In Part IV of Leviathan, entitled “Of The Kingdom Of Darkness”, Thomas Hobbes attacks the authority of the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches for their usurpation of what is rightfully sovereign power (that is, power that belongs to the civil sovereign of a commonwealth). He accuses the church ecclesiastics of using iniquitous methods in order to control the commonwealth’s populace, so that citizens will be obedient to the church over and above the civil sovereign. This is especially important for the ecclesiastics, since in cases where the church and the sovereign may clash, the church can call on the people to fulfill their duties to the higher power (that is, the Kingdom of God), and in that way overcome the authority of the sovereign. According to Hobbes’ argument, the Roman (he focuses on this one almost exclusively) church wishes to make itself a political power; the salvation of peoples’ souls is clearly not the only thing at stake. But how does the church achieve this effect? What is their strategy for presenting a power more compelling than that of the civil sovereign? There must be some promise and some obligation in the figure of the church which supersedes and nullifies anything which the sovereign can promise or to which the sovereign can demand obligation. Hobbes isolates and identifies the agency of this power in philosophy, especially that which comes out of the Aristotelian tradition, and most especially in the way language is used with this philosophy. Aristotelianism, he says, has given birth to a church power which uses more or less empty words to hold people in its sway. Here I will turn to the text, and elaborate on how Hobbes links Aristotelian philosophy with the political power of ecclesiastic authority.
Chapter 46 of Leviathan, “Of Darkness from Vain Philosophy and Fabulous Traditions”, is the specific critique of Aristotelianism. In it, Hobbes argues that Aristotle’s philosophy is established on patchy foundations; its failure to adhere to necessary semantic standards causes it to avoid any deep analysis. These necessary semantic rules are constitutive of the
philosophia prima upon which all other philosophy ought to depend ...
(which) consisteth primarily in right limiting of the significations of such
appellations, or names, as are of all others the most universal – which
limitations serve to avoid ambiguity and equivocation in reasoning, and
are commonly called definitions (such as are the definitions of body, time,
place, matter, form, essence, subject, substance, accident, power, act, finite
infinite, quantity, quality, motion, action, passion, and divers others,
necessary to the explaining of a man’s conceptions concerning the nature
and generation of bodies).1
The emphasis on the last part of this passage is, of course, central to understanding Hobbes’ critique of Aristotelian philosophy. Hobbes is a materialist, and an empiricist
. He does not ascribe any value or meaning to anything which is believed to exist outside the order of the material world: everything must be a substance, or else it does not exist. It is on this predicate that Hobbes attacks Aristotelianism on its moral philosophy, its politics, its physics, and its metaphysics
. Of those four, Hobbes takes issue with metaphysics most seriously, because through it, the church makes claims to possessing a deep knowledge of the world’s underlying principles. Hobbes says that through the misuse of language
, Aristotelian philosophy allows an imaginary link to be made between the world in which we live and a fundamental realm of existence which precedes it and makes it possible. The problem is, then, that the Aristotelian discourse lies on the surface of a basically empty sphere
– the metaphysical field. Language is meant to “register to ourselves, and and make manifest to others the thoughts and conceptions of our minds”2
; the thoughts and conceptions of our minds are produced by our relation to the empirical world, the world of substances. The fact that we can produce discourse about metaphysics is not indicative of the existence of a metaphysical reality; rather, it is an imaginary extrapolation consisting of a foundation in our empirical experiences and knowledge. This is where Hobbes’ semantic analysis is most penetrating: he tries to clarify the mistake which this philosophy makes, the mistake which centres around the verb “to be”. Where Hobbes thinks that sentences are the linking together of concepts in order to indicate similarity, difference, predication or consequence, they can be seen to indicate a sort of essence or essentiality, depending on their use.
Aristotle’s doctrine of essences is troublesome for Hobbes. It argues that there can be an incorporeal “essence” separate from corporeal objects; as a materialist empiricist, Hobbes finds this idea repugnant. “(W)e are told,” he writes, “there be in the world certain essences separated from bodies, which they call abstract essences and substantial forms. For the interpreting of which jargon there is need of somewhat more than ordinary attention in this place”3. The example “man is a body” is the most salient example here. For someone analyzing that sentence in an Aristotelian model of philosophy, the verb “to be” (conjugated as “is”) indicates a state of being. To say that “man is a body” is to bestow an identity on “man”: he is a body, that is part of his essence. In other words, there is something about the word “man” that is necessarily tied to the word “body”, a connection which exists and persists outside of the world of objects and material substances. This implies, though, that there is something, a third term, which exists independently of either the “man” or the “body”. Hobbes claims that this is simply not true. Some words and sentential arrangements, he claims, are meant to “show the consequence or repugnance of one name to another”4. These words do not carry with them some sort of ontological power, they are just names intended to signify objects or substances. The connectives are in place to facilitate the relationships between these names, but it does not go any deeper than that. To use an example similar to “man is a body”, to say “a church is holy ground” is not to indicate that there is some special property or essence of the ground upon which the church is built, or the church itself, or the space contained by the church’s structure; instead it is to indicate the designation given by people to the church and its surrounding area because of the value they attach to it. The confusion involved with the verb “to be”, is that “is” or “be” are themselves identified as names – the names of “Being”5 (as both a verb and an entity) itself, which has its own existence and nature. So when the phrase “man is a body” is uttered, we get the sense that there is a “Being” inherent in man, in the body, and in the relationship between the two. But again, as Hobbes argues, these are only semantic designations and are not actually subtended by something deeper; “(t)herefore,” he writes, “to be a body”, “to walk”, “to be speaking”, “to live”, “to see” and the like infinitives (as well as corporeity, walking, speaking, life, sight, and the like, that signify just the name) are the names of nothing”6 .
So how does this fit into the design of the ecclesiastics? Hobbes says it is so that they may appear to have access to a power much higher and more important than that of the civil sovereign. Through the Aristotelian tradition, the church authorities have essentially been able to create the soul of man, by playing semantic tricks, thus causing confusion. Its power is “built upon the vain philosophy of Aristotle”, and “upon this ground, that, when a man is dead and buried, they say his soul (that is his life) can walk separated from his body, and is seen by night amongst the graves”7. Since the church supposedly (indeed, on its own word) has privileges with regards to this special knowledge, it alone knows how to deal with problems of the soul, and thus has an advantage over the civil sovereign. Because of this semantic ambiguity, the church is able to take a primary hold over the population of the commonwealth: it can help people save their souls, something to which most people will show far more gratitude than the ability to provide civil security.
The doctrine of separated essences is the gateway to more than one erroneous doctrine. It allows ecclesiastics to preach that entities may exist independently of bodily substance, that a body may be in two places at once, that the incorporeal essence of a person may occupy space in that person’s body, and so on. “And these are but a small part of the incongruities they are forced to from their disputing philosophically, instead of admiring and adoring of the divine and in comprehensible nature, whose attributes cannot signify what he is, but ought to signify our desire to honour him with the best appellations we can think on”8. To try to understand God through metaphysics is an undertaking bound for shipwreck no matter what, because the empty discourse thrown around by church philosophers refers to nothing and creates a fantasy. Language is metaphorical, and does not carry with it any ontology.
Metaphysics is not the only problem with Aristotelianism for Hobbes; as I have said, he also takes issue with its physics and ethics (or moral philosophy). Of the physics, Hobbes has a complaint similar to the one he makes of metaphysics: it is nothing but metaphorical language, which does not refer to anything real:
(t)hen, for physics (that is, the knowledge of the subordinate and secondary
causes of natural events) they render none at all but empty words. If you
desire to know why some kind of bodies sink naturally downwards to the
earth, and others go naturally from it, the Schools will tell you (out of
Aristotle) that the bodies that sink downwards are heavy, and that this
heaviness is it that causes them to descend. But if you ask what they mean
by heaviness, they will define it to be an endeavour to go to the centre of
the earth, so that the cause why things sink downward is an endeavour to
be below (which is as much as to say that bodies descend or ascend because they do). Or they will tell you: the centre of the earth is the place of rest and conservation for heavy things; and therefore, they endeavour to be
there (as if stones and metals had a desire, or could discern the place they
would be at, as man does; or loved rest, as man does not; or that a piece of
glass were less safe in the window than falling into the street).9
Aristotle’s physics, then, is not all that scientific. Rather, it seems to work on assumptions about the characteristics of objects based on observations of the way in which they behave (under gravity, for instance). The names given to those characteristics are merely developed out of observed behaviours which are then grouped under an imaginary category (i.e. “those things which are heavy”). The physics
and the metaphysics go hand in hand, for Hobbes: they are subject to the same failure in language, and create a fantastical picture of the world which does not correspond to reality. The Aristotelian moral philosophy also runs into untenable conclusions, because it states that while God creates moral law to which all men must adhere, and while he creates all men, and therefore makes their actions possible, he is not responsible for the injustice, that is, the opposite of the law’s decree. “A man might as well say that one man maketh both a straight line and a crooked, and another maketh their incongruity
. This doctrine supports the belief in free will, which then sets up the private consciences of individuals as the measure of right and wrong instead of the promulgated law of the commonwealth. In conjunction with the Aristotelian argument that all kings are tyrants11
, the idea that the private conscience is the standard of ethics or morality reinforces a degree of civil disobedience
, or at least the call for independence from the monarch. When the church crowns itself as the supreme authority it has already helped to delegitimize the civil sovereign. The sovereign is seen as a tyrant, an interloper who would seek to claim higher authority than the Kingdom of God; the church thus is able to make the people break from their monarchs and “adhere to those that call them tyrants, and to think it lawful to raise war against them”12
. It has further replaced the monarchy by asserting its capacity to deal with the inner state of human beings, to be able to save their souls and guarantee life in heaven after death.
What appears to be the most insidious device constructed by ecclesiastics from Aristotelian philosophy is precisely the ability to treat peoples’ inner states. One thing that the Christian religion demands of its followers is inner obedience, that is orthodoxy in the soul rather than just in actions and outward behaviour. Hobbes says that this particular piece of moral philosophy is not properly Aristotelian, but is a concoction of the church. Its purpose is to
to extend the power of the law, which is the rule of actions only, to the
very thoughts and consciences of men, by examination and inquisition of
what they hold, notwithstanding the conformity of their speech or actions.
By which men are either punished for answering the truth of their thoughts, or constrained to answer an untruth for fear of punishment.13
In Hobbes’ political philosophy, the only thing which matters in a well ordered, lawful commonwealth is the outward obedience of citizens to the laws of the land. The demand that people open their minds to the church is a form of oppression through which ecclesiastics can more fully control the sovereign’s subjects.
Ultimately, Aristotelian philosophy allows ecclesiastics to use language to their advantage. It is at the semantic level that they begin to confer power upon themselves, by philosophizing about metaphysics, morals, and so on. Through something as simple as the verb “to be”, priest
s already have a powerful weapon in their arsenal. Their philosophy is essentially subterfuge. It avoids true rational inquiry because it engages in discourse about a nonexistent world: it causes confusion amongst the populace, and scares them into obeying the church. Aside from the fact that the church is not meant to be the Kingdom of God on earth (Hobbes points this out repeatedly in Leviathan14
: the church is meant to be an organization of teachers, not rulers), it moreover sets itself up as a political power which is much more tyrannical (in the sense Hobbes uses the word) and dangerous than the civil sovereign could ever be.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 458.
- In the Hegelian or Heideggerian sense.
- This is Hobbes’ reading. It could perhaps here be argued that Hobbes is reaching a bit: the way in which Aristotle uses the term “tyrant” is quite different from the definition Hobbes is working with. For Aristotle, a tyrant is not necessarily a king who oppresses and dominates his subjects, he is merely a king who takes the throne by deposing the present monarch. Here of course, it behooves Hobbes to ignore the way in which Aristotle uses the word, because it helps boost the potency of his criticism.
- “(T)he kingdom of God was first instituted by the ministry of Moses over the Jews only (who were therefore called his peculiar people) and ceased afterward in the election of Saul, when they refused to be governed by God anymore, and demanded a king after the manner of the nations ... after that time there was no other kingdom of God in the world by any pact, or otherwise than he ever was, is, and shall be king of all men and of all creatures, as governing according to his will, by his infinite power (413).