Conditioned to Believe: Hobbes on Religion, Education, and Social Context

In: Hobbes Studies
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Using the example of ghosts and religion, this paper argues for the importance of social context and background operative in Hobbes’s account of social life and, in particular, the role of environment, education, and language in explaining much of what we think we know, and much of what we believe. The paper looks to aspects of Hobbes’s epistemology and his account of belief, to make the case that he recognizes how a kind of social conditioning is required to sustain certain beliefs. The paper briefly concludes with a focus on the commonwealth itself and how the example of religion and religious belief extends to the commonwealth and the kinds of beliefs required for the commonwealth to sustain itself.


Using the example of ghosts and religion, this paper argues for the importance of social context and background operative in Hobbes’s account of social life and, in particular, the role of environment, education, and language in explaining much of what we think we know, and much of what we believe. The paper looks to aspects of Hobbes’s epistemology and his account of belief, to make the case that he recognizes how a kind of social conditioning is required to sustain certain beliefs. The paper briefly concludes with a focus on the commonwealth itself and how the example of religion and religious belief extends to the commonwealth and the kinds of beliefs required for the commonwealth to sustain itself.

On a cold winter’s evening, a woman sits in a cozy armchair by the crackling fire, reading a novel, and starting to doze off. The wind suddenly picks up, a tree branch scratches up against the window, a burning log falls in the fire, and the woman wakes with a start.

As she wakes, still in a hazy, partial dream state, she could swear she caught sight of something strange in the most shadowy corner of the room. She can’t be positive but is fairly certain she has seen a figure, a child perhaps, looking out the far window. This figure is probably, she thinks to herself, a ghost. She has heard rumors that the house is haunted but is now becoming sure of it herself. That was definitely a ghost over there, it must have been. The house is most certainly haunted, she decides.

While Thomas Hobbes thinks she is utterly mistaken, he wouldn’t blame her for this belief. And he does have an explanation. For Hobbes, her mind was playing tricks on her and the conditions were just right for her to see a ghost.

Hers is not simply a straightforward cognitive mistake, although a cognitive mistake is part of it. Her belief in a ghost is also, in large part, a contextual matter, a matter of how the external world, the social world, readied her for that belief, in that moment. She’d been told about ghosts from childhood, she’d been warned about the house, she was alone and nearly dreaming, and the weather helped. These factors all contributed to giving a very particular explanation for her sense experience.

And as trivial as a ghost sighting might sound, Hobbes sees this tendency as quite serious, even dangerous. It’s not just ghosts in the night that we should be afraid of, Hobbes thinks. We should be afraid of the kinds of beliefs that we are similarly conditioned to have, beliefs that ultimately threaten our very peace and security.

As contemporary scholars might say, the woman in the armchair, startled with fright at what she takes to be a ghost, has been primed or conditioned to believe in ghosts. And as Charles Taylor often puts it, the ‘background’ or ‘framework’ she inhabits serves to shape the very beliefs she holds.1 Alongside her direct sense experience and reason, the environment around her, her prior education, and the language she used to make sense of her own experience, all played a significant role in shaping what she thought to be true. In this case, she has been conditioned to believe that ghosts exist, that they might inhabit old houses and come out at night, and that they are something to fear.

Hers also might be an extreme case, but the example points more directly to an underappreciated aspect of Hobbes’s view: the importance of social context and background operative in the world and, in particular, the role of environment, education, and language in helping to account for much of what we think we know, and much of what we believe.

Indeed, some scholars are becoming more aware of the importance of social context in Hobbes, especially when it comes to characterizations of the standard Hobbesian individual. Hobbes is commonly considered one of the early voices for the self of modern liberalism,2 the grandfather of an individualist model that sets the stage for the liberal tradition,3 a vision in which we might look to the individual, understand her inner workings, rational, psychological and otherwise, and from there, come to some good conclusions about the social.

But as has been claimed recently, he is not the proponent of the rational, autonomous, isolated actor he is so often seen to be. Samantha Frost, for example, finds that ‘Hobbes’s subject is not an autonomous, self-defining, integrated, and internally unified individual…Rather, thoughts and desires are constituted and reconstituted intersubjectively and in relation to the material environment,’ and she makes this case through an analysis of his materialism.4 Sharon Lloyd similarly critiques the ‘standard’ Hobbesian individual, hers looking more closely at his political thought and consequences for religion generally understood.5

But, the impact on his broader view of this recognition of a more social aspect to his thought has not been focused on enough, as it is so central to his philosophical perspective. The importance of prior experience and social context, including both the physical background and the people one lives with, is made especially clear in the case of religion. Religion and Hobbes’s story about the formation of religion, well illustrates this under-examined feature of Hobbes’s view.

This paper makes the claim that Hobbes sees religion – in particular, natural religion, but theological religion falls from this account – as a matter of both the answering of basic psychological needs, needs which are themselves in part natural and in part shaped by the environment, and as a matter of priming, or conditioning individuals for those very beliefs. While this is clearest in the case of religion, as I will argue here, his analysis extends beyond religion, even to the political scene. A large part of the sovereign’s task is to ensure that conditions are right for belief in the power of the sovereign. It is very much up to the sovereign to make sure we are not only educated in science and rationality, but also conditioned to have certain beliefs.

The paper will look first, briefly, to aspects of Hobbes’s epistemology and how his epistemology is closely connected to concerns for the environment or social background. Turning then to the category of belief in particular and what Hobbes means by belief, I argue for the importance of education in Hobbes’s view. This education is not only for rationality or science, although this is of course of prime importance. The sovereign must also teach individuals to believe in certain things, for example, in the power and trustworthiness of the sovereign, and maintain conditions that will support that belief. The paper concludes with this focus on the commonwealth itself and how the example of religion and religious belief extends to the commonwealth and the kinds of beliefs required for the commonwealth to sustain itself.

Looking at Hobbes’s work is often, justifiably, a matter of looking at the foreground, at the human being and at his or her rationality, passions, and innate desires. These are all of course central to the story. But they are only part of the story. Hobbes also accounts for the background, for social pressures and influences and, in particular, for the influence of other individuals.

The commonwealth is not just a state or condition where rationality is best achieved, where desires are most easily attained, and where felicity persists. It is this, but it is also a condition in which individuals are made into the kinds of citizens who can be rational, who can recognize the kinds of cognitive mistakes human beings make, and who are sufficiently awed by and entrusting of the sovereign. Because of this, of utmost importance in the sovereignty is getting the right combination of background environment, education, and language, in light of our natural psychological propensities. It’s not just that we are educated to be rational, we must also be educated or conditioned to believe in the sovereign and civil authorities and our world must support those beliefs.

This reading might make Hobbes seem more Orwellian than ever. But, the claim here is that Hobbes recognizes just how much the external world grounds our beliefs and desires, and so our actions. Hobbes sees that in order to believe, we must be cognitively ready to accept those beliefs.

1 Epistemology and the Environment

1.1 Imagination, Dreams, and Visions

Hobbes’s concern with ghosts points to his recognition of the importance of context and exposure to prior knowledge and opinions. Like the woman in the armchair who thinks her house is haunted, Hobbes opens with a similar story, in the first few pages of Leviathan, of Marcus Brutus who purportedly sees a vision the night before a battle. Hobbes, writing it off as a short dream, explains that this mistake is ‘no very rare Accident,’ especially if someone has been plied with scary stories, sits alone and nervously in the dark, and is perhaps a bit gullible.6 If the conditions are right, it is understandable enough to think you’ve seen a vision or a ghost, Hobbes concludes.

To see a ghost, to worry about a demon, is to fall into a common but very human trap, that of mistaking a natural movement of the mind for something else entirely. For Hobbes, ghosts, spirits, and all things immaterial, ‘signifieth nothing, neither in heaven, nor earth, but the Imaginary inhabitants of mans brain.’7 But it is a matter taken seriously by many in his time.8

For Hobbes, the root of this mistake lies with the imagination. At the epistemological level, Hobbes sees this as a part of his larger story about the material workings of the imagination. Sense itself is basic for Hobbes, caused by the pressing of an external body or object on a given organ of sense.9 This pressing causes a ‘counter-pressure’ or ‘resistance’ from the given organ, generating a ‘seeming’ or ‘fancy,’ which is sense.10 Sense is then the original fancy or appearance to us of the motion caused by the pressure of an external object on our sense organs. This might easily be taken for an external object, Hobbes notes, but it is really generated from the movement of the body, as the external world directly interacts with the sensing body itself, bodies in motion affecting other bodies in motion.11

Imagination, Hobbes explains, is then ‘decaying sense,’ or the appearance made through a sense experience and its change and wearing as time passes, or memory.12 So, when the object is removed, this ‘decaying sense’ or fancy is what remains present in all of us, both when we are asleep and when we are awake. Hobbes continues, ‘For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, wee still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it.’13 Our direct interactions with the world around us provide the material for experience, imagination, and dreams.

Dreams, then, are part of this physiological process, ‘the imaginations of them that sleep.’14 But in the case of dreams, there are very few, new original senses or fancies, as the organs are less easily moved,15 although there is still much ‘inward agitation,’16 as Hobbes explains. Thanks to this combination of inward movement and some outward motion, ‘divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams,’ he explains, this leads to, for example, ‘lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object,’ or, for example, different kinds of heat leading to anger and thoughts of the enemy or to kindnesses.17 The combinations of different fancies and external conditions lead to varied dreams. Dreams can be, ‘caused by the distemper of some of the inward parts of the Body,’18 indigestion perhaps being the source of a bad dream.

Dreams are also the source of much cognitive confusion as, although rooted or based in sense, the organs of the sense are ‘benummed’19 in sleep, and can sometimes be quite like the imagination when we are awake. As Richard Tuck describes it, it is as if there is some ‘malfunction’ in thought in the dream state, like a computer that is not operating properly.20 But all of this is rooted in sense, directly or as a fading consequence of sensory organs being pressed upon by an object in the world. And it is in this way that the external world, objects to fear or enrage, even air temperature, end up contributing to the shape of our very beliefs. Only with the experience of a partial dream state, so somewhere between wake and sleep (Hobbes thinks we could well enough differentiate between fully waking and dreaming),21 with added encouragement from various experiences and other authorities, do beliefs like ghosts, visions, and apparitions even become a possibility. In each case, particular conditions are required for any given perception to be taken as a reality.

In the second half of Leviathan, Hobbes reiterates his view of demons and ghosts as mistaken visions and certainly not immaterial spirits, reminding us that when images, gotten through regular sense experience, become fantastical, or become apparitions, these are ‘Seemings of visible Bodies to the Sight,’ he says, ‘such as are the shew of a man, or other thing in the Water, by Reflexion, or Refraction; or of the Sun, or Stars by Direct vision in the Air; which are nothing reall in the things seen, nor in the place where they seem to bee.’22 And from these varied ideas and images come idols, an image that is soon worshipped.

These sorts of dreams and mistaken visions then happen to be part of the source of natural religion for Hobbes. As he explains, ‘From this ignorance of how to distinguish Dreams, and other strong Fancies, from Vision and Sense, did arise the greatest part of the Religion of the Gentiles in time past.’23

Religion itself is given a complex, thoroughly psychological explanation. The ‘Naturall seed of Religion,’ is, for Hobbes, first rooted in the ‘Opinion of Ghosts,’24 so the mistaken opinion about the existence of these kinds of spirits, along with, as he describes it, being devoted to what we fear and to invisible powers. In addition to this, religion arises from our tendency to mistake causes for predictions, and our ‘Ignorance of second causes,’ or, lack of knowledge about the causes of, for example, any given event, beyond an immediately perceived cause. Hobbes finds that, when we don’t really know why something’s come to pass, we tend to guess, ‘And therefore from the like things past, they expect the like things to come; and hope for good or evil luck, superstitiously, from things that have no part at all in the causing of it.’25 Explanations are given, based only on guesswork, vague memories of experiences past, and very often, on belief in the authority of one who seems as if he might know.

All of these factors lead to the variety of religious practices – ‘grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man, are for the most part ridiculous to another.’26 These original cognitive mistakes, and the tendency to try and account for those mistakes, leads to a variety of religious practices and traditions, practices which are themselves reinforced by the creation of conditions that serve to support and strengthen those very beliefs.

1.2 Materialism, Language, and Rationality

Because of Hobbes’s thoroughgoing materialist picture, the direction of influence of one part of matter on another is never one-way.27 Sense organs take impressions of matter, but that matter also affects the senses. The human being herself, including her faculties and sensory organs, changes over time; the very faculties found in the human being and the human mind are also subject to the movements of the material world.

So, while imagination is decaying sense or the obscuring of motion, accounting for some of the changing and wearing of knowledge generated by the senses directly, sensing bodies themselves also change. All is matter in motion, including the matter that makes up the human sense organs.

‘For the continuall change of mans body,’ Hobbes holds, ‘destroyes in time the parts which in sense were moved: So that distance of time, and of place, hath one and the same effect in us.’28 Not only does the original sense impression itself lose its force, the senses themselves will change and weaken in time. Just like distance and time wear on the senses delivered, so too do the body of man, and his senses, change in time.29 Indeed, there may be some mental structure of the mind common to human beings, just as there is a different, particular structure common to kinds of animals, and so the capacity to change can only go as far as the shared structure. But, within the bounds of that structure, the mind, as with all matter, remains mutable.

Even more, the faculty of rationality is itself subject to change. Formed in the material world and formed through language use,30 the faculty of reason is, as with all matter, not fixed. We may have some degree of rationality by nature, or the seeds for rationality – the kind we share with animals. Our inborn faculties remain the same as those of animals, but ‘by the help of Speech, and Method, the same Facultyes may be improved to such a height, as to distinguish men from all other living Creatures.’31 Speech is what renders our rationality specifically human, making us the reasoning beings that we are, beings that reason in the human way we do, so speech is what makes possible and is part of our very human rationality.32

This means that speech, and its attendant rationality, comes as the individual is inducted into the social practice of language use. This also means that it is, for example, dulled in time and changes with shifts in language use. Hobbes often complains about terms taught by the ‘Schoolmen,’33 his complaints being based in part on his recognition that those terms, the choice of terms, will affect our behavior. Terms can prime us for certain beliefs. The use of terms pertaining to immaterial spirit, for example, promote a belief in a kind of dualism that does not exist, Hobbes finds, leading to a belief in ghosts.

Further, in claiming that children are ‘not endued with Reason at all, till they have attained the use of Speech,’34 Hobbes is again considering rationality to be something learned or acquired in a social world. How the individual is taught matters, and learning language is learning to reason. Hobbes sees differences in the behavior of individuals as to do with ‘experience, quicknesse of memory, and inclinations to severall ends’35 – again, the particularity of an individual’s experience and education makes a difference to his or her capacity for rationality.

For Hobbes, there is nothing fixed about the body’s faculties and capacities. Just as the natural world changes and transforms in time, so too do individuals who are part of that world, changing how they sense and interact with the world.

In this sense, the individual, or the human being, as a recipient of sense impressions, is part of the interaction of matter. The individual is formed, and continues to be reformed, by his or her social world. Her desires are molded, in part, by what she has been taught to desire and what is out in the world for her to encounter and perhaps desire. The social background or framework will then be essential to shaping individual beliefs.

Desire is basic to what it is to be human, and all human beings desire power, Hobbes holds.36 But the individual can only desire what is out there to desire and what she has seen or heard is worth desiring, or some new combination of already existing objects of desire.

This is apparent, as he explains, in the face of new objects of desire or aversion, ‘For things wee know not at all, or believe not to be, we can have no further Desire, than to tast and try. But Aversion wee have for things, not onely which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.’37 We will desire what we encounter, and especially what we know won’t hurt us. And, in the face of a new desire, all we can do is act immediately on that desire, or try it, if we deem it safe enough based on past experience. Otherwise, the object will be one of aversion, or it simply won’t be an object of desire.38

The individual’s own passions are then limited by the objects available in the world to desire. For example, new appetites, and new objects of desire, are created in the formation of the commonwealth, including new forms of position and power, or new kinds of honors to covet.39

The individual is also affected by the authorities she has been taught to trust, again determined by what sorts of authorities are available, and by the language she has been taught to use, that language shaping her own interpretation of the material world.

While the individual brings natural faculties and propensities to the world, including the fact of her desiring, and the fact of her desiring to preserve herself, many of her other desires and passions are formed in the context of society itself, even the ability to reason and practice science. These are ‘acquired and generated,’40 Hobbes says, through experience, and that experience requires teachers, authorities, and a social, material world from which to learn.

1.3 Forms of Knowledge

As for what we can know, Hobbes’s materialism, inspired by the epistemology of the Epicureans and Gassendi, holds that the senses are our only real source for direct knowledge of the world. Hobbes sees our senses as one of the two primary sources for our knowledge, and the only source of absolute knowledge. Appearances come through the senses, and everything is derived from this original, Hobbes says.41 Our thoughts, single representations or appearances, are available because of the activity of the sense, which does the work of producing different kinds of appearances, the material for the imagination.

Sense experience is then the primary source of knowledge, and our only source for matters of fact.42 Language is the second, conditional source for knowledge, being the “Knowledge of the Consequence of one Affirmation to another.”43 This is knowledge that operates in the realm of discourse and can never tell us that something is the case, as it is a knowledge connected only to words and to language use.44

1.4 Truth and Language Use

For Hobbes, truth itself is a conditional matter pertaining to language use: ‘For True and False are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither Truth nor Falsehood.45A claim is true if our names have been ordered properly, or in a way acceptable to language users and conducive to self-preservation – as Hobbes says, ‘truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations.’46 There may be matters of fact, which simply are, but to call something true or false, to declare something to be right or wrong, is to submit it to language use.

There is then a fallibilism central to Hobbes’s account of truth: when something is declared ‘true’ it is true because it submits to a right ordering of names, this ordering itself a matter of agreement among human beings about what terms signify and what works best for preservation and security.47 Truth being a matter of this right ordering of names, it is not a matter of getting a name right. As Terence Ball explains, Hobbes here ‘virtually abandons the crude label-and-object theory of meaning in favor of a richer, more variegated view about the ways in which language actually functions.’48 Truth concerns the relationship between significations themselves, the relationship between several moving parts, not the relationship between a word and the object itself.

As features of speech, definitions are then socially confirmed and are what he calls ‘settling of significations’49 of words. They are agreed-upon meanings, or what human beings have decided, mutually, words should signify.50 Debate persists over the role of definitions for Hobbes, and scholars have long seen in his theory an appeal to a view in which a definition somehow identifies a word’s signification in a way distinct from what the definition is thanks to the agreement of a linguistic community, so a truth that somehow flies free of human social linguistic practice. On this interpretation, a definition would be a tool for trying to ‘get the world right’ in some way – it would provide access to a truth pertaining to the world or be about the world rather than serve as a tool for managing and communicating with others in the world.51

Indeed, Hobbes thinks that discourse needs to begin with definitions if it even hopes to get close to the truth. Without this, Hobbes says, ‘he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs.’52 But, definitions themselves remain a matter of agreement and truth remains a linguistic matter, to do with a proper ordering of words, or ordering in a way conducive to the well-being of society.53 There then remains a pragmatic and social base to his theory of language, definitions being a more stable way to ground signification, but still a centrally social, contractual affair.54 Settled significations are based on agreement, which is based on use.

Significations are settled by society itself and fixed in their authority, although not absolute or infallible. They are changeable, as human beings are the ones who first fix the signification. For Hobbes, definitions still express the agreed-upon use of names, ‘from the decision of those who first imposed names on things, or accepted from others those imposed.’55

Hobbes finds that language, although a world-altering invention for human beings, brings with it with great risk of equivocation and misunderstanding. Its use also very much depends on context, requiring consideration ‘not only in the language of other men, wherein we are to consider the drift, and occasion, and contexture of the speech, as well as the words themselves; but also in our own discourse, which being derived from the custom and common use of speech, representeth not unto us our own conceptions.’56

Hobbes also tells us, ‘We are not the first to devise names; we receive them from our nurses, our teachers, our friends, and our associates.’57 Born into a society and taught speech by its members, we are already part of a linguistic system, formed into rational creatures in that system and through language. As Hobbes continues, ‘It is therefore a great ability in man, out of the words, contexture, and other circumstances of language, to deliver himself from equivocation, and to find out the true meaning of what is said.’58 Truth, an attribute of speech, is part of what we are said to believe when we believe the word of another. So language is itself crucial to his conception of belief.

2 Belief and Religious Belief

2.1 Belief in Others

Most of what we know is through direct sense experience or via language use, and, as Hobbes makes clear, belief is central to language use. At a common level of discourse, when we haven’t begun with a proper or fixed definition, what is at issue is ‘Faith, in the man,’ says Hobbes, and ‘Beleefe, both of the man, and of the truth of what he sayes.’59 So belief, Hobbes here says, is ‘of two opinions; one of the saying of the man, the other of his vertue’60 To have faith in, believe in, or have trust in another human being, is to have a certain opinion about how trustworthy that person is. It is a distinct but related matter to believe in what is said by the person – this is a matter of believing in the truth of the saying, says Hobbes. Hobbes here differentiates between believing in the person – or the ‘veracity of the man’61 – and believing in the saying or the content of the claim. One is to trust the individual, the other to trust the content.

Hobbes continues: ‘From whence we may inferre, that when wee believe any saying, whatsoever it be, to be true, from arguments taken, not from the thing it selfe, or from the principles of naturall Reason, but from the Authority and good opinion wee have of him that hath sayd it; then is the speaker, or person we believe in, or trust in, and whose word we take, the object of our Faith; and the Honour done in Believing, is done to him onely.’62 If we set forth on an argument, conversation, or line of thought based in the first instance on the word of another person or the saying of another, then this process is centrally about trusting the individual or believing in that person.

This aspect of language use, hearing the word of another and assessing the validity of what’s been said, is then based in both an opinion about the claim itself and an opinion of the person speaking. For the former, we might rely in part on our own personal, first-hand knowledge, or our own sense experience, and perhaps what we have heard from other kinds of authorities. For the latter, this assessment of the individual will be based on factors like previous encounters with this individual, word of mouth reports, and reputation. To trust in the virtue of a man is something that needs to be proven in time. The context, itself made sense of in time, will also matter in our assessment of the man. The priest, for example, relies on the framework of the Church to assert his own authority.

2.2 Religious Belief

Religious belief is especially reliant on the word of others and the authority of others. In seeking to secure our futures, language is a source of knowledge for the kinds of things for which we lack direct sense experience. This requires trust in individuals and their virtue, and trust in their word. Religion, as Hobbes explains, pertains to matters about which we are especially curious but often find difficult to get any kind of direct knowledge of, or we lack an object about which to inquire scientifically. Because the causes are especially unclear, or because of our ‘Ignorance of second causes,’63 these matters might be the sources for high levels of anxiety and fear for the future. So religion requires a significant amount of trust in authorities of all kinds.

Traditions and social norms, including those constituting religious practices, are then maintained thanks to linguistic exchange and its attendant trust in others. Much of what constitutes religion, Hobbes finds, is based upon the sorts of facts and claims about which individuals rarely, if ever, have first person experience. And as it has been excluded from the realm of science, knowledge of most of the claims that are part of religion can only come through the word of another, often a religious figure like a priest.

Claims to the reality of the existence and operation of spirits or transubstantiation, the historical base for miracles or prophecy, and other foundations for religious claims, are for the most part nothing the individual will herself experience, as they are based on something that happened in the past, are especially rare, or are not possible to experience directly.64 And even if one did experience it directly, it is not the sort of knowledge that can be easily confirmed by another; unlike scientific knowledge, there will rarely, if ever, be corroboration.

Hobbes finds that religion is instead founded on faith in an individual, or belief in a man:

For seeing all formed religion is founded at first, upon the faith which a multitude hath in some one person, whom they believe not only to be a wise man, and to labour to procure their happiness, but also to be a holy man, to whom God himselfe vouchsafeth to declare his will supernaturally; It followeth necessarily, when they that have the Government of Religion shall come to have either the wisdome of those men, their sincerity, or their love suspected; or that they shall be unable to shew any probable token of Divine Revelation; that the religion which they desire to uphold, must be suspected likewise; and (without the fear of the Civil Sword) contradicted and rejected.65

Religion, as a form of knowledge, is dependent on believing in authorities and their claims. If the people lose faith in the spokesperson, the practice cannot stand.

But to believe in the spokesperson is to believe in a broad set of background conditions, including belief in the wisdom and holiness of the individual, in their sincerity and confirmation by God, and in their ability to secure happiness, all factors determined in experience and through the opinion of others. As with the case of believing any given individual, religion also begins with this form of faith. Religious tenets are called into question when people no longer believe in the person acting as the authority and no longer accept that authority, but background conditions must also break down in order for that authority to weaken.

A priest has authority and people believe in him, trust his word, in part because of his position. But we have to have been taught to believe him, taught to trust his word and trust in his virtue. And in being taught, the conditions need to be right for maintaining that belief. We need to continually be taught that the priest is to be trusted. Religion is a case in which what’s taught, even what goes against reason, will stick, and will be believed. As Hobbes explains, public displays of religion only help to reinforce that religion,66 or in this case, and much the same thing, obedience to the sovereign.

3 Background Environment and Education

If the woman in the armchair who believed she’d seen a ghost hadn’t been told that ghosts exist, perhaps more than once, there might not be a reason for her to even conceive of the existence of ghosts. Especially, for example, if she had also been taught of the ways in which our minds often deceive us in the face of nature. If this woman had been taught to believe that shadows in the corner are from a particular play of light in the room, and the potential cognitive effects of nearly falling asleep, then the idea of a ghost might never have crossed her mind.

Hobbes finds that the notion of ghosts or un-embodied spirits does not enter the mind of the human being by nature because they are not real. Instead, they are the result of putting together contradictory words and the encouragement by various authorities. People may claim to have seen spirits or ghosts, and the Church relies on the work of the incorporeal spirit for activities like exorcisms, but these are really only what are seen in a dream or vision, says Hobbes.67

Whether the belief is true or not in some objective sense is not the point here. There might very well be a ghost or perhaps ghosts don’t exist. But, Hobbes’s point is that she will believe what she will thanks to, in very large part, environmental cues, education, and language. These are some of the ways in which this woman has been primed or conditioned to believe.

The environment matters in several ways. What we desire is determined by what there is out in the world to desire, what there is ‘to tast and try,’ and what we believe depends on the kinds of claims being made and authorities making those claims and the kind of world being created in light of those beliefs.

Hobbes illustrates the import of background and education in his example of the differences of men’s wit: ‘It proceeds therefore from the Passions; which are different, not only from the difference of mens complexions; but also from their difference of customes, and education.’68 We are shaped socially in a fundamental way, constituted and formed by language – traditions and education also form the kind of passionate beings we will be. Just as language shapes the individual through its use, so too do the passions, which beyond their basic manifestation as shared by all human beings, are then shaped more variously through engagement with the world and others and through the differing and particular constitutions of each individual.

Wit is one example, as ‘this difference of quicknesse, is caused by the difference of mens passions’ – different men like and dislike different things, they are presented with different possible objects of desire, and the imagination operates in different ways. Those that can catch similarities have good wit, those that can observe difference quickly have good judgment.69 The differences are attributed to a combination of these factors:

The causes of this difference of Witts, are in the Passions: and the difference of Passions, proceedeth partly from the different constitution of the body, and partly from different Education. For if the difference procedeeth from this temper of the brain, and the organs of Sense, either exterior or interior, there would be no lesse difference of men in their Sight, Hearing, or other Senses, than in their Fancies, and discretions.70

Basic desires, that of self-preservation, fears of death, and some desires for power, and the basic senses that we share with animals, are quite the same amongst all human beings. Differences can be accounted for through our actually different bodies and the make-up of those bodies, and through the difference in men’s particular ‘complexion,’ customs, and education, as William James might say, the difference in ‘the circumpressure of our caste and set.’71

The importance of education is also illustrated through his views on punishment and reward. The examples offered up by society, by the world we inhabit, will provide a kind of model for how to behave, and for what to desire. Hobbes explains: ‘when the stubbornnesse of one Popular man, is overcome with Reward, there arise many more (by the Example) that do the same Mischiefe, in hope of like Benefit.’72 We remain determined beings, but our beliefs and actions are determined by our encounters with what’s out there in the world. In this sense, even the sovereign needs to serve as a model, an example, ‘that they see him able absolutely to govern his own family,’73 this example serving to reinforce their belief in his power, as the conditions need to be just right for that belief to hold.74

In the case of religion, Hobbes finds that education and conditioning have a powerful effect on the beliefs and actions of individuals. The very phenomenon he describes when discussing ghosts extends to the Church. He sees this tendency to mistaken visions as incorporated into the practices of priests and others in his own time: ‘And for Fayries, and walking Ghosts, the opinion of them has I think been on purpose, either taught, or not confuted, to keep in credit the use of Exorcisme, of Crosses, of holy Water, and other such inventions of Ghostly men.’75 These practices are taught and continue to be taught, giving priestly men a reason for exercising their own power. For citizens to believe in ghosts and believe in the power of exorcism, they must be continually encouraged to believe.

As Hobbes continues: ‘If this superstitious fear of Spirits were taken away, and with it, Prognostiques from Dreams, false Prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which, crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be much more fitted than they are for civill Obedience.’76 Belief is tied to the word of the authority, but the word is tied up in matters of opinion, in rationality itself, and even in the kinds of passions and desires we might hold.

The background environment proves influential in Hobbes’s account. What is desired and valued, the material world one encounters, what one is taught to think, the opinions expressed, the customs of a place, its traditions, and the language used, form a complex social world that serves to shape individuals and provides the background conditions for believing certain claims. Without being told about ghosts, and about how and where and why they might haunt, there is no reason to believe they exist or haunt houses and churchyards.

4 From Religion to the Commonwealth

In the case of ghosts, Hobbes’s complaint is clear. Stop teaching that there are immaterial substances and people will stop appealing to priests as an alternative source of authority, an authority that can get rid of those substances through practices like exorcism. If individuals are conditioned to believe in ghosts, they will believe in ghosts.

This means that Hobbes sees this kind of priming or conditioning, reflected in education, language use, and the environment, as something that works, something that contributes to shaping human behavior. He also knows it is not a science and there is no mind control. Hobbes famously maintains that the sovereign cannot directly control the thoughts and opinions of men.77 We cannot help but hold certain opinions, opinions very much shaped by our own constitution and by differences in experience. People also react differently to different words.78 Whether it can be controlled or not, the environment and those inhabiting the environment will help to make us believe certain things and reject certain things.

This means that background conditions matter, as they will go a long way toward influencing beliefs. In this way, what holds for religion also holds for politics. The sovereign himself, Hobbes reminds us, needs to both educate citizens about the laws and create the right conditions for individuals to believe in his power.

As extensions of the laws of nature, so something all rational individuals can know, Hobbes is explicit in claiming that the grounds of human rights in the commonwealth need to be ‘diligently, and truly taught,’79 as it is the duty of the sovereign to keep the people from ignorance. They need to know the reasons for laws, he explains, because if they don’t, ‘men are easie to be seduced, and drawn to resist him.’80

The sovereign should also act according to his own teachings, as he serves as a model to the citizens, someone to be educated from and taught by. The sovereign is an example from which to learn.81 Hobbes sees that ‘the good of the Sovereign and People, cannot be separated,’ and the people need to believe in him, be in awe of him, and trust him,82 and they need to trust that he sees his own good as their good.83

It is the duty (and to the benefit) of the sovereign to educate the citizens, to teach them about reason and the laws and the grounds of those laws.84 But they can only teach – to teach is to use language to explain the laws and grounds, so to deliver an opinion to individuals.

In this sense, the individual, the ‘student’ citizen, also needs to believe in the authority of the teacher. The sovereign must teach, for example, that people ‘ought not to be in love with any forme of Government they see in their neighbour Nation,’85 nor get wooed by popular figures, nor disagree with the sovereign representative.86 But these are not laws or rules that citizens will, for the most part, know because of first-person sense experience or natural reason. Instead, a good deal of what is taught by the sovereign authority must be taken on the authority of that sovereign. Individuals can be educated in science and reason, but where that ends, all the people can do is believe the sovereign, that is, trust in both the truth of what he says and in his virtue. Citizens must take the sovereign’s word as true.

5 Conclusion

So often, interpretations of the Hobbesian individual are focused on the individual alone, taking a cue from one of Hobbes’s own strategies, and ‘look[ing] at men as if they had just emerged from the earth like mushrooms.’87 But for the commonwealth to sustain itself, it is not solely the case that the people are made to do certain things and obey in certain ways because, simply put, it’s the rational thing to do. This is of course crucial, but alongside this kind of education, the sovereign must also get the conditions for obedience right. Just as with a religious belief, for example, taking the word of a priest or accepting a mistaken belief in ghosts, conditions need to be right for the belief in the good or value of obeying the sovereign.

It may be rational, and it may in fact be knowledge, but most citizens of the commonwealth will obey for both these rational reasons and because of a belief in the power of the sovereign, an awe for the sovereign, and being convinced, or of the opinion, that life under the sovereign is better than the alternative. To hold this belief, the conditions need to be right.

Citizens then need to both rationally recognize that sovereignty is better than the state of nature, and they need to believe the sovereign, believe in the content of what he says and believe in the virtue of the man. If, as William James says, any given belief is not ‘live’ for the individual, if the belief is not ‘one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed,’88 then the belief can never hold. And it will only appeal as a possibility if the individual is made in a world that considers that belief a possibility.

Hobbes finds himself in a world that has made beliefs in ghosts possible. Similarly, belief in the sovereign can only happen under conditions where that belief is possible. If we were all rational all the time, Hobbes thinks, we would see clearly that sovereignty is best. And education works, Hobbes thinks, but its job is big. For the commonwealth to thrive, citizens need to get rational but they also need to believe in the sovereign and the sovereign needs to create the kinds of conditions that make that belief possible.

The author would like to thank the fwo – Research Foundation Flanders for their support.


See, for example, his Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1989).


As just one example, he is called “the founder of modern political individualism” in Giovanni Fiaschi’s “The Power of Words. Political and Theological Science in Thomas Hobbes,” Hobbes Studies, Vol. 26 (2013) 34–64, p. 35.


An example of this being C.B. Macpherson’s reading of Hobbes in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (1962), where the role of society is left out of the account of the individual, who owns all of his or her skills and rationality.


Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics (California: Stanford University Press, 2008) 7. Frost argues that Hobbes’s accounts of memory and time render the body itself the site of self-consciousness, bodily memory playing a key role in thought, so resolving a problem of accounting for this aspect of the mind on a materialist picture.


In Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 32–34. Citations from Leviathan are from Vols. 2 and 3 of The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. by Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) References are in the format of “Part:Chapter, Page.”


Hobbes, Leviathan, 3:34, 618.


In, for example, Lewes Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Night, ed. by J. Dover. (Montana: Kessinger, 2003 [1572]). Also see Lavater’s oft-cited Latin original, De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insulitis fragoribus (Zurich, 1569). There is a well of excellent­ secondary work on the role of the supernatural, ghosts, demons, and magic, in the early modern period, including Keith Thomas’s seminal Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Also see Lynn Thorndike’s The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1905).


Hobbes, Leviathan, 22. For his fuller account of sense and imagination, also see Chapter iii of Human Nature, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1840), and Chapter xxx, especially 364–370, in Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, trans. by Harold Whitmore Jones (London: Bradford University Press, 1976).


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:1, 22. Human Nature, 3–5.


See Leviathan, 1:1, 22, footnote 3. He also accuses the Aristotelian school of mistakenly attributing something which is ‘sendeth forth’ from the object itself as being the source of fancy. Leviathan, 24.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 26–28. Human Nature, 9.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 26.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 30. Human Nature, 10.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2. 30.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 30.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 32.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 32. Also see Human Nature, 10.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 30. And in Human Nature, 10.


Richard Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) 56.


This is the subject of some debate between Hobbes and Descartes, among others, most famously in Hobbes’s Objections to Descartes’ Meditations. While the status of dreams was and remains a topic of much wide-ranging debate, Hobbes held that they were sufficiently explained by his picture of the mind, and that, although misinterpretation was a common mistake, and one of some consequence, the individual could identify dreams as dreams. While Descartes uses dreams as a tool in his challenge to skepticism, Hobbes’s account is empirical, seeming to cut through the skeptical debates.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 4:45, 1030. Also see Human Nature, Chapter ii.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 34.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:12, 170.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:12, 168. Also see Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, 370–372.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:12, 170.


Hobbes’s materialism is clearly proclaimed in Leviathan but also, with some more detail, explored in Chapter xxx of his De Mundo Examined. See, for example, pages 367–368, where movement is compared to the movement of a liquid. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the importance of this text.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 28.


This focus on memory and time is also central to Frost’s argument. On his materialist account, she holds, only with memory and in the space of time can Hobbes account for the self-awareness and self-consciousness that takes place in the human being, or engage in ‘introspection’ as ‘retrospection’ (Lessons from a Materialist Thinker, 33). See Chapter 1. Also see Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1975) 23.


As Hobbes explains, “The faculty of Reasoning being consequent to the use of Speech.” Leviathan, 1054. See Philip Pettit’s Made With Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) for an excellent analysis of Hobbes on language and rationality.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:3, 46.


Pettit well defends this point in Made With Words.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:1, 24, 1:2, 26 & 36 is just the beginning.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:5, 74.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:5, 74.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:6, 78; 1:6, 96; 1:11, 150–152.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:6, 80.


Also see Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, 379–380, for a further account of how human beings contend with new objects of desire.


Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 10. A point made by both Frost and Pettit.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:5, 74.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:1, 22.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:9, 124.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:9, 124. It is also: “the remembrance of the names or appellations of things, and how every thing is called, which is, in matters of common conversation, a remembrance of pacts and covenants of men made amongst themselves, concerning how to be understood of one another,” Hobbes, De Corpore, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1840) 210.


“No man can know by Discourse, that this, or that, is, has been, or will be; which is to know absolutely: but onely, that if This be, That is; if This has been, That has been; if This shall be, That shall be: which is to know conditionally; and that not the consequence of one thing to another; but of one name of a thing, to another name of a thing.” Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:7, 98.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:4, 54.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:4, 56.


Truth is the same as true proposition, and a proposition is true in which the consequent term, which Logicians call the predicate, embraces in its extent the Antecedent term which they call the subject; and to know the truth is the same as to remember that it was made by ourselves by the actual use of the terms.” Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 237. Also see De Corpore, 35.


Terence Ball, “Hobbes’ Linguistic Turn,” Polity, 17, 4 (Summer 1985) 739–760, 758.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:4, 56.


See Stuart Duncan’s “Hobbes, Signification, and Insignificant Names,” Hobbes Studies 24 (2011) 158–178, for a discussion of some of the interpretive complexities of Hobbes’s theory of signification.


Richard Peters makes the case that there is evidence of both perspectives on language in Hobbes, a causal theory and an account of the ‘arbitrariness’ of language. Hobbes (uk: Penguin Books, 1967). See 115–119.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:4, 56.


As Bernard Gert explains: “Hobbes, like the later Wittgenstein, regarded language primarily as a practical tool. The primary function of language is to enable us to coordinate our activities, not to describe the world in a way that serves no practice purpose.” In “Hobbes on language, metaphysics, and epistemology,” Hobbes Studies, 14 (2001) 40–58; 46.


“…it is pointless to look at the names themselves for the truth of the propositions which they make.” Hobbes, On the Citizen, 238.


Hobbes, Part i of De Corpore, Computatio Sive Logica, Logic, trans. and commentary by Aloysius Martinich (New York: Abaris Books, 1981), 235.


Hobbes, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. Ferdinand Tonnies (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1969) 21.


Hobbes, Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, 375.


Hobbes, Elements of Law, 21.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:7, 100.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:7, 100. Also see On the Citizen, 237.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:7, 100.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:7, 102.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:12, 170.


Miracles, for example, must be taken on the word of others. See Leviathan, 3:32, 584. The subject of miracles has been taken up in, among other places, Leo Strauss, Hobbes’s Critique of Religion and Related Writings, trans. and edited by G. Bartlett and S. Minkov (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011) 85–94 and M. Bertman, “Hobbes on Miracles (and God),” Hobbes Studies 20 (2007): 40–62.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:12, 180.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 3:36, 678–680. Ministers are entrusted to teach the citizens. 2:23, 378.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 4:45, 1024.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:8, 110.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:8, 104.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:8, 110.


William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1–31. (ny: Dover, 1956) 9.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 544. Also see 2:30, 542.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 550.


This also holds for a ‘Commander of an Army in chiefe,’ who needs to be popular, ‘Industrious, Valiant, Affable, Liberall and Fortunate.’ Without these qualities, he is in no position to be obeyed, or believed in, by his soldiers. Leviathan, 2:30, 550.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 34.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:2, 34.


See, for example, Hobbes, Leviathan, 3:32, 578.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 1:4, 62.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 522.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 520.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 520. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for highlighting this point.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 526.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 540. Also see 2:30, 534. Although he is not subject to the civil laws. Leviathan, 2:30, 520.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 522.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 524.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 2:30, 526.


Hobbes, On the Citizen, 102.


William James, “The Will to Believe,” 198–218 in Pragmatism and Other Writings (England: Penguin, 2000) 199.

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