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Hobbes's Leviathan: Monsters, Metaphors, and Magic

From: ELH
Volume 62, Number 4, Winter 1995
pp. 791-819 | 10.1353/elh.1995.0039

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ELH 62.4 (1995) 791-819

Hobbes's sense of his place in cultural history is key to understanding the character and the contradictions of Leviathan. Early and late in his long writing career, he represents his philosophical life as a battle against monstrous texts. De cive's "Preface to the Reader" narrates a Hobbesian myth of the fall, in which a golden age of power and authority enjoyed by sovereigns is destroyed by the "disputations" of private men. To illustrate his point, Hobbes cites the classical fable of Ixion's adulterous courtship of Juno: "Offering to embrace her, he clasped a cloud; from whence the Centaurs proceeded, by nature half men, half horses, a fierce, a fighting, and unquiet generation" (2:xiii). His allegorization of the fable is Baconian both in its method -- its derivation of philosophical truths from mythology -- and in its attribution of the origins of political sedition to seditious language and seditious desires: "private men being called to councils of state, desired to prostitute justice, the only sister and wife of the supreme, to their own judgments and apprehensions; but embracing a false and empty shadow instead of it, they have begotten those hermaphrodite opinions of moral philosophers, partly right and comely, partly brutal and wild" (2:xiii). The monstrous opinions of moral philosophers are of such political importance to Hobbes since they are, he writes in a typically universalizing comment, "the causes of all contentions and bloodsheds" (2:xiii).

When some years later in the "Epistle Dedicatory" of the De corpore Hobbes arrogates to himself the creation of civil philosophy as a discipline, he marks as the birth of that discipline "my own book De cive" (1:ix). Reviewing his career, he describes his philosophy as a struggle against the "phantasms" of Greek thought -- of Aristotelity in particular -- and of the monstrous union of ancient metaphysics with Christianity. With an image from Aristophanes, Hobbes characterizes that union as an "Empusa,... having one brazen leg, but the other was the leg of an ass, and was sent, as was believed, by Hecate, as a sign of some approaching evil fortune" (1:x). Hobbes again represents his career as a war against the monstrous texts of a failed symbolic order. He blames the "evil fortune" of England's civil wars upon distortions of language and logic, and offers as a remedy -- already available in De cive and Leviathan -- Galileo's universal philosophy of natural motions applied to politics. Political science, determinist and materialist, intervenes against the monsters of metaphysics.

Hobbes is fond of metaphors of the monstrous, and his employment of them, especially in crucial accounts of his own vocational ambitions, is recurrent and revealing. His claim to having spent a career battling the metaphorical monsters of false systems of knowledge complements his lifelong attacks, I will argue, against the monsters of metaphor. Viewed from a broad historical perspective, Hobbes's attack stands as one characteristic, albeit especially fierce, expression of hostility to metaphor on the part of the seventeenth century's new philosophers. Monsters, as marvels of nature, have their verbal counterparts in metaphors, the marvels of speech. As Paul de Man argues, within metaphors, as inside the most violent catachreses, "something monstrous lurks." (The very word catachresis means an "abuse" of language.) Metaphors can appear dangerous, even monstrous, because "they are capable of inventing the most fantastic entities by dint of the positional power inherent in language. They can dismember the texture of reality and reassemble it in the most capricious of ways, pairing man with woman or human being with beast in the most unnatural shapes." As a consequence, de Man argues, metaphor has been "a perennial problem and, at times, a recognized source of embarrassment for philosophical discourse." That embarrassment becomes especially acute during the seventeenth century because of metaphor's association with subjective imagination, passion, and the monstrous, with all that contrasts with objective judgment, reason, and the natural. As a result, the opposition between the literal and the figural underlies many of the crucial polarities of the century's discourse: the divide between truth and falsehood, natural philosophy and poetry, philosophical discourse and rhetoric, to name only a few. Especially in...

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