UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Commonwealth and civility : a study of Thomas Hobbes Stoffell, Brian Frederick


The principal claim of this thesis is that Hobbes neither argues for, nor is committed to, psychological egoism. More positively, I construct a reading of Hobbes which gives a non-egoistic theory of character the role of supporting his political theory. In so doing I present a Hobbes whose mechanistic psychology and account of self-preservation are neutral with respect to the character of men in civil life. I deny that there are any compelling reasons to treat Hobbesian individuals as predisposed to some form of egoism. What I refer to as a "theory of character" is what Hobbes treats under the headings of "dispositions" and "manners". I conclude that Hobbes has ample room within his psychology for civic virtues and for motivations at odds with psychological egoism. Contrary to Gauthier, who argues that Hobbes is committed to psychological egoism because of details in his mechanistic psychology, I contend that the mechanistic basis of the psychology is what disallows any ascription of egoism to Hobbes. I do this without following either McNeilly or Gert: the former of whom believes that Hobbes' materialism is irrelevant to the remainder of his philosophy, and the latter of whom believes that the materialism is destructive of any motivational theory at all. Disagreeing with all three, I argue for a positive and constructive relationship between Hobbes' materialism and psychology. In particular I claim that one aspect of Hobbes' materialism - the account of endeavour or conatus - constitutes a general theory of dispositions, one implication of which is that human dispositions are not fixed in any way that would be necessary to create the character of the egoist. So, far from being the reason why Hobbesian individuals are egoists, his materialism provides what I take to be the best reason for thinking that they are not. To argue that Hobbesian individuals are not egoistic, and to base that claim on features of his materialism is one thing; but of course the reason alluded to - features of his materialism - is arcane to say the least. There are other reasons available to support the same conclusion, and these reasons are far more accessible than the first. These reasons derive from descriptions Hobbes gives of the character of the best kind of men (those whom I use the term "magnanimous" to refer to). I consider the range of character traits in question, and conclude that Hobbes was certainly impressed by older chivalric and martial virtues, despite being a strong proponent of a more civilian code of virtues. My method for looking into these qualities of character assumes a particular point of view. The point of view in question is historical: I consider what Hobbes says about character in terms of the social context centring on the Jacobean and Caroline aristocracy. My strategy here is designed to do two things. Firstly, I wish to support the claim that Hobbes discusses character traits for which there are no obvious egoistic interpretation. And secondly, I wish to shed some light on why Hobbes was so exercised by the social impact of certain motives; particularly those connected with power, honour, and worth. The material I cover is precisely that which interested Macpherson. However, unlike him I do not believe that Hobbes1 analysis of social interactions was one unwittingly suffused with details taken from early English capitalism. Rather, my argument is that Hobbes' conception of the pitfalls in the path of civility was largely based on his understanding of aristocratic character. Following Keith Thomas I suggest that Hobbes was a critic of the culture for which honour was the dominant concern; although in some respects a sympathetic critic.

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