60 in 60: #31 – Thomas Hobbes’ Of Man (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

Of Man
by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Memorable Line
“There be beasts, that at a year old observe more, and pursue that which is for their good, more prudently, than a child can do at ten.”

The Skinny
A somewhat bleak and strange book arguing that human life is often brutal and senseless, and that therefore we should all accept a “social contract” that acknowledges the greater authority of a sovereign leader.

Relevance? Argument?
I knew Thomas Hobbes was going to be hardcore when I read these lines: “For as for Witches, I think not that their witchcraft is any reall power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false beliefe they have, that they can do such mischiefe, joyned with their purpose to do it if they can: their trade being neerer to a new Religion, than to a Craft or Science.” So, in other words, if I’m reading this right on a bleary-eyed Sunday, thought crimes are worthy of death, and witches deserve what they get not because of what they cannot do but because they’re close to creating a new religion.

Certainly it seems to me that Hobbes by taking this position–and several others in the book–would have been persona non grata with most forms of organized Christianity. Although there’s a bit of the Bible in Hobbes’ style, Of Man is starkly secular. And by starkly, I mean without humor and so intent on straining out the spiritual that it seems unconceivable that Hobbes might entertain an organic vision of the world–biospheres, ecosystems, symbiosis. There’s a clanking metal bucket quality that’s both off-putting and oddly endearing.

I must admit that for much of this book, Hobbes seemed to me like a hulking, ungainly giant, festooned and be-ribboned with Themes and Terms presented All in Capital Letters, Just So–with me as a rabbit trying to escape his tread. (Which is to say here’s a title that I will have to revisit.)

And yet, if Hobbes is a rough giant, then he has a surgeon’s hands, because there is so much interesting detail here about the Senses and about human emotions. I know this is just the support for comparing the human body to political systems, but that detail is what most interested me.

Here’s Hobbes on Dreams:

The most difficult discerning of a mans Dream, from his waking thoughts, is then, when by some accident we observe not that we have slept: which is easie to happen to a man full of fearful thoughts; and whose conscience is much troubled; and that sleepeth, without the circumstances, of going to bed, or putting off his clothes, as one noddeth in a chayre. For he that taketh pains, and industriously layes himself to sleep, in case any uncouth and exorbitant fancy come unto him, cannot easily think it other than a Dream.

What follows, with “fearful apparition” and talk of “Satyres, Fawnes, Nymphs, and the like” is almost like a twisted, dark version of and vision from A Midsummer Night’s Dream–one that Hobbes is trying to push as far away as possible. And the reader, finding such images in this context, will find them drab and tawdry and sad. I felt at times as if I were in Narnia during the White Witch’s rule. (In a sense, then, Hobbes is the forefather of non-escapist fantasy.*)

The discussions of the need for the precision of language that follow, along with Hobbes’ combination and re-combination of how, for example, Appetite is linked to hope and despair, is not only fascinating but of interest to fiction writers (different aims, but similar emphasis).

At times while reading Of Men, Hobbes seemed, unexpectedly, like a fusion of Schopenhauer and Lucretius. At other times, I was reminded of the huge structures, filled with human beings, in Clive Barker’s “In the Cities, the Hills” by which the villagers of fight each other–and through which they eventually die, crushed, as they fall to earth.

* I am partially joking here.

Note: I lost my entire Hobbes post this morning due to a quirk of WordPress and accidentially deleting my back-up in Outlook. This is a reconstruction, and not as complete, for which I apologize. But taking more time to re-do it would probably lead to me running into the street screaming “Stella! Stella!” Life is indeed brutish and short. Like a shark, if I do not keep swimming forward, I will drown.

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury would have found Disney movies long and tedious.

Question for Readers
Just how brutish is life, and how would Hobbes view modern U.S. government and society?

Next up, going from a laugh riot to a giggle fest, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Burial


  1. Allen says

    I’ve always been a hater of Hobbes ever since a school principal made me read him. The principal did not like my anarchical approach to hall way justice and wanted to comform me to his more statist approach to resolving outrages. Hobbes was a bonafide hater of humanity – somebody who spat on the human spirit. But we must all read him to know how people in the State department and foreign policy think tanks percieve the world.

  2. says

    Then it’s not just me that found him somewhat bizarre. Sorry my post is such a mess. It’s as if you were building a house and the roof fell in and then that same day you had to still host a party in it, before any repairs could be made. Sigh.

  3. says

    Though I remember it vaguely, I too read an excerpt of Hobbes in high school, but instead of repulsed was very struck by his thesis that men are but animals bound together into civility by the social contract. Whenever I see humans acting at their worst – mob mentality, sweatshops, genocide, anything along those lines – I think of Hobbes, imagine him grimly nodding with twisted pride as his ideas are vindicated. On a fundamental level I do believe that we must all work at maintaining our social contract with each other, that we have to strive to preserve our humanity, that we can’t take our advances in civil rights, gender equality and such for granted.

    However, that said, I also believe that Hobbes got it only half right. While he’s rubbing his hands and staring at the worst, he completely misses out on the rare but existent capacity of men to do good. Altruism, charity, self sacrifice, love of family and state – I don’t know what he would of made of the Brazilian UN diplomat who died in Iraq, for example, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and his career.

    What do you think, Jeff–do I need to go back and reread Hobbes? What do you believe his reaction to the Holocaust would have been? Am I remembering correctly, or does he credit men with the capacity for altruism and self sacrifice, rare as that may be?

  4. says

    Phil–I just need to re-read him before I comment further, frankly. I did find much of it fascinating. But parts of it really required more context and more time to ruminate on.

  5. says

    Hobbes’ point about witches, IIRC, is that they meant to do harm to others, tried to do harm to others, and were unable to do so only because they didn’t actually have the powers they thought they had — not so much “thought crime” as “attempt,” to which impossibility is generally not a defense even today.

    (Of course, of course, this isn’t a very accurate description of any of the people who were actually burned as witches, I am not defending witch-burning).

    persona non grata with most forms of organized Christianity.

    Hobbes was a thorough-going materialist, materialism was as important to his work as the politics, and yes, the church banned some of his books and he was condemned as an atheist.

    For context Hobbes should be read against the background of Robert Filmer, for whom the existence of the sovereign is justified by divine right and a father’s natural authority over his family; Hobbes, by grounding the sovereign in a social contract, is the progressive here. . .

  6. says

    Thanks, Felix, for that. And it’s definitely a more accurate reading of the witches situation. My question then becomes, of course, what the definition of “harm” is, since a lot of “witches” were just pursuing home remedies and the like–no malice there. Anyway, a moot point. I do still find myself struck by the oddness of his manner of expression.

    Murky is my post–like a stew by the three witches in Macbeth. Toil, toil, toil, and, er, bubble.


  7. says

    well, yeah, but that’s not what Hobbes thought witches were. “Witches” in the writings of a seventeenth-century intellectual doesn’t really refer to any actually-existing people, Hobbes wasn’t going out and doing first-hand thickly-textured sociology in the villages; he’s talking about “witches” as they appear in other seventeenth-century writings, i.e. people who entered into (attempted) pacts with the devil and (attempted to) put curses on their neighbours and cause illness and crop failure and sick cattle & etc. The relationship between that literary construct and actual people was pretty tenuous.

    Anyway — the “harm” he’s focused on is “cursing.”

  8. says

    Hrmm…seems like the tag needs to be edited in the post…

    Anyways, I have always had a visceral reaction to Hobbes, or at least to the small excerpts of him that I have read. While I am far from a meliorist (the cultural histories of World War I that I had to read/study cured me of that), I just cannot believe that the world is so materialistic, so bereft of positive meaning, as to accept that it is unrelentingly bleak. In some sense, I suspect that I’m influenced not just by the Catholic Mystics I read in college, but also by Chardin and a few others.

    I suspect Hobbes would have a rather smug attitude toward what we have to deal with these days, although he might want to strangle a few Obama supporters for being too optimistic :P

  9. says

    Larry–yes, this is a shambles of a post, cursed almost. Because every time I go to edit I lose something even if I make the correction. It must exist on some part of the internet that is haunted.

    Yeah, I’m not particularly enthused by materialism–we have to live in the world as it exists, but that doesn’t mean we don’t make it better by imagining it as something better. Materialism, mechanical views of the universe, seem very much lacking in something. Although I can see their appeal in terms of, perhaps, providing a sense of order. I don’t personally need order in that sense. I need something that moves and is organic.


  10. rick says

    I reckon that Hobbes has some alluring about what he writes of, at first his work reads like a instruction manual for a computer, which falls in line with the mechanistic viewpoint, but in some parts it reads like it is in verse (as he wrote his autobiography in). I can’t help feel that Hobbes is a bit of a fruitcake, but I like him. He is so precise an unwavering that you are drawn in. In reading a little more about his life and his passion for mathematics and ongoing disputes with noted mathematicians it appears that Hobbes is someone that is so set in his view and so against others views that he could also have slipped into his own self created world. When it comes to his views that anything outside the mechanistic framework is absurd, it is only because he has constricted himself with his mind and doe snot believe that there is something in humans that goes beyond mind and if that is the case the I can see why he thinks the way he does. In summation: Hobbes = fruitcake genius.