Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia SpringborgFrank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Jorge Myers, Professor National University of Quilmes, Director of the Centre for Intellectual History (UNQ/CONICET).

The Many-Feathered Owl: J. G. A. Pocock’s Rethinking of the Foundations of the Languages of Politics

In the course of a career that spanned over six decades, J. G. A. Pocock made a decisive contribution to the ongoing historiographical revolution in the study of political thought and language that has transformed the practice not only of intellectual history, but of history tout court, during the last seventy years. He did this through the medium of a vast yet precisely centered oeuvre, composed of his three major books –The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law(1957), The Machiavellian Moment (1973), Barbarism and Religion (6 volumes,1999-2015)-, a series of substantial collections of articles -notably Language, Politics and Time (1971), Virtue Commerce and History (1985), The Discovery of Islands. Essays in British History (2005)[1] and Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (2009)-, scholarly editions of classic works of political thought –The Political Works of James Harrington (1977) and Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics (1992, with a new introduction)- and a truly ample array of uncollected articles published in journals and anthologies. Throughout this formidably vast scholarly enterprise Pocock carved out as his specific dominion of knowledge the history of the languages of politics as they developed -within a British frame of reference- from the Renaissance to the end of the Eighteenth Century; and, among these, preeminently those employed to articulate a diversity of republican idioms and projects. Despite the remarkably wide-ranging historical curiosity of which his essays on Mozi and Chinese political thought[2] or his numerous writings on the Maori contribution to New Zealand political discourse[3] give evidence, a unifying thread may be detected throughout as constituting the specific problematic -the problematique générale- that engaged his reflection over so many years: the reconstruction and exploration of languages of politics in the British Atlantic (to which should be added his important partial reconstructions of those of the Italian Renaissance and of the French Enlightenment) oriented towards an interrogation of the conditions of possibility for a modern concept of revolution to emerge -together with the responses which that emergence evoked- and for which an understanding of the complex transformation of the religious dimension of political thought and discourse throughout the early Modern era was characterized by him as being crucial.

Closely associated throughout much of his career with the group of historians who have come to be labelled “the Cambridge School” of history of ideas in context, his theoretical and methodological perspective was in many ways uniquely his own. This is especially evident in his stage-by-stage elaboration of the notion of “languages of politics” as the crucial element in the historical reconstruction of political thought. In its first formulation, in his seminal article “Languages and their implications” -conceived at the close of the 1960s- his effort to establish “the methodological autonomy of political language”[4] relied heavily on the arguments developed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (and his related works on the subject): languages of politics could be understood to function in the same manner as the paradigms underpinning “normal science” for “scientific communities” in the longer or shorter time-spans separating one “revolution” from the next. This characterization had several implications for the practice of the history of political thought. First, the relative significance of “key works” within the authorial canon of political thought -for any period or intellectual current- diminished, as did the role of the “author” himself (or herself): for if, according to Pocock, “authors -individuals thinking and articulating- remain the actors in any story we have to tell”, the fact that the “units of the processes we trace are the paradigms of political speech”[5] meant that those very works previously seen as “classics” effecting revolutionary changes in meaning -Machiavelli, Hobbes or Locke- were themselves constructed through the medium of the available paradigms of political speech, and this fact in itself had a levelling effect. Consequently, a meticulous exploration of the entire range of political utterances available to each of those “key authors” -newspapers, pamphlets, parliamentary speeches, legislation, sermons- became -almost- a more significant exercise than the exegesis of the “classics” themselves: certainly, if the study of a vast array of obscure and “minor” works did not entirely displace the key works as the focus of the historian’s analysis, it became the necessary prelude to any informed understanding of the range of meanings they conveyed when written or published. If this consequence of the “Kuhnian” conceptualization of political languages remained compatible with the contemporaneous methodological suggestion being made by Quentin Skinner in relation to the aim of avoiding any proleptic interpretation of political utterances articulated in the past, another, also derived from it, suggested a significant divergence between Skinner’s and Pocock’s understanding of the historical reconstruction of political thought and discourse: “Once history is seen in linguistic depth such as this, the paradigms with which he author operates take precedence over questions of his ‘intention’ or the ‘illocutionary force’ of his utterance, for only after we have understood what means he had of saying anything can we understand what he meant to say, what he succeeded in saying, what he was taken to have said, or what effects his utterance had in modifying or transforming the existing paradigm structures.”[6] Rather than simply examining the canonically-significant texts of the past by relating them to a context whose meticulous reconstruction could offer more or less precise clues as to the authors “intention” when producing his act of speech, the historian should seek to identify “languages” of politics -whose governing paradigms determined, at least in part, the vocabularies disposable to their users-, to reconstruct them as perfectly as possible from the full historical record, and to relate all works -including the canonically-significant ones- to the range of possibilities available within that paradigm: a proposition which seems obliquely nearer to the project of Begriffsgeschichte than to that of the “Cambridge School”. 

Writing at a moment in time when the epochal climate was suffused with structuralism in its various formulations, that early effort at characterizing the nature and role of languages of politics attested, undoubtedly, to the presence of that atmosphere, even as it deliberately sought to avoid the principal limitation of structuralism, i.e. the complete abolition of authorial agency: in that and the other essays that accompanied it in that book, the “author” seems usually to be the locus of decision -insofar as he or she could choose to use one language of politics rather than another (or to combine several as part of a specific rhetorical strategy), even if the range of languages available for such choice was strictly dependent on the moment in history inhabited by the author-, while the processes which could shift paradigms over time and even overthrow them were situated in the interplay between specific instances of speech action deployed by authors in the context of polemic and explanation, and the underlying paradigms which determined the range of available words and meanings.

A little over a decade later, in the opening essay of Virtue, Commerce and History –“Introduction: The state of the art”-, Pocock offered a more detailed and sophisticated characterization of what he understood “languages” of politics to be. Acknowledging explicitly the contribution of Saussurean linguistics and the “structuralist turn” derived from it, “language” was now referred, in the course of his argument, to the distinct levels of langue and parole, while “discourse” and “traditions of discourse” appeared as terms interchangeable with “language” and “idioms”: a clear index of the manner in which Foucault now interacted with and partially displaced Kuhn and Austin in his conception of what “languages of politics” were and how they operated, although these latter -as well as linguistic game theory- continued to play a role in the thick description of historically-retrievable “languages”. The central subject with which historical research of political thought (and even of “politics” in a broader sense) was, for Pocock, political discourse, political language: “It is a large part of our historian’s practice to learn to read and recognize the diverse idioms of political discourse as they were available in the culture and at the time he is studying: to identify them as they appear in the linguistic texture of any one text, and to know what they would ordinarily have enabled that text’s author to propound or “say”. The extent to which the author’s employment of them was out of the ordinary comes later.”[7] More importantly, of the two domains into which that subject could be divided -the history of “states of consciousness” or of private, individual, thought, on the one hand, and of public discourse produced in the interaction between more than one agent, on the other hand- it was the latter which mattered the most to the historian -at least in Pocock’s opinion- while the former was merely a possible ancillary form of research designed to improve understanding of the former: “”But speech is commonly public, and authors commonly publish their works, though the act of writing a text and the act of publishing it may be very different because performed in different situations. (…) The history of discourse is concerned with speech acts that become known and evoke response, with illocutions that are modified as they become perlocutions by the ways in which recipients respond to them, and with responses that take the form of further speech acts and countertexts.”[8] For the history of political discourse to be meaningful, “a complex mode of Rezeptionsgeschichte is required of the historian.”[9]

Even as he outlined the frontiers of the object which should constitute the historian’s focus -by his distinction between the history of discourse and the history of thought, as well as between both and the histoire des mentalités-, he reinforced the central aspect of his understanding of the collective nature of discourse and the actions that could be performed through its medium. Languages of politics surrounded and contained individual thinkers and their texts within themselves, however much those individuals might employ their words and idioms to effect changes upon the languages themselves. Hence, the task for the historian intent upon recovering “languages” that had been available in previous historical periods but were no longer so -or at least no longer so with the same characteristics- was to gather sufficient evidence of systematic and shared usage by historical agents of the vocabularies and syntactical possibilities those languages offered: “The more he can show (a) that diverse authors employed the same idiom and performed diverse and even contrary utterances in it, (b) that the idiom recurs in texts and contexts varying from those in which it was at first detected, and (c) that authors expressed in words their consciousness that they were employing such an idiom and developed critical and second-order languages to comment on and regulate their employment of it, the more his confidence in his method will increase”[10] -and the more the confidence of his reader and fellow-historian would also be expected to increase. If specific languages could be identified and mapped out by the historian, the question of the relationship of language to experience remained still to be addressed. Pocock, on this issue, once again approached a characterization of that relationship which came surprisingly near to that of Reinhardt Koselleck and his colleagues, the remaining space between them deriving almost surely from the constraints imposed by his ultimately-empiricist perspective: “There is a constant and justified demand (…) that the language used by actors in a society be made to yield information regarding what that society was experiencing, and (…) that language be as far as possible presented as an effect of such experience. Here the historian is seen to concede a measure of autonomy to language, and this troubles those who cannot tell the difference between autonomy and abstraction. (…) [The historian] does not suppose that the language of the moment simply denotes, reflects or is an effect of the experience of the moment. Rather, it interacts with experience, it supplied the categories, grammar and mentality through which experience has to be recognized and articulated. In studying it the historian learns how the inhabitants of a society were cognizing experience, what experiences they were capable of recognizing, and what responses to experience they were capable of articulating and consequently performing. As a historian of discourse, it is his business to study what happened in discourse (including theory) in the process of experience, and in this way, which is one among others, he learns a good deal about the experience of those he studies”[11]. “The historian therefore expects the relation between language and experience to be diachronous, ambivalent, and problematic.”[12] If experience was not coterminous with the language which could express it, if a portion of “experience” remained beyond the realm of linguistic expression, then the begriffsgeschichtlichetransformation of social history into conceptual history remained just out of reach. For the purposes of Pocock’s theory, this was not necessarily a negative situation.

In practice, the “languages of politics” and “idioms” he explicitly identified and explored were those for which a substantial empirical evidence could be marshalled in support of their use by speakers and writers belonging to the historical period being studied. He suggested that one form of recovery and reconstruction of such languages would be through the careful examination of “the professional vocabularies of jurists, theologians, philosophers, merchants, and so on that for some reason have become recognized as part of the practice of politics and have entered into political discourse”[13]. Another would be to practice the same method in recovering idioms and languages whose origin was “rhetorical” rather than institutional or professional: “they will be found to have originated as modes of argument within the ongoing process of political discourse, as new modes invented or old modes transformed by the constant action of speech upon language, of parole upon langue[14]. The manifold varieties of the discourse of “whiggism” present in the British Eighteenth Century, or of “toryism” both before, during and after the years studied by Pocock; of the “enlightenment” with its different national emphases, or even, although this overlapped with the form originating in professional vocabularies, the languages of Machiavellianism or of Lockeanism or of the “ancient Constitution” over the centuries, were all possible candidates for application of the historical method suggested by Pocock, and exemplars of the theory which underpinned that method.

In his own research Pocock would employ the essential intuitions of that conception of “political languages” -which, as mentioned, evolved over time, incorporating new theoretical references in pace with the evolving patterns of historical theory in general (by the 1990s, the Sattelzeit had entered Pocock’s own vocabulary, and such incorporations were many and constant over the years) which produced subtle (and sometimes profound) transformations regarding their nature- to identify, map out and explore the language of the “ancient constitution” in early modern British political discourse, the “Machiavellian moment” on both sides of the Atlantic, the variegated patterns of whiggism in Eighteenth-Century Britain, the British Protestant Enlightenment -as distinct from the French and Italian variety-, the theological language of Socinianism in its political projection, the discontinuous but ever threatening language(s) of revolution as inflected and resignified within the British tradition in the pre-modern era, and many more. In accomplishment of that vast cartography he reinterpreted and gave a more central emphasis than ever before to the work of James Harrington -elevated to the role of equal with Rober Filmer in the company of Thomas Hobbes’s disputants-, he demonstrated that the obsession of Anglo-American historians with the role of John Locke’s “liberal” thought in the discourse of North American independence occluded the presence of other sources just as potent, and he rescued from oblivion the powerful intelligence present in Josiah Tucker’s writings. As well as, of course, illuminating the many Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon -British and cosmopolitan, historiographical and philosophical, erudite and on the cutting-edge of contemporary politics-, whose Decline and Fall will never be read again in quite the same manner after Pocock´s unfolding of its many layers of meaning.

Pocock never denied that his preoccupation as an active historian was exclusively-centered on British political thought and the early-modern period: when he dealt with other national traditions of political language, it was always with the intention of further illuminating the British authors and discursive traditions he studied, and of refining his own interpretation of them. French, Italian, German political thought was always explored through the prism of the British readers for whom the authors of those nations had proved at some time relevant. Even his excursions into Maori thought were ultimately placed within a general British framework.

It might at first sight seem surprising, then, that even before his principal works began to be translated into Spanish or Portugues, his theory and practice were becoming relevant to Latin American historians grappling with the same type of problems concerning the history of political discourse as those faced by Pocock. In part, this reflects the generally less insular and more eclectic approach to history accustomed by Latin American historians, but, more importantly, it stemmed from the fact that many of the issues at the center of Pocock’s work were also of fundamental importance to the historical reinterpretation underway in Latin America from the 1980s onwards. From the Latin American perspective, the rediscovery of the history of Iberian political thought and discourse in the longue durée has revealed many more parallels between the British and the Spanish traditions than had ever been recognized from the British perspective. For instance, although there is no evidence that Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law was read by Tulio Halperin Donghi, the Argentinian historian can be found dedicating a key part of his interpretation of Spanish political thought and the ideology of Argentinian independence to Spanish discourse on the “ancient constitution” of Spain and its Empire[15]. Similarly, long before Pocock’s seminal contribution to a rethinking of the British Enlightenment based on the identification of its complex imbrication with British theological discourse, Spanish American historians had been actively doing the same for the Spanish and Spanish American Enlightenment, reinterpreted by authors such as Mario Góngora or, many years later, José Carlos Chiaramonte, as a “Catholic Enlightenment”[16]. In these cases, the intense interest awakened among Latin American historians by Pocock’s work derived from a situation of confluence between traditions, more than from the unique contributions that work might make to a better understanding of the history of Latin American political discourse.

 Such a decisive contribution was effected through reception of two key works –The Machiavellian Moment and Virtue, Commerce and History– whose arguments proved highly-illuminating to historians working on the history of political thought in the region. Natalio Botana, for example, relied heavily on Pocock’s reading of British and Anglo-American history in La Tradición Republicana: a study of republican discourse in Nineteenth-Century Argentina whose principal aim was to demonstrate the connections between European (and British) traditions of republican thought and those of Argentina[17]. In the second half of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Pocock’s work came to be more frequently referenced by Mexican, Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean and other historians of political discourse working on the Nineteenth Century, both in order to use specific observations on discursive traditions and authors present in the British domain for reinterpretation or closer analysis of Latin American authors and discursive traditions, and -more fundamentally- in order to undertake the cartography of Latin American languages of politics with the methodological instruments developed by Pocock. Hilda Sábato, Elías Palti, Paula Alonso, and many other Argentinian historians would make use in one or both ways of his work during the 1990s and after. The current author did so when studying republican discourse in the Argentinian Confederation of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1995. Even before the availability of a substantial body of translations, Pocock’s historical texts were having an impact on the manner in which the history of political discourse in Latin America was being conducted.

From the beginning of the Twenty-First Century onwards, most of J. G. A. Pocock’s principal works have been translated into both Spanish and Portuguese, and this has widened the area of his influence, both in Spain and Portugal and in Latin America, engagement with his work being visible not only in the field of intellectual history, but also in those of political science, philosophy and even the sociology of intellectuals. This increased presence has also evoked increasing criticism. In recent years a debate has been gradually coalescing around the fact that references to the history of Iberian and Latin American political thought was always all but totally absent from the work, not only of Pocock, but of the bulk of authors associated with the “Cambridge School” -even when such references would have been pertinent to their own fields of enquiry within the British domain. A recent text by Clément Thibaud has summarized the various instances of this critique, and rendered it more complex by suggesting that the diametrical opposition between “republicanism” and “liberalism” present in the work of Pocock (and Skinner, Wood,, on the one hand, and the uncrossable caesura posited in it as separating the Early Modern Period from the Modern -and the Eighteenth from the Nineteenth Century-, on the other hand, combined with Pocock’s Anglocentrism to produce a model of republican discourse whose applicability to the Atlantic situation in general and to the Latin American in particular, is increasingly showing itself as being untenable[18]. Without underestimating the importance of Pocock’s specific contribution, Thibaud’s discussion of the limitations of the British and Anglo-American history of republicanism has sought to point the way forward to a more precise understanding of Latin American and Atlantic republicanism and republican discourse: one which even though it supersedes it in its applicability (including Pocock’s contribution), would not have been possible had it not existed.

Pocock, had the language barrier not existed, might have engaged with this criticism in a constructive -if not conciliatory- fashion. He was, after all, a “colonial” himself, albeit of the Pacific rather than the Atlantic wing of the British Empire, whose decline and fall took place within the span of his own life. Throughout his extensive body of work he sought constantly to place the difference between different types of “British” subjects and citizens within the explicit purview of his narrative, whether these were in fact English, or North American, Scottish, or Maori: a study of republicanism plurally centered -whose urgent necessity Thibaud so cogently defends- was already on Pocock’s horizons, even when that horizon stretched no farther than the frontiers where the Union Jack had once flown. In defense of that fecund self-limitation, he might well have repeated the following words from his valedictory lecture upon retiring from his decades-long position at Johns Hopkins University: “It depends what one wants, a history which is one’s own, or a history in which one can move freely; the island or the ocean, the landfall or the voyage. Beyond that, however, lies the understanding that one can’t choose finally, and that that’s what history is about.”[19]

[1] To which should be added those books which were chiefly compilations of the work of others, such as Three British Revolutions1641, 1688, 1776: (Princeton, 1980), Terence Ball and J.G.A. Pocock, Conceptual Change and the Constitution (1988), and (compiled conjointly with Gordon J. Schochet and Lois G. Schwoerrer) The Varieties of British Political Thought 1500-1800, (CUP, 1993).

[2] “Ritual, Language, Power: an Essay on the Apparent Political Meanings of Ancient Chinese Philosophy”, Politics, Language and Time. Essays on Political Thought and History, University of Chicago Press, 1971.

[3] Among others, “Tanguta Whenua and Enlightenment anthropology”, and “Law, sovereignty and history in a divided culture: the case of New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi”, in: The Discovery of Islands. Essays in British History, CUP, 2005.

[4] Pocock, J.G.A., Politics, Language and Time (Op.Cit.), p.13.

[5] Pocock, Ibid., p. 25.

[6] Pocock, Ibid., p. 25.

[7] Pocock, J.G.A., Virtue, Commerce and History, p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 17-18.

[9] Op.Cit.

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] Ibid., p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 29.

[13] Ibid., p. 8.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Halperin Donghi, Tulio, Tradición política española e ideología revolucionaria de Mayo, Eudeba, 1961, Buenos Aires.

[16] Góngora, Mario, Estudios sobre el galicanismo y la “Ilustración católica” en América Española, Editorial de la Universidad de Chile, 1957, Santiago de Chile; Chiaramonte, José Carlos, La Ilustración en el Río de la Plata. Cultura eclesiástica y cultura laica durante el Virreinato, Puntosur, 1989, Buenos Aires.

[17] Instrumental for his own reconstruction of the Anglo-American tradition of political discourse, Botana singled out Pocock’s critique of the notion of “gothic liberty” as used by Bolingbroke. Cf: Botana, Natalio, La tradición republicana, Sudamericana, 1984, Buenos Aires, p. 62.

[18] Thibaud, Clément, “Para una historia de los republicanismos atlánticos (1770-1880), Prismas No. 23, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2019, Buenos Aires.

[19] Pocock, J. G. A., The Owl Reviews his Feathers, Valedictory Lecture, Johns Hopkins University, 1994 (curated by Zachary Larsen, at

Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia Springborg, Frank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Frank Ankersmit. Emeritus professor of intellectual history and philosophy of history at Groningen University

John Pocock’s reply to the question: Why Trump?

At the time I’m writing this (March 2024) Trump is likely to win the Presidential elections in November this year.[1] If so, It will mean the end of the world-order as it came into being in the years after the end of World War II. History will be pushed into new directions. What the new world-order (or dis-order if you prefer) will be like is hard, if not impossibe to say. Nevertheless, one can have one’s more or less plausible suspicions. Moving from  one world-order to a new one requires each component of the old one to be coordinated in a new way to all of the others in a  trial and errror fashion. The implication is that there will be a shorter or longer period of global chaos before the new world-order has crystallized out again and the vacuum created by the US’s withdrawal from world polics has been filled again by others. Unless this global chaos results in  a World War III.

Two features of this still largely unknown  new world-order are not hard to predict. In the first place, democracy in the US will be exchanged for a presidential, auhoritarian autocracy. This prediction is all the more likely to become true since democracy is already for quite some time on its way out in the US.[2] The Economist’s Democracy Index had demoted in 2016 already the US from ‘a full democracy’ to ‘a flawed democracy’.[3] Thanks to the the Republican Party’s success in dismantling the machineries of democratic government the US rapidly becomes ever more a DINO (a ‘democracy in name only’, to paraphrase the extremist Republican’s habit of maligning their less extreme opponents within the Republican Party  as RINOs). In the Democracy Index of 2024 the US scores now number 29 (just one place above Netanyahu’s Israel) on its list of 167 countries (North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan  scoring  lowest). The Index deftly summarizes the predicament of democracy in the US as follows:

A country crying out for change is the US. If the election comes down to a contest between the president, Joe Biden, and the former presifent, Donald Trump, as looks likely, a country that once was a beacon of democracy is likely to slide deeper into division and disenchantment. A lot more than a ‘get out the vote’ campaign is required to inspire voters, including the 80m or so Americans who routinely do not vote. Nothing short of a major change in the agenda of politics, and a new crop of political leaders will do. [4]

The US traditionally perceived itself as ‘a city on a hill’ – the phrase John Winthrop used when  in March 1630 the Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the Arabella to settle in what now is Boston. Winthrop’s intenton was  to instill on the colonists the awareness that  ‘the eyes of all people are upon us’, as it it is with ‘a  city on a hill’. John F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop in 1961 to suggest to his  fellow-Americans what their mission was in this world. He was followed by Ronald Reagan (!) on several occasions, Barack Obama in 2006 and most recently by Mitt Romney when he in 2015 clairvoyantly warned the Republicans that  America would cease to be ‘a shining city on a hill’ if Trump were elected president. 

Trump has announced  already that if elected he will be a dictator for one day. Self-evidently the idea is absurd. There have never been and will never be dictators for just one day. The aspirant dictator for one day will discover he will also have to be a dictator for the next day and for all the days to come in order to insure his decisions to be realized against the oppositon his plans will inevitably provoke. 

Furthermore, Trump has never been a supporter of  the NATO – to put it mildly – and recently stated that he would encourage Putin to do whatever ‘ the hell he wants to do’ with the allies the US has in Europe. Words matter, as we know since Draghi’s declaration  in July 2012 that the ECB will do ‘everything it takes’ to uphold the euro. This is why Trump’s utterly irresponsible pronunciations have undermined already  the credibility of article 5 of the NATO-treaty as soon as he will be president of the US. In sum, if Trump becomes president in 2025 this will de deathblow to the already tottering American democracy and mark the isolationist withdrawal of the US in itself, leaving its former allies in Europe and in Asia  to fend for themselves in their struggle with the authoritarian regimes threatening them. 

[1] The polls are now: 49% for Trump versus 45% for Biden. Or, more accurately, Biden is expected to win 224 and Trump 314 of the electoral votes. The elections will be an unprecedented  landslide victory for the Republicans.. 

[2] Since the early nineteenth century there has been a long tradition in the US opposing freedom and democracy: the more democracy there is, the more freedom wil suffer.  See Annelien de Dijn, Freedom. Un Unruly History, (Cambridge (Ma): Harvard University Press, 2020); 298 – 310; 323 – 330. The idea is that the will of the many will inevitably curtail the freedom of the few. The openly anti-democratic intentions  of the present Republican Party (think of their love of gerrymandering and their efforts to prevent certain groups of the electorate from casting their votes) builds on this typically American tradition (though in England someone like Sir Henry Maine and Édouard de Laboulaye in France were sensitive to the idea as well). 

[3] The index distinguishes between (1) ‘full democracies’ (24 countries with 7.8 percent of the world population), (2) ‘flawed democracies’ (50 countries with 37.6 percent) , (3) ‘hybrid regimes’ (34 countries with 15.2 percent) and (4) ‘authoritarian regimes’ (59 countries with 39.4 percent of the world population).  Economist Intelligence, Democracy Index 2023: Age of Conflict; 4.

[4] Democracy Index; 16

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Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia Springborg, Frank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Patricia Springborg. Honorary Professor, University of Sydney.


Obituaries for JGA Pocock from the NY Times to the Washington Post and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung all speak of him as a giant figure in the history of historiography, as he surely is.  A tall man with a warm smile and a twinkling eye, he was also a kind mentor and very much aware of his position on the fringes of empire at an extraordinary point of social change. It was not the first time he had appeared on their pages. Patrick Bahners, an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who is a great admirer of Pocock and has an Oxford degree, published an essay in the Feuilleton of the FAZ on January 6, 2021, entitled: ‘Er bleibt außen vor, Pocock liest Tolkien’ (‘He remains outside: Pocock reads Tolkien’). Bahners addressed an early unpublished essay by Pocock on Tolkien posted on Richard Whatmore’s St. Andrews Intellectual History website, to argue that Tom Bombadil’s very Englishness was to stand apart, enlisting him in the Brexit debate to argue that England’s incapacity to integrate its own nations, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was symptomatic of its later incapacity to integrate in the EU. This prompted me to respond to Bahner’s piece, which he posted in a later Feuilleton of the FAZ on January 20, 2021 with the title ‘Die Tyrannei des Abstands, Neuseeland und der Brexit’ (‘The Tyranny of Distance, New Zealand and Brexit’) to argue that enlisting Tom Bombadil in the Brexit debate is a step too far; imperial nations have a congenital inability to integrate, but Pocock’s case is a different one.  The British Empire, modelled on the Roman, followed much of its own logic, he set out to show. Just as in the Roman Empire ruler cults flourished on the fringes of the empire where the international relations function of the Emperor was most important, so in its most far-flung colonies the British Empire had greatest salience. Extraordinarily then, at the onset of WWII the world’s two most influential professors of Roman Studies were both NZers. Ronald Syme (1903-1989), a Taranaki boy educated at Auckland University,  who made his career at Oxford; and Ernst Badian (1925-2011), an Austrian Jewish refugee who had migrated to NZ with his family and been a student of LG Pocock, Professor of Classics at Canterbury and JGAP’s father, who made his career at Harvard. ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ did not count in this case.

Among the accolades his obituaries pay are to speak of Pocock as a master of the English language, who even in seminars could speak in carefully constructed paragraphs. Here again the frontiers of the British Empire are seen to supply one of its greatest models; but let me emphasize the lucidity and simplicity of Pocock’s prose and the extraordinary coherence of his life’s project. At the University of Canterbury, where I encountered him in my first year in 1961, JGAP was the director of a Political Science Department newly founded in 1959, spun out of the History Department in order to address precisely the causes of social change and their impacts for global intellectual history, burning issues of the day. For, by 1960 the History Department had taken a strongly empirical turn reflected across many disciplines, where behaviouralism and elite studies employing prosopographical techniques challenged grand narratives. In this case it was ‘Namierism’ named after Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960), a Polish-Jewish born British historian who introduced behaviouralism and elite studies as an important empirical corrective to the standard British grand narrative. Namier had published his The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, detailing the social background characteristics of MPs, their psychological drives, personal and local interests, to reveal a politics in 1760 driven by Tories and Whigs jockeying for position within the political elite, and not by big ideas. Important though Namier’s empiricism and behaviouralism proved to be in subsequent historiography, as revealing the nitty-gritty of modern politics, it left big ideas out in the cold. The fortuitous decision of the Canterbury History Department to create a Political Science Department that addressed the causes of social change, gave Pocock his scope. Not only did he set up a thoroughly creditable curriculum addressing social change in the light of current political science giants, sociologists and anthropologists; but by examining the foundations for major shifts in global intellectual history, it served to provide the systematic groundwork for a history of historiography . And it is in historiography that Pocock is remembered as a giant, there being personal and positional reasons for this that have to do with the state of the British Empire and the role of NZ as a frontier colony.

JGA Pocock was the son of LG Pocock, from a South African family, appointed Professor of Classics at Canterbury, and his historian wife from the Chanel Islands, both of whom influenced JGA Pocock’s education as an accomplished Latinist and a path-breaking historian. As noted, at the onset of WWII the world’s two most influential professors of Roman Studies were both NZers. Ronald Syme at Oxford, author of the famous The Roman Revolution (1939) written against the background of the rise of Fascism in Europe, employed prosopographical techniques to show how family, clan and tribe had colonized imperial Rome, whose constitution was inadequate to the task, and whose ideals were deemed a sham. Ernst Badian at Harvard is famous for work on Alexander the Great that was also deflationary in the new empirical tradition, while his study of patron-client relations, Foreign Clientelae 264-70BC (1958), published from his Oxford dissertation, also a study of Roman elite politics, is said to be based on a transcription of the Cicero graffiti on the walls of LG Pocock’s study. 

But JGA Pocock, surrounded by the new empiricism taking the form of behaviouralism and prosopographical studies of the social background characteristics of elites, took another message from Roman Studies and its relation to the empire. It has been JGA Pocock’s life work to show how the British Empire was shaped  by the Roman, but also how its colonies have shaped it. This includes Great Britain, which constitutes an ‘Atlantic Archipelago’, in Pocock’s terms,  along with its former American colonies (The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton, 1975); but also its frontier colonies, of which NZ seems to have been one of the most important (The Discovery of Islands, Cambridge, 2005). In my farewell letter to John which I sent to his son Hugh, who had alerted me that his Dad was failing and would likely not make his 100th, I compared John to Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), NZ born and raised, the 4th of 12 children from Brightwater, my NZ village, who attended Nelson College and, in this case took all of his degrees from the University of Canterbury. Rutherford won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1908, and is considered the father of nuclear physics, performing the first nuclear reaction, developing the atomic numbering system, as well as anticipating the controlled nuclear chain reaction, while making important contributions to Xray, sonar and other fields. He like Pocock was a great mentor, and at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge under his tutelage, 4 more researchers won Nobels. He is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Newton and Darwin, and is claimed to be the greatest and most original of all British scientists – note that like Pocock he is considered British! 

Pocock, whom in my valedictory letter I compare as the ‘Rutherford of the humanities’, has also been influential across many fronts. His most enduring legacy is as an historian of historiography, a much more dynamic field than it sounds. For, as John has demonstrated in his study of Gibbon’s Decline and FallBarbarism and Religion (1999 to 2015) — at 6 volumes already longer than Gibbon’s original and even then not complete — historiography was a species of political theory. What better choice than Gibbon whose very subject is the Roman Empire as the model for the British, and who documented the growing self-awareness of its strengths and of its frailties? Pocock’s interest is in global intellectual history and its path-breaking transitions, which it was the business of historiographers to chart. His first famous book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge 1957), already set the scene by analysing the 17th century battle between the Common Lawyers, as supporters of an Ancient Constitution based on immemorial custom, against the legions of the Holy Roman Empire based on feudal law. Once again it is the historiographers and antiquarians to whom the discovery of feudal law is credited, and not the lawyers. It is of course hardly credible that in the 17th century, Britain, which had lived alongside the Holy Roman Empire for 1000 years, where the Norman Kingdom of England together with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily were the most well-integrated off-shore islands of Europe, should have had to ‘discover’ feudalism. It is even more significant that antiquarians, like the Scottish Sir Henry Spelman, should have been responsible. And extraordinarily Pocock folds the great Thomas Hobbes into this story of the discovery of feudalism and its consequences.

It is here, in the powerful first chapter of  The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, that Pocock inserts the role of humanism under the influence of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) and other great unveilers beloved of the Cambridge School. For, as Pocock emphasizes, it is a singular characteristic of medieval and early modern consciousness to treat Graeco-Roman civilization as an immovable object to be confronted; something which Graeco-Roman thought itself was not forced to confront. It rather treated itself as sui generis, simply ignoring its debts to previous civilizations like the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian. Symptomatically, 16th century humanism, predominantly in French universities, already enlisted antiquarianism against the civil lawyers, insisting on stripping the original Justinian texts of the glosses and commentaries with which they had been transmitted by the Bartolist school, trying to adapt Roman law to new circumstances. During the French wars of religion, diagnosed as a consequence of the failure of this project, Francois Baudouin in De institutione historiae universae et ejus cum jurisprudentia conjunctione (1561), Jean Bodin in his Methodus ad facilem historium cognitionem (1566) and Francois Hotman in Anti-Tribonian (1567) faced a radical confrontation between history and jurisprudence. Hotman declared Roman law irrelevant, paving the way for his laterFrancogallia (1573) and its assertion of the primacy of French customary law, which Pocock sees anticipating the overblown case for Common Law based on ‘immemorial custom’ of Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), and the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. So consequential then, was this confrontation between Roman civil law and indigenous customary law, fought out in terms of jurisprudence and antiquarianism, that in both the cases of France and England it produced religious wars.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, German thinkers in the tradition of Geistesgeschichte, or Intellectual Historyhave been best able to diagnose the special genius of Pocock’s thought. So Martin Mulsow, Professor of Intellectual History at the University of Erfurt, and Andreas Mahler, Professor of Geistesgeschichte  at the Freie Universität Berlin, in their Die Cambridge School der Politischen Ideengeschichte (Suhrkamp, 2010), see the specificity of Pocock’s contribution. Mulsow in Prekär Wissen (Suhrkamp, 2012), Precarious Knowledge, translated as Knowledge Lost (Princeton 2022), emphasizes the work of antiquarians and other unveilers working in the margins, the producers of ‘precarious knowledge’. Their efforts have contributed to what the Germans call Nichtwissen, systematic obstacles to the distribution of knowledge. So we should not be surprised that Pocock, after his masterful work on ‘the Enlightenments’ of Edward Gibbon, should have turned in his last days to Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Tunisian historian and sociologist, considered to be the father of historiography, and best known for his Al-Muqaddima, the introduction to his universal history of empires. Pocock sees Ibn Khaldun anticipating Gibbon’s ‘enlightenments’ (see Pocock, 2019: ‘Two Cities: 1. The desert and the city: reading the history of civilization in Ibn Khaldun after Edward Gibbon. II. Rational Enthusiasm and angelicality: the concept of prophecy in Ibn Khaldun and Edward Gibbon’). Or perhaps we could say, Pocock saw Ibn Khaldun as the producer of ‘precarious knowledge’ or ‘knowledge lost’. But then the same could be said, I have argued elsewhere, for the great Thomas Hobbes, apparently a most conservative figure, who can however be read quite differently, as Pocock already suggests. 

Patricia Springborg
Honorary Professor, University of Sydney;

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

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.