Hobbes Studies 2024 Essay Competition

“Also when a Prize is propounded to many, which is to be given to him onely that winneth … so to Win, or so to Catch, is to Merit, and to have it as DUE” (Leviathan, ch. 14).

Hobbes Studies is pleased to announce the 2024 Essay Competition. We invite submissions which make original contributions to the study of Hobbes’s thought, life, or the reception of his ideas. We also accept articles which engage with other thinkers, as long as a strong connection to Hobbes is demonstrated.

Essays are particularly welcome from PhD students and those who have recently received their doctorate, and must not have been accepted for publication, or be under consideration for publication, elsewhere.

Entries should be submitted via the Editorial Manager online submission system and follow the journal’s guidelines. When submitting your manuscript, please note in the “Comments” section that you wish to be considered for the 2024 Essay Competition and confirm that the eligibility requirements are met. For queries, please contact Elad Carmel at hobbesstudies@gmail.com.

The winning submission will be awarded €150 as well as €200 in book credit, courtesy of Brill, and will be published in a forthcoming issue of Hobbes Studies. Other submissions will also be considered for publication. We reserve the right not to make an award.

The submission deadline for the competition is 30 April 2024.


Alexandra Chadwick, University of Jyväskylä

Associate Editor

Elad Carmel, University of Jyväskylä


This online colloquium is dedicated to discussing Christopher Holman’s book, “Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary”. The discussion will start with an introduction to the text by the author, followed by responses from Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux. Finally, Christopher Holman will provide a reply. We would like to express our gratitude to SUNY Press for their support in organizing this colloquium.


Christopher Holman

Firstly, I must express my gratitude to Gonzalo Bustamante for organizing this colloquium, and to Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux for so carefully and critically engaging with my work. Their comments have simultaneously identified certain errors, revealed what is in need of further clarification, and most importantly, suggested important potential future avenues of investigation.

I begin with Samantha Frost, whose main dissatisfaction stems from my effort in the final part of the book to utilize Hobbesian thought in the effort to generate a normative basis for preferring democracy to other sovereign forms. To begin with, the productivity of the very project is called into question, Frost asking why democratic theory needs Hobbes at all. Suggesting that I assimilate Hobbes to the “preferences of contemporary democratic theory,” she opines that the analysis could very well be fruitfully carried out within the terms of the latter paradigm. Here I must disagree with the assertation that the greater part of “contemporary democratic theory” is concerned with democracy in Hobbes’s sense. Needless to say, I am not thereby claiming that what contemporary democratic thought is primarily interested in – most simply, the conditions for the refinement of a system of representation which is necessarily accompanied by a political alienation in which the assembled people lack institutional access to substantial deliberative organs – is not a legitimate object of study, nor even necessarily that such does not deserve the name of democracy. All political theorists are aware now of the extent to which conceptual categories are subject to historical mutation, developed and refined as they are within specific linguistic contexts.[1] What democracy means to most people today is of course very different than what it meant to an ancient Athenian, or indeed someone in Hobbes’s time. With this linguistic displacement, however, the loss of the original signification has been accompanied by the loss of recognition of the very possibility of a certain kind of political organization, one that we might say centres the idea of isonomy: equality not only before the law, but with respect to participation in the formulation of law. Noting that the ancient Greek conception of democracy originally included, and indeed was eventually seen as synonymous with the concept of isonomia, Kurt Raaflaub notes how it advanced a conception of equality that “offered equal protection and equal rights of political participation to every citizen, regardless of birth, wealth, social standing, education, experience and intellectual ability.”[2] For reasons I will note later, such broadly corresponds to Hobbes’s own understanding of democracy, which I examine to the extent that I believe it is – amongst so-called “canonical” authors – exceptional in its elucidation of this conception of democracy’s conditions and characteristics. Appreciation of this understanding might work to facilitate a recuperation of democracy’s original signification. This is perhaps a highly important task, especially in light of political philosophy’s recent anti-democratic reaction, in which a variety of commentators have attempted to highlight the supposed irrationality and incompetence of voters, thus dismissing democracy on the basis of what it originally was not.[3]

            Regarding the substance of the analysis, Frost’s main complaint is the extent to which I divert from the Hobbesian project through “developing a natural law grounding for democracy when Hobbes is resolute in his assumption that politics is radically ungrounded.” I would first interject here a short terminological clarification. Although I characterize the defence of democracy as an “idiosyncratic natural law” one, perhaps the qualifying adjective does not properly capture the operation. Hobbes himself, of course, utilizes the language of natural law, but does so in a way as to rhetorically subvert the traditional philosophical assumptions associated with its scholastic instantiations. He can perhaps be seen here as something of an “innovating ideologist,”[4] deploying the moral terminology of the dominant tradition for the sake of a radical reorientation of inherited thought. Hobbesian natural law speaks just to a certain unnaturalness of the human being, the fact that the latter’s institution of its moral and political world is a wholly artificial one, irreducible to any extra-social sources that would securely ground it. What I attempt to argue in the book’s third chapter is that democracy is that form of regime that most adequately expresses this non-foundation of the social, through its dissociation of participation in instituting power from any kind of qualification or title.

            Putting aside the use of the language of natural law, however, Frost is more concerned with my treatment of the concept of liberty, and in particular my effort to undo Hobbes’s disarticulation of liberty and democracy (which is noted also by Fernández Peychaux). Although that I am doing as much is never explicitly noted in the book, I think Frost is right that such a move is made: personally, I am much happier with the definition of liberty Hobbes gives us in The Elements of Law than the ones he gives us in De cive and Leviathan. Rather than identify freedom with a discredited ideal of political autonomy, Frost challenges us to bracket the potentially distracting question of the best form of the sovereign in order to think the conditions for the possibility of the latter’s capacity to satisfy those needs demanded by true liberty, in a mode that would securely facilitate our voluntary action. Highlighting problems such as “hunger, deforestation, homelessness, dirty air, polluted water, lack of medicine, or arbitrary violence,” Frost puts forward the thesis that we can imagine a non-democratic though “well-constituted state,” in which we observe a “robust civil society, with manifold bodies politics, where people can work collaboratively on issues close their particular hearts and interests.” Would this not be preferable to a poorly-constituted democratic state, where people “have their daily lives wracked by the difficulty of living homeless, or with food scarcity, or with poor access to medical care, where the water is not potable and the air unbreathable, where violence from the state is predictable in its unpredictability, where the meaning of threat, obedience, and self-defence are so scrambled as to be meaningless”?

            My response to this question would be conditioned by a double scepticism. The first is the degree to which the conceptual language of autonomy lacks relevance to contemporary political thinking. Such is certainly the case if we consider autonomy in terms of some ideal of rational mastery, in which a subject is capable of rendering their motivations self-transparent – independently of consideration of the complex networks of co-relation which condition their desire and limit their motion – and freely act so as to realize them. I agree wholeheartedly with Frost that for Hobbes “humans are deeply embedded/immersed in their local contexts, and the way they respond to the questions ‘whither, which way, and what’ and their ability to act is profoundly dependent on those conditions.” Indeed, no one has done more than Frost herself to highlight the extent to which Hobbesian subjectivity is articulated within dense networks of material interdependence, and how this immersion precludes reducing Hobbes to a species of liberal or proto-liberal.[5] To the extent that each of us is a sensuous, material, dependent being, each of us is, as Marx says, “a suffering being.”[6] As Merleau-Ponty has observed, however, such a being is one “with a natural and social situation, but one who is also open, active, and able to establish his autonomy on the very ground of his dependence.”[7] I would insist that heteronomy considered as dependence or suffering in this sense must be sharply distinguished from political heteronomy, considered in terms of an arbitrary and non-necessary subjection to a will whose formulation proceeds independently of intersubjective input. That individuals can dependently yet meaningfully participate in deliberative organs, and that such participation can be considered as a good even if the specific determinations of the decision-procedure do not immediately map onto desire (hence, again, to suffer), is suggested by Frost’s acknowledgement regarding the importance of bodies politic to civil society, and the value of individuals being able to work collaboratively on shared projects of interest.

            Hence, next, my second scepticism: the notion that the legislative determinations of the sovereign entity can somehow be abstracted from the lived, embodied conditions of the citizens of the social order, whose “local contexts” do not extend far enough as to warrant their interest in civil law. I concede I might very well be wrong here, but there seems to be implicit in Frost’s ideal vision of a regime-neutral society in which people’s basic safety is met something like an Arendtian distinction between the social and the political. Famously for Arendt, the problems associated with the social sphere – which would broadly correspond to the problems of true liberty – are somehow capable of resolution through the mere application of rational administrative technique, given the presumed consensus on the conditions for the realization of the object. But even if we can all agree, for instance, that each person in a society is deserving of clean water and adequate medical care – although note, even as I write this more than a few prominent political actors and commentators are going about making the case that Gazans in fact deserve neither of these things – we certainly cannot expect spontaneous consensus to emerge on what, for example, would constitute adequate medical care, or adequate housing, or adequate educational opportunities, and so on. And this, furthermore, is to say nothing of the question of the project of economic redistribution which would be required to facilitate the achievement of basic security. In short, any attempt to answer the question of the safety of the people will be traversed by a multiplicity of competing interests and normative conceptions, each of which conditions understanding of the issue in distinct ways. Frost’s vision of how individuals might go about answering the “whither, which way, and what” question in a way that eschews any interest in effective participation in political power strikes me as ultimately Constantian, liberty consisting exclusively in, if not “private independence” then at least “peaceful enjoyment.”[8] For my own part, as Frost correctly notes, I don’t conceive the possibility of liberty being achieved independently of equal participation in power, to the degree that the exercise of the latter must necessarily intervene in the subject’s admittedly always constrained efforts to orient their voluntary action.  Indeed, in the final instance, given the woeful incapacity of contemporary liberal representative governments, as well as various competitive and illiberal authoritarian ones, to address – let alone solve –  the well-known problems associated with widespread economic inequality, ecological crisis, and so on, I see no reason to think that the safety of the people is capable of being procured through the activity of anyone other than common citizens themselves, those who bear the brunt of those crucial social ills that Frost identifies.

The first half of Luka Ribarević’s comments are dedicated to a concise and insightful summary of the main contours of my argument, which I could not have done a better job of myself. Although agreeing on Hobbes’s mistrust of the efficacy of democratic government, Ribarević thinks I am not justified in concluding that certain of Hobbes’s revisions to his political philosophy can be considered as a form of auto-critique, one that looked to neutralize a possibly prior ethical ground for preferring democratic constitutions. As evidence he points to the 18th chapter of Leviathan, where we see re-emerge the originally democratic account of institution presented in the Elements and De cive. I confess that within my book I was more ambivalent on this question of the relation between Leviathan’s 18th and earlier chapters than I am now. I indeed interpreted the introduction of the language of authorization and representation, as many readers do, as Hobbes’s response to the potential argument that because democracy is necessarily the temporally earliest sovereign configuration, it may be seen as the most natural, and hence preferable on this basis. I was not entirely sure, however, if it was legitimate to interpret Hobbes as succeeding in producing an alternative account of the mechanics of foundation by institution. I am now much more convinced that he did not succeed at all in this, as chapter 18 makes clear. The distinction between Ribarević and myself is that whereas he sees the democratic substance of Chapter 18 as counter-evidence of any anti-democratic revision, I see the accompaniment of this substance with a complete elimination of the terminology of democracy – clearly and unequivocally specified in the earlier accounts – as evidence that Hobbes is trying to conceal something about the nature of the political process. Readers themselves will have to determine which position they find more convincing within the larger textual context.[9]

            Ribarević’s comments here lead into a larger question, which is if Hobbes is so convinced of the immanent dangers of democratic activity, why does he not formally exclude it as a sovereign possibility? In fact, I think much of Hobbes’s analysis does in fact work to this end. Consider, for instance, what I see as a key passage within De cive, which I highlight in the book.[10] Here Hobbes is concerned with refuting critics of monarchy who ground their rejection of the latter on the basis of its instauration of a relationship of political inequality, in which title to govern inheres within one person. For Hobbes such critics overlook the fact that a similar operation is carried out within an aristocracy, which is still defined in terms of the concentration of authority within a separate part of the community.[11] The critique of monarchy is thus refuted on the basis that it equally applies to aristocracy. What is never mentioned is democracy, and how this regime might escape the particular challenge, that which foregrounds the question of the possibility of political equality. Indeed, in this chapter the “state of equality” is associated only with the “state of war.”[12] Hobbes thus seems to do what the majority of his readers do when confronting the issue of sovereign office: practically exclude democracy as a viable constitutional possibility, thus eliding the question of what is singular about this form of regime. 

            Ribarević’s comments thus point us toward the problem of the specificity of democracy. At this point I can fold into the discussion the commentary of Diego Fernández Peychaux, which also raises this question. Although noting what is perhaps underemphasized in my book – that “the lack of normative principles is constitutive of all political societies, regardless of the way the multitude’s reduction to unity is institutionalized” – Fernández Peychaux nevertheless observes that the “Hobbesian distinction between the nature of sovereign power and the different ways it can be institutionalized is not an incidental detail.” I strongly agree, and suspect that readers of Hobbes have not been sufficiently attuned to this distinction, and how it might greatly complicate the way a political observer might assess – whether negatively or positively – the democratic sovereign form. To raise just one possibility here, I note that in his interesting reflections on the possibility of the conditions for the coming into being of the democratic form – an account alternative to that of Hobbes and his originary democracy – Ribarević at several points refers to democracy as a “form of state”. Now, for someone like Ribarević who is highly conversant in the technical details of Hobbesian political thinking, there is nothing particularly problematic with such language, to the degree that we take the term state to be synonymous with commonwealth. But within the mainstream of contemporary political philosophy, the term tends to have a very different signification. The state refers us to a particular detached apparatus of rule, and the main question of political philosophy has to do with what legitimates the relationship between this coercive power and the citizens under its purview, such coercion being implicitly identified with politics as such. But in foregrounding the distinction between the commonwealth and the sovereign, and in theorizing democracy in the way that he does, Hobbes opens up an entirely new field for thinking political possibility.

            I believe it is worth remembering that Hobbes’s main source for thinking about the actually effective institution of a democratic regime was the Athenian experience. This is not to forget that Hobbes’s critique of the rhetorical excesses of democracy was formulated within the context of the proliferation of popular preaching and pamphleteering in England during the 1630s-1640s.[13] But in early modern England, where the term democracy still had a signification much closer to the ancient Greek one than our own, very few political actors self-identified as democratic, and Hobbes himself critiques the democratical gentlemen partially on the basis of their oligarchic commitments.[14] For Hobbes populist activity can tell us much about the logic of rhetoric and multitude that reappear in the democratic assembly, but not necessarily much about the instituted form of the democratic regime itself. He tells us explicitly, on the other hand, that his own critical reflections on this regime were framed through his encounter with Thucydides.[15] Returning to Hobbes’s early work on Thucydides is important not only in general – as indeed some of Ribarević’s recent publications have shown[16] – but thus in particular with respect to the question of democracy. It would, I think, be interesting to probe Hobbes’s engagement with ancient Greece in relation with contemporary classicist research, within which there is now a “broad consensus” on the fact that ancient democratic poleis cannot be viewed as state forms in the modern sense of the term.[17] Such would be to the degree that these entities are not governed by an autonomous agency that has become detached from the communal body, and endowed with a unique legislative right. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “The idea of a ‘State’ as an institution distinct and separated from the body of citizens would not have been understandable to a Greek.”[18] Castoriadis goes on to cite Thucydides himself on this matter, Hobbes rendering the words of Nicias in the following way: “For the men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city.”[19] What is essential to Hobbesian sovereignty is the establishment of an effective decision-procedure whose outputs are taken as legitimate by each member of the community, and which can therefore be seen as representative of the people’s will, who become unified precisely through this institution. The sovereign who represents the commonwealth, however, need not be articulated as a separate organ detached from the community, power being monopolized by a minor part of the latter. It is possible for there to exist a state in the Hobbesian sense which does not have a state in the contemporary sense. What requires further explanation is why Hobbes often covers up this political possibility, and how it relates to his critique of democratic activity.

            In short, I am suggesting that much more can be said about the unique nature of personation in a democratically instituted commonwealth. Here, then, there appears to be one major difference between myself and Fernández Peychaux: whereas he maintains that we “must insist on the fact that this democracy is not a concrete form of institutionalization but the political expression of anyone’s equality with anyone else,” I am more interested in thinking about the institutional conditions that might allow for the facilitation of such a demonstration of equality. This issue could perhaps be further contextualized via reference to the ongoing debate within radical democratic theory over the relation between democratic self-expression and the institution. In my view, the institution – even if we cannot definitively fix its contours in advance – need not be reduced to a necessarily de-democratizing structure that, through fixing the distribution of places and functions within a rigid schema, must work to deny plurality and equality. Hence my interest in thinking about Hobbesian democracy in relation to such historical phenomena as the democratic polis, workers’ councils, citizens’ assemblies, and so on. Regardless, though, I am in full agreement with Fernández Peychaux on the need to situate my analysis – not only in relation to recent intellectual studies which I am unfortunately unfamiliar with as a consequence of linguistic limitations – but also “various contemporary debates around the multiple forms of democracy in Europe and Latin America.” His comments, for instance, suggest a very productive way to intervene in current philosophical debates over the nature of political populism. Indeed, the effort to distinguish, for example, between inclusionary and exclusionary populist forms – between those that affirm equality-in-difference via non-hierarchical democratic exchange, and those that deny it through the effort to identify the people as such with a particular social part that is seen to embody and thereby homogenize the multiplicity of natural persons – might very well be complemented through incorporation of Hobbesian categories of analysis.

            In sum, what I have tried to highlight in my comments is the degree to which the critical analyses of Frost, Ribarević, and Fernández Peychaux reveal to us the extent to which Hobbes’s political thought is capable of opening up reflection on a variety of interesting and important problems relating to contemporary political theory: how the ethics of true liberty might impose concrete political imperatives regarding the security of citizens, how democracy might be differentiated from existing state forms, and how contemporary political movements can demonstrate the possibility for the simultaneous affirmation of equality and multiplicity. What each critic has called our attention to is that Hobbes’s political thought, far from being of mere historical interest and at most revealing something about our conceptual inheritances, is in fact a living body of work that is capable of productively intervening in our current political conjuncture. 

[1] For just one notable account of the historical changes in the meaning of the term democracy and its normative evaluation, particularly with respect to the American context, see Russell L. Hanson, “Democracy,” in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, ed. Terence Ball, James Farr, and Russell L. Hanson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 68–89.  

[2] Kurt A. Raaflaub, “Democracy, Oligarchy, and the Concept of the ‘Free’ Citizen in Late Fifth-Century Athens,” Political Theory 11, no. 4 (1983): 518.

[3] For example, Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[4] Quentin Skinner, “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action,” Political Theory 2, no. 3 (1974): 293–94.

[5] Samantha Frost, Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[6] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” in Selected Writings, by Karl Marx, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 88.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Marxism and Philosophy,” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 130.

[8] Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” in Political Writings, by Benjamin Constant, ed. and trans. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 316.

[9] For those interested but not inclined to acquire an entire book, the relevant content has also been published as a stand-alone article. See Christopher Holman, “‘That Democratic Ink Must Be Wiped Away’: Hobbes and the Normativity of Democracy,” The Review of Politics 83, no. 3 (2021): 305–28.

[10] Christopher Holman, Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2022), 176.

[11] Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 10.4.

[12] Hobbes, 10.4.

[13] See, for example, Cesare Cuttica, Anti-Democracy in England, 1570-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 225–29.

[14] Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Paul Seaward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), 205.

[15] Thomas Hobbes, “The Prose Life,” in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 247; Thomas Hobbes, “The Verse Life,” in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 256.

[16] Luka Ribarević, “Thomas Hobbes’s State of Nature: A View From Thucydides’ Peloponnesus,” Global Intellectual History 8, no. 5 (2023): 584–608; Luka Ribarević, “Thucydides and Hobbes on Epidemics and Politics: From the Plague of Athens to England’s Rabies,” Croation Political Science Review 60, no. 2 (2023): 7–30.

[17] Greg Anderson, “The Personality of the Greek State,” The Journal of Hellenistic Studies 129 (2009): 1, 5. Anderson, it needs to be noted, goes on to challenge this position, and indeed precisely through a study of Hobbes’s understanding of the state.

[18] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy:  Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. and trans. David Ames Curtis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 110.

[19] Thucydides, “The History of the Grecian Wars, Vol. II,” in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume Nine, by Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1843), 7.77.


This online colloquium is dedicated to discussing Christopher Holman’s book, “Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary”. The discussion will start with an introduction to the text by the author, followed by responses from Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux. Finally, Christopher Holman will provide a reply. We would like to express our gratitude to SUNY Press for their support in organizing this colloquium.

Hobbesian Democracy in Contemporary Political Thought:

Notes on Christopher Holman’s Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary

by Diego Fernández Peychaux[1]

Christopher Holman’s book, Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary, suggestively reframes the discussion around democracy in Hobbesian studies. What is at issue in the book is not the salvaging of the ‘monstrous’ philosopher of Malmesbury’s good name, but the grasping of how his thought on democracy and its challenges is still especially potent in the present. With great acumen, it proposes that it is possible to imagine a Hobbesian democracy without the need to turn Hobbes himself into a democrat. To Holman, it is as plain that Hobbes was no such thing as that his natural and political philosophies form a democratic foundation capable of illuminating not only an alternative hermeneutics of the text but also contemporary debate. This is because, between the two of them, these philosophies provides a foundation for natural ‘equality-in-difference’. This is the scandal of Hobbesian politics, rightly termed ‘democratic’ by Holman.

That said, insofar as this equality-in-difference is the condition of possibility for any kind of institutionalisation of social life, the question remains: is Hobbes anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic or anti-political? Is not this ‘equality’ the scandal of Hobbesian politics that Holman identifies and exploits to think the present? Does Hobbes conceal the connections between natural philosophy and political implications, or does he constantly expose them? Is it necessary to re-articulate the disparate elements of his theory in order to make Hobbes an ‘anti-Hobbesian’ democrat?

To answer these questions, I believe we can turn for help to a rabid critic of Hobbes like John Bramhall. His 1658 critique Leviathan classifies it as a ‘Rebel’s Catechism’ (555). It does not escape the bishop’s notice that Hobbes presents himself on occasion as the most fervent defender of royal rights, yet twists them out of all recognition in his exposition. Bishop Bramhall’s keen insight enables him to intuit that such demolition does not occur when Hobbes asserts the absolute character of authority, but when it is contrasted with the ‘true liberty of a subject’. This contrast makes it clear that the mortal god’s authority is no longer based on a divine right, but on a natural right delimited by human potentia. In other words, as Bramhall remarks, Hobbes ‘seek to underprop the heavens from falling with a bulrush’ (544). Heaven, in Bramhall’s view, is bound to fall – as is absolute sovereign right – if subjects enjoy natural rights rather than being merely at the disposal of royal graces; but more importantly, if the sovereign has a right that shares the ontological status of any other human potestas.

What Bramhall sees as negative, we, along with Holman, might put in a positive light. Indeed, we must insist on it. Mr. Hobbes is a man who lived in fright from birth. He is a man who fled from the Civil War. But he is also a man who does not back away from the theoretical and practical implications of his ‘rebel’ civil science. We might perhaps imagine how Mr. Hobbes’s fears change over the years. If the young Hobbes’s body retains the memory of his mother’s fear of foreign invasion, the adult Hobbes is more afraid of the consequences of abandoning the security of complaisant discourses. Yet this fear did not hold him back. The leap into the abyss of an ultimately groundless ontology is even depicted on the frontispiece to his Leviathan. Notwithstanding the technical limitations of two-dimensional drawing, it shows the body of the mortal god as both unitary and heterogeneous, in motion and lacking any foundation. Indeed, as Horst Bredekamp points out, it is more than symptomatic that Hobbes abandons any representation of the sovereign as a human being and tries instead to depict the artificial, tragic composition of civil government.

In this light, the latent difficulty for Hobbesian studies with defining the field of politics in terms of dichotomies like order/conflict, constituent/constituted or politics/the political becomes more apparent. When authors like Jacques Rancière, Claude Lefort or Roberto Esposito, to name but a few, resort – with differing categories – to thinking this relationship and use Hobbes as the epitome of the preference for order, the constituted and a politics reduced to the mere activity of government, they tend to surgically remove the materialism from his work. When, however, as Holman suggests, this materialism becomes the condition of enunciation for Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy, the possible coordinates plotted with the points of reference provided by such dichotomies shift radically, its being no longer truly possible to suppose that Hobbes thinks of order as the homogenisation and impediment of the affective motion he describes in sensing/thinking bodies.

Holman’s entire book seems to be an attempt to do away with the limits plotted by these coordinates. His proposal to differentiate Mr. Hobbes from Hobbesian philosophy has the merit of dislocating from the get-go the Leviathan author’s labelling under a tradition of dichotomy-driven thought. In the matrix of Hobbesian thought restored chapter by chapter by Holman’s book, politics is not located in the institutional ‘here-and-now’ of the conflict of the ‘natural’ state of war, nor in the ‘here-after’ of a conflict-ridden nature closed by the constitution of the sovereign. As the Argentinian philosopher Eduardo Rinesi suggests, the constituent ambiguity of the politics that Hobbes has in mind entails a ‘space of tension that opens up between the cracks of any order’ because of that order’s inability to exhaust all its meanings in itself (20). I will say something later on about Holman’s and Rinesi’s common calling to think the tragic dimension of politics along with Hobbes.

In short, even if this connection between his natural and political philosophies is not as obscure as Holman claims, his book does, nevertheless, provide an original approach for further thinking on the subject. The difference with other recent studies on democracy in Hobbes is that these (though inverting it) take such dichotomies as their starting point. Holman, however, is not interested in identifying a democratic element and then isolating it from the rest of an anachronistically monarchical work. Those kinds of works tend to reach conclusions that lack a textual correlate with Hobbes’s work. In pointing out this lack, Holman does not anticipate a theoretical objection to his conclusions. Yet he does make a distinction with his working hypothesis. His book proposes that we think democracy without abandoning the Hobbesian matrix of thought that binds natural philosophy to politics. Again, this is important, as the author points out, not for its philological fidelity but for the critical potential such fidelity still displays.

For example, the liberal appropriation of Hobbes identifies in individual consent a core element for the foundation of democracy. No one today would doubt the significance of this. Yet, Holman argues, to emphasise the authorisation of the multitude as a sum of individuals is to abandon a central concept for Hobbes, namely the unity of sovereign power. We should also add that a reading like this removes the inferences that natural philosophy allows to be drawn from the statements of his politics. Liberal appropriation thus places methodological individualism in the theoretical place Hobbes assigns to the multiple relations caused by the actions of sensing/thinking bodies. In other words, liberals insist on thinking about politics through the foundation provided by independence, when what Hobbes thinks about is our constituent interrelationship both as individuals and as society. Therefore, Holman underlines, Hobbesian pluralism does not abandon the common instance that creates the conditions of possibility for specific vital projects (154). Indeed, adds Maria Isabel Limongi, the juridical in Hobbes unfolds against a background of social relations.

The interpretations of radical democracy, Holman points out, advance along the same lines. While I do not entirely share his criticisms, I do agree in one respect: that the radical capture of the caput remains within a dualism that would prevent the conception of the co-implication of the one and the multiple. This occurs, for example, when James Martel identifies in the rhetorical device of authorisation a decentring of sovereign authority and suggests that this decentring allows us to abandon the ‘ballast’ that sovereign authority entails for the expression of human diversity. The condition of possibility for rescuing a democratic element in Hobbes would, then, seem to lie in the decision to surgically remove the different modes of expressing difference, thereby abandoning the political thought of unity.

Holman’s work treads a different methodological path. What he is trying to set in train is a possible reading of Hobbes’s work in which the key question in his thought – and not just for his democratic interpreters – is how to compound individuals’ political participation without giving up the figure of the sovereign people. Or, as above, how to think the internal heterogeneity and contingency of this unity. This does not involve an abandoning of the expression of the diverse but of the insistence on the way Hobbes outlines the concept of sovereignty in such a way that it denotes the common implication of the wills of many in the will of many. Put another way, Holman is interested in how Hobbes thinks the need to forge an ‘us’ that compounds a common power with which to redirect the natural determination to fight. But, at the same time, he is interested in how Hobbes warns that this ‘us’ is not pre-constituted but is a retrospective effect of multiple connections. To describe these, he resorts, as Holman insists, to a combination of varying doses of juridical and political language and his natural philosophy.

Hobbesian thought addresses the question of democracy without hiding its tragedy. If democracy is, as Holman says after Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘the self-institution of the collectivity by the collectivity, and this self-institution as movement’, the absence of normative principles to guide this movement, it requires people to constitute them by self-limiting. Popular arrogance, threats to the constitutional context itself, threats to the democratic pact, these are the tragedy of democracy.

So, Hobbesian thought points to two aspects in reflecting on democracy. First, it recalls the historical risk of the people not actually self-limiting. Which did actually happen and still does. What is more, Holman correctly points out that, in the present historical moment, there are many liberal democracies that end up harbouring authoritarian political movements. Such movements are ‘authoritarian’ not because they curbed the participation of the many, but because they demand a homogenisation of the people, which for Hobbes would be ontologically or politically impossible. This is why he insists both on the sovereign’s having to define the field of doctrines that can be taught and on the threat of penal punishment not being enough to prevent the multitude’s indignation for its iniquities or favouritism (Lev., 21.17; 30.4, 16, 23).

Second, Hobbes reminds us of the illusory nature of the pre-political principles whereby democracies try to limit themselves. Or, put another way, it is central to Hobbesian political thought to abandon the ‘tales’ that claim there are pre-political foundations for the political community’s self-institution. If the kings of his seventeenth century have no divine right, the democracies of our twenty-first century lack any founding metaphysical ‘consensuses’. It is not, then, these ‘democratic consensuses’ that ‘guarantee’ the democratic life; rather it is that very community who have, in the movement of their life, to constantly remake them. Hence the abiding danger of considering the advances made in waves of democratisation irreversible. Such waves may end up concealing the necessary iteration of the causes of these advances. While the composition of the ‘entire cause’ of that iteration lies beyond human self-determination, locating it squarely on a plane of formal automatism leaves room for the advance of contemporary forms of authoritarianism, those that employ ‘once-and-for-all’ rhetoric. Be that as it may, Rinesi insists, ‘a reflection on politics that identifies it with tragedy would not be a reflection on politics but one that forgets that a dark background of tragedy always awaits the failure of men’s conversational arts . . . it would be a perfectly naïve reflection on politics’ (33).

It is true that, in democratic institutions, Mr. Hobbes detects a special risk in the way they are constantly being constituted. In the specific case of the assembly, it is not for Hobbes – according to Holman – a stable, reliable medium ‘to reduce the plurality of distinct wills to a single one through the creation of an entity whose will stands in for and expresses those of all’ (8). But it is also true that this same Mr. Hobbes does not exempt the other forms of institutionalisation of sovereign power from this risk. The Hobbesian distinction between the nature of sovereign power and the different ways it can be institutionalised is not an incidental detail. Holman is correct in identifying it and in using it to reverse Mr. Hobbes’s negative assessment of the historical assemblies that had played leading roles in the English Civil War.

As Hobbes himself insists, the lack of normative principles is constitutive of all political societies, regardless of the way the multitude’s reduction to unity is institutionalised. Ultimately, this is the answer that he addresses to the neo-republicans in Chapter XXI of Leviathan, who, gazing at themselves in the Roman mirror, seek more freedom in a republic than in a monarchy. The constant review of its own foundations would not, therefore, be exclusive to democracy.

That said, the remaining question is how to found a principle that privileges democracy without leaving the Hobbesian frame of thought, according to which nothing universal exists except the names of things. Or, as we said above, how to identify that principle without saving Hobbes from himself by giving him an extra-social normative principle to order his political preferences. Holman skilfully resolves this question by pointing out that Hobbes’s natural philosophy identifies a universal human desire in ‘the extension and affirmation of life itself’ (159). Rather than alienating them from each other, this desire, experienced by all human bodies, places them in a necessary relationship. The tragedy of democracy, to use Holman’s framing of the question, is not how to make people compound their natural powers, but how to make them do so in a peaceful, constant and lasting way.

So, rather than resorting to notions like ‘safety of people’ or ‘true liberties of subjects’ in order to justify a right to resistance (which he certainly does not deny), Holman insists on how these outline a democratic imperative. This imperative, he claims, derives from the fact that the people is safer in democracy because ‘it maximally affirms Hobbesian equality-in-difference, the equal right of all to actively participate in legislative processes facilitating the extended expression of and pursuit of individual citizens’ desires’ (178). One must insist on the fact that this democracy is not a concrete form of institutionalization but the political expression of anyone’s equality with anyone else.

The political and theoretical contribution of this democratic Hobbesian philosophy traced by Holman is not insignificant, as it allows us to constantly affirm the need for a situated analysis to see how democracy is experienced in situ. This locates Hobbes – but Holman too – in relation to the various contemporary debates around the multiple forms of democracy in Europe and Latin America.

Bibliographical References

Bramhall, John. 1658 [1844]. ‘The catching of the Leviathann or the great whale,’ in The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, John Bramhall, D.D., Sometime Lord Archbishop of Armagh, Primate and Metropolitan of All Ireland, Volumen 4. Oxford: J. H. Parker.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1996. ‘La démocratie athénienne: fausses et vraies questions,’ in La Montée de l’insignifiance, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe, 4. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, p. 225.

Horst Bredekamp. 2020. Leviathan body politic as visual strategy in the work of Thomas Hobbes. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Rinesi, Eduardo. 2011. Política y tragedia: Hamlet entre Hobbes y Maquiavelo [Politics and tragedy: Hamlet between Hobbes and Machiavelli]. Buenos Aires: Colihue.

Rinesi, Eduardo. 2021. ¡Qué cosa, la cosa pública! Apuntes shakespereanos para una república popular [What a Deal, the Public Deal! Shakespearean Notes for a Popular Republic]. Buenos Aires: UBU.

[1] Professor of Political Theory at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina. Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Argentina.



This online colloquium is dedicated to discussing Christopher Holman’s book, “Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary”. The discussion will start with an introduction to the text by the author, followed by responses from Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux. Finally, Christopher Holman will provide a reply. We would like to express our gratitude to SUNY Press for their support in organizing this colloquium.

Democracy and the State: Notes on Christopher Holman’s Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary

Luka Ribarević, Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb

The status of democracy in Hobbes’s science of politics has long been a matter of heated debate among scholars. As Christopher Holman presents in his thought-provoking Hobbes and the democratic imaginary, Hobbes has been portrayed both as a radical democrat and as the arch-nemesis of democracy, inter alia as endorsing various possible roles along the line between these two extreme points. In a sense, Holman’s innovative reading reflects such a history of scholarship. Not only by assessing these various readings, but also by espousing a meandric way of arguing in his own analysis. This kind of approach opens as much space as possible to different aspects of Hobbes’s engagement with democracy across his works, whether his theses can be interpreted as denouncing or supporting a democratic form of the state.

To be sure, by firmly distancing his reading from the “non-sense of the democratical Hobbesians” (5), Holman has no intention to give us “a democratic Hobbes” (2). The reasons behind his position are revealed in the account of the consistent character of Hobbes’s idea and corresponding critique of democracy with which the book opens. Throughout his works, from the translation of Thucydides’ History to Leviathan and late autobiographies, Hobbes’s political philosophy remained “enthusiastically anti-democratic” (2). 

In order to fully appreciate the extent of Hobbes’s critique of democracy, Holman insists that it is necessary to bear in mind that his understanding of democracy implies a form of the state which allows for a generalized political participation (19). Without an assembly open to all citizens, in which particular wills are mediated through deliberation and the will of the people as a sovereign is formed, there is no democracy (24, 31, 35). In other words, what defines Hobbes’s notion of democracy is “its radical and direct form” (45).

According to Holman, Hobbes believes that the dynamics of democratic politics is such that it reintroduces the conflictual logic characteristic of the state of nature in the heart of the civil state. Therefore, it makes impossible the maintenance of the peace for which the state was instituted in the first place. Given “the lack of a natural unity” of a democratic sovereign (36), a unified sovereign will needs to be artificially produced in the assembly. This process is unavoidably plagued by rhetoric and demagoguery which inflames passions that overwhelm reasoned deliberation (36-38). The nature of democracy is bound to be hubristic as the sovereign people, taken by something akin to madness and believing it can do anything, rejects any kind of self-limitation (7, 9, 151). In the final analysis, democracy is inclined to become utterly powerless since the inner workings of a democratic assembly are tending to dissolve a unitary sovereign into a warring multitude of individuals (9, 40-41). Realizing that the democratic state is potentially incapable to stave off conflict between individuals with “distinct normative conceptions” and is therefore prone to destabilization potentially leading to civil war (42), Hobbes sees it as “the most undesirable expression of political authority” (32).

According to Holman, Hobbes’s thorough critique of democracy is the main motive behind “certain key changes in the structure of his political philosophy” (45, 48). In a sort of “autocritique”, in the two iterations of his political philosophy following The Elements of Law, Hobbes tries to purge his system of any remaining elements that could be construed as giving rise to an “ethical preference for democracy” (48). In The Elements Hobbes put forward the Aristotelian claim that democracy is the only form of the state which allows for “the realization of liberty in the terms of collective self-government” (50). In order to neutralize the democratic potential of such an understanding of liberty, Hobbes in De Cive severs the link between liberty and participation by defining liberty simply as the absence of impediments (55). Furthermore, he explicitly denied the idea that the majority of subjects have any desire to participate in public life. However, Hobbes did keep the idea of an originary democracy, that is of “the initial democratic assembly” (67) which necessarily precedes aristocracy and monarchy “as a logical and practical moment” (60) by deciding on the form the state will take. Holman argues that it was in order to supress this democratic residual that Hobbes introduced the theory of authorization in Leviathan. Since every state now comes into being not through self-organization of the people, but thanks to the authorization performed by singular individuals, there is no more need for the temporally primal democracy as the birthplace of the state. This is, according to Holman, further corroborated by the fact that the vocabulary of democracy is no longer present in the account of the generation of the state (66-67). Holman concludes that Hobbes believed that he had thereby ruled out the possibility of reading his philosophia civilis as providing “democratic sovereignty with a unique normative legitimacy” (71).

At the end of the first part of the book Holman leaves us with the impression of Hobbes as a radically anti-democratic author who did everything in his power to cleanse his work of any democratic stains. However, the second part of the book opens a new perspective by meticulously identifying and examining the “two ontological conditions of democratic being” that were recognized by Hobbes (75). The first regards the absence of any transcendent limits on the capacity of individuals to autonomously institute the social world according to their various conceptions of the good (98). Holman’s penetrating analysis shows to what degree Hobbes understood the world and human beings as “open to alteration and reconstitution” (95). Together with a radical difference of singular individuals, this openness accounts for the myriad of forms of political life and allows for the continuous self-institution of the democratic state.

The second condition refers to a fundamental equality of human beings understood as “the equal capacity to reason” about their specific goals and ways to achieve them (111). By affirming “a radical equality of all individual persons” (104), Hobbes does not imply a uniform identity. Rather, the persons remain singular since the very equality “affirms difference” by individualizing them “through the exercise of the universal capacity to reason” (112). Holman therefore understands Hobbesian equality as equality-in-difference. Nevertheless, there being no substantial difference regarding the very ability to reason, Hobbes forcefully rejects “any titles to govern grounded in naturally occurring intellectual disparities between persons” (105).

However, a recognition of these two fundamental “conditions of democratic being” (10) does not lead Hobbes to acknowledge democracy as the preferred form of the state (140-141). On the contrary, the absence of the exterior constraints of the sovereign power and the radical equality prove to be powerful destabilizing factors in democracy as that form of the state which entirely depends on their realization, making “the critique of democracy especially urgent” (151).

In the final part of the book Holman changes his methodological approach governing the first two parts. He sets out to examine, contrary to Hobbes’s own intention (12), whether it is possible to devise normative arguments in favour of democracy by “critically redeploying specific Hobbesian categories in relation to one another in new ways” (141). The main idea is to identify “the conceptual ground for the identification of a normative preference for democracy” (154) by investigating the relation between Hobbes’s understanding of natural law and his concept of liberty.

In Holman’s reading, Hobbes’s articulation of natural law is “a manifestation of the nonfoundational structure of the world” (141). A lack of transcendent norms regulating the institution of the social world is reflected in natural law’s silence on the question of particular forms of commonwealth. It only addresses the human political capacity to artificially institute such a world, leaving the precise articulation of political forms to civil laws (147-148). Hobbes’s natural law, Holman continues, abstracts from “all thick assumptions regarding the nature of human being” (186) and is focused only on “a minimal identity” shared by all individuals, that is on their immanent inclination towards self-preservation and the means for instituting political order meant to provide for the self-preservation of every subject (159, 12).

True liberty, on the other hand, is “a manifestation of the equality-in-difference” (141). It is concerned with the continuous realization of “certain definite conditions of existence” allowing for the safety understood in the broad terms as a preservation not only of a bare, but also of a good life (164). What Holman intends to show is that desire for political participation can be understood as one of a few intrinsic tendencies of human beings that true liberty is concerned with and the enabling of whose expression is an ethical imperative demanded by natural law (164-165). That would amount to articulating a normative preference for democracy as the form of the state that is most attuned to the essential inclinations of human nature. Holman grounds his case in “the reappearance of the participatory desire in Leviathan” (164), providing textual evidence for Hobbes’s implicit recognition of politics “as a fundamental modality of human existence” (171).

To the question as to why then Hobbes did not adopt democracy as a preferred form of the state, Holman’s answer has already been provided in the first part of his book: the internal mechanics of democratic assembly are inherently self-destructive (177). That is why Holman turns to the contemporary political theory which questions such a dismal view of democratic politics and thereby enables us to liberate the democratic potentials implicit in Hobbes’s political thought. If it could be demonstrated that democratic assemblies can escape a spiral movement in which passions of their members encroach on reason and endanger their safety, democracy, allowing for the realization of “the equal right of all to actively participate in legislative processes” as “a foundational freedom” (177-178), would change its status from the most criticized form of the state to the favoured one. 

Holman’s complex argument covers multiple points that are of key importance for the appropriate assessment of Hobbes’s understanding of democracy. His analysis of Hobbes’s critique of democracy is particularly precise and convincing. I read Hobbes along similar lines, as taking democracy to be almost fatally flawed. Lacking a naturally unified sovereign will, it must artificially construct it through deliberation in the assembly. Such an absence of a stable focal point which continuously provides political unity by ascribing its undivided sovereign will to each subject makes it vulnerable to political instability. The predicament is aggravated by the use of inflammatory rhetoric characteristic of large assemblies’ dynamics. Democracy burdens its citizens by asking of them to be able to reach time and again binding decisions regarding their safety broadly construed. That it is a heavy burden can easily be grasped if we are to remember that it was the very same questions that motivated endless conflicts in the state of nature. In other words, the same persons that were fighting each other as members of the multitude prior to the institution of the state, are now expected to peacefully enact norms regulating questions of their collective well-being and submit to them. That is why democracy can indeed be seen as the form of the state that is the closest to the state of nature, always in danger of falling back into the state of generalized conflict.

Therefore, I believe that there can be no doubt with regard to Hobbes’s qualms about democracy. Still, I do not find easily defensible the thesis that it was primarily the wish to supress democratic elements in his work that motivated Hobbes to make changes to some of the key elements in his theory of the state, especially when it comes to Leviathan. Here I am referring specifically to the introduction of the theory of authorization which was interpreted not only contextually as a move in the ideological debate, but also, for example, as a result of Hobbes’s dissatisfaction with his earlier argument regarding the institution of the sovereign power. Conclusions about Hobbes’s intention derived from the effects of the introduced changes hinge on the way the effects themselves are interpreted. Holman stresses the individual nature of the authorization acts performed by each future subject. According to him, this allowed Hobbes to abandon the view of the foundational act by which the state is instituted as collective in nature, leaving thereby the originary democracy out of the picture (3, 170). Holman finds this conclusion corroborated by the disappearance of democratic vocabulary in Leviathan passages dealing with the institution of the state (67).

However, even if we interpreted authorization as a series of individual acts and conceded the absence of democratic vocabulary the fact remains that Hobbes in Leviathan keeps the collective decision as the key step in the foundation of the state. It is well known, as Holman himself shows, that in chapter 18 Hobbes sticks to the model deployed in the earlier formulations of his science of politics. There we find out that the process of institution of the state is not completed by individual authorizations, but only when sovereignty is conferred to a particular person or assembly “by the major part” (L, 18.1), that is by the voting of the “congregation of them that were assembled” (L, 18.5). In other words, in Leviathan we still encounter a collective which establishes the state by reaching a binding decision by means of majority voting. If democracy is characterized by “an equivalent capacity on the part of all citizens to competently participate in the instituting process” (140), then this foundational moment should be interpreted as democratic per definitionem. What is more, by introducing the theory of authorization in Leviathan, Hobbes promotes every future subject to the status of author of the sovereign power. It is worth noting that subjects retain that status in the civil state, regardless of the form of the state that the assembled congregation decides to adopt. That is, even in monarchy, subjects are the authors of the sovereign power.

Read in this way, chapters 16 through 18 of Leviathan do not seem to offer direct corroboration of Holman’s thesis on the theory of authorization as a part of Hobbes’s more general plan to eradicate all traces of democracy from his work. This line of interpretation, however, is open to reproach that Hobbes’s theory of representation is a sort of ideological trick, imposing all duties on the subjects and conferring all rights to the sovereign, and thus belying the idea of subjects as authors who can in any way influence power that is exercised over them. In my view, countering this kind of criticism demands assessing Hobbes’s understanding of the liberty of the subjects and the duties of the sovereign, exactly what Holman turns to in the final part of his book.

As we have seen, Holman tries, pace Hobbes, to establish a normative defence of democracy by showing that the desire for political participation might be construed as a part of the true liberties of the subjects which the sovereign has the duty to uphold. The problem is that Hobbes, although defining the true liberties of the subjects in quite an extensive way, does not allow for any kind of political or religious considerations to be regarded as legitimate grounds for resistance against the sovereign. However, the duties of the sovereign, not being the mirror image of the more narrowly defined true liberties, might under certain conditions comprehend democratization of the state as one of its goals. It might be possible to regard political participation as something that the sovereign could at a certain moment regard as being relative to the preservation of the safety of the people understood in its broad sense, as defined by Hobbes in Leviathan (L, 30.1). 

By taking into account not only the theory of authorization, but also both the true liberties and the duties of the sovereign, the relation between sovereign and subjects emerges in a new light. Despite the legal unaccountability of the sovereign, the logic of sovereignty dictated by them points the sovereign to act as if he was indeed bound to represent them in the way they would deem appropriate. Depending on the subjects’ judgements (163), the sovereign needs to constantly increase the sphere of liberty his subjects enjoy, thereby maximizing not only their power, but also the power of the state. At a certain point, this expectation of the increase of their liberty by the subjects themselves might also imply the right to participate in the government. Still, even if the monarchical sovereign would be ready to step down by becoming many out of one, the problem of the dynamics of the large assemblies, emphasized by Holman, would remain. Hobbes’s sovereign would be acting against the laws of nature if he were to allow the transformation of the state’s form that might be expected to cause its dissolution. 

On the other hand, if such a scenario of political disintegration is inevitable in democracy, then Hobbes would be forced to be a much starker critic of democracy than he already is and exclude democracy altogether from the list of the viable forms of the state. Therefore, the pertinent question regarding Hobbes’s relation to democracy cannot be whether it is the form of the state which optimally realizes essential human desires, or a state in which the barely dormant natural condition is about to be awakened at any given moment. Since it can be both, the question is under which conditions it can be one rather than the other. More precisely, at which point in time democracy takes on one of these contrasting faces.

If we take the moment of creation of the state out of the natural condition as the starting point of the political process, then it should be clear that democracy is not the appropriate form the state should take on at that stage. The consent on which the state was erected can hardly be expected to last beyond the initial constitutive act performed by all the future subjects pressed by unbearable fear for their lives. The conflicts raging in the state of nature will necessarily reappear in the democratic assembly, bringing together all the former members of the multitude as equal partakers in the sovereign power. What is needed instead is a strong focal point which can generate unity.

However, those initially belligerently disposed subjects might in due time become aware of the advantages procured by a well-run state. And in that case the state itself might become the missing focal point for the sake of which the subjects would be ready to set aside their differences otherwise productive of conflicts. Perhaps even to the point that they would be ready to defend it against the encroachments of the sovereign by demanding the right to partake in the government as its authors in their full capacity. Only then would it become possible for the democratic assembly to escape the fatal logic of factionalism leading eventually to a civil war. Put differently, in order to have a democracy it is necessary to first have a state which, despite its democratic beginning, has to be nondemocratic.

The feasibility of such a scenario depends on the question of human malleability, a topic to which Holman goes back repeatedly, emphasizing “the productive influence of socialization” and habituation which allow for the changing identity of a community (91-94). Holman sees Hobbes’s individuals and communities as open to alteration in time through “their particular historical encounters” (95), conditioned by their “concrete-particular historical inheritances” (99). He stresses the influence of “popular education” as a means of realizing “a project of universal socialization” understood as “a feasible historical one”, underpinning “the preservation of sovereignty” (115). In other words, Hobbes’s individuals are creatures of history whose ability to change makes possible, no matter how improbable, the political change towards democracy. 

By opening the diachronic perspective in this way, Holman seems to offer an access to understanding Hobbes’s relation to democracy that is alternative to his own. That is, it allows for conceiving democratic assembly as a viable figure the sovereign can take even on Hobbes’s own terms. In that case, the tension between Hobbes’s critique of democracy and his enlisting it as one of the three forms of the state disappears. Democracy is indeed a highly unstable and therefore not recommendable form of the state, except under very specific and demanding conditions in which it might turn out to be the state that caters for the safety of its subjects and responds to their essential inclinations in the most efficient way. 


This online colloquium is dedicated to discussing Christopher Holman’s book, “Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary”. The discussion will start with an introduction to the text by the author, followed by responses from Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux. Finally, Christopher Holman will provide a reply. We would like to express our gratitude to SUNY Press for their support in organizing this colloquium.

Samantha Frost

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“Liberty and democracy: Holman on Hobbes”

Christopher Holman’s Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary is a thoughtful and provocative piece of work. At the heart of Holman’s analysis is his claim that Hobbes is so averse to the faction and instability that attend democratic forms of governance that he spends a significant portion of his writerly career weeding out ideas in his own work that could be construed as the basis of an argument in support democracy. And yet, Holman argues, there remain pieces of his argument that could be marshalled to formulate a natural law argument for democracy. This is what he sets out to do in his final chapter, contending that “there is embedded within Hobbes’s political thought a rudiment for considering the generalization of public participation in political affairs as a freedom of the subject demanded by natural law” (142).

Holman’s argument rests on an examination of Hobbes’s account of liberty, leaning as Annabel Brett (1997) and Philip Pettit (2005) do on the dual-faceted nature of Hobbesian liberty as at once a lack of impediments and the power or capacity to act. So, he argues, “a natural person, as an animate being, is… free if they have the capacity to choose to do or not to do that which is in their power to do” (157). Building his case, Holman links this notion of liberty to Hobbes’s claims that “the word safety” in salus populi signifies not bare survival but instead “an extended concept of preservation as prosperity and flourishing” (160). This linkage enables Holman to draw out and emphasize what Hobbes passingly refers to as “true liberties.” Holman observes: “As distinct from both natural liberty, as well as the basic liberties of the subject that exist where law within a commonwealth does not regulate specific spheres of action, the so-called ‘true liberty of the subject’ refers to ‘the things, which though commanded by the Soveraign, he may nevertheless, without Injustice, refuse to do.’ They outline a specific set of concrete conditions that we can understand as being essential to the realization of the sovereign imperative to ensure the safety of the citizens” (161-2). As Holman points out, throughout Hobbes’s writing, true liberties include such things as the right to resist the death penalty or to refuse to testify against a family member or patron, as well as, more weirdly, the right to refuse to give up access to water, food, fire, shelter, or mobility. Per Sreedhar’s (2019) survey, in the secondary literature on Hobbes, true liberties are often considered as rights of resistance. In Holman’s argument, though, they are more than that: they are concrete possibilities for each of us to live our best lives, however we might define that.

Holman contends that when we take Hobbes to argue that the purpose of the commonwealth is to preserve these “true liberties,” the argument against democracy sows the seeds of its own undoing. The “best” in “our best lives” might include participation in politics, which is to say that with true liberties in play, Hobbes’s argument cannot “foreclose[] the emergence of collective projects in a potentially oppositional mode” (163). Having observed this, Holman then goes on to emphasize several elements of Hobbes’s argument: for one, he points to Hobbes’s extensive discussion of people’s participation in non-legislative cooperative “bodies politic” or organizations, which “reveal… the extent of the human desire for collective deliberation in group fora” (167). Next, surmising that this participation in subordinate bodies politics means “that the commonwealth is always traversed by a widespread participatory desire to act with others,” he points to Hobbes’s conclusion “that individuals do have a natural desire for political participation” (167). Holman suggests that with such acknowledgments, Hobbes has in spite of himself portrayed participation in politics as “an expression of an essential human power” (164). Such a portrayal means that participation belongs under the protective rubric of “true liberties.” After some other conceptual footwork, Holman concludes that “on this basis, it becomes possible to generate an ethical preference for democracy as a sovereign form” (164).

The bulk of Holman’s text is an erudite and carefully argued demonstration of Hobbes’s efforts to make us see how democracy is troublesome. And his explication of the notion of true liberty, including many of Hobbes’s snide asides about the so-called proponents of liberty who are clearly just angling for powerful positions of their own—this explication seems on the way to helping us understand what Hobbes might be up to when he dismisses the notion that democratic forms of government give people the most freedom. Holman almost takes us to the heart of Hobbes’s critique, but then swerves at the last minute to buttress arguments in favor of democracy with some Hobbesian pillars. 

It is this last turn in Holman’s argument that leaves me dissatisfied. I’m not sure that democracy or democratic theory needs Hobbes. And I’m not sure why Holman would turn Hobbes against himself in quite this way, developing a natural law grounding for democracy when Hobbes is resolute in his assumption that politics is radically ungrounded. 

In domesticating Hobbes by suspending a series of Hobbes’s misgivings, Holman aligns Hobbes with the preferences of contemporary democratic theory. In doing so, he misses an opportunity to get really uncomfortable while extrapolating the possibilities in Hobbes’s argument. We here in the 21st century are entrenched in a tradition in which authorship of a law makes one’s obedience to it a form of freedom. Hobbes is hardly unusual in thinking that such a claim is tosh: Theorists like Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault, for instance, have shown us that the formulation that obedience to a self-imposed law constitutes liberty is a brilliant ruse. Just so, for Hobbes, whomever holds the sword—a monarch, aristocratic council, or democratic assembly—there is still a sword. On my reading, this is the argument that Holman develops for a large part of his book. And then he blinks. So what I’m going to do now is speculate about what he could have said if he didn’t blink. Initially, Holman shows quite powerfully that Hobbes is trying to disarticulate liberty and democracy. What would it mean to take that effort seriously, to ramify such a disarticulation and think through its implications for contemporary theory? 

To play this idea out, we can return to Holman’s account of true liberty. Holman argues that for Hobbes, “the consideration of the freedom of any entity… entails a correlative consideration of the natural power of that entity to do that which it is able to do. The range of possible liberty is structured by both liberty and power components, one being free to act in a certain way only if one does not lack the internal impediments to said action, that is to say, only if one has the power to act” (156). Taking his lead, I want to push further, drawing on Andrea Bardin’s (2022) reminder that Hobbes’s physics is Gallilean rather than Newtonian, which is to say that we have to think causality in terms of local motion rather than action at a distance. 

For Hobbes, a decisive characteristic of voluntary action in animate bodies is consideration of and answers to the questions “whither, which way, and what.” And for humans, this consideration involves the anticipation of the future via the inextricable mix of imagination and desire. If we keep Bardin’s caution in mind, then the conditions under which someone broaches those questions are of signal importance, because they are ongoing causal factors in the formation of desire, the play of imagination, the path of deliberation, the unfolding of voluntary action. In other words, in Hobbes’s account, humans are deeply embedded/immersed in their local contexts, and the way they respond to the questions “whither, which way, and what” and their ability to act is profoundly dependent on those conditions. 

We the inheritors of all that came after Hobbes tend to think of liberty in terms of autonomy. But Hobbes’s materialism means that he is thinking liberty under conditions of heteronomy. Logically, then, to support liberty is to ensure that the confluence of heteronomous factors are such that people can make decisions via a considered and imaginative answer to the questions of “whither, which way, and what.” So perhaps Hobbes is proposing that true liberties consist in conditions in which people can give a fulsome consideration to “whither, which way, and what.” With true liberties in play, people’s voluntary actions are not forced by urgent needs of the flesh but instead concern what they might be able to do if their basic survival were not at stake. And perhaps Hobbes is arguing that if you are deprived of the necessities captured under the rubric of “true liberties”, then your answer to “whither, which way, and what” will not be an imagined possible future but instead the near-sighted and probably desperate effort to stay alive moment-by-moment, a mode of existence which it was the purpose of the covenant to ameliorate. 

If this account of Hobbes’s true liberties is plausible, then let’s play: From within Hobbes’ account of true liberty, perhaps the focus on the form of the state is a red herring (hence all the side-eye Hobbes levels at his contemporaries who are politically ambitious proponents of democracy). If you’re concerned about liberty, he could argue, you should be focused on the conditions that are constitutive of people’s voluntary actions. What if—I know this is far-fetched, but no more far-fetched than the confection Holman serves—what if Hobbes has an inkling that all the focus on finding liberty in the formof government is distracting people from growing problems that affect true liberty, problems like hunger, deforestation, homelessness, dirty air, polluted water, lack of medicine, or arbitrary violence? Tracking Holman’s analysis, I could imagine Hobbes watching in horror as people’s true liberties disappear, and then serially revising his own arguments as he observes a growing (and in his view misguided) alignment of liberty and democracy in arguments to secure political transformation. 

Wouldn’t it be interesting theoretically if, for Hobbes, all those reserved rights that are also true liberties concern not whether people are still free in obedience but rather whether people can answer the “whither, which way, and what” questions in a way befitting their capacities as animals with imagination and curiosity? Without straining too much, you could imagine that people could live under a democratic form of government construed as a bastion of liberty and yet have their daily lives wracked by the difficulty of living homeless, or with food scarcity, or with poor access to medical care, where the water is not potable and the air unbreathable, where violence from the state is predictable in its unpredictability, where the meaning of threat, obedience, and self-defense are so scrambled as to be meaningless. Is Hobbes concerned that our lives in a democracy could be diminished in this way and all the while we might believe that the democratic form of government makes us free? 

In disarticulating liberty and democracy, Hobbes could be saying that liberty lies elsewhere. To say this is not the same as to say that the form of the state might not be important. It is simply to say: liberty does not lie only there, in the democratic form of governance. Perhaps what Hobbes is telling us is that the liberties that are so important to our lives might best be found in a well-constituted state and not necessarily only in a democratic one. Nodding to Holman, he could say: no matter the form it takes, in a well-constituted state you can have a robust civil society, with manifold bodies politics, where people can work collaboratively on issues close to their particular hearts and interests. And in a well-constituted state, people’s true liberties would be preserved. Again, in entertaining the possible reasons that Hobbes holds apart liberty and democracy, we are not thereby bound to say there are no other reasons to favor democratic forms of governance. For Hobbes, the task for theory might be to articulate those reasons in a compelling way and not revert to the fable that only in democracy can liberty be secured. 


Andrea Bardin (2022) “Liberty and representation in Hobbes: a materialist theory of conatus” History of European Ideas48/6: 698-712

Annabel Brett (2003) Liberty, Right, and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought (Cambridge University Press)

Philip Pettit (2005) “Liberty and Leviathan” Politics, philosophy & economics 4/1: 131-51.

Susanne Sreedhar (2019) “Interpreting Hobbes on Civil Liberties and Rights of Resistance” in S. Lloyd Interpreting Hobbes’s Political Thought ed. Sharon Lloyd (Cambridge University Press).


This online colloquium is dedicated to discussing Christopher Holman’s book, “Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary”. The discussion will start with an introduction to the text by the author, followed by responses from Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux. Finally, Christopher Holman will provide a reply. We would like to express our gratitude to SUNY Press for their support in organizing this colloquium.

Christopher Holman

School of Social Sciences, NTU Singapore


A monograph on the question of Hobbes and democracy might seem unnecessary in either of two senses. On the one hand, Hobbes is quite obviously a severe critic of democratic commonwealths, consistently denigrating them throughout his entire political oeuvre, from his translation of Thucydides up until his verse autobiography. On the other hand, and despite his obvious distaste for democracy, several excellent scholarly books have already been produced which suggest that Hobbes can nevertheless be seen as providing important conceptual resources for thinking about democratic reality and potential.[1] What does one more book on the subject, then, have to contribute? Through interrogating the place of what I call the democratic imaginary in Hobbes’s thought, I attempt to make contributions to both the history of political thought and contemporary democratic theory.

With respect to Hobbes studies, the book provides the most extensive survey of Hobbes’s engagement with democracy yet produced. Such is achieved, firstly, through the systematic examination of the nature of his critique of democracy, and, secondly, through the demonstration of how central this critique of democracy is to the overall articulation of his civil science. As noted above, the book also looks to deploy Hobbes in order to make a contribution to democratic theory, this contribution unfolding along two planes. Firstly, Hobbes’s critique of democracy, unlike those of many anti-democratic thinkers within the history of political thought, is exceptional in its rigorous demonstration of democracy’s essential institutional characteristics. The practical instauration of such characteristics in a concrete political form, furthermore, depends upon certain conditions of being. Specifically, genuine democracy is only thinkable given the non-foundational structure of the world, and the existence of a certain type of natural human equality. I show how these conditions are both affirmed in Hobbes’s natural philosophy and philosophical anthropology. Secondly, through a critical juxtaposition of certain key Hobbesian concepts, I attempt to demonstrate how a normative ground for the preference for democracy in relation to other sovereign forms may be constructed. Hobbes thus reveals to us, contrary to his own intentions, a basis for a democratic ethics.

In order to further elaborate on some of the contributions I catalogue above, in what follows I will provide a brief overview of the contents of each chapter of the book. I noted already that several scholars have treated the question of Hobbes and democracy. My suggestion, however, is that contemporary democratic readers of Hobbes have not been adequately sensitive to the particular signification of the term democracy within his work. Their effort to abstract from certain of what Hobbes sees as essential characteristics of democratic organization (for example, their effort to think democracy without a democratic assembly, or without sovereignty) facilitates the mapping of the Hobbesian conception onto models that are quite incompatible with it. Indeed, this very endeavour obfuscates the logic of Hobbes’s critique of democracy. In the first part of the book I therefore look to reconstruct the terms of this critique. Ultimately Hobbes considers democracy to be an intrinsically paradoxical form of sovereign institution, to the extent that its operation depends upon the re-emergence of those social dynamics that the generation of sovereignty was meant to overcome in the first place. The uncertainty and danger of the pre-civil state is grounded in the radical non-identity of individual natural persons, whose distinct desires, values, and normative conceptions are a perpetual source of potential conflict. Hence the need to reduce that multiplicity of individual wills characteristic of the multitude to a single unified will whose expression can be taken to stand in for the will of all. Within assembly contexts, however, this single will does not adhere within the natural body of any person, but must be artificially generated through a deliberative process of negotiation amongst multiple persons. In democratic contexts the inconveniences of such a process are multiplied as a result of the extension of the number of persons who are endowed with a right to participate in the decision-procedure, speakers utilizing techniques of eloquence in the effort to persuade other citizens to adopt their policy prescriptions. Hobbes calls democracy a regime of madness to the extent that, through its generalization of popular participation within the assembly, it facilitates widespread and passionate disagreement, encouraging the development of faction through its incorporation of so many distinct minds into the deliberative process. In a sense, democracy represents the re-appearance of the logic of multitude within the commonwealth, tending as it does toward the generation of conflictual relation as a consequence of its own institutional force. There is thus a tension between the political goal of generating a unified and singular collective will, and the method by which this will is articulated via the mechanics of democratic deliberation, which is sourced in conflictual and pluralistic human intercourse.

After outlining the contours of his critique of democracy in the first chapter of the book, in the second chapter I attempt to demonstrate just how central this critique is to the overall elaboration of Hobbes’s civil science. It has become common for readers of Hobbes to point out the extent to which his adoption of the language of authorization and representation in Leviathan can be considered a deliberate response to parliamentarian theorists who utilize this terminology in an effort to think a pre-sovereign popular right that might be wielded against the sovereign representative. I attempt to further contextualize this operation through demonstrating that it constitutes just one moment within a larger textual operation. Hobbes, in each major expression of his political philosophy, substantially alters specific formulations on the basis of his perception of their potential to ethically legitimate democratic rule. Hence in De cive the reconceptualization of the concept of liberty in terms of the absence of impediments to motion, and the denial of any intrinsic participatory desire on the part of most citizens, and hence in Leviathan the rejection (if only formal) of the idea of originary democracy, and the reimagination of institution in terms of a supposedly individual process of authorization. In tracing out these conceptual mutations and sourcing them in Hobbes’s critique of democracy, I reveal that his hostility to this sovereign form was so deep as to motivate him to undertake serious and extensive philosophical self-criticism.

Paying attention to his critique of democracy, I suggest, not only deepens our understanding of Hobbes’s own political thought, but also that of the philosophy of democracy itself. Hobbes should be considered as an outstanding anatomist of democracy, rendering exceptionally clear not only the institutional mechanics that characterize this form of regime, but also what I have elsewhere called those ontological conditions that render it a human possibility.[2] In part two of the book I turn to unpacking his perception of these conditions, conditions which I suggest are occulted by the majority of contemporary democratic theorists. In chapter three I examine various elements of Hobbes’s natural philosophy and philosophical anthropology in order to highlight his comprehension of the non-foundational structure of any particular human order, there existing no transcendent ground or framework that would work to delimit in advance the scope of political institution. Rejecting traditional natural law philosophy for attempting to think just such a transcendence, Hobbes on the contrary, in light of his recognition of the radical social-historical alterity expressed in the manifest diversity of forms of society, attributes to human beings an essential capacity to institute their social world independently of extra-social principles. What Hobbes also grasps, however, is that democracy is that singular form of regime in which absolute legislative responsibility is affirmed by the generality of people themselves, who understand their autonomous ability to collectively interrogate and alter law via their political self-activity. The non-foundational structure of the world thus assumes, within a democracy, a unique and ultimately dangerous significance. As Hobbes puts it with respect to the Athenians, democracy was the form of regime in which the people “thought they were able to do anything.”[3] Only in a democracy is such a thought possible.

In chapter four I turn to the much-discussed issue of Hobbes and human equality. I counterpose my reading here to two general varieties of interpretation. The first refuses to take seriously Hobbes’s affirmation of equality at all, supposing such a principle could not possibly have been intended seriously. The second, while also denying the existence of ontological equality, maintains that Hobbes wanted equality to be nevertheless formally accepted, to the degree that such acceptance is a political necessity required for the facilitation of sovereign rule. I endeavour to show, on the contrary, that for Hobbes human natural equality is a concrete reality, however it is one that is irreducible to a mere identity of positive traits or characteristics. Hobbesian equality, rather, is an equality-in-difference. Despite the clear non-identity of individual beings, which penetrates to the deepest levels of human psychology and sensation, what all humans possess is a rational capacity to practically deploy natural reason for the sake of the identification of their goods, and the most plausible means to these goods’ realization. Hence Hobbes’s repeated emphasis on how all individuals, regardless of the particular social sphere within which they work, demonstrate their equality through their own everyday lived experience. Contrary to those democratic theorists who assume that democracy must work towards the maximal homogenization of human beings through the coalescence of interest and value, Hobbes sees human non-identity or difference to be a very reflection of equality. Democracy is of course the regime which refuses all particular titles to govern, including those grounded in the perception of some kind of unique competence or rationality. Aristocratic theorists reject democracy on the assumption that ordinary citizens lack the requisite rational or technical capacities to deliberate on social facts, and render informed political determinations on the basis of such deliberation. For Hobbes, on the contrary, all individuals are perfectly capable of competently undertaking such deliberative activity. The problem with democracy, rather, is that it translates a very real natural equality into a political equality whose exercise is, for reasons earlier detailed, inherently threatening of social order.

   If in the first two parts of the book I attempt to detail the extent to which Hobbes is an outstanding anatomist of democracy – articulating its necessary institutional characteristics, its ontological conditions of being, and the political risks embedded within its practice – in the third part I attempt to do that which Hobbes resisted at all costs: construct an ethical defence of democratic rule on Hobbesian grounds. In particular, I argue that it is possible to utilize the thought of Hobbes in order to develop an idiosyncratic natural law defence of democracy. The key elements of Hobbes’s thought in this regard are his critique and reconstruction of the idea of natural law itself, his formulation of the concept of true liberty, and his late identification of participatory desire as a constituent feature of human nature. Rejecting the classical natural law writers for erroneously believing that political order can be sourced in extra-social moral principles, Hobbes elaborates an alternative conception that speaks only to the human capacity to institute political forms independently of external direction. Such institution is demanded to the extent that it is the sole effective means to guarantee the general human motion upon which all particular motions depend. The sphere of true liberty is that domain of right which ensures the maintenance of the conditions required for the preservation of human life, regardless of the specific normative conception of the good that any specific subject might advance. Hobbes lists several well-known true liberties, although I suggest that we might be justified to include adding to his list a right to political participation, to the extent that in Leviathan he identifies the desire for the latter as an ontological one that adheres in all individual beings. Although Hobbes restricts such participation to subordinate bodies politic within the commonwealth, I propose that recognition of this identification, combined with a rejection of the Hobbesian critique of democratic deliberation – which is potentially falsified through empirical experimentation in institutional design – legitimates a preference for democracy in relation to other sovereign forms, on the basis of its ability to maximally generalize the expression of what Hobbes sees as one of the very few universal human desires. In the final instance, even if it is impossible to read Hobbes as an advocate of democratic rule, I argue that it is still possible to develop a Hobbesian democratic theory.  

[1] For example, James Martel, Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Paul Downes, Hobbes, Sovereignty, and Early American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Sandra Leonie Field, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[2] See Christopher Holman, “Hobbes and the Tragedy of Democracy,” History of Political Thought 40, no. 4 (2019): 649–75.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, “Of the Life and History of Thucydides,” in The History of Thucydides, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume Eight, ed. Sir William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839), xvi.

Awe and wonder for this majestic creation: interview with Thomas Holden

Laurens van Apeldoorn

Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Hobbes’s Philosophy of Religion (OUP, 2023) is a new book by Thomas Holden, Professor of philosophy at the University of California Santa Barbara. Thomas, whose main research work is in the history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy and who has previously published a book on David Hume’s critique of moral theology, argues that Hobbes develops a stable and consistent analysis of religion that is grounded in his theory of function and character of religious language. Having the opportunity to speak to Thomas about the book, I started by asking how he came to write it. 

“One thing that drew me in is Hobbes’s rich analysis of speech acts in the philosophy of language. I wrote a paper on his treatment of evaluative speech, in which I argued that such speech is expressive and prescriptive rather than descriptive or representational. I realized that something similar also holds for religious speech. Religious language, according to Hobbes, is not about describing God and trying to say true things about this mysterious, incomprehensible, inconceivable being, but rather about expressing reverence and veneration towards God. And I realized that this treatment of religious language is more pervasive in his works than is commonly recognized, and that it helps us to resolve puzzles in his philosophy of religion. So for instance, in his notoriously ambidextrous treatment of the cosmological argument, the topic of another paper of mine, Hobbes sometimes seems to accept the existence of a first cause of the universe, while at other times he concludes that human reason is incapable of establishing this fact. It seemed to me that we can understand Hobbes’s cosmological argument as suggesting that there is a case for positing a great cause behind the humanly comprehensible world, which we ought to dignify and honour as best we can. And this practice includes our ascribing it honorific titles such as ‘good’, ‘just’, and ‘wise,’ and even ‘the first cause of the universe’.”

This seems to require treading a thin line between accepting that we have knowledge of the existence of this overwhelmingly powerful being, which is worthy of veneration, and denying that we can have knowledge of its nature. Is Hobbes successful?

“I think that Hobbes is much more consistent in what he says on religious topics than is generally acknowledged. Hobbes thinks we can truly infer that there is a great cause, a powerful being behind the humanly comprehensible world. This is his version of the cosmological argument. But this is all he thinks we can ever hope to say about this being and its attributes. All other qualities we may wish to attribute to it—that it is infinite, eternal, partless or all the other traditional theistic attributes—are purely an expression of our own reverence before this inconceivable, incomprehensible being. We therefore do not have to worry about the apparent inconsistencies between attributes like eternality and being the first cause of the universe, since these attributes are not supposed to be truth-apt in the first place. On my view Hobbes is not a theist, if theism involves having a realist, literal minded view of God. But it would be misleading to characterize him as an atheist because he does think there is a great cause which he thinks it rational to worship.”

Why would it be rational to worship this incomprehensible being if we know so little about it? 

“This is exactly the sort of question that Hume asks a century after Hobbes. Hume is willing to posit the existence of a first cause but he doubts that we have reason to revere it if we really know nothing about it. Perhaps it is not such a wonderful thing after all. I don’t see this kind of skepticism in Hobbes. Having accepted the existence of a being powerful enough to produce the world, Hobbes concludes that anything that powerful should be honoured. Hobbes concludes the same when it comes to honouring a magistrate or a prince. Even the chair of your department might deserve a little honour now and then! One analogy I draw in the book to bring out Hobbes’s position is to compare him to a 21st century rhapsodic atheist. The rhapsodic atheist thinks that the traditional theistic conception of God is totally unfounded. Yet he recognizes that the universe did come from somewhere beyond the limits of our comprehension. And he is willing to express awe and wonder about that unknown system of forces or laws that produced this majestic creation. That is also all that Hobbes is really saying. The point where the rhapsodic atheist and Hobbes diverge is that Hobbes thinks it is appropriate to express this awe and veneration through language that conveys honour, which includes the traditional theistic vocabulary, while our modern-day atheist would find that kind of talk embarrassing.” 

The rationality of worshipping God so understood does not appear easily reconcilable with Hobbes’s conception of instrumental rationality expressed in his analysis of the moral virtues. Hobbes argues that we ought to comply with natural law because it is required for our self-preservation. Ought we to worship God for the same reason? 

“Perhaps this is something of a weak spot in Hobbes’s account. Hobbes repeatedly stresses that one has reason to honour powerful persons, the reason being that humans enjoy flattery and therefore may inflict harm and punishment if they feel insufficiently honoured. The same kind of argument is perhaps supposed to apply to God. We have reason to honour God because we hope for good things he may bring us in reward of our deference and we fear the punishment he may inflict if he feels slighted. However, this story only works given a very anthropomorphic vision of God that Hobbes repeatedly rejects. I therefore think it is more plausible to read him as acknowledging a sort of aesthetic reverence that is owed to something as powerful as the great cause of nature. Remember that there are some other goods apart from self-preservation. I think it is quite compelling if Hobbes concludes that it is appropriate to feel awe before the majesty of the cosmos and the mysterious sources of the causes of the cosmos. This aesthetic form of normativity is a non-instrumental ground for honouring that is distinct from the kind of honouring you might do to a prince or a magistrate. And there is textual evidence for this. For instance, in his analysis of petitionary prayer he ridicules the thought that God is an anthropomorphic being who would be flattered by our actions and could be moved to respond by giving us what we want. All prayer, including petitionary prayer, is simply an acknowledgment of the awe-inspiring power of God. The rationality of worship is a matter of proper respect owed to an objectively admirable kind of being.”

Does this non-instrumental form of rationality underpin the requirements of morality when Hobbes says in chapter 15 of Leviathan that the laws of nature are properly binding laws only insofar as they are God’s commands? 

“No, I think that you point to a passage where Hobbes is perhaps not completely literal minded. It is yet another case of honouring God, this time by perceiving him as the source of all order in nature, including human order as furthered by the laws of nature. To say that God has commanded the natural laws is to express veneration for him. If citizens nevertheless accept this as literal truth and they believe that these moral principles, which further their self-preservation, are expressive of the will of a supremely powerful being, Hobbes is fine with that. But he would not take it as literal truth himself.”

You extend this analysis of the nature of religious language to Hobbes’s treatment of revealed religion. Can you explain how revealed religion is to be understood as non-descriptive, expressive speech?

“In natural religion we focus on natural signs of honour, which is to say signs that are recognised as honorific by all human beings, independent of culture and convention. There are certain expressions, like ‘good’ and ‘just’ and ‘wise’ that are honorific across all societies.  There are also merely conventional and culturally specific kinds of honour, such as wearing or doffing a hat. Hobbes treats revealed religion largely as such a conventional form of honouring. Thus, ceremonial ritual practices, the contents of liturgies, the prayer books, the sacred histories in scripture are all largely conventionally honorific. Such conventions might be Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, Hindu, et cetera, and they may exist prior to the existence of the state and the sovereign. The sovereign is empowered to regulate and enforce these conventions, furthering peace and civil order by settling disagreements about parochial conventional matters. That is why Hobbes is so strikingly relaxed about non-Christian religious conventions. He is very clear in Leviathan that if you happen to live under the Caliphate and are required to deny that Jesus is the son of God, you should acquiesce. For Hobbes that really is not a big deal. Different religions are just different, culturally determined and therefore arbitrary, ways of expressing veneration for God’s overwhelming power. At the same time, Hobbes is very sincere in his view that it is appropriate to practice religion in conformity with protestant Christianity since that is how, in his culture, worship is publicly expressed.”

However, Hobbes is also willing to stretch interpretations of the Bible quite far beyond what was generally acceptable in his time.

“That is true and dictated by his political commitments. He thinks that insofar as he can gain the ear of the sovereign he can try at the margins to shape local religious traditions in the direction of peace and civil order. It is why he wishes to separate philosophy from a kind of meddling and confused scriptural metaphysics. And it is why he is sometimes willing to tendentiously bend scripture in ways that are not best seen as a sincere exegesis of the text, but rather as creative adaptations showing a sensible sovereign how Scripture can more effectively support peace. When he offers views about our obligation to practice Christianity, he is being sincere, but he treats Christianity as culturally determined and a malleable object within limits.”

You mentioned that in Leviathan Hobbes condones apostasy if commanded by one’s civil sovereign. However, in the Leviathan he also maintains that faith that Jesus is the Messiah is required for one’s salvation. And in Elements of Law and De Cive he is far less dismissive of martyrs who are unwilling to renunciate their Christian faith under an infidel sovereign. Does this mean that Hobbes thinks of the doctrine that Jesus is the Messiah as a form of veneration that is not entirely conventional?

“Well, I think that Hobbes develops two perspectives on religion. On the one hand he develops a philosophical perspective. In Leviathan—which is his settled, mature position—Hobbes is no longer particularly concerned about outward profession, arguing that martyrs who refuse to disavow their religious beliefs if required to do so by their civil sovereign are making a mistake. On the other hand, he works within a particular local tradition and addresses audiences for whom certain doctrines are nonnegotiable. Jon Parkin has a very nice book chapter, in which he shows how Hobbes promotes to his Anglo-protestant audience a minimalistic understanding of their commitments that would allow the sovereign some latitude in shaping religious doctrines, and would prevent believers from getting so caught up in the minutiae of their commitments that they are led into civil war. This is the context within which we should place Hobbes’s pronouncements on the beliefs that are required for salvation.”

Thomas, congratulations on a terrific new book and thank you for speaking with me. 

“My pleasure. And thank you for the conversation, Laurens.”

Reaction to Online Colloquium (5): On David Dyzenhaus, The Long Arc of Legality, reply to Dyzenhaus and Miguel Vatter, by Patricia Springborg

This symposium is a remarkably important debate on a remarkably important topic, perhaps the most critical in modern Hobbes studies. Dyzenhaus’s titleThe Long Arc of Legality (CUP 2022), is a brilliant concept for the extraordinary trick of chance, I would argue, whereby Hobbes’s command theory of sovereignty was transmogrified into a theory of representation underpinning the legal theory of democracies. [1] This was due to Hobbes’s employment of corporation theory in the form of the persona ficta, a theological concept of personality most powerfully articulated by the glossators and post-glossators under the papal monarchy. [2]  It is the thesis of my new book, Reading Hobbes Backwards: Hobbes, the Papal Monarchy and Islam, that Hobbes only at the last moment decided to name his ‘English Politiques’ after the scaly monster of the Book of Job, as a decoy to disguise the scholastic origins of his arguments which were a burning matter. [3] To his own surprise, it led to the runaway success of Leviathan, and in a direction, he had not intended. For, the concept of the Crown as Corporation, a fundament of the unwritten constitution of Great Britain and the Commonwealth to this day, enshrined Hobbes as a father of representative government ever since, as David Dyzenhaus has so well demonstrated. 

Miguel Vatter, in his contribution to this symposium raises the most fundamental objection to Dyzenhaus’s thesis, alluded to also by Thomas Poole in this symposium, that it is counter-intuitive that Hobbes as a theorist of absolute monarchyshould try to pull off the hermeneutic trick of a command theory of sovereignty which is also constitutional. It is even more astonishing given that his materialist ontology necessarily ruled out non-corporeal entities like the persona ficta, on which it is based. But I think there are good reasons why Hobbes should try, as I shall try to show. Vatter gives an excellent account of how Hobbes invokes the social contract as the basis of constitutionality, so that the very act of endorsing a sovereign representative signals the endorsement of her commands, as Dyzenhaus acknowledges. This, I argue, was no academic matter. Hobbes knew that in his lifetime the failure of negotiations between the Protestant confessions at the Synods of Tonneins (1614) and Dort (1618-19) which might have prevented the appalling Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) — negotiations involving James I as the chosen peace-maker — failed precisely for want of a sovereign representative capable of holding the parties to their commitments. [4]

Hobbes signalled as early as 1640 in The Elements of Law, which echoes the title of Francis Bacon’s Elements of the Common Laws of England of 1630, his commitment to the Baconian programme of law reform. [5] Hobbes’s reasons were not academic, but deeply practical. In my piece ‘Quentin Skinner and Hobbes’s Truly Artificial Person of the State’ I tried to follow Skinner’s excellent example of reading Hobbes backwards, by considering not only the parliamentary debates that were the context for Leviathan, but also Common Law judgments and particularly those of Sir Edward Coke, otherwise Hobbes’s nemesis. [6]  Vatter is right that Hobbes should not have touched the persona ficta, a theological concept of personality postulating metaphysical entities. But by Hobbes’s own day the persona ficta had entered the Common Law in the form of corporation. And this, I maintain, is why Hobbes makes the otherwise indefensible assertion in The Elements of Law, that he is the first to address the state as corporation, a claim with which, we know from Leviathan, he is determined to stick. A survey of Hobbes’s reference library at Chatsworth shows that it contained no glossators or post-glossators, who also go unmentioned in Hobbes’s texts. But it did contain a complete run of Common Law Statutes and Reports and most importantly the judgments of Coke. [7]

No friend of the great Common Lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, Hobbes had nevertheless read him carefully, citing his famous judgment in Dr. Bonham’s Case in Leviathan, as Dyzenhaus details (p. 25ff.); and naming Coke upon Littleton as his source for the claim that Common Law represented the ‘artificial perfection of reason’ in his important chapter ‘Of Civil Laws’ (Lev., II, ch. 26, §11). Hobbes’s persona ficta incorporates a theory of authorization, which in turn incorporates a theory of guardianship dating back to its 13c. publicist, Pope Innocent IV, which concerns not only persons, but also objects like a hospital and a bridge, permitting them to become subjects of a charitable trust. [8]  Hobbes was clearly aware of the landmark case of Sutton’s Hospital, decided by Coke in 1612, which involved the contest by Thomas Sutton’s heirs of his bequest to the school and hospital founded by Sutton as a charitable trust in the London Charterhouse, and turned on whether or not the corporation had been legally constituted. Coke denied the claim of Sutton’s heirs that the corporation had been improperly constituted and lacked a legal personality to be the vehicle of a transfer of property; and his judgment in this case, recorded in the Reports, was a brilliant articulation of the persona ficta. Legal capacity as the basis of corporation theory until today depends on the concept of ‘legal persons’ that also dates back to the 13c. That persona ficta included a theory of authorization served Hobbes’s purposes.

As I say, even more pressing contextual reasons for Hobbes’s need for more than a command theory of sovereignty, whichI believe have never hitherto been addressed, concerned the failed negotiations leading up to the continental Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), in which James I had been fatally involved. The failure of well-intentioned efforts to bring the Protestant confessions together turned on the lack of a sovereign power capable of holding the parties to their commitments, the role these parties had vainly hoped James I could perform. The failure of the Synods of Tonneins (1614) and Dort (1618-19) resulted in the most horrific war on the European continent, where losses in terms of mortality rates, mainly for the German population, were never again reached until the final stages of WWII. 

These two aspects of the context for Hobbes’s theory: that Common Law already articulated a theory of corporation invoked in landmark cases; and that catastrophic contemporary events had demonstrated peace to turn on constitutional sovereignty that was more than sovereign command, are I believe decisive for his attempt to pull off the apparently impossible trick of combining command theory with constitutional sovereignty. His attempt has had an extraordinary afterlife in the concept of the Crown as Corporation. But as I try to show in my book, there is more to it than this. Vatter is in a sense right that Hobbes the constitutionalist is a work of fiction, and one that in his day surprised even Hobbes himself. I have taken one step further Noel Malcolm’s excellent excavations of the title of Leviathan and its source in the Jesuit and Cappuchin commentaries that Hobbes researched in Marin Mersenne’s library in Paris in the 1640s. There the scaly monster from the Book of Job is a figure for incorporation. Malcolm notes that Hobbes seems to have decided late on the title for his master-work, and that Leviathan is not deeply embedded in the text. [9] This is clear even from the famous frontispiece, where the banner from the Book of Job almost flies off the page of the 1651 printed edition, as if inserted late, and is missing from the presentation copy to Charles II, which otherwise depicts an amiable king with striking resemblance to Charles himself, presiding over a shired and peaceful English landscape, a perfect illustration of the persona ficta. These observations on the late advent of Leviathan as Hobbes’s title I corroborate from the correspondence, where at the point at which some 37 chapters were already completed, the work appeared to be title-less and was referred to by Payne as Hobbes’s ‘English Politiques’. By deciding on the title Leviathan when he did, Hobbes not only rode the back of generations of Jesuit and Cappuchin commentators, who to most would have been nameless, but hoped to deflect attention, I argue, from his heavy indebtedness to the Aristotelian commentary tradition, otherwise known as scholasticism. [10]   The fateful choice of title, which Hobbes may have regretted if we consider his remarks on the title Behemoth as ‘stupid’, led to the run-away success of Leviathan, which helped consolidate the English Protestant Reformation and to establish Hobbes’s style of empirical philosophy as the norm, as Marco Sgarbi has so successfully argued. [11]   Its success deflected from the scholasticism of Hobbes’s sources but also from Hobbes’s authoritative understanding of Church history and his institutional account of the rise of the papal monarchy. In the late Historia Ecclesiastica, to which he was so committed he seems to have written it twice, Hobbes, I argue, tried to claw back his reputation for seriousness, but even here was thwarted by the interpolation of the names Leviathan and Behemoth, probably by his printer, hoping to sell more copies of those works which were in-house. [12] Drafts for Hobbes’s extraordinarily detailed exposition in his Church History of the problem of heresy, that bedevilled the Church post-Constantine as it did in his own day, and the innumerable Councils called to resolve it, may well have dated to the 1630s. The collection in the Hardwick Hall library, which he had assisted in compiling, had all the resources he needed on the Church Fathers, histories of the Councils, as well as Jesuit and Protestant commentaries. The much neglected Historia Ecclesiastica, written in Latin and in verse to give it deliberate inaccessibility, is nevertheless very important evidence for Hobbes’s intentions in Leviathan

[1] For my critique of a similar but differently constructed theory of constitutionality, see my essay  ‘Constitutionalism and Antiquity Transformation’ (Springborg 2019), published in a special review issue of Benjamin Straumann’s Crisis and Constitutionalism, in Global Intellectual History Global Intellectual History, 4, 3 (2019), pp. 223-49,https://doi.org/10.1080/23801883.2018.1527516.

[2] See my ‘Hobbes and the Papal Monarchy, A Neglected Subject’ (Springborg, 2021c), in Blackwell/Wiley Companion to Hobbes, Marcus P. Adams, ed., ch. 21, New York: Wiley, 2021: 348-64.

[3] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ch. 5, ‘Hobbes’s Leviathan has Feet of Clay’.

[4] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ch. 2, ‘James I and the Thirty Years’ War’.

[5] See my ‘Hobbes, Civil law, Liberty and The Elements of Law’ (Springborg 2016), Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, (CRISPP), 19, 1, 2016: 47–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2015.1122354.

[6] See my ‘Quentin Skinner and Hobbes’s Artificial Person of the State Redux’ (Springborg 2021b), Global Intellectual History, 6, 5, 2012: 732-78, online October 30, 2019.

[7] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ch. 3, ‘Drafts, MSs, Letters, Recollections and Boasts: A Timeline’.

[8] See the excellent analysis of Luka Ribarevic, ‘Leviathan and the Medieval Universitas: Hobbes’s Debt to Canon Law’. History of Political Thought, 38, 2017, 1: 92-109. For the origins of the charitable trust in the Islamic waqf, subject to technology transfer to Europe in the Crusades, see my ‘Raylor’s Revisionist Humanist Hobbes’ (Springborg 2021a),Global Intellectual History, 6, 4: 524-57; online April 17, 2019.

[9] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ch. 5, ‘Hobbes’s Leviathan has Feet of Clay’

[10] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ch. 1, ‘Hobbes, the Greek and Arabic Aristotle Commentary Traditions’.

[11] See Marco Sgarbi, ‘Towards a Reassessment of British Aristotelianism’, Vivarium 50 (2012): 85-109. See also Marco Sgarbi, The Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013).

[12] See my Reading Hobbes Backwards, ‘Appendix: Hobbes Shakes off Leviathan, Historia Ecclesiastica synopsis’.

Online Colloquium (4): Reply to Critics by D. Dyzenhaus

Let me start by again expressing my deep thanks to Gonzalo Bustamente Kuschel and to the European Hobbes Society for the opportunity to respond to three excellent commentaries on the chapter devoted to Hobbes in my The Long Arc of Legality: Hobbes, Kelsen, Hart.  And I’m of course most grateful to the three scholars who took the time to consider my arguments. I will in what follows address only what I take to be the central points in each, as an attempt to respond fully to the detail of their arguments would consume too much space.

In her very sympathetic reconstruction of my argument, Eleanor Curran poses one important question: in my account of the legitimate authority of law, why do I choose all of Hobbes’s many laws of nature as providing the legitimating fundamental principles of legality ‘rather than specific laws and principles such as the eleventh law of equity and the principle of natural equality (outlined in the ninth law against pride) which underlies it’? She adds that Hobbes ‘reinforces his commitment to equity, … when he expands on the duty of the sovereign to procure the “safety of the people”’. 

One answer is that I slipped up. In my very first paper on these themes, I was much more careful. I argued that the laws of nature fall into three main groups: the first group’s function is to facilitate exit from the state of nature; the second has to do with the moral psychology of both legislators and subjects which is necessary to sustain a properly functioning legal order; and the third has to do with the formal institutional requirements of such an order, akin to Lon L. Fuller’s principles of legality.[1]  These distinctions are unfortunately at best implicit in my chapter on Hobbes and I focus mostly on laws that fall into the second group. 

 A better answer is that in singling out the ninth law against pride, which I had placed in my second group, and in mentioning the connection to the sovereign’s duty to procure the safety of the people, Curran also points to the difficulty in maintaining these distinctions. In this regard, I suggested in that paper that the distinction between the third and the second groups is not very sharp. Law eleven on equity is in the third group but, as we can see from Curran’s observation, it requires the state of mind signalled in the law against pride. Moreover, laws in groups two and three are united by the fact that their observance is clearly required to sustain civil society, even if the groups have different functions. I also pointed out that distinction between the first and second groups is hardly sharp. When Hobbes tells us in chapter 15 that the ‘Lawes of Nature are Immutable and Eternall’, it is laws in the second group together with law three (people must perform their agreements) that he specifically names, saying that their violation could ‘never be made lawfull. For it can never be that Warre shall preserve life, and Peace destroy it’. 

In my view, the way the groups interact with each other is important, not only for Hobbes scholars, but also for contemporary political and legal philosophy;  and I’m most grateful  to Curran for prompting me to return to these issues since they are central to my current project, which is to elaborate a ‘political sociology of obedience’. At various points in The Long Arc of Legality, I suggest that philosophy of law needs to take seriously the idea that one of the existence conditions for legal order is that there is a ‘habit of obedience’ on the part of those subject to law, the idea put forward by John Austin, the nineteenth century legal positivist.[2] However, I depart from Austin, and from his twentieth century successor H.L.A Hart, in arguing that the habit entails that the subjects comply with the law not primarily because they fear sanctions for non-compliance. Rather, they accept the law as authoritative, albeit that their acceptance is for the most part tacit. 

Note that this is not the tautology that the legal order and its laws are accepted because they are accepted. They are accepted because they are acceptable, notably, because particular laws do not have a content that radically undermines the formal equality before the law of those subject to it and because the laws have been enacted, implemented, interpreted and enforced in accordance with the relevant laws in group three. Moreover, accordance bears on content in that the constraint on particular laws is exercised by legal form. 

In making this argument, I take inspiration from Bernard Williams’s ‘political realist’ account of legitimacy and what hecalled the ‘Hobbesian question’ of how to secure ‘order, protection, safety, trust, and the conditions of cooperation’.[3]This, Williams said, is the ‘first’ political question because ‘solving it is the condition of solving, indeed posing, any others’.[4] But what Williams failed to appreciate is that for Hobbes the solution requires putting in place a legal order that functions in accordance with the laws of nature. Leviathan sets out a theory of political order as legal order, since a political order is characterized by authority relationships in contrast with relationships of unmediated coercive power and mediation is achieved by law. That mediation makes it possible for subjects to maintain the habit of obedience and to have the right kind of mindset towards the law of their legal order.

Of my two other commentators, Miguel Vatter is the more sceptical of my effort to cast Hobbes as the founder of our idea of the modern legal state and its commitment to the rule of law. He offers a Schmittean antidote to my own reading, which is, as he rightly notes, heavily influenced by Michael Oakeshott. I should note immediately my disagreement with Vatter’s claim that Carl Schmitt was one of Hobbes’s ‘most acute interpreters’. Schmitt pays almost no attention to Hobbes’s arguments, let alone interprets them, as he is not himself in the argument business. Rather, his work is a sustained polemic against democracy, liberalism and the rule of law, and he uses, better, abuses any resources he can find to that end. 

Consider the sentence from chapter 26 of the Latin Leviathan which Vatter, following Schmitt, highlights: auctoritas non veritas facit legem. ‘Authority not truth makes law’ is Hobbes’s lapidary translation of the longer thought in the English Leviathan: ‘The Authority of writers, without the Authority of the Common-wealth, maketh not their opinions Law, be they never so true’. But Hobbes’s observation is a commonplace in legal theory, no more than the claim that Hart was to make centuries later that it ‘could not follow from the mere fact that a rule was morally desirable that it was a rule of law’.[5] Schmitt, in contrast, wants to turn this rather banal point into his reductive claim that all there is to law is power, that, to use Vatter’s own words, ‘adherence to previous law is  merely the sovereign continuing to do as he pleased before to do’. If that were right, Hobbes was mistaken to include the material on which my chapter focuses–chapter 15 (laws of nature), chapter 26 (civil law), chapter 27 (punishment), and chapter 28 (punishment). In addition, there is much in the other chapters along the same lines. 

All in all, Vatter goes wrong when he summarises my argument as that ‘commands have the force of law because sovereignty has a legal form’. Rather, it is that if a powerful entity wishes to rule by law, its commands must take legal form. That’s undeniable if only because it is a tautology, though one with significant implications. For in Hobbes’s hands, as in Fuller’s after him, there is a lot packed into what’s undeniable, as twentieth century legal positivists such as Hart and Joseph Raz acknowledged when they accepted Fuller’s account of legality, though they tried to resile from the implications of such acceptance by reducing Fuller’s principles to criteria  of efficacy, an attempt which I argue in The Long Arc of Legality undermines their endeavour of providing a theory of law as a matter of authority, as a matter of right as well as might. 

Fuller rightly argued that the principles establish a bond of reciprocity between ruler and subject, precisely Hobbes’s relationship between protection and obedience which Vatter emphasizes towards the end of his piece.[6] Vatter says, however, that he ‘sincerely’ doubts that Hobbes held the view that the ‘imperative of protection boil[s] down to the protection of the legal equality and legal interests of its subjects’ and he suggests that Hobbes never explicitly states this. But here Vatter passes over the many passages in Leviathan to this effect, for example, when Hobbes says at the beginning of chapter 30 that in his theory the ‘safety of the people’ does not amount to a ‘bare Preservation, but also all other Contentments of life, which every man, by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe’. 

In his main challenge to my position, Thomas Poole does not seek, like Schmitt and Vatter, to strip Hobbes’s account of the modern legal state of its complexity, but rather to show that it sits side by side in Hobbes’s state theory with the prerogative power of the sovereign to do as it will. Poole’s critique in this respect seems to me to trade on an ambiguity between saying that might as well as right is necessary to maintain a state and claiming that prerogative in the sense of legally unlimited might is always a legitimately available resource for the sovereign. 

The first proposition poses no problem for my account since it is completely consistent with acknowledging that the sword of the sovereign, its monopoly on legitimate force, is as necessary to maintain the modern legal state as is the acceptance by a large proportion of its subjects of its authority as legitimate. (It is also by the way consistent with Hobbes’s observation in the Epilogue to Leviathan that all states have their origin in some act of illegitimate force.)  

My account is, however, inconsistent with the second proposition, as it entails that every state is what Ernst Fraenkel in his analysis of the Nazi state termed a ‘dual state’: on the one hand, a ‘normative state’ in which matters are ruled by law, on the other, a ‘prerogative state’, in which officials do as they please, including in regard to any matter that would otherwise be dealt with in the normative state. As a result, Fraenkel argued, there was no rule of law in Nazi Germany and he regarded Schmitt, whom he detested, as the ideological architect of the dual state.[7]

Now Poole is right that Hobbes at times in Leviathan, and also elsewhere, suggests that the sovereign may when necessary act on the basis of its power outside of the law. However, as I argue at some length in my chapter, such suggestions are incommensurable with Hobbes’s general understanding of the modern legal state and so should be regarded as mistakes.  

Poole’s remaining criticisms are, first, that he charges me with overemphasizing adjudication and judges when Hobbes’s focus is on the sovereign legislator and, second, he complains that I miss the sense in Hobbes of ‘political life being lived on the edge’. 

I plead not guilty to the charge. To the extent that I gave this impression, it is because Hobbes himself did not live in a time when legislatures were enacting barrages of statutes and there was hardly anything like our modern administrative state in existence. Hence, Hobbes himself focuses on the role of judges in the modern legal state to elaborate his account of the interaction of enacted law with the laws of nature. But, as I argue at several points in the book, philosophy of law goes wrong when it focuses too much on the role of judges in legal order and Poole acknowledges this argument when he describes my approach to Hobbes as taking ‘an administrative law route’. 

When it comes to political life ‘on the edge’, Poole says that it is above all ‘peace that matters. And for that you need order first, law second, rights a distant third. The costs of getting any of it wrong are so steep in Hobbes’s estimation that anyone who is not a fool (or a late 20th-century liberal legalist) would pay almost any price to avoid it’. I am confident that I’m the late 20th-century liberal legalist in this quotation and that perhaps makes me a fool. But I agree that it is above all peace that matters, as I suggested above in nailing my colours to the mast of Williams’s Hobbes-inspired political realism, and, as I also suggested, for Hobbes the order of civil society requires a legal order. Moreover, in such an order subjects will have legal rights which, as Ronald Dworkin explained, are the kind of political rights we have on demand from our adjudicative institutions.[8] While Poole is correct to associate Dworkin’s legal theory with the kind of liberal legalism which focuses on judges as the guardians of constitutionally entrenched rights, the point about legal rights is not tied to such a theory. Adjudicative institutions include all the institutions of legal order in which officials are under a duty to respond to the subject who demands that the official produce a legal warrant or justification for an official act and legal rights are just the rights that the subject is entitled to in virtue of the law relevant to the justification. It is for this reason that I try to make central to legal philosophical inquiry the subject’s question ‘But, how can that be law for me?’  

I certainly hope that it is not foolish to suppose that this kind of order can be maintained. After all, it keeps us from away from ‘the edge’ to which the forces of the right in the United Kingdom, as elsewhere, seem determined to push us. 

[1] David Dyzenhaus, ‘Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law’ (2001) 20 Law and Philosophy 461, at 464.

[2] John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence or The Philosophy of Positive Law (London: John Murray, 1885, 5th edn.), vol. 1, 220-1.

[3] Bernard Williams, ‘Realism and Moralism in Political Theory’, in Williams, In the Beginning was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument ((Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; Geoffrey Hawthorn, ed.) 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] [5] HLA Hart, ‘Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals’, in Hart, Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) 49, at 55.

[6] Fuller, The Morality of Law, 39-40.

[7] Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[8] Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011), 407