Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

15

PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AND
THE LIBERATION OF MAN

i. In Search of 'Freedom'

Many commentators on the history of political thought have pointed to the affinities between Hobbes and Spinoza.1 But appreciably more important from a historical, and perhaps even a theoretical, perspective are the differences. The key distinction between Hobbes and Spinoza as political thinkers lies in their sharply contrasting conceptions of 'freedom'. Hobbes advances what Quentin Skinner termed 'a classic statement' of the 'negative' view of political liberty, by maintaining that 'liberty or freedom signifieth (properly) the absence of opposition; (by opposition, I mean externall impediments of motion;) and may be applyed no lesse to irrationall, and inanimate creatures, than to rationall.'2 In Hobbes, liberty of the individual is reduced to that sphere which the sovereign, and laws of the State, do not seek to control: 'the liberty of a subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted' which include 'liberty to buy and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fitt; and the like'.3

All participation in the political process, the making of law, and forming of opinion, is hence excluded. Hobbes indeed disparages the republican, or positive, concept of freedom with which, he notes, seventeenth-century readers were by no means unfamiliar from reading classical texts.4 Such liberty he deems antithetical not only to monarchy but to political continuity and stability, accusing those addicted to such ideas of 'favouring tumults' and 'licentious controlling the actions of their sovereigns'. The political liberty republicans extol he considers a ruinous illusion, a mythology manipulated by agitators and factions for their own ends, to undermine and weaken the sovereign. As regards personal freedom of the sort he acknowledges, he maintains it is the same in quality and extent whether one lives under a monarch or republic.5

1 Petry, 'Hobbes', 150.

2 Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. xxi; Skinner, 'Idea of Negative Liberty', 194–4; Skinner, 'Republican Ideal', 294;
Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, 55–5.

3 Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. xxi.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

-258-

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