You can’t understand the 16th c. and the Protestant Reformation without understanding a thing or two about John Calvin (1509-1564). Born in France, trained as a lawyer, rooted in European humanism, Calvin made a profound mark on western religion (and by extension, on western culture and society) as a religious reformer. Like Luther and Zwingli, Calvin preached the primacy of the bible — “For anyone to arrive at God the Creator he needs Scripture as his Guide and Teacher” — and rejected papal authority. He put his ideas in practice, constructing a new Church in Geneva and enforcing a strict moral code for the city.
We haven’t gotten to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) yet — but we will hear about him next week. The English philosopher, a materialist through and through, is best known for his work in political philosophy. In Leviathan (1651), he set out the basis for legitimate government in a theory of the social contract and argued for the necessity of a strong central authority as the bulwark against moral and social disorder. How else to escape “the war of all against all,” an anarchic society in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? Hobbes’ thought provided a foundation for much of western political thinking to come — a liberal tradition that emphasized the importance of the individual and the social contract, the need for power to be legitimized, as well as a conservative tradition that took a dim view of human nature and put its trust in central authorities to keep human disorder in check.
Despite their distance in time — and the vast differences in their views of the spiritual and material worlds — the two speak to each other in powerful ways.