Academic journal article Policy Review

Leviathan Then and Now

Academic journal article Policy Review

Leviathan Then and Now

Article excerpt

UNTIL RELATIVELY RECENTLY, students of politics and ideas generally regarded Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (16 51) as the outstanding work of political philosophy in the English language. Over the past several decades, however, professors of political science and philosophy have largely relegated Hobbes's masterpiece to the back shelves. At best, they tend to view Leviathan as an historical artifact, an early and influential stepping stone on the way to the development of those Kantian-inspired theories--Rawlsian and Habermasian at the forefront--that aim to vindicate the rights-based, progressive welfare state and dominate academic teaching and research.

This demotion of Hobbes's masterpiece is unwarranted and impedes understanding of Leviathan. The demotion rests on the assumption, common among today's scholars of political ideas, that after millennia of confusion and error they have at long last constructed the complete and adequate--or soon-to-be-complete and very nearly adequate--theoretical approach to politics. It also is grounded in their belief that the issues of immediate concern to them are alone of moral and political significance, while the issues that occupied thinkers of earlier generations are at best of antiquarian interest. Accordingly, if they turn to it at all, professors tend lazily to ask of Hobbes's Leviathan--as they lazily ask, if they turn to them at all, of other classic works of political philosophy--how it anticipated or failed to anticipate the contemporary agenda.

An alternative, obscured by today's methodological doctrines and moral blinders, is to read Leviathan on its own terms, open to its assumptions and arguments and alive to the possibility that Hobbes's agenda is of interest in its own right. Of course, interest in Hobbes's agenda is not to deny Leviathan's contemporary relevance. To the contrary. To read Hobbes on his own terms is to discover a provocative rival to contemporary perspectives on morals and politics, one that challenges widely shared assumptions about the roots of our rights and calls into question common conclusions about the scope of political authority in a society based on the consent of the governed. At the same time, it is to encounter a complement to contemporary perspectives on the liberal state, one that offers a distinctive and powerful basis for a political order that conforms to reason and secures the conditions under which human beings with differing conceptions of the best life can pursue happiness as they each understand it.

To be sure, what it means to read a thinker on his own terms is subject to dispute. Of the small number of scholars who continue to devote themselves to the serious study of Hobbes, a substantial proportion contend that priority should be given to understanding the historical context in which Hobbes lived and wrote. Despite their tendency to exaggerate it, they have a point. For example, one is likely to be baffled by the intellectual energy Hobbes devotes to the critique of religion in Parts I and IV of Leviathan and to his alternative derivation of the true principles of politics from biblical sources in Part III if one fails to appreciate that he lived in a deeply Protestant political culture, the governing beliefs of which he was forced to pay deference to even as he interpreted them innovatively and elaborated opinions about the natural world and human nature that undermined them. One cannot properly understand Hobbes's critique of Aristotle without being aware that his target was in many cases the decayed version of Aristotelianism--in Chapter XLVI Hobbes mockingly calls it "Aristotelity"--that had prevailed in English universities for centuries, rather than the actual doctrines of Aristotle's Ethics, Politics, and Metaphysics. And one will miss the mixture of bluntness and circumspection with which Hobbes writes about human nature, politics, and ultimate questions if one lacks knowledge of the dangers to which he was exposed during the English Civil War as a defender of the Crown who nevertheless antagonized both sides by criticizing divine-right monarchy as well as parliamentary supremacy. …

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