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Hobbes Materialist Nature of Philosophical Principles Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021


Hobbes philosophical principles were of materialist nature. In the company of many other thinkers of his age, Hobbes thought he perceived in mathematics a certitude which the flux of human opinion could not alter. This is so because he believed that universe is composed of solid bodies and everything is geometrical in nature. Every matter has mathematical dimensions which must be true if verified on a scientific basis.

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Since Hobbes was materialist, he considered ‘truth’ to be a function of reasoning, its discovery an analytical process in which definitions are placed in their proper order (Leviathan, p. 21). The language of geometry, moreover, is lucid, free of verbal confusions, a perfect analogue of the kind of style which Hobbes hoped to achieve in his non-mathematical writings. And finally, geometry harmonized most easily with the cosmology that Hobbes was soon to develop: a universe that consists only of extended body is best described in geometrical terms (Matthew, 1885, p. 113).

One of the best examples of putting his philosophy in a scientific paradigm is that he used time to measure and compare motions in general, so in Elements of Law he applies the temporal dimension to distinguish between people and to explain the different attractions to pleasures like sensualities, riches, and knowledge (Slomp, 2000, p. 21).

Hobbes confronted to the great philosophical problem of seventeenth-century science which was to find a way of working out its mechanical principles without abandoning spirit and God (Descartes’ Cartesianism). Unlike Descartes who believed that a rigorously mechanical view of the material world is always accompanied by the certainty that the spirit world also exists, Hobbes mechanical universe was devoid of spirit and only distantly related to a material God (Mintz, 1970, p. 11).

For Hobbes all substance must have dimensions that is, it must have spatial location, magnitude, and extension. In this way Hobbes have proved every material bodily substance on scientific grounds, and so does his moral and philosophical notions are proved that no two bodies can occupy the same space in the universe. All substance or bodies is impenetrable therefore Hobbes scorned the doctrine that defines a spiritual existence.

Hobbes ridiculed the scholastic notion expressed in the proposition totum in toto ac totum in qualibet parte. Hobbes refutes other scholars’ opinions about spirits and souls and denies the notion that a man has a soul. In Leviathan Hobbes has mentioned that how could a soul be a part of a man or a part of any of the man’s bodily features? (Leviathan, p. 443)

Hobbes played only a negative role in developments that according to him were not physical. His doctrine of space had no effect on the progress of English science, nor did it serve to release the English poetic imagination in the way that More’s had. In fact, unlike More, Hobbes did not make his doctrine a central feature of his metaphysics. He treated the question almost casually, whereas for More it was a subject of life-long interest (Mintz, 1970, p. 92).

Selden wrote as a lawyer, that Hobbes as a philosopher was less than humane in declaring for the punishment of witches, but this way Hobbes at least was consistent to his philosophical principles. He believed that the security of the state depends on civil obedience, and civil obedience is relaxed when ‘crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people’ by playing on their ‘superstitious fear of spirits’ (Seldon, 1689, p. 131)

Hobbes’s denial of the power of witches was a direct consequence of his materialism. In chapter xlvii of Leviathan, on demonology, Hobbes reviewed his mechanicomaterialist theory of sensation in order to show that a man may have hallucinations from purely natural and material causes, which may be called demons by unsophisticated minds (Mintz, 1970, p. 104).

In Leviathan, Hobbes has focused the byproduct of these unsophisticated minds which appears in the form of witchcraft. Thus witches, spirituality or witchcraft is nothing but the product of hallucinations of such minds which should be punished. If such men are left unattended in the universe, they use such language in an unreliable way to express their own desires. Therefore, Hobbes offers a reliable, systematic use of it in the form of ‘Laws of Nature’ with which they must all agree.

These laws of nature are the theorems proposed by Hobbes in order to defend themselves against external injustice. Hobbes have based these theorems on some unique notions like if a man has been given the opportunity to do anything he wish, he would desire to do x, y, and z. On achieving his aims he will then desire to do beyond z and so on.

Hobbes proposed laws of nature suggest a set of actions to be taken for peace and harmony. That means in order to bring up a better living environment; condition for ‘self-preservation’ should be there. However the breaking of laws brings injustice to the society when there are occasions when obeying such laws endangers a man’s life rather than preserve it. For example the consequences of violence or murder create circumstances in which the need for self-preservation dictates breaking the laws of nature and responding with violence in self-defence. Such actions in which a man is bound to go beyond the laws of nature in order to seek protection are called as ‘right’ of nature. Hobbes in chapter 14 of Leviathan proves that both laws and right flow from the same source, which he calls the ‘rule’ of nature.

Establishing civic peace and disposing mankind toward fulfillment of their civic duties

In Leviathan, Hobbes has proposed that in order to build up civil peace and unity among mankind, it is necessary to create a concept of commonwealth. Such ‘commonwealth’ can be run under some sovereign state or power. Hobbes has already described the term ‘commonwealth’ in context with some third person or artificial power. Hobbes has imitated the term ‘commonwealth’ with ‘Leviathan’ which means a huge sea monster as mentioned in Bible.

This is the ideal condition which Hobbes has defined for creating a safe and secure society. Hobbes view of the state of nature as defined in Leviathan is: “State of nature is the man’s need to secure himself from violent death which when combines with his greed creates condition of maximum insecurity. Men are powerless to escape from this predicament so long as they live without law and according to the dictates of their own passions” (Leviathan, p. 82)

The insecurity and threat of injustice has brought forward the laws and a determinate set of actions to which the right covers from the range of possible actions contrary to natural law. Therefore Hobbes’s intention that right, consists in liberty to do or to forbear whereas law, determine and bind to one of them is no less necessary than obedience to the laws normally is when they can safely be obeyed. Calling the right a ‘liberty’ does not mean that at critical moments of self-defense it is a matter of indifference whether the right be used or not. It connotes rather the right’s nature as an ‘entitlement’ to act against the usual requirements of natural law.

Malcolm (2002) has called this account an internal valuation of men’s actions where each man has to consider and concern about his own need for preservation and this need generates a particular set of laws and a general right (Malcolm, 2002, p. 23). In the state of nature, when conditions generally justify the actions, some actions are not justified in accordance with the laws of nature for they do not meet the internal standard of conduciveness to self-preservation. Hobbes has given an example of ‘drunkenness’ in such case (Malcolm, 2002, p. 23).


In his daily frequentation of the aristocracy, Hobbes must have realized that their superiority was merely a human artifact. Indeed in his three main political works, Hobbes repeats almost verbatim the claim that equality is natural and that the inequality that now is has been introduced by the Law Civil (Leviathan, 107). Hobbes’s main claim on natural equality is that despite the differences in intelligence and strength, even the feeble man has the strength to fight the strongest.

In the Hobbesian state of nature, a person’s identity is endangered in two ways i.e., in a crude and drastic sense in which physical life is threatened. Secondly in a more sophisticated sense in which the mind possesses the distinctive ability to detach itself from the present and therefore plans the future. In both cases a man’s identity is wasted. For Hobbes the state of nature is a state of uncertainty, where one cannot trust anybody and least of all one’s experience of the past.

According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, out of the full range of passions one can experience only those related to the present, namely, sudden passions such as terror, weeping, anger, sensual pleasures, etc. The best pleasures of the mind, such as curiosity and knowledge, are denied. The only cathartic passion under these conditions is fear, which is described by Hobbes as been beneficial in so far as it is concerned with the future. In other words, in the state of nature people are victim of the present; the time of the mind is forced to coincide with the time of nature, which for Hobbes is the present.

According to Hobbes the sovereign power is created to guarantee the minimal condition necessary to be a person, namely, physical continuity. But in order to guarantee physical integrity, each individual’s mental self-continuity has to be acknowledged in full so that rules can be enforced and punishment administered. For the rule enforcement it is necessary to analyze each individual on the principle of ‘self sameness’. In the eyes of the State, Socrates acting today is responsible for what he did yesterday, for underneath both past and present Socrates there is the same self.

Works Cited

Hobbes Thomas, (1651) Leviathan. Penguin Classics.

John Selden, (1953) Table Talk (London, 1689), vide ‘Witches’. Selden’s opinion is quoted with comment by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of London ( New York, 1953).

Matthew Arnold, (1885) Literature and Science, Discourses in America. London.

Malcolm Noel, (2002) Aspects of Hobbes: Clarendon: Oxford, England.

Mintz I, Samuel, (1970) The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.

Slomp Gabriella, (2000) Thomas Hobbes and the Political Philosophy of Glory: Macmillan: Houndmills, England.

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