- The Dialectical Contrarianism of Richard Flathman
When I was one of Richard Flathman’s graduate students in the early 2000s, I found reading his books frustrating. They were like especially erudite issues of the New Yorker, full of thoughtful reflections that never quite settled any of the issues they so ably illuminated and pondered. At the same time, I was intrigued by his persona (I don’t think I knew him well enough to have gotten to know his personality). At a time when indoor smoking was banned at Johns Hopkins, he had somehow finagled an exception, and his office was a stygian cave of books, papers, cardigans, and smoke. He was a curmudgeonly presence in the department, always ready with a sarcastic aside or a bemused snort at pomposity (though with students he was unfailingly encouraging and generous).
As I read more of his work, I thought I saw the same man there, someone who at core wanted to be left the hell alone to read and think—that is, to pursue his own “felicity” (a frequently used word borrowed from Hobbes) in his own way. And there clearly is this side to Flathman’s work, for example in his powerful defense of individuality against the claims of community, and his fondness for Michael Oakeshott’s societas (an association of people who recognize that cooperation will best allow them to pursue their different, individual aims) rather than universitas (an association of people who cooperate to pursue an aim they hold in common). At the same time, I came to see the cantankerous side of his persona as being rooted in contrarianism, on beautiful display in his work on Hobbes, in which he gleefully argues against virtually everyone else that far from being an advocate of absolute power, Hobbes is really a critic of absolutism who is slyly demonstrating to us the impossibility of precisely what he appears to be championing:
Hobbes was, as we might put it … a pretty smart fellow. If it is obvious to us...that the gimcrack contraption that he calls Leviathan could have little effective authority and even less power over its subjects, it might not be unreasonable to assume that he wanted it that way.1
But that strong streak of individualism—by Flathman’s own description, nearly strong enough to make him an anarchist2—went hand-in-hand with an insistence that one’s identity is possible only in relation to the identities of others, and that the condition of possibility of individuality is participation in society. Indeed, we might read Flathman’s interpretation of Hobbes as being less about the exercise of sovereignty than about the possibility of radical individualism. The sovereign of the standard reading of Hobbes is in the best possible situation for an individual: he gets all of the benefits of social cooperation without having to accept any of the compromises. He alone is able to pursue his felicity utterly unhindered, indeed aided by his subjects. That is the best possible life for the side of Flathman that was a cranky individualist. But it’s all an illusion. The protean quality of language in particular makes absolute power impossible. The sovereign can only rule effectively by issuing laws whose language is sufficiently clear as to elicit the desired outcome. But language is too slippery, too multivalent, and ultimately too social a thing for one will to be able to command it in this way: “Words being necessary to the formulation and promulgation of laws, all words being subject to ambiguity and the multiplication of words therefore compounding the ambiguity, the legislator’s prospects of achieving perspicuity in laws are less than bright.”3 Even the sovereign’s most Orwellian power, the right to determine the meanings of words, evaporates when we realize that meaning is determined socially, since meaning cannot merely be given but must also be accepted, and thus language is inevitably at least partially democratic. The sovereign must conceive and express himself in language that he has inherited and shares with others, and thus his apparently radical individuality is ultimately rooted in a profound sociality that can only partially be controlled or...