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Hobbes, our great contemporary

The author of Leviathan was never interested in freedom or democracy as ends in themselves. There was always a strain of despotism in Enlightenment thinking.

In some ways the supreme modern political thinker and without doubt the greatest ever to write in English, Thomas Hobbes did not spend all his time pondering questions of authority and sovereignty. For much of the last two decades of his life, this timid and yet combative man, who died in 1679 at the age of 91, devoted himself to trying to do something never achieved before or since – squaring the circle.

Part of a controversy with a long-standing foe, the mathematician and clergyman John Wallis, it was an ambition that suited Hobbes’s turn of mind. Fearful and cautious in his everyday dealings, Hobbes was also an intrepid rationalist with an unwavering confidence in the power of reason – especially his own – to resolve immemorial human dilemmas. Writing about his dispute with Wallis, Hobbes declared, “Either I alone am mad, or I alone am not mad. No third option can be maintained, unless (as perchance may seem to some) we are all mad.”

What Hobbes admired about mathematics was the certainty it seemed to offer. Mathematical theorems were demonstrable and irrefutable, and so – he believed –were the principles of politics. In a passage cited by Noel Malcolm in the introduction to his definitive new edition of Leviathan, Hobbes argued that in governing human beings, experience was less important than understanding these basic principles: “The skill of making, and maintaining Common-wealths, consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmetic and Geometry; not (as in Tennis-play) on Practise only; which rules, neither poor men have the leisure, nor men that have had the leisure, have hitherto had the curiosity, or the method to find out.”

For Machiavelli, writing over a century earlier, politics was best understood through the study of history. In contrast, for Hobbes, government was a deductive science, moving from unshakeable axioms to inexorable conclusions. Anyone who grasped the elements of this science could apply it in concrete political situations but no one was as well equipped as Hobbes himself. As Malcolm puts it, “The point of his abstract political theory was to generate counsel on how sovereign power might best be maintained – counsel which the author of that theory was best qualified to give.”

Hobbes is celebrated for his dark view of human nature but what is most striking about him is his belief that the problems of politics can – at least in principle – be easily solved. Lacking trust in one another, human beings find themselves in a “state of nature” – a condition of ruthless rivalry in which neither industry nor any of the civilised arts can flourish. But to Hobbes the way out from this predicament seemed clear. All that was needed was that his book would be read and its lessons implemented by an intelligent ruler: “I recover some hope,” he wrote, “that one time or other, this writing of mine, may fall into the hands of a  sovereign, who will consider it himself . . . and by the exercise of entire Sovereignty . . . convert this Truth of Speculation into the Utility of Practice”.

Hobbes’s combination of pessimism about human nature with a sublime confidence that the human condition can be greatly improved if only power will listen to reason helps place him in a distinct phase of modern thought – that of the early European Enlightenment. Contrary to a popular stereotype, Enlightenment thinkers are by no means always optimists about the future. Modern-day partisans of enlightenment may like to think of history as a saga of continuing progress culminating in their own unrivalled wisdom, but Hobbes was fully aware that the moral and political gains of one generation are very often lost by the next. What he never doubted was the existence of a rational method that could deliver human beings from the worst kinds of conflict. By contracting to create a sovereign with authority to do whatever is needed to ensure peace, humankind could escape life in the state of nature – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – and enjoy the amenities of “commodious living”.

Because he had no interest in liberty or democracy as ends in themselves, Hobbes can be seen as the greatest exponent of enlightened despotism. Contrary to silly chatter about “liberal Enlightenment values”, the Enlightenment has always included a highly influential current of authoritarian thinking – a current that includes later thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Auguste Comte, along with political leaders such as Lenin and Ataturk. Hobbes belongs in this current but it is part of his greatness as a thinker that he can also be viewed as the founder of liberalism. His best 20th-century interpreters – the Marxist C B Macpherson, Leo Strauss (intellectual mentor of the American neocons) and the sceptical conservative Michael Oakeshott, acknowledged that Hobbes, more than any other thinker, was the progenitor of the most fundamental tenet of modern liberalism – the belief that there is no natural or divine right to rule. The idea of Hobbes as a liberal seems puzzling only as long as you cling to the historically parochial notion that liberal values are essentially to do with a human right to freedom. For Hobbes, government existed only to protect its subjects, but for that very reason rulers were not bound to respect any of the freedoms we now think of as integral to liberalism. A Hobbesian sovereign could legitimately curb freedoms of belief and expression as long as doing so was necessary to keep the peace.

Liberals today may be shocked that Hobbes rejects any ideal of universal freedom but it is when his thought undermines the consoling faith of bien pensants that Hobbes is most illuminating. Right-thinking liberals are aghast whenever large numbers of people support authoritarian regimes, invariably trying to explain the fact away by reference to electoral corruption. If the majority in post-communist Russia seem unconcerned with Putin’s assaults on freedom, that can only be because democracy is underdeveloped. The possibility that, with all his murky authoritarianism, Putin may be more liberal than much of the population is not considered. Taking for granted that human beings will always need safety before they want freedom, Hobbes had no need of such evasions.

For Hobbes, the state exists to promote peace, not virtue or human salvation. This view of government leaves room for a great deal of freedom, for it precludes rulers using their power to promote any vision of truth or goodness at the expense of the security of the subject. For the very same reason, it also blocks governments from acting as evangelists for freedom. At a time when governments have led us into a state of perpetual war for the sake of nebulous ideals of universal emancipation, this insight of Hobbes’s could not be more relevant.

Where Hobbes went wrong was in thinking that peace could be achieved by applying an infallible method of the kind he believed existed in geometry. Here he was attempting the political equivalent of squaring the circle. Unlike Machiavelli, who understood that state-building depends as much on fortuna – the intractable contingencies of history – as it does on the skills of the ruler, Hobbes was possessed by the cardinal illusion of Enlightenment thinking. Believing that the dilemmas of ethics and politics are in principle always soluble if only human beings apply reason, he screened out from his view of things all those human passions that did not fit into his theory. Religious enthusiasm, suicidal heroism and the practice of violence for its own sake were all forms of madness, which an intelligent ruler – guided by Hobbes’s principles – could outwit and overcome. Imprisoned and tortured when fortune turned against him and he fell out of favour with the Medici, Machiavelli would have smiled at this fantasy of rationalism.

Not taking sides on controversial issues in the interpretation of Hobbes’s thought, Malcolm’s edition of Leviathan aims to present the masterpiece as faithfully as possible. The result – a product of many years of labour – is an astonishing achievement of the highest scholarship. We have never before had so accurate and so richly annotated a version of the text, and it is unlikely that there will ever be another that can match this edition. If there is a drawback, it is the price – £195 for the three-volume set – which puts it beyond the reach of most people and also of many libraries. In a regress that would not have surprised Hobbes, we seem to be reverting to a situation in which scholarship is accessible only to the rich, who have no interest in it.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” (Penguin, £9.99) “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, edited in three volumes by Noel Malcolm, is published by Oxford University Press (£195).

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide