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Thomas Hobbes

Book III

Book II, Chapters 25-31

Book IV

Book III: Of a Christian Common-wealth


In the previous two books, Hobbes has examined the "natural word of God," or the facts of nature that can be known by natural reason and has extended this natural order into a form of government based upon the laws of nature. Now, Hobbes considers the "prophetical word of God," or the elements of Christian faith that cannot be known by reason alone and yet must be obeyed. In Hobbes's discussion of the Leviathan, he insisted that all knowledge, belief, and power must stem from the sovereign in order to ensure peace. But in the case in which the sovereign's laws are contradictory to God's prophetical laws (they cannot be contradictory to God's natural laws, because they derive from them), a subject must know which laws to follow. Contradictory laws cannot both be followed, and having two masters, Hobbes writes, "makes men see double" (Chapter 39). Hobbes seeks to secure the sovereign's laws, which he has argued must always be obeyed, against possible conflicts with Christian religion. Hobbes's method in the final two books of Leviathan focuses less on his previous geometrical derivations than on that of radical exegesis--skillful readings and interpretations of Biblical scripture intended to show that Christian belief accords perfectly with his philosophical program. In the process, Hobbes undermines virtually all of seventeenth-century Christian dogma.

The belief that the world is the "kingdom of God" has, according to Hobbes, been responsible for the "...double [vision]" of Christian subjects, because to believe that both God and the civil sovereign are kings of the world causes divided loyalties. Hobbes demonstrates though his reading of scripture that the kingdom of God is not present until the world ends, and thus only the civil sovereign is king in this world.

Ecclesiastical authority established under the belief of God's constant presence in the world has deepened the problem of seeing double. The institution of Churches, popes, priests, pastors, and theologians--who possess power and knowledge that is supposedly founded upon authority outside of the sovereign's domain (i.e. the authority of God and revealed religion)--creates a chasm in the power structure of the Leviathan. A subject's knowledge and obedience is split between two heads of the commonwealth, and this will lead, as Hobbes has repeatedly argued, to civil war. As such a situation is against the laws of nature--in that it puts safety in danger--it is against the word of God for religious authority and civil authority to be split into two bodies. Thus the sovereign must also be the head of all religion.

Certain religious tenets, which seem to contradict the conclusions of Hobbes's philosophy, are also responsible for seeing double. Belief in angels, spirits, and miracles reinforces a belief in the immediate presence of the kingdom of God, which undermines the sovereign kingdom here on earth; thus Hobbes must show that such beliefs do not depend upon dogmatic faith. Ecclesiastical authorities have perpetuated these beliefs in people in order to keep their own power distinct from the sovereign. But all these beliefs are explainable by Hobbesian philosophy.

Because the universe is a plenum, incorporeal spirits and angels are impossible. When everything is made up of bodies, the concept of bodilessness is illogical. The experience of these phenomena is caused by the effects of the motion of matter upon the human brain, which make a person believe that he or she is seeing something that is really not there. Thus spirits, angels, and visions of saints are "idols of the brain," and to worship such idols is contrary to Christianity, diminishing one's faith in God, who is not present in idols. When such an idol of the brain is sent by God to deliver a message (i.e., by initiating a certain sequence of motions that reach the brain), then this idol is properly called an angel, but must be recognized for what it is, rather than worshipped or feared as an incorporeal entity.

The same is true for miracles or the word of God delivered prophetically. Hobbes writes that most supposed miracles can be explained by natural causes, which, once known, diminish the wonder of the miracle. But people are easily deceived by false miracles and easily swayed by the interpretations of others. The only real miracles are those coordinated by God to make evident the mission of some minister of His will, but the miracle is caused by God and not by the abilities or faculties of the minister. Accordingly, saints, priests, and prophets who claim special access to divine power must not be worshipped because they are only conduits of God's will.

The concepts of Hell, damnation, and devils have also been used to sway the beliefs of the ignorant and make them turn from their lawful sovereign. These beliefs relating to eternal punishments or tortures for sins committed in this world have been employed as tools by ecclesiastical authorities to affect the actions of individuals. But Hobbes reads scripture and argues from the philosophy of materialism that these concepts are impossible and can be used only metaphorically. A corporeal human body cannot be tortured in an incorporeal place, and incorporeal devils cannot exist, so the threat of eternal tortures and damnation is neither logical nor supported by scripture. In contrast, salvation is the resurrection of the body after the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth; thus it is not inconsistent with a material understanding of the current world.

Hobbes argues that Christian scripture and natural law support his determination that the sovereign be head of religion. If ecclesiastical authority is not subordinate to the sovereign, people will be taught contrary doctrines, and civil war will result. In the case of two contrary doctrines, both cannot be true; rather, one or both must be false. Peace is protected by the sovereign's power to determine which, if either, is true. But what if the sovereign chooses the doctrine that is false in the eyes of God? Hobbes argues that the only necessary doctrine is that Christians must have faith that Jesus is the Savior. Also, the laws of nature must be obeyed, because they are evident as the natural word of God. All other doctrines are interpretations written by humans and so cannot be declared the true word of God; accordingly, the sovereign, if a Christian, cannot command a doctrine that forces a subject to believe something contrary to the word of God.

But what if the sovereign is not a Christian? Hobbes argues that faith can never be commanded and that a subject whose sovereign commands him not to believe in Jesus as the Savior can never be forced to obey that sovereign. The subject may be required to speak this un-Christian belief publicly, but real, inner faith is impossible to command. If the subject is punished by death, then his or her martyrdom is only further proof to God of their faith. So even in the case where the sovereign makes a command that is obviously contrary to the word of God, a Christian subject is never in danger of disobeying God.

To ensure peace, a subject must obey his sovereign in all things, and Hobbes shows that obedience to the Single Master of the sovereign always provides security in this life and the next. There should never be two heads of a Leviathan, and the sovereign should always be the foundation of religious doctrine; churches, popes, and pastors should always be subordinate to the sovereign. Having determined--by natural reason and scriptural exegesis--which elements of religion are true and which are superstitious or false, Hobbes demonstrates that his program for the creation of the perfect commonwealth accords entirely with the necessary articles of Christianity.


Hobbes has argued that, because of the material plenum of the universe, there can be no spiritual presence of God in this world. While evidence of God may be found through reason and the miracles or prophetical words He sends, God is not within this world, but can only be outside of it. The kingdom of God can therefore only exist at the end of the world, but must be thought of as if located in the world in order for human bodies to be subjects of this kingdom. Hobbes cites the words attributed in scripture to Jesus to show that Christ will not rule as king until the world ends. Thus the belief in two masters in this world--one civil and one divine--is not only contrary to peace but is also contrary to logical and religious truth.

However, even though Hobbes maintains that his arguments are completely consonant with Christianity, his notion that God is not present in this world was a drastically sacrilegious stance to take in the seventeenth century. Hobbes frequently condemns "atheists" in Book III, seemingly as an effort to distance himself from that category. Hobbes certainly believed in God; his philosophy leads him back again and again to the conclusion that there must be a Prime Mover who does intervene in the world, albeit only through the mediation of matter. However, by deducing that God is never personally present in this world--even in the incarnation of Christ--Hobbes placed himself in a shaky position relative to contemporary religious belief.

Hobbes's technique in Book III is primarily that of literary criticism. His reconstruction of Biblical exegesis to conform to his materialist arguments of Books I and II was a daring move in the cultural climate of the seventeenth century. While scientific endeavor throughout the century was concerned with reconciling the facts of nature with religious beliefs, the tendency was either to subsume natural knowledge under theological knowledge (as in the trial and execution of Galileo) or to separate natural knowledge from theological knowledge entirely (this was the strategy of Robert Boyle and members of the Royal Society, who maintained that the study of natural facts did not have implications for religion). Contrary to these prevailing tendencies, Hobbes takes theological knowledge and reinterprets it to conform to his determination of natural facts and philosophical conclusions. Hobbes shows that the Bible confirms his scientific claims, thus subordinating theology to natural philosophy, rather than the other way around.

But such a strategy was unlikely to be widely accepted in seventeenth-century England. A natural philosophy that had fewer consequences for religious belief and was less constraining of theological knowledge was more politically acceptable to contemporaries than Hobbes's monolithic philosophy. This may be why Hobbes's version of science did not become influential, despite its capacity to generate secure knowledge, while the more separatist version of science represented in the Royal Society came to be the basis of modern experimental science.

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Hobbes Leviathan, Important Terms: PLENUM

by HerrDay, October 12, 2014

Sparknotes editors, you need to review your definition of PLENUM in the glossary for Hobbes' Leviathan. A picture of the universe as a plenum makes a vacuum impossible.

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