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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

SOME OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

When the political discourse of the day grows so banal and vulgar as to cause me to lose all hope, and even the charms of my viola cannot adequately divert me, I turn on occasion to some of the noblest texts in the Western philosophical tradition, not for enlightenment so much as for consolation, in much the way that a little child, when frightened, will nestle reassured under the covers at the words "Once upon a time.."

This afternoon, I opened my worn and much thumbed copy of Thomas Hobbes' great masterpiece, Leviathan.  I paged through to Chapter Six of Part One, which bears the title, "Of The Interior Beginnings Of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called The Passions; And The Speeches By Which They Are Expressed."  If you are not acquainted with Leviathan, or perhaps have not looked at it since your student days, I recommend spending some time with it.  Hobbes is one of the consummate stylists of the English Language.  The chapter in question is a series of extraordinary and unexpected definitions of familiar words -- Love, Hate, Contempt, Good, Evil, Hope, Despair, Fear, Courage, and many, many more.

For more than sixty years now my favorite of Hobbes' definitions have been these, appearing midway through the chapter.

"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."

Just think what Hobbes accomplishes in these eighteen words!  The only distinction between religion and superstition is whether the tales that provoke our fear of things invisible are allowed or not allowed.  It is the law, the will of the sovereign, that constitutes the difference betwixt the two.  I think that single sentence may be the most powerful argument against religion faith ever written.

There, now I can face another evening of bloviating pundits.

6 comments:

Seth said...

A brilliant pair of definitions, to be sure. Anticipating Ambrose Bierce, with a notch less snark.

I initially read "allowed" to be closer in meaning to "avowed" or "admitted to" rather than permitted by officialdom. Almost like stories one would be willing to discuss "aloud" rather than prefer to keep secret.

Probably over interpreting it, but Oxford includes that flavor of meaning:

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/allow

(Maybe Lincoln's or Twain's 19th century diction makes this sense of "allow" come to mind, while Hobbes own17th century King's/Lord Protector's English would hew to the legalistic sense.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If we recall the political/religious struggles at the time Hobbes was writing [in exile in France, I believe], I think we would incline toward my reading. Are there any experts out there?

Seth said...

I don't doubt your reading is correct. I just find the allowed/aloud doubling an agreeable resonance. Like a double-stop on the viola, it adds to the music of the sentence. ;)

Chris said...

I always thought Marx and especially Feuerbach had the best critiques of religion, in that they show 1) why it's a necessary condition of our society, and 2) why rational argument alone will not prevail in its eradication; despite vitriolic efforts by Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

exactly.

NotHobbes said...

This being a thread about someone I regard as the ultimate pessimist, I thought I would shamelessly exhibit/promote the exuberant, vibrant face of modern Scottish Socialism as a counterbalance
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RmvohQm-SU