Hobbes and Republican Liberty

In the case of early modern England, fewer scholars have done more to re-assess the history of the language of liberty than Quentin Skinner. In his recent book, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Skinner argues two points. The first is that Hobbes’s political theory is a sustained refutation of the increasingly influential republican conception of liberty. The second is that Hobbes’s conceptualization of liberty undergoes a substantive change between the publication of De Cive in 1642 and Leviathan in 1651 to the point where ‘Hobbes’s analysis of liberty in Leviathan represents not a revision but a repudiation of what he had earlier argued (xv).’ These two points are related insofar as the conception of liberty articulated in Leviathan is a direct response to the increasing popularity of neo-Roman or republican conceptions of liberty articulated within the context of the civil war and revolution. According to Skinner, the lead up to the civil war, which saw an increasingly assertive Parliament confronting the King’s claims to a divinely sanctioned absolute sovereignty, was legitimated largely through the employment of republican conceptions of liberty that characterized liberty as the absence of dependence on the will of another. The source of this idea of liberty as independence—or what contemporary republican political theorists refer to as ‘non-domination’—is Roman Law, specifically the definition of the ‘free man’ versus the ‘slave’ found in the Digest. To be free, the neo-Roman writers argue, is not merely to be free from constraints or coercive interference; rather, to be free means to be independent of the will of others. A constraint is therefore not characterized merely in terms of coercion, but also in terms of a persistent condition of dependence. This neo-Roman conception of liberty can be traced back to republican sources such as Tacitus, Livy, Sallust and Cicero—all of whom would be familiar to university educated Englishmen of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is within the context of the increasing significance of the neo-Roman conception of liberty that Skinner seeks to situate Hobbes’ political theory, arguing that ‘Hobbes’s overall strategy in dealing with the democratical writers and the other theorists of republican liberty is thus to accept their basic premises and then to show that completely different conclusions can equally well be inferred from them (209).’ In doing so, Skinner takes issue with scholars who have emphasized the overarching consistency of Hobbes’ political thought over the course of the 1640s. Between The Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan, Skinner notes a significant redefinition of the concept of liberty that has significant implications for the development of Hobbes’s political thought. In The Elements of Law, written in the spring of 1640 but not published until 1650, Hobbes presents his readers with a very stark contrast between liberty and subjection in which the former is incompatible with political order. His absolutism is undeniable. In De Cive, completed by the end of 1641 and published in April 1642, Hobbes’s discussion of liberty includes a distinction between ‘absolute’ and ‘arbitrary’ impediments to the liberty of the subject. Whereas the former represents an external physical impediment to the free movement of a body (be it human or inanimate), an arbitrary impediment is something that is internal to the subject itself and impedes his liberty as a result of his own choice. The example here is the impact of fear. The man who is hindered in his liberty by fear (notably of death) is said to be constrained by ‘arbitrary’ impediments. This further allows Hobbes to make a distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘civil’ liberty. This softening of position regarding the liberty-subjection dualism, argues Skinner, is perhaps due to Hobbes’s fear that his absolutist sympathies were putting his life in jeopardy. The intervening period between the writing of The Elements of Law and the writing and publication of De Cive represented an intensification of political tensions between the Crown and Parliament, culminating in the publication of Henry Parker’s The Case of Shipmoney in November 1640. It was shortly after this that Hobbes fled to Paris in exile.

In Leviathan, however, we are presented with a much narrower conception of liberty, one that defines it in terms of the absence of external impediments to the motion of the subject and represents a position similar to that elaborated in The Elements of Law. Notably absent from this definition of liberty is the inclusion of ‘arbitrary’ impediments that may hinder the liberty of the subject as is found in De Cive. While Skinner highlights the philosophical reasons for this renewed circumscription of the definition of liberty, it is the external, political reasons that are of more interest to him. By 1650, the king was dead and a ‘republican’ commonwealth declared. After the regicide and the formation of the Commonwealth, neo-Roman theories of liberty assumed increasingly radical constitutional implications: at the level of the body politic, it required nothing less than the establishment of a ‘free state’. The point of significance is that the liberty of the individual defined as a form of independence or non-domination, and the establishment of a free state—meaning a state defined by ‘self-government’—become intrinsically intertwined. The point, of Leviathan, argues Skinner, is to bring the fight to the republicans by meeting them on their own ground and driving a wedge between their insistence on the linkage between the liberty of the subject and the existence of a free state, that is, one characterized by an absence of arbitrary or absolute sovereignty.

Having redefined the nature of liberty, Hobbes then puts forward a definition of a ‘freeman’ that forcefully challenges the tenets of republican political thought. If, as Hobbes says, a freeman is ‘he that, in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to,’ then to be unfree merely resides in being prevented by others from doing what one could otherwise do through some process of coercion (Hobbes cited in Skinner 151). One of the consequences of this Hobbesian conception of liberty is not only that liberty becomes ‘consistent with the unlimited power of the sovereign’, but that the liberty of the subject is wholly unconnected to the character of the state and the capacity of the individual citizen to participate in his or her self-government. As Hobbes famously put it in his comparison between the liberty of the subject of the city-state of Lucca and that of imperial Constantinople: ‘Whether a commonwealth be monarchical or popular, the freedom is still the same (Hobbes, cited in Skinner 212).’ According to Hobbes, then, ‘freedom is undermined not by conditions of domination and dependence but only by overt acts of interference. So for Hobbes it is sufficient for us to count as free-men that we enjoy our civic rights and liberties as a matter of fact; there mere presence of arbitrary power within a civil association does nothing to subvert our liberty (212).’

Hobbes and Republican Liberty is as rigorously argued, meticulously researched and lucidly written as we have come to expect from Skinner. It strikes a fine balance between historical contextualization (predominantly of the intellectual variety) and textual exegesis and analysis. The content of the book seems to be the culmination of years of writing on theories of neo-Roman liberty, which, for Skinner, represents a ‘general theory’ that seeks to explain the fundamental parameters of political debate and controversy in the mid-seventeenth century. In this way, neo-Roman theories of liberty and free-states replaces the previous Whiggish fixation on the Magna Carta and the Common Law, and the Marxian pre-occupation with bourgeois discourses of possessive individualism as the dominant political language through which we can understand the intellectual and ideological developments of the early modern period.

Not everyone, of course, shares Skinner’s fixation on the significance of republican or neo-Roman discourses of liberty in the early modern period. While the associations Skinner posits between the development of Hobbes’s political theory and the ideological developments of the civil war are certainly plausible, sceptics will find no smoking gun. Skinner does not produce evidence of an overwhelming republican influence that can justify his claim, made elsewhere, that neo-Roman conceptions of liberty were the most important influence in Parliament’s ideological justification for its resistance to the king as opposed to, say, claims that Charles had ‘rebelled’ against the traditional arrangements of the ancient constitution by introducing despotic innovations. There are no overt appeals to the Roman historians and no impassioned pleas for the establishment of a republic. Nor does he provide overwhelming textual evidence that Hobbes’s primary concern relates to the challenge of republicanism, aside from some references to the dangers of reading of ancient republics. But other ‘seditious doctrines’ such as Levellerism and radical millenarianism also posed a threat to the sovereignty of the state. More work still needs to be done to demonstrate the importance of the republican defence of English liberty. Having said that, however, Skinner has indeed made a valuable contribution to the study of Hobbes as well as to the study of English political thought during the civil war period; it is one that cannot be ignored.

Originally published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science Volume 44 Issue 1 (March 2008) pp. 242-45.
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