As a student, I read Hobbes four different times in four different contexts for four different unrelated courses, and that’s how I feel Hobbes is best approached: through a plurality of heterodox methodologies and interpretive structures. We’ll attempt to do that below.
Claim 1: “Hobbesian” is a relative term.
A question at the center of any discussion on Hobbes is often: what does the eponym “Hobbesian” mean, essentially? Jason made reference to Wittgenstein in his most recent post on the topic. Rufus asked the question non-rhetorically. I’ll expand on the discussion of semantics and claim that the best definitions of “Hobbesian” stand in contrast to other prevailing ideas of the period.
Hobbes is usually studied in relation to the positions of Locke and Rousseau. Regarding Hobbes and Locke, Hobbes felt that universal surrender to an absolute sovereign is the only way to secure civil society, while Locke’s political thought went on to serve as a primary influence for the American democracy. In contrast to Rousseau’s optimism about human nature – that men are inherently good – Hobbes argued that men are inherently weak; in contrast to Rousseau’s belief in the noble savage and the morally-cancerous influence of civil society, Hobbes believed that the state of nature was a state of perpetual suffering and that only the stability of civil society could foster human flourishing.
These two ideas: (1) the Hobbesian positive (commonly called pessimism about human nature); and (2) the Hobbesian normative (the necessity of a strong, central authority) comprise an internally-consistent school of thought that stands with Lockeanism and Rousseauvianism as one of the three pillars of social contract theory. The debates hashed out centuries ago between these three thinkers still rage strong today.
Claim 2: More than Locke and Rousseau, Hobbes is overstated.
When we discuss Hobbes, the focus is on what is excluded. When we discuss Locke, we are eminently inclusive. Perhaps because our national mythos is so deeply rooted in Locke, every value judgment we’ve made on Hobbes’s normative has assumed a certain totalitarianism, that without some Seventeenth-Century despot sentencing traitors to death and razing villages for failing to meet turnip quotas the whole Hobbesian system falls apart and we all eat each other.
On the contrary, a cold and distant monarch is often a maximizing condition for liberty. It has been paraphrased that a libertarian (i.e. – one who places liberty above other societal values) is someone who wants the government to run only the military, the courts, and the police force. What are the military, courts, and police force but Hobbesian bulwarks to keep us from slaughtering each other? We tend to forget or neglect the Hobbesian base on which the Lockean superstructure is built – both in terms of American society and in terms of intellectual history. We conflate power with authority, assuming this authoritarian base must be a person – a totalitarian dictator – when it can just as easily be an institution or a shared belief.