Enlightened Hobbism: Aspects of the Eighteenth-Century Reception of Hobbes in Britain

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Brown, Stefan
Thomas Hobbes , Shaftesbury , Mandeville , Intellectual History , Britain , Enlightenment , Samuel Clarke , William Warburton , Francis Hutcheson
Hobbes was Britain’s quintessential atheist at the dawn of the eighteenth century, and Hobbism (a widely recognized creed) was commonly used to identify and police theological and ecclesiological heterodoxy. A competing interpretation of Hobbism emerged over the first fifty years of the century. “Enlightened” Hobbism, like the traditional variant, took advantage of Hobbes’s notoriety, but now in a social and civil context. This dissertation explores an aspect of Hobbes’s reception from 1700 to 1760. The primary focus is on the works of Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and Archibald Campbell. An analysis of these early British moralists reveals that they participated in a shared project of portraying Hobbes as a pessimistic egoist in moral terms. This was in sharp contrast with the majority of authors who highlighted Hobbes’s materialism, determinism, Erastianism, and moral conventionalism, as indicators of heresy and atheism. These two variants of Hobbism did not exist in isolation. “Enlightened” Hobbism was first articulated by Shaftesbury following accusations that he was an atheist in Hobbesian terms. Mandeville, Hutcheson, and Campbell subsequently had to navigate their own proximity to “Enlightened” Hobbism. Atheistic Hobbism was most suitable for a British context still obsessed with identifying theological truth. But as the priorities of civil society shifted and moralists challenged the theological basis of ethical discourse, British divines also had recourse to “Enlightened” Hobbism when justifying the necessity of the Church, God, and particular providence in the terms of civil prudence and utility. The primary goal of this dissertation is to explore the deployment of Hobbes and Hobbism in the moral discourse by these two groups: those who interpret morality through the lens of theology and the otherworldly, and those who view it as a fundamentally human endeavour. But this analysis also identifies a significant characteristic of the early British Enlightenment. As much as Enlightenment moralists forcefully distanced themselves from Hobbes, by rooting morality firmly in the human experience they contributed to the Hobbesian project of wresting authority from the Church and the otherworldly.
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