The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Excerpt

Hobbes was the bête noire of his age. The principal objection to him, the one to which all other criticisms of him can ultimately be reduced, was that he was an atheist. He was the 'Monster of Malmesbury', the arch-atheist, the apostle of infidelity, the 'bug-bear of the nation'. His doctrines were cited by Parliament as a probable cause of the Great Fire of 1666. His books were banned and publicly burnt, and the ideas which Hobbes expressed in them in his lucid and potent style were the object of more or less continuous hostile criticism from 1650 to 1700.

The present study is an examination of this contemporary reaction in England. I have isolated Hobbes's materialism and moral philosophy because these two parts of Hobbes's system provoked the strongest reaction in their own time. Hobbes's critics viewed his denial of spirit and his ethical relativism as defections from the fundamental order of things, as heresies with the most dangerous consequences for religion; moreover a number of Hobbes's critics recognized that his materialism and his assumptions about morality were cardinal principles from which most of his other ideas flowed.

In our own time Hobbes is read chiefly as a political philosopher who developed a severely logical theory of absolutism. Hobbes's contemporaries would have regarded such an approach to his thought as too narrow: they considered his religious and metaphysical opinions and his political doctrines to be inseparable. The theory of commonwealth concerned them most for its Erastian implications, but even that was subordinated by them to the generally irreligious outlook which they detected in Hobbes's work. By studying their reactions we can gain a wider perspective of Hobbes's ideas, besides enriching our knowledge of seventeenth-century intellectual history. Modern scholars have, I believe, neglected the contemporary reaction at their peril. Even so closely-argued and brilliant a book as Howard Warrender The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation (Oxford, 1957) suffers from the absence . . .

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