Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Good

Written by on November 12th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Moral Philosophy, about Thomas Hobbes Leviathan

|||Hobbes, Thomas, and Edwin M. Curley. Leviathan. Indianapolis (Ind.): Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.|||

Thomas Hobbes To which end we are to consider, that the Felicity of this life, consisted not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no Finis ultimus (utmost aim,) nor Summum Bonum,(greatest Good,) as is spoken of in the Books of the old Moral Philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, I.11.

In an earlier article, Mr. Bridger discussed in a commendable fashion the perplexities into which G.E. Moore fell in discussing “the Good” in his Principia Ethica. If I might be excused with this aside, allow me to make several interesting observations based upon this same text. In the Principia, Moore remarks that “The peculiarity of Ethics is not that it investigates assertions about human conduct, but that it investigates assertions about that property of things which is denoted by the term ‘good,’ and the converse property denoted by the term ‘bad.’“1 Perhaps to a casual reader, this remark is not very audacious, but hidden within it is a nest of perplexities and misapplied subject material. Sadly, he was destined to be lost in a thicket of complexities in trying to essay his project. Although I believe that there are a number of issues at play with Moore in the broader intellectual history of English Ethics,2 I want to focus more on the conceptual problem issue with speaking of “the Good” and how this is related to the quote taken from Hobbes.

Every ethical philosopher worth his salt will eventually have to deal in some fashion with the problems related to “end,” “good,” “desire,” and so forth. In the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously considers various views held about the good and—perhaps more famously—takes a shot at his old master, Plato. Interestingly, when Aquinas comments on the text of the Nicomachean Ethics, he implies that this first treatment is really dialectical and initial, only to be completed in Book X.3 In this final book,4 one finds those teachings on contemplation and leisure that are among the inspiration for Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.5 This same position can be found in the Politics as well,6 and for that reason I take this to mean that it does have holding force regarding Aristotle’s stated position on the highest good of human actions. Likewise, I take it to mean that he did mean to place the final treatment of happiness at the end of the Ethics as a clarification of his initial position regarding happiness—but here only after he has considered all the virtues and the manner by which one might call the speculative virtues the highest of human virtues. In practical philosophy, ends take the place of principles, so one cannot discuss the matters of ethics without having some notion of “end” and “good”—though this will be clarified through the progress of the science. There is a certain circularity is more pronounced in practical sciences—though there are analogues in the case of speculative wisdom (natural philosophy and metaphysics). The owl of wisdom does hover over its mysteries—just in analogically distinct manners in practical vs. speculative sciences.

Aristotle’s words in the Nicomachean Ethics are quite charming actually: “But perhaps we had better examine the universal good and face the problem of its meaning, although such an inquiry is repugnant, since those who have introduced the doctrine of the forms are dear to us.”7 The pupil is not rebuking his Platonic master, but much is at stake. What Aristotle sees as being foundationally problematic is the fact that good is predicated among many things. Some of them might be means to other ends, but surely it is not the case that there is no good intrinsic to each of them. Surely one predicates good of quantities (e.g. good quantities of food according to the doctor) and likewise of good as predicated of qualities (e.g. the virtues).8 What is interesting, however, is that he notes that this problem of predication and a potential separate spiritual “Good” must be set aside for another science (namely metaphysics). Here—in a fashion quite opposed to the methodology of Moore—he commits himself merely to a science of happiness achievable through human action, a particular type of good and not “the Good.”9

Now, if we do consider only the happiness that can be had here below, I would grant Hobbes his point in part. As Maritain often stated, an imperfect beatitude is—strictly speaking—no beatitude at all. At best, it is a felicity in motion.10 In a sense, Hobbes’ turn away from the Summum Bonum could merely have been a provisional choice like that of Aristotle’s, only to return in the end to acknowledge contemplation as the highest good of human life. It is in this noble end that Aristotle reaffirms the primacy of the Sovereign Good—though such an affirmation really needs to be (as he has noted well) handled in metaphysics. For Hobbes, a number of factors intervene to prevent him from taking this path.

Nevertheless, as Aquinas himself states, the final end of the human being is above the natural powers of man.11 Man—as created (but not as redeemed by grace)—does not make a demand for supernatural fulfillment of his desire by means of the Beatific Vision. In writing on this topic as a theologian, Thomas is able to note that such fulfillment is possible by grace. However, if one takes a purely natural perspective—merely focusing on human actions and political actions—one is left with a truth that must be faced by anyone trying to follow the sheer exigencies of logic working on purely natural data. With regard to pure nature, there is no Summum Bonum that can be achieved by a finite human act (though leisurely contemplation might approach a certain limited grasp thereof).

Hobbes phrases the problem in terms of unending desires—this is part of a language and philosophy with many, many problems. Nevertheless, the result is strikingly the same as what Henri de Lubac once said about the meaning of a pure state of nature: “Left to nature alone, in other words remaining forever ‘imperfectus,’ man would be condemned never to know more than a ‘kind of anxious joy,’ which would consist in ‘always poetizing reality by dreaming,’ and ‘expanding possession by desire,’ while continuing to call upon ‘an indifferent and silent heaven.”13 Or, given that I have reservations about Fr. de Lubac’s work on this topic, I would confirm it with the same register of observations made by Maritain: “To know the First Cause in its essence, or without the intermediary of any other thing, is to know the First Cause otherwise than as First Cause; it is to know it by ceasing to attain it by the very means by which we attain it, by ceasing to exercise the very act which bears us up to it. The natural desire to know the First Cause in its essence envelops within itself the indication of the impossibility in which nature is placed to satisfy it.”14

In short, Hobbes might be a vexing philosopher, but on this—if we follow him carefully and only consider finite goods and not be lured by a univocal “Good in Itself”—we do find a certain perspicuity to his vision. However, metaphysical thought can tell us that there is one Being that is—as the scholastics would say—bonum in essendo, and even the slightest contemplation of such a Good far surpasses the order of an infinite number of finite goods.

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000), 87. 

  2. As an introduction, I would recommend the Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2007). 

  3. See Aquinas, In 1 Ethic., lect. 4 n. 43. 

  4. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a11-1179a33. 

  5. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Mentor-Omega: 1963). 

  6. Aristotle, Politics, 1333a31-1333b5. 

  7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1962), 1096a10-13. 

  8. See ibid. 1096a23-1096b30-34. 

  9. See ibid. 1097a15. 

  10. See Aquinas, In De Trinitate, q.6 a.4 ad 4: “To us are given the principles by which we are able to prepare for perfect knowledge of separate [immaterial] substances; however, we are not able to reach to such knowledge by these [natural] principles. For even though man is naturally inclined to a final end; he is not, however, able to arrive at it by nature, but only through grace—and this is due to the excellence of that end.” (My translation) 

  11. See Jacques Maritain, Neuf leçons sur les notions premières de la philosophie morale (Paris: Téqui: 1951), 100. The theme is recurrent in Maritain’s writing. 

  12. Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: Scribner, 1968). 

  13. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), 199. 

  14. Jacques Maritain, Approaches to God, trans. Peter O’Reilly (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), 110.