Hobbes & the Halo of Power

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The frontispiece to Leviathan, which ‘graphically portrays a crowned sovereign as the literal embodiment of the people, who have united to enthrone him’

Quentin Skinner, the leading historian of political thought of his generation, who has recently retired from the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, has among his other interests been writing on Thomas Hobbes for more than forty years. A rigorous student of Hobbes’s logic, he has nonetheless always sought, as he now puts it, to bring him “down from the philosophical heights.” He relates Hobbes’s arguments to the background against which he wrote, the civil strife of mid-seventeenth-century England. At that time the collapse of the nation’s institutions, and the breakdown of the government’s censorship of the press, produced a torrent of books and pamphlets carrying fresh political ideas.

Few of their authors won lasting fame, but the parliamentarian case advanced by Henry Parker, Philip Hunton, and others, and the animated responses of royalist writers, influenced or sustained men’s choices of side in the civil wars. Polemical contests arose from the virtual takeover of executive power by Parliament in 1640–1642, then from the raising of forces to fight King Charles I in 1642, and then from the prosecution of the wars that were fought between 1642 and 1648. New pamphlet controversies resulted from the execution of the King in 1649, from the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords in the same year, and from each of the successive coups of the eleven years of kingless rule that followed.

Hobbes’s first political treatise, The Elements of Law, was written in the spring of 1640, when Charles abandoned his eleven-year struggle to rule without parliaments. Hobbes was then in his early fifties. He had led an inconspicuous and uncontentious life, as a translator and thinker and as tutor and secretary to the aristocratic Cavendish family. Now he courted controversy. The Elements of Law was an uncompromising assault on the arguments of the King’s parliamentarian opponents. When, in November 1640, the Long Parliament moved against the crown’s supporters, Hobbes took fright. He fled to Paris, where he would remain for eleven years. There he wrote the sequels to The Elements : first De Cive (1642), and then his masterpiece Leviathan (1651). They are the works of a fixedly independent spirit: a royalist, but one who went his own way.

The political issues over which the wars were fought arose from Charles’s insistence that parliaments were to be called only if and when it suited him; from his levy of extra-parliamentary taxation; and from the imprisonment of critics of the crown by procedures outside the common law. Parliamen- tarians, led by the Earls of Bedford and Warwick and by John Pym, John Hampden, and their associates in the House of Commons, discerned in the royal measures a program to subvert ancient laws and liberties and property rights and to replace a “mixed” or “limited” monarchy, where sovereignty …

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