Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Missing Wives of Leviathan

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Missing Wives of Leviathan

Article excerpt

With the supreme confidence of divine authority, King James I, in a speech to Parliament in 1604, the second year of his reign, relied on a powerful political metaphor to establish a permanent relationship between himself and his subjects: 'I am the Husband, and all the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife'.1 In declaring himself to be intimately linked with the destiny of England, the monarch resorted to a figurative strategy familiar to his audience. In the political rhetoric of the seventeenth century, the domestic household served as the microcosmic model for the ruling state. The family/state analogy also was reinforced through religious instruction from the pulpit and the prayer book, which emphasized obedience to parents as the paradigm for honouring the sovereign.2

However, the analogy could prove vulnerable to patterns of political and social flux. As political theorists, including John Milton, began questioning the prerogratives of royal authority, traditional family relations and gender roles also became subject to scrutiny. If one side of the analogy lost its stability, the other also would be placed in a precarious position. The analogy became particularly problematic during the Civil War and the Interregnum, when political theorists from both the royalist and parliamentarian camps tried to exploit the metaphor of the marriage contract to support their respective visions of political authority. Royalists seized on its potential to help them justify keeping Charles I on the throne because 'it provided an example of a contract which established a relationship of irrevocable hierarchical authority between the parties', as Mary Lyndon Shanley notes.3 Just as the marriage bond was believed to permanently authorize the husband's dominion over the household, the fictional 'social contract' between the sovereign and his subjects set up a unilateral agreement that could not be broken once the subjects consented to subordinate themselves to the ruler, according to a royalist interpretation. Political theorists in support of the parliamentary cause, however, argued that the contract could be broken if the ruler did not fulfill his obligations and that the monarch's power could be withdrawn by the people, who originally had granted it to him. Using the marriage contract analogically would force the parliamentarians into a more liberal view of marriage and divorce than many were prepared to expound. It would have required them to grant women authority to break their marriage vows and would have diminished the presumed dominance of the husband in the domestic household.

Given the vexed and volatile status of the marriage analogy during the Civil War, it might come as no surprise that Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan was written during that turbulent era, avoids deployment of this familiar prop of political rhetoric. Although Hobbes frequently uses the family/state analogy in articulating his theory of political obligation, he curiously elides mention of the relationship between husband and wife as a model for the bond between sovereign and subject. This omission sets him apart from other seventeenth-century political theorists who exploited the metaphor of marriage as part of their debates about monarchy. Passing references are made to wives in Leviathan, but women's most prominent role in the text is as mothers. Wives are conspicuously absent from Hobbes's theoretical family.

Hobbes's portrayal of women in Leviathan is contradictory and inconsistent. He shows women in a position of power as mothers, who have original dominion over children, but fails to account for their subjugation as wives. This paper will argue that these ambiguous depictions of women reflect the paradoxes and contradictions in Hobbes's description of the subject. Although he submits to sovereign power, the Hobbesian subject is the authorizing agent of all the ruler's actions. In addition, under certain conditions, the subject can disobey the monarch. …

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