Hobbes on the Causes of Theism

I’ve been reading Hobbes’ Leviathan for a class in early modern political philosophy, and ran across a number of quotes which I am both surprised to find in Hobbes, and which others may find just as interesting and provocative, all of them on the subject of religion, and in particular on the cause of Monotheism in man. I thought it was interesting that Hobbes recognizes the explanatory value of Theism as being the principle cause of the belief in Monotheism.

“Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consideration of the effect to seek the cause, and then for the cause of that cause, ·and so on backwards· until finally he is forced to have the thought that there is some cause that had no previous cause, but is eternal; this being what men call ‘God’. So you can’t conduct any deep investigation into natural causes without being inclined by it to believe there is one eternal God; though we can’t express his nature in any idea in our mind.”
~Chapter 11

“Men want to know about the causes of the events
they see—some want this more strongly than others…

In its ignorance of causes, being always in the •dark (so to speak), mankind carries with it this perpetual fear, which must have something as its object—·that is, men must have something to be afraid of ·. So when there is nothing to be •seen, the only thing they can hold responsible for their good or bad luck is some •invisible power or agent. That may be what some of the old poets meant when they said that the gods were at first created by human fear, which is perfectly true when said about the many gods of the pagans. But the acknowledging of one God, eternal, infinite, and omnipotent, can more easily be traced to men’s •desire to know the causes of natural bodies and ·of· their various powers and operations than to their •fear of what would happen to them in the future. For someone who sees something happen and reasons his way to its immediate cause, and then to the immediate cause of that ·and so on backwards·, plunging deep into the pursuit of causes, will eventually reach the conclusion that there must be (as even the heathen philosophers acknowledged) one first mover—that is, a first and eternal cause of all things—which is what men mean by the name ‘God’.”
~Chapter 12

Full source available as a Libriovox audiobook, and the text can be found there as well. The text I am taking from is here.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to Hobbes on the Causes of Theism

  1. My understanding of the process of A being the cause of B definitely includes A having been an actual event that happened.

    But like Hobbes’s pseudo-anthropology of some mythic “state of nature” (which never actually, you know, happened at any point since our ancestors started splitting from the rest of the Australopithecenes), it is difficult to locate precisely when in the historical record these philosophical ruminations were supposed to have occurred in order to cause belief in monotheism.

    You can scan the Old and New Testaments until your eyes glaze over and never find a reference to “there must have been a first cause, therefore Yahweh”. Do you suppose that was what Jonah was preaching to bring the Ninevites around? Do you suppose Paul went to Greece 400 years after Aristotle and opened his pitch with, “there can be no ‘actual’ infinite”? The isle of Great Britain, from whence Hobbes hails, has the honor of having been Christianized twice — the first time didn’t take. How much would you put on a friendly wager that neither wave of evangelism incorporated anything even remotely resembling scholastic cosmological arguments? How about the Muslim traders who converted the animists and Hindus of Malaysia and Indonesia? Was that what the pharaoh Akhenaten explained to his ministers when had them start erasing the names of the other gods in favor of the Aten?

    “Even the heathen philosophers acknowledged.” Good one, Hobbes. You almost had us forgetting that it took some twelve hundred years after Christianity’s founding for Bonaventure and his colleagues to introduce this argument to the public — after cribbing it from the Muslims, who cribbed it from the pagans. The actual origins of actual Hebrew monotheism out of henotheism in turn derived from Canaanite polytheism start to look progressively indistinguishable from the bump in the night origins of those ghastly pagan faiths.

    • Haven’t you read Aristotle?

      • Indeed I have. Hence my two (2) references to his place in the historical record in my reply.

        Of the many specific examples I gave of people being caused to believe in monotheism, to how many of them can you attribute Aristotle’s cosmological arguments as either a proximate or distal cause? (tabling for the moment the libertarian doctrine that people’s mental states are supposed to be uncaused causes)

        Aquinas himself didn’t start on the Summa until he was 40 years old — you can’t even say the CA was the cause of his monotheism!

        History, anthropology, archaeology etc. give us a pretty empirically accurate (if incomplete) picture of who believed what, when, and why. From where I sit, the list of actual non-monotheists who became monotheists because of CA considerations is mighty sparse.

        Not to pile on too much, but when Anaximander (610-546 B. C.) correctly posited that humans were biological descendants of fish, he made a good guess based on philosophical speculation. The true fact that we are descendants of fish played no causal role in the genesis of his belief. Likewise, even if true, the “fact” of monotheism played no causal role in Aristotle’s (or his successors’) reasoning processes.

      • Well, I dunno, I was bought back by “Theism” by the CA. Moreover what of Leibniz, what of Schleiermacher, what of Spinoza, and while we’re on it, what of Thomas? Would we really think that the cause of their belief wasn’t in large part afforded by the intuition that ultimate explanation demands something like a first cause. A young child may not, until made into a mature thinker through the course of time, be able to articulate the reason for their beliefs, but this fact may owe more to lack of training than to lack of intuition. When we read into the biography of St Thomas it becomes clear that God was for him first something hard to define (when he was at a very young age he constantly inquired “what is God?”), then, once defined (i.e., as the ‘first cause’) was clearly known by him to exist. Only later come arguments produced to convince others. However, if belief in the thing argued for had not arisen in whole or in part thanks to the intuition behind that argument then that argument could hardly have been composed, for the inspiration to write an argument comes first from an intuited insight less clearly grasped on the part of the one convinced to the extent of registering an argument at all.

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