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Are They Not Mad?

Jonathan Rée—

Without books, according to Hobbes, we could not be ‘excellently wise’, but on the other hand we would not be ‘excellently foolish’ either.

“They which trust to books, do as they that cast up many little summs into a greater, without considering whether those little summes were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the errour visible . . . spend time in fluttering over their bookes; as birds that entring by the chimney, and finding themselves inclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glasse window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in . . . For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero. . . or any other Doctor whatsoever.”

The antiquity of the old philosophers did not count in their favour either, especially as they themselves disrespected their own predecessors. If long experience deserves to be venerated, then we ought to value the present more than the past, since of all epochs, ‘the Present is the Oldest’. Hobbes concluded that it was merely ‘an argument of Indigestion, when Greek and Latine Sentences unchewed come up again’.

Matters got worse when sentences from ancient philosophy were folded in with the truths of Christianity, ‘mixing with the Scripture divers reliques of the Religion, and much of the vain and erroneous Philosophy of the Greeks, especially of Aristotle’. The Arts courses, with their ‘frivolous Distinctions, barbarous Terms, and obscure Language’, had conspired to ‘make men mistake the Ignis fatuus  of Vain Philosophy, for the Light of the Gospell’, turning them into slaves of the ‘Kingdome of Darknesse’, in other words the church of Rome.

Hobbes regarded himself as a Christian, and he respected the Bible, provided it was read in the spirit in which it was written – as a plain history of human institutions and their relation to God. Any passages that seemed to imply the existence of heaven and hell or life after death were ‘spoken metaphorically’, he said, and we needed to seek out the ‘reall ground’ from which they arose and describe it in ‘proper words’. Biblical invocations of ‘spirit’, for example, had nothing in common with the self-contradictory notion of ‘Substance incorporeall’ – they referred either to illusions (‘Idols of the brain, which represent Bodies to us, where they are not’), or to physical matter in a rarefied state (‘aeriall substance’ or ‘a subtile, fluid and invisible Body’). When the Old Testament spoke of the Kingdome of God it meant ‘a Kingdome properly so named, constituted by the Votes of the People of Israel’, though in the gospels the expression was used ‘metaphorically’ for ‘Dominion over sinne’. Again, the Bible never treated immortality as part of ‘the essence, and nature of mankind’ – it was a blessing bestowed on the faithful through the arbitrary mercy of God – and ‘eternal life’ always depended on ‘Resurrection of the Body’. There was, in short, nothing supernatural in genuine Christianity: ‘I find in scripture,’ Hobbes said, ‘that there be Angels, and Spirits, good and evill; but not that they are Incorporeall.’

Hobbes believed that the path to peace lay through education; and ‘the instruction of the people dependeth wholly, on the right teaching of Youth in the Universities’. When Leviathan was published in May 1651, however, he thought that Oxford and Cambridge were still enslaved to ‘Aristotelity’ (‘handmaid to the Romane Religion’) and floundering in ‘abstruse Philosophy’ and ‘matters incomprehensible’. The best way to expose the ‘insignificant Speech’ of the philosophers, he said, was the test of translation. ‘To be assured their words are without any thing correspondent to them in the mind . . . let him take a Schoole-man into his hands, and see if he can translate any one chapter . . . into any of the moderne tongues, so as to make the same intelligible.’ As an example Hobbes translated a passage from a recent Aristotelian textbook: ‘The first cause does not necessarily inflow any thing into the second, by force of the Essential subordination of the second causes, by which it may help it to worke.’‘What is the meaning of these words?’ he asked. Libraries were still filled with ‘whole volumes of such stuff’, and ‘Egregious persons’ were still treating those who admitted to being confused as if they were ‘Idiots’. But ‘the common sort of men’ will have no truck with it – though Hobbes admitted that they too were sometimes misled by ‘Latin or Greek names’, or English words decked out in ‘Nesses, Tudes, and Ties’ – ‘Whitenesse’ for example, or ‘Magnitude’, or ‘Corruptibility’. In the end, however, the responsibility for all this nonsense lay with the universities: ‘are they not mad,’ Hobbes demanded, ‘or intend to make others so?’

Hobbes hoped that Leviathan might become the founding text of a Christian commonwealth, but he was quickly disappointed: if his work had a transient following ‘among the looser sons of the Church’, as one royalist priest put it, it was soon being denounced as ‘a farrago of Christian atheism’. Indeed his raucous mockery of the notion of ‘Substance incorporeal’ came to be seen – against his intentions – as an attack on Christianity as such. It gave notice nevertheless of a truculent new tone in philosophy. Genuine philosophy, for Hobbes, ‘dependeth not on authors’, but on robust good sense, abetted by a lively sense of the ridiculous. The jokes were not always funny, but philosophers were learning how to laugh.

From Witcraft by Jonathan Rée. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Jonathan Rée is a freelance philosopher and historian whose previous books include Proletarian PhilosophersPhilosophical Tales and I See a Voice. He lives in London and Oxford.

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