Hobbes and Liberty
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.