THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 802, December 21, 2014
Ralph Cudworth v Thomas Hobbes on Witchcraft
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
Thanks to Google Books, I have just read The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) by Ralph Cudworth (1617-88). This is an immense book. The 1837 edition that I read is well over a thousand pages of closely-packed text, and much of the argument is carried on by quotations in Greek and Latin, which I can read, and in Hebrew, which I cannot.
Its main purpose is to attack the revived atomic materialism of the Greeks. Cudworth believed, probably rightly, that this tended to atheism. Though he is hardly ever named, the most important target is Thomas Hobbes, by whose influence atomic materialism was introduced into English scientific and moral philosophy.
I will not deny Cudworth's immense learning. I say only that he shares fully in an uncritical approach to the remains of Antiquity that was common to his age; and that his point is carried more by verbal trickery and question-begging, and by arguments from dubious authority, than by the mode of reasoning one finds in the eighteenth century. I am not convinced by any of his specific claims.
For an example of his thought, I supply the key texts in his debate with Hobbes over the reality of witchcraft. There are, to any system of thought, internal and external opinions. In my own case, I believe that the Great War was regrettable and mistaken, and that the Falklands War was regrettable but necessary. These opinions are external to my general libertarianism. My belief in limited government and the rule of law would be unaffected if either was reversed. Equally, my musical and literary tastes are external. My belief in free speech, on the other hand, is internal to my general libertarianism.
Where Hobbes and Cudworth are concerned, their respective opinions about witchcraft are fully internal. Hobbes is a materialist. There is, for him, nothing but atoms in various kinds of motion. It follows from this that any claim of magical power is a lie or a delusion. To accept any such claims would, in itself, refute his general system. He does not deny that there are people who are called or call themselves witches, and he believes that they should be punished so far as their actions may tend to a breach of the peace. But he has no time for the existence of spiritual entities.
Cudworth is a Platonist. He believes that we are surrounded by invisible but powerful beings. Some of these are good, others bad; and it is possible for them to communicate with us and to exchange promises. From this, it follows that witchcraft and demonic possession are possible. They are also evidence for his general system. To deny their reality might not overturn his general system, but would bring it into serious doubt
For this reason, the opinions of Hobbes and Cudworth on witchcraft are relevant to any consideration of their wider views.
Here is Hobbes on witchcraft (from Chapter Two, "Of Imagination," of Leviathan):
Here is Cudworth on witchcraft. He is much more diffuse than Hobbes, and his opinion fills up dozens of pages, and is not continuously expressed. But it includes an endorsement of the death penalty—by hanging or burning—for those who communicate with evil spirits. Here are three passages from Book III, Chapter VI:
We should not necessarily incline to Hobbism because Hobbes held what we now regard as a reasonable opinion of witchcraft. But anyone who is firmly convinced that witchcraft is a real danger that must be put down by the most revolting punishments is probably not to be followed in any of his other opinions. Anyone who does choose to follow him has probably not read him in full, but only in some modern abridgement or, what is more likely, in a footnote.
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