Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thomas Hobbes

Chapter 10 of my philosophy book finished!  Here's a textbox on Thomas Hobbes.
Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 to 1679, a turbulent time in the history of England in which it rose to political dominance, executed one of its kings, and implemented a brief commonwealth. It was also a time when some of the most foundational developments in modern science were taking place. During his life Hobbes navigated the rough political waters of the English Civil War and spent eleven years in Paris, France, as the royalists, supporters of Charles I, lost power and Charles himself was executed (1649). Some of his writings would later anger royalists as well.

Hobbes was a materialist who disagreed with the dualism of soul and body that René Descartes taught. Indeed, the two knew each other and corresponded for a time while Hobbes was in Paris, just a few years before Descartes’ death. Although he was accused of being an atheist later in life, Hobbes affirmed the key creed of the church, the Nicene Creed. Nevertheless, he did believe that the material nature of the world meant that the normal course of history was determined on the basis of the laws of motion.

His work, Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance was part of an exchange with the Arminian-believing bishop John Bramhall and perhaps the first clear expression of psychological determinism, the idea that our thoughts are ultimately determined by the forces on us. But Hobbes is better known as a compatibilist, someone who believes determinism and free will are compatible. By free will, Hobbes meant that we are free to act according to our will, not that our will is somehow undetermined by the forces at work on us.

Hobbes is best known for his political philosophy. In Leviathan, he compared the state to the fantastical monster of the Bible (e.g., Ps. 74:14). Humans form the state because of their need for protection and then dissolve it as their passions lead to strife. In general, it is a defense of the absolute power of kings on the basis of a “social contract” between a king and his people.

If people were completely in a “state of nature,” it would be everyone for themselves and the result would be a “war of all against all.” For this reason, people make implicit or explicit contracts with sovereign powers like kings for protection. In return they surrender absolute power to the sovereign in all areas, in civil, judicial, military, and even church matters. Even if the sovereign abuses these powers, the people cannot take the authority back.

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