The Hobbesian Anthropos

In some ways I feel as if I barely understand Hobbes. Perhaps that has something to do with the divergent iterations that spring from varied corners of academia.

Hobbes represents everything, and nothing. He is one of those not-too-distant scholars in history whose varied existences go toward proving that figuring out exactly what a thinker is doing, why, and how is a little harder than your entry-level college textbook is willing to admit (and, who blames them? We can’t wade into the shit head first; instead, we take slow subtle steps). So, yes, we can talk, definitively, about the years of his exile in France, his bachelorhood, his travels across Europe with those he is tutoring; but, the tricky business is determining his place in the history of political thought, the importance of his specific take on the social contract (and not talking anachronistically of a full-blown political liberalism), and, perhaps, what exactly the hell is going on with his particular model of the human.

Hobbes and Chill


I can’t solve all the problems. This isn’t really my area of specialty, but what I think I can speak to his the particular form of the Hobbesian state of nature. What bothers me most is the way it is carelessly and crudely employed. Even in scholarly writing there are the quick, throw-away references to Hobbes and his anthropology. Usually the charge of psychological egoism, an overwhelming self-interest or greed; or simply the quick line pointing to the ‘wolf man’.

What isn’t paid enough attention to, I think, is the deeply physiological nature of the Hobbesian human. It is perhaps one of the more careless omissions that in the only (that I can find) translation of De  Homine (Bernard Gert’s work) the first 9 chapters are missing! Why? Well, the footnote in the 1991 reprint merely says “they are irrelevant to Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy” (35). Well, gee, thanks for deciding that for me. Maybe I wanted to read them??

The reason that they are irrelevant? Well, the first chapter deals with ‘out-of-date’ biology and chapters 2 through 9 are concerned with optics. But, why does Hobbes devote the first 9 chapters to things wholly extraneous to the rest of his work dedicated to de homine? Well, perhaps he had a reason?

It seems quite obvious to me that there are physiological reasons, that the foundation of Hobbes’ thought regarding the human, and going beyond to his moral and political philosophy is grounded in the materiality of the human, in the physiological workings of man. This needs to be appreciated to understand anything about the necessity and inevitability of violence in the state of nature. Fear, not simply greed, leads to violence. But, fear is based on the inability of the subject to determine (a hermeneutical problem) what the other subject will do. And, when one thinks that they may suffer violence, they are led by their natural right to do what they can to defend their self from the ultimate evil (as Hobbes doesn’t allow for a teleology, only an evil, which is immobility and death).

It seems quite obvious, then, why both optics and biology are important for the foundation of Hobbes’ material concerns when discussing man. It sucks it was left out of this particular translation of De Homine….


2 comments on “The Hobbesian Anthropos

  1. juselk says:

    This materiality certainly gives a whole new sweatiness to the bodies combined on the frontispiece of Leviathan. I like Sara Ahmed on the circulation of fear in the body and between bodies leading to the circulation of racist affects (in the Affective Economies article or it might have been a chapter). On the Leviathan’s body of composites that also includes a head – bodies as the raw matter of state building with a sovereignty that exceeds the sum of the bodies.

    • Ah, interesting. I’ll have to look up the piece by Sara Ahmed that you mention. I’m turning one of my chapters into a much more sustained engagement with Hobbes (and, connecting what I am calling the “Hobbesian spectre” to neoliberalism), and this stuff about circulation of fear and the affects from it sounds helpful.

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