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  • The Radical Promise of Thomas Hobbes: The Road not taken in Liberal Theory
  • James R. Martel

There is no doubt that Hobbes is a thinker who presents many challenges even to those who finds him enticing.[2] His calls for absolutism, his seeming disregard for the abuses of power, his gloomy and harsh tone all seem to have earned him his sobriquet as the “beast of Malmesbury.”[3] But it has become increasingly accepted that there is something in Hobbes that transcends his tone and beckons us to give him a second look. Generally speaking, those who treat Hobbes in this manner find in his writings a basis for the kind of democratic individualism that is more often attributed to Locke.[4] Thinkers like George Kateb or Richard Flathman make persuasive cases that a politics rooted in Hobbesian thought can be attractive, ethical and moral. They argue that a better understanding of him can serve to reinvigorate the spirit and practice of liberalism itself.[5] I would like to partially align myself with this endeavor but hold myself as being a bit more suspicious of liberalism in general. I think that attempts to fit Hobbes into the existing rubric of liberalism, however broadly defined, limits our understanding of him.[6] Instead, I would like to propose rethinking the origins of liberalism itself by looking at Hobbes on his own, as if later liberalism had never happened.[7]

The difficulty with thinking about Hobbes in terms of liberalism is that we almost inevitably read Hobbes through his later liberal interpreters. Hobbes becomes for better or worse a kind of “proto-liberal” anticipating the doctrines of later thought.[8] This is a tempting conclusion to make because Hobbes and later liberals share such an extensive vocabulary. Common terms such as “sovereignty,” “natural law,” and “social contract” seem to suggest great continuities.

In order to think about Hobbes afresh, I want to compare Hobbes with that great architect of liberalism, John Locke. In particular, I want to compare them in terms of how their respective epistemologies and religious views lead to tremendously different politics. Locke is often portrayed as the “kinder, gentler” Hobbes or someone who thankfully dispatches with Hobbes’ gloom and pessimism altogether. Kirstie McClure, who does not share Flathman’s appreciation of Hobbes, suggests as much when she writes of Locke:

For Hobbes, Hume, and Rousseau, the natural condition of humankind principally referred to its worldly characteristics, or behavior as observed or inferred by human agents; Locke’s account of natural humanity had as its central reference the created condition of the species. Where they, in other words, emphasized what they found to be the actual or descriptive characteristics of the species — its physical passions, worldly desires and material interests — he began with an image of humanity as it was divinely constructed within and in relation to a larger created cosmos. [9]

For McClure, Locke’s abandonment of Hobbes’ harsh manner of accounting everything according to some petty and self-interested calculation is the source of his morality and what allows Locke to be more than simply a thinker of mere self-interest. This reading of Locke is also what attracts Richard Ashcraft who insist that Locke’s notions of property are not to be read (as C.B. MacPherson does, linking Locke to Hobbes) as a doctrine of selfishness but rather as a genuine concern for collective moral principles. Ashcraft tells us that for Locke, a meaningful sense of community is given to us only by the fact that we are all God’s “workmanship;” we do not work for ourselves, but for God. For both Ashcraft and McClure, it is Locke and not Hobbes who offers us a hope for genuine democracy and community, if only we can come to see the genuine promise in his doctrines.

While I agree with McClure that Locke does impose a more traditionally religious aspect to Hobbes’ apparently secular language, I do not agree that this means that Locke has more progressive promise than Hobbes (or even that Hobbes is somehow an atheist). Quite the opposite. I think that it is Locke who presents us with a deeply problematic basis on which to...

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