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

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

Luka Ribarević, Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Samantha Frost

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“Liberty and democracy: Holman on Hobbes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Christopher Holman

School of Social Sciences, NTU Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New article: “Are Hobbesian States as Passionate as Hobbesian Individuals?”

Rilla, Jerónimo (2023): Are Hobbesian States as Passionate as Hobbesian Individuals? In: The Review of Politics, 85 (3), pp. 285 – 303.


This article deals with the possibility of ascribing passions to states in Thomas Hobbes’s political theory. According to Hobbes, the condition of sovereign states vis-à-vis one another is comparable to that of individuals in the state of nature, namely, a state of war. Consequently, the three causes of war (competition, diffidence, and glory) identified in chapter 13 of Leviathan could also be relevant to interstate relations. Since these war triggers are mainly passions, one could presume that state action is motivated by passions as well. Some argue that it is just a figurative way of speaking. Others claim that the passions of war affect only sovereign rulers. I explore an alternative answer based on the ability of sovereigns to direct the preexisting passions of their people.

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

Laurens van Apeldoorn

Leiden University, The Netherlands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New book: Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary

Holman, Christopher (2022): Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary.

At a time when nearly all political actors and observers—despite the nature of their normative commitments—morally appeal to the language of democracy, the particular signification of the term has become obscured. Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary argues that critical engagement with various elements of the work of Hobbes, a notorious critic of democracy, can deepen our understanding of the problems, stakes, and ethics of democratic life. Firstly, Hobbes’s descriptive anatomy of democratic sovereignty reveals what is essential to the institution of this form of government, in the face of the conceptual confusion that characterizes the contemporary deployment of democratic terminology. Secondly, Hobbes’s critique of the mechanics of democracy points toward certain fundamental political risks that are internal to its mode of operation. And thirdly, contrary to Hobbes’s own intentions, Christopher Holman shows how the selective redeployment of certain Hobbesian categories could help construct a normative ground in which democracy is the ethical choice in relation to other sovereign forms.