Corey Robin on Quentin Skinner on Hobbes

Is Hobbes still the most influential political philosopher ever? In this age of Rawls, it’s sometimes easy to remember that Hobbes’ thought underpins nearly every modern conceptualisation of both the state and the citizen/subject.

In The Nation, Corey Robin has an essay on Quentin Skinner‘s recent book on Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes and Republican Liberty. Even if you don’t agree with all he writes, it’s non-fiction of verve and style:

It’s no accident that Hobbes fled his enemies and then his friends, for he was fashioning a political theory that shredded longstanding alliances. Rather than reject the revolutionary argument, he absorbed and transformed it. From its deepest categories and idioms he derived an uncompromising defense of the most hidebound form of rule. He sensed the centrifugal pulses of early modern Europe–the priesthood of all believers, the democratic armies massing under the banner of ancient republican ideals, science and skepticism–and sought to convert them into a single centripetal force: a sovereign so terrible and benign as to make any challenge to such authority seem not only immoral but also irrational. Not unlike the Italian Futurists, Hobbes put dissolution in the service of resolution. He was the first and, along with Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of counterrevolution, a blender avant la lettre of cultural modernism and political reaction who understood that to defeat a revolution you first must become the revolution.

Robin points out that despite Hobbes’ devastating critique of “the state of nature”, modern day thinkers whom one might describe as followers of the “party of order” (a loaded term, without question) have found Hobbes suspect, to say the least:

Of the four twentieth-century political theorists identified by Perry Anderson as “The Intransigent Right”–Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich von Hayek–only Oakeshott saw in Hobbes the faintest glimmer of a kindred spirit. The rest viewed him as the source of a malignant liberalism, Jacobinism or even Bolshevism.

Robin then moves on to consider Skinner’s book:

Hobbes clearly opposed the “democraticals,” as he called the parliamentary forces and their followers. Quentin Skinner’s contention in Hobbes and Republican Liberty is that Hobbes expended a considerable sum of his philosophical energy in this opposition and that his greatest innovations derived from it. His specific target was the republicans’ conception of liberty, their notion that individual freedom entailed men collectively governing themselves. By unfastening the links between personal freedom and the nature of political power, Hobbes was able to argue that men could be free in an absolute monarchy–or at least no less free than they were in a republic or a democracy. It was “an epoch-making moment in the history of Anglophone political thought,” says Skinner, resulting in a novel account of liberty to which we remain indebted–unhappily, in Skinner’s view–to this day.

There’s plenty more here, and all of it worthwhile. You might also want to check out a recent podcast of a lecture by Skinner on Hobbes.


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