on 22 March 2009
Quentin Skinner's latest book on Hobbes is a fine work of superb historical scholarship which presents and analyses Hobbes's theory of liberty. Skinner draws on a vast historical material, but manages to elaborate it in an elegant and economic form, distilling and outlining the most essential parts of historical record required for understanding of Hobbes's ideas on the topic. Overall, the book is an enjoyable and rewarding read; however, there may be some flaws in it of which the more serious ones are addressed in the last section of the review.
Skinner claims that the aim of his book is twofold; first, his ambition is to present Hobbes's argument as a polemical intervention, contextually, that is, as Hobbes's contribution to a very lively debate on the forms of government that was taking place in England of the first half of the 17th century. Secondly, his ambition is to demonstrate that, contrary to a many contemporary interpreter of Hobbes's theory of liberty (including notably Philip Pettit, the leading advocate of republicanism), Hobbes in his mature work (the English and Latin version of Leviathan) not only modifies, but in fact repudiates his earlier theory from De Cive and the Elements of Law. In brief, Skinner contends that, whereas in his early works Hobbes portrays liberty as an absence of arbitrary impediments to human action, including both external and internal impediments, such as fear, in his late and mature work Hobbes defines liberty in simpler terms, as the absence of external impediments simpliciter. Furthermore, Skinner explains that such a recast of the concept of liberty enables Hobbes to launch a forceful attack against "democraticall", or republican (or, sometimes called `radical') writers of his time who claimed that it is impossible to be a freeman under a monarchical type of government.
Skinner's use of emblemata, or emblem-books (that provide vivid iconic presentation of more abstract ideas, a practice Hobbes followed with his famous Leviathan frontispiece) is masterful indeed. His book contains nineteen illustrations, including emblemata of Alciato, Ripa, Kleppisius, and Hobbes's frontispieces, that all form a part of a long humanistic and rhetorical tradition, in which an abstract and at times complicated ethical, or political argument, was represented through an icon, or a pictorial metaphor. Such Skinner's use of the emblem-books is extremely helpful to the readers of his book not only because it illuminates an important part of the historical context in which Hobbes's work grew and developed, but also because it helps the readers to memorise more securely and easily the key parts of Hobbes's, and Skinner's own, argument. In that regard, I find Skinner's comparative analysis of Leviathan frontispiece (pp. 185-198) outstanding.
However, there are two aspects to Skinner's book on Hobbes and republican freedom that merit some amount of criticism. First, and less important, the book's title is to an extent misleading. Skinner is here not engaged in contrasting and comparing two full-blown and elaborate theories of freedom, as one might expect from the title of the book. His book is almost fully devoted to Hobbes's theory of liberty, and the English republican writers of the early 17th century are dealt with only to the extent reflected in Hobbes's own conceptualisation and re-conceptualisation of liberty. Hence, "Hobbes's theory of liberty", or "Hobbes on liberty, against republicans", would perhaps be a less misleading, or more convenient, title for the book.
Secondly, and more importantly, Skinner pays insufficient attention to some fine, and intriguing, complexities inherent in Hobbes's political philosophy, and in Chapter 5, Section VII, even oversimplifies and misinterprets Hobbes, building on some misleading and, it seems to me, both hastened and heavy-handedly edited quotes/excerpts from Hobbes. More specifically, I find Skinner's presentation of Hobbes's consideration of the relationship between liberty and civil law far from satisfactory. For instance, Skinner portrays Hobbes as claiming that, "it is only in the world of artifice...that we are bound by the laws in such a way as to prevent us from exercising our liberty. If we return to the real world, the world of nature, we find that these chains have `no strength to secure a man at all'." (p. 171) However, the Leviathan section to which Skinner here points (`no strength to secure...') is not really about civil laws, but, famously, about "covenants without the sword" (Leviathan XVII, 2), which in that section specifically ought to be interpreted as "covenants entered into under the laws of nature only." Note also that Skinner here conflates the real world with the world of nature - something we should find really problematic and inviting many questions. Furthermore, when Skinner proposes the following combination of his own interpretation of, and a quote from, Hobbes, "We retain the freedom to break the laws and renege on our covenants at all times. Indeed, as Hobbes wistfully concludes, `nothing is more easily broken than a man's word.'" (p. 173), he fails to add, or recognise, or both, that the section cited pertains to a pre-Leviathan society; actually the section is from Chapter XIV of Leviathan which deals with the "First and Second Natural Laws and Contracts." Lastly, Skinner seems to imply that the metaphor of `artificial chains (or, bonds)' fully articulates Hobbes's notion of how civil laws relate to human liberty. But, I then wonder what sense could we make of the following passage from the Latin version of Leviathan: "For the end of laws is not to restrain people from a harmless liberty, but to prevent them from rushing into dangers or harm to themselves or to the commonwealth, from impetuous passions, rashness or foolishness, as roads are hedged not as an obstacle to travellers, but to prevent them from wandering off, with injury to their fellow citizens. (Lev. XXX, 21)"?