Monthly Archives: December 2014

Hobbes and Thucydides

Hobbes on the state of nature:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Leviathan, chapter 13).

Thucydides on the early state of Greece, something that Hobbes translated:

It appears, for example, that the country now called Hellas had no settled population in ancient times; instead there was a series of migrations, as the various tribes, being under the constant pressure of invaders who were stronger than they were, were always prepared to abandon their own territory. There was no commerce, and no safe communication either by land or sea; the use they made of their land was limited to the production of necessities; they had no surplus left over for capital, and no regular system of agriculture, since they lacked the protection of fortifications and at any moment an invade might appear and take their land away from them (1.2, Warner’s translation).

For discussion, see James Jan Sullivan in A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides.

“Nor is there any such thing as … simply good”

In a previous post, I pointed to Hobbes’s theorizing about moral language at the end of chapter 4 of Leviathan. I argued that Hobbes thinks moral terms have a double signification: they signify something in the world, and also something about the nature of the speaker — something about them that contributed to their applying that word to this thing.

The notion that some moral or political terms have a double signification is also visible in the earlier Elements of Law. Thus ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ “signify the same thing, together with the divers passion of those that use them; for when the men that be in that office please, they are called an aristocracy, otherwise an oligarchy” (EL 20.3). Both ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ have two significations. Each signifies some group of men. Each also signifies the attitude of the speaker towards that group, be it positive or negative.

Understanding Hobbes’s view about the double signification of moral terms can also help us to understand his discussions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One of those occurs earlier in the Elements of Law:

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