Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Disciplined Citizen: Thomas Hobbes, Neostoicism and the Critique of Classical Citizenship

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Disciplined Citizen: Thomas Hobbes, Neostoicism and the Critique of Classical Citizenship

Article excerpt

Hobbes and Citizenship

In recent years the history of citizenship has come to be seen chiefly through the prism of contemporary debates around political obligation and community--particularly in the case of the well-rehearsed debates between liberals and "communitarians" in the American academy. In these debates a by-now familiar dichotomy recurs between a classical Aristotelian "active" civic ethos of "civic virtue" and public-spiritedness, and a modern "liberal" paradigm of "passive" civic rights and responsibilities. An historical fault-line in these debates is the emergence in the early modern period of conceptions of sovereignty and political obligation which are conventionally associated with early modern "liberalism", and which are seen (in one author's words) as marking a transition from citizenship seen as "a practice or activity, which is underpinned by an attitude of mind" to citizenship seen as a formal "status".(2)

Quentin Skinner has recently attempted to side-step this intellectual trench-war with an historical civic via media, which he traces to the republican legacy of Machiavelli and the Renaissance humanists.(3) Skinner's account redraws the historical map of the civic debate, and adds a more realistic historical dimension to the idealised images of contemporary political philosophy. Nevertheless, the argument still involves the same fundamental dichotomy between a model of civic virtue and one of formal political rights, even if the interpretation of the former has shed its communitarian anti-individualism. For Skinner the key figure in the emergence of modern passive accounts of citizenship is Thomas Hobbes: while the "neo-Roman" theory of citizenship understood freedom as flowing from the self-governing capacity of free states to that of free persons, the modern post-Hobbesian view, with its "liberal and individualistic" focus, has its basis in the Hobbesian mechanistic conception of freedom as the absence of constraint upon persons by the state.(4) In these respects Skinner's account of Hobbes' role in civic theory is a conventional one: it is the figure of the social contract (and the obligations which it confers) rather than Hobbes' account of civic attributes, which is decisive.

A quite different account of Hobbes' civic theory has however been recently proposed by Mary Dietz. In Dietz's view it is possible for Hobbes to be at once anti-republican and "a theorist of civic virtue" in the classical and Machiavellian sense: civil peace requires both an absolute sovereign and a population trained and educated in the civic virtues of justice, gratitude, modesty and complaisance.(5) The great strength of Dietz's argument is that it shifts the focus on Hobbes' civic thought away from its affiliations to the formal precepts of modern liberal political philosophy, and onto the practical concomitants of civic life in Hobbes' commonwealth. Its chief shortcoming is its somewhat awkward assimilation of Hobbes to the classical discourse of "civic virtue" -- part of a civic worldview which Hobbes repeatedly and deliberately rejects throughout his major political works.

Here I want to take up Skinner's and Dietz's respective focuses on the role of Hobbes, but from a slightly different perspective. Like Dietz (but unlike Skinner) I am interested in Hobbes' civic thought not as a contribution to modern conceptions of the social contract, but as a political picture of the formation of civic attributes and civic personality. However, like Skinner (and unlike Dietz) I remain convinced of the insuperable gulf between Hobbes' civic discourse and that of the classical republican tradition. Instead, I want to place Hobbes' picture of civic attributes in the context of a much wider conception of the citizen -- a conception which I will argue was characteristic of much of the thinking aligned with the emergence of the early modern administrative states.

In this wider picture, which I argue is closely fled up with the legacy of Stoic and other techniques of self- and social discipline, it seems to me Hobbes played an important role in clarifying the crucial issues at stake. …

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