Modern Philosophy: The Enlightenment

Modern Philosophy: The Enlightenment

Dr. C. George Boeree


The 1600s were among the most exciting times for philosophy since ancient Athens.  Although the power of religion was still immense, we begin to see pockets of tolerance in different places and at different times, where a great mind could really fly.  England was fairly tolerant, if only because of its diversity.  Holland was the best place to be. A small country fighting off attacks, military and economic, from every side, needed all the support it could get, whatever your religion, denomination, or even heresy.

The central issues were the same as those of the ancient Greeks:  What is the world made of?  How do we know anything for certain?  What is the difference between good and evil?  But they are now informed with centuries of science, literature, history, multicultural experiences, and, of course, written philosophy.  Perhaps we have to admit that the modern philosophers are only elaborating on the ancient Greeks, but what elaboration!  Was Rembrandt only doodling?

I will approach this era philosopher-by-philosopher, showing, I hope, the “battles” between materialism (e.g. Hobbes) and idealism (Berkeley), between empiricism (Locke) and rationalism (Spinoza), and between faith (Leibniz) and atheism (Bayle).


Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1678)

Thomas Hobbes was born on April 5, 1588.  His father, an Anglican clergyman, left the family when Thomas was still young.  Fortunately, his older brother did well for himself and sent Thomas to Oxford.  He served for a while as secretary to Francis Bacon. Traveling around Europe, he paid a visit to Galileo.  He spent eleven years in Paris and was a tutor there to the exiled Prince of Wales (who would become Charles II).

In 1651, he wrote The Leviathan, a book presumably concerning politics, but covering much else besides.  The book is named for a sea monster in the book of Job in the Bible.  It was meant to be a symbol of God’s power, but Hobbes used it to symbolize the state.

Hobbes thought of himself as a scientist, but he was really more of a rationalist:  Truth can be had if we only make sure to define our terms well and reason logically!  But his conclusions were empiricistic:  Nothing is in the mind that isn’t first in the senses.  This in turn led him to a pure materialism:  All qualities are really matter in motion.  Things “of the mind,” such as memories and imagination, are just sense images decaying, and all in the form of matter in motion in the brain.

Will to Hobbes is just the last desire you have before you take action on it — hence free will is an absurdity.  All motivation is selfish, and ultimately tied to survival.  The basic negative emotion is fear, the basic positive emotion is desire for power.  Good and bad are purely subjective matters.  And so he goes beyond Descartes:  Not only are animals just machines, so are we.  B. F. Skinner was an admirer of Hobbes.

Because good and bad are subjective and we are selfishly motivated, we will do whatever we need to do to satisfy our needs.  Society must therefore control the individual if we are to have any peace at all!  So society develops systems of rewards and punishments, social approval and social censure.  Leviathan — the commonwealth — is that necessary evil.

Presaging Rousseau, he suggested we submit to society in order to avoid a purely primitive life, which he characterized as “nasty, brutish, and short.”  But, in contrast to Rousseau, he felt that society is an arrangement made between ruler and ruled, not among equals.  Ultimately, the king must have absolute power for civilization to survive.  Democracy, he says, is just rule by orator-demagogues who easily manipulate the mob.

Religion, too, is a device for keeping the peace.  It is nothing more than a fear of invisible powers that the mob has accepted as legitimate. Superstition is the same thing, just not accepted as legitimate!  I should note that Hobbes was not an atheist:  He was a deist, meaning that he believed in a creator, an intelligent prime mover who started all this, but one who does not need to intervene once his mechanical laws of nature take effect.

When he returned to England, he found himself confronted with many critics.  Fortunately for Hobbes, his old pupil, now King Charles II, took him in and set him up with a nice pension.  He died December 4, 1679, at the age of 91.