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).