Online Colloquium (2) Krom on Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We began last week with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron himself. This is now followed by a response by Michael Krom (St Vincent State). In subsequent weeks we will feature responses by Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon) and Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven), and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response from Michael Krom

In Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth, Michael Byron presents a tight, focused argument that Hobbes has 1) a voluntarist conception of moral obligation in what Byron calls the ‘secondary state of nature’; and 2) the view that good subjects must conform their desires to those of the sovereign. Given the nature of this forum and the fact that Byron has opened it with a succinct summary of the book, I will not review the main points of his argument. Instead, I will 1) raise some questions concerning his interpretation; and 2) open up discussion on the implications of his interpretation for contemporary theory.

First, regarding his interpretation, Byron says throughout the book that he is talking about Hobbes’s Christian commitments (see, e.g., 3, 17, 91) and yet he tells us very little about the Christian Commonwealth. His arguments are focused almost entirely on natural religion. To some extent, this might not affect Byron’s interpretation, but it would be helpful for him to show how his theory would address this. For example, Hobbes tells us that those in the natural kingdom obey because of the rewards God will give them for doing so (Lev. 31.2), and yet he also takes up the orthodox Christian view that God will punish with damnation all who do not believe in Christ (Lev. 43.3). Why would the good pagan in the state of nature, or the sovereign who is not a Christian, be obligated to obey a God who will punish both the obedient and disobedient pagan? Perhaps Hobbes means rewards in this life, and the good pagan would know nothing of his future doom? And, these good subjects who conform their desires to those of the sovereign, are they good pagans or good Christians, or both? The passage that Byron cites regarding obeying ‘sincerely from the heart’ (Lev. 30.13) suggests that the good subjects Hobbes has in mind are not just good pagans, but good Christians: Hobbes explicitly structures his discussion of the obligations of sovereigns and subjects around the ten commandments as summarized by Jesus as love of God and neighbor.

I am reminded of a puzzle that A.E. Taylor found in Hobbes’s works: whereas in Elements of Law Hobbes claimed that only those in the prophetic kingdom know the theorems to be laws, in De Cive he says those in the natural kingdom know this as well. Why did Hobbes change or develop his views? And, why did he develop his theory without explaining ‘how . . . [he] supposes persons unacquainted with the Scriptures to have discovered that the natural law is a command of God’ (Taylor, 420). All of this is important because it touches upon a broad range of interpretive issues, and a host of scholarly works, regarding the sincerity of Hobbes’s Christianity; the extent to which he may be ‘de-fanging’ Christianity for his political purposes; the extent to which the natural/prophetic distinction should be taken as central to his work or just part of the rhetorical context; etc. It would have been helpful for Byron to follow Hobbes’s own distinction between natural and prophetic religion so as to clarify his thesis, especially given that he takes the sincerity quote from Lev. 30.13 to be central to his own argument.

Second, regarding the implications of his work for contemporary theory, scholars generally agree that Hobbes is the, or at least a, founder of the modern social contract tradition. To the extent that we still understand politics in terms of contracts between peoples and/or their rulers or representatives, Hobbes is thus an important figure in our own political tradition. Yet, to the extent that one can separate the social contract tradition from modern liberalism, there is considerable disagreement over whether Hobbes can be included in the liberal canon. To some extent this reflects what the scholars themselves think about the modern liberal project: whereas John Rawls seems to have thought it was important to call Hobbes a social contract, but not a liberal, theorist, critics of liberalism such as Leo Strauss and C.B. Macpherson (at least in liberalism’s ‘possessive individualism’ form) perhaps delight in showing how illiberal liberalism’s founder is. Given Hobbes’s program for centralized government; his rejection of Church/State separation; and his rejection of robust civil liberty, it is no wonder that theorists today would want to distance themselves from him. According to liberalism’s critics, if one can show, for example, that Rawls’s liberalism has its roots in Hobbesian authoritarianism, one seems to unmask the veil of ignorance as a contemporary way to justify the divinization of political authority.

Michael Byron hints at this issue when, both in the Introduction and in the concluding chapter’s discussion of ‘harmless liberty,’ he points out that the version of Hobbes he gives us is, in his own words, ‘less liberal . . . than some interpreters may like’ (9). What might Byron mean by this? That some would like Hobbes to be liberal? And, why does he not indicate that he himself does not like how illiberal Hobbes turns out to be? Is he indicating his agreement with Hobbes’s voluntarist conception of obligation and the need for citizens to conform their desires to the government’s value schema? Does he, while recognizing that Hobbes unfortunately seems ‘illiberal,’ intend to defend a liberalism that leaves us with nothing but ‘harmless liberty?’ Perhaps instead he is simply telling those who think of Hobbes as a liberal that they are wrong, and I am just reading too much into this. Yet it is a curious expression, and I wonder what Byron himself thinks about all this: Does Hobbes have something to offer us today? What contribution can Byron’s Hobbes make to contemporary political conversations?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Byron should have taken up these bigger questions, for that is not his purpose. It is hard enough to get Hobbes right, let alone tell us what Hobbes has to say to us today. I simply offer this as a springboard for conversation regarding what Byron’s interpretation of Hobbes might have to say for current discourse. If we could bring Hobbes into current discussions about the necessity of God for morality, or of religion for politics, or of the Rawlsian version of liberalism, what would he have to say to us? Byron’s book gave me much to think about on such issues, and I would like to hear why he thinks the Hobbes of submission and subjection might be important for us today.


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