November 22, 2011

Milton contra Hobbes

His widow assures me that Mr. T Hobbes was not one of his acquaintance, that her husband did not like him at all, but he would acknowledge him to be a man of great parts, and a learned man. Their interests and tenets did run counter to each other vide Mr. Hobbes' Behemoth.
       -Minutes of the Life of Mr. John Milton by John Aubrey 
Well after the Authorized version of the Bible became standard issue in churches and the translation of choice for private reading, Thomas Hobbes drew a clear connection between what he described as an “anarchy of interpretations” and the political unrest that characterized the 1640s and 1650s (documented and analyzed in his Behemoth, written at behest of King Charles II in 1668), insisting that the king authorize a singular reading of Scripture, or at least install official interpreters of Scripture to monitor its meaning. Hobbes’ anxiety over competing interpretations of Scripture and the proliferation of disparate sects in mid-seventeenth century England was common among royalists. This diffuse outcome of the Reformation’s elevation of individualized authority provided conservative commentators with a clear cause behind the civil war and revolution.

At issue for Hobbes was not the availability of the vernacular Bible, but interpretation itself, which, as an outward activity, must be ordered and regulated so as not to contradict the established order of the state. As Hobbes puts it in his Leviathan, “the question [of Biblical interpretation] is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath said; which to Subjects that have no supernaturall revelation, cannot be known, but by that natural reason, which guided them, for the obtaining of Peace and Justice, to obey the authority of their severall Comonwealths; that is to say, of their lawful Soveraigns.” Because he understands faith as a gift of God that “never follow[s] men’s commands,” Hobbes distinguishes it from the activity of interpretation, instead arguing that it can only be made visible through subordination to power, in accord with natural law. 

At the same time, Hobbes maintained an important distinction between internal and external behavior—shared by other Reformers including Milton— which led him to argue that internal belief cannot and should not be regulated (Rosendale 164). The difference between the positions of more radical English Reformers and that of Hobbes is that the latter privileges outward actions as the only means by which the state can ensure its peaceful conformity. Indeed, Leviathan is itself an attempt to show how the collective will of state subjects are brought into outward unity through the “artificial” representation of the sovereign ruler. Milton, by contrast, cannot easily accept this contradiction between private belief and political subjectivity, just as he cannot accept such an appeal to an ultimately allegorical model of social life. 

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