POLITICAL SCIENCE 200Y1 L0501 2008-2009
SEVENTH LECTURE OCTOBER 22, 2008
HOBBES, LEVIATHAN, BEGINNING - CHAPTERS 1-7
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Hobbes vs. Machiavelli: the least favorite/most favorite writers in the course, according to
student evaluations. I’ve never understood this, I always love studying and teaching
Hobbes; perhaps I’d be more successful at teaching him if I did understand it. To me,
Hobbes is a bracing presence, the intellectual equivalent of those cold winds that so
often whistle through Toronto at the season when we study him, just as they’re doing
tonight. His arguments may make us uncomfortable, like those winds, but like then too
they will wake us up. But, if you’ll indulge my poetic fancy a little further, not a cold
clammy wind, such as we endure in humid Toronto, but a hot, dry wind, such as the
scirocco or mistral that sweeps from the Sahara across the Mediterranean into southern
Now there seem to be two main reasons why students have trouble with Hobbes: (1)
He's written in English (but not quite our English, into which the other writers have been
translated). When I last taught this course three years ago a student whose first
language wasn’t English asked me to recommend a translation of Hobbes, and was
dismayed to learn that no such translations existed: no, this is English, and you’re
expected to be able to read it. (2) Bizarre mixture of the familiar and the strange --
familiar conclusions supported by strange arguments. And a strange twist to the familiar
conclusion: a "liberal" argument for despotism. What we have to understand: that this
despotism is a new kind of despotism -- a genuinely liberal kind -- and that Hobbes's
arguments required only the slightest modifications to become arguments for liberal
democracy. (These modifications were made by Locke.) Hobbes achieves the
democratization of Machiavelli, and therefore his domestication. At the end of the last
class Merrick Anderson approached me and asked the following question. In our
tutorial, he said, we’ve been talking a lot about honor and glory, but what sense do honor
and glory make if man is merely a beast? This was an excellent question – take a bow,
Mr. Anderson, I know that you’re out there – not least because it’s precisely Hobbes’s
rejoinder to Machiavelli. He thoroughly debunks the ambition of the Machiavellian prince
to gain immortal glory by pushing other people around, and then proceeds to reinvent
the prince as the faithful servant of the people, who owes his authority entirely to them
and concerns himself entirely with their welfare. He is therefore, whether we grasp it
immediately or not, much more our sort of writer than Machiavelli. How I like to express
the relationship between them: the new Columbus, the builder of Downsview.
The letter to Mr Francis Godolphin. The Capitoline geese; Hobbes as a goose.
What Hobbes promises to offer: an argument that fully and equally vindicates every
actual regime against its attackers both external and internal. If you need to defend
liberal democracy in North America against its Islamist enemies, Hobbes is your goose.
If you need to defend communism in China against its liberal democratic enemies,
Hobbes is your goose there too. And if you need to defend the Islamic Republic of Iran
against its liberal democratic and/or leftist enemies, Hobbes is your goose there too.
How could this be possible? How can Hobbes offer what is equally an argument for the
legitimacy of all regimes, no matter how opposite those regimes may be to each other?
Fully understand that paradox, and you will have understood Hobbes. But if you
understand that paradox, you’ll understand a further one: that Hobbes’s argument for
every regime, no matter how illiberal that regime may seem, is ultimately a liberal
argument. How the paradoxes multiply.
(The letter continued:) The crucial objection to Hobbes's argument is theological.
For Hobbes as for Machiavelli the problem is Christianity.
The Introduction. Explains the strange title of the work: by Leviathan Hobbes
means the commonwealth. But this is a Biblical allusion: what is the Biblical allusion?
Job chapter 41: the most powerful of all beings, except of course for God, his creator.
The ultimate proof of divine omnipotence with which God rebukes Job; the ultimate proof
of the impossibility of human power rivalling that of God, and so of human wisdom or
judgment rivalling that of God. The ultimate proof of the necessity of human submission
to God. 33-34 (the concluding verses): "Upon earth there is not his like, who is made
without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride."
But what about Hobbes's Leviathan? Is it the work of God? The commonwealth is
neither natural or divine, but a human imitation of the natural and divine. Not something
given to man by nature or God, but something that he does for himself, the greatest thing
that he does for himself. The means by which he rivals God; God is a creator, but man
is a creator too. He improves on God's creation, nature, by correcting its most glaring
defect: the fact that the world, in the absence of this human creation, is an intolerable
hell for man.
I also asked you about the significance of the fact that Machiavelli offers advice to
Princes while Hobbes offers it to Leviathans. What is the difference between the prince,
on the one hand, and the Leviathan, on the other? The Prince is one man, who stands
out from the crowd and rules the rest of us, but the Leviathan? It is the crowd, it is all of
us, we are all equally part of it: cf. the frontispiece to the work, the most famous in
English literature. We have met Leviathan and he is us. As the creation not of some
great founder, but of human beings as such, it is a collective venture, something like self-
government. The people upstages the prince, for the head of the Leviathan, whom
Hobbes calls the sovereign, is merely an aspect of the whole, and thus the creation of
the rest of us. And that means that he has no right to put on airs, or to lord it over the
rest of us: as King of the Proud, it’s not ordinary people whom the Leviathan is primarily
concerned to humble, but precisely those who might be inclined to regard themselves as
[[Know thyself: not know what is good for you as a human being, know what
passions you share with other human beings, namely, all of them (only the objects of
these passions differ from man to man). Ultimately, know that all men are equal.]]
Chapter One. The study question: so what do I mean when I like to say that
according to Hobbes we are confined to a prisonhouse of the senses? Our world is a
world of shadows, of fancy and semblance, as Hobbes calls our mental images, which
are derived from the senses which are themselves merely shadows. For our sense
impressions are the consequences of pressures exerted upon us by outside bodies
whose true character must remain ever unknown to us. We must surmise that there is
something outside us producing the impressions that we have of it, but no assurance
whatever that those impressions accurately represent that something to us. Hobbes's
Tag end of jewish holiday reminders: lecture posting, office hours. Hobbes vs. machiavelli: the least favorite/most favorite writers in the course, according to student evaluations. I"ve never understood this, i always love studying and teaching. Hobbes; perhaps i"d be more successful at teaching him if i did understand it. Hobbes is a bracing presence, the intellectual equivalent of those cold winds that so often whistle through toronto at the season when we study him, just as they"re doing tonight. His arguments may make us uncomfortable, like those winds, but like then too they will wake us up. Now there seem to be two main reasons why students have trouble with hobbes: (1) He"s written in english (but not quite our english, into which the other writers have been translated). And a strange twist to the familiar conclusion: a liberal argument for despotism. Hobbes achieves the democratization of machiavelli, and therefore his domestication.