Hobbes on the Passions, Bodies and the Body Politic

Hobbes on the Passions, Bodies and the Body Politic

Hobbes on Passions, Bodies and the Body Politic

Thomas Hobbes’ thoroughgoing materialism generates an account of the workings of the mind in which reason, rather than presiding over the emotions, is treated as an acquired skill – an ability that supervenes upon the prior faculties of sense and imagination. That is, Hobbes naturalizes reason. By his lights, it is the computation “of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts”(Leviathan V.2 ). And as this definition suggests, reason necessitates the invention of language, which in turn, Hobbes claims, originates in the passions. He thus accords the passions an important place, one that has implications for his political theory.

In the following paper I will make these implications explicit. I first flesh out Hobbes theory of the passions and their connection to the faculties of sense and imagination. I follow this with a treatment of deliberation[1], or the “sum of desires, aversions, hopes and fears” that culminates in an action[2]. In treating of deliberation, however, I argue that the astute reader must differentiate between the passions as they function in the Hobbesian state of nature and the same within an established and stable commonwealth. Hobbes is often seen as a psychological egoist precisely because of his description of isolated individuals in a state of nature.[3] At this stage, the deliberations of said individuals, and thus their actions, are informed by non-social passions,[4] but this is far from Hobbes’ last word on the subject. Indeed, post-contract[5], it becomes clear that he is concerned to show that that the deliberations of individuals exert influence over one another, and that society can be organized such that the sociable passions are favored and can flourish.

Finally, I will be concerned throughout to demonstrate that the philosopher who would understand the apparatus of state power cannot overlook the importance of the human passions in her theorizing. I look to Hobbes precisely because he accounts for the way in which a given social form enables a variety of passions, some more conducive to peace than others. His account is thus both descriptive and normative. In concluding I will try to capitalize on its normative possibilities. That is, I address the less savory aspects of Hobbes’ political thought[6] and suggest ways in which we, as contemporary readers, can question his conclusions – while nevertheless appropriating the scaffolding on which they are built.

[1] As my paper will make clear, deliberation for Hobbes is not to be conflated with reason.

[2] For Hobbes, the action that results from deliberation is merely the last dominant passion, which is also equivalent to the individual’s will.

[3] I will also stress that this is a misreading of Hobbes that fails to recognize that the state of nature, as hypothetical is a tool that allows the political philosopher to fasten on the most relevant variable. Here, Hobbes argument is not that human beings are by nature psychological egoists, but rather that the possibility of some individuals behaving egotistically is a challenge that any one concerned with social order must take on.

[4] The term selfish would be a misnomer, as Hobbes does not think that the individual will can do other than reflect individual interests. However, it is important whether or not individual interest aligns with that of others, and as Hobbes makes clear, experience will bring wise individuals to see that social life is ineluctable and with this knowledge new desires and aversions will be added to our initial deliberation, resulting in a more even-handed and sociable result.

[5] In moving beyond Hobbes’ hypothetical state of nature, I will also reintroduce reason proper and explain how and why it is a necessary complement to the “passionate” process of deliberation.

[6] By this I primarily mean Hobbes’ account of absolute sovereignty.