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.