Captivity of the understanding

Ch. 32, par 3-5

In the course of talking about liberty and obligation I pointed out that Hobbes claimed it is impossible to believe something on command. Obligation is limited to action since it is possible to obey a command in action.

I pointed to these passages to make my point (Leviathan Ch. 32, par. 3-5)

when any thing therein written [in Scripture - mjg] is too hard for our examination, we are bidden to captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labour in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic, of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science. For it is with the mysteries of our religion, as with wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.

But by the captivity of our understanding, is not meant a submission of the intellectual faculty, to the opinion of any other man; but of the will to obedience, where obedience is due. For sense, memory, understanding, reason, and opinion are not in our power to change; but always, and necessarily such, as the things we see, hear, and consider suggest unto us; and therefore are not effects of our will, but our will of them. We then captivate our understanding and reason, when we forbear contradiction; when we so speak, as (by lawful authority) we are commanded; and when we live accordingly; which in sum, is trust, and faith reposed in him that speaketh, though the mind be incapable of any notion at all from the words spoken.

When God speaketh to man, it must be either immediately; or by mediation of another man, to whom he had formerly spoken by himself immediately. How God speaketh to a man immediately, may be understood by those well enough, to whom he hath so spoken; but how the same should be understood by another, is hard, if not impossible to know. For if a man pretend to me, that God hath spoken to him supernaturally, and immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce, to oblige me to believe it. It is true, that if he be my sovereign, he may oblige me to obedience, so, as not by act or word to declare I believe him not; but not to think any otherwise than my reason persuades me. But if one that hath not such authority over me, shall pretend the same, there is nothing that exacteth either belief, or obedience.

The first paragraph concedes that we are sometimes required to “captivate our understanding” by accepting without (too much) analysis parts of the Bible that do not seem to make much sense. It comes after Hobbes’s claim that what we know based on “supernatural revelations of the will of God” cannot contradict what we know using natural reason, although there may be things “above” natural reason, meaning things that can neither be known nor denied using natural reason alone.

The second paragraph qualifies this concession by giving an explanation of what “the captivity of our understanding” means. The third paragraph continues in the same vein.

In class, I said that the phrase “captivity of the understanding” was probably a passage from the Bible that was the subject of interpretive disputes in Hobbbes’s time. I did a little research this morning and here is what I found.

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, (2 Corinthians 10:5-6) we have the following (from the Geneva Bible of 1560):

Nevertheless, though we walk in the flesh, yet we do not war after the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God, to cast down holds. Casting down the imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.


By the way, the meaning of “holds” is probably #3a in the OED: ‘A grasp which is not physical.’

a1300 Cursor M. 9350 It tok neuer in er hertes hald. 1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 241 How lytell hold or surety man hath by them. 1551 T. WILSON Logike (1580) 10b, That constante holde of any thing whiche is in the mynde. 1596 SHAKES. Merch. V. IV. i. 347 Tarry Iew, The Law hath yet another hold on you. a1628 PRESTON Effect. Faith (1631) 134 They are small things of no hold. 1667 MILTON P.L. x. 406 On your joynt vigor now My hold of this new Kingdom all depends. 1725 N. ROBINSON Th. Physick 292 When the Disease has taken any Hold of the Patient. 1829 LYTTON Devereux I. iv, The Abbé had obtained a wonderful hold over Aubrey. 1865 KINGSLEY Herew. xvii, It was there where he could most easily keep his hold on the country. 1894 J. T. FOWLER Adamnan Introd. 17 Their old religion had no great hold on the common people.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians addressed the question of authority in the church. There were splits between Paul and the church in Corinth that the letters were meant to address. The relevant passage concerns the aims of the church, in Paul’s opinion: to bring human thoughts into obedience to Christ.

This fits my understanding of Part 3 pretty well. Hobbes was concerned with the authority claimed by a particular human institution: the church. That’s the issue he was setting out right from the beginning of chapter 32.

For more on Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, see:

Note: you need a University of Chicago internet connection to use them.

A quick search for “bringing into captivity” on Early English Books Online reveals, as expected, that the phrase was used in quite a few sermons and other theological books. Here, for example, is Edward Hyde (1607-1659). (This is not the Edward Hyde who became Earl of Clarendon and one of Hobbes’s most interesting critics.)

And thus also is Religion Omnipotent, by vertue of Gods Omnipotencie: for it hath power to do all, & hath power over all; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth it self against the knowledge of God, and   bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ, and having in a readiness to avenge all disobedience, 2 Cor. 10. 5, 6. The power of the sword may cast down images, but ‘tis onely the power of Religion that can cast down Imaginations, and they no less then the other, do exalt themselves against the knowledge of God: the power of the sword can bring into captivity every man to the obedience of the Conquerour; but ‘tis onely the power of Religion can bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ: That power can avenge the disobedience without, which is but half disobedience; but ‘tis onely this power can avenge the disobedience within as well as without, that is, all disobedience.

Source: The true Catholicks tenure, or, A good Christians certainty which he ought to have of his religion, and may have of his salvation. Chapter 5.

Many of the sermons seem to concern toleration: this seems especially true of Thomas Tomkins, The modern pleas for comprehension, toleration, and the taking away the obligation to the renouncing of the covenant considered and discussed (1675) and John Milton The reason of church-government urg’d against prelaty (1641). This passage seems to have been coupled with another passage from Paul, claiming that the church has no carnal (i.e. physical) coercive powers. I take it that the suggestion is that religious belief comes from a supernatural source (the holy spirit) rather than an earthly one. But it’s hard to say more precisely without studying them more carefully.

Note: I found the passage in Corinthians by searching with various combinations of “captivate,” “captivity,” and “understanding”. After I was done, I went to my shelf to put something away, noticed the Broadview Press edition of Leviathan, edited by Martinich, and looked at the beginning of Ch. 32. There’s the citation. Doh! There’s a reason to have multiple editions around … and use them!