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.