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.
Professor Skinner’s new book proposes a wholly different answer. Hobbes, he argues, knew exactly what he was talking about. He assailed not merely what he took to be the general tendencies of parliamentarian thought but a particular and precise component of it. Skinner’s volume has some familiar themes, even some familiar language. In his successive engagements with Hobbes he has a way of simultaneously repeating and revising himself, much as Hobbes himself did in the successive versions of his political theory. Like Hobbes he gives the impression of striving, with each fresh attempt, at perfection not only of substance but of expression. There is nothing in present-day historical writing quite like the self-concealing art of Skinner’s prose, which presents points of great subtlety and sophistication with a limpidity, an economy, and an elegance that sustain our continuous absorption. The argument of Hobbes and Republican Liberty is gripping. But is it right?
In Skinner’s account, Hobbes’s pronouncements on classical influence have been misinterpreted. Their significance, he thinks, lies not, or lies only secondarily, in Hobbes’s assertion, which Skinner does not endorse, that the parliamentarians who opposed Charles I sought a republican form of government. It is primarily to be located in premises that in Skinner’s eyes underlay the debates of the 1640s about forms of government: premises about the nature of liberty. The meanings that past ages have given to liberty have long interested Skinner, not only as a historian but as a citizen with an eye to the conduct and scope of the modern state. In the political debates of the mid-seventeenth century, he believes, we find two conflicting conceptions of liberty: the parliamentarian one and Hobbes’s answer to it.
In parliamentarian arguments Skinner locates the classical distinction, which was propounded in the Digest of Roman Law and which is widely found in classical political writing, between free men and slaves. In politics as outside them, free men are those who live “in their own power,” whereas men who live under the power of a master inhabit a condition of slavery. The master need not be oppressive or malign. The “nerve” of the theory identified by Skinner is that it is not coercion itself that makes us slaves, but the “mere fact,” or “mere presence,” of a “discretionary” power that can coerce us if it chooses to do so. Thus the existence of a royal veto over legislation passed by the assemblies we elect denies us freedom whether the veto is exercised or not. Skinner calls that view of the denial of freedom “republican.” It is an odd description, since, as he uneasily recognizes, it might reasonably be taken to indicate the commitment to kingless forms of rule, which he does not mean by it. To follow his argument we shall have to adopt it too. For convenience I shall, as he does, call the view about coercive power that he proposes the “republican theory.”
If his readers wonder what kind of political world there could be where no one was subject to the coercive power of anyone else, that is not Skinner’s concern here. His theme is the survival and impact of the republican theory in seventeenth-century England. It had originally been absorbed, he explains, into Magna Carta and into medieval treatises of political thought; it “rose to particular prominence” in the decades before the outbreak of civil war; and it achieved “unparalleled prominence” in the decade thereafter. But it was “systematically” and “vociferously denounced” by its “formidable enemy” Hobbes.
Tracing the development of Hobbes’s conception of liberty from 1640 to 1651, Skinner argues that it was formed and refined in “direct competition” with the republican theory. Hobbes’s “attempts to discredit” the theory “constitute an epoch-making moment in the history of Anglophone political thought” and “a landmark in the evolution of modern theories about liberty.”
In a tantalizingly brief conclusion, Skinner tells us that Hobbes “won the battle,” with lasting and impoverishing consequences for our political thought and life. Thanks to his victory we too easily think of ourselves as free when the executive chooses to leave us alone. Readers with a conventional understanding of the history of political thought will be surprised to find Hobbes credited with so large a posthumous influence on liberal positions. The seventeenth-century English writer who has commonly been understood to have inspired later liberal ideas is not Hobbes but Locke—in whose thinking Skinner finds a reassertion of the republican theory. Readers may balk, too, at the near equation of Hobbes’s thesis with the famous vindication of “negative liberty” by Isaiah Berlin, a perhaps designedly provocative analogy that would have startled both thinkers. Yet that issue, too, is not the nub of Skinner’s volume. It is as an exercise in historical reconstruction, rather than for its fleeting depictions of lasting developments and dilemmas of political thought, that the book earns close inspection.
Is the republican theory as Skinner presents it to be found in parliamentarian minds? In seeking to demonstrate that the crown’s critics objected not merely to the abuse of coercive power but to its very existence, Skinner faces a difficulty not of his making. Whether or not the authors and politicians whom he cites were alive to the distinction between the use of power and its latency, the pressures of the time worked against the articulation of it. In other periods, when contented citizens are oblivious or indifferent to the accumulation of power by the executive, friends of liberty have an incentive to emphasize the unused powers of government. The subjects of Charles I, however, had the practice of coercion directly before their eyes.
On occasion, it is true, we do find them pausing to remark on the distinction that matters to Skinner. Thus John Milton, writing in defense of the execution of the King in 1649, observed that a people who lack the power of self-determination “can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves,” even if their government is “not illegal, or intolerable.” Yet the point was hardly central to his attack on the rule of Charles I, for in Milton’s as in most parliamentarian minds Charles’s methods were all too illegal and intolerable. It was not the King’s mere possession of a veto, which after all had long been an uncontested royal prerogative, that caused alarm. It was his deployment of it in 1642 to try to maintain control over the raising of armed forces that could be used against his subjects. During the civil wars we find parliamentarian writers whom Skinner presents as spokesmen for the republican theory arguing that, if the King won those wars, the English would cease to be free and become slaves. If those writers believed the existence of the veto to be a mark of slavery, why did they not take their countrymen to have been slaves even before war began?
Skinner believes the republican theory to have been voiced by thinkers across a spectrum of parliamentarian opinion. He quotes such pamphleteers as Henry Parker, William Prynne, John Goodwin, and Richard Overton, though only fleetingly and with little attention to the arguments and premises that underlie the passages he cites. His account of those passages is backed by some emphatic phrasing and some forceful paraphrasing. Even if read on Skinner’s terms, however, they rarely seem to bear out the claims he makes for them.
It is true that we recurrently find his writers, and a great many other parliamentarian authors, drawing a contrast between the rule of “law” and government by the “will” of monarchs who escape the law’s confinement, a distinction that recalls the classical insistence on the rule of law rather than of men. Government by will is arbitrary power, and if complaints against it can be taken as statements of the republican theory, then the theory was indeed everywhere in the seventeenth century.
But can they? Lawless power could be attacked on many principles and from many angles. The noun “will,” which was often associated with “lust” or “lusts,” more often denoted the visceral horror of arbitrary power than its latent potential. Appeals to “law,” whether or not Skinner is right to suppose that they included invocations of the republican theory, appealed to a range of assumptions of other kinds, about the protective capacity of custom or statute or property rights. In a footnote Skinner allows that the republican theory was not necessarily “the sole or even the dominating argument about liberty in this period.” Yet the others are mentioned only briefly if at all. His unwillingness to consider the relationship of the republican theory to them gives his thesis an insulated air.
This is not to deny that parliamentarians frequently contrasted political “liberty” with political “slavery.” Skinner is right to intimate that too little attention has been paid to that language. Yet here, too, parliamentarian usage extended far beyond the republican theory. Alongside complaints about “slavery” we find repeated denunciations of “bondage” and of “vassalage,” a word that had commanded esteem in the Middle Ages but had come to signify human degradation. The nouns were normally used in passion, or with the aim of arousing it. Most often—it seems to me—they were metaphors. They indicated that the subjects of a tyrant are in a condition akin to that of medieval serfs or chained prisoners or Turkish galley-slaves.
The language of “liberty” could likewise have its rhetorical imprecision. It carried claims for a birthright of freedom that was perhaps the prerogative of all men, perhaps the special privilege of the English. Or it could bear memories of ancient struggles, sometimes of Anglo-Saxons against Norman oppression, sometimes of the baronial resistance to medieval kings that among other landmarks had produced Magna Carta. Yet Skinner’s readers could be forgiven for taking him to suppose that any seventeenth-century allusion to “liberty” or “slavery” is automatic evidence that republican theory is present. His predisposition to detect it produces a series of unconvincing illustrations. It is one thing, for example, to show that the pamphleteer John Marsh, in a tract of 1642, invoked Magna Carta against the illegal imprisonment of free men. It is another to infer that, because Skinner himself sees Magna Carta as belonging to a classical tradition, Marsh’s mind can be placed within it too.
What then of Hobbes himself? Can Skinner persuade us that, in his responses to parliamentarian positions, he had the republican theory in his sights? Hobbes certainly complained that readers of the classics had been misled by the “false show” of “liberty.” It had induced them, he alleged, to withdraw “obedience” from the sovereign power, to claim a “liberty to resist” it, and to glorify tyrannicide. The terms “liberty” and “slavery,” he insists, are “abused” except when they are applied in what he takes to be their literal senses. They should be used, that is, to allude only to the presence or absence of what he calls “corporal liberty.” “A free-man,” to his mind, is someone not impeded from physical movement, as a slave is, by imprisonment or other curtailment. That definition is, to Hobbes, “this proper and generally received definition of liberty.” His assertion provokes a strange and revealing moment in Skinner’s book. For in his eyes the “generally received meaning” of the word “liberty” was the one that alone interests Skinner himself: the one that describes a man not subject to a discretionary power. Hobbes’s claim that his own meaning is “generally received,” says Skinner, is patently false. His pretense is “an outrageous moment of effrontery” and a “sensationally polemical” attack on conventional usage.
Even if it could be shown that Skinner’s “republican” definition was “generally received,” his interpretation of Hobbes’s words would raise an obvious question. What would Hobbes have stood to gain from his effrontery? How could he have benefited from claiming for his definition a public acceptance that his readers would have known it not to command? Wider and deeper reading in the prose of the period would, I believe, have demonstrated to Skinner that there is nothing misleading in the statement of Hobbes that he finds sensational. Hobbes showed himself aware that definitions of liberty other than his own were in wide circulation, but he knew that his own was in wide circulation too. (My own impression is that it was in wider circulation than any other.) Hobbes thought his usage the “proper” one because it was not colored by the rhetoric that other, manipulative usages brought to the word. In the same way, he had noted in Chapter 22 of The Elements of Law that when the term “slave” is used “ordinarily and without passion” it means someone confined by chains or prison or “the like.” It was to the substitution of metaphorical for literal meaning, for subversive political ends, that he took exception.
What then were the classical perceptions of “liberty,” and of its opposite “slavery,” that Hobbes believed to have done such damage? Though he puts part of the blame on Cicero and Seneca, the chief responsibility is placed on Aristotle, particularly on Chapter 2 of Book VI of the Politics. There Aristotle explains that “the basis of the democratic state,” or of “popular government,” is “liberty.” “Two marks of liberty” distinguish democratic rule. One is “that a man should live as he likes,” whereas “not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave.” Hobbes replies that men who “understand by liberty…leave to do what they list” claim for themselves an “exemption” or “immunity” from the obligations to which all members of a civil society have bound themselves. There is nothing in his understanding of Aristotle’s “first mark” to suggest that Hobbes is thinking about a discretionary power.
The same is true when we turn to Aristotle’s second “mark,” which is the equal participation of men in government. Here Hobbes’s response is that the parliamentarians, in calling for the “liberty” that “the equal participation of command and public places” would bring them, merely reveal their resentment at their own exclusion from office. What they seek, in calling for “liberty,” is “dominion.” Hobbes’s attack on Aristotle for endorsing the Athenian belief that “all that lived under monarchy were slaves” is equally far from touching on the issue of discretionary power. His mind is solely on what he supposes to be the seventeenth-century appetite for a kingless form of government. The epoch-making confrontation between Hobbes and parliamentarians over the republican theory exists, I fear, only in Skinner’s mind.
Hobbes took the association of liberty with democracy to be a chimera. Forms of government, he reasoned, do not affect the nature of sovereignty, which, even though his own preference is for kingship, is no less absolute in a republic. Having returned to England in the winter of 1651–1652, he followed his own logic and submitted to the kingless regime. The “Review and Conclusion” of Leviathan, published in 1651, recommended that the republic itself adopt his theories in defense of its rule. One of Skinner’s early essays on Hobbes, a seminal moment in the process that has brought Hobbes down from the philosophic heights, related Leviathan to a controversy conducted among other writers, around the time of its composition, over the issue of obedience to the new regime.2 Now he refines that thesis in a passage that stands independently of the central argument of Hobbes and Republican Liberty. For here Hobbes, by alluding to (though characteristically not naming) the authors of “divers English books lately printed” who have failed to grasp the logic that compels subjects to obey the republic, provides what he elsewhere denies us, a pointer to his response to particular parliamentarian writings.
Another passage of the book, a marvelous one, likewise prevails independently of Skinner’s main thesis. The lessons of Hobbes’s writings were communicated not merely by their prose but by visual illustrations. We are shown how Hobbes brought what Skinner calls the Renaissance “tradition of visual eloquence” to political thought, which had previously shunned images, the arts of emblematic and iconographical persuasion. The famous frontispiece of Leviathan graphically portrays a crowned sovereign as the literal embodiment of the people, who have united to enthrone him. Skinner memorably contrasts that picture with the equally celebrated frontispiece of the royalist work published two years earlier as Eikon Basilike, the posthumous vindication of Charles I that had turned him into a martyr. In that picture Charles derives his authority not from the people, who are nowhere to be seen, but from God alone.
For if Hobbes’s reasoning seems authoritarian to posterity, it nonetheless broke with the premises on which the run of seventeenth-century authoritarian thought rested. His location of the origins of sovereignty in the people’s consent was but one aspect of his rejection of the halo of power. Divine-right monarchy, the ineffable virtue of majesty, the sanctity of the hereditary principle, all yielded to his psychological realism. So did the aristocratic conception of the monarchy as the summit of the social hierarchy, for we are all equal before the Hobbesian sovereign who represents us.
In spite of those radical features, his political thought caused less offense than the arguments about God that earned him a reputation for atheism. His political reasoning nonetheless disconcerted royalists, whose cause, albeit temporarily, the “Review and Conclusion” of Leviathan abandoned. Four years after his death in 1679 at the age of ninety-one, there would be an ironic postscript to that change of allegiance. Hobbes, an Oxford man, misjudged his university as profoundly as he misunderstood the parliamentarians whom he took to want a republic. Oxford was fiercely loyal to the King in the civil wars and to his son after the Restoration. In 1683 it demonstrated the enthusiasm of its fidelity by burning a cluster of “pernicious books.” Among them was the most consummate of the volumes through which Hobbes had aspired to reclaim his compatriots from seditious doctrines: Leviathan.
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). ↩
It is reprinted in Visions of Politics, Vol. 3, pp. 287–307. ↩