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L. Neil Smith's
Number 802, December 21, 2014

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Ralph Cudworth v Thomas Hobbes on Witchcraft
by Sean Gabb

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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):

From this ignorance of how to distinguish dreams, and other strong fancies, from vision and sense, did arise the greatest part of the religion of the Gentiles in time past, that worshipped satyrs, fauns, nymphs, and the like; and nowadays the opinion that rude people have of fairies, ghosts, and goblins, and of the power of witches. For, as for witches, I think not that their witchcraft is any real power, but yet that they are justly punished for the false belief they have that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can, their trade being nearer to a new religion than to a craft or science. And for fairies, and walking ghosts, the opinion of them has, I think, been on purpose either taught, or not confuted, to keep in credit the use of exorcism, of crosses, of holy water, and other such inventions of ghostly men. Nevertheless, there is no doubt but God can make unnatural apparitions: but that He does it so often as men need to fear such things more than they fear the stay, or change, of the course of Nature, which he also can stay, and change, is no point of Christian faith. But evil men, under pretext that God can do anything, are so bold as to say anything when it serves their turn, though they think it untrue; it is the part of a wise man to believe them no further than right reason makes that which they say appear credible. If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it prognostics from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.

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:

As for wizards and magicians, persons who associate and confederate themselves in a peculiar manner with these evil spirits, for the gratification of their own revenge, lust, ambition, and other passions; besides the Scriptures, there hath been so full an attestation given to them by persons unconcerned in all ages, that those our so confident exploders of them, in this present age, can hardly escape the suspicion of having some hankering towards Atheism....

I shall not discourse here, of that power also which evil genii, spirits, may possibly have upon those that have either mancipated themselves unto them, or otherwise forfeited that ordinary protection which divine providence commonly affordeth to all, by acting immediately upon the spirits of the brain, and thereby endeavour to give an account of those phenomena of wizards and witches vulgarly talked of, their seeming transportations in the air, nocturnal conventicles and junketings, and other such like things, as seem plainly contradictions and unreconcilable to philosophy. But we have already said enough to prove that sense is nothing but seeming and appearance....

To conclude ; all these extraordinary phenomena of apparitions, witchcraft, possessions, miracles, and prophecies, do evince that spirits, angels or demons, though invisible to us, are no fancies, but real and substantial inhabitants of the world; which favours not the atheistic hypothesis : but some of them, as the higher kind of miracles and predictions, do also immediately enforce the acknowledgement of a Deity; a being superior to nature, which therefore can check and control it; and which comprehending the whole, foreknows the most remotely distant and contingent events.

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.

Sean Gabbis Director, The Libertarian Alliance (Carbon Positive since 1979)
Tel: 07956 472 199
Skype: seangabb
Postal Address: Suite 35, 2 Lansdowne Row, London W1J 6HL, England

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