New article: Hobbes against Bramhall – Moral responsibility, free will, and mechanistic determination

Pink, Thomas (2023): Hobbes against Bramhall. Moral responsibility, free will, and mechanistic determination in Kiener, M. (Ed.): The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Responsibility (1st ed.). Routledge. 

Description

Hobbes addressed a debate about free will and responsibility hitherto conducted within the framework of Aristotelian scholasticism. The debate assumed that our responsibility was for our exercise of a power of self-determination. The main issue was whether this power of self-determination must be exercised contingently.

Contingency in the exercise of power was further linked to a generally accepted theory of rationality as involving susceptibility to the force of reason – to various forms of normative power, forces of truth and of goodness, operating on the mind through objects of thought. Hobbes denied that power could ever be exercised contingently. The very idea of self-determination was viciously regressive. All action was necessitated by prior causes from within material nature.

Hobbes further attacked the theory that rationality involved the operation on us of normative power – of a force of reason.

Hobbes Studies 2024 Essay Competition

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

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

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

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

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

The submission deadline for the competition is 30 April 2024.

Editor

Alexandra Chadwick, University of Jyväskylä

Associate Editor

Elad Carmel, University of Jyväskylä

New article: Thomas Hobbes’s State of Nature – A View From Thucydides’ Peloponnesus

Ribarević, Luka (2023): Thomas Hobbes’s State of Nature: A View From Thucydides’ Peloponnesus in Global Intellectual History, (8) 5: 584-608. 

Description:

Long before Thomas Hobbes wrote systematic works on political philosophy, he produced the first English translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War directly from Greek. Published in 1629, it was a result of several of his formative years spent in Thucydides’ close company. Starting from the premise that such an experience could have informed Hobbes’s own ideas to a certain extent, this article tries to establish points of connection between Thucydides’ text and Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature. The aim is to identify ideas that might be at work behind different aspects of one of the focal points of Hobbes’s political thought. The analysis begins with Thucydides’ Archaeology depicting the manner of life of the ancient Hellenes; moves to ‘the three greatest things’ that, working on both individual and collective levels, impelled Athens to build an Empire and consequently trigger the war with Sparta; subsequently turns to the disintegration of Corcyraean polis during stasis; and in the end engages with the same problem that in Athens was caused by the plague.

New book: Sovereignty as a Vocation in Hobbes’s Leviathan – New foundations, statecraft, and virtue

Hoye, Matthew (2023): Sovereignty as a Vocation in Hobbes’s Leviathan: New foundations, statecraft, and virtue, Amsterdam University Press.

Description:

This book is about virtue and statecraft in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Its overarching argument is that the fundamental foundation of Hobbes’s political philosophy in Leviathan is wise, generous, loving, sincere, just, and valiant—in sum, magnanimous—statecraft, whereby sovereigns aim to realize natural justice, manifest as eminent and other-regarding virtue.

I propose that concerns over the virtues of the natural person bearing the office of the sovereign suffuse Hobbes’s political philosophy, defining both his theory of new foundations and his critiques of law and obligation. These aspects of Hobbes’s thought are new to Leviathan, as they respond to limitations in his early works in political theory, Elements and De Cive—limitations made apparent by the civil wars and the regicide of Charles I. Though new, I argue that they tap into ancient political and philosophical ideas, foremostly the variously celebrated, mystified, and maligned figure of the orator founder.

New article: Hobbes and Hats

Bejan, Teresa M. (2023): Hobbes and Hats, in: American Political Science Review, 117(4): 1188-1201. 

There is no more analyzed image in the history of political thought than the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), yet the tiny figures making up the giant have largely escaped scholarly attention. So, too, have their hats. This article recovers what men’s failure to “doff and don” their hats in the frontispiece might have conveyed to readers about their relationship to the Sovereign and each other. Sometimes big ideas—about the nature of representation, for example, or how to “acknowledge” equality—are conveyed by small gestures. When situated textually and contextually, Hobbes’s hats shed important light on the micropolitics of everyday interaction for those who, like Hobbes himself, hope to securely constitute a society of equals.

New book: Materialism from Hobbes to Locke

Duncan, Stewart (2023): Materialism from Hobbes to Locke. Oxford University Press.

Description

Are human beings purely material creatures, or is there something else to them, an immaterial part that does some (or all) of the thinking, and might even be able to outlive the death of the body? 

This book is about how a series of seventeenth-century philosophers tried to answer that question. It begins by looking at the views of Thomas Hobbes, who developed a thoroughly materialist account of the human mind, and later of God as well. This is in obvious contrast to the approach of his contemporary René Descartes. After examining Hobbes’s materialism, Stewart Duncan considers the views of three of his English critics: Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, and Margaret Cavendish. Both More and Cudworth thought Hobbes’s materialism radically inadequate to explain the workings of the world, while Cavendish developed a distinctive, anti-Hobbesian materialism of her own. The second half of the book focuses on the discussion of materialism in John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding, arguing that we can better understand Locke’s discussion if we see how and where he is responding to this earlier debate. At crucial points Locke draws on More and Cudworth to argue against Hobbes and other materialists. Nevertheless, Locke did a good deal to reveal how materialism was a genuinely possible view, by showing how one could develop a detailed account of the human mind without presuming it was an immaterial substance.

This work probes the thought and debates that originated in the seventeenth-century yet extended far beyond it. And it offers a distinctive, new understanding of Locke’s discussion of the human mind.

EUROPEAN HOBBES SOCIETY ONLINE COLLOQUIUM: HOBBES AND THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINARY (REPLY).

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.

REPLY TO CRITICS

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.

EUROPEAN HOBBES SOCIETY ONLINE COLLOQUIUM: HOBBES AND THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINARY (3)

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.

 

EUROPEAN HOBBES SOCIETY ONLINE COLLOQUIUM: HOBBES AND THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINARY (2)

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. 

EUROPEAN HOBBES SOCIETY ONLINE COLLOQUIUM: HOBBES AND THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINARY (1)

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. 

References

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).