Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

9

Anti-Hobbesianism and the
Making of 'Modernity'

Diderot was a philosopher of both Man and nature; yet perhaps, ultimately, more of Man than of nature. In any case, social, moral, and aesthetic thought were at the heart of his concerns. Though firmly hostile to Hobbes's anti-democratic stance, in his article on 'Hobbes' for the Encyclopédie, Diderot was far from wholly unsympathetic to his general aims, motives, and philosophy. He excuses Hobbes's to his mind overly negative depiction of the state of nature as due to the unusually grim situation facing England during the years he wrote his De cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651). He praises Hobbes's honesty and insight, and his devising a system which, despite its averred loyalty to revealed religion, seemed to him to be a form of atheistic materialism, that is, something of which (from 1747) he entirely approved. Yet despite these positive and mitigating features, Diderot in the end felt Hobbes erred badly owing to an excessively pessimistic view of humanity: taking a particularly menacing set of circumstances 'pour les règles invariables de la nature', he sums up, he became 'l'agresseur de l'humanité et l'apologiste de la tyrannie'.1

Especially in the article 'Citoyen' in the Encyclopédie, Diderot strongly objects to Hobbes's refusal to acknowledge any difference between a 'citizen' and a 'subject', and his doctrine that the citizen owes unconditional obedience to the state; equally Diderot expresses antipathy to Hobbes's view that the sovereign may justly deny freedom of expression to his subjects.2 Anti-Hobbesianism, moreover, that is a deep-seated aversion to Hobbes's anti-libertarianism, anti-republicanism, and scorn for democracy, as well as a general suspicion of his moral philosophy and idea that the 'state of nature is a state of war of all against all', had to a degree always been integral to the Radical Enlightenment from its commencement with the advent of Dutch democratic republicanism, in the work of Johan de La Court, Franciscus van den Enden, and Spinoza, down to the French republican political thought of Boulainvilliers and the young Mably.

1 Diderot, art. 'Hobbisme, Diderot and d'Alembert', in Encyclopédie, viii. 233; Schröder, 'Liberté et
pouvoir', 147; Duflo, Diderot philosophe, 400, 462, 507–8.

2 Glaziou, Hobbes en France, 142, 147–9; Proust, Diderot, 343–4, 427–30; Skinner, Reason and
Rhetoric,
285–6.

-225-

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