Philosophy Books » Great Philosophers

The Best Thomas Hobbes Books

recommended by Arash Abizadeh

Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics by Arash Abizadeh


Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics
by Arash Abizadeh


Thomas Hobbes's master work Leviathan, in which he argued for the need to unite under a powerful sovereign as part of a 'social contract', has become a cornerstone of Western political philosophy. Here, the philosopher and political scientist Arash Abizadeh selects five of the best books for understanding Hobbes's arguments in their historical context.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics by Arash Abizadeh


Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics
by Arash Abizadeh

Buy all books

Before we get into the books you’ve chosen, could you just say a little bit about who Thomas Hobbes was?

Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century English philosopher. He is credited with creating English language philosophy, because up until that point in Europe, the predominant tradition was to write philosophy in Latin. It’s in this period that people start writing in the vernacular, and Hobbes is the one who writes philosophy in English in a way that is systematic and has a huge subsequent impact. He sets the tone for the way philosophy develops later in English—largely thanks to his masterpiece, the Leviathan.

The Leviathan is written in English in very powerful, forceful prose. Actually, there’s a theory about that, that he used to write it when he was out for a walk and write little notes on bits of paper that he joined together. He had a walking stick with a special compartment where he could put notes. Some of the lines are very thought through in terms of the rhythms—that’s obviously true of the famous one, “… and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Yes, that’s probably his most famous line.

But he did write in Latin as well, didn’t he? He wrote De Cive.

Yes, Leviathan is actually the third statement of his political philosophy. The first time he wrote down his political philosophy is the Elements of Law—completed in 1640. He didn’t publish it at the time, but it was circulated in manuscript form amongst peers and various aristocrats, members of parliament, and so on. And then, two years later, he rewrote and published his philosophy in Latin for a wider, European audience. That was his De Cive that you mentioned. Later on, in 1646, he put out a second edition of De Cive with further annotations and a new preface. Then, finally, in Leviathan, he came back to restating his political philosophy in English. So we have three iterations. Some people would argue four—because he then went on later to translate Leviathan into Latin. It’s not just a straightforward translation—there are alterations and amendments, and so on.

What’s interesting about this is that you can see the way that Hobbes’s thought develops over time: what remains constant, and what changes. That’s really interesting, because the time from 1640 to 1651, between Elements of Law and Leviathan, is a tumultuous period in English history. There’s a lot going on politically. There are the two civil wars in England, and Hobbes is very much implicated in the political debates of the time. And it seems that some of these various controversies and political events prompted some rethinking, alterations, and amendments to his theory.

Presumably, it wasn’t a safe pursuit to be a political philosopher in those days. Was it quite a dangerous occupation?

Yes, particularly for Hobbes, because in 1640, with the Elements of Law, he establishes very firmly his royalist credentials. This is a time of great constitutional crisis in England, where you have the royalist party defending the rights of kings, of Charles I, versus parliamentary forces who are fighting for the rights of Parliament in relation to the king. Charles I had ruled without calling Parliament for many years—it’s called 11 years of personal rule, or 11 years of tyranny, depending on what side you’re on of this debate. When, in 1640, he was forced to call Parliament for the first time after all these years, it led to an explosion of demands on the part of Parliament. That parliament lasted a short time—it’s called the Short Parliament—and then, later that year, Parliament was reconvened by the king. That led to a tremendous amount of revolutionary fervour, and Hobbes actually feared for his life, because it looked like the parliamentary groups were going after the staunchest partisans of the king, and Hobbes was very much a defender of the absolute right of kings.

So, he fled to France. He went to Paris where he spent the next decade. He wasn’t in England during the civil wars, though he was following events very closely. But yes, he fled precisely because he was afraid of the implications of his political views at that time.

So, to some degree, he was orthodox in his politics by stressing the need for a powerful sovereign. But wasn’t he deeply unorthodox in his religious views, considered by some people to be an atheist because he thought that God was a material being?

Yes, he had very controversial religious views, both theological and ecclesiastical. But really, where the rubber hits the road is in Leviathan, because he comes out with, for the time, some really crazy theological views. His ecclesiastical views are also extremely important.

There’s controversy about how to interpret Hobbes’s theological views. Some people read Hobbes as an unorthodox kind of theist. Others read him as a closet atheist—and his adversaries certainly accused him of being an atheist. Within Hobbes scholarship, there’s a lot of disagreement about this. But whatever his views were, the theology that he expounds in Leviathan is very unorthodox. It looks like he is claiming, as you say, that God has a corporeal presence. Even that’s not clear, though, because Hobbes often tells us that his theological language is designed simply to praise—that it’s not a matter of philosophical truth claims, but rather a way of speaking in praise of God. Any of these claims that he’s making about God’s nature, well, he says, in fact, we don’t know anything about God’s nature. So we have to reconcile, if you like, the hermeneutical or interpretive principles that he lays out for how to understand theological language, with the things that he says about God.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

One way to see what he does in Leviathan—this is how I understand him—is that God is, in fact, a creation of human beings, the same way that the state is. It’s an artificial person that human beings create. God exists, but as an artificial entity, as an artificial person in some way. That’s quite a radical interpretation of Christian theology, and in particular the Trinity, that he gives us in Leviathan. And in the Latin Leviathan, he is forced to backtrack and repudiate this. He takes it back.

One of the difficulties of interpreting Hobbes is that he has a doctrine that the philosopher must not contradict the official doctrines that are put forth by the sovereign. And so insofar as there is a sovereign, who is a Christian, who proclaims that all of his subjects must proclaim belief in God, Hobbes is going to do that. So what’s interesting about Leviathan is that he writes it in a period where he doesn’t necessarily think that he is bound by a particular sovereign and the sovereign’s views—precisely because there is tumult and controversy, and in the aftermath of the civil wars it’s not quite clear who necessarily is the sovereign, or at least it’s not clear what the theological views that the sovereign has imposed on England are. So he has a much freer hand in the English Leviathan to tell us what he really thinks.

Can I just give a caricature of what I think the elements of Hobbes’s political philosophy are, and you correct me on this when I get it wrong. What I take them to be is that he begins by thinking of human beings as basically selfish, motivated by self-interest. He explains everything in terms of individuals wanting to get what they want for themselves. And what they probably most want is security—above everything else. So, in an imaginary state of nature, it’s going to be a war of everybody against each other, when there’s no superior authority on Earth. To survive people get together and form a pact of some kind. Otherwise they’d lead very short, horrible lives, because even the strongest can be killed when he or she is asleep. And so it’s in their selfish interest to try and collaborate. The best thing to do, according to Hobbes, is to put a strong sovereign force overseeing and guaranteeing any promises that you make by punishing people who transgress, and that then translates to the state, that’s the best way to live. Because otherwise, there’s always the risk of discord and the state completely collapsing back into the state of nature, with everybody tearing each other apart. Is that fair enough?

Yes. That is one way to read Hobbes. And, in fact, that’s one way that Hobbes has often been read. As you say, that corresponds very much to popular image of what Hobbes stands for, in the history of political thought. I’m not sure that the starting points are exactly right, though.

Maybe you could just say a little bit more about that?

Let’s focus on Leviathan, which is my first book choice (in the Oxford Clarendon edition edited by Noel Malcolm). One way to read Hobbes, as you say, is to say that human beings are naturally selfish, and that resources are scarce. Above all, what they want is their own survival or self-preservation. Then, in a state of nature without a sovereign to hold them in check, what’s going to happen is they’re going to compete over these scarce resources and they will fight with each other. Then you need a sovereign to give them a law that will keep them away from each other’s throats. And that’s why a state of nature is necessarily a state of war.

The difficulty with that way of interpreting things is a couple of things. There’s actually not any evidence that Hobbes thought that scarcity of material resources is a universal feature of the state of nature. So, while there may be local scarcity…

I didn’t mention scarcity.

Right, but it’s a premise that’s required for that argument. You might be selfish, but if there’s abundance, there’s no reason to fight anybody, because fighting is dangerous. So, the only reason why you would fight somebody, if you’re selfish in that way, is because you want something, and they want the same thing, and you can’t both have it because there’s scarcity.

I don’t agree with that. You might fight them for a potato, because it’s easier than digging it up yourself.

Ah, okay, well, that might be the case. But the problem is that this reading usually presupposes that you’re scared for your own life, because what really matters to you is self-preservation. Fighting others carries a great deal of risk to your own life, so it wouldn’t necessarily to be the most reasonable thing for you to do.

Hobbes also doesn’t necessarily think that people are universally selfish, in the sense that all they care about is their own good and not others’. It is true that Hobbes thinks that whatever it is that we do, we do because we desire to do it, and we desire to do things, because we think that they’re good for ourselves. The thing is, that doesn’t tell us what the content of our desires is. Hobbes thinks that the content of people’s desires varies tremendously depending on their constitution, on their education. So, one thing that might happen is that you might desire other people’s good. It might be that what you desire, for example, is the glory of your kin, or a collective. That’s also possible in Hobbes’s psychology.

“One way to read Hobbes, is to say that human beings are naturally selfish”

What really matters about Hobbes’s account of human nature—and this is one of the things that Richard Tuck’s book emphasizes, which we’ll talk about in a minute—is that it’s not so much a conflict between selfish individuals, competing over these resources—though that’s also a part of Hobbes’s argument. The real emphasis is on the fact that people end up fighting because they disagree with each other. It’s ideological disagreement that does a lot of the work. In particular, the problem is people’s ethical evaluations—which are driven by their desires, and what gives them pleasure. People are inclined to call those things good that they desire, and that they think gives them pleasure in this way, which they then see as pleasant, because that’s how we use evaluative terms. Psychologically, that’s what we end up doing: we end up disagreeing about what to praise and what to blame and that leads us to have these evaluative disagreements. And Hobbes thinks, above all, that human beings are rather prickly. When somebody disagrees with you, you’re inclined to interpret them as implying that you’re an idiot.

There’s a great line somewhere in Leviathan about how disputes arising from a look or a comment that puts you down, and then there’s a fight. That’s pub mentality.

Exactly. What Hobbes is thinking about is ideological disagreement here, where you have disagreement, and you take other people’s disagreement with you as a sign of their contempt for you. What he is really concerned about is religious and political disagreement. Religious disagreement is very dangerous, because not only is the person saying that you’re an idiot when they worship God in a different way than you do. They’re saying you’re so much of an idiot that you’ve put your entire salvation at stake—like you’re really getting it wrong. That is very insulting for a Hobbesian person, in the way that he characterizes their psychological makeup. And the reason why is because fundamental to human beings’ psychological makeup are pleasure and pain. We’re driven, in a way, by this dynamic of pleasure and pain.

“Hobbes identifies three different psychological grounds for why it is that the state of nature is a state of war; he calls these competition, diffidence, and glory”

There are two kinds of pleasure for Hobbes, a sensory pleasure or pleasure of satisfaction, which arises when your desires are satisfied: you’re drinking the glass and it titillates your throat, that satisfies your desire, and there’s a pleasure in that. But really what matters are pleasures of the mind, where, for example, you anticipate the future satisfaction of your desires. That anticipatory pleasure is pleasure of the mind. You only fully enjoy these when you have a kind of hope that you will be able to satisfy your desires in the future, and you imagine, ‘oh, yes, I can see that in the future, I will satisfy this.’ That requires you to think of yourself as powerful—you have the power to satisfy your desires. This contemplation of your power to satisfy desires gives you a pleasure which Hobbes calls ‘glory’. And so when people don’t honour you, or they insult you, or they just have contempt for you, they don’t recognize you as being as powerful and as good as you yourself think that you are, you’re insulted, and that is an affront to your glory, which is a fundamental element of Hobbesian psychology. And when that happens, that’s painful, and you get angry and desire revenge.

So there’s a kind of Hobbesian, psychological mechanism that is really important for understanding why it is that he thinks that the state of nature, given the way that human beings are by nature, is a state of war. Largely it’s driven by these concerns about the potential for evaluative ethical disagreement, which plays out above all in religious and political disagreements.

So it’s a theory about human nature, about psychology, really, that is driving this?

Yes, it’s central to Hobbes’s account. There are other elements, there are structural elements as well. In Leviathan he identifies three different psychological grounds for why it is that the state of nature is a state of war, and he calls these competition, diffidence, and glory. I’ve been giving you the details of the glory argument.

The competition argument is that when there is a desire for the same object, people will come to blows. And the question is, why would they come to blows if, for example, there isn’t scarcity, or if you could go and get the thing somewhere else. Part of it is because if you defer to the other person, you’ve acknowledged that you’re not very powerful. And that’s an affront to your own glory. So the glory argument does some work in the competition argument.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

The diffidence argument is that if you have people who don’t know what others’ motives are, and they’re afraid for their own life, and they don’t know whether you’re a friend or a foe, or just neutral, then a rational strategy may be just pre-emptively to strike in order to subdue the people that you encounter. We just don’t know what other people are up to and so we pre-emptively strike out. And everybody’s in the same position. I know that you’re going to pre-emptively strike if you get the chance; and you know that I will, and I know that you know that I will; and so on. This leads to a kind of structural exacerbation of whatever other forces are leading people to fight.

It’s rational for me to kill you before you kill me. It’s a form of pre-emptive self-defence. Just to be clear: ‘diffidence’ here means that you can’t trust other people, basically?

Exactly. Diffidence is this insecurity that you have.

We’ve been talking about Leviathan. You’re recommending a particular edition—that’s quite a hefty tome.

Yes, it’s a landmark in Hobbes scholarship. It’s edited by Noel Malcolm, with an incredible level of scholarship. It’s in three volumes and very elaborate. The first volume is the introduction by Noel Malcolm. Noel Malcolm is one of the great Hobbes scholars of our time, and it sets Leviathan in context. It gives you a sense of when it was written, how it was written, and so on. Then the other two volumes are the text of the English Leviathan, face to face with Hobbes’s Latin translation of Leviathan. So you get both texts, and he has this tremendous editorial apparatus that allows you to compare the similarities and differences between the two of them. It’s an incredible service to the scholarly community.

Is it running commentary on the differences between the two?

He doesn’t give you so much commentary, just editorial apparatus. For example, he will translate the passages in Leviathan that are different from the English one, so that if someone doesn’t read Latin, they can see what those are. He highlights where they’re different from each other in a way that is not obtrusive, so if you don’t care about the Latin, you can just read the English and go forward. He’s checked all the various different manuscripts and the published editions of Leviathan to check for variants and so on. There are also guides to key words whose 17th century meaning would be different from 21st century English. It’s a tremendous achievement.

That does sound very impressive, but if a reader can’t stretch to that, and wants a more student-type volume, is there a particular edition of Leviathan that you’d recommend?

There are several. It depends on what you want. There are editions that preserve the 17th century spelling and punctuation. That makes it more difficult for the student to read, but there are times when the original punctuation is relevant for the meaning of what’s happening, it helps you to understand. If that’s what you want, there’s a great edition by Richard Tuck for students that he edited as part of the Cambridge History of Political Thought series. There’s also an edition with modernized spelling that was done by Edwin Curley with Hackett. That’s also a very good edition. And there’s another edition that’s recently come out by David Johnston, with Norton, which also has lightly modernized the spellings to make it easier for a contemporary reader. Those three editions are all very, very good.

If you were recommending somebody read Leviathan for the first time, would you say ‘start at the beginning and read through’?

It depends what your interests are. It’s such a long book. If someone is interested in international politics, often they’ll just read chapter 13, which is where he gives you his theory of war. If they’re interested in his political philosophy often what people do is they read Books I and II, and leave Books III and IV aside—that’s where he deals with religion at length. But if you’re interested in his religious, theological and ecclesiastical thought—which is not irrelevant for his political thought and, in fact, there’s a great deal of interest in Hobbes’s religious thought in contemporary scholarship—then books III and IV are indispensable. Even if you want to skip Books III and IV, often people will read I and II plus the Review and Conclusion. So that’s one way to do it. It’s a rich text, so it depends on what your purposes are.

To me, it’s fascinating because it’s got these passing insights as well as an overall thrust of an argument. There are comments and asides that just seem to be very perceptive or sometimes weird, that stick with me as a reader, as well as a sense of Hobbes’s framework. He’s a very intelligent man, thinking about what human beings are, and how they live together.

Absolutely. We continue to read Hobbes’s Leviathan because it very powerfully articulates a particular worldview. It’s an incredible philosophical system that he articulates, that continues to have power in our thinking today. It’s one of the articulations of a theory of sovereignty, for example, that continues to be the key ideology of our interstate global system. There are these systematic philosophical elements that make him a philosopher.

But he’s also engaged in the politics of his time and making very particular observations about his own time, his own society, his own culture.

There are all of these things that are going on in this text, which is partly why it’s such a rich text. It’s the combination of somebody who is a systematic philosopher, an astute observer of history and society, and who is writing at a time in history that is full of tumult and great transformations. It’s an exciting time and he is an exciting thinker. That’s quite a combination.

The other four books that you’ve chosen are largely about the political Hobbes. Shall we move on to your next choice, Richard Tuck’s book on Hobbes, which you’ve already mentioned. Richard Tuck was a Cambridge historian and is now a professor at Harvard.

I chose this book because it’s a wonderful introduction to all the different facets of Hobbes’s life and writings and context. It’s very short. It’s very readable. If you don’t know Hobbes, it’s a great way to get a first taste. The first part is dedicated to biographical details and is particularly of relevance for understanding the intellectual context he’s operating in. The second part deals with the various branches of his philosophy, his science, his ethics, his politics. The third part of the book is also interesting. He gives you an overview of the scholarship on Hobbes—all the different ways that Hobbes has been interpreted.

Richard Tuck’s book I believe was originally published in OUP’s Past Masters series, and then became Very Short Introductions. They’re targeted at a general audience and give a general overview. Typically they’re about a single philosopher, Quentin Skinner did one about Machiavelli. Richard Tuck is somebody who is a serious contributor to thought about Hobbes. It’s the tip of an iceberg of scholarship, probably, that you’re seeing there.

Absolutely. This book is not just an introduction to Hobbes, Tuck is also making his own particular argument about our understanding of Hobbes. And what is relevant is precisely what we were talking about earlier. Tuck emphasizes and shows that the reduction of Hobbes’s account of war to self-interested individuals clashing with each other over their material interests and so on, misses out on, in a way, the heart of Hobbes’s concerns for politics. The way that Tuck characterizes Hobbes’s ethics sets up a problem that his politics is supposed to solve.

The problem with ethics is that there is no universal basis for agreement about morals, except for self-preservation. And because there is no universal basis for agreement, people are going to disagree. On the basis of that disagreement, they will get into conflict with each other. So there’s ideological conflict. The only way out of this is by reference to this potential agreement over self-preservation. If my self-preservation is served by the same thing that serves your self-preservation, then we can come to an agreement. That’s peace. This political solution, the way Tuck sees it, is that you set up a sovereign that can secure peace for us, because what we do is we agree to let the sovereign resolve these controversies for us.

“We continue to read Leviathan because it very powerfully articulates a worldview that continues to have power in our thinking today”

It’s precisely because there’s no objective standard by which to resolve, for example, theological controversies—it’s not entirely clear in Hobbes whether there is no standard or whether we just don’t have access to it. Regardless, we can’t know with any certainty what the right answer to these theological and evaluative questions are. So, the best thing that we should do, is just say, ‘You know what? We’ll just let someone else arbitrarily decide for us. Let them decide, and we’ll live in peace.’ That will serve the one thing that we all know we want, which is to preserve ourselves. That’s the picture that it gives us. It’s an interesting way of thinking about Hobbes that, I think, captures a lot of what’s going on.

But it just strikes me that the description of the state of nature is a conflict over scarce resources. What you’re describing is a more sophisticated world of ideological commitments. From reading Hobbes I’ve got an image of these semi-savage people wandering around sleeping in trees, scared of getting killed. That’s the building block in his story. Sure, when he translates that back into his own contemporary society, it might manifest as conflicts about ideology or religion. That’s not heavily foregrounded in what I remember of those chapters about the state of nature, though.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is not a pre-social state. All the state of nature means for Hobbes, is that there is no effective sovereign. You’re outside of political society, you’re not outside of society, in the sense of there being social relations, and so on.

There could be no collaboration and no agriculture, and no architecture…

It’s very difficult to have those kinds of industry in the way that he’s describing it. Why? Because you’re in a state of war. His paradigmatic example of a state of nature is civil war. It’s not necessarily pre-political: it can be post-political. What he is really worried about is not how we get from the state of nature into political society. What he’s really concerned with is how we stay out of the state of nature when we’re in political society. He’s worried about the collapse of the Commonwealth. For him the most relevant instance of a state of nature is civil war, where there are all these effects of socialization and so on. He’s not Rousseau, he’s not theorizing about the pure state of nature prior to any social relations. That’s not what he has in mind.

Let’s move on to your next book choice, which is Quentin Skinner’s Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes.

I selected this book because not only is Quentin Skinner one of the foremost historians of political thought living today—and in particular of Renaissance political thought—but he is also one of the foremost Hobbes scholars. It’s a wonderful book because it exemplifies something that Quentin Skinner is very well known for what is sometimes called the Cambridge School and sometimes the ‘Skinnerian’ method. It’s a methodology of thinking about how to read texts in the history of political thought that seeks to place them in their historical context.

So what Skinner, methodologically, has been arguing for many decades is that in order to fully understand a philosophical text from a different era, we have to be able to understand the nature of the language that that person is using in context. The way that you understand the meanings and the way that they use language in that time is by looking both to the way that people use language in their linguistic community and also the way that people read that text in that particular time. So you look both at the source material—what are the materials that the author is reading and so on—and also how the texts are received. And this provides you, according to Skinnerian methodology, with valuable insight into the nature of the philosophy and what the claims actually mean, in context.

This book is exemplary in this way because it’s focused partly on Hobbes’s evolution from the Elements of Law and De Cive to Leviathan. And it’s focused, in particular, on Hobbes’s view about the relationship of rhetoric to science and philosophy. The first half of the book is not really about Hobbes, it’s about his context. Skinner looks at how people in 17th century England are trained. How did they think about the nature of language and rhetoric? How was Hobbes trained? And he says that Hobbes was trained as a humanist. And so how did humanists in that period think about rhetoric? He goes through their reading of the classics, such as Cicero and Quintilian. He also goes through 17th century English theorists of rhetoric, to see how these humanists thought about the proper use of language. Following from this Ciceronian tradition, the key theme is that, for these humanists, science or wisdom, without eloquence, is impotent. What you need to do is to marry these two together, so that you have science on the one side, and on the other the eloquence that is given by training in rhetoric, to become a good orator to be able to convey wisdom to others. And this is part of the humanist ideal of a good citizen. For them, the good citizen is a citizen who is active in political life, and who is able, through the use of eloquence, to contribute to the deliberations of the political community. So, in a way, a good citizen is an orator.

‘Rhetoric’ is often used by philosophers today in a disparaging way. If it’s mere rhetoric, it’s the use of language to persuade without necessarily having good arguments.

That’s exactly the view that Hobbes takes, in Skinner’s argument. In his attack on his humanist past in Elements of Law and De Cive he argues that he is not going to deploy any of the techniques of rhetoric. And rhetoric here, by the way, isn’t just the way that we use language to persuade people. It’s an articulated theory with different techniques, from Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian. There are all these different classical texts that 17th century humanists are using to articulate how it is that you know what’s the proper art of rhetoric. What Hobbes does in the Elements of Law and in De Cive, at least in the first edition, is to eschew all of that, to say, ‘I’m not going to do any of this.’ Why? Because I’m engaged in science and reason and, contrary to what the humanists think, reason is capable of compelling belief on its own.

There’s a great story of Hobbes, the first time he opens up the book of Euclid’s geometry, he’s astonished that it starts out with some axioms that he sees are self-evident, and then, as he reads along, he’s able to see how conclusions that initially did not seem obvious at all are deduced from those initial premises. He describes himself as being in awe of this, that this is a real revelation to him about the capacity of reason. And that’s what he is invested in, in the Elements of Law and in De Cive.  He wants to say, ‘Well, look, I don’t need any of the classical techniques.’ One of the techniques of the classical rhetoricians is that you start out your text with an attempt— it’s called ethos—to establish the probity of your own character. ‘I’m a trustworthy individual and, therefore, you should take this as authoritative in some way, because you can trust me.’ In the introductions to these texts, Hobbes doesn’t do any of that. He says, ‘I’m just going to leave the arguments to be what produces belief in my readers.’ It’s an attack on that humanist tradition. It’s precisely what you were saying: this great suspicion of the role of rhetoric as a source of deception.

“Rhetoric is dangerous politically, because it can lead to sedition; eloquent speakers can persuade others to engage in rebellion. Hobbes is very suspicious about that”

But for Hobbes, it’s also political, because as I said, for the humanists rhetoric had to do with being an active citizen, you are contributing to deliberation—whereas Hobbes is not interested in an active citizenry. De Cive is ‘The Citizen’ in Latin, but he is explicit that by citizen, he just means subject, the subject of the sovereign. You let the sovereign decide what the right thing is, and you follow, you obey.

So there’s a twofold attack on rhetoric. Rhetoric is dangerous politically, because it can lead to sedition; eloquent speakers can persuade others to engage in rebellion, and so on. Hobbes is very suspicious about that, at least in these texts.

Skinner lays this all out in the second half of the book, showing Hobbes’s attack on each of the various techniques that the classical theorists of rhetoric had espoused as effective for the art of rhetoric. And he shows how he attacks these. And then he argues that Hobbes changes his mind in Leviathan. He argues that Hobbes comes to believe that science must use the powers of eloquence, the powers of rhetoric, because even though he still believes that it’s dangerous, he does think that science needs help in order to be effective politically, and to have a wider readership. He’s now writing again in English; his masterpiece is not in Latin like De Cive was. And he comes to believe that—at least this is Skinner’s argument—these two go together. What then Skinner does, is he documents not just Hobbes’s theoretical defence of the techniques of rhetoric, when they are appropriately used, but he also documents the way that he uses them in Leviathan.

That is part of the reason why Leviathan is such a literary and not just a philosophical masterpiece. Hobbes is using all of these techniques, which he has mastered, because he was educated in them. He knows this stuff, even though he had attacked it earlier in his career. He knows how to do it, and he does it. Part of it is through the use of humour and scorn and making fun and various other techniques that he uses in order to get his point across. Metaphors and similes and so on are all over the place in Leviathan—even the name of the text itself.

And something we haven’t mentioned is the frontispiece.

Yes, it’s also visual. It has a picture of a realm that is overlooked by a huge—what looks like, if you look at it from a distance—giant man. But if you look at it more closely, the man is not a natural man, but an artificial man, whose body is made up of what looks to be all of the various subjects of the realm over whom he rules. He has in his two hands the sword and the sceptre, the signs of authority. It’s a view of Leviathan. And what’s interesting about this frontispiece is that it is an attempt to show the way that the individuals who make up the commonwealth have themselves brought into creation the sovereign that rules over them. There’s a visual representation of Hobbes’s political philosophy, which is that—because he’s a social contract theorist—the way you set up a commonwealth or a political society is that all of the individuals contract with each other.

The logical way of showing that picture for most people would have been to have this big, giant, one person, and then all the citizens scattered across the countryside in their houses. The genius is to make them into the person and to present that as a visual metaphor.

Yes, absolutely, because what he’s trying to show you is that you are the ones who have authorized and brought this Leviathan into being. That’s part of his political philosophy, because what he wants to say is that you’ve authorized the Leviathan, you’ve authorized the sovereign to represent all of you. And, therefore, you own what it is that the sovereign does. You can’t disown it. It’s your action, in a way, because the sovereign is your representative.

One of the great things about Skinner’s book is that, because he has given you a rundown of all the various different rhetorical techniques, and all of their Latin names, reading Hobbes through his eyes becomes like  going through a forest with a botanist. When I go through a forest, all I see is just tree, tree, tree, tree. But a botanist doesn’t see trees, a botanist sees the particular plant that it is, because the botanist has all of the conceptual apparatus and all the names in their mental space. Skinner is like the botanist who has the entire conceptual apparatus in the book laid out for you, and then goes through systematically showing you that when Hobbes uses this sentence, here is the technique that’s being used. We don’t know this because we’re no longer trained in classical rhetoric. But Hobbes was, and that’s how his readers would have seen what he is doing. So that’s a very interesting feature, I think, of this book.

Also, as with the first book that you mentioned, the scholarly edition of Leviathan, an amazing amount of scholarship was required to get to the level to be able to show that. It’s phenomenal.

Absolutely. Yes.

Let’s move on to Jeffrey Collins who wrote this book, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, which I don’t know at all.

This is a book that is, again, written by a historian. It focuses on Hobbes’s religious views, and in particular his ecclesiastical views.

You’ve used that word a few times. Can you just spell out the difference between a religious and an ecclesiastical view?

Ecclesiology has to do with church government. ‘Ecclesiastical’ just means the authority structures within a religious community. So you can distinguish that from theology, which is what kind of doctrine you believe in about the nature of God and so on. Ecclesiology is what kind of doctrine do you believe in about who has authority over whom within a religious community.

Do bishops trump vicars?

Exactly. This is what the controversy was in England during the civil wars, these kinds of ecclesiastical controversies. In fact, this is part of the two overarching claims that Collins makes in his book. First of all, he sets Leviathan within not just the intellectual context, the way that Skinner had done, but also within the larger social and political context as well. It’s really a tremendous magisterial example of historical scholarship that he’s engaged in.

His first of two overarching claims concerns the significance of Leviathan as a restatement of Hobbes’s political philosophy. Hobbes has already written it twice, so why does he do it again? And the significance for Collins is that what Hobbes does in Leviathan is he comes out as an extreme Erastian. Erastianism here refers to the view that the state—the secular political authority— should have absolute authority over religion. Religion has to be wholly subordinate to the temporal powers. So he comes out as an extreme Erastian who also—and this is a central piece of his argument—comes out in favour of Independency. Independency here refers to an ecclesiastical view, which is also sometimes called Congregationalism.

In context, in England at the time, there were three different rival ecclesiastical views. There’s the traditional Anglican view which is Episcopal—Episcopal here refers to the authority of bishops. It’s a hierarchical church structure that the traditional Church of England is defending, with bishops on top and regular people at the bottom.

This is challenged by the Presbyterians, who are Calvinists, largely. They are a tremendous force in Scotland and think that authority ultimately comes from the bottom up, not from the top down, but that there is still an articulated hierarchical structure. You have an authority structure in this Presbyterian mode: there’s a national church.

Finally, you have the Independents or the Congregationalists, who think that there is no hierarchical structure, just various different congregations who have their own independence and determine how they’re going to worship with the people that they’ve decided to join. There’s a kind of freedom of religion that’s supposed to be involved in the Independent view, a freedom from hierarchical authority structure. And Collins’s argument is that Hobbes, in Leviathan, comes out as both an extreme Erastian but also endorses Independency, which is what was being defended by the Cromwellian revolutionaries. In a sense, what he’s arguing is that Hobbes, with the publishing of Leviathan, comes out in favour of Cromwell and the regicides. He abandons his royalist allegiance—that’s why it’s called The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes—and he throws in his lot with the Cromwellians. And, interestingly, Hobbes, with the publication of Leviathan, returns to England to live in the interregnum under Cromwell.

The second overarching claim Collins makes is about the nature of the English revolution. He argues that the English revolution is not so much driven by theological concerns, which is the traditional view—that it’s driven by Calvinist anti-Arminian views (there’s no freedom of will and so on). Instead, he argues, it’s driven by ecclesiastical concerns about the authority structure of the church. He sees the English revolution as a defence of the Elizabethan church settlement that had been challenged by Archbishop Laud, under Charles I. Archbishop Laud had been defending the divine rights of Episcopacy. He’d been arguing that bishops derive their authority directly from God, and not from the king. And Charles I had been acquiescing to this.

“One way to read Leviathan is to see it as implying that whoever is in power at the time, and is capable of maintaining the peace, is who you owe your allegiance to”

In a way, what the Erastians like Hobbes are saying, is that no, the sovereign is the sovereign and whatever authority the church has comes from the sovereign. It doesn’t come directly from God; it’s not an independent basis of authority. And so Collins’s argument is that that’s what the English revolution was about—reasserting the Elizabethan church settlement according to which the church is subordinate to the crown. That was what was being shaken by Laud under Charles I. That’s his explanation for why it is that Hobbes is driven towards the Cromwellian revolution: it’s because of the Cromwellians’ Erastianism, their view that the church ought to be subordinate to the state. That’s the crux of his argument.

It’s a really interesting argument because, in many ways, it’s counterintuitive. Why would someone like Hobbes—who thinks that disagreement is the source of war with religious pluralism and diversity—be in favour of Independency and Congregationalism, when it looks like the Independents are in favour of freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and so on? Why would you come out in favour of Independency if what you want is to eliminate public disagreement about religion? Why wouldn’t you be in favour of a hierarchical national church like the Anglican church so that you can control disagreement? And Collins’s answer is that it’s because in this period the challenge to undivided sovereignty comes from the corporate power of the church itself, and that Hobbes saw Independency as a way to break up the corporate power of the church. It’s an attempt to weaken the church, because it is now challenging the state and the sovereign through Archbishop Laud. Independency is a way to break up the church. It’s not because of any kind of freedom of religion or anything like that.

That’s quite a complex argument. Hobbes strikes me as somebody you could describe as almost cynical about how people behave. Couldn’t he just, as a matter of self-preservation, come up with a theory that is compatible with whoever’s in power and tweak it that way? He clearly wants to survive— he wants to survive as an intellectual. And he sees ways of spinning it that would allow him to do that.

Absolutely. One way to read what Leviathan is basically about is to see it as implying that whoever is in power at the time, and is capable of maintaining the peace and protecting everybody, is who you owe your allegiance to. So if it looks like it’s Cromwell, then the implication of Hobbes’s political philosophy, even in the Elements of Law, even in De Cive, is that you ought to give your allegiance to whoever holds power. In fact, he never was a royalist in the ‘I will always defend the king’ sense. He was a royalist of the kind who says, ‘Well, we have a monarchy and so I will defend the king. But oh, now that we don’t, maybe the implications are different.’ There’s certainly that in Hobbes. But what Collins argues is that it’s not just that the Cromwellians are in power, but that Hobbes also sees something attractive about what they’re doing, which is why he goes back to England.

It reminds me a bit of the way in which Machiavelli wrote both The Prince, but also the Discourses on Livy. You have apparently conflicting political philosophies written, not that far apart in time, by the same person. It’s survival. You might say.

Yes, for pragmatic reasons. I do think that there is a fundamental coherence to Machiavelli’s two texts as well, though.

Presumably you think that with Hobbes’s too.

He does evolve in his ecclesiastical views between the Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan. Earlier on, his primary worry, at the religious level, was that if individuals start interpreting the Bible on their own, and on their own authority, then all hell will break loose and so what we need is a nice, hierarchical church structure where people defer to the authority of the bishops and so on. At least in Elements of Law, he is in favour of an Episcopal structure. In Leviathan, there is a passage in chapter 47—which is what a lot of Collins’s argument hinges on— where Hobbes says, ‘Well, you know, perhaps, maybe now, Independency is best.’ It’s like, ‘What just happened? How, why did Hobbes end up here?’ Collins is trying to give you an explanation, basically.

That’s really interesting. The last book you’ve chosen is an older book, a very influential one, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition by Jean Hampton.

Yes, it’s very influential and it’s a very different kind of book. Whereas the other books that we’ve looked at were written by historians of political thought and, in Collins’s case, by a historian, this one is written by a philosopher. Its aim is not to put Hobbes in historical context, but rather, if you like, to reconstruct the power of Hobbesian philosophy, and in particular Hobbesian political philosophy. That’s really what the strength of this book is. And it’s a very influential attempt to reconstruct Hobbesian political philosophy. Not only does she try to give us a sense of the philosophical structure of his thought, she also tries to give us a sense of the implications for the nature of social contract theory in general. So there’s really a twofold agenda here.

She’s thinking through the building blocks of the state as she saw it in Hobbes and really taking Hobbes not as a historical figure but as a more or less timeless theorist about the nature of the state.

Absolutely. And one of the things that she does is that she deploys the techniques of game theory for understanding the logical structure of Hobbes’s account of the state. Game theory is something that some readers might be familiar with. A classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, where there are these two prisoners. They’ve both committed a crime together, but the police don’t have evidence for the major crime, they only have evidence for a minor crime. And so they offer a deal to each of them. They’re separated, they can’t communicate with each other, and the police say, ‘Look, if neither of you confesses, each of you get will get one year in prison on the minor charge. If you confess, and the other one doesn’t, you’ll go free and the other one will get three years. And if you both confess, then you each get two years.’ So it would be better for both of them if neither of them confesses, because then they’ll each get one year rather than if both of them confess because they’ll each get two years. So, collectively, the rational thing to do would be not to confess. But it turns out that from the individual’s own perspective, what’s rational for me to do is that regardless of what the other person does, it’s better for me to confess, because if the other person does confess, then it’s better for me to confess, because then, in that case, I’ll get two years rather than three. And if the other person doesn’t confess, it’s still better for me to confess, because I’ll get zero rather than one. So, what ends up happening in a prisoner’s dilemma with each of you acting strategically in a rational way, you end up doing something that is worse for all of you. So that’s the prisoner’s dilemma, the classic example of the use of game theory to understand the structure of the kind of payoffs and strategies that we have.

What Hampton does is argue, ‘Look, if the state of nature were a prisoner’s dilemma—and some people have thought that Hobbes’s state of nature is a prisoner’s dilemma—you’d never be able to get out of it. It’s not a prisoner’s dilemma. Rather, what it is is a coordination problem.’ Even from our individual perspective, in thinking about what other people will do, we have shared interests. The difficulty is that we have to try and figure out how to coordinate on the same cooperative strategy.

For example, imagine you and I wanted to go to a restaurant, and we can’t communicate with each other. There are two restaurants. I really want to go to the Thai restaurant, and you want to go to the Japanese restaurant. I know that, and you know that, and I know that you know, and so on. We can’t communicate, we know that we’re going to meet at a certain time. What do we do? Well, I want to go to the Thai restaurant. So maybe I’ll go to the Thai restaurant, and you’ll go to the Japanese. But the thing is that, regardless of which restaurant we go to, overall what we want is to have dinner together. So yes, I would prefer to go to the Thai restaurant, but I would prefer to go to the Japanese restaurant with you than to the Thai restaurant by myself. And so that is a kind of mixed game in which we both have a conflict, but we also have some shared interest, which is that we do something together and we coordinate. So we need to come to an agreement, because without an agreement, we’re both worse off. But if we come to an agreement, we can both coordinate on something.

“I would rather live in a political society with you as a sovereign than to live in the state of nature, which to Hobbes is a state of war”

That’s how she thinks of the state of nature. She thinks that in the state of nature, our overriding interest is to end up at the same restaurant, which is to say we end up in a political society together. That’s our overarching interest, to have a sovereign over us. But now we have this conflict about who the sovereign should be. Of course, I would like to be the sovereign and you’d like to be the sovereign. But I would rather live in a political society with you as a sovereign than to live in the state of nature, which is a state of war, because the state of nature is so bad for Hobbes. So there’s a kind of coordination problem that she thinks is solved through an agreement that we can come to about just picking someone as the sovereign. She thinks that by voting, going through iterative voting, we can do this. When we’ve all collected together, we’ll vote and then we’ll see. No one person is going to get all the votes, but some people will get more. And so we gradually whittle it down. That’s I think, how she thinks of it. We gradually coordinate and in the end we have a sovereign.

Then, finally, the question is, ‘Okay, now we’ve picked the sovereign, why are we going to obey?’ And she thinks that we will obey in a limited way. We will obey all of the commands of the sovereign to punish other people. I won’t obey the command of the sovereign to punish me, because I wouldn’t agree to that. That’s not rational for me, because punishment basically means capital punishment, I’d be dead. That wasn’t why I entered into political society. But I’ll obey everything else. That’s true of everybody. And that maintains order. So there’s a kind of coordination: she sees this as a strategic interaction, and the kind of coordination problem that is solved through coming to an agreement about who will be sovereign.

What’s interesting about this is that she derives a philosophical conclusion, which is that she thinks that Hobbes wants to argue in favour of absolute sovereignty but can’t. And, in fact, at the end of the day, he doesn’t. He wants to argue in favour of absolute sovereignty—where absolute sovereignty is that I’m the sovereign and everybody defers to my judgment about everything and I’m not accountable to anybody else about my judgment about how to organize society. But Hobbes grants an exception, because we enter into political society for a reason, which is that we want to maintain our self-preservation, to leave the state of nature. But that means that in entering political society, we will always reserve the freedom to disobey the sovereign when the sovereign is no longer protecting my self-preservation. That’s the exception that Hobbes grants. What Hampton says is, ‘Well,  if Hobbes is granting that, what that means is that the individual actually does not give up the right to judge the commands of the sovereign: the individual continues to exercise judgment about whether or not the sovereign’s commands, overall, are conducive to the protection of my self-preservation.’ And insofar as we do that, and each individual maintains this kind of judgment, that means that there is a threshold after which I would rebel and retain the freedom to do that.

On my own?

On your own. But Hampton’s argument is that, given the strategic structure of Leviathan, if enough people are in that situation, and we know that others are in that situation, then we will band together and conduct revolution without having done wrong. This is not the conclusion that Hobbes wants to draw. Hobbes does not want to draw that.

Is she saying that this follows logically from the structure of the argument?  He’s derived a conclusion which he doesn’t want to follow from his argument.

That’s exactly what she’s doing. She’s mounting a critique of Hobbes from within by saying that if you look at the logical structure of his theory, he can’t get the absolutism that he wants. And the argument that she makes is the reason why he can’t get it is because that’s baked into the nature of social contract theory. The nature of social contract theory is such that, according to the social contract theorists, we enter into political society for a particular reason. And that reason for which we enter into political society we will always continue to hold as the basis for our allegiance to that political society. Therefore, we will continue to judge on that basis, our allegiance, and if that reason is no longer being served, then we will turn against, and have the right to turn against, that society. That’s Hampton’s argument about the nature of social contract theory. She claims to be able to find it in the hard case, which is Hobbes, who wants to defend an absolutist theory.

Is it a refutation of Hobbes?

I think she sees it as the failure of Hobbes’s political philosophy, yes. She does think that there are tensions within Hobbes’ theory. She thinks that the elements of this “conditional” sovereignty story, are also there in Hobbes, but that they sit in tension with, in contradiction with, the other elements of Hobbes’s account. So even though the main account is absolutist, she claims to find strands of this other one. She thinks that you have to find those other strands, because it’s a social contract theory, so it’s going to be there. That’s her main claim about Hobbes: that the absolutism fails, but that the other aspect of a social contract theory does not fail. And part of the reason why she thinks that the conditional story doesn’t fail is because she thinks that actually it doesn’t depend on a contract at all. Because, notice, the story that she gave was purely in terms of strategic interaction. It’s not because of the moral force of my promise to obey the sovereign that I obey. It’s because of the strategic rationality of obeying that allows me to remain in the Commonwealth.

Over and over again.

Exactly. So, she’s basically making two main contributions here. First of all, saying, ‘this is the logical structure of Hobbes’s theory, and it fails to produce absolutism.’ Secondly, that logical structure ends up not being a contract theory in the literal sense of the term. Really what it is about is a convention, it’s an agreement. It’s a conventional agreement that we come to in order to coordinate our actions to end up at the same restaurant. That’s the story that she’s giving.

Thank you. That was very clear. Now, just to end, you’ve written a prizewinning book about Hobbes. Where do you stand in all this? Because you’ve described two quite different approaches, it seems to me: contextualized readings through immersion in the writing and thought of the period,  and then Hampton’s much more structural and anachronistic approach. Where does your work sit?


I’ve written in both styles, but I would say that my book leans much more towards the philosophical than the historical. But it’s less ahistorical than Hampton’s, in the sense that I’ve also tried to ground it in my historical understanding of what is going on in Hobbes’s time. But that’s not what the focus of the book is.

The focus of the book is on Hobbes’s ethics. There is a historical story that it tells, which is that I think that Hobbes stands at a watershed in the history of ethics. Hobbes is a key figure in a movement from the classical eudaimonistic theories of ethics that were inherited from the Greeks, from Aristotle, and so on, according to which the reason for action that we have, the reason why we ought to do things, is ultimately grounded in our own good. Why should you be virtuous? Why should you be just? Why should you be temperate? Why should you be all these things? For the classical Greek theorists, the reason is because these are contributing elements to your happiness, your flourishing, your eudaemonia, as they would call it, which is often translated as ‘well-being’. In Hobbes, we find the eudaemonist, prudential side for sure, which is articulated in the laws of nature, because the laws of nature tell you what you ought to do in order to serve your own good. But he also has this other side, which is emerging in the 17th century—and I think that Hobbes is a watershed figure in this story—which is a new kind of obligation that is not ultimately about reasons of the good for me (what serves my felicity, as they would have said at that point in time), but rather about reasons of the right, which are reasons that I have, that I owe to others, and that others have standing to hold me accountable to.

Hobbes is an emergent figure of this notion of obligation—grounded, not in my own good, but in my capacity to be able to contract with others, through these interpersonal relationships that I have with others. This idea of a contractual obligation is quite different than what obligation used to mean, for example, for Aquinas. In classical natural law theory, an obligation just is a thing that I ought to do because it’s conducive to my felicity. But if I do something that is stupid, and not conducive to my own well-being, it would be very odd for you to feel resentful towards me or to punish me, because I don’t owe it to you (unless we have some kind of relationship where you’re dependent on my well-being in some way). Normally, I’m not accountable to other people for my reasons of the good. But with reasons of the right, if I’ve promised something to you, I’ve signed a contract with you, I now owe it to you, and when I violate the contract, you have standing, for example, to sue me in a court of law. You can hold me accountable to my contractual obligation to you. The story I’m telling is that Hobbes has both of these conceptions of obligation. That’s why it’s called Hobbes and The Two Faces of Ethics. On the one side, prudentia or prudence, and on the other side iustitia or justice.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

May 27, 2021

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Arash Abizadeh

Arash Abizadeh

Arash Abizadeh received his MPhil from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and his PhD from Harvard, and is currently Professor in the Department of Political Science and Associate Member of the Department of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. In addition to numerous journal articles on Hobbes, he has recently published a prize-winning monograph with Cambridge University Press called Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics. Beyond his work in the history of philosophy, Abizadeh's research also focuses on contemporary democratic theory, questions of identity, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism, migration and border control, and social and political power.

Arash Abizadeh

Arash Abizadeh

Arash Abizadeh received his MPhil from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and his PhD from Harvard, and is currently Professor in the Department of Political Science and Associate Member of the Department of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. In addition to numerous journal articles on Hobbes, he has recently published a prize-winning monograph with Cambridge University Press called Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics. Beyond his work in the history of philosophy, Abizadeh's research also focuses on contemporary democratic theory, questions of identity, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism, migration and border control, and social and political power.