How Hobbes Separated Government From Virtue

800px-Thomas_Hobbes_portrait-285x300 How Hobbes Separated Government From Virtue

“Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist who saw the world in purely mechanical terms.”

According to the ideology of absolute personal liberty, government exists to foster liberty and to mediate the inevitable conflicts that arise in the exercise of that liberty. The general rule that governs the use of liberty is pretty much “do what you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

This ideology of absolute personal liberty could be traced back to the English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist who saw the world in purely mechanical terms. If he treats of religion in his philosophy it is only to make sure that it is completely under control of government and has no legitimacy apart from government approval. In line with his materialist philosophy his view of human nature is wholly egoistic – that is to say human beings act and can act only for their own private individual interests. As a result “The natural condition of man… is a war of every man against every man.” (Leviathan Ch. 13) We are familiar with this idea in our saying: “It is a dog eat dog world.”

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On this basis, Hobbes affirms that “‘The Right of Nature,’ … is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation … of his own life.” (Ibid. Ch. 14) For Hobbes, this natural right is not even limited by the rights of others.

On the basis of his idea of the state of warfare and the natural right of human liberty, Hobbes argues that, in fact, the only way that human beings can find security is by handing all of their rights into the hands of an absolute sovereign (the Leviathan) who will then rule them all, granting to them whatever “civil rights” he deems appropriate.

While Hobbes’ solution to the problem of the natural state of warfare of every man against every man did not, in the long run, gain acceptance in the West, modern Western political philosophy has been driven by his underlying view of the human problem. Indeed, if we consider the reigning ideology of absolute personal liberty, we can see that it shares the basic Hobbesian view of human nature, but seeks rather to maximize the liberty while minimizing the government mediation between conflicting liberties.

This idea also leads to the primacy of the economic role of government on the idea that conflict between human beings will be lessened in the midst of material prosperity, but exacerbated when competition for scarce material goods is greater.

There is another consequence to this worldview: moral virtue is impossible and can never be any more than a fiction or illusion. Hence the political-economic-social order of a society has nothing to do with virtue, but can only be managed as a machine in which the human beings are the moving parts that are to be harmonized in their functioning so as to produce an efficient economic engine.

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Of course these ideas are not the only ones that shape our society, but their pervasive influence should be quite evident. It should also be clear that Hobbes’ starting point of the natural state of warfare of every man against every man is very misguided to say the least. It treats humanity as a collection of individuals with no natural bonds one to another. It altogether overlooks those most fundamental of bonds, the umbilical cord and the nursing breast, not to mention the indissoluble bond of married love between a man and woman that gives rise to the bond of the umbilical cord. It overlooks the selfless and self-sacrificing love of parents.  Finally, it overlooks the family as the natural cradle of human life.

Certainly the reality of sin in the world often brings a sort of unfortunate “warfare” into the heart of the family, but this is a secondary, not primary reality of human life; Eden came before the Fall and the Fall did not totally destroy the good of nature that was given in Eden; further, the grace of Jesus Christ has entered the world to heal the wounds of sin, to reinforce the bond of marriage, and to make possible the truth of love.

In that light the family is the natural school of moral virtue. What is virtue? It is not a mechanical reality, but the direction of human instinct and energy towards the true, the good, and the beautiful, under the light of faith and reason. In that light, government, rather than managing human beings as cogs in an economic machine, should be protecting family life and fostering the promotion of virtue.

  • Yan

    Well that was interesting. Even though the founders mostly rejected Hobbes’ prescriptions, they did accept his analysis of the “state of nature.” Fr. Levine is correct, I think, to point out that this conception fails to account much for the essential communitarian nature of man as expressed in traditional Catholic teaching.

    Then again, if you lived through the English Civil War, as Hobbes did, you might also be less inclined to accept that man, in his “state of nature,” is communitarian.

    Also, Hobbes was at odds with Aristotle on this point and so it is not surprising that a priest of the Church which has largely baptized many of the ideas of Aristotle would also criticize Hobbes for views to the contrary.

    That all being said, if it is true that Hobbes influenced the Founders to conceive of man more so as an individual than as a social community in relation to the state, then it is easy to see how trends in society and law have developed in dependence upon this conception which prefer the rights of individuals over rights of communities, to the ongoing detriment of the latter.

    Hobbes, however, is not merely a convenient whipping boy for us to pin the blame for a society that continues to largely favor the individual to the detriment of communities. The founders made choices, and so have Americans through the centuries. To the extent that we have preferred a Hobbsian analysis of the state of nature, we should ask what circumstances, forces and impulses within us caused these choices. It is not enough, in accounting for these choices, merely to say, as Fr. Levine is essentially doing here: “Hobbes made me do it!”

    Hobbes is long dead and almost no one reads him anymore. If our legal choices and our beliefs seem to reflect his view of the nature of man, then that is so because we, like Hobbes, view the state of nature as he did. If our view is wrong, as Fr. Levine thinks, then, the question is, why have we embraced the wrong view?

    Another way to look at things, however, is that Hobbes was, at least, more right on this point than traditional Catholic thinking would generally allow. In that case, perhaps it is our thinking that needs some adjustment so that we may properly respond to the challenges to evangelical doctrine which his point of view represents.

    • NeoCrusader09434

      Yan – Well stated. Several points though:
      Hobbes certainly took advantage of the seething tide of populism and radical individualism surging across his homeland and all of Europe during the centuries following the protestant rebellion. He stoked these hellish fires of dissent with his anti-Christian me-first ideology that would later inspire the godless rantings of Darwin and Malthus.
      Why have so many chosen a Hobbesian path of individual aggrandization over the more self-sacrificial Catholic way of life? Simply put, it is mankind’s fallen nature. It is the same choice that led to Cain’a murderous wrath, David’s lustful murder of Uriah, and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – men chose their own pleasure over the well-being of others; the self over the community. It is nothing more than the voice of Satan in Eve’s ear, “You could be a god.” And from time immemorial man chose his own selfish needs over his neighbor.
      Regarding Hobbs in modern society, a person of your obvious intelligence knows that ideas are more powerful than men and surely outlive them. While almost no one reads Hobbs his insidious rhetoric continues to defile modern western society, like a genetic deformity passed down from generation to generation. The American people may not read Hobbes but they do watch Survivor. Martin Luther is long dead too but the thousand-headed hydra of the protestant heresy continues to grow.
      Finally, your presumption that Hobbs is correct over Catholic theology, solely because the great unwashed masses have chosen his hedonistic way, is preposterous. When have the leaderless mssses ever chosen correctly? Mankind is psychologically hardwired to seek authority and leadership. Individualism and our democracy only lead to anarchy and totalitarianism. Catholicism is not a democracy. Christ did not create His Church as a democracy for good reason. The Church will survive the assault of this false ideology just as it has survived all the others.

      • Yan

        I didn’t presume Hobbes was correct. I proposed the possibility, without necessarily endorsing it, that he is more right than traditional Catholic thinking would allow. It is something to think about and not something I was attempting to decide or even opine on.

        The idea of “genetic” ideas is always appealing as an explanation of civilizational choices and it is not without some value. However, to cede too much power to such ideas as an explanation for the shaping of the choices that are made is to make an error similar to that which the Marxists and Structuralists make when making this analysis. Think about Margaret Meade’s ideas for instance. While it is true that society forms us, we also create society.

        The explanatory power of original sin is also limited when applied to concrete circumstances. We cannot say for sure that simply because man is born a sinner that therefore he will make decisions about his form of social organization in a way that conforms to Hobbes’ ideas anymore than we can say that because he is a sinner he will make decisions about them in accord with Rousseau’s. The possibilities of sin are very diverse. The most we can say about the effect of original sin is that we have a universal tendency to make decisions in accordance with our ignorance and in accordance with our disordered passions and animal lusts.

        Thus I think it is also appropriate to investigate the particular circumstances in society and history, including those which exist within us at the present time, in attempting to determine why our choices seem to conform to, in this instance, a particular theory of Mr. Hobbes, if indeed it is the case that they do so.

    • OMG

      Good analysis, until: It is not enough, in accounting for these choices, merely to say, as Fr. Levine is essentially doing here: “Hobbes made me do it!”

      First, Fr. Levine neither explicicly nor implicity posits this. Rather, Fr. Levine explains it perfectly well when he says that our thinking (a la Hobbes) comes from our taking the apple off the tree as Eve did in Eden. We want what we want when we want it; this thinking fails to consider sacrificial love for God, our children, our community. So Hobbes is NOT more right on this point than traditional Catholic thinking. Catholic thinking IS right in explaining Hobbes.

      • Yan

        Well, it seems I’ve hit on a sensitive nerve just by suggesting the possibility, without endorsing it, that perhaps Hobbes’ thinking might be more right on this issue than traditional Catholic thinking. You are the second person now to accuse me of endorsing what was merely a suggestion.

        Again, who is right or wrong on that question is just too big a topic to address in a comment box. But, I think both comments point to something else: the difficulty of some conservative Catholics with imagining the possibility that Catholic thinking might stand to change or to benefit from someone else’s thinking whose views have a different pedigree than from inside the Church.

        I submit that such an attitude is actually quite hostile to the actual history of the Church in both considering and at times adopting ideas of many different kinds that have their origin outside the Church in the pursuit of explaining and teaching the revelation of faith and its bearing upon the issues of the day.

        In order to discern properly and then to separate the wheat from the chaff, one must first have an open mind to new and different ideas. It is possible that Catholic thinking on various topics can change in light of new thinking from outside the Church. That has happened many times in Church history.

        • OMG

          No sensitive nerves here. I simply stated my position, which is I cannot see any good reason to agree with a proposition that Hobbes is more right than traditional Catholic thinking. Here, now, I offer for reflection that Hobbes is one individual. Traditional Catholic thinking derives from over 2000 years with many of the best minds in philosophy, theology, revelation (Hebrew as well Christian Scriptures), etc. I find that difficult to refute as a single, albeit well educated, individual. So I beg you to argue that Scripture in Genesis Chap. 1-3 has not anticipated Hobbes. Your use of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ words in your supposition imply value judgments with which I disagree. Which is exactly the point Fr. Levine was making.

          • Yan

            My use of the words “wrong” and “right” were in connection with the word “possible.”

            Has Scripture anticipated Hobbes? I am not sure what you mean. I think you mean that Hobbes’ view, as you understand it, results from original sin. Certainly Scripture anticipates generally that human beings make errors in judgment. But to apply this anticipation broadly and without looking at the details of his thinking is as wrong as saying that Scripture anticipated and refuted Copernicus’ heliocentrism.

            “Traditional Catholic thinking derives from over 2000 years with many of the best minds in philosophy, theology, revelation (Hebrew as well Christian Scriptures), etc. I find that difficult to refute as a
            single, albeit well educated, individual. ”

            Hobbes is one individual but if we look at all the choices which, arguably [and I am not asserting it to have been the case actually] follow Hobbes’ thinking, then you have many people. So if you want to give weight to the volume of thoughts in determining right from wrong as you have done in your preceding comment, then you have to take that into consideration as well.

            But I don’t see the importance of that approach. Aristotle was only one individual and at first only St Thomas thought that Aristotle was worthy to be considered as an aide in assisting the Church to explain revelation. Jules Isaac was only one man but his views on Church teaching about the Jews played an enormous part in the Church re-thinking and re-formulating both its doctrine and its liturgy. I could go on and on adducing individuals who have had enormous influence on Church doctrine.

            So I believe that my original observation about the existence of an unhealthy resistance to new ideas among some Catholics seems to have been rather substantiated in the course of this discussion.

            Again, just so we are clear: I am not endorsing Hobbes. However, if Fr. Levine is correct that our civilization has followed Hobbes in some respect, then we should look closely at the facts in order to determine why that is the case, and to see IF there is some reason based in truth, or not, for the choices made by our civilization.

          • OMG

            Of course you are not “endorsing” Hobbes, and so I am at a loss to comprehend your constant reiteration.

          • Yan

            Well, you wrote:

            “So Hobbes is NOT more right on this point than traditional Catholic thinking. Catholic thinking IS right in explaining Hobbes.”


            “I cannot see any good reason to agree with a proposition that Hobbes is more right than traditional Catholic thinking.”


            “Your use of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ words in your supposition [connected to discussing Hobbes] imply value judgments with which I disagree.”

            Forgive me for thinking you were attributing a position to me with which you were disagreeing, if you were not actually attributing the position to me. My, I believe, reasonable perception that you were doing so, based on your statements, and also those of NeoCrusader, was the source of my “constant reiteration” that I was not “endorsing Hobbes.”

  • Chris Lilly

    In political philosophy Thomas Hobbes supported absolutism in the name of order because his view of human nature was pessimistic. Where as John Locke advocated liberalism to uphold liberty since he had an optimistic view of human nature. History teaches that England and America through their respective revolutions adopted liberalism as a guard against abuse of power and to promote liberty. England became a constitutional monarchy. America became a constitutional republic.

    Ethically virtue is a good habit that is opposed by vice or bad habit. This has to do with character and values. It is the moral and spiritual condition of a person and is ultimately a religious issue. The ordering of the public good in a state is a political issue. The two are distinct yet interdependent because men are religious by nature, socialize, live territorial and govern themselves politically.

    • Brain

      Has anyone read Hobbes and the Law of Nature by Perez Zagorin. I read it some time ago and confess, as a plodder, that I found it tough going at the time. Is anyone familiar with that work and if so has it got anything to contribute to Father Levine’s article ?

      • Chris Lilly

        Thomas Hobbes believed that in a state of nature men acted mercenary in the name of self interest. To avoid constant conflict men would submit to a political sovereign committed to maintaining order. This is the philosophical basis for absolutism.

  • Woodyandjack

    Odd, seems that everyone is focusing on the “self-interest” side, but I worry more about Hobbes’ invisible influence of Leviathan being required to quell & control us due to our supposed self-interest. THAT is where we’ve gone off the tracks & into societal concentration camps, without even realizing it. If we have the truth in our souls, & Good Words to guide us, then we shouldn’t need Leviathan (i.e. Big Brother regulator) to control us. Is there any aspect of our lives these days that does not have to be approved by the govt. first? I’m about to go out and make a fire in the back yard to sit by & think for awhile — but 1st I have to try and remember if there’s currently a ban on backyard fires. I’ve made fires all my life; I make it safely and monitor it, but I have to have govt approval to partake in doing such a natural activity for me. Multiply this by 1000 different things done during a typical day that must first be approved by some enforced governmental rule, & I realize that I am only free in the lowest sense of the word.