beginning without our own power.”

Regulated motion, paradoxically for Hobbes, ensures greater motion to matter.  It gives our movements a direction, a purpose, as he says, something “we aim at.”  Unregulated motion is wild and ecstatic and aims at nothing.  This is why it is called “irrational.”

Now one must understand that Hobbes doesn’t actually think anything is technically irrational or rational per se.  Humans are not rational animals.  Humans are purely desiring animals.  This is the great myth of the “Enlightenment.”  That this is the “discovery of Reason.”  Anyone with a basic command of the history of philosophy knows the opposite is true.  The Platonists, Stoics, Aristotelians, and Christians all lionized Reason as God and that humans were “special” because they had the “gift of reason.”  Hobbes subverts the entire rationalist tradition in philosophy and embraces a pure phenomenology.  Humans are nothing but desiring animals.  What we call “rational” or “irrational,” or what we call “good” and “bad,” are just verbalized expressions of matter in motion.  Matter in motion that seems aimless is what we deem irrational.  Matter in motion toward a goal is what we deem rational.  When the body experiences delightful stimulation, we call this “good,” and when the body experiences harmful stimulation, we call this “bad.”  Hobbes’s entire text is devoid of the summom bonum. What is “rational” in the new, modern, post-Baconian sense, is whatever means most easily allows you to achieve what you want. Enlightenment “rationalism” naturally exhausts itself in pragmatism.

Of course, as Hobbes also said, the ability to have directed/regulated motion requires a certain degree of power.  To be “rational” means one needs to have power.  This is because we need power to arrive at the destination we have set for ourselves (e.g. the regulatory walls by which our motion moves toward that goal).

In some ways Hobbes – and the broader liberal tradition – is a “heresy” of Christianity insofar that Christianity also placed a heavy emphasis on man’s desires.  This is famously Augustinian.  After “the Fall” man is not a being who surrenders his reason to desire; to be a slave to the body rather than the soul, or mind.  Christianity’s phenomenology, one might say, reaches fruition in Hobbes’s thought as he reduces everything to the phenomenology of matter in motion.  Man is, and only is, a restless “heart” seeking fulfillment so to speak from Hobbes’s perspective.

Turning to speech in Chapter 4 Hobbes, again unsurprisingly, concludes that speech is sound in motion.  It is the verbal communication of cognition (motionary) thought of the mind.  As he states, “The general use of Speech, is to transfer our mental discourse, into verbal; or the train of our thoughts, into a train of words; and that for two commodities; whereof one is, the registering of the consequences of our thoughts; which being apt to slip out of our memory, and puts us to a new labour, may again be recalled, by such words as they were marked by.”  Hobbes reduces speech to matter in motion.  It is the motion of sensation within the mind (cognition) being verbally expressed.  The motion of thought becomes the motion of words.

Speech is important for the eventual movement out of the state of nature, which is why Hobbes is dealing with speech early in the work – laying the foundations for how man finds himself entering the commonwealth rather than remaining in the state of nature.  But this too is very revolutionary from Hobbes.  Speech is not divine action – the Spoken Word as found in the Bible – and Reason or cognition is not divine either (as had the Platonists, Stoics, and Christians thought).  It is just the jumbled verbalization of sensory motion in the mind and nothing more.  But speech can communicate our desires, speech can be a regulatory force which specifies our aims.

Finally, reaching Chapter 5, Hobbes discusses “what reason is.”  Hobbes states, again unsurprisingly, that reason is matter in motion.  It is the cognitive motions of the mind which conceive of the “sum total.”  Hobbes’s mathematization of reason is one of the most important factors in understanding the split between “reason” in the modern usage of the term and “reason” in the classical notion (where Reason is the bridge to the Transcendent).  “When a man reasons, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total, from addition of parcels; or conceive a remainder, from subtraction of one sum from another…And though in somethings, (as in numbers,) besides adding and subtracting, men name other operations, as multiplying and dividing; yet they are the same; for multiplication, is but adding together of things equal; and division, but subtracting of one thing, as often as we can.”  The astute reader will also realize the materialist monism creeping out of Hobbes: Everything is the same (adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing; all accomplish the same end of conceiving the sum total).

Reason and reasoning, then, is nothing more than bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak.  “For Reason, in this sense, is nothing but Reckoning of the consequences of general names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; I say marking them, when we reckon by our selves; and signifying, when we demonstrate, or approve our reckonings to other men.”  Reason isn’t about understanding the Transcendentals.  Reason isn’t about coming to know the whys in life.  Reason is simply the “reckoning of the consequences…to mark and signify our thoughts to ourselves and to others.” As he states, “The use and end of Reason, is not the finding of the sum, and truth of one, or a few consequences, remote from the first definitions, and settled significations of names; but to begin at these; and proceed from one consequence to another.”

Here is yet another small but revolutionary pivot from Hobbes.  Telos is not what reason aims at anymore: Understanding our end, the truth of our being.  Rather, reason starts from the beginning of motion and then proceeds to “understand” the consequences of being in motion.  Reason, to illustrate, is like starting a mathematical equation and the most important aspect of this is that one have all the right numbers and additions or subtraction signs in the equation – that reckoning of the consequences.  For you have not added and subtracted correctly, you run into what Hobbes calls “error.”

Hobbes also states, importantly, that human error can happen to anyone.  Hey, we’re only human. Absurdity, however, is the communication of errors to others.  Erring is not necessarily a bad thing (since there are no bad things intrinsically).  But Hobbes thinks the communication of errors, which is what absurdity is, can have disastrous consequences which is why it should be avoided.  In a way Hobbes opposes people communicating errors because such people haven’t reckoned through things; i.e. people talk from ignorance and spread ignorance.  This spreading of ignoring leads to absurdity.  In some way Hobbes is not far removed from Plato insofar that this would represent the spread of darkness (ignorance) over all humanity and the earth.  You can intuitively figure out why it would not be such a good thing to communicate errors to others then.

Chapters 1-5 in Perspective

It is important to have a basic command of the history of philosophy leading up to Hobbes because, without that, one is left perplexed about the revolutionary statements that are riddled throughout the first five chapters of Leviathan.  The idea that man is simply a body of mass in motion was revolutionary.  Undoubtedly influenced by the science of his day too.  (E.g. Newton.)  The notion that all of man can be reduced to matter, and its motionary thrusts, was equally revolutionary.

Hobbes, in five short chapters, overturned an entire tradition of preceding Western philosophy starting from Socrates, expanded upon by Plato and Aristotle, then incorporating into Christianity.  This was the philosophy of Logos and Rationalism (in the Transcendental sense).  Instead Hobbes embraces and produces a pure materialist phenomenology.  (Which is why Hobbes was notoriously charged with being an Atheist by the educated philosophers and religious authorities of his day who understood what the ramifications of his philosophy entail.)  Man is a sensory machine in motion.  Human thought is motion within the mind.  Human reason is the reckoning of motionary thought in the mind.  Imaginations and dreams are motions within the mind.  Speech is the communication of cognitive thought (motion) in the mind, which then takes flight through the verbal senses (hence continuing the motion).  Rationality and irrationality are merely descriptive terms used to describe movements of the body: Irrational being used to described unregulated and “aimless” motion while rational being used to describe regulated and “aimed” motion.

You can already anticipate where Hobbes is moving with rational regulated motion.  The State, or Leviathan.  Because entrusted to our own devices, being a-rational animals of immense desire, we would all end up confronting each other; thereby becoming “unfree” as we encounter impediments to our motion (namely other people).  But doesn’t the State, and its Laws, serve as an impediment to our motion?  Again this returns us to what Hobbes highlights between “irrational” and “rational” motion and freedom: Irrational freedom is to be without regulation and that is what the state of nature is; Rational freedom is to have those boundaries that direct our motion to something (bodily pleasure and non-physical harm mostly), thus we really re-direct our freedom through the formation of the State and its Laws.

Furthermore, Reason is not Reason (in the Greek, Roman, and Christian understanding and usage of that term).  For Reason is no longer the “divine spark,” or the “image of God” that links the human to the Transcendent.  Rather, reason is mathematicized to be the reckoning of data to end at a conclusion.  (There is no Transcendent Truth.)

What is man?  Let Hobbes speak to you: “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say that all Automata have artificial life?  For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joints, but so many Wheels, giving motion to the whole Body.”  What are you?  A body of mass in motion.  Technically you are neither moral or immoral, rational or irrational, you are amoral and a-rational.  We simply denote, or create, language to express bodily motion and feeling.

This post is adapted from a post originally on Hesiod’s Corner.

*The best introduction to Thomas Hobbes and the Leviathan is by Michael Oakeshott. A series of lectures and essays can be found in his collected anthology, Rationalism in Politics. Of particular interest are “Introduction to Leviathan” and “The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes.”


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    1. I did. At Hesiod’s Corner. There’s a little note at the end that the post is largely adapted (with minor changes) from that. I see no reason to start entirely anew with a lot of the old commentary material I had there.

      On that note, you at least know your memory isn’t failing you! 😉 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t recall, but one can say I have a love-hate relationship with Hobbes. Kind of like Michael Oakeshott. I find Hobbes to be a prophet of the modern age. Not that I necessarily agree with him, however.


      2. I only read about the first 20 pages of Leviathan once a long time ago. Say; what does he say is emotion. And then the relation between emotion and the motion of thinking and speech ?


      3. Intresting how that equation between emotions, harm and plesant has shown not it pan out, or at least that it is not useful anymore in that sense. Lol.


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