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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 a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

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