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.

Hobbesian Democracy in Contemporary Political Thought:

Notes on Christopher Holman’s Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary

by Diego Fernández Peychaux[1]

Christopher Holman’s book, Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary, suggestively reframes the discussion around democracy in Hobbesian studies. What is at issue in the book is not the salvaging of the ‘monstrous’ philosopher of Malmesbury’s good name, but the grasping of how his thought on democracy and its challenges is still especially potent in the present. With great acumen, it proposes that it is possible to imagine a Hobbesian democracy without the need to turn Hobbes himself into a democrat. To Holman, it is as plain that Hobbes was no such thing as that his natural and political philosophies form a democratic foundation capable of illuminating not only an alternative hermeneutics of the text but also contemporary debate. This is because, between the two of them, these philosophies provides a foundation for natural ‘equality-in-difference’. This is the scandal of Hobbesian politics, rightly termed ‘democratic’ by Holman.

That said, insofar as this equality-in-difference is the condition of possibility for any kind of institutionalisation of social life, the question remains: is Hobbes anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic or anti-political? Is not this ‘equality’ the scandal of Hobbesian politics that Holman identifies and exploits to think the present? Does Hobbes conceal the connections between natural philosophy and political implications, or does he constantly expose them? Is it necessary to re-articulate the disparate elements of his theory in order to make Hobbes an ‘anti-Hobbesian’ democrat?

To answer these questions, I believe we can turn for help to a rabid critic of Hobbes like John Bramhall. His 1658 critique Leviathan classifies it as a ‘Rebel’s Catechism’ (555). It does not escape the bishop’s notice that Hobbes presents himself on occasion as the most fervent defender of royal rights, yet twists them out of all recognition in his exposition. Bishop Bramhall’s keen insight enables him to intuit that such demolition does not occur when Hobbes asserts the absolute character of authority, but when it is contrasted with the ‘true liberty of a subject’. This contrast makes it clear that the mortal god’s authority is no longer based on a divine right, but on a natural right delimited by human potentia. In other words, as Bramhall remarks, Hobbes ‘seek to underprop the heavens from falling with a bulrush’ (544). Heaven, in Bramhall’s view, is bound to fall – as is absolute sovereign right – if subjects enjoy natural rights rather than being merely at the disposal of royal graces; but more importantly, if the sovereign has a right that shares the ontological status of any other human potestas.

What Bramhall sees as negative, we, along with Holman, might put in a positive light. Indeed, we must insist on it. Mr. Hobbes is a man who lived in fright from birth. He is a man who fled from the Civil War. But he is also a man who does not back away from the theoretical and practical implications of his ‘rebel’ civil science. We might perhaps imagine how Mr. Hobbes’s fears change over the years. If the young Hobbes’s body retains the memory of his mother’s fear of foreign invasion, the adult Hobbes is more afraid of the consequences of abandoning the security of complaisant discourses. Yet this fear did not hold him back. The leap into the abyss of an ultimately groundless ontology is even depicted on the frontispiece to his Leviathan. Notwithstanding the technical limitations of two-dimensional drawing, it shows the body of the mortal god as both unitary and heterogeneous, in motion and lacking any foundation. Indeed, as Horst Bredekamp points out, it is more than symptomatic that Hobbes abandons any representation of the sovereign as a human being and tries instead to depict the artificial, tragic composition of civil government.

In this light, the latent difficulty for Hobbesian studies with defining the field of politics in terms of dichotomies like order/conflict, constituent/constituted or politics/the political becomes more apparent. When authors like Jacques Rancière, Claude Lefort or Roberto Esposito, to name but a few, resort – with differing categories – to thinking this relationship and use Hobbes as the epitome of the preference for order, the constituted and a politics reduced to the mere activity of government, they tend to surgically remove the materialism from his work. When, however, as Holman suggests, this materialism becomes the condition of enunciation for Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy, the possible coordinates plotted with the points of reference provided by such dichotomies shift radically, its being no longer truly possible to suppose that Hobbes thinks of order as the homogenisation and impediment of the affective motion he describes in sensing/thinking bodies.

Holman’s entire book seems to be an attempt to do away with the limits plotted by these coordinates. His proposal to differentiate Mr. Hobbes from Hobbesian philosophy has the merit of dislocating from the get-go the Leviathan author’s labelling under a tradition of dichotomy-driven thought. In the matrix of Hobbesian thought restored chapter by chapter by Holman’s book, politics is not located in the institutional ‘here-and-now’ of the conflict of the ‘natural’ state of war, nor in the ‘here-after’ of a conflict-ridden nature closed by the constitution of the sovereign. As the Argentinian philosopher Eduardo Rinesi suggests, the constituent ambiguity of the politics that Hobbes has in mind entails a ‘space of tension that opens up between the cracks of any order’ because of that order’s inability to exhaust all its meanings in itself (20). I will say something later on about Holman’s and Rinesi’s common calling to think the tragic dimension of politics along with Hobbes.

In short, even if this connection between his natural and political philosophies is not as obscure as Holman claims, his book does, nevertheless, provide an original approach for further thinking on the subject. The difference with other recent studies on democracy in Hobbes is that these (though inverting it) take such dichotomies as their starting point. Holman, however, is not interested in identifying a democratic element and then isolating it from the rest of an anachronistically monarchical work. Those kinds of works tend to reach conclusions that lack a textual correlate with Hobbes’s work. In pointing out this lack, Holman does not anticipate a theoretical objection to his conclusions. Yet he does make a distinction with his working hypothesis. His book proposes that we think democracy without abandoning the Hobbesian matrix of thought that binds natural philosophy to politics. Again, this is important, as the author points out, not for its philological fidelity but for the critical potential such fidelity still displays.

For example, the liberal appropriation of Hobbes identifies in individual consent a core element for the foundation of democracy. No one today would doubt the significance of this. Yet, Holman argues, to emphasise the authorisation of the multitude as a sum of individuals is to abandon a central concept for Hobbes, namely the unity of sovereign power. We should also add that a reading like this removes the inferences that natural philosophy allows to be drawn from the statements of his politics. Liberal appropriation thus places methodological individualism in the theoretical place Hobbes assigns to the multiple relations caused by the actions of sensing/thinking bodies. In other words, liberals insist on thinking about politics through the foundation provided by independence, when what Hobbes thinks about is our constituent interrelationship both as individuals and as society. Therefore, Holman underlines, Hobbesian pluralism does not abandon the common instance that creates the conditions of possibility for specific vital projects (154). Indeed, adds Maria Isabel Limongi, the juridical in Hobbes unfolds against a background of social relations.

The interpretations of radical democracy, Holman points out, advance along the same lines. While I do not entirely share his criticisms, I do agree in one respect: that the radical capture of the caput remains within a dualism that would prevent the conception of the co-implication of the one and the multiple. This occurs, for example, when James Martel identifies in the rhetorical device of authorisation a decentring of sovereign authority and suggests that this decentring allows us to abandon the ‘ballast’ that sovereign authority entails for the expression of human diversity. The condition of possibility for rescuing a democratic element in Hobbes would, then, seem to lie in the decision to surgically remove the different modes of expressing difference, thereby abandoning the political thought of unity.

Holman’s work treads a different methodological path. What he is trying to set in train is a possible reading of Hobbes’s work in which the key question in his thought – and not just for his democratic interpreters – is how to compound individuals’ political participation without giving up the figure of the sovereign people. Or, as above, how to think the internal heterogeneity and contingency of this unity. This does not involve an abandoning of the expression of the diverse but of the insistence on the way Hobbes outlines the concept of sovereignty in such a way that it denotes the common implication of the wills of many in the will of many. Put another way, Holman is interested in how Hobbes thinks the need to forge an ‘us’ that compounds a common power with which to redirect the natural determination to fight. But, at the same time, he is interested in how Hobbes warns that this ‘us’ is not pre-constituted but is a retrospective effect of multiple connections. To describe these, he resorts, as Holman insists, to a combination of varying doses of juridical and political language and his natural philosophy.

Hobbesian thought addresses the question of democracy without hiding its tragedy. If democracy is, as Holman says after Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘the self-institution of the collectivity by the collectivity, and this self-institution as movement’, the absence of normative principles to guide this movement, it requires people to constitute them by self-limiting. Popular arrogance, threats to the constitutional context itself, threats to the democratic pact, these are the tragedy of democracy.

So, Hobbesian thought points to two aspects in reflecting on democracy. First, it recalls the historical risk of the people not actually self-limiting. Which did actually happen and still does. What is more, Holman correctly points out that, in the present historical moment, there are many liberal democracies that end up harbouring authoritarian political movements. Such movements are ‘authoritarian’ not because they curbed the participation of the many, but because they demand a homogenisation of the people, which for Hobbes would be ontologically or politically impossible. This is why he insists both on the sovereign’s having to define the field of doctrines that can be taught and on the threat of penal punishment not being enough to prevent the multitude’s indignation for its iniquities or favouritism (Lev., 21.17; 30.4, 16, 23).

Second, Hobbes reminds us of the illusory nature of the pre-political principles whereby democracies try to limit themselves. Or, put another way, it is central to Hobbesian political thought to abandon the ‘tales’ that claim there are pre-political foundations for the political community’s self-institution. If the kings of his seventeenth century have no divine right, the democracies of our twenty-first century lack any founding metaphysical ‘consensuses’. It is not, then, these ‘democratic consensuses’ that ‘guarantee’ the democratic life; rather it is that very community who have, in the movement of their life, to constantly remake them. Hence the abiding danger of considering the advances made in waves of democratisation irreversible. Such waves may end up concealing the necessary iteration of the causes of these advances. While the composition of the ‘entire cause’ of that iteration lies beyond human self-determination, locating it squarely on a plane of formal automatism leaves room for the advance of contemporary forms of authoritarianism, those that employ ‘once-and-for-all’ rhetoric. Be that as it may, Rinesi insists, ‘a reflection on politics that identifies it with tragedy would not be a reflection on politics but one that forgets that a dark background of tragedy always awaits the failure of men’s conversational arts . . . it would be a perfectly naïve reflection on politics’ (33).

It is true that, in democratic institutions, Mr. Hobbes detects a special risk in the way they are constantly being constituted. In the specific case of the assembly, it is not for Hobbes – according to Holman – a stable, reliable medium ‘to reduce the plurality of distinct wills to a single one through the creation of an entity whose will stands in for and expresses those of all’ (8). But it is also true that this same Mr. Hobbes does not exempt the other forms of institutionalisation of sovereign power from this risk. The Hobbesian distinction between the nature of sovereign power and the different ways it can be institutionalised is not an incidental detail. Holman is correct in identifying it and in using it to reverse Mr. Hobbes’s negative assessment of the historical assemblies that had played leading roles in the English Civil War.

As Hobbes himself insists, the lack of normative principles is constitutive of all political societies, regardless of the way the multitude’s reduction to unity is institutionalised. Ultimately, this is the answer that he addresses to the neo-republicans in Chapter XXI of Leviathan, who, gazing at themselves in the Roman mirror, seek more freedom in a republic than in a monarchy. The constant review of its own foundations would not, therefore, be exclusive to democracy.

That said, the remaining question is how to found a principle that privileges democracy without leaving the Hobbesian frame of thought, according to which nothing universal exists except the names of things. Or, as we said above, how to identify that principle without saving Hobbes from himself by giving him an extra-social normative principle to order his political preferences. Holman skilfully resolves this question by pointing out that Hobbes’s natural philosophy identifies a universal human desire in ‘the extension and affirmation of life itself’ (159). Rather than alienating them from each other, this desire, experienced by all human bodies, places them in a necessary relationship. The tragedy of democracy, to use Holman’s framing of the question, is not how to make people compound their natural powers, but how to make them do so in a peaceful, constant and lasting way.

So, rather than resorting to notions like ‘safety of people’ or ‘true liberties of subjects’ in order to justify a right to resistance (which he certainly does not deny), Holman insists on how these outline a democratic imperative. This imperative, he claims, derives from the fact that the people is safer in democracy because ‘it maximally affirms Hobbesian equality-in-difference, the equal right of all to actively participate in legislative processes facilitating the extended expression of and pursuit of individual citizens’ desires’ (178). One must insist on the fact that this democracy is not a concrete form of institutionalization but the political expression of anyone’s equality with anyone else.

The political and theoretical contribution of this democratic Hobbesian philosophy traced by Holman is not insignificant, as it allows us to constantly affirm the need for a situated analysis to see how democracy is experienced in situ. This locates Hobbes – but Holman too – in relation to the various contemporary debates around the multiple forms of democracy in Europe and Latin America.

Bibliographical References

Bramhall, John. 1658 [1844]. ‘The catching of the Leviathann or the great whale,’ in The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, John Bramhall, D.D., Sometime Lord Archbishop of Armagh, Primate and Metropolitan of All Ireland, Volumen 4. Oxford: J. H. Parker.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1996. ‘La démocratie athénienne: fausses et vraies questions,’ in La Montée de l’insignifiance, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe, 4. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, p. 225.

Horst Bredekamp. 2020. Leviathan body politic as visual strategy in the work of Thomas Hobbes. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Rinesi, Eduardo. 2011. Política y tragedia: Hamlet entre Hobbes y Maquiavelo [Politics and tragedy: Hamlet between Hobbes and Machiavelli]. Buenos Aires: Colihue.

Rinesi, Eduardo. 2021. ¡Qué cosa, la cosa pública! Apuntes shakespereanos para una república popular [What a Deal, the Public Deal! Shakespearean Notes for a Popular Republic]. Buenos Aires: UBU.

[1] Professor of Political Theory at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina. Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Argentina.