Online Colloquium (3) – Baumgold 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 first with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron and a response by Michael Krom (St Vincent State). This is now followed by a response by Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon). Look for responses by Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven) next week, and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Response by Deborah Baumgold

Byron tells us at the outset that the basis of this interpretation is a ‘seldom-remarked passage’ in Leviathan on rulers’ duty: ‘[subjects] are to be taught that, not only the unjust facts, but the designs and intentions to do them . . . are injustice, which consisteth in the pravity of the will as well as the irregularity of the act’ (pp. x, 2). ‘The goal of this essay is modest’, he continues, ‘and its focus tight: the objective is to draw on a range of interpretative resources in order to resolve a set of textual issues, especially concerning Hobbes’s idea of a good subject’ (p. 10). The textual issues concern moral, political and religious obligation and are drawn from the secondary philosophical literature, principally from Sharon Lloyd’s and Al Martinich’s works and, to lesser extent, from arguments by Bernard Gert, Jean Hampton, Gregory Kafka and Perez Zagorin. By virtue of the secondary context, there are alternative ways of viewing and assessing Byron’s interpretation: as a reading of Hobbes’s texts or as a contribution to an interpretive stream within current moral philosophy.

Both in intention and impact, the work seems better read as the latter than the former. In lieu of focusing on textual discussions of servitude, subjection and slavery, the titular theme is a constructed distinction between mere submission and subjection done well.

The activity of subjection is distinct from the act of submission . . . submission is the last act a person performs in a state of nature, whereas subjection is an ongoing activity in a commonwealth. My act of submission constitutes me as a subject and the sovereign as my sovereign. . . . But the daily business of fulfilling that promise and continuing to obey the sovereign is much more than submission. Subjection is a distinct activity the successful performance of which includes the adoption of the VCD (p. 83).

‘VCD’ is shorthand for ‘value conforming desire’: political subjection centrally consists, in Byron’s view, in adoption of the sovereign’s ‘value schema’, especially as this is codified in civil law. Thus one might characterize the overall interpretation as conjoining the concept of justice as a virtue (the possession of a ‘just man’) with Leviathan’s emphasis on the sovereign’s duty of political education.  Good subjects are those who have been well-educated in and have adopted the sovereign’s outlook and values.

Having developed a different line of interpretation of subjection, one based more explicitly on the textual servant/slave contrast, I am understandably skeptical about the textual authenticity of the interpretation. However, I find much of interest in the arguments themselves, especially as these concern religion. Byron asserts that the submission/subjection distinction applies to human’s relationship to God as well as to political subjection. There is, he says, but one difference between the relationships: towards God, submission is accomplished simply by belief. By virtue of irresistible power, God possesses the right to govern, no contract is required (§4.3.3).

But, I suggest, there is actually a further difference, which is a problematic point in Byron’s interpretation but also points to an intriguing extension of Leviathan’s emphasis on political education. The difference is that the sovereign’s value schema can be a certainty (presuming a rational sovereign) but God’s cannot be. Recognizing the problem, Byron has to take the further step of specifying content. He equates Hobbes’s undoubted theism with Christian belief: ‘Crucial to this argument is a proper understanding of God: a providential God in an orthodox Christian conception is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good. So when I believe in that God, I thereby accept that God has irresistible power and therefore dominion over the world’ (p. 91). With basic content thus specified, Byron follows Hobbes in deducing subjects’ obligation to adopt their sovereign’s brand of Christianity.

While the argument seems to sidestep the pressing issues of religious knowledge and pluralism that greatly concerned Hobbes and his contemporaries, Byron’s discussion of the role of an authoritative value schema suggests a possible extension of Leviathan’s discussion of political education. Only in that final version of the theory did Hobbes emphasize political education, identifying it as a major duty of the sovereign and laying out key points in which subjects should be instructed (chapter 30, ¶3-13). By extension, might one expect religious education to have a similarly enhanced role in the work? So, pace the contrast drawn above between textual and analytic readings, Byron’s reading generates a question about the text: Does Part III of Leviathan’s evidence a trajectory of developing concern with what subjects should be taught as contrasted, say, to theological argumentation and ecclesiology? An intriguing hint in this direction, at least in the negative, can be found in comparison with the organization of the parallel Part III in De Cive. There, he employed a substantive template, dividing the Part into successive chapters on divine government by nature, the old covenant, and the new covenant. The straightforward arrangement is abandoned in Leviathan, where casual perusal indicates Hobbes was intent on pressing a Scriptural definition of God’s value schema (aka the ‘word of God’). So perhaps he was more orthodox a Christian as regards religious education—what subjects should be taught—than in his theological views? Instead of equating theism with a (Christian) authoritative value schema, Byron could follow his own lead and consider whether religious education might be a subject in its own right, separate from and even at odds with theology, in Leviathan.

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