Notes for May 6

Main points

We talked about the details of Hobbes’s views of the afterlife. Then we turned to the ethical implications of those views.

Hobbes on the afterlife

The afterlife is a lot like the present life. What it means to be resurrected is that your body will live again. And it will live right here on Earth. However, the elect will live eternally without reproducing. The damned will live and reproduce, but they will be killed in torment and that will be the end of them. The fires of torment will be eternal because they will be fed with the children of the damned who will, presumably, misbehave in appropriate ways (44.29).

Hobbes’s speculations about the afterlife strike us as odd or even perverse. But this sort of thing wasn’t completely out of place in his time. There were serious questions being raised about hell and whether it could possibly be reconciled with the idea that God was merciful and just. Eternal torments are way out of proportion to any crime that could be committed in this life. And I won’t even get in to the problems raised by infants who died before being baptised. Hobbes’s speculation about the children of the damned feeding the fires of torment are pretty much as weird as Leibniz’s suggestion that the damned would earn their eternal punishments by continually sinning.See D.P. Walker, The Decline of Hell. (University of Chicago Press, 1964).

Ethical implications

One of the chief arguments in favor of retaining the traditional doctrine of hell was the ethical implications of dropping it: people wouldn’t be good in this world if they didn’t face punishment in the next. Whether that’s a good argument for believing in hell or not, it’s certainly the kind of argument that Locke, Grotius, and countless others used to explain why atheists couldn’t be tolerated: you can’t trust someone who doesn’t fear hell.

This is the dog that didn’t bark for Hobbes. He discussed atheism all right. But he did so only to determine whether the atheist should be described as God’s disobedient subject or an enemy who does not recognize God’s laws. (Hobbes favored the second.) Hobbes drew no implications of atheism for human relations. He seems to have been content with identifying ways that humans can get one another to behave peacefully and keep their word. (But see the update below.)

In fact, as Julio astutely noted, Hobbes seems to have thought that religion is more a source of disorder than it is a source of sociability. The whole discussion of mortalism is motivated by the threat posed by people who believe in supernatural punishments and rewards. People who believe that will feel free to ignore the sovereign when they think God wants them to (38.1).

Taming Christianity

Hobbes’s larger project was to show that Christian scripture is compatible with government as he saw it. For instance, the chapter we read today opens with the observation that the prospect of rewards or punishments in the afterlife threatens to undermine the sovereign’s authority. Who would obey a human sovereign when their eternal soul is at risk?

What Hobbes tried to do in this part of Leviathan was show that the proper interpretation of the Bible subordinates the church and nearly all religious activity to the civil sovereign’s authority. Chapter 38 reveals the limitations of that strategy, in my opinion.

Hobbes can’t eliminate the prospects of rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The most he can do is minimize the punishment: it’s only death after finite torment as opposed to infinite torment without death. Eternal life is still on the other side. It’s hard to see how this alters the basic calculation people have to make in deciding between religious authority and the secular sovereign.

The broader point is this. Hobbes granted that there is a source of supernatural knowledge: the Bible. Once that is in the room, there is only so much he can do to limit it. This is so both because of what the Bible says and because of what accepting it implies. Let me illustrate the latter.

In our discussion of miracles, I said that the doctrine of the cessation of miracles opened Christianity up to a problem: if we should believe our normal reasoning process when evaluating claimed miracles now, why shouldn’t we do the same for evaluating claimed miracles in the past?

But you could spin that around. If we’re granting that Jesus Christ really did raise Lazarus and himself from the dead, why wouldn’t it be possible for Reverend Welch to do the same? Once you’ve admitted that miracles have happened, you’re committed to taking seriously the possibility that they could happen again. God could decide that things had become so corrupt that the miracle machine had to be restarted to reestablish the true church. That leaves the door open for all sorts of religious fanaticism. If Hobbes wanted to close it, he had to stand against the Bible too.

OK, he did bash atheistsAdded May 19, 2013

I think I might have claimed too much for the point about atheism that I made earlier. I said that Hobbes did not do what just about all of his contemporaries did: claim that atheists are a threat to human society on the grounds that they can’t be trusted. Instead, I said, he only discussed the more abstruse question of whether atheists are disobedient subjects of God or God’s enemies.Or as he put it in De Cive, whether atheism is a sin of imprudence or a sin of injustice (Ch. 14, §19).

What I was saying was that this is a respect in which Hobbes’s ethics do not rely on God. I took him to be saying that it is possible for atheists to participate as full members, being just as worthy of trust as believers. If so, God plays no essential role in ethics among human beings.

I did some searching today to make sure I was right about that. And that appears to be the way it is in both De Cive and Leviathan, the two works devoted to politics. However, in the course of his debates with Bishop Bramhall, he said the following.

“I think no man living is so daring, being out of passion, as to hold it [atheism -mjg] as his opinion. Those wicked men that for a long time proceeded so successfully in the late horrid rebellion, may perhaps make some think they were constant and resolved atheists: but I think rather that they forgot God, than believed there was none. He that believes there is such an atheist, comes a little too near that opinion himself; nevertheless if words spoken in passion signify a denial of a God, no punishment preordained by law, can be too great for such an insolence; because there is no living in a commonwealth with men, to whose oaths we cannot reasonably give credit.” (An Answer to Bishop Bramhall in English Works, vol. 4, p. 294)

That’s pretty much the argument I said he did not make. And he did not make it in Leviathan. But when the Bishop put on the pressure, he did. Drat.

Perhaps it is significant that he limited the point to oaths. An oath involves swearing to God: let God take vengeance on me if I don’t do what I promise. Obviously enough, atheists can’t credibly take oaths.

But it is not obvious that Hobbes thought human society relies on oaths. If you look at Leviathan 14.31, you will see that he claims oaths are not as effective in getting people to do what they promise as the fear of other people is. (And in 14.32 he makes a point about oaths that implies atheists can’t make them, though you have to draw that conclusion out yourself.)

So it’s possible that he was throwing a rhetorical bone at Bramhall without making any significant concession about the importance of belief in God for human society. After all, a few pages earlier he had said this.

“his Lordship, … says, ‘those rays of heavenly light, those seeds of religion, which God himself hath imprinted in the heart of man (meaning natural reason), are more efficacious to the preservation of society, than all the pacts, surrenders, and translating of power,’ … did he hope to make any wise man believe, that when this nation very lately was an anarchy, and dissolute multitude of men, doing every one what his own reason or imprinted light suggested, they did again out of the same light call in the king, and peace again, and ask pardon for the faults, which that their illumination had brought them into, rather than out of fear of perpetual danger and hope of preservation?” (An Answer to Bishop Bramhall in English Works, vol. 4, p. 286.)

In sum, I can’t say that Hobbes never said that atheists are unreliable. But I still think the thrust of his theory is that human beings can sustain social relations on their own, without fear of God to back them up.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted May 6, 2013 and updated May 19, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar