Thomas Hobbes and the Problem of Self-Censorship



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Thomas Hobbes and the Problem of Self-Censorship*
At a time when questions of self-censorship are very much to the fore both in philosophical circles and in the wider public culture, it may be illuminating to consider the circumstances under which modern discourse of self-censorship came into being and to examine the historical development of self-censorship as a term of art in that discourse. Although to do so is to step back into a world that is in some respects very different from our own, not least in its attitudes to freedom of speech, the issues dealt with by early modern writers were not so very far removed from those which continue to worry modern philosophers and writers about politics, for whom the tension between free speech and public order, and its implications for self-censorship, remains a surpassing problem.1

Self-censorship was an extremely serious issue for early modern political thinkers newly faced with deeply conflicted societies. A formal recognition of its political necessity featured prominently in some of the major theoretical responses to the unprecedented religious strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussions of self-censorship in a political setting drew upon a cluster of concepts that had been designed to cope with new political realities: refurbished classical and Christian notions of selfhood, secularised notions of the political community and the concomitant identification of public and private spheres with commitments peculiar to each. As this nexus of concepts retains a central importance in modern liberal political theory, to examine its character is not only to engage with thinkers dealing with similar problems in the past, but also to understand something about the terms in which we discuss those same issues in the present.

Such an examination is all the more in order if, as some historians and philosophers have persuasively argued, some of the deepest conceptual problems facing modern liberal theorising are vestigial.2 For then, by examining the work of one of the most important contributors to its evolution – the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes – we may hope to discover something of interest not only about his solution to the problem of self-censorship, but also about our own, sometimes queasy, responses to the problem

It is widely accepted that Hobbes was a political philosopher who practised self-censorship. When it came to publishing his political, religious and scientific positions, Hobbes deliberately concealed his private views out of a concern for the way that his reading public might respond to them. As we might expect, given the central position it occupies in his thought, Hobbes’s motivation for this form of concealment was related to self-preservation, in both a narrow and a broader sense. The narrow sense relates to Hobbes’s own self-preservation. If he had published his heterodox views candidly, it is highly likely that he would have faced prosecution on a capital charge like heresy – or perhaps even treason. But Hobbes’s silences were not just about avoiding personal prosecution; he also self-censored even when his immediate personal safety was not in jeopardy.

Hobbes’s silences bespeak a broader sense of the threats to peace, and therefore to self-preservation, that could result from the propagation of ideas that might too readily be misunderstood or misapplied. This broader concern to censor the self in the interest of peace was obtrusively present in Hobbes’s political theory, in which self-censorship was presented not simply as a matter of anticipating and avoiding legal proscription but rather as one of the natural duties of a responsible citizen; and a duty that played a crucial role in Hobbes’s solution to the problem of political conflict.

To understand Hobbes’s theory in these terms is cast doubt upon some influential modern interpretations of it. Recent discussions of Hobbes’s use of dissimulative techniques such as self-censorship have pointed to the similarities between his position and that of the renaissance ragion di stato (reason of state) writers, whose politique distinction between the internal self and one’s public persona offered a pragmatic solution to problems of political and religious pluralism. Self-censorship, in their writings as in Hobbes’s theory, is a desirable characteristic of princes and subjects, and an essential condition of civil peace. It has been suggested that Hobbes’s theory has the same essentially pragmatic structure3 However, in exploring Hobbes’s treatment of self-censorship, I would like to suggest that while Hobbes did indeed see benefits in the practice of censoring the self as the reason of state theorists recommended, he also saw costs.

In particular, Hobbes recognised the potentially damaging tensions produced by the recommended disjunction between one’s public and private beliefs. Hobbes’s proposed solution to this problem was an ambitious attempt to eliminate these tensions through a dramatic redefinition of the nature of the self. Hobbes may have self-censored, but, pace recent discussions, his ambition was to create a world in which the problems to which self-censorship was the answer were effectively eliminated rather than simply contained.
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It is naturally difficult to find evidence of self-censorship amongst early-modern writers4, but Hobbes offers an intriguing instance of an author whose doctrine appears to recommend self-censorship, and whose private transactions appear to embody it. To begin with his doctrine: Hobbes’s commitment to some form of self-censorship arises from the apparent tension between his formal commitment to free thought, and his striking claim that individuals have no entitlement at all to freedom of speech or action; not only are subjects formally obliged to profess whatever is required of them by the sovereign, but they also have an obligation to self-censor their speech and acts according to the requirements of peace, even where the sovereign has not commanded them to do so.

Hobbes’s defence of free thought begins from the position that such freedom is naturally possessed by everyone. Hobbes’s claim is that belief can never be coerced because beliefs or opinions are not the products of voluntary action. This meant that it was impossible to lay any sort of external obligation upon individuals. As Hobbes famously notes ‘beleef, and unbeleef never follow mens commands.’5 As the internal sphere of belief was impossible to police, political communities were necessarily committed to the de facto toleration of all private beliefs; for as Hobbes puts it when discussing private religious beliefs in chapter 31 of Leviathan, ‘Private, is in secret Free.’6. When it came to the external sphere of action, however, the story was very different.

Hobbes saw the unregulated public expression of controversial beliefs and opinions as the root of civil strife. Hobbesian subjects therefore have no right to the free public expression of their beliefs, and are obliged to conform their public statements to whatever is required of them by the sovereign. This view was elaborated unapologetically in chapter 42 of Leviathan, where Hobbes confronted the potentially hard case of religious believers who were required by their sovereign to subscribe publicly to beliefs that they privately found intolerable.7 In response, Hobbes points out that any command to a Christian which forbids belief in Christ will simply be ineffective because belief cannot be commanded. On the other hand, if a Christian is required to say that he does not believe in Christ, Hobbes counsels that ‘Profession with the tongue is but an externall thing’, and is no more than a gesture signifying obedience to the sovereign. Therefore a Christian commanded to repudiate Christ has the same liberty as Naaman the Syrian in the Book of Kings who, after he had converted to the God of Israel, was still required to worship in the temple of Rimmon and did so (or so Hobbes claimed) with the approval of the prophet Elisha.8

The Naaman example became one of the most notorious passages in the book; Hobbes appeared to be recommending nothing short of straightforward hypocrisy, violating the true Christian’s conscience by asking the believer to fall in with the public conscience instead. Nearly all of Hobbes’s critics zeroed in on the Nicodemism of the Naaman passage as proof not only of Hobbes’s approval of dissimulation, but also as damning evidence of the probable insincerity of many of his other views, particularly his religious views.9 On this basis, they suggested, nothing that Hobbes said could be taken to be a reliable marker of anything more than his willingness to pay lip service to the legal authorities. This willingness was unseemly in itself, but it suggested worse – that his true opinions were so outrageously heterodox that he felt compelled to hide them at all costs. The devil with Hobbes’s position, as his opponents very quickly realised, was that it made it very difficult to prove that he held unorthodox opinions and almost impossible to convict him for doing so, since his own principles not only allowed but required him to recant any position of which the sovereign disapproved.10

Hobbes, then, endorsed the self-censorship of one’s views in deference to official orthodoxy. But his interest in self-censorship didn’t end there. It carried through into his account of natural moral obligations, contained in his description of natural law. Natural law for Hobbes consisted in a series of linked conclusions or theorems concerning the best means of achieving peaceful coexistence. These theorems are not, he argues, formally obligatory laws like those made by the sovereign, but they are propositions that every individual has an obligation to follow whenever it is safe to do so. Hobbes envisaged a situation in which the security provided by sovereignty creates an environment in which individuals should naturally seek to put natural law into effect, even if they are not formally commanded to do so by the sovereign.

Traditionally natural law, as a law of God, was as much concerned with the intention that lay behind an action as with the action itself. What is striking about Hobbes’s discussion of natural law is how little concerned it is with the intentions of individuals, focusing instead upon how they should present themselves to others if they wish to produce the peaceful outcomes specified. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is Hobbes’s discussion of the third law of nature. This law specifies that people should be prepared to ‘performe their Covenants made’. Indicating that you are prepared to keep your promises is an essential precondition of peace.11

To underline his point Hobbes introduces a character he calls the ‘Foole’, who, pace Hobbes’s position, argues that since every man’s self-preservation is in his own hands, there is no reason why an individual should not choose to break a promise whenever he judges it advantageous to his preservation to do so. In response to the Foole Hobbes makes a number of points, but perhaps the most decisive is the counter-argument that once people become aware that this is the Foole’s position, then the Foole ‘cannot be received into any Society, that unite themselves for Peace and Defence, but by the errour of them that receive him.’ Individuals who go about advertising their willingness to break covenants are hardly likely to be accepted as trusted members of society: if you want to live peacefully, then you have to indicate to others that you are likely to keep your promises.

Perhaps the crucial point here is that the Foole’s foolishness arises from his willingness to publicise his belief that it is acceptable to break promises when it suits. Hobbes’s contemporaries and some modern commentators have been quick to note that this point did nothing to address the problem of the silent ‘Foole’ who self-censors his internal belief that promise-breaking is legitimate and present to the world an air of unquestioned respectability. All that Hobbes tells you is that, regardless of what you really think, if you look like a promise breaker you are not likely to elicit the kind of social response that will promote your self-preservation.12

Similar points figure in Hobbes’s accounts of the other laws of nature, which codify the kinds of public signal likely to produce peace.13 In the fourth law, Hobbes states that the giving of gifts should be met with signs of gratitude; in the fifth, Hobbes posits mutual accommodation between men, effectively requiring them to temper the expression of their natural diversity of affections. In the sixth, pardoning past offences is explained as a sign of a commitment to future peace, as is the abstinence from revenge required by the seventh law. The eighth law is particularly interesting for its focus upon social signs, as in its requirement that ‘no man by any deed, word, countenance or gesture, declare Hatred, or Contempt of another.’14 There is no suggestion here that we must genuinely learn to love our fellow citizens, rather, the suggestion is that even if we don’t think much of them, we should censor these sentiments in public. Again, the ninth law of nature requires that men regard each other as natural equals regardless of whether it is true that nature has made men so; whether one believes in the equality of men or not is beside the point. What matters is that ‘because men will not enter into conditions of peace but upon equal terms, such equality must be admitted.’15

In each of these cases, Hobbes seems to be much less interested in what subjects actually think than in how they appear or present themselves to each other. Hobbes’s laws of nature have nothing to say about the interiority of the subject, that is, about whether and how far the goodness of an action is connected to the intentions or beliefs or dispositions of the would be do-gooder. Instead, Hobbes’s attention centres on the outward demeanour of citizens without any reference to their internal beliefs. Samantha Frost has gone so far as to suggest that this direction of attention is definitive of Hobbes’s ethical approach, one in which the vital condition of peace is the willingness of individuals to simulate appropriately peaceable qualities in the public sphere. In effect, says Frost, Hobbes’s theory is all about the need to ‘fake’ the kind of external commitments required to make individuals legible to each other as peaceable citizens.16

The thought that Hobbes endorsed this sort of fakery is reinforced by evidence that we have of his willingness to censor his own views along the lines suggested above. This evidence indicates Hobbes’s readiness to suppress what he felt to be true doctrine in line with the demands of self-censorship implied by his account of natural law. Consider Hobbes’s views on free will. These were perhaps the least objectionable – certainly from a legal standpoint - and in some ways the most popular items in the Hobbesian range.17 Even so, there is direct evidence that Hobbes would have preferred to keep these views private, for fear of the wider implications of publicising them widely.



In the early summer of 1645, Hobbes acceded to a request from his sometime patron the Earl of Newcastle, to take part in a private debate at his residence in Paris with John Bramhall, the Bishop of Derry, on the subject of free will.18 Hobbes’s views of free will were the pendant to his materialism. The traditional notion of free will, he argued, was a delusion, because all events were the necessary consequences of prior material causes. Individuals might perceive themselves to be making choices through the exercise of their wills, but this was only because they were unable to identify the causes involved in producing the effect they wrongly attributed to their own choices.19 Bramhall was predictably outraged by Hobbes’s position, not least because it offended against traditional assumptions about personal responsibility and implied that God, as the first cause, was (albeit at a distance) the author of sinful acts. Newcastle subsequently asked Bramhall to provide a written account of his position; the Bishop agreed on condition that Hobbes was asked to do the same. Hobbes did so, but asked Newcastle to keep the contents of his paper private. He later explained his reasons for doing so:
I must confess, if we consider the greatest part of Mankinde, not as they should be, but as they are, that is, as men, whom either the study of acquiring wealth, or preferment, or whom the appetite of sensual delights, or the impatience of meditating, or the rash embracing of wrong principles have made unapt to discuss the truth of things, I must say I confess, that the dispute of the question will rather hurt their piety, and therefore if his Lordship had not desired this answer, I should not have written it, nor do I write it but in hopes your Lordship and his will keep it private.20
Hobbes wanted to censor his views out of the concern that they could be misinterpreted in a way that would prove prejudicial to piety and ultimately to civil peace. This latter possibility had been recognised by Bramhall, who had pointed out that by questioning the concept of personal responsibility Hobbes was effectively undermining the social order.21 Evidently Hobbes agreed. In a later letter he explained that the men who he ‘thought might take hurt thereby’ were those that would reason erroneously to the conclusion that the determinism he was discussing reduced to a form of fatalism, ‘saying with themselves, if I shall be saved, I shall be saved whether I walk uprightly or no, and consequently thereunto shall behave themselves negligently, and pursue the pleasant way of the sins they are in love with.’22 The problem was that unconstrained by its relations to his other doctrines, Hobbes’s view of determinism could be used to bolster a number of different positions, some of which might be used to legitimate vice.23 For this reason Hobbes was extremely reluctant to let the doctrine out un-chaperoned into the public sphere.24

The picture that emerges from this discussion of Hobbes’s doctrine and the evidence of his practise suggests that, in a variety of forms, self-censorship lay at the heart of the Hobbesian enterprise. Indeed, it is helpful to think of Hobbes’s doctrine as a large scale exercise in self-censorship. The political problem, as described in all of Hobbes’s political works, is the unrestrained expression of the beliefs and opinions of autonomous selves pursuing their own goods as if self-originating sources of valid claims; the inevitable clash between them results in a state of war. An important part of Hobbes’s solution is to create a mechanism, sovereign power, by which those individuals limit themselves to expressions of opinion and belief that do not create political instability. The fact that the Leviathan is created through the consent of Hobbesian subjects makes even this formal censorship a form of self-censorship, a point that Hobbes was keen to underscore in writing that the sovereign’s action is always the subject’s own.25 Add to this the fact that many of the formal requirements natural law lays down involve censoring the self in the general cause of peace and we begin to see the extent of the role played by self-censorship in Hobbes’s work.




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