Hobbes and Aristotle

Class notes for 21 November

Main points

The theme of the second half of today’s class involved isolating just what Hobbes rejected in Aristotle’s moral philosophy.

According to the received story, he rejected Aristotle’s teleology and so had to supply something else in order to provide an answer to questions such as “why should I do what I am obliged/required to do?”

Last time, I tried to raise some trouble for the suggestion that Hobbes employed a conception of practical rationality (“instrumental reason”, to be specific) in order to do that work.

This week, I quoted Hobbes saying that he and Aristotle share a definition of good and evil. Hobbes’s objection to Aristotle’s ethics doesn’t concern teleology. It has to do with Aristotle’s politics or, better, his failure to see the political consequences of the true understanding of “good” and “evil.”

Aristotle on the good

Hobbes thought that Aristotle was right to say that we call the things we want good. Where present-day readers, such as Hampton and Curley, see Hobbes as departing from Aristotle concerns Aristotle’s claim that there is a single, ultimate good.

I think it’s evident from the passages we read that Hobbes either did not notice that claim or that he thought it was separable from the point that he liked. I suspect it’s the latter. Chapter 11 begins with a quick dismissal of the idea that there could be an ultimate good that we could be satisfied with achieving. If nothing else, the competitive nature of life means that we can never rest satisfied. So that might have been enough, in his eyes, to warrant ignoring Aristotle’s claims about the single, final good.

Furthermore, it seems to me that he would have a point. There is a move in Aristotle from “we think what we want is good” to “there must be one final good common to all the other good things.” I reproduced that argument on the second of the four pages of Aristotle that I handed out. The contention that human beings have a function comes immediately after it: judge for yourselves!

Consequently …

I am impressed by the similarity of the language in Nicomachean Ethics 1.4 and Leviathan 15.40; the obvious reference to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean doesn’t hurt either. So we returned to that fertile and frustrating part of Leviathan.

JJ pointed out an irritating feature of the language in that paragraph. The word “consequently” seems to be out of place here.

And therefore so long a man is in the condition of mere nature, (which is a condition of war,) as private appetite is the measure of good, and evil: and consequently all men agree on this, that peace is good, and therefore also the way, or means of peace, which, (as I have shewed before) are justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, mercy, and the rest of the laws of nature, are good; that is to say, moral virtues; and their contrary vices, evil.

It’s out of place for two reasons. First, the agreement of all men contradicts the earlier assertion that men disagree about good and evil. I think Irami showed how to handle that: men disagree about almost everything and this is the exception (for the most part). Second, it seems to suggest that the agreement of men follows from what was described in the previous sentence. But there’s no reason why that should be so.

Here, I think the answer is to be found in the OED. There is an obsolete use of “consequently” that makes sense here. It is not similar in meaning to “therefore.” It just means that the different points are in a sequence.

1. In following time or order; consecutively, subsequently. Obs.
1475 CAXTON Jason 51 Whan he hadde made his orisons by grete deuocion, and consequently his demande. 1513 BRADSHAW St. Werburge I. 1508 The quene hym folowed as is the custome, Werburge succeded them consequently. 1596 LODGE Marg. Amer. 114 This other..he wrote, which for that cause I place here consequentlie. 1602 W. FULBECKE 1st Pt. Parall. 84 Wee will..now pass to the title consequently ensuing. 1609 SKENE Reg. Maj. 22 Consequentlie it followes, to treate of the question of the estate of men.

    b. In sequence; on in succession. Obs.
1558 WARDE tr. Alexis’ Secr. I. VI. (1580) 114b, Vpon this salte you shall laie likewise a ranke of the saied peeces of siluer, and then an other of salte, and an other of siluer, and so consequentely as long as your siluer lasteth. Ibid. 103a. 1591 F. SPARRY tr. Cattan’s Geomancie 190 Giue one to the first, one to the second, one to the third, and so consequently vnto all the others.