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, et.al.), 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 www.intellectualhistory.net/thousand-manuscripts-blog/the-owl-reviews-his-feathers)


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.

POCOCK AND ‘THE TYRANNY OF DISTANCE’

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
patriciaspringborg@gmail.com; patricia.springborg@sydney.edu.au



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.