Was Hobbes a Theologian?

During lunch a friend reminded me about an article on Hobbes I sent him a few weeks back. I had only quickly scanned it at the time, sent it to him, and apparently forgotten all about it. The article is written by Jonathan Sheehan, and published in The Journal of Modern History (June, 2016). It asks the provocative (and perhaps “perverse”) question: Was Thomas Hobbes a theologian?

Sheehan begins by calling attention to the so-called “return of religion” or “religious turn” in modern scholarship, a term used by various scholars in recent decades, including Thomas Albert Howard, Thomas Ahnert, S.J. Barnett, James E. Bradley, Jonathan D. Clark, Dale K. Van Kley, Louis Dupré, Knud Haakonssen, Ian Hunter, Thomas Munck, Dorinda Outram, J.G.A. Pocock, Roy Porter, Mikuláš Teich, David Sorkin, Robert Sullivan, and Bruce Ward, among others, and mostly in the context of Enlightenment studies. Sheehan himself has participated in such work, particularly in his The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (2005), which argued that the Bible’s place in eighteenth-century German and English Protestantism was transformed rather than eclipsed. Earlier still was his important review essay, “Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization,” published in American Historical Review (Oct, 2003).

According to Sheehan, asking if Hobbes was a theologian might seem perverse. Although he never claimed to be an atheist, countless commentators have called Hobbes’s philosophy atheistic. As he notes, “between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries…there is complete consensus on the anti-Christian disposition of Hobbes’s thought.” Contemporaries were horrified by his impiety. Nineteenth-century thinkers also recognised Hobbes’s mechanistic metaphysics as atheistic. But by the early twentieth century, according to Sheehan, a number scholars were beginning to view Hobbes as “perfectly orthodox.” But how could this be? One scholar, e.g., A.P. Martinich, answered that most Hobbes scholars were secularists, and thus “bowdlerized his philosophy to match their prejudices.”

But according to Sheehan, the situation is more complex. Conventional critiques that Hobbes was an atheist or, more recently, assertions that he was entirely orthodox, miss a particularly important point about Hobbes’s religious context. Sheehan is worth quoting at length:

Hobbes teaches that, absent controlling authority, the Christian archive is heterodox, that it is not one tradition or one theology or one orthodoxy. Its pluralism goes back to the very dawn of its formation, built on layers of texts, authorities, traditions, and claims. There is, as Hobbes wrote about his own book, “nothing contrary to the Faith of our Church, though there ares several [doctrines] which go beyond (superantia) the teachings of private theologians.” As Hobbes understands it, however, the “Faith of our Church” was one hardly circumscribed—at least at the moment when the Leviathan was published—by orthodoxy. Rather, it was ill-formed, internally argumentative, variable, and agonistic.

So is Hobbes a theologian? We might be in a better position now to think about our opening question. Let us imagine with Hobbes that, absent institutions that guarantee certain statements as authoritative and orthodox, anyone can be a theologian. In fact, in a certain sense, everyone is a theologian—heterodox, perhaps, or even “ heretical, ” once external and political guarantees of right teaching disappear. In that case, what I called in the opening of this essay the “perversities” of Thomas Hobbes, D.D.—an atheist theologian, a mechanist theologian, an anti-ecclesiastical theologian — are suddenly no longer perverse at all. Instead, they are possibilities of thought unregulated by authority. They are only perverse in a world where a normative standard of orthodoxy can successfully be applied.

Leviathan was not written in such a world, and this invited Hobbes to practice a theology that was simultaneously mechanist and pious, anti-ecclesiastical and pro-establishment, atheist and Christian. We do not live in such a world either. In our world, the state takes little interest in regulating the unruly and messy Christian archive.

But Sheehan might be overstating his case. To be sure, the religious and political world of England was in much turmoil when Hobbes wrote his Leviathan. Indeed, it was penned while he was in self-exile, living in Paris, fearing for his life. When the Civil War ended, Hobbes returned to England in 1652 and settled down in the household of the earl of Devonshire. These circumstances no doubt are reflected in his writings. The fact that so many writers, as Sheehan himself points out, found Hobbes’s writings atheistic also questions his notion that the “Christian archive is heterodox.” That there was an almost “complete consensus” against Hobbes’s position is telling indeed.

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