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April 07, 2008

David Womersley asks, is Hobbes finally losing his relevance? Hobbes and Republican Liberty - Quentin Skinner; Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics - Philip Pettit

Posted by David Womersley

Hobbes and Republican Liberty
by Quentin Skinner
Pp. xxiv + 246. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008
Hardback, £35; Paperback, £12.99

Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics
by Philip Pettit
Princeton N.J. and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008
Hardback, £17.99

Since at least 1819, when Constant delivered his speech on "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns" at the Athénée Royale in Paris, it has been a commonplace in political theory that the concept of liberty in the West has undergone a transformation, and that ancient liberty was very different in kind from its modern descendant.

In ancient liberty (or classical, or republican liberty, as it is sometimes also called), as defined by Quentin Skinner in his lucid and meticulous new book, the criterion for being a free man was that you were not under the power of someone else; it was accordingly impossible to be a free man except under a free government. As Skinner says, in England (p. xiii):

this understanding of freedom and servitude rose to particular prominence in the decades preceding the outbreak of the English civil war in 1642.
For Skinner, that seventeenth-century conflict was a crucible in which a rival conception of liberty was compounded and purified by Thomas Hobbes.

In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes defined liberty as consisting, not in a condition of equality with one's fellow freemen, but rather (in a provocatively materialist manner) in the absence of any physical impediment to your performing an action in accordance with your will.

The consequences of this, at first glance perhaps innocuous, redefinition of liberty are momentous, because it entails the conclusion that it is perfectly possible to be a freeman even under an absolutist monarchy. Skinner traces the impulse which led to framing and promulgation of this concept of liberty to Hobbes's horrified response to the civil war. Hobbes recognised the indelible appeal to men's passions made by terms such as freedom and slavery, and so in Leviathan he constructed an artful, dissimulating argument, to show that absolutism was compatible with freedom and did not entail slavery.

Skinner provides an exceptionally acute and precisely argued contextualised account of how, when and why Hobbes developed his distinctive view of human liberty. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Skinner regards Hobbes's intervention in the Western conversation about the nature of liberty as a catastrophe, and one that perhaps we should try to undo (p. 216):

If we reflect on his [Hobbes’s] counterattack [against the republican idea of liberty], and especially on its continuing historical influence, we can hardly fail to acknowledge that he won the battle. But it is still worth asking if he won the argument.
As Skinner suggests, Hobbes deliberately averted his attention from the likely psychological consequences of regimes which satisfied his meagre definition of liberty as the freedom from obstruction (rather than as independence and the freedom from intimidation). Such regimes instil a certain cast of mind in their subjects, for "servitude breeds servility" (p. 213).

But a question Skinner does not address is whether republican or classical liberty is possible in a modern commercial society. Then again, to attempt to wind the clock back to a pre-Hobbesian era would be an odd enterprise for an historian, and it may be that Skinner's purposes here are more subtle.

Simply to understand the historical roots of Hobbes's concept of liberty makes us less likely to accept it unthinkingly as the natural or inevitable form which a concept of liberty must take. Such historical understanding already goes some way towards loosening, or preparing the way for a loosening, of the restrictions which governments seem ever more eager to place around us. So this is a timely book, and it should lay to rest for ever the widespread misreading of Skinner's work and his methodology, namely that it reduces the study of the history of political theory to pointless antiquarianism.

Made With Words is written in a different idiom from Hobbes and Republican Liberty. In comparing the two, it is clear that, although both authors are to some extent academic hybrids, in Skinner the historian is predominant and the analytic philosopher comparatively subdued, while Pettit inclines more towards analytic philosophy yet without forsaking history.

Pettit subscribes to Skinner's creed, that (p. 5):

the history of thought should be viewed not as a series of attempts to answer a set of canonical questions, but as a sequence of episodes in which the questions as well as the answers have frequently changed.
But although Pettit acknowledges these premises for the study of political thought, his own approach is much less contextualised than is Skinner's, and much more focused on an internal analysis of the development and dynamics of Hobbes's thought, although the account which results is no less compelling than that of Skinner, and in its overall tendency is compatible with it.

Pettit, too, puzzles over aspects of Hobbes's ideas of freedom. Why, he muses, should Hobbes have thought that men would never be content with equality, but rather would always engage in a feverish quest for superiority? Pettit gives a brilliant account of how and why Hobbes is driven to this position by the internal logic of his philosophy.

Unlike Skinner, who discovers the origin of Hobbes's distinctive ideas of freedom in the pressures exerted by the circumstances of the civil war, Pettit traces them back to an insight which, according to Hobbes, launched mankind down its historical path: namely, the discovery, for good or ill (rather, for good and ill) of language. Language both increases human capacity (allowing us, for instance, to reason, to personate, and to incorporate) and also stokes human fears and desires by permitting us to reflect on the future.

According to Pettit, it is language which creates Hobbes's state of nature, where human life is famously nasty, brutish and short. And it is also language, which permits the drawing up of laws and contracts, which allows men to find a way out of the state of nature.

Pettit makes an unguarded claim when he asserts that Hobbes was the first thinker to ponder on the transformational impact of men's invention of language (p. 2):

He is the inventor of the idea that language is a transformative technology that has shaped our species, accounting for our characteristic features on both the positive and negative side of the account.
But was it not Aristotle (a philosopher nowhere mentioned by Pettit) who said that the distinctive characteristic of men was that they used language? However, whether or not the historical aspect of Pettit's thesis holds water is to some extent unimportant. He is certainly right to draw attention to the central place this idea occupies in Hobbes's thought, whether or not he coined it, and Made With Words is a fascinating account of the exfoliation of this insight into all areas of Hobbes’s philosophy.

For Hobbes our current discontents, in which freedom and security seem to be at variance, would have seemed meaningless. Nevertheless, they are keenly felt. Perhaps the sun is about to set over Hobbes's hegemony over this key concept in Western political thought.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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