Hobbes and Liberty

By Ellen Meiksins Wood
London Review of Books, September 25, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Hobbes and Republican Liberty
By Quentin Skinner
Cambridge University Press, 270 pages

Quentin Skinner is a hegemonic figure in the study of political thought. He has challenged Isaiah Berlin’s conception of negative liberty by counterposing the liberal version of negative liberty to what he calls the neo-Roman idea.

For Skinner, Hobbes is the philosopher who systematically replaced the neo-Roman or republican conception of free citizenship with the restricted notion of liberty as nothing more than the absence of external impediments to action. In his new book, Skinner traces the refinements and changes in Hobbes' ideas about freedom as the English Civil War proceeded.

The essence of the republican idea as Skinner outlines it here is that liberty is the absence of dependence. The mere presence of arbitrary power is enough to transform the status of free men into that of slaves. Free individuals can exist only in free states. The roots of the republican idea are traceable to ancient Rome and to the revival of republicanism in Renaissance Italy.

Hobbes’s three major works of political philosophy were The Elements of Law, De Cive, and Leviathan. Elements was privately circulated in 1640. Later that year, Hobbes fled to Paris and remained in exile for 11 years. In 1647 his new version of the Elements was published in extended and revised form as De Cive. The execution of the king in 1649 provoked Hobbes to compose his classic Leviathan. Hobbes returned to England in 1651.

In Elements, Hobbes lays out his argument in defence of absolute sovereignty. In De Cive, he offers a definition of liberty as the absence of impediments to motion. In Leviathan, Hobbes defines liberty as the absence of external impediments. Intrinsic limitations or constraints may take away our power, but only external obstacles can take away our liberty. This is a landmark in the modern theory of liberty.

Skinner's insistence that Hobbes is responding to the political disputes of his time seems undeniable. The problem is that Skinner's central thesis about Hobbes' opposition to republican liberty may not tell us much.

When the Stuarts embarked on their absolutist project, England's ruling classes were still committed to the long-standing partnership between Parliament and Crown. Ruling opinion was opposed to absolute monarchical government. On the eve of the Civil War, the parliamentary classes remained opposed to what the king was doing.

During the reign of James I, there had been significant changes not only in the extent and nature of the English electorate but also in the political role of the multitude. Inflation had made basic property qualifications less exclusive, thus widening the social base of the electorate. Expansion of the franchise was also a matter of policy.

By January 1641, there were almost daily popular riots in London. At the end of that year, Parliament issued the Grand Remonstrance, listing its grievances against the king. The Remonstrance was clearly intended to appeal directly to the people outside Parliament.

By 1647, the New Model Army constructed by Cromwell and his supporters was not only an effective military machine but also a militant political force. The army became a bone of contention and there were efforts in Parliament to disband it.

Skinner and the Cambridge School have been credited with a major breakthrough in historical scholarship for their contextualisation of political theory. Historical contexts, for them, are languages, utterances, words. This deliberate detachment of political theory from its social context has the effect of ruling out a very wide range of social conflict.

Republicanism is a slippery concept. In its original form, the Roman idea of a civic community presupposed a ruling aristocracy that governed itself collectively. In English conditions, there is a division between those for whom the ruling class in Parliament was the rightful embodiment of popular power and those for whom the people outside Parliament were truly sovereign. The idea of republican liberty is not very helpful.

It can be useful to define liberty as independence, but then much depends on what we mean by dependence. In Hobbes' day, one man's liberty was another man's servitude. Skinner's conception of republican liberty fails to capture the spectrum of debate on freedom because it skirts the wide scope of dependence.

Skinner invokes the civic community and its role in protecting its citizens from avoidable dependence on the goodwill of others. But we learn very little about what kinds of dependence count, or indeed what counts as arbitrary power. We learn even less about social domination from Skinner's work than we do from Isaiah Berlin's conception of negative liberty.

We may regret Berlin's failure to acknowledge that the social conditions requiring correction by the welfare state are themselves impediments to freedom. But there is in his argument a preoccupation with social realities which is lacking in Skinner.

AR  Reading the original for this page was a torture. Already that word "hegemonic" makes the heart sink. However turgid my redaction leaves it, believe me, the original was far worse.
Was it worth the effort? I don't know. I don't see anything to celebrate here.

Hobbes' Leviathan

By Peter Berkowitz
Hoover Institution Policy Review, October—November 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Until relatively recently, students of politics and ideas generally regarded Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) as the outstanding work of political philosophy in the English language. Over the past several decades, however, professors of political science and philosophy have largely relegated Hobbes' masterpiece to the back shelves. This demotion is unwarranted. Hobbes presents a provocative rival to contemporary perspectives on morals and politics.

Priority should be given to understanding the historical context in which Hobbes lived and wrote. For example, one is likely to be baffled by the intellectual energy Hobbes devotes to the critique of religion if one fails to appreciate that he lived in a deeply Protestant political culture. One cannot properly understand Hobbes' critique of Aristotle without being aware that his target was in many cases the decayed version of Aristotelianism that had prevailed in English universities for centuries. And one will miss the mixture of bluntness and circumspection with which Hobbes writes about human nature, politics, and ultimate questions if one lacks knowledge of the dangers to which he was exposed during the English Civil War.

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 and died in 1679. He mastered Greek and Latin as a young man and then went on to be educated at Oxford. He was fascinated with the modern revolution in philosophy and science through which he lived, and counted among his acquaintances Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. His rationalism is intended as an alternative not only to classical rationalism, but also to modern skepticism, which sought to deny that universal principles governed human affairs. Tthe Church in Rome went so far as to ban Leviathan, Oxford University condemned and burned it, and the English Parliament came close to passing a bill declaring it blasphemous.

In Leviathan. Hobbes addresses the widest claims about nature, human nature, and politics, which means for him those of classical political philosophy and Christianity. Agreeing with the classics and Christianity that morals and politics are governed by universal principles, he believes that his predecessors arrived at the wrong principles because of their defective starting points. Hobbes' quarrel is with Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides on the one hand and biblical faith on the other.

A rudimentary appreciation of history and philosophy allows one to make considerable progress in understanding Hobbes' ideas. The key to progress is the thoughtful reading of his words and the patient puzzling through of his arguments. We have immediate access to Hobbes’s thought because he helped lay the intellectual foundations for that form of political society that assumes the natural freedom and equality of all human beings. His assumptions and arguments remain accessible because the largest context in which Hobbes writes is that of the human condition.

In Leviathan, Hobbes compares the commonwealth or state to an artificial man and describes the workings of both in mechanical terms. He suggests that his reasoning about politics surpasses that of his predecessors because of its scientific assumptions and rigor. Hobbes' understanding of the natural world reflects modern science's mechanism and materialism, and produce a sharp break with classical political philosophy and Christian faith.

Hobbes also articulates severe limits to understanding morals and politics in terms of physics and geometry. These limits challenge the ambitions of today's political scientists to achieve a thoroughly scientific understanding of politics and exhibit important continuities between Hobbes and his pre-modern predecessors.

Hobbes argues that political knowledge is ultimately rooted in the capacity to know oneself. The student of politics must understand the universal passions that move human beings. However, the principal means for acquiring knowledge of the passions and the faculties is not the rigorous new science, but rather old-fashioned and imprecise introspection and observation.

Hobbes declares that good and evil are really nothing more than names for what we like and dislike. In contrast to the classical and Christian worlds, Hobbes' world does not provide human beings a form of completion or perfection, or even an intimation of completion or perfection. The same logic applies to the passions of all men in all strata of political society. The fundamental political challenge is to discover a solution to the destabilizing and indeed deadly competition to which men's universal passions dispose them.

To meet the challenge, Hobbes seeks first to bring into focus the extremity of man's natural condition. In the state of nature, each is equal in the sense that each is similarly vulnerable to injury and violent death at the hands of another. Because good and evil have no independent existence, because there is no utmost aim or greatest good, each in the state of nature has an unlimited right to all things, up to and including the limb and life of another. Outside the law and beyond the political order, the preeminent human passions come to the fore and produce chaos.

Understanding the misery of the state of nature and its causes brings into focus the goodness of peace. Peace is not merely the absence of fighting but a condition in which men are not disposed to use violence to achieve their goals. Peace is not a greatest good but the condition for the achievement of any and all goods.

The main task of Leviathan is to set forth the principles of the properly constructed commonwealth. Hobbes argues that it is reasonable for men to covenant with each other to transfer a substantial portion of their naturally unlimited right to all things to an absolute and indivisible sovereign. This transfer requires individuals to give up the use of their private judgment in public matters and empowers the sovereign to enforce contracts, make and implement laws, settle disputes, and generally defend subjects from each other and from external threats.

Hobbes infers 19 laws of nature that men must abide by to maintain the state. The first law commands men to always seek peace. The second instructs men how to establish it. The third requires men to do justice. The laws include rules of conduct requiring gratitude, complaisance, pardon, mercy, rejection of contumely, modesty, resistance to arrogance, and equity. The 19 laws conclude with rules on the fair use and distribution of public goods and private property.

These laws of nature are immutable and eternal in the sense that conformity to them is everywhere and always rationally desirable. And this is because conformity to them everywhere and always secures and preserves peace or civil society, the precondition for satisfying the widest variety of human desires. Failure to make the laws of nature generally applicable will everywhere and always tend to undermine civil society and lead to a war of each against all.

Thus Hobbes reconceives the laws of nature as a form of rational or enlightened self-interest. At the same time, he asserts that they amount to a version of the Golden Rule. They require disciplining the passions to achieve ends prescribed by reason. They require virtue. The science of virtue and vice, moral philosophy, and the doctrine of the laws of nature are one and the same for Hobbes.

For Hobbes, the sole legitimate end of the moral virtues is the self-preservation of the individual through the creation and preservation of a secure political society. Hobbes does not explain well how self-interest will be enlightened, so he furnishes no adequate account of how the necessary virtues will be cultivated. However, his successors in the liberal tradition did explore the variety of beliefs, practices, and institutions that could foster the virtues on which freedom depends.

For Hobbes, the fundamental natural right is not freedom of speech or religion or association, but the rudimentary right to preserve one's life and limb by whatever means necessary. In the absence of a common authority, any and all means are necessary, which makes freedom destructive. The establishment of a state in which the sovereign exercises absolute and indivisible power is, argues Hobbes, the best means of preservation.

It is the sovereign's sword that ensures that subjects will comply with their obligation to honor contracts and respect the law. By authorizing the sovereign to act in his name, the individual owns all of the sovereign's decisions, even those that in the short term he finds disagreeable or burdensome. It is also an enhancement of freedom because in Hobbes' view a powerful sovereign is the only means prescribed by reason for avoiding the misery of man's natural condition.

Moral and civil science, or the science of virtue and vice, show how we ought to conduct ourselves, or how we would conduct ourselves if we understood our self-interest well. Moral philosophy and political science cannot get launched without Socratic self-knowledge or virtue.

In Hobbes' political theory, the individual's natural and inalienable right to preserve himself by all means necessary both justifies the erection of a sovereign power and sets firm limits on it. Only a sovereign with absolute and indivisible powers, argues Hobbes, can protect subjects from each other and from foreign threats. But the subject's obligation to obey runs no further than the sovereign's capacity to protect. Sovereignty within its proper domain it is inviolable, and beyond it there is no appeal. Yet its domain and life are limited, and sovereigns can lose, squander, or destroy it.

Hobbes sketches a grim account of man's natural condition as solitary, bereft of metaphysical supports, inclined to misunderstanding, prone to violence, and impelled by fear and ignorance, but capable of overcoming his passions, empowering his reason, and preserving himself by authorizing an absolute and indivisible sovereign. Hobbes' properly constructed state reflects man's natural freedom and equality, expresses his reason, depends on moral virtues that overlap with Christian and bourgeois morality, and yields peace and prosperity.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

AR  For my money, this is a much better study of Hobbes' thought. But I'm not convinced that Hobbes is really such a great figure. Moving on some 200 years, I find Hegel far more interesting on the big theme of monarchy in political philosophy. Marx was rather less interesting, in my humble estimation, but he did manage to be fruitfully provocative in his challenge to the complacencies of the bourgeois theory of the state, as expressed by John Stuart Mill. Hobbes may be commended for having set the stage for these later thinkers.