New article: Leviathan and medieval universitas: Hobbes’s debt to canon law

Luka RibarevićLeviathan and medieval universitas: Hobbes’s debt to canon law, History of Political Thought, 38 (2017), pp. 92-109.

Abstract: According to communis opinio, Hobbes in Leviathan presented the first thoroughly modern theory of political order. Combining ideas of individualism, political representation and sovereignty, Hobbes constructed his revolutionary notion of the state. However, the ancestry of the conceptual apparatus implied in Hobbes’s definition of the state as legal person produced through a process of political representation can be traced back deep into the pre-modern era. It has been remarked that the Roman law was one of the key sources of Hobbes’s science of politics. The main thesis of this article is that Hobbes relied not so much on the Roman law of imperial codifications as on its medieval ecclesiastical adaptation in the form of Canon Law.

Article: Forgiveness and reconciliation in Hobbes’s natural law theory

Maximilian Jaede: ‘Forgiveness and reconciliation in Hobbes’s natural law theory’, in History of European Ideaspublished online: 23 Feb 2017 (DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2017.1287831)

Abstract: Thomas Hobbes’s laws of nature dictate the making and keeping of the social contract. In addition, Hobbes’s natural law theory considers traditional moral virtues, such as mercy and gratitude, as being conducive to peace. Some Hobbes scholars have argued that these other natural laws call for ‘forgiveness’ and facilitate ‘reconciliation’. However, as this essay shows, Hobbes does not use these terms to mean the reparation of broken relationships between victims and perpetrators. Rather, Hobbesian reconciliation refers to efforts to propitiate enemies in order to win their favour, while forgiveness is a synonym for pardon, in the sense of punishment-forbearance. It is argued that neither of these requires true remorse and reparation of the wrong done. By contrasting Hobbes’s conception of anger with that of Aristotle, the article provides an explanation for why Hobbes maintains that the rage of enemies could be appeased by instrumental calculations of expected benefits, thus ignoring more deep-seated resentments caused by moral wrongs.

Chapter: ‘Thomas Hobbes Against the Aristotelian Account of the Virtues and His Renaissance Source Lorenzo Valla’

Gianni Paganini: ‘Thomas Hobbes Against the Aristotelian Account of the Virtues and His Renaissance Source Lorenzo Valla’, in Cecilia Muratori and Gianni Paganini, eds.,  Early Modern Philosophers and the Renaissance Legacy, Springer, 2016, pp. 221-37.

Abstract: This chapter concentrates on the “ethicist” interpretation of Hobbes’s theory of morals, considering whether and how a more historical and contextual approach could confirm or disconfirm this sort of reading of Hobbes. In this connection, it will be shown that knowledge of Hobbes’s Renaissance sources, first of all Valla, can help us to avoid not only historical but also philosophical misunderstandings, such as dismissing Hobbes’s objections to the Aristotelian theory of virtues. For his scientific approach to ethics that excludes the doctrine of mesótes, for his stressing the value of pleasure and self-preservation, for his criticism of the classic and Renaissance concept of “glory”, Hobbes reveals himself to have been influenced much more by Valla’s similar topics than by Aristotle’s approach, as Leo Strauss in the past and more recently Boonin-Vail and Ewin thought.


Article: Hobbes on Mind: Practical Deliberation, Reasoning, and Language

Arash Abizadeh: ‘Hobbes on Mind: Practical Deliberation, Reasoning, and Language’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 55 (2017), pp. 1-34.

Abstract: Readers of Hobbes usually take his account of practical deliberation to be a passive process that does not respond to agents’ judgments about what normative reasons they have. This is ostensibly because deliberation is purely conative and/ or excludes reasoning, or because Hobbesian reasoning is itself a process in which reasoners merely experience a succession of mental states. I argue that, for Hobbes, deliberation (the basis for voluntary action) is not purely conative and among humans it involves reasoning. Furthermore, while non-linguistic reasoning is passive, specifically linguistic reasoning is an active process in which reasoners affirm propositions from which they reason. The historical significance of Hobbes’s account of agency lies in his attempt, by appealing to the artificial tool of language, to weld a materialist determinism to a cognitive account of practical deliberation that can involve reasoning and be reason-responsive.

New book: Mere Civility

Teresa M. BejanMere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of TolerationHarvard University Press, 2017

About this book: Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere. In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical. But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

Mere Civility sheds light on our predicament and the impasse between “civilitarians” and their opponents by examining early modern debates about religious toleration. As concerns about uncivil disagreement achieved new prominence after the Reformation, seventeenth-century figures as different as Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke could agree that some restraint on the war of words would be necessary. But they recognized that the prosecution of incivility was often difficult to distinguish from persecution. In their efforts to reconcile diversity with disagreement, they developed competing conceptions of civility as the social bond of tolerant societies that still resonate.

Most modern appeals to civility follow either Hobbes or Locke by proposing to suppress disagreement or exclude persons and positions deemed “uncivil” for the sake of social concord. Compared with his contemporaries’ more robust ideals, Williams’s unabashedly mere civility—a minimal, occasionally contemptuous adherence to culturally contingent rules of respectful behavior—is easily overlooked. Yet Teresa Bejan argues that Williams offers a promising path forward in confronting our own crisis of civility, one that fundamentally challenges our assumptions about what a tolerant—and civil—society should look like.

Contains the chapter ‘“If It Be without Contention”: Hobbes and Civil Silence’

Interview: Dr Elliott Karstadt – Winner of the 2016 Hobbes Studies Essay Competition

Hobbes Studies has recently announced the winner of its 2016 Essay Competition: Dr Elliott Karstadt, with the essay ‘The Place of Interests in Hobbes’s Civil Science’, which is published in the latest issue. With the 2017 Essay Competition already open, the European Hobbes Society took the opportunity to interview Elliott on the essay, his research and upcoming plans.


What was the background/inspiration for this research? 


The article is drawn from my PhD, which was entitled ‘The power of interests in early-modern English political thought’ dealing with the language of interests in political thought in the period c. 1640 to c. 1740. The idea for such a project was born when I took Quentin Skinner’s Special Subject on ‘Hobbes and the English Revolution’ at Cambridge in my final year as an undergraduate (2007-8). During the course of the lectures – which dealt with Hobbes’s work and its Civil War context in equal measure – Quentin suggested that the topic of interest would make an interesting research project. So, I thought, why not? I had already decided that I wanted to pursue research in intellectual history, and I was looking for inspiration, and here he was providing it! It was very lucky that we moved from Cambridge to Queen Mary at the same time, so he was able to supervise the project as well as having provided the inspiration.

The vocabulary of ‘interest’ is present in English already in the sixteenth century as either a euphemism for usury, or to indicate a right or claim on property. However, it is not until the 1640s that the vocabulary comes to play a role in political debate. The language becomes important in Italian ragion di stato literature, particularly that of Francesco Guicciardini (which, I point out in the essay, Hobbes did have knowledge of) and in French raison d’etat literature (which we have no proof that Hobbes encountered, though we might conjecture that he read some during his time in Paris).[1] In 1638, the French Huguenot leader, Henri de Rohan published A Treatise of the Interest of the Princes and States of Christendom, which was translated into English in 1640, and which presented Europe with a view of politics that was cast as the interplay between the interests (intérêts) of the various states at the time. It was this text that seemingly leads to an increase in its use in English publications (more on this below).

My thesis asked the question: how did thinkers in the century that followed conceive of the relationship between particular interests and the common good? The answers that I found provided by moral and political thinkers over the period fall broadly into three categories: 1. Those who argue that particular interests are generally harmful to the common good, and therefore need to be supressed in favour of the common good (Hobbes falls into this category, with some caveats); 2. Those who argue that particular interests have to be manipulated, or set within some framework, in order to be brought into harmony with the common good (this category is dominated by republican thinkers of the post-Civil War period, in particular I studied James Harrington); 3. Those who argue that, as long as we conceive them in the right way, our interests can be found to be naturally harmonious with the common good (this is the argument that is started by the ‘men of Latitude’ in the Restoration period, and is completed by Bishop Joseph Butler in his Fifteen Sermons (1726)). It is with the last of these answers that I ended the research, partly because of the limitations of a PhD thesis, but also because the language becomes moralised, and the debate becomes less about interests and the common good, and more about self-interest and altruism.


What do you see as its most significant contribution to Hobbes scholarship? 


The article challenges the assumption that Hobbes’s political ideas do not significantly develop between his writing of The Elements of Law (1640) and Leviathan (1651), by studying the way in which his use of the vocabulary of ‘interest’ changes over the intervening period. Indeed, it was over this period that the language of interest becomes increasingly use by political writers on both sides of the Civil War debates. These debates are covered extensively in my thesis.[2] However, it would be mere speculation to argue that it is engagement with those controversies that drives Hobbes’s use of the vocabulary. The article focuses instead on how the addition of ‘interests’ to Leviathan changed his arguments about the nature of monarchy and counsel. I do this by way of a careful comparison of a number of passages that are similar, and often identical, to passages in The Elements of Law, but in which the vocabulary of ‘interest’ has been newly added.


Why do you think the language of ‘interests’ has been overlooked previously in works on Hobbes?


I do not think that the language of ‘interests’ has been overlooked as such. Dean Mathiowetz’s recent book, Appeals to Interest (2011) contains a whole chapter on Hobbes’s approach to interests, and the plethora of secondary materials cited in the footnotes to my article should give a sense of how many scholars make passing reference to the concept of interest in Hobbes’s work. Perhaps what has so far been lacking is a systematic study of how Hobbes uses the vocabulary in constructing his political arguments. So a better question is: what held back this form of analysis of the use of the vocabulary? The answer to this, I think, lies in the fact that people in the past were too quick to collapse the ‘interests’ into the concept of ‘self-interest’. Throughout my work on the early-modern period this is something I have eschewed, as I see the development of self-interest as having a different development. (While I do have many differences with Mathiowetz, this is one point I think we agree on!)[3]


Is there a methodological point that you’re making in this essay?


I am not sure that I am trying to make a point, but in the process of writing the essay I was forced to consider the question of method very seriously. In the course of presenting my argument to various scholarly forums, critics pointed out that it is difficult to see how an interest could be differentiated as a distinct concept. So, I dropped the claim that Hobbes was dealing with a new concept, and instead focused on vocabulary. In the essay I point out that:


The history of political thought is not simply to be conceived as a procession of concepts being introduced and subsequently developed or critiqued. Rather, it is the deployment of arguments that constitute speech acts in the battleground of politics. Since Hobbes is no longer here for us to ask him what exact concept he had in mind when using this vocabulary (or whether he had a particular concept in mind at all), all we can do is attempt an understanding of how he uses the vocabulary to forward his arguments.[4]


My critics pointed out that that is nearly impossible to distinguish in a conceptual way between ‘interests’ and ‘goods’ or ‘benefits’ (just to take a couple of examples. But making a conceptual distinction was never my aim (maybe others will manage it) – I’m more interested in how the use of that particular word functioned in the argument, and I hope there I was successful.


Are there contemporary lessons to be drawn from this research?


In my view, the main contribution that intellectual history can make to the contemporary world is to provide alternative ways of thinking to those currently available. In terms of my work on Hobbes, I think that the notion of the ‘public interest’ as being the interest of the person of the state (rather than a conglomeration of particular interests, or simply the interest of the sovereign) is significant. In terms of my broader research, I hope that similar alternatives might emerge that have otherwise been forgotten. To refer back to my first answer, I think that the republican solution to the problem of particular interests (that they should be manipulated in some form of political or constitutional framework) is one that has largely been forgotten, and is due a resurrection.


Where do you see this research going (either in your own work, or that of others)? What are your current interests? 


There are other parts of the thesis that I am still refining. There is a piece on the development of ‘interests’ as a way of thinking about politics in the 1640s. I have already mentioned the role played by Henri de Rohan, whose intervention in international politics really brought the idea of political interests to England in this period. Marchamont Nedham, probably the most famous propagandist of the Civil Wars, was responsible for bringing Rohan’s characterisation of international politics onto the domestic stage. Rather than talking about the particular interests of each state, Nedham brings to focus upon the particular interests of different groups with a state in the English political situation.

There is also work to be done on the vocabulary of the ‘public interest’, which I am interested in through both historical and contemporary lenses. I would to take as my starting point the thought that the options we might think we have of conceiving of the public interest are in fact limited, and that a thorough historical investigation of the term might widen its potential definitions. Having undergone some controversy in the 1950s in the USA, the vocabulary of ‘public interest’ remains one of the most important political questions of our time – especially now that the world seems so divided.

Hobbes has one answer to the question of what the public interest might be that has been overlooked in recent discussions, which I mention in my article.[5] But he is not the only early-modern thinker to have such an answer. In particular, the republican tradition, especially in the writings of James Harrington, offer a conception of the public interest which has previously been ignored. What I also want to show is that the ‘public interest’ has to be conceived politically – as a question of power – rather than in abstract moral terms.

But these projects necessarily move very slowly, because my main focus is now on my studies towards becoming a rabbi. My time now is mostly spent grappling with ancient and medieval sources in Hebrew and Aramaic (the language is in some ways the biggest challenge!) and going out and working in communities; teaching, leading services, and community-building. Leo Baeck College is a fantastic institution full of people dedicated both to Jewish scholarship and the future of Progressive Judaism in Europe.

This does not mean an end to my concern with intellectual history, however. The historical and philosophical concerns are still very much present in my study of these Jewish texts. They ask different questions and provide radically different answers, but the approach to studying them is the same, and I hope that I will be able to bring the ways of thinking I have learned studying Hobbes to he study of Jewish texts and the leadership of the Jewish community.




Elliott Karstadt was awarded a PhD in History from Queen Mary, University of London in 2013 for a thesis entitled ‘The power of interests in early-modern English political thought’, supervised by Quentin Skinner. While at Queen Mary he was one of the founders of the annual Postgraduate Conference in the History of Political Thought, which has continued since he left and is now in its seventh year. After graduating, Elliott took an editorial job at Polity Press in Cambridge where he spent two years working on projects in sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and history. In a change of direction, since September 2015 Elliott has been a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College in London, where he aims to develop the skills to become a leader and nurturer of the Progressive Jewish community.

[1] Elliott Karstadt, ‘The place of interests in Hobbes’s civil science,’ Hobbes Studies 29 (2016): 109.

[2] Chapter 1.

[3] See Elliott Karstadt, review of Appeals to Interest by Dean Mathiowetz, British Journal of the History of Philosophy 20 (July 2012): 839-42.

[4] Karstadt, ‘The place of interests’, 107-8.

[5] Karstadt, ‘The place of interests’, 122-3.

Article: ‘Hobbes and political realism’

Robin Douglass: ‘Hobbes and political realism’, European Journal of Political Theory, published online: November 20, 2016 (doi: 10.1177/1474885116677481)

Abstract: Thomas Hobbes has recently been cast as one of the forefathers of political realism. This article evaluates his place in the realist tradition by focusing on three key themes: the priority of legitimacy over justice, the relation between ethics and politics, and the place of imagination in politics. The thread uniting these themes is the importance Hobbes placed on achieving a moral consensus around peaceful coexistence, a point which distances him from realists who view the two as competing goals of politics. The article maintains that only a qualified version of the autonomy of the political position can be attributed to Hobbes, while arguing more generally that attending to the relation between ethics and politics is central to assessing his liberal credentials from a realist perspective. Against the prevalent reading of Hobbes as a hypothetical contract theorist, the article proceeds to show that the place of consent in his theory is better understood as part of his wider goal of transforming the imagination of his audience: a goal which is animated by concerns that realists share.

New issue of Hobbes Studies

A new issue of Hobbes Studies is now available, containing the following articles:

Elliott Karstadt: The Place of Interests in Hobbes’s Civil Science

James J. Hamilton: Hobbes on Felicity: Aristotle, Bacon and Eudaimonia

Marcus Schultz-Bergin: The Authority Dilemma: Eternal Salvation and Authorization in Hobbes’s Leviathan

S. A. Lloyd: Authorization and Moral Responsibility in the Philosophy of Hobbes

There are also reviews of Michael Byron’s Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth (reviewed by Luciano Venezia), Robin Douglass’s Rousseau and Hobbes: Nature, Free Will, and the Passions (reviewed by  Ioannis D. Evrigenis), Tom Sorell’s Emergencies and Politics: A Sober Hobbesian Approach (reviewed by Maximilian Jaede), Nicolas Dubos’ Thomas Hobbes et l’Histoire: Système et Récits à l’Âge Classique (reviewed by  George Wright), and of a new edition of De homine (reviewed by Johann Sommerville).

Article: Hobbes’s materialism and Epicurean mechanism

Patricia Springborg: ‘Hobbes’s materialism and Epicurean mechanism’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 24 (2016).

Abstract: Hobbes belonged to philosophical and scientific circles grappling with the big question at the dawn of modern physics: materialism and its consequences for morality. ‘Matter in motion’ may be a core principle of this materialism but it is certainly inadequate to capture the whole project. In wave after wave of this debate the Epicurean view of a fully determined universe governed by natural laws, that nevertheless allows to humans a sphere of libertas, but does not require a creator god or teleology to explain it, comes up against monotheism and its insistence on the incoherence of an ordered world in the absence of a God and his purposes. The following questions were central to this debate: (1) Can we understand the universe as law-governed in the absence of a god? (2) If so, what room is there in a fully determined mechanical universe for human freedom? (3) If humans do enjoy freedom, does the same hold for other animals? (4) Is this freedom compatible with standard views of morality? (5) Is there an analogue between the material world as law-governed and human social order? (6) If so does it also obtain for other animals?

Article: Democracy and the Body Politic from Aristotle to Hobbes

Sophie Smith: ‘Democracy and the Body Politic from Aristotle to Hobbes’, Political Theory, Published online: September 8, 2016 (doi: 10.1177/0090591716649984)

Abstract: The conventional view of Hobbes’s commonwealth is that it was inspired by contemporary theories of tyranny. This article explores the idea that a paradigm for Hobbes’s state could in fact be found in early modern readings of Aristotle on democracy, as found in Book Three of the Politics. It argues that by the late sixteenth century, these meditations on the democratic body politic had developed claims about unity, mythology, and personation that would become central to Hobbes’s own theory of the commonwealth. Tracing the history of commentary on the relevant passages in Aristotle reveals new perspectives not only on the political theories of both Aristotle and Hobbes but also introduces modern readers to the richness of early modern commentaries on classical political texts. The article ends with some thoughts on why attention to traditions of commentary might be valuable for political theorists today.