Thomas Hobbes and the Problem of Self-Censorship

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This brief exploration of the role of self-censorship in Hobbes’s theory raises some interesting questions about both the ambitions of Hobbes’s political theory and his place in the history of political thought. Hobbes is often taken to be a proto-enlightenment figure, in the sense that his philosophy is understood to have attempted to deliver ordinary people from the disabling threat of disorder by establishing a transparently rational structure to justify the authority of the state. On the face if it, Hobbes’s extensive reliance upon techniques of self-censorship would seem to put him squarely at odds with that enlightened agenda. The standard description of Hobbes’s technique of self-censorship involves a situation in which a radical distinction between the public and private spheres underwrites an argument in favour of the hypocritical subscription to views adopted simply for their public utility rather than their rational consistency or their truth. On this description, it looks as if Hobbes is asking people, and particularly the wise, to forsake the truth and sign up to a lot of noble lies.

This sceptical and anti-utopian aspect of Hobbes’s thought has led some commentators to suggest, that in spite of appearances, Hobbes’s underlying argument has less to do with modern rationalism than with the Machiavellian statecraft of the late renaissance reason of state tradition - a tradition in which the topic of self-censorship was taken a lot more seriously as an essential part of politics.26 In the second half of this paper I examine the extent to which this identification makes sense, and suggest that although Hobbesian self-censorship is undoubtedly informed by the reason of state tradition, Hobbes’s ambition was to go beyond this tradition in a way that he thought would ultimately remove the need for self-censorship altogether.27

As many historians of political thought have pointed out, reason of state discourse was less a coherent political philosophy than a formal compilation of political techniques. Its form reflects its origins as a self-consciously anti-utopian response to religious and political strife.28 Machiavelli’s Prince stands at the beginning of the reason of state tradition in the early modern period, infamously countenancing wrong-doing on the part of princes seeking to secure their states. As the phrase itself suggests, reason of state was a genre of writing that implied that the practice of statecraft, possessing its own logic of security, was exempt from conventional ethical considerations. A favourite topic of discussion within the genre was the practice of dissimulation by princes, and the various forms of deception required to maintain one’s rule. These included classic Machiavellian stratagems such as the instrumental use of religion and the need for one to adopt appearances that might be at odds with reality.29

These stratagems were predicated on the thought that the prince as a political actor might be required to conceal his true nature behind a public persona that could be used to manipulate and control the populace. Although Machiavelli’s name soon became too disreputable to cite openly, his doctrines were too useful to ignore in a Europe riven by religious conflict, and the genre was subtly adapted, sanitised, and made over along classical lines as Neostoic and Tacitean ideas came to be incorporated in it. Justus Lipsius in the Netherlands was one of most prominent of the new generation of writers in the genre, infamous for the elaborating what he called ‘mixed prudence’. This idea arose out of the consideration of various levels of fraudulent behaviour by rulers, ranging from ‘light’ (dissimulation and the concealment of intentions), through medium (active deception and bribery) to great (the breaking of treaties).30 For Lipsius, only the last was unacceptable; dissimulation was regarded as advisable and other forms of deception were regarded as tolerable.

Lipsius’s political advice was primarily aimed at governors, but the political turmoil of late sixteenth century Europe soon meant that writers were turning their attention to forms of dissimulation that had become necessary for subjects. This was the case in France especially, where religious civil war pulled French society apart, leaving subjects with increasingly difficult choices, and never more so than when faced with the choice between following conscience and making the kind of politique compromises necessary for civil peace. As the Huguenot Agrippa d’Aubigne summarised in his fictionalised representation of the politique position: ‘Know then that almost all men have been reduced to this point: to be on bad terms either with their conscience or with the course of the century.’31 The only solution for many was a categorical divorce between the internal and external spheres, with the prudent man effectively withdrawing into the private sphere in his judgements, while submitting his external actions to judgement of his ruler.32

This solution was systematised in the work of the leading French politique writers, notably Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron and Guillaume du Vair, to name only the most famous.33 These writers translated reason of state’s emphasis upon dissimulation not only into recommendations for princes, but also into handbooks for their subjects, offering advice for the wise caught up in an irrational world dominated and driven by opinion rather than reason. The substance of their advice was to stress the importance of distinguishing between the politically necessary presentation of the external self and the identification of an authentic inner self as the only way to remain free from servitude to passion and opinion. As Charron puts it, in the language of a contemporary translation:
...we must know how to distinguish and separate our selues from our publike charges: euery one of vs playeth two parts, two persons; the one strange and apparent, the other proper and essentiall: we must discerne the skinne from the shirt. An actiue man will performe his charge, and yet withall not leaue to iudge of the follie, vice, deceit that is therein: he will conforme himselfe to euery thing, because the custome of his countrey requireth it, it is profitable to the weale-publike: the world liues so, and therefore it must be done. A man must serue and make vse of the world such as he findeth it; in the meane time, he must likewise consider it as a thing estranged from it selfe, know how to keepe and carie himselfe apart, and to communicate himselfe to his owne trustie good, howsoeuer things fall out with himselfe.34
The practical necessity of separating internal and external commitments paved the way for an exploration of the essential self, embodied in Charron’s slightly relentless demand that the sage ‘Looke therefore into thy selfe, know thy selfe, hold thy selfe to thy selfe; thy spirit and will which is els where imployed, reduce it unto thy selfe...gather thy selfe unto thy selfe, and shut up thy selfe within thy selfe: examine, search, know thy selfe.’ 35 The self here is characterised by its independence from external things; rather than the self being defined by its offices, it stands independently from all its roles, as a judging, reasoning entity, the deliberating actor behind the many masks it is required to wear; a precondition, as Montaigne observed, of any effective performance.36

Arguments of this kind effectively prepared the ground for a new preoccupation with questions of self-censorship, in that reason of state discourse created the need to articulate the relationship between a novel formulation of selfhood and new accounts of an autonomous public sphere. It is therefore no surprise to find the topic of prudent silence returned to again and again in later reason of state discussions of dissimulation. For example Robert Dallington’s Aphorisms Civil and Military, continuing the popular theatrical metaphor employed by Montaigne, suggested that those in public employment ‘must of necessity wear vizards and change them in every scene. Because, the generall good and safety of a State is the Center in which all their actions, and counsailes muste meete: To which men cannot always arrive by plaine pathes, and beaten waies.’ Openly expressing one’s nature, or venting one’s purpose, Dallington opined, is a thing of dangerous consequence.’37 Francis Bacon, another English adapter of continental reason of state discourse with a keen sense of the need for the distinction between public and private, devoted one of his essays to the topic of simulation and dissimulation, which elaborated the degrees and circumstances of this ‘hiding and veiling of a man’s self’.38

As several commentators have recently pointed out, Hobbes, a former amanuensis to Bacon, was very familiar with reason of state discourse and its obsession with dissimulation and secrecy. Indeed as a secretary to the Earls of Devonshire, Hobbes was, by trade, a keeper of secrets. The art of a secretary, a contemporary advice book stated, ‘is nothing other than the science of things that must be kept secret and revealed.’39 The library at Hardwick Hall, which Hobbes probably helped to stock, contained nearly all of the canonical authors in the tradition; Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Botero, Lipsius, Mariana and Charron.40 Hobbes had not only read this continental literature, he had travelled across Europe and knew some of its leading figures personally.41

Further evidence of Hobbes’s fascination with reason of state comes from his earliest correspondence, which is full of discussion of arcana imperii, or mysteries of state.42 It also comes from works that he was involved in producing and translating for his patrons. A piece written by his patron but sometimes attributed to Hobbes, ‘A discourse upon the beginnings of Tacitus’ (1620) is a study of the classical guru of reason of state writers with an interest in the political use of religion.43 Noel Malcolm’s recently discovered Hobbesian translation of the Altera secretissima instructio, a text immersed in reason of state culture, demonstrates that Hobbes’s formative years were spent thinking long and hard about reason of state ideas.44 As the brief discussion of Hobbes’s work at the beginning of the paper indicates, Hobbes’s later published work is full of terms and concepts culled from the tradition: the near obsession with the role of opinion, the critical distinction between internal and external spheres, the distinctive reliance upon dissimulation as the solution to the political problem, and, most pertinently for present purposes, the critical role played by a systematic application of self-censorship.

The case, then, for seeing Hobbes as a late exponent of reason of state arguments looks unanswerable. And yet if we take this last feature of Hobbes’s work seriously and attend to it closely, it turns out to be something of a mistake to reduce Hobbes’s work to a variant of the anti-utopian techniques recommended by the reason of state writers. One of the most typical, and to his contemporaries, most infuriating qualities of Hobbes’s work was his ability to take a range of existing ideas familiar to his audience and to subtly transform and assimilate them to his larger project. This was certainly the case with Hobbes’s treatments of religion and theology, treatments in which most of the familiar pieces of Protestant Christianity remained in play but the rules of the game had been quietly but fundamentally altered. There is a parallel case with Hobbes’s use of the language of reason of state: if for all his deployment of orthodox Christian categories Hobbes was no orthodox Christian, so it is also true that for all his deployment of reason of state categories, Hobbes was no straightforward reason of state theorist.45
It is Hobbes’s posture towards the question of self-censorship that reveals most clearly his distance from the reason of state thinkers. This claim may seem odd. Hobbes sometimes sounds as if he is directly paraphrasing Charron’s De la sagesse in the distinctions that he draws between the internal self and the external performance; not least in the very beginning of Leviathan where, following Charron, Hobbes famously argues that what men ought to do is to learn to know themselves (nosce teipsum).46 But with Hobbes the conscious echo is usually invariably a clue that something fishy is going on, and the familiar is undergoing a decisive change.

Anyone assuming that Hobbes is simply following the reason of state writers when it comes to the matter of self-censorship has failed to grasp the full implications of Hobbes’s remarks about the self. Hobbes himself comments that the instruction to know or read oneself is ‘not of late understood’, its having been taken either as an excuse to countenance bad behaviour in princes, or, and importantly, to encourage their social inferiors in what he calls ‘sawcie behaviour’ towards their betters.47 His own understanding of that instruction is elaborated in Leviathan; and in positioning that instruction prominently at the beginning of his great work, Hobbes is not so much aligning himself with and endorsing the reason of state tradition as drawing his readers’ attention to one of its decisive weaknesses.

It is often assumed that Hobbes’s distinction between internal and external spheres maps very directly onto the reason of state model, either because he was simply endorsing the politique solution to political conflict or because he was endeavouring to reserve a suitably Charronian space for free thought. But it is important to notice that the reason of state model generated consequences that Hobbes would have found deeply problematical. Perhaps the best discussion of this problem, which I think may be described not unreasonably as a problem of self-censorship, comes (ironically) from a famous critique of Hobbes himself by Carl Schmitt, which presented the English philosopher as the proponent of a novel account of the internal/external dichotomy.48

Schmitt argued that Hobbes adopted this dichotomous structure as a solution to the problem of religious and political strife. In doing so, however, Hobbes had sown the seeds of the destruction of his Leviathan: he had reduced the political sphere to a morally neutral mechanism for stability, while at the same time creating a privileged and a-political space for the exercise of conscience that would, in time, re-assert its authority over the political sphere with disastrous results.49 Schmitt’s analysis was supplemented by greater historical detail in the work of his follower, Reinhart Koselleck, who argued that what he called the utopian strand of enlightenment thinking (and, through the working out of that strand of thinking over time, of the ideological forces arrayed against the modern state) were the anti-political progeny of this failed attempt to divide the public and the political.50 Leaving aside for the moment the broader accuracy of this story, I think that although neither Schmitt nor Koselleck get Hobbes quite right, they do identify what Hobbes himself had recognised as the damnosa hereditas of the reason of state tradition.

The recourse to a very sharp distinction between mutually exclusive public and private spheres, no longer policed by an omnicompetent church-based religion may well have provided a temporary self-censoring solution to the political problems identified by the politiques. But the same distinction stored up future trouble by generating a potentially authoritative moral self at odds with the public sphere. Far from being a long-term solution to it, for Hobbes this was yet another species of the problem that Leviathan was trying to address, namely the need for the systematic elimination of any source of authority independent of the political realm if a civilised common life was to be possible.

I think that this comes across very clearly from Hobbes’s reconfiguration of what it actually means to ‘know thy self’. It certainly does not mean the recovery of some essential and unique self, or the delineation of a private sphere in which the self can act as an autonomous source of authority. Hobbes effectively – very effectively - goes to war against this notion of the self throughout Leviathan, subjecting it to a devastating critique.

Hobbes’s demolition job involves the redefinition, rewriting or brute rejection of what were conventionally understood to be the authoritative sources of the self. The underlying logic of that redefinition is supplied by his absolute commitment to materialism, which precludes the possibility that anything identified with an autonomous self might enjoy a mode or manner of existence that could not be explained in material terms. On one side this logic rules out the notion that the self is an immaterial entity (this same logic, of course, had motivated Hobbes’s objections to Descartes’ Meditations and helps to explain the Frenchman’s very testy replies); on the other side it removes the standard basis for claiming that its operations are not susceptible to human analysis. The traditional constituents of the self are all systematically reformulated by Hobbes according to this logic, in a way that undermines their potential for acting as independent sources of authority.

Thus Hobbes downgrades reason from the scholastic ‘right reason’ that connects man with God to an instrumental calculating faculty which enjoys no privileged access to truth.51 Free will is similarly reduced to an effect of material causes. As we have already seen, Hobbes argues that the will has nothing to do with an independent faculty of deliberation; every act of mans will, he explains, and every desire, and inclination proceedeth from some cause, and that from another cause, in a continuall chaine...they proceed from necessity.’52 Hobbes is withering in his treatment of conscience, a word now used, he says, by men ‘vehemently in love with their own new opinions (though never so absurd)’ who being ‘obstinately bent to maintain them, gave those their opinions also the reverenced name of Conscience, as if they would have it seem unlawfull, to change or speak against them; and so pretend to know they are true, when they know at most, but that they think so.’53 Hobbes, as Johan Tralau has recently discussed, dismisses the notion of individual conscience as an improper metaphor, emphasising instead the idea of conscience as externally shared knowledge.54

The aim of Hobbes’s rewriting of the self is to leave his readers in little doubt that what they take to be the formal properties of an autonomous entity – the self – with a range of causal powers are in fact merely effects, necessary consequences of their embodied material existence. Hobbes’s self possesses neither the autonomy nor the private authority that is an essential feature of Charron’s self. In effect what Hobbes reveals, and in a manner that is calculated to deflate the dualism that is so dear to the reason of state writers and the clergy alike, is that there is no way whatever that an autonomous self could be isolated and secured inviolably against the intrusions of the outside world in the way that they suggest; for there is no ‘inside’ that can be favourably juxtaposed against the outside, no internal world that is categorically separate from the external world, no intelligible world that stands over and above the world of sense. Hobbes’s nominalism and his materialism are put to work together, and their cutting effect, like that of a pair of scissors, derives from their mutual interaction. Everything is body, and the names we give to bodies tell us only how we think of them; which opens the possibility that we could learn to think differently about them.55

Together, Hobbes’s materialism and his nominalism cut through a whole range of putatively authoritative claims made about the self by his predecessors. But Hobbes’s aim is positive as well as negative. This destructive work is accompanied by a positive explanation of the kind of practical self-knowledge that men are capable of under these conditions. Hobbes explains that to ‘know oneself’ is to understand and recognise the psychological mechanisms that lie behind and generate all human behaviour. The phrase nosce teipsum is designed, he says,

to teach us that for the similitude of the thoughts, and Passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself, and considereth what he doth, when he does thinke, opine, reason, hope feare, &c and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts, and Passions of all other men, upon the like occasions.56
Understanding the self is no longer a search for an authentic inner self, but rather an attempt to identify the external conditions that cause the thoughts and passions that lead to certain sorts of action, not only in oneself, but also in others – an almost complete externalisation of the self which exposes what individuals conventionally take for self-consciousness as the necessary effect of the operation of one body upon another. It tacitly assumes that the generation of certain sorts of output is dependent on two factors – a given set of sensory inputs and the self-knowledge needed to process those inputs in the appropriate manner to obtain the desired outputs. This metaphysical framework structures the political argument of Leviathan, in which the identification of the political conditions required to achieve the self-preservation that Hobbes identifies as the common root of human motivation is matched by an account of how people must understand themselves and act if they are to sustain the conditions that sustain them.57 With the quest for self-knowledge now entirely reoriented towards the conditions required for the continued existence of the self, the Hobbesian subject and the Hobbesian sovereign alike are in a position to grasp the rational necessity of the political relationships that Hobbes describes. In grasping this necessity, the beliefs, opinions and actions of subject and sovereign are reshaped accordingly.58

In other words, Hobbes’s project embodied a two-pronged approach to the problem of the divided self: on the one side generating a set of formal requirements designed to pacify the external political sphere, and on the other laying the groundwork for an ambitious materialist reconstitution of the self through which the individual’s private understanding and their public persona could be brought into alignment. Far from requiring any long-term subscription to noble lies, Hobbes’s ambition was to create a situation in which the sovereign’s requirements and the subject’s opinions and beliefs converged around the imperatives of peace – what he called ‘natural law’. That this ideal of perpetual peace was his ambition appears fairly unvarnishedly in his assessment in De cive of what a properly realized moral science might do for mankind:

For if the patterns of human action were known with the same certainty as the relations of magnitude in figures, ambition and greed, whose power rests on the false opinions of the common people about right and wrong, would be disarmed, and the human race would enjoy such secure peace that (apart from conflicts over space as the population grew) it seems unlikely that it would ever have to fight again.59
Hobbes was certainly aware of the need to be careful about the public expression of doctrine and more aware yet of the need to couch his arguments in terms familiar to his audience; but borrowing terms is not the same as borrowing positions. Crucially, Hobbes sought to transform and synchronize diverse forms of doctrine in a single unified system, to generate a mortal God, as Hobbes puts it, to embody and represent what was essentially unknowable and institutionally fragile: the single, unitary authority without which civilization could not stand.60

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