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

Firstly, I must express my gratitude to Gonzalo Bustamante for organizing this colloquium, and to Samantha Frost, Luka Ribarević, and Diego Fernández Peychaux for so carefully and critically engaging with my work. Their comments have simultaneously identified certain errors, revealed what is in need of further clarification, and most importantly, suggested important potential future avenues of investigation.

I begin with Samantha Frost, whose main dissatisfaction stems from my effort in the final part of the book to utilize Hobbesian thought in the effort to generate a normative basis for preferring democracy to other sovereign forms. To begin with, the productivity of the very project is called into question, Frost asking why democratic theory needs Hobbes at all. Suggesting that I assimilate Hobbes to the “preferences of contemporary democratic theory,” she opines that the analysis could very well be fruitfully carried out within the terms of the latter paradigm. Here I must disagree with the assertation that the greater part of “contemporary democratic theory” is concerned with democracy in Hobbes’s sense. Needless to say, I am not thereby claiming that what contemporary democratic thought is primarily interested in – most simply, the conditions for the refinement of a system of representation which is necessarily accompanied by a political alienation in which the assembled people lack institutional access to substantial deliberative organs – is not a legitimate object of study, nor even necessarily that such does not deserve the name of democracy. All political theorists are aware now of the extent to which conceptual categories are subject to historical mutation, developed and refined as they are within specific linguistic contexts.[1] What democracy means to most people today is of course very different than what it meant to an ancient Athenian, or indeed someone in Hobbes’s time. With this linguistic displacement, however, the loss of the original signification has been accompanied by the loss of recognition of the very possibility of a certain kind of political organization, one that we might say centres the idea of isonomy: equality not only before the law, but with respect to participation in the formulation of law. Noting that the ancient Greek conception of democracy originally included, and indeed was eventually seen as synonymous with the concept of isonomia, Kurt Raaflaub notes how it advanced a conception of equality that “offered equal protection and equal rights of political participation to every citizen, regardless of birth, wealth, social standing, education, experience and intellectual ability.”[2] For reasons I will note later, such broadly corresponds to Hobbes’s own understanding of democracy, which I examine to the extent that I believe it is – amongst so-called “canonical” authors – exceptional in its elucidation of this conception of democracy’s conditions and characteristics. Appreciation of this understanding might work to facilitate a recuperation of democracy’s original signification. This is perhaps a highly important task, especially in light of political philosophy’s recent anti-democratic reaction, in which a variety of commentators have attempted to highlight the supposed irrationality and incompetence of voters, thus dismissing democracy on the basis of what it originally was not.[3]

            Regarding the substance of the analysis, Frost’s main complaint is the extent to which I divert from the Hobbesian project through “developing a natural law grounding for democracy when Hobbes is resolute in his assumption that politics is radically ungrounded.” I would first interject here a short terminological clarification. Although I characterize the defence of democracy as an “idiosyncratic natural law” one, perhaps the qualifying adjective does not properly capture the operation. Hobbes himself, of course, utilizes the language of natural law, but does so in a way as to rhetorically subvert the traditional philosophical assumptions associated with its scholastic instantiations. He can perhaps be seen here as something of an “innovating ideologist,”[4] deploying the moral terminology of the dominant tradition for the sake of a radical reorientation of inherited thought. Hobbesian natural law speaks just to a certain unnaturalness of the human being, the fact that the latter’s institution of its moral and political world is a wholly artificial one, irreducible to any extra-social sources that would securely ground it. What I attempt to argue in the book’s third chapter is that democracy is that form of regime that most adequately expresses this non-foundation of the social, through its dissociation of participation in instituting power from any kind of qualification or title.

            Putting aside the use of the language of natural law, however, Frost is more concerned with my treatment of the concept of liberty, and in particular my effort to undo Hobbes’s disarticulation of liberty and democracy (which is noted also by Fernández Peychaux). Although that I am doing as much is never explicitly noted in the book, I think Frost is right that such a move is made: personally, I am much happier with the definition of liberty Hobbes gives us in The Elements of Law than the ones he gives us in De cive and Leviathan. Rather than identify freedom with a discredited ideal of political autonomy, Frost challenges us to bracket the potentially distracting question of the best form of the sovereign in order to think the conditions for the possibility of the latter’s capacity to satisfy those needs demanded by true liberty, in a mode that would securely facilitate our voluntary action. Highlighting problems such as “hunger, deforestation, homelessness, dirty air, polluted water, lack of medicine, or arbitrary violence,” Frost puts forward the thesis that we can imagine a non-democratic though “well-constituted state,” in which we observe a “robust civil society, with manifold bodies politics, where people can work collaboratively on issues close their particular hearts and interests.” Would this not be preferable to a poorly-constituted democratic state, where people “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-defence are so scrambled as to be meaningless”?

            My response to this question would be conditioned by a double scepticism. The first is the degree to which the conceptual language of autonomy lacks relevance to contemporary political thinking. Such is certainly the case if we consider autonomy in terms of some ideal of rational mastery, in which a subject is capable of rendering their motivations self-transparent – independently of consideration of the complex networks of co-relation which condition their desire and limit their motion – and freely act so as to realize them. I agree wholeheartedly with Frost that for Hobbes “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.” Indeed, no one has done more than Frost herself to highlight the extent to which Hobbesian subjectivity is articulated within dense networks of material interdependence, and how this immersion precludes reducing Hobbes to a species of liberal or proto-liberal.[5] To the extent that each of us is a sensuous, material, dependent being, each of us is, as Marx says, “a suffering being.”[6] As Merleau-Ponty has observed, however, such a being is one “with a natural and social situation, but one who is also open, active, and able to establish his autonomy on the very ground of his dependence.”[7] I would insist that heteronomy considered as dependence or suffering in this sense must be sharply distinguished from political heteronomy, considered in terms of an arbitrary and non-necessary subjection to a will whose formulation proceeds independently of intersubjective input. That individuals can dependently yet meaningfully participate in deliberative organs, and that such participation can be considered as a good even if the specific determinations of the decision-procedure do not immediately map onto desire (hence, again, to suffer), is suggested by Frost’s acknowledgement regarding the importance of bodies politic to civil society, and the value of individuals being able to work collaboratively on shared projects of interest.

            Hence, next, my second scepticism: the notion that the legislative determinations of the sovereign entity can somehow be abstracted from the lived, embodied conditions of the citizens of the social order, whose “local contexts” do not extend far enough as to warrant their interest in civil law. I concede I might very well be wrong here, but there seems to be implicit in Frost’s ideal vision of a regime-neutral society in which people’s basic safety is met something like an Arendtian distinction between the social and the political. Famously for Arendt, the problems associated with the social sphere – which would broadly correspond to the problems of true liberty – are somehow capable of resolution through the mere application of rational administrative technique, given the presumed consensus on the conditions for the realization of the object. But even if we can all agree, for instance, that each person in a society is deserving of clean water and adequate medical care – although note, even as I write this more than a few prominent political actors and commentators are going about making the case that Gazans in fact deserve neither of these things – we certainly cannot expect spontaneous consensus to emerge on what, for example, would constitute adequate medical care, or adequate housing, or adequate educational opportunities, and so on. And this, furthermore, is to say nothing of the question of the project of economic redistribution which would be required to facilitate the achievement of basic security. In short, any attempt to answer the question of the safety of the people will be traversed by a multiplicity of competing interests and normative conceptions, each of which conditions understanding of the issue in distinct ways. Frost’s vision of how individuals might go about answering the “whither, which way, and what” question in a way that eschews any interest in effective participation in political power strikes me as ultimately Constantian, liberty consisting exclusively in, if not “private independence” then at least “peaceful enjoyment.”[8] For my own part, as Frost correctly notes, I don’t conceive the possibility of liberty being achieved independently of equal participation in power, to the degree that the exercise of the latter must necessarily intervene in the subject’s admittedly always constrained efforts to orient their voluntary action.  Indeed, in the final instance, given the woeful incapacity of contemporary liberal representative governments, as well as various competitive and illiberal authoritarian ones, to address – let alone solve –  the well-known problems associated with widespread economic inequality, ecological crisis, and so on, I see no reason to think that the safety of the people is capable of being procured through the activity of anyone other than common citizens themselves, those who bear the brunt of those crucial social ills that Frost identifies.

The first half of Luka Ribarević’s comments are dedicated to a concise and insightful summary of the main contours of my argument, which I could not have done a better job of myself. Although agreeing on Hobbes’s mistrust of the efficacy of democratic government, Ribarević thinks I am not justified in concluding that certain of Hobbes’s revisions to his political philosophy can be considered as a form of auto-critique, one that looked to neutralize a possibly prior ethical ground for preferring democratic constitutions. As evidence he points to the 18th chapter of Leviathan, where we see re-emerge the originally democratic account of institution presented in the Elements and De cive. I confess that within my book I was more ambivalent on this question of the relation between Leviathan’s 18th and earlier chapters than I am now. I indeed interpreted the introduction of the language of authorization and representation, as many readers do, as Hobbes’s response to the potential argument that because democracy is necessarily the temporally earliest sovereign configuration, it may be seen as the most natural, and hence preferable on this basis. I was not entirely sure, however, if it was legitimate to interpret Hobbes as succeeding in producing an alternative account of the mechanics of foundation by institution. I am now much more convinced that he did not succeed at all in this, as chapter 18 makes clear. The distinction between Ribarević and myself is that whereas he sees the democratic substance of Chapter 18 as counter-evidence of any anti-democratic revision, I see the accompaniment of this substance with a complete elimination of the terminology of democracy – clearly and unequivocally specified in the earlier accounts – as evidence that Hobbes is trying to conceal something about the nature of the political process. Readers themselves will have to determine which position they find more convincing within the larger textual context.[9]

            Ribarević’s comments here lead into a larger question, which is if Hobbes is so convinced of the immanent dangers of democratic activity, why does he not formally exclude it as a sovereign possibility? In fact, I think much of Hobbes’s analysis does in fact work to this end. Consider, for instance, what I see as a key passage within De cive, which I highlight in the book.[10] Here Hobbes is concerned with refuting critics of monarchy who ground their rejection of the latter on the basis of its instauration of a relationship of political inequality, in which title to govern inheres within one person. For Hobbes such critics overlook the fact that a similar operation is carried out within an aristocracy, which is still defined in terms of the concentration of authority within a separate part of the community.[11] The critique of monarchy is thus refuted on the basis that it equally applies to aristocracy. What is never mentioned is democracy, and how this regime might escape the particular challenge, that which foregrounds the question of the possibility of political equality. Indeed, in this chapter the “state of equality” is associated only with the “state of war.”[12] Hobbes thus seems to do what the majority of his readers do when confronting the issue of sovereign office: practically exclude democracy as a viable constitutional possibility, thus eliding the question of what is singular about this form of regime. 

            Ribarević’s comments thus point us toward the problem of the specificity of democracy. At this point I can fold into the discussion the commentary of Diego Fernández Peychaux, which also raises this question. Although noting what is perhaps underemphasized in my book – that “the lack of normative principles is constitutive of all political societies, regardless of the way the multitude’s reduction to unity is institutionalized” – Fernández Peychaux nevertheless observes that the “Hobbesian distinction between the nature of sovereign power and the different ways it can be institutionalized is not an incidental detail.” I strongly agree, and suspect that readers of Hobbes have not been sufficiently attuned to this distinction, and how it might greatly complicate the way a political observer might assess – whether negatively or positively – the democratic sovereign form. To raise just one possibility here, I note that in his interesting reflections on the possibility of the conditions for the coming into being of the democratic form – an account alternative to that of Hobbes and his originary democracy – Ribarević at several points refers to democracy as a “form of state”. Now, for someone like Ribarević who is highly conversant in the technical details of Hobbesian political thinking, there is nothing particularly problematic with such language, to the degree that we take the term state to be synonymous with commonwealth. But within the mainstream of contemporary political philosophy, the term tends to have a very different signification. The state refers us to a particular detached apparatus of rule, and the main question of political philosophy has to do with what legitimates the relationship between this coercive power and the citizens under its purview, such coercion being implicitly identified with politics as such. But in foregrounding the distinction between the commonwealth and the sovereign, and in theorizing democracy in the way that he does, Hobbes opens up an entirely new field for thinking political possibility.

            I believe it is worth remembering that Hobbes’s main source for thinking about the actually effective institution of a democratic regime was the Athenian experience. This is not to forget that Hobbes’s critique of the rhetorical excesses of democracy was formulated within the context of the proliferation of popular preaching and pamphleteering in England during the 1630s-1640s.[13] But in early modern England, where the term democracy still had a signification much closer to the ancient Greek one than our own, very few political actors self-identified as democratic, and Hobbes himself critiques the democratical gentlemen partially on the basis of their oligarchic commitments.[14] For Hobbes populist activity can tell us much about the logic of rhetoric and multitude that reappear in the democratic assembly, but not necessarily much about the instituted form of the democratic regime itself. He tells us explicitly, on the other hand, that his own critical reflections on this regime were framed through his encounter with Thucydides.[15] Returning to Hobbes’s early work on Thucydides is important not only in general – as indeed some of Ribarević’s recent publications have shown[16] – but thus in particular with respect to the question of democracy. It would, I think, be interesting to probe Hobbes’s engagement with ancient Greece in relation with contemporary classicist research, within which there is now a “broad consensus” on the fact that ancient democratic poleis cannot be viewed as state forms in the modern sense of the term.[17] Such would be to the degree that these entities are not governed by an autonomous agency that has become detached from the communal body, and endowed with a unique legislative right. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “The idea of a ‘State’ as an institution distinct and separated from the body of citizens would not have been understandable to a Greek.”[18] Castoriadis goes on to cite Thucydides himself on this matter, Hobbes rendering the words of Nicias in the following way: “For the men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city.”[19] What is essential to Hobbesian sovereignty is the establishment of an effective decision-procedure whose outputs are taken as legitimate by each member of the community, and which can therefore be seen as representative of the people’s will, who become unified precisely through this institution. The sovereign who represents the commonwealth, however, need not be articulated as a separate organ detached from the community, power being monopolized by a minor part of the latter. It is possible for there to exist a state in the Hobbesian sense which does not have a state in the contemporary sense. What requires further explanation is why Hobbes often covers up this political possibility, and how it relates to his critique of democratic activity.

            In short, I am suggesting that much more can be said about the unique nature of personation in a democratically instituted commonwealth. Here, then, there appears to be one major difference between myself and Fernández Peychaux: whereas he maintains that we “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,” I am more interested in thinking about the institutional conditions that might allow for the facilitation of such a demonstration of equality. This issue could perhaps be further contextualized via reference to the ongoing debate within radical democratic theory over the relation between democratic self-expression and the institution. In my view, the institution – even if we cannot definitively fix its contours in advance – need not be reduced to a necessarily de-democratizing structure that, through fixing the distribution of places and functions within a rigid schema, must work to deny plurality and equality. Hence my interest in thinking about Hobbesian democracy in relation to such historical phenomena as the democratic polis, workers’ councils, citizens’ assemblies, and so on. Regardless, though, I am in full agreement with Fernández Peychaux on the need to situate my analysis – not only in relation to recent intellectual studies which I am unfortunately unfamiliar with as a consequence of linguistic limitations – but also “various contemporary debates around the multiple forms of democracy in Europe and Latin America.” His comments, for instance, suggest a very productive way to intervene in current philosophical debates over the nature of political populism. Indeed, the effort to distinguish, for example, between inclusionary and exclusionary populist forms – between those that affirm equality-in-difference via non-hierarchical democratic exchange, and those that deny it through the effort to identify the people as such with a particular social part that is seen to embody and thereby homogenize the multiplicity of natural persons – might very well be complemented through incorporation of Hobbesian categories of analysis.

            In sum, what I have tried to highlight in my comments is the degree to which the critical analyses of Frost, Ribarević, and Fernández Peychaux reveal to us the extent to which Hobbes’s political thought is capable of opening up reflection on a variety of interesting and important problems relating to contemporary political theory: how the ethics of true liberty might impose concrete political imperatives regarding the security of citizens, how democracy might be differentiated from existing state forms, and how contemporary political movements can demonstrate the possibility for the simultaneous affirmation of equality and multiplicity. What each critic has called our attention to is that Hobbes’s political thought, far from being of mere historical interest and at most revealing something about our conceptual inheritances, is in fact a living body of work that is capable of productively intervening in our current political conjuncture. 

[1] For just one notable account of the historical changes in the meaning of the term democracy and its normative evaluation, particularly with respect to the American context, see Russell L. Hanson, “Democracy,” in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, ed. Terence Ball, James Farr, and Russell L. Hanson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 68–89.  

[2] Kurt A. Raaflaub, “Democracy, Oligarchy, and the Concept of the ‘Free’ Citizen in Late Fifth-Century Athens,” Political Theory 11, no. 4 (1983): 518.

[3] For example, Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[4] Quentin Skinner, “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action,” Political Theory 2, no. 3 (1974): 293–94.

[5] Samantha Frost, Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[6] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” in Selected Writings, by Karl Marx, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 88.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Marxism and Philosophy,” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 130.

[8] Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” in Political Writings, by Benjamin Constant, ed. and trans. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 316.

[9] For those interested but not inclined to acquire an entire book, the relevant content has also been published as a stand-alone article. See Christopher Holman, “‘That Democratic Ink Must Be Wiped Away’: Hobbes and the Normativity of Democracy,” The Review of Politics 83, no. 3 (2021): 305–28.

[10] Christopher Holman, Hobbes and the Democratic Imaginary (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2022), 176.

[11] Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 10.4.

[12] Hobbes, 10.4.

[13] See, for example, Cesare Cuttica, Anti-Democracy in England, 1570-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 225–29.

[14] Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Paul Seaward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), 205.

[15] Thomas Hobbes, “The Prose Life,” in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 247; Thomas Hobbes, “The Verse Life,” in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 256.

[16] Luka Ribarević, “Thomas Hobbes’s State of Nature: A View From Thucydides’ Peloponnesus,” Global Intellectual History 8, no. 5 (2023): 584–608; Luka Ribarević, “Thucydides and Hobbes on Epidemics and Politics: From the Plague of Athens to England’s Rabies,” Croation Political Science Review 60, no. 2 (2023): 7–30.

[17] Greg Anderson, “The Personality of the Greek State,” The Journal of Hellenistic Studies 129 (2009): 1, 5. Anderson, it needs to be noted, goes on to challenge this position, and indeed precisely through a study of Hobbes’s understanding of the state.

[18] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy:  Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. and trans. David Ames Curtis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 110.

[19] Thucydides, “The History of the Grecian Wars, Vol. II,” in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume Nine, by Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1843), 7.77.