Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Leviathan, Parts III and IV: “Of a Christian Commonwealth” and “Of the Kingdom of Darkness”
In part III, Hobbes addresses the problem of how the Christian faith relates to the Leviathan’s ideal civic society. For Christians, who are compelled to follow the laws of God, a conflict arises from Hobbes’s insistence that in the interest of peace, all knowledge, law, and belief must stem from the sovereign. Hobbes asserts that the sovereign’s laws may occasionally contradict God’s prophetical laws, i.e., those Christian laws that cannot be known by reason alone—as God’s natural laws are—but the sovereign’s laws must still be obeyed by his subjects. Hobbes acknowledges that contradictory laws cannot both be followed, and in the face of this conflict, the sovereign’s laws must be obeyed above all. Hobbes supports this position with a reading of biblical scripture, arguing that true Christian doctrine itself is not antithetical to his political philosophy but in fact supports it. There are some exceptions, such as the Christian belief in incorporeal spirits, and Hobbes counters that these are false beliefs. He concludes that religious and civic authority must be united under one source. The sovereign must be the head of the church in society as he is head of all else.
Part IV continues the project of discrediting false religious doctrine. Hobbes argues that the biblical Kingdom of Darkness in scripture must only be understood metaphorically as an allegorical term for the deceivers who lead men down wrong paths. He criticizes those Christians who propagate belief in spirits, labeling this belief a holdover from the “heathen religions” of pagan times. Once all false doctrine is banished from the church, larger society will be rid of falsity and will thus be capable of founding the utopian commonwealth of the Leviathan. Hobbes concludes by affirming the value of his book: “For such Truth, as opposeth no man’s profit, nor pleasure, is to all men welcome.”
In Hobbes’s attempt to reconcile Christian doctrine with civic philosophy, he expresses both his theories of power and human nature and his unique brand of Christian faith. Hobbes’s view of human nature informs his belief that men will become hopelessly confused when confronted with “two masters”—the civil sovereign and God. The “double vision” Hobbes discusses here results from men dividing their loyalties between these two sources of power, simultaneously believed to be kings of the world. Although he bases his critique of this state of affairs in his political philosophy, he seeks to prove his argument by the citation of scripture. He selectively quotes Jesus to show that the Kingdom of God is not truly present until the end of the world. Accordingly, a person (like Hobbes) may believe in the ultimate sovereignty of God but recognize that his kingdom will not exist on the earth until the end of the world. As such, that person must obey the civil sovereign in the present. Although this maneuver conveniently adapts Christianity and his materialist worldview, it shocked and alienated once and for all the seventeenth-century Church establishment. The last book of Leviathan, which is not read or studied nearly so much today as the first two books, raises Hobbes’s antichurch rhetoric to new heights. Despite his repeated denunciation of atheists, his radical assertion that God is not present in the current day guaranteed that he would always be a marginal figure among his contemporaries.
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