The Hobbes-Lockean Foundations of Modernity

This will be a multi-part essay on the philosophical foundations for the modern world with regards to Hobbes and Locke. Much of the material will be drawn from Christoper Ferrara’s book Liberty: The God That Failed. This essay can be said to be a brief summary of his work. I also highly recommend the book if such topics interest you and you wish to dive into them deeper.

For us to comprehend the modern ideology so ingrained in the thought of today we must first understand the foundations that it is laid upon. Although we could carry this analysis back to the rise of Mechanical Philosophy of  Descartes and the Cartesian Revolution we will begin at a later point in history that built upon these streams of thought. All we will say about Descartes is that he opened the door to the absurd concept of certainty in radical uncertainty.

Where we will begin is with the ushering in of the concept of modern Liberty which was built upon the philosophy of both Hobbes and Locke. In the prior age, the foundations of understanding were built upon the orderly hierarchical cosmos of divinely appointed natures or substances ordered to a living God, which had its pinnacle in the summum bonum (highest good) of man. This worldview requires a society to be founded under the Christian Commonwealth (or Kingdom) whose entirety of laws and ordering are set for the purpose of directing man to his revealed eternal destiny. All of this having its bedrock in the Greco-Catholic synthesis with its understanding revolving around Aristotelian hylomorphism of the unity of body and soul in one human person whose indivisible whole was the very basis of both political and ethical life in the above mentioned system. The Aristotelian understanding of substance and its incorporation into the Christian theology via Thomistic thought.

The dawn of Liberty in its modern application obviously could not be built upon such a worldview. Both Hobbes and Locke, who ushered in the new system of Liberty, did nothing short of carry out a full scale attack on Substance Theory and the Greco-Catholic synthesis. They rejected the concept that man was able to apprehend the world as it really is through the senses, and even went so far as to assault human identity as it was previously understood.  They carried out this assault using the “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes. At its core being nothing more then a Cartesian division of man into material and spiritual parts, which removed the spiritual from the realm of politics and ethics.

Hobbes, in his book Leviathan lashes out against the Aristotelian-Thomistic system. He claims that the only thing man can come to know is the names he gives to the ideas that arise in his mechanical brain upon receiving sensory input from the world. Furthermore, he claims that man cannot confirm that these ideas stem from a fixed or universal reality, not even to what he calls man. He states, “Reason, in this sense, is nothing but Reckoning of the consequences of general names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts…”. Hobbes also attacks the concept of an immaterial soul and denied the existence of a spiritual realm.

…mocking “the Latins” who defined God as a “Spirit Incorporeal, and then confess their definition to be unintelligible: or if they give him such a title, it is not dogmatically, with intention to make the Divine Nature understood; but Piously, to honour him with attributes, of significations, as remote as they can from the grossness of Bodies visible.”

-Liberty: The God That Failed

Hobbes even makes the assertion that the Holy Spirit is not a spirit, claiming it is nothing more then “the voice of God in a dream.” Utter heresy.

Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding continues this assault on the existence of universal substances and the reality of the spiritual realm. Unlike Hobbes, however, Locke does not carry out his assault so directly but does so through skepticism. This skepticism aligns with the Cartesian method of the only certainty being radical uncertainty. As Ferrara puts it,

Skeptical of everything but his own skepticism.

Locke was not willing to conceive that questioning the authority of our senses leads to the undermined belief in the existence of God. Classical Philosophy “supposes, without examining it, the validity of Knowledge,” (Epistemology, Catholic Encyclopedia) which begets the theological claim that a loving God would not create man in His image only to give him senses that deceive him. This can be witnessed in the Greek philosophies and how they came to such fundamental understandings through reason alone, by their senses.

The seeds Locke planted lead to the undermining of Church Authority and created the modern notion that their is no absolute truth, which ironically is claimed absolutely. Locke’s philosophy claims that man’s mind is a blank slate when he is born and can only collect ideas about the world through the use of his senses. Therefore, knowledge for Locke (and Hobbes) as he states in his Essay, “hath no other immediate object but its own ideas…. and is only conversant about them.”  Locke claimed that one cannot even postulate a human nature or substance with any certainty. We can see the reverberating effects of such an ideology in the modern world with the rise of such things as transgenderism. Furthermore, Locke even denies that the “self” is body-soul unity. Claiming that, “consciousness alone unites actions into the same person… Self depends on consciousness, not on substance.” For Locke a person is nothing more then a stream of consciousness, not the soul of Christian teaching. Ferrara in his book Liberty: The God That Failed, drawing from Fabro’s, God in Exile states,

Locke’s confused “conservative” application of the mechanical philosophy, which maintained “verbal assertions of the distinction between the material world and the spiritual,” was nonetheless “in face eliminating any such distinction in theoretical order and drawing the logical conclusion from his basic principle that certainty consists in the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas.”

As Fabro concludes: “The importance of Locke’s influence on the molding of modern materialism and atheism by now are surely quite clear, despite his most outspoken declarations in favor of spiritualism and Christianity….”

This notion of reality espoused by Locke and Hobbes becomes the new epistemological foundation for Liberty. In summary it states that man is only the name assigned to a collection of perceptible attributes. It rejects that man is a substance of divinely created unity of body and soul with a fixed nature and his end in the summum bonum. 

 

I will continue this essay with posts later down the road diving deeper into these topics.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Hobbes-Lockean Foundations of Modernity

  1. Not only that, but (as De Jouvenel and others point out) the cruel irony of Hobbes and the other social contract theorists is that their conception of society completely shattered any idea of “liberty” in the traditional sense of specific rights chartered in a corporate body. In the Hobbesian and Rousseauist world, people exist primordially endowed with all rights in the state of nature, but to avoid the situation of “might is right,” they decide to embody a particular person or thing with absolute power by permanently relinquishing their primordial rights. Whereas even the divine right of kings anchored the king to Christian morality (which before the Reformation necessarily had to be sought by sacerdotalism through the Church and not on the basis of one’s private conscience — hence the Church acted as a countervailing force). The Hobbesian conception instead loves one completely disempowered before a temporal tyranny.

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  2. “Both Hobbes and Locke, who ushered in the new system of Liberty, did nothing short of carry out a full scale attack on Substance Theory and the Greco-Catholic synthesis. They rejected the concept that man was able to apprehend the world as it really is through the senses, and even went so far as to assault human identity as it was previously understood.”

    And all further assaults on the identity of man follow directly from this. In your studies, could you point to anything in the cultural/national background of England that you think directly influenced their writing. I’m tempted to say Magna Carta but that seems too easy.

    Liked by 1 person

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