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Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion's Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 42, Number 2, April 2004
pp. 224-225 | 10.1353/hph.2004.0038

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.2 (2004) 224-225

Ross Harrison. Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion's Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. v + 281. Cloth, $65.00. Paper, $23.00.

The title of Ross Harrison's book is taken from Macduff's line in Macbeth, "[c]onfusion now have made his masterpiece," in reference to the discovery of a murdered king. Regicide was a particularly unsettling crime in the day of Shakespeare, as Harrison reminds us, since kings were often associated with divinity (2). And perhaps it was their obvious and fragile mortality, as witnessed by the killing of King Charles I, that served to further unsettle what had previously been taken for granted in the modern world—the very foundations of the state. Today, Jürgen Habermas informs us from the perspective of critical theory that we live in a "postmetaphysical condition," where we can no longer count on the apparatus of Christian natural law or Platonic Ideas to justify the state and its laws. Practically, the difficulty in Iraq of bringing together the various religious perspectives of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, and others suggests that different religions or even varying interpretations of the same religion provide formidable barriers to the foundation of political systems. How do we bring people of different worldviews and perspectives together into one state? The great virtue of Harrison's book is the reminder that this is not a new problem. Rather, it resides at the core of the greatest challenges for political philosophy in any age. This challenge inspires what Harrison calls "some of the greatest and most important political philosophy ever written" (1).

Thomas Hobbes is the first to receive extensive attention. Harrison provides a careful step-by-step analysis of Hobbes's reasoning in Leviathan. His affection for Hobbes is thinly veiled, as he parenthetically refers to Leviathan as "the greatest work of the greatest political philosopher" (62). Much of his account is standard, as he skillfully walks the reader from Hobbes's fascination with science to the sweeping authority of the sovereign. What is particularly worthy of note is his attention to the matter of foundations in Hobbes. Here his characterization reminds us of the eternality of Hobbes's central problem: ". . . how in a sceptical age to make statements of human reason that can depend on something fixed, or generally agreed" (64). Having found God superfluous to the question, according to Harrison, Hobbes ultimately employs prudence in relation to self-interest to be this fixed object. Since prudence—particularly its response to threats of violence—is the one element shared by all peoples, regardless of their religious or moral commitments, it makes the most sturdy foundation of political reasoning.

The second object of extended attention is John Locke. And as was the case with his treatment of Hobbes, Harrison again looks to the foundations. As most readers of Locke are aware, the law of nature plays a central role in his thought, and if one is to get to the foundations of his politics, then one must unravel its mysteries. Locke makes solving these mysteries difficult for readers by denying the existence of innate ideas in the Essay. Locke makes his own task of grounding his theory difficult by doing just the same—denying the existence of innate ideas. Grounding natural law is made even more troublesome by his apparent appeals to these very same innate ideas on two occasions in the Second Treatise (§11, §136). It is perhaps in his own confusion that, according to Harrison, he "falls back, after all, on revelation" (180). This is particularly unsatisfactory for Harrison, since revelation is characterized by the indeterminacy that led to the political conflict between Protestants and Catholics in modern England and eventually to the works of Hobbes and Locke in the first place.

Shorter chapters are devoted to Grotius, Pufendorf, and the less-celebrated sixteenth-century figure, John Ponet. Ponet is found to appeal to a standard old-world conception of natural law, grounded in direct appeals to innate ideas. Grotius and Pufendorf come closer to resembling Hobbes and Locke (with important differences noted by Harrison...



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