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  • Flathman on Hobbes
  • Morton Schoolman (bio)

It would be no exaggeration to say that Richard Flathman’s graduate courses on Hobbes at Johns Hopkins University were legendary.1 Graduate students of his who later became my friends and colleagues shared their intellectual engagements with Flathman on Hobbes with an intensity leaving me no doubt their experience was formative in the profound ways we hope for as graduate students. So when I launched Modernity and Political Thought, a book series in contemporary political theory that critically examines thinkers in the history of political thought from the standpoint of their contributions to our understanding of modernity, I knew no one other than Richard Flathman ought to write the series book on Hobbes. Not only would the Flathman volume provide us with a reading of Hobbes that grasped his contribution to our theoretical struggles with the modern liberal world, it would fill a gap in my own education. And not only did Flathman’s Thomas Hobbes: Skepticism, Individuality, and Chastened Politics do precisely that, every discussion I had with him about his book until it was completed was a pedagogical model of how to mine the richness of our canon for its insights into our political forms of life.2 To convey my impressions of the uniqueness of Dick Flathman’s work, then, I should share my thoughts on his Hobbes when they were first published as my introduction to his series book shortly after I completed my own “seminar” with him on the canonical thinker who had likely been his chief interlocutor throughout his academic career.

In Thomas Hobbes Flathman forces a confrontation between Hobbes's thinking and "ours," a confrontation between Hobbes and the architects, critics and reformers, and everyday participants of modern liberal democracies. For Flathman, Hobbes is not removed from us contextually. Rather, Hobbes shares a language that allows him to share our world and to enter into dialogue with modernity about that which Flathman, along with many other theorists who are not all like-minded, takes to be the most seminal achievements of modern politics. Flathman's approach effectively abolishes Hobbes's distance and otherworldliness. It is inspired, in part, by the belief that the perspectivism central to Hobbes's work is too little present in our liberal theory and practice. By foregrounding Hobbes's perspectivism and related features of his thinking, Flathman uses his engagement with Hobbes to apply intellectual pressure on our communities, aiming to alter not only our leading ideas but the very framework within which our ideas are conceived and translated into action. Through the intensity of this engagement Flathman presses us to become, self-consciously and despite opposing tendencies in our public cultures, the Hobbesians he thinks we already are in part and at our best.

Flathman had long been engaged with the challenges presented by Hobbes's political theory. Perhaps more than any other single political thinker, it was Hobbes who provided him with the theoretical tools to reconstruct liberal theory and practice, a project that in one form or another occupied Flathman's attentions for much of his intellectual life. Because Flathman's study of Hobbes is deeply rooted in his preoccupation with liberalism, it can be appreciated by way of an introduction that frames it through a consideration of another of his works in liberal theory, Willful Liberalism: Voluntarism and Individuality in Political Theory and Practice, which he himself described as a “companion” to his Hobbes book. 3

Willful Liberalism develops and defends a theory that moves aggressively against tendencies in and around liberal theory and practice in modernity. The sharply controversial character of the voluntarist liberalism Flathman there endorses prompts him to anticipate that some will regard his argument as illiberal and therefore antiliberal. Although in his estimation (and in mine) such a response is mistaken, Flathman recognizes that the aversion of most liberals to Hobbes's authoritarianism will dispose them against a view that owes so much to Hobbes.

Though liberal theorists may mistakenly attribute an antiliberal stance to Willful Liberalism, they will be correct in discerning a certain skepticism, much indebted to Hobbes, toward democracy. Although inverting Hobbes's view that monarchy is the best and democracy...