Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Liberalism and the Question of "The Proud"; Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss as Readers of Hobbes

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Liberalism and the Question of "The Proud"; Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss as Readers of Hobbes

Article excerpt

"[T]he voyce of a man is in the noyse of the day."

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 2

Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, two among the most influential political thinkers of the twentieth century, made no secret of the fact that they were "not liberals."1 As their argumentation was often convoluted, it has sometimes remained unclear when and where their accounts of modern political thought in the broader sense entailed a critique of liberalism in a more specific sense. As a result, some of Arendt and Strauss's readers have deemed their interrogations of political modernity too general for a constructive political critique.2

In what follows, I will seek to challenge this impression by arguing that in contrast to other contemporary critics, who highlighted the cultural, economic, or ethical ramifications of liberal modernity, Arendt and Strauss contested precisely what they believed was the misconstruction of the problem of the political in liberalism. Even if neither Arendt nor Strauss wrote a systematic normative assessment of liberalism in today's sense, they presented their critiques through asking what was the change that liberalism had brought about in the understanding of politics. It is worthwhile noting, first, that when tracing the "origins" of liberal political vision, both emphasized less its intellectual debt to such "classic" liberal thinkers as John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Adam Smith, or Alexis de Tocqueville. Instead, they turned to Thomas Hobbes - rather unconventionally at the time - as the paradigmatic liberal. Secondly, their readings of Hobbes - of which Strauss's reading is admittedly more nuanced and continues to be widely appreciated as a serious contribution to Hobbes-scholarship, even if Arendt's, although quite ignored,3 is equally telling about her judgment of liberalism - display striking parallels. These parallels not only allow us to qualify the all too familiar opposition between the two authors as each other's intellectual and political antipodes,4 but also bring to light the distinctly political core of their philosophical approaches to liberal modernity.

It is precisely this political thrust that makes it necessary to place their contentions back into their contemporary settings. No matter how frequently their legacies are evoked in today's debates, their own pursuits speak of involvement with the problems of their time. In the immediate aftermath of World War ?, the fears of liberals and non-liberals alike ranged from the perceived weakness of liberalism against its foes in winning the hearts of the voters, to doubts regarding the possibility of any kind of long-term order, be it social, civil, or international. At the time when experience seemed to have taught that all certainties collapsed in the face of the first serious challenges, it was anything but clear that the kind of liberalism that many regarded as part of Europe's political failures would now hold the answers. Just as important, systematic debates on "liberalism" as conducted today were largely absent from mid-century political theory. The term "liberalism" itself seldom appeared, while "democracy" instead was a much more commonly used concept.5 Last but not least, the concept of liberalism entailed a range of different meanings, only partly dependent on the author's individual intentions - and at least to some extent, as we will see, on the broader intellectual tradition.


In 1934, John Laird, a British historian of philosophy, wrote in a footnote in his book on Thomas Hobbes that a "recent and very competent writer, L. Strauss has said that Hobbes was the true founder of liberalism (in the continental sense), that Hobbes's absolutism was liberalism in the making, and that [. . .] the critics [· . .] of liberalism should go back to Hobbes."6 This remark is more telling than its modest placing suggests. First, Strauss's thesis that we should trace liberalism back to Hobbes struck Laird as curious because at the time it had no parallels in the historical selfunderstanding of liberal Anglo-Saxon political thought. …

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