Leviathan

Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil by Thomas Hobbes, 2/5

It took a couple years of Hobbes’ name consistently cropping up in books and conversation for me to get around to reading his sizeable, though by no means monstrous, Leviathan.  Tommy is quoted often and respectfully, so I approached the book with a bias towards him, expecting to have my mind expanded, possibly to the point of explosion (Spinoza-style).  The first chapter, which was all of two pages, took me a couple days to comprehend in any way, which seemed like an auspicious start, but sadly, once I became acclimated to the 17th century vocabulary and sentence structure, with its superabundance of semicolons, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Hobbes and I were not going to play well together.  In fact, we clashed on an almost molecular level (if souls were made of molecules).

Where I had expected to encounter the radical and incisive mind of a bold hero of philosophy, I found instead a shattered old man, traumatized by civil war and clinging to futile modes of thinking.  I realize that my limited life experience of uninterrupted privilege and safety does not put me in a position to make compelling criticisms, but it seems reasonable to think that maybe a man whose sole ambition in life is to avoid being slaughtered by his neighbors is not the best man to be speaking for his fellows and creating vast schemes of government and civilization.  While Hobbes makes an admirably dogmatic case for the merits of abject slavery to absolute power, surely the evidence of history and testimony of every human being who has preferred death to subjugation, winning freedom at great personal risk, powerfully attests to the prevalence of an opposing set of values and beliefs.  Hobbes may have worked out the perfect form of government and religion for people with the souls of slaves, but he leaves no room for people who desire more than physical safety.

NB.  Reading Leviathan mostly consisted of manly slogging along, stifling groans of disagreement, so I feel only a little petty for pointing out the hilarity of the final chapters, where Hobbes starts to unravel, giving up even the pretence of logicality.  It is a guilty pleasure to witness the man who denounces the usage of metaphor as one of four “abuses of speech” on page 21 then comparing the papacy to the “kingdom of fairies” and the Pope to “King Oberon” on page 543.  Oh anti-Catholicism, you have never been so charming.

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