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Review: The Radical Hobbes

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

[Below is an electronic version of a review published in Political Theory. The definitive version is available as a PDF from the publisher here. (c) 2009 Sage Publications]

[p. 706]

The Radical Hobbes

The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, by Jeffrey R. Collins. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. 326 pp. $125.00 (cloth), $55.00 (paper).

Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat, by James Martel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 240 pp. $34.50 (cloth).

Could it be that, initial appearances notwithstanding, Leviathan is the ally of political radicals? Turning to Hobbes’s religious writings, but using very different methodologies, two recent books urge us to take this possibility seriously. The first, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, is a clever book with a provocative thesis: that in the aftermath of Charles I’s execution, Leviathan was intended to articulate a political theory fit for the Cromwellian revolution. The second, Subverting the Leviathan, advances an even more radical thesis: that far from defending a centralized, absolute, sovereign arbiter of meaning and politics, Leviathan defends competing sites of authority to mount a covert, subversive, and “radically democratic” attack on sovereign power.

Hobbes’s contemporaries, royalist and revolutionary, routinely read Leviathan as a Cromwellian text, but today’s readers, perhaps following Hobbes’s post-Restoration denials, may find the suggestion barely credible. To claim that an infamous absolutist and partisan of monarchy wrote a “revolutionary” text allied with regicides requires both rigorous argumentation and magisterial scholarship. Jeffrey Collins, fortunately, delivers both.

Collins understands Hobbes’s writings not only as acts of philosophical reflection, but also as interventions into ongoing political controversies of his time. He accordingly situates those writings in their sociopolitical and intellectual contexts, conducting original research into Hobbes’s biography (including his correspondence, activities, and associations), the reception of his works, and the character of the English Revolution. This leads to an explosion of insight, which—Collins’s deflationary claims notwithstanding—goes beyond merely tracing Hobbes’s evolving political allegiances and toward reassessing Leviathan’s philosophical significance as well. The Leviathan that emerges articulates a theory of undivided sovereignty whose ecclesiastical corollary is just as important as Hobbes’s theory of political obligation. [p. 707]

Collins advances two main arguments. First, Leviathan’s significance in the evolution of Hobbes’s thought lies in its extreme Erastianism and Hobbes’s newfound enthusiasm for Independency. Second, ideologically, the English Revolution was primarily an Erastian revolution, driven by ecclesiastical concerns, rather than a Calvinist, anti-Arminian revolution driven by theological concerns, or a Puritan revolution driven by proto-liberal concerns. The revolution was a defence of the Elizabethan church settlement, whose Erastianism had been challenged by Charles’s Archbishop Laud and his aggressive program of divine-right Episcopacy. Hence the alignment of Hobbes and revolution. Hobbes’s Erastianism had undermined his sympathy for the Stuart cause under Laud, and drove him following Charles’s execution to throw in his lot with the Cromwellian Independents. Collins goes so far as to claim that, as Hobbes’s post-Restoration enemies suspected, Hobbes wrote Leviathan to facilitate his sudden return in 1651/2, after eleven years of exile, to an England increasingly under Cromwell’s grip.

Collins has no trouble demonstrating Leviathan’s extreme Erastianism; the challenge is to show the enthusiasm for Independency and support for Cromwell. Implicit evidence for the former comes from chapter 42’s surprisingly long treatment of ecclesiastical history: according to Collins, its function was to place Hobbes in the Independency camp, by asserting that ecclesiastical authority in the early church derived from congregational election (rather than apostolic succession, as Episcopalians claimed). The most explicit textual evidence for Collins’s reading comes, however, later in chapter 47, where Hobbes capped his historical reflections with the observation that today England has been “reduced to the Independency of the Primitive Christians . . . which, if it be without contention . . . is perhaps the best.”

The difficulty is that Hobbes’s tone—captured by “reduced,” “if,” and “perhaps”—easily suggests reluctant concession (to current Cromwellian realities) rather than enthusiastic endorsement. Indeed, it may initially be hard even to understand why Hobbes should have had much enthusiasm for Independency. Leviathan’s explicit support for liturgical uniformity suggests, in context, support for a national church which, in turn, would seem to have allied him with Episcopalians against Independents. A movement known to history as the champion of free conscience, religious pluralism and toleration, no coercion in religion, and separation of church and state hardly seems congenial to an author who thought the sovereign authorized to interpret scripture and regulate religious doctrine and liturgy coercively. Having identified publicly expressed disagreement, particularly religious disagreement, as a major cause of war, why would Hobbes have endorsed [p. 708] an ecclesiology that might, as Episcopalians feared, give religious sectarianism free reign?

Collins’s answer produces the book’s most fascinating material: Hobbes, increasingly alarmed by the clergy’s threat to undivided sovereignty, advocated Independency as a way to break up their corporate power. Collins’s key conceptual move is to distinguish between two strands of Independency. Independency’s subsequent tolerationist/separatist reputation, he argues, reflects the strand that came to predominate after the Restoration; but the “Magisterial” strand that the Cromwellians championed during the civil war and Interregnum was one whose commitment to free conscience and toleration was limited by concerns for a unified polity, with the result that it fused Congregationalist ecclesiology with militant Erastianism. While Magisterial Independents were against ecclesiastical coercion, they were decidedly comfortable with state coercion in religious affairs, to keep religious pluralism within strict, politically acceptable limits.

Collins buttresses his reading by marshalling evidence from Hobbes’s activities and associations in the period, his contemporaries’ reception ofhis writings, and other writings by Hobbes. In context, Collins suggests, Hobbes’s sudden return to Cromwellian England, whatever else its motivations, was a political gesture. (Collins cites a letter indicating that Hobbes began contemplating his return immediately after Charles’s execution.) Hobbes, rather than living as a marginalized royalist, is portrayed as active in Cromwellian Independent and even republican circles during the Interregnum. The question is how Hobbes, one-time tutor of Charles II, could have been so welcome and comfortable in such circles. Collins’s answer is that in this period the ecclesiastical question was more important than any other for determining allegiances, and Hobbes’s detractors and admirers were united in their understanding of the partisan, anticlerical implications of Leviathan’s ecclesiology. An array of enraged Episcopalian and Presbyterian critics lumped Hobbes together with Cromwellian Independents, while Cromwellian writers were regularly drawn to him, including even republicans (e.g., Harrington) who rejected Hobbes’s absolutism but admired and, indeed, emulated his statist ecclesiology. This surprising alignment between Hobbes and republicans (and its challenge to the more usual practice of pitting republicans against so-called proto-liberals) draws out two implications of Collins’s reading: first, that Hobbes’s endorsement of Independency was not so much, as Richard Tuck has suggested, a manifestation of Hobbes’s proto-liberalism (he was not endorsing Independency’s tolerationist/separatist strand) as of his Erastianism; second, that Hobbes and republicans can be fruitfully read as fellow humanist [p. 709] advocates of civil religion (and that this, rather than any alignment with Episcopacy, is why Hobbes endorsed uniform public worship).

Collins also cites Hobbes’s later writings—most fruitfully Behemoth, Hobbes’s own post-Restoration account of the Civil War. That Hobbes in this later period would not have directly attacked the restored royal and Episcopal authorities can, given his theory of political obligation, be taken for granted. Collins accordingly seeks indirect evidence for Hobbes’s ecclesiastical sympathies, which he finds in Behemoth’s manifestly implausible attempt to blame the Presbyterians, not merely for the civil war, but for the regicide as

well. Collins reads this as manifesting a dual-purposed rhetorical strategy: it allowed Hobbes to exonerate the Independents and indirectly to attack the Episcopalians, who shared the Presbyterians’ view that ecclesiastical authority was not wholly derived from the state. The trouble for Collins’s reading is that Behemoth explicitly condemns the Independents too.

Collins admirably succeeds in increasing our appreciation for the significance of ecclesiology to the argument of Leviathan. Indeed, the achievement affords his readers the luxury of asking whether, in pushing his case so hard, Collins has not sometimes overstated it. First, I would question Collins’s tendency to reduce other features of Hobbes’s thought (e.g., his theology) to mere instruments of his ecclesiology. Second, Collins argues that Hobbes’s endorsement of the Cromwellians must be explained by the significance of his ecclesiology, not his theory of political obligation. As Collins notes, according to Leviathan, de facto control is a necessary but not sufficient condition for political obligations (a covenant is also required). Thus once Charles lost control and was executed, Hobbes was released from his royalist obligations, but he was not thereby under moral obligation to return to England and pledge loyalty to Cromwell. However, Hobbes’s laws of nature do in effect counsel individuals to covenant to obey the person capable of maintaining order. The question is this: rather than enthusiasm, could Hobbes’s apparent endorsement of Independency (and Cromwell) have reflected an instrumental political calculation (recommended by natural law) about who was gaining control and the ability to impose order? (Similarly, were the Cromwellian Independents principled Erastians, as Collins implies, or did their willingness to use state power to regulate the church, like their willingness to purge Parliament, manifest their perception of reasons of state in extraordinary times?) This alternative explanation of Hobbes’s endorsement of Independency, as epiphenomenal to his general theory of undivided sovereignty, suggests that Cromwell’s de facto power played a more prominent role in winning Hobbes’s allegiance than Collins allows. The advantage of this explanation is how nicely it accounts for Hobbes’s shifting [p. 710] (and thus apparently prudential) ecclesiastical positions, including his later repudiation of Independency. Significant evidence for Collins’s reading is a 1641 letter, in which Hobbes expressed sympathy for a Nottinghamshire petition in favour of dismantling Episcopacy even before the outbreak of civil war; counterevidence ironically comes from the fact that earlier manuscript versions of Leviathan have pejorative references (deleted from the published version) to the Independents, suggesting (against Collins) that Hobbes did not begin Leviathan with support for Cromwell and the Independents in mind.

In Subverting the Leviathan, James Martel argues that, contrary to all appearances, Leviathan defends private interpretation, uses a competing political genealogy (namely a religious covenant with God) to subvert the sovereign authority established by the secular social contract, and exposes the state’s authority as a potentially “demonic” illusion.

The immediate question is how this reading squares with the text’s repeated and explicit defences of the absolute rights of sovereignty, including authoritatively to interpret scripture, to settle any controversies about the public meaning of words, and, indeed, to take any measure the sovereign judges necessary for peace. Martel rejects the “overt message of the text” on the grounds that Leviathan itself “stealthily” subverts its ostensibly pro-sovereignty message and “formal” condemnation of private interpretation.

Of course, it is one thing to show that Hobbes’s defence of sovereignty is doomed to fail; it is quite another to show that Hobbes intended it to fail. Martel charts a third course, suggesting that while his reading does not necessarily reflect the “intentions” of Hobbes to subvert his explicitly prosovereignty position, the text itself invites its readers to “turn on” Hobbes thanks to Leviathan’s own “theory of reading,” according to which the meaning of a text is not dictated by the author to passive readers but, rather, is actively produced by multiple readers diversely responding to the text’s rhetoric: interpretive authority is located in each reader, which inevitably produces multiple valid readings. But Martel hedges his bets, sometimes suggesting that Hobbes indeed “might expect or hope” his readers to see the subversion of his argument, at other times referring to what Hobbes “really wanted” and indeed what Hobbes does or “does not intend.” So Martel’s announced methodology primarily functions rhetorically to insulate him against competing readings, and to dispense with providing contextual evidence for why specific passages should be read as insincere or ironic.

Martel is aware of the objection that it is precisely because Hobbes recognized that private judgement would yield competing interpretations that, to avoid chaos, his political philosophy requires transferring interpretive authority to a single sovereign. Martel responds by pointing to Hobbes’s [p. 711] vigorous public defence, throughout Leviathan, of his own interpretations of scripture. (Hobbes justified this by saying that since the sovereign had not yet pronounced his view, Hobbes was simply exercising his “liberty of the subject”—which seems to buttress rather than undermine his claim that the sovereign is the arbiter.) Martel also thinks Hobbes’s insistence that the sovereign has coercive authority over what is expressed in public but not what is believed privately in the mind is incoherent, which he takes to mean that Hobbes “really wanted” to call into question the sovereign’s interpretive authority. This argument is difficult to evaluate, since Martel fails to grapple with Hobbes’s own justification for the distinction (that it is impossible to command private belief, and that the sovereign must consequently utilize persuasion and the instruments of socialization to shape it).

Martel also pursues another (and possibly incompatible) line of argument: the secular social contract institutes a centralized sovereign power after all, but the religious covenant with God serves to undermine it. Martel is most insightful in his discussion of Hobbes’s theology, which, unlike Collins, he refuses to treat as wholly instrumental to political/ecclesiastical concerns. God by definition is incomprehensible for Hobbes: the name “God” and its predicated attributes, far from actually describing God’s nature, are either linguistic signs of our incapacity to conceive an unlimited being, or signs of our will to honour him with superlatives. For Martel, this means that “God” is a “blank” sign of an “absolute absence,” which we rhetorically fill with our own will or desire; while “God” fails actually to represent the “thing” to which it ostensibly refers, it nonetheless succeeds in representing something, namely our capacity to exercise and bind our will to construct meaning out of nothing. It is a constructive failure of representation that makes representation possible. But if God is a “blank,” whose will cannot be the basis for political authority independent of what human beings themselves ascribe to him, then human beings are the full authors of any covenant with God. “God” serves merely as a device to enable covenants and the political construction and binding of the will. This is how Martel reads Hobbes’s narration of Moses’s renewal of the “Old Covenant.” Martel focuses on Moses presumably because, unlike Abraham, his authority to interpret God’s word did not, according to Hobbes, come from already being the civil sovereign; rather, his interpretation is directly authorized by the people themselves in consenting to obey. According to Martel, Moses’s successful claim to interpret God’s word was a founding

act that not only made interpretation, covenants, and politics possible, but simultaneously denied any future sovereign the right of authoritative interpretation. (What is crucial to Martel’s thesis is this alleged denial; unfortunately, it is alleged without argument.) [p. 712]

Martel argues that Hobbes’s account of demonology reinforces his antisovereignty

message. A demon is an image of something without any real existence, confused for something real, to which are attributed powers it lacks by nature; to worship such an image is an idolatrous delusion. Yet the illusion that the demon does have such powers is precisely what, paradoxically, produces its actual power over us. Martel suggests that the power of the sovereign, whom Hobbes called an “image” of God, is based precisely on this kind of demonic illusion, and that Leviathan actually serves to expose this illusion, demonstrating the text’s fundamentally antisovereignty message. (There are some basic mistakes in Martel’s reading: for example, overlooking Hobbes’s extended defence of his own metaphysics or philosophia prima in De Corpore and the so-called Anti-White, Martel mangles a short passage in Leviathan corresponding to those works’ more extensive treatment, to conclude that Hobbes reduced all metaphysics to demonology.) Martel’s reading is genuinely insightful, but what is missing is a consideration of a competing (and more compelling) explanation: that Hobbes exposed the illusory basis of sovereignty not to challenge it, but to shore it up, by frightening his readers of just how precarious it, and the civil peace it keeps, actually is.

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