by: Thomas Hobbes

Study Questions


Hobbes frequently attacks metaphor as an improper and abusive use of language. Yet Hobbes employs very powerful metaphors himself to make his argument, such as the state of nature and the Leviathan. Why does Hobbes use such striking metaphors in a text that philosophically condemns metaphorical language?

This question has troubled Hobbes scholars for centuries. Several answers are possible, but one of the most convincing comes from Robert E. Stillman: Hobbes claimed that metaphors were imprecise abuses of language that mislead readers from the proper and rigorous denotations of concepts. This position required Hobbes to control the meanings of metaphors in his own writing. By explicitly defining the precise meaning of a metaphor, its tendency to be misinterpreted would be eliminated. Thus Hobbes could create a precise scientific language by controlling the looseness of his metaphor, and he deliberately chose metaphors that would be prone to misunderstanding and a variety of interpretations, intending to show off his ability to constrain nonetheless the multiplicities of language. To explain exhaustively what he means by terms such as "the natural condition of mankind" and "Leviathan" is to render metaphor less metaphoric, in Hobbes's opinion. Unfortunately, Hobbes's ability to control metaphor was less successful than he would have liked, evidenced particularly by contemporary interpretations of Hobbes's decision to name his civilization "Leviathan." Hobbes probably wished to indicate by this name that the state was the overwhelming "king of all the children of pride" (indicated by the relevant passages from the Book of Job cited on the frontispiece); however, the common understanding of Leviathan as a horrendous sea monster or Satan led many readers to attack Hobbes's use of "Leviathan" as demonic and also led to Hobbes being dubbed the "Monster of Malmsbury." Nevertheless, while Hobbes's ambition to control the wildness of his powerful metaphors may have been thwarted by the power of reader response and cultural semiotics in constructing meaning, his decision to use metaphor in a book that condemns metaphor was still consistent with his philosophical project.


Many of Hobbes's contemporary critics accused him of atheism. What elements of the argument in Leviathan do you think were responsible for these charges? Do you think that atheism is a correct assessment of Hobbes's position? Why or why not?

Hobbes denied the concept of spirit, rejected ecclesiastical authority, vigorously challenged standard interpretations of scripture, and even suggested that to deny the existence of Jesus Christ was required of a subject if a sovereign demanded it. Atheism--which was a serious and extreme charge in the seventeenth century--was a convenient label for Hobbes's brand of thinking, but is not a philosophy Hobbes's writing supports. Careful reading of Leviathan reveals that Hobbes was far from an atheist and was certainly a Christian--although he did dismiss all of Christian dogma except for the statement of faith that Jesus was the Christ. Furthermore, despite Hobbes's heterodox ideas, his entire philosophy depends upon the belief in original divine creation. The argument of Leviathan is a progressive deduction from simple propositions regarding the movements of matter, but Hobbes relies on the idea of a Prime Mover for his propositions to work. For Hobbes, this Prime Mover was the Christian God. However, Christianity itself is not philosophically required by Hobbes's text, and this lack of necessity may have reinforced contemporaries' impressions of atheism, especially considering that, in seventeenth-century England, failing to prove the truth of Christianity was often tantamount to atheism. Nevertheless, because the materialism of Hobbesian thought has at its foundation a deity that set the universe in motion, Hobbes cannot be called an atheist in the strict sense of the term.


Hobbes describes the covenant, or social contract, as a "real unity" among the multitude of natural men who have chosen to escape the state of nature. But Hobbes also says that this "multitude naturally is not One, but Many; they cannot be understood for one." If a multitude cannot be a unity, how are we to understand Hobbes claim that the covenant is a "real unity"?

Hobbes writes that "A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; . . . For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One." Although the multitude of natural men are not a unity, they create a covenant representing their unity called the Leviathan. The Leviathan is an "artificial man," an artificial "Person" or "Representer," because it stands for the multiple wills of natural men as well as mimicking, or representing, the body of a natural man. Leviathan's body is composed of the bodies of the multitude; these lesser bodies are the bits of matter (analogous to the bits of matter that make up a body of a natural man) whose movement causes the Leviathanic body to function. Thus, each natural man, each natural body, is separate and can never be unified with the multitude, a larger artificial body signifying all natural men, literally embodying their unity as a sum of individual bodies. The Leviathan is a unity representing the multitude.