Literature Study GuidesLeviathanPart 1 Chapters 1 3 Summary

Leviathan | Study Guide

Thomas Hobbes

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Leviathan | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 : Of Man | Summary



In the first chapters of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes examines the workings of the human mind. He explains the concept of "sense" in materialistic terms, as the fanciful interpretation of the mechanical workings of human sensory organs when "pressed upon" by external "objects." Such objects include light, sound, the chemical combinations that create odors and physical objects. Hobbes refutes the teachings of Aristotle, which claim that in addition to the physical matter of objects, each object also has a more spiritual aspect, or essence, interpreted by the human mind. To Hobbes, a person's sense of the world is nothing more than particles of matter bumping up against their sensory organs. He describes imagination, accordingly, as "decaying sense," which allows a person to remember or even dream about an object's physical contact with their sensory organs. Hobbes calls the accumulation of memories "experience." He also explains those fictional, imagined creatures, such as centaurs, as simply compounded memories of real things: in this case, a horse and a man.

Hobbes sees dreams as physical impressions made during a state of wakefulness that have been conserved. These are triggered "by distemper of ... the inward parts of the body" that generate varying temperatures during sleep. Mental discourse is the focus of Chapter 3. Hobbes posits that the particular sequence of certain motions on a person's senses is then repeated in parallel at various times in their imagination. As a person experiences so many sensations in so many orders, it is not possible to anticipate which order their thoughts will take. In discussing "Train of Thoughts Unguided," essentially a stream of consciousness, Hobbes says it occurs in times of solitude, usually without an audience, and for no particular purpose. By contrast, "Train of Thoughts Regulated" pertains to those thought sequences motivated by desire and fear. The human mind is constantly seeking causes for effects and imagining effects of causes, using each as signs for anticipating or remembering the other. Such regulated trains of thought in humans lead to prudence and conjecture, and the more experience one has the more prudent one is likely to be.


Thomas Hobbes's mechanistic approach to explaining how human thought occurs precedes the imaging technology used in modern hospitals. Yet in many ways, it is much closer to the modern scientific understanding of how the brain interprets neurological stimuli than that of Descartes. Descartes saw the human mind and body as separate entities, a dualistic view, derived from that of Aristotle. Earlier philosophers wrestled with questions of whether the mind was completely distinct from the physical state or whether one was a subclass of the other. However, Hobbes rejected these ideas and asserted instead that mental function is purely physical. His theories, though based in logic, are hardly well tested, which is most apparent in his temperature-based explanation of how dreams come to be. The mysteries of the human mind have baffled scientists for centuries, and only recently have medical breakthroughs allowed scientists to get closer to understanding the workings of the human mind with more certainty.

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