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  • Hobbes's Politically Subversive Messianism
  • Samantha Frost (bio)
James Martel . Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat. New York NY: Columbia University Press, 2007. 248 pages. $34.50 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-231-13984-7.

In Subverting the Leviathan, James Martel offers an intriguing and multi-layered reading of Hobbes that seeks to wrest his work both from the misperception that he is an advocate of a brutally absolutist form of politics and from recent efforts to recast his work as foundational text for liberalism. Martel proposes to do this by considering Hobbes's theories and use of rhetoric as well as the eschatology he elaborates in the second half of Leviathan. Indeed, it is at the points where Hobbes's claims about rhetoric and his account of messianic religious history converge that Martel discovers a set of subversive—and what he calls radically democratic—insights that throw into question the arguments about sovereignty and sovereign power laid out in the first half of Leviathan.

At one level, Martel's work functions as an invitation to consider anew the centrality of reading and rhetoric to Hobbes's arguments. In fact, he raises the fascinating question of how we are to engage a political text in which the use of rhetoric is explicitly acknowledged both as a facet of politics and as a tool of political theory itself. Martel's argument here is that the act of self-reflexivity on the part of the writer promotes self-reflexivity on the part of reader. In highlighting the activity of reading in this way, Hobbes exposes the work of rhetoric, or, more precisely, the rhetorical work that we do when we produce and negotiate meaning. So, to be aware of rhetoric is to be aware of the collective activity of producing and agreeing upon meaning. Rhetoric, then, is political; it reveals to us our involvement in the meaning-making activities through which we constitute our political world.

Extending this insight about rhetoric to consider Hobbes's nominalism, Martel argues that in making explicit the emptiness of the sign and our use of signs to figure our thoughts and will, Hobbes exposes the dependence of sovereign authority upon our "reading" of it, that is, upon our thoughts and representations of it. The sovereignty of the sovereign is not "in" the sovereign as a kind of ontological or empirical substance nor is it "real" in the sense of being a product of a substantial transference of right. Rather, sovereignty is an effect produced in and through our collective relationship to it and we make it effective in organizing our actions insofar as collectively we acquiesce to its directives. According to Martel, to highlight this rhetorical dimension of Hobbes's argument is to underscore the importance of Hobbes's claim that the power of the sovereign rests upon the opinion of the people—which is to say that it is fragile thing indeed.

However, to focus solely on the political work of rhetoric in this way is to miss what Martel suggests is one of the main points of Leviathan, which is to elaborate how we might conceive of sovereignty in this time between Moses's rule over the ancient Israelites and Jesus's rule over earth upon his promised and anticipated return. Indeed, Martel's reading is a rejoinder—and perhaps a reproach—to those among us who treat the third and fourth parts of Leviathan as a mere supplement that draws on often-strained interpretations of Scripture to repeat and reaffirm what is accordingly construed as the "main argument" about the social contract in parts one and two. According to Martel, to ignore the eschatology in the second half of Leviathan is entirely to miss the point of both the rhetorical and political claims Hobbes makes.

Martel argues that, according to Hobbes, "we live in a time between God's overt ruling of the world (as 'king' of ancient Israel with Moses as Lieutenant) and God's rule over an eternal kingdom after the second coming of Christ" (102). Together, these two moments are the basis both for re-evaluating contemporary claims to political authority and for constituting a political community...

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