Hobbes Against the Future - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Hobbes Against the Future

Jim Watson, an undergraduate at the University of Tulsa and OCH fellow, discusses Thomas Hobbes’s thoughts on prophecy in Leviathan and considers the relevance of these ideas today.

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, by Abraham Bosse, with creative input from Thomas Hobbes, 1651

The legitimacy of prophecy as a source of moral or political renewal may seem irrelevant to a secular age. Yet prophecy, whether religious or secular, accompanies many of the great moral transformations of western history. To imagine a different future and cling to it, or to conceive of the moment of transformation by which that future might be reached, is to be a kind of prophet. Perhaps no philosopher writing in the English language has been more important in carving out a space for the secular and driving out prophets from the realm of politics than Thomas Hobbes. In his famous political treatise Leviathan, Hobbes undermines the epistemic reliability of prophets and any moral foundations upon which they might make their claims. In doing so, Hobbes eliminates both the hope of any moral and civil renewal unauthorized by the state and the threat of political unrest.

Hobbes’s account of prophecy is extraordinarily deflationary. Do you believe that God spoke to you in a dream? You have said no more than that you “dreamed that God spake to [you].” Do you believe that you have seen a vision? You say no more than that you “dreamed between sleeping and waking.” Do you believe that you speak by divine inspiration? You say no more than that you “find an ardent desire to speak”, or “some strong opinion of [yourself].” Hobbes effectively abolishes the boundary between delusion and personal revelation. To discern between the two by the content of the claimed revelation alone becomes impossible. What criteria is then left for determining whether a prophet is true or false? The “doing of miracles” and “not teaching any other religion than that which is already established.” Such strict criteria effectively abolishes prophets, who have never been welcomed by the established order of things.

Hobbes’s naturalization of prophecy is accompanied by a skepticism concerning any moral claims prophets might make. Moral chaos prevails outside the bonds forged by the state. Within the “condition of mere nature… private appetite is the measure of good and evil.” According to Hobbes, the prophet cannot appeal to a power beyond the sovereign in justifying a moral vision of how things ought to be. Sovereign power alone is capable of something that approximates an act of creation, transforming moralities grounded in private appetite into a morality that can establish a common classification of what qualifies as good or evil, just or unjust.

What is the upshot of all this for us in the twenty-first century? Hobbes writes as someone profoundly disillusioned with moral visions and quests from God, or humanity, or any power other than the sovereign to which one owes insuperable obedience. Hobbes poses a challenge not only to violent revolution but peaceful meliorism as well. He undermines the possibility of imagining any new future, irrespective of the means of reaching it. Yet there is something disquieting in silencing every cry of moral renewal and delegitimizing every claim to a principle that transcends the political order. We might find the abolition of our moral visions of the future disturbing. Those who desire to restore the legitimacy of imagining new futures must reply to the Hobbesian challenge. A global call for a renewal of promised ideals, or restoration of human rights, requires some foundation that can overcome Hobbes’s powerful skepticism. When Hobbes was writing this foundation was revealed religion. In a secular and pluralistic age this may no longer work for collectively imagining new futures. The twentieth century was full of secularized prophetic movements that claimed universality. Perhaps the twenty-first century will see a greater narrowing of horizons and a vindication of Thomas Hobbes.



Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, edited by Edwin Curley, Hackett, 1994, p. 100, 247-48.