Online Colloquium (3): Rilla on Leviathan on a Leash

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sean Fleming’s recent book, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Fleming, followed by a response from Silviya Lechner. We now have a response from Jerónimo Rilla, which will be followed by responses from Philippe Crignon and then a reply by Sean Fleming. Many thanks to Princeton University Press for supporting this colloquium.

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Sean Fleming’s Leviathan on a Leash is a worthy and lucid work of scholarship. As the author clarifies, he does not seek to find a ‘grand solution to a contemporary problem’ in Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, but to develop a ‘Hobbesian’ theory of state responsibility (79). This Hobbesian viewpoint allows Fleming to challenge already existing, but flawed, answers—the ‘agential’ and the ‘functional’ theories of state ontology and responsibility—and to embark on a more cogent alternative.[1]

In chapter 2, Fleming reconstructs an interpretation of Hobbes’ notion of the personality of the state. Its main conclusion is that ‘Hobbes’ idea of personhood [is] unique and valuable’ because ‘it decouples personhood from metaphysical conceptions of agency’. Hobbes ‘claim[s] that states are persons … But Hobbesian personhood is metaphysically thin and fairly innocuous … The word “person” is ultimately dispensable’ (67).

To prove this assertion, Fleming sets out an illuminating distinction between two acceptations of ‘person’ that coexist in Hobbes’ texts: person understood as an actor or representative, on the one side, and person understood as a character or representee, on the other (52). ‘A complete understanding of Hobbes’ theory of the state requires both senses of personhood’ (56). Then, he argues that the Hobbesian state is not a person in the former sense, as an actor or agent, but in the latter, as a ‘fictional character’ (62) that is represented by the sovereign. The reason is that ‘the state lacks the defining feature of a corporate agent: a will that is distinct from the wills of its members and representatives’ (62). This Hobbesian conception ‘lays the groundwork’ to overcome the ‘limitations’ (45) of the agential and functional theories.

Although the author presents a plausible and compelling account, ‘tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded’ (L, Epistle, 4),[2] as Hobbes would put it. In what follows, I will detail a series of points in which I take issue with Fleming’s interpretation. To my mind Hobbes endows the state with personhood precisely because he wants to confer voice and agency to it.

[1] I agree with the claim that the state is like a fictional character. Since it cannot speak and act by itself, the state needs a representative, an actor, to articulate its words and enact its actions. From this, Fleming deduces that the state also lacks will or intentionality, and, therefore, agency.

I think this reasoning fails to notice an important trait of this dramatis persona. As we learn from chapter XXX of Leviathan, the state’s personentails an ‘office’: there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of personating it.[3] Moreover, a set of intentions are attached by default to the person of the state: if a sovereign grants liberties that undermine his or her authority to a subject, ‘it is to be understood it was not his will’ (L, XXI.20, 342). And actions: a sovereign should ‘be careful in his politic person to procure the common interest’ (L, XIX.4, 288). This script of attitudes depends on a representative to be realised, but it is different from his or her natural attitudes. When sovereigns do not conform to the will and action proper to the person of the state, they behave in a non statelike fashion. As Fleming recognises later, if the sovereign provides an unconvincing portrayal, subjects ‘may cease to accept his [or her] actions as acts of state’ (77), that is, as acts of which they are the authors.

To be sure, this intentionality concerns the state as a person by fiction, and not in metaphysical terms, as a mental event of an emergent mind. Consequently, the fact that the state’s will ‘is simultaneously a natural will’ (58) when represented by an individual sovereign does not disqualify the state from the class of agents. Representing the person of the state means willing and acting as the state.

[2] Fleming rightly weighs up the risk of conceiving the state as an actor separated from the sovereign: ‘if the state had a will of its own … [it] could act independently of the sovereign or the subjects could object that the sovereign has misrepresented the will of the state’ (62). But he overlooks the other horn of the dilemma. If the will of the state boils down to the natural will of the sovereign, subjects may feel alienated or disaffected from this person and disavow its actions.

Hobbes thought this was a pressing issue, especially germane to the debate against the Parliamentarians: ‘by all together, they understand them as one person (which person the sovereign bears), then the power of all together, is the same with the soveraigns power… [This] they see well enough when the soveraignty is in an assembly of the people; but in a monarch they see it not’ (L, XVIII.18, 280).

[3] Besides, it is not evident that the ‘monarch is a true representative’ (58) as opposed to an assembly that would be a ‘fictional’ (56) one. The alleged ‘conceptual distinction’ (58) between monarchies and corporate representatives conflicts with Fleming’s subsequent argument. Since Hobbes’ assemblies are ‘actor[s]’ (58) or ‘rudimentary corporate agents’ (63), and not merely passive characters, they share with individual representatives the important feature of being agents. As such they can trulyspeak and act for the state. Stricto sensu, an assembly acts as a natural person because its ‘words and actions are considered… [its] own’ (L, XVI.1, 244).[4] That is to say, a sovereign assembly acts and speaks by itself in representation of the people.

[4] Fleming claims that ‘describing Hobbes’ state as a corporate agent… is anachronistic’ (65). Decoupling agency would be ‘what makes his idea of state personality novel and valuable’. In terms of historical accuracy, however, the assertion might be too bold. To construe the state as a person by fiction, to make it speak and act as if it were a person, is as old as the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia,[5] and it is a trend that re-emerges in the 16th century.[6] Furthermore, what personification enables is precisely the agentialisation of an abstraction such as the state.[7] Conversely, the model of the representative as principal and the state/populus as a passive character deprived of agency, such as a minor, is not novel, but mainstream in medieval legal thought.[8]

[5] The risk of having a ‘metaphysically … innocuous’ (67) state for Hobbes is to leave it defenceless against other personifications perceived as speaking and acting through rebellious representatives (e.g. Liberty, the Holy Ghost, idols or the People mobilised by the Parliamentarians).[9] Hobbes could choose simply to disabuse the public and show that these are mere ‘figments of the brain’ (L, XLV.10, 1024). But, human beings ‘are enclined to suppose, and feign unto themselves several kinds of powers invisible, and to stand in awe of their own imaginations’ (L, XI.26, 162). Hence, through personification Hobbes intends to create the most powerful of all fictions (at least super terram): a ‘reall unitie of them all in one and the same person … of whose acts … every one [is] the author’ (L, XVII.13, 260, my emphasis).

To conclude, contra Fleming I contend that the Hobbesian state is a ‘fictional agent’ (62). Hobbes attributes personhood and agency to the state because as long as it (and not merely the sovereign) acts, we-the-people act. Either channelled by a monarch or an assembly, it is ‘the action of the people’ (L, XI.20, 158) that is at stake.

In addition, some recognition of state agency would be better suited to Fleming’s ‘crucial’ ‘supposition that states can do good or do wrong’ (105) and his concern with the ‘rational consistency’ (168) of states. Take, for instance, the Argentine state’s admission of blame and the subsequent reparations (both economic and symbolic) to the victims of the last military regime (1976–1983). Instead of alleging ‘misattribution’ due to the unauthorised character of the dictatorship, the democratic government that took office afterwards acknowledged the crimes as acts of ‘state terrorism’. While Fleming considers it untenable (102, 176), a notion of state ‘culpability’ might be helpful in this regard. On the one hand, because the comprehensive disposition of state resources and agencies towards human rights violations manifested a corporate intention attributable to the person of the state. On the other, because once democracy was restored, representatives and subjects of Argentina were willing to rebuild the state’s standing (arguably, its rational and moral ‘consistency’) in the world community.

Independent of this discussion, Fleming’s Hobbesian theory of state responsibility is thorough, persuasive and well argued. His book certainly succeeds in arraigning Leviathan. Whether it remains ‘on a leash’ as a passive character is debatable.

Dr Jerónimo Rilla (University of Buenos Aires, Argentina)


[1]  Incidentally, Fleming’s undertaking fulfils the criteria regarding how to use of the history of political thought for contemporary purposes set by Adrian Blau, ‘How (Not) to Use the History of Political Thought for Contemporary Purposes’. American Journal of Political Science (2020), Early View: https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12545.

[2]  L = Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. N. Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012).

[3]  To assume a persona is to simultaneously assume an office, as explained by Conal Condren, Argument and Authority in Early Modern England: The Presupposition of Oaths and Offices (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), 6.

[4]  See Laurens van Apeldoorn, ‘On the person and office of the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan’. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 28:1 (2019), 49–68, at 60.

[5]  See Quentin Skinner, From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics (Cambridge: CUP, 2018), 16.

[6]  See Thomas Maissen, Die Bedeutung der christlichen Bildsprache für die Legitimation frühneuzeitlicher Staatlichkeit, in Religions-Politik, Vol.I, eds. G. Pfleiderer and A. Heit, 75-192 (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2013), 75–192, at 90–2, 116, and 172–3.

[7]  See Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Princeton: PUP, 2012), 25, who claims: ‘Personified abstractions are probably the most obvious allegorical agents’.

[8]  See Joseph Canning, The Political Thought of Baldus de Ubaldis (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), 193.

[9]  I discuss this issue in Jerónimo Rilla, ‘Hobbes and prosopopoeia’, Intellectual History Review (2021), Online First: https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2020.1853991.