Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, Part III: On Freedom

The eighth chapter of Leviathan is one of the most important of the entire book, and it is one with profound implications concerning the political, even if the exoteric discussion is about intellectual virtues arising from passions and the motions of the passions.  If we recall back to Chapter 3, Hobbes defined “rational” as the regulations on our movements whereby we aim at something and proceed to it.  He also defined “irrational” as the unregulated and wild motions that aim at nothing.  Irrational is pure movement.  Rational is guided movement.

Chapter 8: Motions, Experience, “Freedom”

A Posteriori Virtue (A Primitive Tabula Rasa?)

The problem is, again, there is technically no such thing as “rational” or “irrational” in Hobbes.  Everything is motion.  This should be evidently clear after having read the eighth chapter.  I will break down the exoteric reading: That which concerned itself with intellectual virtues; subsequently I will also break down the “esoteric” or implied readings from the chapter dealing with epistemology and the crisis of freedom.

So the most visible reading of the chapter is on the intellectual virtues and how these arise.  As Hobbes says, they arise from the motion of the passions.  Great motion leads to greater experiences which allow for the accruement of the intellectual virtues that come with said experiences.  So everything is learned a posteriori according to Hobbes.  That is, all knowledge comes from experience.

Dullness, or stupidity, Hobbes claims is from “slowness of motion, or difficulty to be moved.”  It is again important that Hobbes says that all these words we use are signifiers.  Signifiers of what?  Matter in motion.

This is why “rational” is a term used to signify “good” motion.  Motion that aims at something.  “Irrational” is a term used to signify “bad” motion, or motion that is wild and without an aim.  Thus, the intellectual virtues are from sharp motions whereby one learned from these experiences of being in motion.  Lack of intellectual virtue is from slowness of motion, whereby one has not learned as much as another from lack of experiences.  As Hobbes began the chapter by stating, “Virtue generally, in all sorts of subjects, is somewhat that is valued for eminence; and consists in comparison.”  Hence, virtue is a result of comparative competition.  We match to bodies in motion with each other and the slower one is deemed dulled while the faster one is deemed admirable or knowledgeable.  This comes from experiences.  Slowness of motion would mean that body hasn’t experienced as much, thus pales in comparison to the faster of motion, which would mean the body has experienced more, thus in the comparison between the two the body with more experience is the intellectually virtuous because that body has learned from greater exposure to experience.

Hobbs goes on to explain, in a quasi-Aristotelian manner, how greater experience leads to discretion, prudence, and practical wisdom in the form of craftsmanship (what Aristotle termed phronesis in his work which also comes from excelling in one’s being).  But all of this is dependent upon experience.  For example.  I am an expert shoe-maker.  I am an expert shoe-maker because I have set my body in motion to make many shoes.  As I make many shoes I learn from “mistakes.”  Over time I perfect my craft because of all the experiences I have gone through.  I take on an apprentice.  I can teach the apprentice everything I know.  But the apprentice can only become a wise craftsman if he learns on his own.  I cannot “teach” him into wisdom.  He can only ever learn, through his own experience, into wisdom.

Let us note several things that are implied in this anthropology of a posteriori excellence. First is that since we cannot teach each other, humans are not social animals.  Because humans are completely “individual” in being a-social, one only ever learns from self-experience.  Second is that the commitment to a posteriori knowledge over and against a priori knowledge implies a sort of blank slate in the human mind whereby the mind is filled with experiences which allow you to learn.  The mind, being a blank slate, can be “programmed” (so to speak) to anything.  Thus, we can conclude that Hobbes suggests that the human mind is a blank slate.

But this is not fully the case.  Why?  Because for Hobbes we are driven by desire.  Thus, desire (e.g. passions) are pre-built into us thus preventing a complete blank slate.   We may not have innate ideas, but we do have innate wants.  However, that we learn entirely a posteriori, from experience, lends itself nicely to what the blank slate come Locke will equally advocate later.  In a way there is a primitive blank slate in Hobbes insofar that like the full tabula rasa epistemology come the time of Locke, knowledge is all the result of experience and only experience.  Again, this is derivative of all things being matter in motion.

Madness: Unregulated Passions

Hobbes deals with a lengthy treatment of the topic of “madness.”  Again, one is not “mad” in the sense that we might think and use that term.  There is nothing wrong with a person’s brain, or mind, because there is nothing there besides passionate desire.  We call someone mad, or use the term madness, to implied excessive motion of the passions.  “To have stronger, and more vehement passions for anything, than is ordinarily seen in others, is that which we call madness.”  As Hobbes more acutely states in the later paragraphs, “that passions unguided, are for the most part mere madness.”

Unguided, or unregulated passion, is what we call madness because it is “irrational.”  Reaching back to Chapter 3 recall how Hobbes says that the rational is motion that is regulated to an aim.  And in the same chapter recall how he says that the irrational is motion that is uncontrolled and therefore has no aim.

The ‘madman’ is the man who never ceases to slow down.  The ‘madman’ is the man who is always on the move.  The “madman” is the one who is always working and never ‘resting.’  Have we not, today, inherited this basic Hobbesian sense-defining outlook.  For instance, when driving a car we will probably call a driver ‘mad’ when he speeds by at incredibly high velocity?  When we notice a friend who has been working on a paper continuously for 24 hours without rest, do we not tend to think that the person has ‘gone crazy’ or ‘become mad’?  Someone who is dancing and moving erratically is someone who is also likely to be said to be ‘mad.’ Hobbes predates and prefigures both Hegel and Marx in that the aim of society, in society, should be leisure. Classical liberals, as I’ve written elsewhere, are wrong to see modern liberalism as a break with classical liberalism but rather that modern liberalism is the applied principles of classical liberalism to a new, urban, industrial, and commercialized world and society.

The point that Hobbes is making is that madness is a term used to described unguided passion which leads to unguided motion or movement.  The body has no aim.  Since it has no aim it is deemed mad by those who guide our passions in a particular direction.

We see, in Hobbes, the principle of regulation vs. the principle of no restraints.  But this is somewhat problematic?  Why?  Because Hobbes defines liberty as “the absence of external impediments: which impediments, may oft taken away part of a man’s power to do what he would.”  Hobbes also defines freedom for us as unregulated and unimpeded motion or action or ability to do whatever I want: “Liberty, or freedom, signifies (properly) the absence of opposition; (By opposition, I mean external impediments of motion;) and may be applied no less to irrational, and inanimate creates, than to rational.”   Absolute freedom, for Hobbes, is the ability to have unimpeded and unrestricted motion.  This is a definition and idea of freedom we know well in our modern liberal societies: ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ ‘I can do whatever I want!’  ‘Freedom is the freedom to choose anything.’  And so and so forth.

What’s the problem?  Other people.  Other people might end up becoming impediments to my motion, which is my freedom.  If I collide with another person, we cease motion.  Hence, we are no longer free.  An object in motion (freedom) will remain in motion (freedom) until acted upon by another object (freedom is lost).  To illustrate what Hobbes is implying refer to this picture I have drawn to highlight the “madness of absolute freedom” with the “peace of regulated freedom.”


Therefore, we can see the problem in Figure 1 and what the solution is to this problem in Figure 2.  Recall back to Chapter 7 about discourse and reasoning as reckoning the consequences.  Figure 1 reasons that if we are all unimpeded in our motion we will eventually collide with each other and therefore lose all of our freedom in the process.  This would be bad.  Thus, the solution is reckoned out in Figure 2 wherein we “wall off” each other so as to allow us to have some motion while not colliding with each other.  Since freedom is motion and we retain motion in Figure 2, we can still be said to be “somewhat free” which is better than having no freedom which results from collision.

Implications for the State of Nature and Politics

Though he is discussing man, and not the state of nature – of yet – Hobbes commentary here in Chapter 8 sets the stage for his famous portrait of the state of nature (come Chapter 13).  In the state of nature, where life is “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short,” and a “war of all against all,” this is because in the state of nature we each have absolute freedom.  Because we are a-social and self-driven we do not acknowledge others because we are not social.  The end result of the absolute freedom we all have in the state of nature is that we all end up colliding with each other because we have no regulations, no controls, and nothing to keep us separated.

This is madness!  Thus, life in the state of nature is madness.  You would have to be mad if you wanted to live in the state of nature.

But since man is not a rational animal in the sense how the ancients understood it, since Hobbes suggests that man is nothing but matter in motion stemming from the first principle of pure desire, man is incapable of self-governance and control.  This is what is going to lead to the rise of the Leviathan.  The state is what regulates us so as to have order and not chaos.

The secret to understanding Hobbes is this: True freedom, as he defined, is chaos.  It is the ability to do whatever I want to do.  This would be great if I was the only person who existed in the world.  The problem is that there are other people.  Other people who do whatever they want to do means no one is regulating themselves.  The end result is constant conflict – running into each other in the state of nature which cancels out freedom.  This is the paradox in Hobbes: Absolute freedom (having no impediments or barriers to choice and actions) leads to no freedom at all.  The best we can do is have “some freedom” in the form of regulated freedom.

How do we achieve this?  We give up our absolute freedom and surrender ourselves to the subject of regulation – the Leviathan, or the State.  But now I’m constrained and have forces that impede my ability to move “freely” and choose “freely.”  Do you see the problem?  If freedom is our goal, we will always push to eliminate all the barriers and impediments to our unopposed motion and choice.  But what happens when there are no barriers and impediments to our unopposed motion and choices?

Conclusion of Chapter 8

Yet again, unsurprisingly, Hobbes links all knowledge and experiences to matter in motion.  Again, this is because everything springs from matter.  We have no transcendent or transcendental aspects to us.  This is why there is no a priori knowledge or recollection in Hobbes, but rather all knowledge comes from experience.  From these experiences, when we compare experiences between people, those who have more experience are “wiser” and more “virtuous” than those with less experience.  Wisdom and virtue are just the products of experience which can be reduced back to matter in motion.

Thus, all intellectual virtues arise from the movement of matter – the passions – leading to bodily experiences in the world.  These experiences in the world shape us.  We “grow” from these experiences and this leads to prudence, discretion, wisdom, etc.  Additionally, madness is uncontrolled motions of the passions – the excessive movement of the passions.  That is, one has no self-control.  This leads to the need for the principle of regulation of the passions to prevent madness.

The important take-aways from Chapter 8 are many.  Exoterically Hobbes is saying that all knowledge is a posteriori.  Esoterically there are implications to be drawn concerning his discourse on madness as it relates to politics.  This is no accident, mind you.  Hobbes is building up his argument to the state of nature and what life is like in the state of nature by first elaborating his philosophy of man: Anthropology.  There is a close blank slate idea in Hobbes; the only thing that prevents Hobbes from having a complete tabula rasa is that we are hardwired to have desire, or passion, because that is the fuel for the man machine.  Nevertheless,  Locke’s later theory of the tabula rasa will build from Hobbes’s strong endorsement of a posteriori knowledge and learning.


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