By Michael Sauter
One of the most important intellectual currents of seventeenth-century Europe was the use of mathematics as counter-point to medieval intellectual traditions. Any attempt to understand this current’s full significance must begin with Galileo, who stands at the apex of a long trend in western mathematics that dates back to Archimedes and runs through the medieval Franciscans. In Galileo we see, in its purest form, the belief that mathematics offers true and precise knowledge, and we also see the awareness that this knowledge undermines medieval “bookmen,” or the scholastics. As Galileo saw it, the bookmen fought over words, but mathematics allowed people to fight over real things. Most important here is Galileo’s appreciation of mathematics as a language that can be applied to the universe. With mathematics man is able to understand the natural world in clear terms, and the growing confidence in the language of mathematics represented a retreat from the discussion of natural essences and a move toward a description of natural phenomena. For Galileo the behavior of all physical objects could not necessarily be understood fully via equations, but it could be described sufficiently. And this recognition that accurate description is the foundation of all knowledge runs through the seventeenth century.
René Descartes encapsulated the desire to develop a language that was clear enough to describe real things. The son of a Breton magistrate, he attended the famous Jesuit College La Flèche as a young boy, where he learned Aristotelian philosophy, before heading to Poitiers for university study. After completing four years there Descartes joined the army in order to see the world. In 1619, while serving in Neuburg on the Danube, under Maurice of Nassau, Descartes had a vision of mathematics that came to him in a series of three dreams. The first dream affirmed that world had a wholly mathematical structure. The second informed Descartes that it was his duty to make this structure clear to everyone. The third revealed that God himself guaranteed the mathematical underpinnings of the universe. After having these dreams, Descartes traveled to the famous shrine of the Virgin Mary at Loreto in Italy in order to confirm his impression of them. It is ironic, perhaps, but this half-conscious, half-religious process marks the birth of western rationalism.
Descartes worked out his mathematical vision over the next decade, and the first fruit of his labors was Traité du Monde, a radically mechanist (and mathematical) interpretation of the universe. The text was to have been published in 1633, but Descartes stopped publication at the last minute, after having heard of Galileo’s unenviable fate in Italy. Like Aristotle centuries before him, Descartes eschewed allowing the powers that be to sin against philosophy. Descartes then pursued less radical (and less dangerous) themes. In 1635, he published his Discourse on Method, a fundamental text in the history of applied mathematics, followed in 1641 by his Meditations, one of the most important texts in the history of western philosophy. (This text is the source of the famous Cartesian “cogito.”) These latter two works are significant, nonetheless, because in them Descartes not only mathematicized the universe but also plumbed the philosophical implications of this new stance, a process that came to fruition in what we, today, call Cartesian rationalism. In essence, Descartes emphasized reason as the only true foundation for truth, setting aside the tradition of citing ancient authorities that he had learned from his scholastic masters in La Flèche. In 1649, Descartes left Paris and took his new philosophical approach to Holland, whose intellectual atmosphere he found to be more intellectually congenial. In that same year, Queen Christina of Sweden lured Descartes to Stockholm, in order to bask in the glory of having such a famous philosopher on her staff. The Swedish winter and the requisite 5am meetings with the Queen proved to be too much, however, for Descartes and in 1650 he succumbed to a fever and died.
Now, let us consider Descartes’ intellectual trajectory more narrowly. After 1641 Descartes pursued the desire to challenge scholastic approaches to nature, all of which were based in Aristotelian philosophy. The distinctive feature of Descartes’ universe was his idea of the plenum, or fullness. Descartes believed that each part of the universe butted up against every other part. This position had medieval remnants, in so far as Descartes disputed the possibility of a vacuum, just as had his scholastic masters. More importantly, it also closed the door to the forces that fascinated Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. (Descartes feared that in speaking of invisible forces, these men were courting the return of spirits to the universe.) In the Cartesian universe there was, hence, no action at a distance, and all motion was determined by direct contact between substances, rather like playing billiards, only on a larger scale. From Descartes’ perspective this approach had the advantage that it associated every movement with a direct cause, which meant that the physicist did not need strange, occult forces to explain motion in God’s universe. Another key feature of the Cartesian universe is Descartes’ vortex theory. Consistent with the Aristotelian emphasis on circular motion, Descartes held that the all motion is circular, although within vortices that were created by matter. These vortices spun because heavier matter naturally moved to the center of the vortex, while lighter matter shifted its position to the outside. In this vision, what we today would call gravity is conceptualized as a system under constant pressure. The particular significance of this idea lies in the philosophical assumption that undergirded it, namely that all matter is uniform and constant. To put the issue in Kantian terms, matter does not simply blink in and out of existence and, for that reason, the universe is predictable, which meant that it was subject to mathematical analysis.
Another of the great ironies behind Descartes’ philosophy is that in searching for a philosophy to justify his mathematics he turned away from one Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and toward another, Plato. For all its flaws, Aristotelian philosophy had the virtue of being grounded in empirics; Aristotle wanted to know how the world really worked. Descartes, however, turned away from this empirical tradition and toward Platonism, because he wanted to ground deduction as a mental process within reason itself. Plato’s two-world theory had, in effect, made the world “rational” by connecting the actual, changeable world to an ideal and permanent one. Descartes’ turn toward Plato must also be understood in terms of the contemporary resurgence of interest in St. Augustine in France. French theologians, particularly those in a monastery at Port Royal, which was outside of Paris, sought in St. Augustine an austere Christianity, in which the individual’s relationship to God took center stage. The medieval, Aristotelian church had, of course, emphasized church as a mediator between God and Man. The resurgence in Augustinian studies in France helps to explain, in part, the complete victory of Cartesianism in France during the second half of the seventeenth century.
Descartes’ combination of Platonism with Augustinianism led him down a philosophical path that had first been discovered in the Middle Ages but not fully pursued, the use of radical doubt. Many of you will be familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “cogito, ergo sum”: I think, therefore, I am. Descartes pursued doubt relentlessly and concluded that he could doubt all parts of his worldly experience except for one, namely that he doubted. It seems paradoxical, but this method opened the way to a new philosophy of certainty, because it affirmed the individual’s (rather tortured) existence by ascribing significance to the act of thinking itself. This insight is backward-looking, in part, because it emerged from St. Augustine’s well-documented interest in human interiority. Call it Christian navel gazing. Nonetheless, Descartes could not merely stop here, because he needed to affirm both God and the external universe. Here again, he turned to medieval traditions, in this case making use St. Anselm’s classic ontological proof of God’s existence, which for our purposes here should be understood as justifying the idea that existence itself is its own predicate.
Descartes’ reliance on the ontological proof as the foundation of a new, more certain philosophy merged with the larger interest in France in Platonism. Platonic thought was compatible with the ontological proof, because it also reified ideas. For a true Platonist, ideas are more real than the physical world, hence, Descartes could throw out Aristotle and write off the Stagirite’s insistence on sense experience as an essential component of all knowledge. The theological result of this turn was that one could now rove God’s existence without resorting to sense experience. The larger historical significance of this Platonic/Augustinian turn lies, however, in Descartes’ determined association of God with mathematics. God guaranteed the universe’s structure, and Man gained access to this structure through mathematics. This is an enormously important idea, because it justified the assumption of a rational universe from a wholly internal and human position. Descartes’ doubt allowed him to deduce God and the universe from the standpoint of his own existence.
Initially, Descartes’ ideas were received most enthusiastically and thoroughly in Holland and the larger Netherlands, especially in the universities there. By 1663, for example, the University of Louvain, which was then part of the Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium), became such a hotbed of Cartesian thought that the Spanish government banned Cartesianism, for fear that it mechanistic approach would undermine the belief in a providential God. Cartesianism penetrated the French scene more slowly and haphazardly, in part because the Catholic Church was more organized there. The Jesuits, for example, mounted determined resistance to Cartesianism, but were unable to stem the tide completely, because some of their theological enemies, including especially the Jansenists and the Oratorians, had accepted the mechanistic view of the universe. In particular, French Cartesians seized on Descartes’ logic as the foundation for all knowledge, which promoted a tremendous confidence not only in nature but also in the ability of reason to apprehend and understand it. By the seventeenth century’s end, Aristotle was unimportant to the study of the natural world, largely because a French philosopher had so thoroughly doubted his own existence.
The influence of mathematics on seventeenth-century thought is just as clear in the great English thinker Thomas Hobbes, although here the new way of reasoning became a fundamental element of the science of politics. Hobbes’ significance as a political thinker is clear to us today, but in his own time, people emphasized the influence of his ethics and psychology. He is a key factor in the development of modern approaches to politics, nonetheless. Hobbes stands at the end of a long process that begins with Machiavelli. Machiavelli first developed the notion that politics was an autonomous realm, its rules and practices existing outside theology and the church. This early stage in the larger process of discovering politics came to an end with Jean Bodin, who applied Roman Law to the religious conflicts that plagued Europe, thus, identifying sovereignty as the fundamental political problem for everybody. Concomitantly, we must also consider Hugo Grotius, who fashioned the other great legal pillar of modern political thought, what we will call secularized natural law. Grotius believed that natural law came not from God but from the basic sociability of human beings. That is, human interaction on this world was fundamental to the larger concept of law. From the end of the fifteenth until the end of the sixteenth century, politics and law became established ways of thinking about the human condition. Thomas Hobbes took many of these fundamental political ideas another step further and, in the process, founded modern political thought.
Thomas Hobbes identified the very boundaries of his own life with the great political events of his day. He was born on April 8, 1588, when (supposedly) news of the impending Spanish invasion so upset his mother that she entered labor. Hobbes summed up the circumstances of his birth by saying, “Fear and I were born together.” Hobbes’ education was largely the doing of his uncle, who not only paid for tutors but also sent him to Oxford. (Hobbes’ father was nothing more than a drunken country vicar.) Oxford did not, however, cover itself in glory at the time, as is evidence by John Milton’s contemporary judgement that the college was a sow’s feast of brambles and thistles.
The deplorable state of undergraduate education at Oxford meant for Hobbes that the best education was to be sought outside of official channels, and he spent much of his youthful energies acquiring knowledge on his own. Hobbes’ pursuit of independent study received a significant boost when he was appointed tutor to the son of the Earl of Devonshire, a position that gave him access to the latest intellectual currents. The Earl of Devonshire was a great art and book collector and devoted his household to intellectual pursuits. Indeed, much of England’s intellectual life at the time occurred within the confines of great households, and Hobbes’ position in one such house afforded him regular access to a great library and to great personages such as Ben Jonson, Viscount Falkland, and Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
In 1610, Hobbes continued his extra-university education by accompanying his charge on a grand tour of the Continent, where he met many of the greatest scientific minds of the age. In Florence he met Galileo, in Paris Marin Mersenne. While on the Continent, Hobbes also acquired a profound taste for the works of the great Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the most important contemporary account of the Peloponnesian War. Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides convinced him that politics was nothing more than a naked struggle for power. The classical Greek tradition influenced Hobbes even further, however, through Euclid’s work. While visiting Geneva, Hobbes found a copy of Euclid’s work on geometry and he was deeply impressed by Euclid’s conceptual method, in which the latter completed a proof through a series of rigorously defined logical, because this method offered another way to bypass the tyranny of words. For a nominalist and a skeptic such as Hobbes this discovery of method was extremely important, because it suggested that there was a path to firm knowledge. By 1630, Hobbes was back in England, where he these new insights affected deeply his understanding of the political crises that confronted England up through 1660.
Hobbes returned to the Continent in 1640, with the outbreak of the Puritan Revolution, and settled in Paris. This period was another extremely formative time for Hobbes, because it reinforced his growing belief that nature was harsh and cruel, that there was no God, and that only the material world existed. These ideas are most evident in his first two important works, De Corpore (1640) and De Cive (1642), both of which explained the world in purely physical and earthly terms. During this time, Hobbes also met Descartes, but the French rationalist did not appreciate Hobbes’ atheism and materialism. Hobbes’ atheism also got him in trouble at the court of the later Charles II, who had fled the Revolution to France with some family members. Hobbes was initially appointed general tutor to the court, but when his atheism was uncovered, his position was reduced to mathematics only.
Hobbes’ ambiguous relationship to his religion, country, and king drove him to seek out new positions in political theory. In essence, Hobbes became a theorist of secular absolutism, a way of thinking that, as it turned out, was equally congenial to Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship as it was the Stuart monarchs, because refused to ground political legitimacy in ethical considerations. For Hobbes, legitimacy was a de facto condition. For example, Hobbes published his most famous text Leviathan in 1651, the same year in which it became fully apparent that Cromwell had won the Civil War, at least for the time being. The most important aspect of this text was that it justified victory over doctrine, both Cromwell and the executed Charles I could see themselves in Hobbes’ concept of the Leviathan. This legitimation of power for its own sake is what makes the text so historically significant.
Hobbes’s absolutism appears “modern” to us, because it deals with political power in the frankest, unsentimental terms. Yet, this modern approach to politics was deeply rooted in medieval ways of thinking. Hobbes’s thought emerged from the philosophical tradition known as Nominalism, which dominated Oxford when Hobbes studied there. Nominalism emerged as a response to late Scholasticism and, most simply, argued that words do not express things. Words are merely names that pertain to thoughts in our heads. The effect of this Nominalist position was to explode the metaphysical tradition of thinking about the nature of God. In this philosophical world there can be no notion of a divine Providence, or, if we keep Grotius in mind, of divinely inspired Natural Law. Hobbes was, therefore, a key figure in the secularization of Natural Law that emerged from Nominalist criticism. He did not speak of Natural Law but of laws of nature, and since we cannot know nature completely, each law is, at best, a theorem that can only be applied imperfectly to an individual situation. The consequence of this position was the reduction of Natural Law to a series of unstable, loose guides for individual moral conduct.
The sense of a humanity cut loose from the divine justified a reassessment of the traditional sociable anthropology on which Natural Law theory had been based. Hobbes’ materialist vision of nature led him to posit a particularly pessimistic vision of Man. What was Man for Hobbes? Hobbes defined Man as nothing more than a body living on this earth. Thus, unlike Descartes, who defined Man through the Mind, Hobbes gave Mind no reality whatsoever. For Hobbes, Man is a sensate creature and the Mind is, therefore, nothing more than decaying sense. (This attitude will run through John Locke and David Hume.) Moreover, Man has no control over how his mind works. Instead of being a rational creature that considered problems through deduction, Man was for Hobbes a bundle of desires that emerged from the random sensations imposed on the body by the world—and most important among these desires was the human will. (This was also, in part, a medieval inheritance, since the Nominalists also prized will over reason, though they applied this distinction to God.) The vision of human beings as non-rational, willful creatures had a profound effect on Hobbes’ notion of politics. Because for Hobbes, Man is proud, unsociable, aggressive, Man’s desires can only be realized at the expense of others. The most important desire in this world is the desire for self-preservation an in the pursuit of that desire conflict naturally emerged. Moreover, to the extent that human beings do live together, it is only for the purpose of defending their own lives. (Locke would put a different spin on this idea, holding that human beings are so ration that they see the virtue in joining a collective of some sort in the name of defense.) Now, having begun from the standpoint that Man was nothing more than a beast, Hobbes constructs a zero-sum political world, in which there is no ethical community, only a war of all against all with shifting alliances contracted for mutual defense.
I have been describing, of course, the philosophical origins of the Hobbesian State of Nature. It is important when reading Hobbes to understand that he never argued that this State of Nature was a real historical period. (Rousseau would take much the same line.) The State of Nature is a philosophical abstraction that explains what was, for Hobbes, a real social problem: Man is not an inherently social creature, but must be socialized to live in a community. This anthropology is quite different from that of Aristotle, who saw Man as a political animal, and is, in fact, the secular counterpart to St. Augustine’s City of God. For St. Augustine, Man was a broken creature, soaked in sin, and who needed external authority to guarantee his further existence. Hobbes then used the idea of self-preservation to justify the origin of governments. He relies here in the concept of prudence to lift people out of the Hell that he has created for them, arguing that the fear of death at the hands of others drives people to vest their right to self-preservation in some central authority, such as a prince or an assembly—there is no difference for Hobbes. Hobbes then posits the notion of a covenant that justifies the power of the new central authority. This covenant is not, however, one between the prince and his people: it is, in fact, between the people themselves, which signified that the prince or the Leviathan had neither metaphysical nor historical rights. The state existed to aid in the process of self-preservation, and the moment that the prince could not guarantee self-preservation, the contract was dissolved and a new one became justified through necessity alone. Why is this important? Hobbes has just proved that the state is a fiction and, more importantly, that this fiction has no religious sanction. The state was, then, nothing more than a Mortal God whose authority derived from general consent.
Hobbes’ recreation of central authority as the Mortal God had serious implications for the tradition of Natural Law. In traditional Natural Law, political authority was composed of secular and religious authorities, that is, the church and Scripture had some say in how a state or its people must act. Hobbes argued, however, that all authority resided in the state, and to the extent that Scripture offered maxims for individual conduct it was the state authority that justified the interpretation of them. That is, the prince determined the meaning of the church’s doctrines, and the church became a state church, devoted to the maintenance of authority. In taking this position, Hobbes broke with a medieval political-religious dualism that dated back at least to the Investiture Controversy of 1077 and probably as far back as the pretensions of Pope Gelasius, who in the fifth century had argued (unsuccessfully) that the spiritual power was more important than secular power.
Hobbes’ views on the church also had implications for religious tolerance. Hobbes took a narrow view of tolerance and religious liberty. Since the church was part of the state, it became the ruler’s duty to maintain religious practices and beliefs. Hence, all people in a given state are, for Hobbes, required to conform externally to the rules and principles that had been laid down by the ruler. This doctrine sounds harsh, but it also had the virtue of guaranteeing the rights of conscience, since every person had the right to believe differently in private. The line was to be drawn at public expression of disagreement. Given the tenor of the times, Hobbes’ emphasis on maintaining order over allowing religious debate had a certain virtue, especially since the most extreme Puritans engaged in religious repression that was much worse than what had come before.
Rarely has a book provoked as much revulsion as did Hobbes’ Leviathan. Dubbed “Monster of Malmesbury” by his critics, Hobbes managed with the Leviathan to tread on just about everyone’s toes. England’s legal community was angry, because their field had been subordinated thoroughly to princely power. If there was n o low outside the Leviathan, then why even have lawyers? The church hierarchy was angry at having the church’s traditional monopoly on the interpretation of religious texts be undermined. In addition, the growing number of religious sectarians, people who believed that religious liberty was a prerequisite for social peace, was also upset, because Hobbes left no room for the public expression of conscience. Hobbes was not bothered by any of the criticism, especially given that Charles II had read the Leviathan as justifying his royal authority. With such a protector, Hobbes was safe from persecution and, in the end, he enjoyed a quite life, living to a ripe old age that included much singing, which he believed kept him healthy and regular exercise in the form of tennis.
In spite of the general opposition to Hobbes’ work, the Leviathan was quite influential. This influence was rooted mostly in Hobbes’ intellectual rigor, because the structured nature of his thought required all future discussions of a religious polity to take place on Hobbes’ terms and not those of his critics. It also helped that Hobbes was a talented polemicist who seemed to enjoy debate. He tangled, for example, with a group of thinkers called the Cambridge Platonists over free will. Hobbes’ tendency toward polemics aside, however, what endures is his restructuring of politics within a wholly secular realm. Rather than beginning with the “cogito,” Hobbes began with human need, making it the foundation for all politics, and he pursued need to very dark but also realistic conclusions. As a result, he desanctified the state, thus opening the door to further critiques of the state’s foundations. In making the state a product of will Hobbes also made it something that could be deconstructed and reconstructed as the need arose. Hobbes may not have liked failed revolutions, but he still justified all the successful ones.