Student Report: Robert Yelle – Thomas Hobbes’s Radical Path to Secularization

This special lecture was part of “Religion and Politics” presented by the Humanities Research Center and the Division of Arts and Humanities, in collaboration with the Undergraduate Studies program.

Reported by Cody Schmidt, Class of 2025

Photographed by Jesse Campbell, Class of 2025

Professor Robert Yelle, chair of religious studies at Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, Germany joined Duke Kunshan professors Rasoul Namazi and James Miller on September 26 to present a lecture based on his writing “Hobbes the Egyptian: The Return to Pharaoh, or the Ancient Roots of Secular Politics.” A question-and-answer session was held after the presentation. The lecture was the first of a two-part series hosted by Yelle, Namazi, and Miller titled Religion and Politics, with its follow-up being held later that afternoon.

In his lecture, he examined Hobbes’s ideas of secularization and the story of Pharaoh from the Bible. Yelle began with the frontispiece for Leviathan. The “Mortal God,” a ruler physically made of his subjects and holding a bishop’s staff in one hand and a sword in the other, is depicted as standing over his country, wielding the powers of church and state. Yelle argues that this “Mortal God” is a representation of the book’s namesake, the Leviathan, a sea monster that aided in Pharaoh’s oppression of the Hebrews.

“The Leviathan was armed with the many bodies of the citizens, their heads here appearing [in the frontispiece] as scales. [This] had become an appropriate epithet for a king or a leader of an army… Hobbes meant to invoke Pharoah and, in fact, if you just look at the Hebrew Bible, there are various places where a clear identification is made between Pharoah and the sea monster.”

During Hobbes’s time of the English Civil War, this religious image of the oppressive Leviathan and Pharaoh would be used to justify the revolutionary acts occurring, using the Exodus as parallel imagery for their war. Hobbes provides a critique and reversal of this justification, which Yelle explains was to reject such religious political revolution and embrace the philosophy of social contract theory with a ruling sovereign power.

“There’s a lot of use of the [Exodus] from Egypt motif in the 17th century in various sermons. It’s also used by royalists who reject the common complaint by puritans and Presbyterians that the monarch of England is behaving like Pharaoh as a tyrant… so this is all context for Hobbes’s choice of the title of Leviathan.”

Yelle further claimed that Hobbes himself was irreligious and wished to demythologize the Bible. Due to the highly religious environment and risk of persecution, Hobbes could not be explicit in his non-theism. He instead opted to include implicit messages in his writing and engage with ideas of Euhemerism, often through his contemporaries.

“His opinion on religion was anti-supernatural… Hobbes seems to have been reading the Bible, including the Exodus, as a form of veiled, or symbolic, or allegorical political history.”

Yelle ended his event by claiming China as a perfect example of a Hobbesian state, promising to return to DKU to further discuss this topic.