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185 8 Impoverished Modernity Will, Action, and Person in Hobbes’s Leviathan At times a terror, Leviathan has always been an enigma on account of an innate tendency of instrumental reason to turn into its other, rather in the spirit of William Blake’s dictum that “Opposition is true friendship.” Embodying those very terrors of irrational strife that it had been designed to keep at bay, the Hobbesian state thus peremptorily seizes all possible venues from which it might be materially or intellectually challenged. Most obviously, that means securing a monopoly on power (potentia), which now is conceived strictly in terms of efficient, instrumental causality. Our prevailing idea of the modern state has been profoundly shaped by Hobbes’s notion of power as mechanical “force,” that is, as the state’s unconditional, legal, and material prerogative to effect a “decision” on any range of issues—­including prima facie the decision of what issues stand to be decided. Hobbes’s political voluntarism thus effects a downward transposition of the classical meaning of “power” (Grk. dynamis; Lat. potentia) to a strictly efficient “force.” It abandons the generative meaning of potentia—which, as Hannah Arendt was to remark, can be “actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal … Power is always … a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength” (HC, 200). Yet beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes at the latest, political power comes to be understood as a non-cognitive and mechanistic means. Thus arguments for the legitimacy of power, while not abandoning an appeal to a transcendent, divine source, tend to emphasize 186 progressive amnesia its pragmatic efficacy and sustained enforceability. Designed to constrain the brute and inarticulate wills of its subjects—and, invariably, coming to mirror their supposedly non-cognitive nature—Hobbesian sovereignty is not, however, an entirely novel phenomenon in modern political thought. Rather, it secularizes and radicalizes some central tenets of voluntarist theology.1 However startling it would have been to Aquinas ’s fourteenth-century critics, what the apologists of absolute state power from Hobbes to Carl Schmitt propose is nothing more (or less) than to draw out the irrational implications so unwittingly prepared for by William of Ockham’s conceptualist approach to God as the agent whose absolute power (potentia absoluta) must never be constrained, not even by the reality of his own creation (potentia ordinata). We can now begin to trace the evolution of modernity’s dominant conception of power as efficient force, that is, as the outward manifestation of a non-transparent and non-cognitive will that can only be known or unmasked after it has projected­ itself into social and political spaces. In so doing, we become aware of the omni­ potence, unaccountability, and consequent opacity of voluntarism’s God, on the one hand, and the emergent ideal of modern “autonomy” or self-possession, on the­other.2 It also helps us understand how, by the middle of the nineteenth century, a rather flat, voluntarist notion of power could have migrated from the self-possessed and ­ autocratic persona of the Hobbesian monarch to the abstract proceduralism of the modern, liberal-bureaucratic nation-state. Somewhere in the volatile transition from the late Enlightenment to the early nineteenth century, this transformation of state power is finally completed; and by the 1850s, the notion has effectively metastasized to a complex institutional and bureaucratic landscape that, on the face of it, has little in common with Hobbes’s notion of a polity governed by an autocratic will. Yet to understand the historical emergence (and intrinsic paradoxes) of the systemic and­ institutional model of politics long associated with the nineteenth-century liberal, secular, and institutionally embedded state, a bit of intellectual history (albeit in highly compressed form) is in order. For only by linking the historical genesis of theological voluntarism to the modern state’s view of the individual subject as begging institutional containment is it even possible for us to assess the viability of the project of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment political culture. Absent such a counter-narrative, all thinking about modernity—and the modern state’s institutional , economic, and constitutional frameworks—remains premised on an under1 . For influential accounts of modernity as the emergence of the secular, bureaucratic, and institutionally embedded state—paralleled by the decline of ancient and medieval virtue ethics—see MacIntyre, esp. After Virtue and Whose Justice?; Pocock, Machiavellian Moment; Blumenberg, LMA; Giddens, Consequences; C. Taylor, Sources...


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