‘Life is but a Motion of Limbs’ – the theme of motion in the Leviathan

This post is a short summary regarding the theme of motion in the Leviathan, and how Thomas Hobbes uses it in his scientific analysis of society.


Galileo was a great influence on Hobbes and scientific method of examining the world. Galileo had come up with inertia; that a body will continue endlessly with the same velocity unless an outside force acts on it. Hobbes agreed with this idea, stating it is “a truth that no man doubts of”. This differed greatly to Aristotle’s ‘final cause’ theory, which stated that every object or body had a final purpose or end, and that each object or body moved towards this goal or its telos. He criticizes Aristotle’s personification of material objects, calling it “absurd”. In many places throughout Leviathan Hobbes totally dismisses Aristotle’s work and the dogma of the Catholic philosophers. For Aristotle, motion is only to help an object to move towards its telos. There were three other causes; the material, the formal and the efficient. Hobbes disregards the causes, and believes everything can be explained scientifically. Hobbes says that motion is caused from motion, and that there is a constant stream of cause and effect.

Hobbes believed there was motion for the sake of motion. At this time William Harvey had discovered that blood is circulated around the body and it happens continuously until death. This fell in line with Hobbes theory. There is always motion, even if it appears there is none. Even though we may be sitting or lying down, the blood is in motion, and this motion keeps us alive; “Life is but a motion of limbs.”

Mechanical Heart – gizmodo.com

Hobbes sees motion in a mechanical way. The motion within the body is very similar to the motion that helps machines or automata to run. Even thought we may not see it, there are many cogs and springs and wheels all moving to make the machine move. He believes this can also be applied to society, but it must be created by us. In the same way we give machines artificial life, “the sovereignty is an artificial soul”. If everybody performed their duties and obeyed a set of common laws, then society would function properly. This is reflected in Durkheim’s Organic Solidarity; while people may have different jobs, all are interlinked and interdependent, and if each group worked efficiently it would result in an efficient society.

In chapter six, Hobbes identifies two motions within humans; vital and voluntary. By vital he means things we must do to stay alive such as sleeping, eating and breathing. These are continuous actions that stop only when the body has died. Voluntary motions however are not necessary for our survival e.g. speaking and walking. These movements are brought about by our imagination and our thoughts, which lead to our ‘endeavours’. Endeavours start as thoughts in our mind which causes actions related to those thoughts. There is motion in these thoughts and imaginings, even if we can’t see them. These motions lead to motion of the body, one constantly leading to another. “Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand.” This shows that Hobbes believes motion is necessary for living.

Aversions / Desires

Endeavours can appear as desires or aversions, both of which signify motions. If you desire something, you move towards it and if you are averse to it then you move away from the object. By having aversions, you also have desires, one creates the other. If there are two drinks on a table, by moving towards the one you prefer, you are at the same time moving away from the other. Desires and aversions appear when the object is not present. When the object is present, we either love or hate it. If we want or desire an object, we call it good, and what we don’t want is bad. Good or bad is individualistic and differs according to the person’s desires or aversions rather than a moral good or bad. This means that motions are also individualistic.

This urge to fulfill our desires is reflected in Hobbes’ account of power. We want power after power that “ceaseth only in death”. After we achieve one power, we instantly move towards our next goal. For us, power is important to help us achieve our future wants and desires, and to protect us from future aversions.


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