On the Basis of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy

"On the Basis of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," What Is Political Philosophy?, The Free Press, 1959.  First printing of English original of "Les fondements de la philosophie politque de Hobbes," Critique, Vol. 10, No. 83 (April 1954).


We begin by wondering why we should study Hobbes.  This question implies that we doubt whether Hobbes’s teaching is the true teaching.  It implies, therefore, that our perspective differs from his.  Hence our possible study of Hobbes is exposed to the fatal danger of subjectivism.  Following the view which seems to be most acceptable today, we assume that we can avoid that danger by falling back on the inter-subjectivity of the present generation.  Why then is Hobbes important to the present generation?

We are inclined to believe that Hobbes is studied at present by respectable people with greater sympathy than ever before.  By respectable people, we mean people who are unlikely to be exposed, not only to social ostracism, to say nothing of criminal prosecution, but even to suspicion of serious unsoundness–people who cannot reasonably be suspected of harboring improper thoughts.  To see with the necessary clarity the change in the appreciation of Hobbes, one need merely contrast the present attitude toward him with that which prevailed in the past.  In the seventeenth century Hobbes’s name was, together with that of Spinoza, as even Locke said, “justly decried.”  Yet while, according to Hobbes’s most valuable testimony, Spinoza was much bolder or more offensive than Hobbes, Spinoza was rehabilitated much earlier than Hobbes.  Spinoza had become acceptable by about 1785: by then the break with theism and even with deism had become acceptable.  Furthermore, on the eve of the French Revolution there was no longer a political objection to Spinoza, the first philosopher who had championed liberal democracy.  Spinoza became the father of a church whose creed was pantheism and whose order was liberal democracy–and order in which, as it was hoped, the mercantile patriciate would predominate.  Hobbes, on the other hand, remained offensive because his dry atheism was not redeemed by anything which could be regarded as intoxication with God or even as hatred of God, and because he had constructed the soulless state-mechanism of eighteenth century enlightened despotism.  How Hobbes’s fate differed from Spinoza’s appears most clearly from the different treatment accorded the two philosophers by Hegel and Nietzsche.