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twisted_apples in hobbes_matters

rhetorical strategy: a summary

"That [The Elements of Law] was a polemically pro-royalist work was obvious; as Hobbes plainly stated in one of its final chapters, the idea that subjects could maintain rights of private property against the sovereign was a claim that he had 'confuted, by proving the absoluteness of the sovereignty.' But The Elements of Law was no mere polemical pamphlet. In it Hobbes had attempted to base his political principles on an account of human psychology that was compatible with (although not necessarily dependent on) his mechanistic physics. The reduction of 'reason' to instrumental reasoning was an important part of this psychological picture. Reason, on this view of things, did not intuit values, but found the means to ends that were posited by desire; desires might be various, but reason could also discover general truths about how to achieve the conditions (above all, the absence of anarchic violence) in which desires were least liable to be frustrated. By defining that which is 'not against reason' as 'right,' Hobbes also made the transition to a different type of general truths: definitional truths about rights and obligations, which would make the claims of the anti-royalist politicians as necessarily false as those of incompetent geometers. For sovereignty to exist at all, Hobbes argued, it was necessary for all the rights of the subjects to be yielded to it; what he tried to show was that the reasons that made sovereignty necessary also made it absolute..."
- Noel Malcolm, "A summary biography of Hobbes," from The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, pp. 28-29, (emphases my own)

Malcolm doesn't get it quite right. He claims that Hobbes's The Elements of Law was "no mere polemical pamphlet." The right approach would be to say that "It is and it isn't." It is because he uses exclusionary definitions to define his opponents right out of existence (that's why he wrote it). And it isn't because, yes, it also provided a venue for Hobbes to explore his own theories about psychology and the state as founded on his (anti)metaphysical position. In short, by establishing his definitions on the basis of an uncontested "fact" (namely, that sovereignty should exist, something that no politico in the 1600s would've contested), Hobbes concludes that the natural conclusion to accepting that "fact" is his (pro-royalist) conclusion. It would be misleading for me to claim that Hobbes is doing anything new here because he's just walking down old rhetorical highways. It's perhaps summed up best by Edward Markham's old poem "Outwitted": "He drew a circle that shut me out / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout / But love and I had the wit to win; / We drew a circle that took him in."

If I have time I'll find the passage from The Elements of Law and explicate it at length.


Just have a couple of questions:

1)do you think Machiavelli had any influence on Hobbes?

2)What was different about Hobbes from locke, that he concluded that the sovereign was absolutely necessary?
1) Of course Machiavelli influenced Hobbes but I think Hobbes was doing something entirely different than Machiavelli. Generally speaking there are two meanings of "politics." The first refers to politics as concerned with the state - that is, with it is concerned with things like governmental structure, the legal system, and perhaps even guidelines about how to govern. The second refers to politics in the (wider) sense of conflicts of interest in any sphere (this would include politics in the first sense). Generally speaking, I think Machiavelli primarily wrote about politics in the first sense, while Hobbes wrote about politics in the second sense. However, I'm not putting down these distinctions to be set in stone (Machiavelli's writings surely point to a wider politics than that of Renaissance Italy and Hobbes certainly took part in the concrete political world of the 1600s).

2) Locke was a democrat at heart and I think he let that cloud his vision in many respects. As you know Hobbes was a monarchist (but he was first and foremost a pragmatist), but that's not why he concluded that the sovereign was absolutely necessary. I think it helps (and this is not a conventional view) to look at Leviathan as a positive theory rather than a normative one. What I mean is, the sovereign isn't what you think he is (or even Hobbes scholars like Martinich and Skinner think he is). I know that's very cryptic, but it's the best I can do for now.
*Regarding some of the basic problems with Locke's political theory, I'd refer you to the first section of Stanley Fish's essay "Mission Impossible" from The Trouble with Principle. There are probably better (more thorough) sources, but none come to mind at the moment.
thanks for the thoughtful responses and recomendation.
No problem. You're my only reader after all so it's not like I can ignore you. :-)

June 2008

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