Hyperlink Philosophy #1 — The Sisyphus Fragment & Leviathan

Many early modern philosophical ideas have precedents from Classical Antiquity, but what is less obvious is just how interconnected many of the concepts are and where the later Europeans got their inspiration. Hyperlink Philosophy connects these ideas in brief overviews.

Ezequiel de Olaso opens his 1993 paper, Hobbes: Religion and Ideology. Notes on the Political Utilization of Religion, stating: ‘The importance of Hellenistic scepticism in the growth of modern thought is today widely acknowledged and generally accepted in the domain of theoretical philosophy although little is known about its influence in practical philosophy.’ In this article, De Olaso discusses how Hobbes can be seen to be repeating arguments laid out by Sextus Empiricus; specifically, that the gods were invented by politicians at the dawn of civilization, as humanity emerged from the primitive ‘state of nature’ which forms the basis of social contract theory.

Sextus Empiricus, in Against the Mathematicians Book IX (Against the Physicists) documented the thoughts of many philosophers from Classical Antiquity, and he preserved the most complete version of the Sisyphus fragment, which this article will compare to the ideas expressed by Hobbes in Leviathan.

The Sisyphus fragment (Book IX para. 54) opens with a passage that foreshadows what Hobbes would describe as our primitive state of nature.

A time there was when anarchy did rule
The lives of men, which then were like the beasts,
Enslaved by force; nor was there then reward
For good men, nor for wicked punishment.
Next, as I deem, did men establish laws
For punishment, that Justice might be lord
Of all mankind, and Insolence enchain’d;
And whosoe’r did sin was penalized.
Next, as the laws did hold men back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret, — then, as I maintain,
Some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise,
Discovered unto men the fear of Gods,
Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin
E’en secretly in deed, or word, or thought.

Charles Kahn does a masterful job of deconstructing all the layers of earlier Greek thought that are themselves influential on, and embedded within, the Sisyphus fragment in his 1997 paper, Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment.

Kahn (1997, 248; 255–62) identifies and illuminates three separate, but interrelated, developments within fifth-century BCE philosophy which culminate in the Sisyphus fragment. He writes that the fragment is not only the ‘most outspoken’ and ‘aggressive’ account of fifth-century atheist thought, but that it captures the best examples of thinking on the origins of religion.

The passage opens by echoing the prehistorical origins speculated on by Democritus and Prodicus, our primitive state of nature, and how the invention of laws was not enough to control our impulses. Consequently, the story moves on to the suppositions about the necessity of inventing gods as a useful tool — an all-seeing, ever-watching, cosmic babysitter — which builds on the denial of the gods by Protagoras, and others, who were challenging the human characteristics assigned to the gods. Finally, it launches into a critical assault on what became accepted morality as civilization and beliefs in the fake gods ‘extinguished lawlessness’ in our state of nature. All of these elements came together in the Sisyphus fragment to capture the most complete picture of fifth-century thinking around the origins of human civilization, and rebutting man-made religion as a control tactic.

In crafting his version of social contract theory, Hobbes built on the ideas that were so aggressively laid out in the Sisyphus fragment, and elsewhere in Against the Physicists. Hobbes echoes Sextus across three earlier passages (Book IX para. 15–17), starting by copying Sextus almost verbatim in his famous passage from chapter xiii: ‘And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’

For, since life in old times was brutish and disorderly (for, as Orpheus says, —

There was a time when ev’ry man liv’d by devouring his fellow
Cannibal-wise, and the stronger man did feast on the weaker),

purposing to check the wrongdoers they laid down laws, in the first place, for the punishing of such as were manifestly doing wrong, and after this they also invented Gods as watchers of all the sinful and righteous acts of men, so that none should dare to do wrong even in secret, believing that the Gods

Cloaked in garments of mist all over the earth go roaming,
Watching the violent doings of men and their lawful behavior.

And Euhemerus, nick-named “the Atheist,” says — “When the life of mankind was without order, those who so far excelled the rest in strength and intelligence that all men lived subservient to their commands, being intent to gain for themselves more admiration and veneration, invented for themselves a kind of superhuman and divine authority, and in consequence were the populace accounted Gods.”

De Olaso (1993, 62) notes that Hobbes is ‘quite directly’ making the same claims in chapter xii that Euhemerus made. Early in the chapter, Hobbes (Leviathan I. xii: Which Makes Them Fear The Power Of Invisible Things) writes: ‘In which sense perhaps it was, that some of the old Poets said, that the Gods were at first created by humane Feare.’ Presumably, these ‘old poets’ refer to those like Aeschylus; indeed, Hobbes mentions Prometheus in the preceding section, but in a context unrelated to man’s primitive state as described in Prometheus Bound; a tradition which Kahn (1997, 255-58) notes is incorporated into the Sisyphus fragment:

First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand ; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves.
~ Prometheus Bound

The references Hobbes invokes are particularly obvious in the section, The Absurd Opinion of Gentilisme, where he demonstrates his familiarity with the arguments laid out by Sextus from Prodicus, Democritus, and Euhemerus: ‘The Heaven, the Ocean, the Planets, the Fire, the Earth, the Winds, were so many Gods.’

Later in the same section, Hobbes reached the same conclusion as found in both the Sisyphus fragment and Euhemerus:

The Designes Of The Authors Of The Religion Of The Heathen And therefore the first Founders, and Legislators of Common-wealths amongst the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace, have in all places taken care; First, to imprint in their minds a beliefe, that those precepts which they gave concerning Religion, might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some God, or other Spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortalls, that their Lawes might the more easily be received.

The notions of primitive humanity described by Aeschylus, along with the ideas of Democritus and Prodicus on the origins of civilization, came together in the Sisyphus fragment. These same ideas were later echoed by Euhemerus and captured by Sextus Empiricus. All of these concepts played a role in influencing Hobbes. It is obvious that Hobbes had read his Sextus and used these speculations to formulate his social contract theory in Leviathan, hyperlinking his philosophy to ideas that came millennia before.


De Olaso, E. (1993). Hobbes: Religion & ideology. Notes on the political utilization of religion. In A. J. Vanderjagt (Ed.), Brill’s studies in intellectual history (Vol. 37): Scepticism and irreligion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (pp. 59–70). Issuu. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/33NUYyo

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan: or the Matter, forme, & power of a common-wealth ecclesiastical and civill. Infomotions. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3mnSpLe

Kahn, C. (1997). Greek religion and philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment. Phronesis, 42(3), 247–262. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/36zeCi5

Sextus Empiricus. (1936). Against the Physicists. In R. G. Bury (Trans.), Sextus Empiricus (Vol. 3) (pp. 2–381). Internet Archive. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/34ayuIC

This is the first in a new series exploring and linking the interrelated connections of ideas. The inspiration for this series came from my previous article, How Buddha Influenced Western Democracy & Secular Humanism, and derives from the research for my forthcoming book (in progress), Dangerous Ideas.

Jason (Diogenes of Mayberry) covers the backstory of Judeo-Christian doctrines to refute evangelical literalism related to socio-political action.

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