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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 589-590
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Luc Foisneau. Hobbes et la toute-puissance de Dieu. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000. Pp. 424. Paper, FF 174.
As a recent conference in London confirmed, Hobbes scholarship remains sharply divided, even precarious, with several plausible and diametrically opposed interpretations en jeu. This is especially true as to the question of Hobbes's religion in relation to his political thinking. The famous "Strauss thesis" appeals to many, and, not long ago (Journal of the History of Philosophy 34, no. 2, 1996), this journal printed an exchange between Edwin Curley and A. P. Martinich that canvassed the old arguments and introduced many new ones. The issue seems to be whether Hobbes was sincere in making his theological arguments, prompting us to include them in his thought, or ironic, allowing us to pass them by.
French philosopher Luc Foisneau has produced a carefully written, brilliantly crafted account of Hobbes's theory of political obligation that includes the theological elements and makes them central, but without resort to the difficult concept of authorial sincerity. Foisneau, who teaches at the Institut d'Études Politiques, Paris, finds his interpretive key in Hobbes's description of divine omnipotence. The concept, he claims, figures centrally in Hobbes's theory of knowledge. It grounds the theory of political obligation and provides a principal justification for sovereignty itself. Moreover, Foisneau draws a starkly moving picture of human mortality vis-à-vis God's "irresistible power," asserting that the secular or lay temper of modern moral and political theory stems less from a rejection of theology (certainly not in Hobbes's case) than from a sharpened awareness of human limitations. Foisneau gives an impressive and convincing answer to the abiding question: "Hobbes's theology: What does it matter?" Namely, Hobbes's theology is the core of Hobbes's politics.
Before briefly considering one strand in the tissue of Foisneau's argument, let us consider two features of his work and the context of its production.
The first is that the author's focus is securely on the text itself, recalling the French explication du texte tradition. According to its strictures, working in detail, the analyst of the text carefully unfolds its meaning, precisely contained in and coextensive with the text's form. Hobbes the man and his contemporaries recede as limiting cases or frames of reference, though they and the other Hobbesian texts do figure as material illustrative [End Page 589] of points made through textual interpretation. Indeed, the history of ideas serves to illuminate the text; see the potentia absoluta/ordinata distinction, below. This steady, ample focus on the text's possible coherence and the concern not to leave the four corners of the document bear comparison with the contextualism of Lucien Lefebvre and Quentin Skinner.
The second feature is linked to the first, and it is Foisneau's association with the Centre Thomas Hobbes (CTH), at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques, Paris, headed by Prof. Yves Charles Zarka. The foremost academic institution devoted solely to the study of Thomas Hobbes, the CTH annually holds extended, international seminars, explicating two or three chapters of Leviathan. Several books and articles have appeared under CTH sponsorship, dealing with specific aspects of Hobbes's work, for example, detailed analyses of his philosophic vocabulary. The CTH's highly focused, on-going program of study gives promise that the rough places in Hobbes scholarship may one day be a bit plainer. Foisneau's book is a major contribution toward that end.
Let us consider one particular, viz., Hobbes's modeling of the sovereign's power upon God's absolute power. Hobbes's long-time interlocutor, John Bramhall, is quick to detect and criticize this in De Cive, moving him to reprove both the theological and political deficiencies of Hobbes's conceptual translatio. Bramhall denies one can consider God's absolute power independently of His ordained power, expressed in the eternal laws He has ordained. Nor may one place the power of the sovereign beyond the reach of the law. Impressed...