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Hobbes & the Halo of Power

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.1 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 was shared among the king and the two houses of Parliament, with an absolute or arbitrary one. Parliamentarian writers appealed to twin concepts: one of consent, the other of representation. The monarch, they argued, enjoys such power as the consent of his subjects has allowed. It falls to the members of the House of Commons, as the elected “representatives of the people,” to defend that principle.

Hobbes stood those arguments on their head. Law and parliament and property, he maintained, existed only at the command of the king, whose sovereignty was indivisible. If there is a single image for which Hobbes is known, it is the “state of nature,” his term for the world before or beyond civil life. Government, and its legitimacy, arise when we escape from that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” predicament by “covenanting” with each other to “authorize” a sovereign power. It is that power, not parliament, that is our “representative,” and our obedience to it is enjoined by the consent that erected it.

If our subordination seems a “hard condition,” Hobbes wrote, our resentment has two sources: our “perpetual and restless desire of power” for ourselves; and our mistaken supposition that the collective or “public” obligation to which we have submitted can be qualified by the claims of “private” opinions or consciences or interests. Whatever “inconveniences” our “subjection” carries, they are minimal beside “the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a civil war.” The Roman historian Tacitus had rebuked men who, under absolute but tranquil rule, “give the name of peace to desolation.” To Hobbes, by contrast, it is the peace won by our subordination that offers us “commodious” and “delightful living,” the “solace and beauty of life,” the ascendancy of reason over brute passion, of law and order over “potent” subjects.

If he wrote his political treatises of 1640–1651 with England’s conflict in mind, he did not write with only it in mind. He saw those works as studies in “civil philosophy,” a field that he claimed to be “no older…than my own book De Cive.” They were part of his comprehensive program of philosophical inquiry, which belonged in outlook to the scientific revolution, the era of Bacon and Galileo and Descartes, when, in his words, “time, and industry, produce every day new knowledge,” and when the muddles and absurdities of medieval scholasticism, and the unmerited authority of “old writers,” could be swept away. Politics, no less than physics or geometry where such strides were being made, must become a “science,” its laws deduced as much from “meditation” and from observation of “the principles of nature” as from books. Only once that task had been accomplished could England be secure from civil conflict.

In his political treatises Hobbes, seeking principles of universal validity, rarely mentions the disputes of his own time and country. He barely uses the terms “crown” and “parliament,” which signified the two sides in the civil wars. Though he despised the parliamentarians as rebels and usurpers, his theses were idiosyncratically distant from the legalist and constitutionalist arguments that characterized most royalist, no less than most parliamentarian, writings. He did not identify the parliamentarian politicians and writers whose views he contradicted. Rarely can we guess which of the tracts of the time he read. Only after the restoration of the monarchy, in the historical account of the civil wars in his book Behemoth, did he make the pertinence of his theories to them explicit.

In any case he believed his logic to have contemporary application outside England as well as within it. The convulsions of the midcentury, though more fundamental in England than elsewhere, extended to Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, and, perhaps most pertinently, France, where the exiled Hobbes witnessed the impact of the Frondes, the rebellions that reached their climax around the time he wrote Leviathan. “All the states of Christendom,” he warned, would “be subject to these fits of rebellion” until his own political principles were grasped and enforced and until the promulgation of rival hypotheses was forbidden.

What had caused the general European conflagration? The “core of rebellion,” Hobbes alleged, lay where the “opinions” from which men’s “actions” proceeded were formed: in the universities. The “subtle liquor…against the civil authority” that the universities had imbibed in the Middle Ages, when the papacy and clergy had incited them against the rightful power of kings, survived even in Protestant lands. In England, he wrote, the syllabuses of Oxford and Cambridge imparted “the poison of seditious doctrines” to future politicians and preachers, who, when they reached adulthood, deployed them to sway the nation.

Behind those teachings Hobbes discerned “the babbling philosophy of Aristotle and other Greeks,” whose murky notions had permeated medieval philosophy and endured now. Classical civilization, the beacon of the Renaissance, was in Hobbes’s judgment overrated. Greece and Rome had been prone to sedition and chaos, and Rome, while boasting of its “liberty,” had imposed “bondage” on the lands it had rapaciously annexed. The classical languages had admittedly had their use during the Reformation, in aiding the biblical criticism that had exposed the pretenses of Catholicism, but otherwise they had done more to confuse than advance thought. One disastrous legacy, preserved by the rhetorical exercises that were part of university education, was a reverence for “oratory,” whose goal is persuasion, not truth, and which had become, in English parliaments, the tool of seditious demagogues.

It was Hobbes’s repeated claim that the “venom of heathen politicians” and “the reading of the books of policy and history of the ancient Greeks and Romans” had furnished modern politicians with “arguments for liberty” that had deposed or destabilized sovereign powers. Surprisingly, his accusation was not directed at the principle, which after all went back to Aristotle and other ancient writers, of mixed monarchy, even though he maintained that the English civil wars would not have happened but for the wide public support for that principle. Instead he attacked parliamentarian leaders who, he alleged, aimed to introduce a “democracy” or “popular government” in imitation of the classical free states. He gave, it is true, more prominence to the political influence of the classics in some passages of his writings than others. Sometimes it is accorded a low place in the causes of England’s travails, below the religious and legal and practical issues that divided king and parliament. Elsewhere, however, he places the classical legacy at the fore.

To historians of the civil wars, Hobbes’s assertion has seemed bizarre. Parliamentarians indeed knew their classical literature. Among politicians and the broader public there was a wide acquaintance with Roman and, to a lesser extent, Greek history. Shakespeare and other playwrights and poets had brought Roman conflicts of liberty and tyranny to a large audience. Yet the writings that justified the wars against Charles I were not republican. Parliamentarians took their stand not on the merits of classical commonwealths, but on rights guaranteed by English law and precedent. They aimed at the restraint of royal power, not at its overthrow. In most of their minds “democracy” was a dirty word.

In 1649, it is true, the momentum of events leading to the execution of the King produced a constitutional revolution that no one had foreseen at the start of the conflict. Yet the rulers of the new republic, who abolished the monarchy in an almost apologetically tentative spirit, did not found, or think of themselves as founding, a republic on classical lines. They merely awarded sovereign power to the truncated assembly, a House of Commons forcibly purged by its own army, that was all that the chaos of the 1640s had left of the native constitution.

The obvious riposte to Hobbes’s thesis has been that he did not know what he was talking about; that, living abroad from 1640, he did not attune himself to the parliamentarians’ views; and that the genius and uniqueness of his political vision were tied to a willfully eccentric and an overcerebral perception of the practical world around him. Hobbes implicitly acknowledged that he had derived his conclusions about the motives of the King’s enemies from his study of “human nature in general.” That pursuit produced the insights into the social psychology of politics that are perhaps his highest achievement, but it gave him no knowledge of events or of the individuals who shaped them.

  1. 1

    His two previous books on Hobbes are Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and the collection of essays that constitutes the last of the three volumes of his Visions of Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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