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October 31, 2002
Decoding Thomas Hobbes'
Philosopher's Stone
By Howard Hobbs PhD, Editor & Publisher

Thomas Hobbes

WASHINGTON -- Philosopher, political theorist and Virginia Company  cofounder, Thomas Hobbes was raised and educated by an uncle where he became proficient at translating Greek texts by the time he was age 14.
  From 1603 to 1608 he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford where he earned an MA in Aristotle's metaphysics.

The 20-year-old future philosopher was then retained as a tutor to the Cavendish family children. The Cavendish family's extensive private library, combined with foreign travel back and forth to Europe and the American colonies presented him both the knowledge of the expanding world and introductions to influential people in the Jamestown.
    Thanks to the Cavendish wealth, Hobbes became an active member of the Virginia trading company and was granted a sizable shareholder stake in both the Virginia and the Somer Island companies which organized the settlement of the Bermuda Islands.
    Hobbes attended more than thirty shareholder meetings of the Virginia Company in 1622-1624 and came into contact with influential colonial writers and political leaders.
    It was at this time Hobbes finished writing his detailed translation of Thucydides, famous for its speech by Pericles in a veiled defense of democracy.
     Hobbes translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian Wars, was published in 1629. In it, Hobbes depicted Thucydides as stating that knowledge of the past was useful for determining correct action. Hobbes wrote that he produced the translation during a period of civil unrest as a reminder that that democracy was not historically the most effective form of government.
His sympathy and support for the royal family placed him in a precarious position in 1640. He left England during on the first of many trips back and forth between England and the Continent.
       Hobbes at 91 years of age had prevailed in longevity over his contemporary 17th Century thinkers as he continued writing, and actually invited friends to submit epitaphs for his planned funeral.
     He died on December 4, 1679. Shortly before his death, however, he reportedly selected one epitaph above all others, that read "This is the true philosopher's stone."
    Hobbes rode the intellectual crest of the wave in the 17th Century, as modern classical philosophy challenged the authority of the past. In this he was joined by Descartes, of the rationalist tradition, and Sir Francis Bacon, who introduced new ways of thinking through a scientific conception of reality.
    For his part, Hobbes was the first to raise the question as to whether or not it is moral for the government to impose itself upon people who wish to be free of a monarchy. Case in point, the Massachusetts Bay Colony? A related concern for Hobbes is his praises for civil law and his cudgel for a continuing process of informing and educating both the government and the people about sources of sovereignty and the common interest.
     Hobbes was fascinated by Galileo's mechanical physics and proposed an explanation of that theory to human cognition. The origin of all thought, he surmised, was mental images produced in the mind by the pressure of motion of external objects.
    These sense images are extended by the power of memory, imagination and linguistic expression, the cumulative knowledge that enables the mind to move progressively from abstract and simple to more particular and complex sciences: geometry, mechanics, physics, morals and politics.
Hobbes explains the connection between nature, man, and society through the analogy of  society as a "commonwealth" (perhaps a colony in the new world) which is a political entity that is part of Nature. One that in its natural state may be depicted as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
     Such colonists in the new world, then, live and die in "a state of perpetual war" with nature and each other, driven by competition and desire for the same goods. But, its saving grace is that it is man's natural right and liberty to seek self-preservation by any and every means he can devise on the new frontier in Massachusetts Bay.
     In this state of nature a "social contract" binds the individual to treat others as he expects to be treated by them. Only a civil power commands sufficient force to compel everyone to fulfill this original compact by which men exchange liberty for security.
     In Hobbes' view the sovereign power of a commonwealth like Massachusetts or any other colony in the new world, is absolute and to the extent of its power to secure to itself, its own bill-of-rights, and provide for the common defense is empowered by the laws of Nature and of man to refuse to observe any and all the laws and obligations imposed upon it by its former sovereign.

     The social contract of medieval England & France as set out by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau is – “…the sole source of political power, under God, is the people; that every society rests on an implicit social contract of mutual obligations and restraints between the governed and the governors; that the will of the majority may rightly rule the whole; that the king is subject to laws passed by the representatives of the people; and that a tyrant may justly be resisted deposed, or killed.”
     A brief overview of ethics and moral philosophy teaches that normative ethics centers study on those moral assumptions or statements that are evaluative about underlying assumptions and beliefs e.g. “oughts”.
     Metaethics, however, is linguistically based, and deals with conceptual issues of human conduct standards, and the meaning of terms like good, bad, and why. These Normative and Metaethics forms of discourse are closely related and it is often informative to distinguish between the two in discussions.
     Secular individualism found in Hobbes and Locke, a foundation of logic that sets the basis of ethics, the contract theory of natural rights: the individual before the social aggregate. It steps back from a consideration of the consequences, either to society or to the individual, and asks whether there are certain characteristics of actions that make them right, independent of the consequences of the action.
     This position is found in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and those who talk and write about inalienable rights. Often referred to as situationalist in theory, see John Rawls, Two Concepts of Rules, Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 3-32.
Illustrative of Hobbes' personal ethic, he became a member of The Virginia Company Board of Governors in June 1622 when he purchased stock in the venture.
     Hobbes attended all The Virginia Company Board meetings between 1622-1624 and had a hand in management of American Colony affairs including obtaining land grants and tract leases from the Crown for enormous commercial rice and tobacco plantations. Through his involvement with the Virginia Company, Hobbes came into contact with prominent politicians and writers such as Sir Edwin Sandys and lawyer John Seldin. [Sorell, Tom, HOBBES, Cambridge Universality Press, University of Cambridge, (1996): p20.

    More Thomas Hobbes Touchstones:

  1. Logical writings
  2. Religious philosophy
  3. Robert Greville, lord Brooke
  4. Culverwel
  5. The Casuists
  6. Selden
  7. Thomas Hobbes; His life and character
  8. Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies
  9. Literary style and method of work
  10. Leviathan
  11. Theory of human nature and of sovereignty
  12. Imaginary commonwealths: More’s Utopia and Harrington’s Oceana
  13. Filmer
  14. The critics of Hobbes
  15. Joseph Glanvill
  16. Richard Cumberland

    [Editor's Note:  Philosopher's Stone -- figurative usage. Hobbes may have referred to the "philosopher's stone" as the alchemy thought by some to be capable of regenerating spiritually. More likely, Hobbes, used the term to imply that he was the person whose true philosophical perspective enabled him to meet trouble with equanimity, and prevail. The philosophical writings which belong to the period following Bacon’s death show but slight traces of Bacon’s influence. His genius was recognised, and he was quoted, now and again, on special points; but his leading doctrines wer The generally ignored. No new logic appeared on the lines described in his Novum Organum.
   The writers of logical treatises followed the traditional scholastic method, or adopted the modifications of it introduced by Ramus. Even Milton’s logic, which is founded on that of Ramus, pays no attention to the Baconian revolution. It is worthy of note that, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a beginning had been made at writing works on logic in English. In 1552, Thomas Wilson published The Rule of Reason, conteining the arte of logique. The innovation was not without danger at the time, if it be true that his publication on this subject in a vulgar tongue led to the author’s imprisonment by the inquisition at Rome.
   His example was followed, in safer circumstances, by Ralph Lever, who, in his Arte of Reason rightly termed Witcraft, teaching a perfect way to argue and dispute (1573), not only wrote in English, but used words of English derivation in place of the traditional terminology—forest and backset for “subject” and “predicate,” inholder and inbeer for “substance” and “accident,” say what for “definition” and so on. This attempt was never taken seriously; and a considerable time had to elapse before English became the usual language for books on logic. In the seventeenth century, as well as in the sixteenth, the demands of the universities made the use of Latin almost essential for the purpose.
   The work of Richard Crakanthorp, Logicae libri quinque de Praedicabilibus (1622), was one of the best known of these text-books. The question of method which had ruled the thought of Bacon, was less prominent in the English philosophy of the following period and did not lead to any new work of importance. Thomas Hobbes is one of the greatest philosophers and political theorists of the last three hundred years. His life and thought are an intriguing blend of conservatism and radicalism, and possibly subterfuge.
   He was both a conservative supporter of the Stuart monarchy and absolute sovereignty, and also a radical democratic theorist. In Leviathan Thomas Hobbes defines moral philosophy as 'the science of Virtue and Vice', yet few modern readers take this description seriously. Moreover, it is typically assumed that Hobbes' ethical views are unrelated to his views of science. Influential modern interpreters have portrayed Hobbes as either an amoralist, or a moral contractarian, or a rule egoist, or a divine command theorist. David Boonin-Vail challenges all these assumptions and presents a new, and very unorthodox, interpretation of Hobbes's ethics.
   He shows that Hobbes is best understood as embracing a theory of virtue concerned with the development of good character traits rather than with rules of behaviour. In focusing in a quite new way on Hobbes's moral theory this book is likely to attract considerable attention amongst both philosophers and intellectual historians. While Hobbes is thought of as a champion of possessive individualism, James Forrestal; The Dying of the Light notes that the author of Leviathan put the sanctity of life foremost and endorsed social-welfare programs.
   Yet in many ways, the author admits, Hobbes was a precursor of today's radical right, a thinker who believed that the endsin the case of his philosophy, civic peace and stability justified almost any means.
   Hobbes stressed the dark side of human nature and saw society as a clash of individuals' drives for self-preservation; he was more complex than the "Hobbesian" authoritarian many critics consider him to be, the author argues. Rogow's attempt to link Hobbes's life to his thought is stymied by a paucity of personal data, but his portrait succeeds in kindling interest in the pessimistic political thinker who wrongheadedly cast Thucydides as an antidemocrat.
   In the book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, Henry C. Johnson documents the decline and fall of the Christian tradition in the nation's marketplace of ideas from early times to the present day. He focuses in exemplary detail on a relative handful of colleges. What is impressive and useful in this study is that it rests his case on primary documents and institutional relics.
     This is an important work, which rests on a significant account of the nation's leadership who attained their education in places characterized by the "meaning" and "values" that were transmitted to this elite, and suggests how and why they changed over time, illuminating the social and cultural transition to a secularized and fragmented present. In our often anguished search for "meanings" and "values," this past is instructive, most obviously for those still concerned that our religious traditions continue to contribute to our culture. The inquiry is immeasurably sharpened by the fact that Burtchaell is a serious theologian with well-honed philosophical skills who can find and explicate foundational questions in this complex narrative, many of which are unaddressed elsewhere.
   Seven religious-educational traditions were studieed, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and, finally, the frequently ignored Evangelical. He identifies two or three specific institutions that, he believes, illustrate disengagement from ecclesial originsof diverse national, cultural, and physical geography which should be kept in mind in discussions on this process. For example, he discusses the Lutherans Gettysburg College, St. Olaf College, and Concordia University, which represent significantly different theological views.
   Sparing none, he demonstrates how the once clearly focused advocates of Christian higher education slid from theologically and philosophically principled thinking into crude a clumsey psychology and the worship of the academic idols in ostensibly enlightened but shrinking venues of religious counterculture.

Note -- The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. By James Tunstead Burtchaell. (Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.


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