Stoic Threads in Hobbesian Philosophy
On November 28, 2022, the world’s largest active volcano erupted for the first time in almost 40 years (Derrick). As the world witnessed the hot, fiery lava spew out and flow down the mountain, it was reminded, albeit on a small scale, that the universe loves to change and be in constant motion. One can’t help but observe in awe the hot lava settling and pondering how long it will take for the first biological life to emerge once the lava cools, decomposes and becomes the rich soil in which life will grow. While this fiery substance proves to be a key ingredient for life, the Stoics and Hobbes theorized on another substance which is the cause in all motion in the universe, including human passions: the substance of God.
Hobbes’s ideas on the materialism of God and the passions have their roots in Stoicism. While the Stoics viewed pneuma as the essence of God and motion in all bodies, Hobbes conceived God as “subtle fluid or spirit” (Gorham, 38). As God is the source of existence, things remain in motion by self-perpetuation. Both Hobbes and the Stoics claim oikeiosis, or self-preservation as the prime mover of people and that it is inherent in all living things. Yet, if this impulse for self-preservation is left unchecked by reason, it leads to unbridled passions (Santi, 67). As to how reason should be applied to rein in passions, Hobbes’s and the Stoics’ views part ways and diverge widely. Whereas the Stoics would teach the individual to be rational and to perhaps stamp out passions, Hobbes sees passions playing a pivotal role prior to the formation of the State and then having the absolute ruler manage people’s passions via an “enlightened sovereign” (71). One might say the Stoics prefer a bottom-up approach to dealing with passions while Hobbes would be a top-down approach (i.e., the Leviathan). Regardless of which paradigm for passion management is used, all lives begin with motion. Hobbes’s own inception of motion begins with fear.
The Spanish Armada appeared over the horizon off the English coast – war! Close to 130 ships attacked England between July 31 and August 4, 1588 (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The sight of the armada must have instilled fear in many as it was “an awesome spectacle to behold … [each ship] with lofty turrets like castles” (Hanson). Leading up to the clash, the people of England were in the grips of terror, including Thomas Hobbes’s mother. Hobbes wrote, “rumor went everywhere through our towns that the last day for the nation was coming by fleet. And at that point, my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear” (Martinich, 2). Hobbes and his “twin” were born April 5, 1588 – close to 4 months before the armada was to be seen off the coast of Plymouth. Hobbes would smartly observe of his birth, that the harrowing circumstances would affect him throughout life and would explain his “hatred for the enemies of [his] country” (2). The cause of the Spanish armada sailing to England is a complicated web of multiple causes and effects and lots of motion, both actual and political.
As with many philosophers of his day, Hobbes would have been familiar with multiple ancient and contemporary theories as to the ultimate cause of all motion. Most of these theories go on to attribute some force - calling it God - as the source cause of all motion. Among the many philosophies with which Hobbes was familiar was that of the Stoics and their theories on metaphysics. The Stoics noted both active and passive elements in the universe. The active was associated with the “rational principle (logos)” and they called this “God and Mind and Fate and Zeus” (Gorham, 37). More specifically, the Stoics called the essence of the substance of God pneuma and they likened it to “sperm or seed which contains the first principles or directions of all the things” (Baltzly). Hobbes, who would have encountered many Stoic ideas via his time tutoring and working with the Cavendishes, conceived the essence of God “as an infinitely subtle fluid or ‘spirit’ … [which is] ‘thin, fluid, transparent, invisible body” (Gorham, 38-39, 44). To remove all doubt as to his possible source of his ideas of the essence of God, he also wrote that his definition of “spirit” means “breadth, air, wind” in Latin and pneuma in Greek (39). If Hobbes’s spirit of God and the Stoics’ pneuma are the primal cause of existence, what is the next chain in the grand causal effect? Both Hobbes and the Stoics align on “the doctrine of oikeiosis … the principle of self-preservation” as the explanation of the cosmos’s perpetual motion (Santi, 67).
In his article, Psychology and Politics: Hobbes, Chrysippus the Stoic and the Passions, Santi quotes Diogenes Laertius, who wrote that a “living being has, as first impulse, that of conserving itself … [pushing] away what is harmful … and [getting] near to what is proper as well as familiar” (67). In the same article, he quotes Hobbes: “necessity of nature makes men to will and desire bonum sibi, that which is good for themselves, and to avoid that which is hurtful” (67). This impulse to survive is the cause of many actions and movements in the universe, which sustain life and cause change. Is it any wonder, then, when an individual, or a family face dire circumstance, or even perceived threats to their survival, that they begin to take action to ensure their existence? This type of thinking is precisely at the root of the cause and effect of the English Civil War.
As with the invasion of the Spanish Armada, the causes of the English Civil war were complex and tangled. But the fundamental cause of grievances between the English monarchy and the English parliament was about money and the viability of citizens’ existence. While the monarchy wanted to raise funds to support its lifestyle or even start a “war against Scotland,” the “majority of members” of parliament wanted to address and manage their “grievances about ship money, forced loans, coat and conduct money” – things which they had been complaining about for more than a decade (Martinich, 122). Even though Hobbes’s livelihood would not be greatly impacted by demands from the king, he had written things in “defense of absolute sovereignty” and he had seen other people, who were in favor of an “absolute monarch,” be charged and arrested by Parliament (161). When Hobbes witnessed “the king’s chief ministers” as well as “the king’s chief counselor and the highest-ranking clergymen” being charged and arrested, he knew “Parliament wasn’t [acting] logical” and in a matter of days, he made arrangements to flee to France and then left in such a hurry, “he did not even wait for his luggage to be packed” (161-162).
While historians may debate as to whether Parliament, the monarchy or even Hobbes were acting logically or not, it does not take much imagination to see how an impulse to survive can be taken to an extreme. Returning to Santi, he makes the connection between the impulse for self-preservation and passion. Quoting Chrysippus the Stoic, he writes, “an impulse can also be rational, following right reason, but in the majority of people it is irrational and ‘contrary to nature’: it is ‘an excessive impulse’ that originates the passions” (68). Similarly, Hobbes agrees that passions are based on “memories of the past” or “expectations of the future” and that these passions “originate, in the mind” (68). Alas, this is where Hobbes and the Stoics cease in agreement, and subsequently depart into different directions regarding the management of passions.
Without getting into the full explanation of the Stoic theory of passions, the Stoics believe that passion is something the sage would never experience, since the Stoic sage would not have any “false beliefs about what is good and bad” (Brennan, 38). In other words, a practicing Stoic would not hold the belief that desire for money, or the fear of pain is either good or bad. If applied to Hobbes when he faced the threat of arrest from Parliament, instead of fleeing to France, perhaps he would have remained to perform his duties in England.
While the Stoics would recommend the individual work to hold correct beliefs about the world and to rationally control passions, Hobbes views passions as a force to be joined with reason in a “positive alliance” (Santi, 69). The key aspect of his idea is the “contrast between what drives conflict and what allows cooperative endeavor, rather than any quasi-Stoic view about how reason can overcome the passions” (Schmitter). Hobbes writes that “competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclines to contention, enmity, and war” but he also holds that “desire of ease, and sensual delight” along with the desires for learning and a “love of the arts” and fame, cause “men to obey a common power” (Santi, 69). He sees passion as the driving force both leading up to the creation and the sustaining of the State. For him, the telos of humankind is to live in a state of obedience to an ultimate sovereign who would preserve their security and ensure their passions are satisfied rationally (69-70). In fact, in his Leviathan, he “hopes that his theoretic principles will be embraced by an enlightened sovereign” who also is “the only legitimate moral philosopher … be it a king or an assembly” (71). If any additional nails are needed to close the coffin on an endorsement of a personal philosophy, as opposed to a State philsophy, Santi notes that Hobbes thought the “ancient philosophers were wrong and presumptuous in proposing their personal philosophic view as the true way of living” (71). For Hobbes, “the laws of the commonwealth … are the ground and measure of all true morality” (71).
In his masterpiece, Leviathan, in the first part of On Man, he gloomily described the human life as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 102). But as one reflects on Hobbes’s life, one comes to find the countless people with whom he worked – he was never alone. One learns he was well compensated and connected to powerful people – he was never poor. One further learns that his life was most assuredly not short – he died at age 91 on December 4, 1679. But as for life being brutish, perhaps he was correct. Because of the perpetual motion of unreasonable passions, he felt the effects of foreign powers at home and abroad, he witnessed a civil war in his homeland and “lived in a time of upheaval, sharper than any England has since known” - in a time of great division amongst the government, religions, militaries and economies (Williams). Given this “brutish” context, it is no wonder Hobbes advocated for a Leviathan to rule over people who could not rule themselves.
In conclusion, a few key threads in Hobbes’s philosophy can be traced back to Stoicism – namely his ideas on God and human passions. The Stoics and Hobbes identified fine, pervasive substance as the essence of God. This essence, in turn is the catalyst for self-preservation, which they both indicate as the prime mover of people and that it is inherent in all living things. Both agree that unchecked self-preservation can lead to passions. However, Hobbes and the Stoics part ways as to how the passions ought to be managed. The Stoics advocate for individuals to be rational and to perhaps eradicate passions, but Hobbes sees passions performing a crucial role prior to the formation of the State. The State then rules over her subjects and manages people’s passions via an “enlightened sovereign” (Santi, 71). In sum, the individual lives for the State, and the State is “the ground and measure of all true morality” (71).
Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2019, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2019, plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Phys.
Brennan, Tad. The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate. Oxford Oxford University Press, 2005.
Derrick, Bryson T., and Oliver Whang. Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii Erupts for the First Time in Nearly 40 Years. ProQuest, Nov 28, 2022, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fblogs-podcasts-websites%2Fmauna-loa-volcano-hawaii-erupts-first-time-nearly%2Fdocview%2F2740490390%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289.
Gorham, Geoffrey. "Mixing Bodily Fluids: Hobbes's Stoic God." Sophia, vol. 53, no. 1, 2014, pp. 33-49. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fmixing-bodily-fluids-hobbess-stoic-god%2Fdocview%2F1524330134%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-013-0377-x.
Hanson, Neil. The Confident Hope of a Miracle. Vintage, 2007.
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Martinich, A. P. Hobbes : A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Santi, Raffaella. "PSYCHOLOGY AND POLITICS: HOBBES, CHRYSIPPUS THE STOIC AND THE PASSIONS." Agathos, vol. 8, no. 2, 2017, pp. 57-73. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fpsychology-politics-hobbes-chrysippus-stoic%2Fdocview%2F1965027693%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289.
Schmitter, Amy M. “17th and 18th Century Theories of Emotions > Hobbes on the Emotions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Plato.stanford.edu, 2021, plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotions-17th18th/LD3Hobbes.html.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Spanish Armada | Definition, Defeat, & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 June 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Armada-Spanish-naval-fleet.
Williams, Garrath. “Hobbes, Thomas: Moral and Political Philosophy | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/hobmoral/.
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