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Thomas Hobbes Science of Politics

September 25, 2022

Thomas Hobbes (1588‑1679) writes in his De Corpore (1655) that “the end of knowledge is power; and the use of theorems (which among geometricians, serve for the finding out of properties) is for the construction of problems; and lastly, the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.”  The view of man expressed in De Corpore, that of man the “operator” as opposed to “contemplator” of nature, is a view which Hobbes shared with the Renaissance Hermeticists, with Machiavelli, and with the new physical sciences of the modern era.

Francis Bacon (1561‑1626), in his “Great Instauration,” expressed in similar fashion the need to act on or operate upon the world, rather than to be content with contemplation of its grandeur.

For the end which this science of mind proposes is the invention not of arguments but of arts; not of things in accordance with principles, but of principles themselves; not of probable reasons, but of designations and directions for works. And as the intention is different, so, accordingly, is the effect; the effect of the one being to overcome an opponent in argument, of the other to command nature in action.

By advocating a new science which would displace the Scholastic method of Thomistic philosophy, Bacon expressed an antagonism, shared by virtually every modern thinker, to the method of the Medieval schools, which had dominated education from the thirteenth century.

The effect over four centuries of Scholastic hegemony upon students played no small role in the intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century.

The mechanistic models of modern science seemed like a breath of fresh air to these “modern” students faced with continual drilling in what had certainly become third‑rate handbooks.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) succinctly described this antagonism when he wrote in his “Discourse on Method” that Scholastic philosophy

is most convenient for those who have only very mediocre minds; for the obscurity of the distinctions and principles which they use enables them to speak about all things as boldly as if they really knew them, and to maintain everything they say against the subtlest and most skillful, without anyone being able to convince them of their error.

In this spirit of utter rejection of Thomistic philosophy both Bacon and Descartes constructed new intellectual methods.

Thomas Hobbes’ political science is the full outgrowth of these new scientific inquiries. This revolution in thought made possible great technological advances.  But the revolution also made it possible for Hobbes to reduce political theory to the study of  bodies (matter) in motion according to mechanistic models of causality. The mechanization of nature led to Hobbes’ mechanization of man and politics.

Nowadays we have begun to resent the “dehumanization” of man by social science, but to the seventeenth‑century mind, the clarity and certainty provided by the mechanization of nature far outweighed the evils, such as the mechanization of man and philosophical materialism. But the clarity of the natural sciences simply cannot be attained in philosophical discourse without distorting the nature of philosophy or rejecting it out of hand.

Descartes, in his “rules for the Direction of the Mind,” for example, argued that the study of dialectic should be transferred from philosophy to rhetoric and that we should investigate only those subjects about which we can arrive at certainty equivalent to the demonstrations of mathematics.

Similarly Bacon sought a method which led to “an inevitable conclusion,” as opposed to the insufficiently definite and vague notions of Scholasticism and to transpose the dialectical method of the Schoolmen with a new method which would overcome the failings of human reasoning. The inductive method of Bacon attempted to arrive at general axioms only upon extensive and orderly consideration of the particulars of the subject at hand. Significantly, Bacon identified the impediments which stood in the way of methodical investigation as the “Idols” of the “Tribe,” “Cave,” “Market Place,” and “Theater.”

When he wrote in the “New Organon” that “it is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon old,” he meant that the “new” science should proceed by rejecting the substance of Western intellectual culture. The Idols of the Tribe to be rejected were the tendency of men to rely on their personal perceptions, rather than the “measure of the universe.” The Idols of the Cave were the personal experiences of individual men which stand in the way of their discovering truth. The Idols of the Market Place are the words given in daily intercourse with other men in the community, words whose meanings are imprecise and thus tend to confuse our understanding. Lastly, he wrote, the Idols of the Theater were the idols of philosophy, which, because they are wholly founded upon the imagination, are like theatrical performances.

In this vein Descartes sought to deduce the entire universe with the aid of his own philosophic method which, casting off the irrelevancies of received knowledge, presumed the existence of a philosopher living in isolation from the world.

I shall now close my eyes, stop up my ears, turn away from all my sense, even efface from my thought all images of corporeal things, or at least, because this can hardly be done, I shall consider them as being vain and false; and thus communing only with myself, and examining my inner self, I shall try to make myself, little by little, better known and more familiar to myself.

It is true that philosophy is never without the means or method by which to seek truth, and Bacon and Descartes were obliged to adopt a philosophic method by which to proceed in their investigations.

For Plato and Aristotle, philosophy and its methods were the means by which the philosopher journeyed away from untruth into truth, but the soul which made the search did not exist in a vacuum. 

Classical philosophy affirmed that knowledge occurs as an act of personal judgment. Man’s being‑in‑the world is the given from which to proceed towards an understanding of reality. This attitude of wonder and openness toward existence stands at the opposite pole from Descartes’ prescription that the appropriate attitude of the philosopher is doubt, and in that condition offered the proposition, “I think, therefore I am. ”  St. Augustine offered the alternative which places being‑in‑the‑world as the presupposition of philosophy: I am, and therefore I know and delight in my existence.


The problem with which Hobbes was concerned in his Leviathan (1651) was the problem of political order. What are the origins of order, of peace? This was not a simple problem, because Hobbes lived during the period of the Puritan Revolution. His answer to the disorder of his day was to develop systematically a concept of order by completely removing the religious element from the picture and treating the “true” reality which motivates political action, power. As such, Hobbes’ Leviathan is a masterpiece of political thought. His analysis of the demonic element in man and its consequences for politics finds a comparison only in the work of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine, too, wrote in a time of crisis. Rome was invaded by the Goths, the Roman Empire was destroyed, and the Christians were blamed for the defeat. In order to act forcefully against this slander, St. Augustine sought to show how advocates of the order of a dead Empire and its view of the world was totally bankrupt. From the experience of his own religious conversion, he effectively removed the pagan gods from the world.

Hobbes, seeing that political order was being destroyed by Puritan fanatics and the defenders of the English monarchy, sought to expel completely the Christian God from politics.

Both Hobbes and St. Augustine de-divinized the world. St. Augustine de-divinized the pagan world, Hobbes the Christian world of seventeenth century England.

St. Augustine sought to build political order anew, without the gods of cosmological myths, Hobbes to base political order on what for him was the only “reality”—power.

Even their concepts, St. Augustine’s “City of Man” and Hobbes’ view of political community, are identical.

For Hobbes, life is a state of war, and men are ordered in political communities only by their fear of violent death and lust forpower. The only order in society is the random order of disordered men.

St. Augustine’s view of the city of man is not dissimilar, with the exception that for St. Augustine the city of man was not all of reality, only part of reality.

And that is the problem.

Hobbes was unable or unwilling to deal with political order in such a way as to include a consideration of the best political community by nature. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes was interested only in political order based on the passions. For that reason, the new methods of the natural sciences were exactly the guides which• Hobbes could use unhindered by problems of ethics and theology.

This view, of course, is quite the opposite of Classical philosophy. For Hobbes, the subject matter of philosophy is bodies in motion. The object of political science, too, is a type of bodies. In that sense, Hobbes’ Leviathan deals quite literally with the “body” politic.

Though Hobbes was truly interested in physical bodies in motion, both natural bodies and political bodies, what really interested him was the ideas of bodies.

These ideas originate in our senses.

Upon this fundamental formulation Hobbes built his entire political edifice. The knowledge which man has of reality originates in the senses. But what is primary, what we really know are the ideas in our mind, the concepts we formulate by reasoning to order our senses. All that we know is in the names we use; so Hobbes begins his Leviathan with the definition of the names he will use in the construction of his geometrical edifice of political order, In doing that Hobbes   builds his own made‑to‑order reality.

Man is not social, Hobbes tells us. He is asocial and acquisitive. The most basic emotion which compels him to act, the ordering force in his makeup, is the fear of violent death. Thus Hobbes denies that there is a highest good, summum bonum, which connotes rationality to human action, but does admit into his system an utmost evil, summum malum, the fear of death.

It is the fear of death which brings and holds men together, however precariously, in political community. The political community, as Hobbes sees it, is conceived in fear, born out of lust, and maintained by a common power which is imposed on the men who make up the commonwealth. To the question, Is political community natural?, Hobbes replies in the negative. The commonwealth is the artifice of man’s reason, formulated by attention to the “laws of nature.”

By “nature,” Hobbes means reason, and by reason he means specifically discursive reason, or logic, the ability to put two and two together, to compute. Specifically, reason is the ability to compute one’s advantages. It is this deductive process which leads to the human discovery of “laws of nature,” theorems which Hobbes cautiously deduced from the careful and systematic definition of names which occupies him in the first part of the Leviathan. Man seeks peace; man gives up his natural right or license for the sake of peace; and man makes covenants to live under a common power which he is bound to obey as just. This science of the laws of nature, he said, is the true moral philosophy. The science of human action of Classical philosophy was based on the hopes and fancies, while the science of human behavior dealt with the real laws of nature, the inexorable, supreme law of the passions.


According to Hobbes, no effective government, no matter how tyrannical, may be called illegitimate. This caused Hobbes no discomfort since he reasoned that what the Classical philosophers called tyrannical regimes are really only “titles given by those who were either displeased with that present government, or those that bare rule.”  Hobbes lived during perhaps the worst political crisis in the history of England, a time when horrible deeds were committed in the name of religion, when politics had ceased, and civil war wracked the country.

The theory of political order he formulated struck at what appeared to be the main cause of these disorders by excluding religious claims to higher authority than the sovereign.

But it also excluded the standards by which philosophy limits government. In his Leviathan Hobbes advocates absolutely unlimited government, checked only by the principle that a government cannot legitimately ask us to allow ourselves to be killed or put in a position where that is likely.

What might have been utilized to check its omnipotence, Hobbes discards:  right by nature, the best regime, justice, a view of life after death which limits temporal power. Each of these alternatives represents the conceptual means that defined Christendom, the order that became “tradition” after the fall of Rome in 410 AD and which, before Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, ”classical” political philosophers placed limits on political power; yet Hobbes rejected them or gave them new meaning.

By making method supreme over substance, by extending the methods of the mathematical and natural sciences to an inquiry into political order, and by analyzing man on the level of his passions alone, Hobbes justifies the order of the animal community and assumes that that order is the order of man. Hobbes limited his field of inquiry to the world of bodies extended in space, limited his concept of order to the physical, material aspirations of men, and excluded the spiritual.

Assuming that we know only names, and not the reality of the subjects we name, Hobbes effectively severed himself from the Classical philosophic tradition and deformed the nature of political science. For that reason, perhaps, many of our contemporaries are actually attracted to Hobbes, though what he says about man is a deformation of the fullness of human nature. Just as men today complain of the lack of community, the chaos and toxicity of the atomistic existence we live, Hobbes’ analysis of apolitical man as an asocial atom cast into the desert of life, an analysis which cannot be separated from the life of Hobbes himself, is a forerunner of the modern intellectual who rejects political community, tradition, political authority.

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