So we’re covering Hobbes this week in my survey of political thought course. One really interesting discussion revolved around the opening note to Leviathan – Hobbes’ letter to his friend Francis Godolphin, in the memory of his brother, Sidney Godolphin. Here’s the key passage:
Your most worthy brother, Mr. Sidney Godolphin, when he lived was pleased to think my studies something, and otherwise to oblige me, as you know, with real testimonies of his good opinion, great in themselves, and the greater for the worthiness of his person. For there is not any virtue that disposes a man, either to the service of God, or to the service of his country, to civil society, or private friendship, that did not manifestly appear in his conversation, not as acquired by necessity, or affected upon occasion, but inherent, and shining in a generous constitution of his nature.
Isn’t it remarkable that Hobbes begins his famous treatise – where he vehemently argues for the nature of humans as mechanistic, driven by passions and desires, and goes at length to reduce all talk of human virtue to the drive for power – with a powerful statement about friendship and the inherent greatness of this man’s nature?
To be sure, Hobbes’ harshest vision of man is found in his discussion of the “fallen” state of nature, but it’s pretty clear to me that man’s nature doesn’t undergo some radical transformation within the commonwealth. Indeed, it is precisely because of the inevitability of conflict between individuals (whether it be over property or even the proper interpretations of right and wrong) that they must always be held in check by the Sovereign. The state of nature always lurks in the background of the commonwealth.
On any account, there seems to be a very interesting disjuncture between his dedication and his deeply pessimistic views on human goodness.