Thomas Hobbes and the Problem of Self-Censorship



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IV

This finally brings us back to the question of self-censorship. Hobbes’s model, with its mechanism for reconciling people to a natural political necessity, effectively dissolved the potential for tension between an inner self and its external commitments by showing all too clearly that those external commitments were what constituted and sustained that self in the first place. Hobbes’s new version of self-knowledge promised to eliminate the need for political self-censorship altogether, for it would do away with the problems that resulted from the attempt to divide the private from the public world. Schmitt and Koselleck were therefore wrong to see Hobbes as the inaugurator of what we might call the political problem of self-censorship – in fact, he saw the problem very clearly and envisaged a radical and enlightened solution. But if their casting was poor, there nevertheless remains something compelling about the story they tell of the Manichaean conflict between the inner world of the self and external world of the political. Their story does seem to capture very well some of developments in political thought after Hobbes.



Few went so far as Hobbes in deploying a systematically materialist conception of the self. But lacking this conception, or something like it, the tensions introduced by the reason of state discourse persisted in the seventeenth century natural law thinkers. The most influential European theorists of the post-Westphalian period, particularly thinkers like Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius pursued arguments which carried these unresolved tensions at their core.61 Although Locke attempted his own reconciliatory reformulation of the self, the theological dimension to his solution was soon eclipsed by secular good intentions, only to be recovered to sight, if only as an item of historical interest, in recent times.62 As Ian Hunter’s work has recently suggested, the persistence of the problem set the scene for a clash between the structures generated by the political and pragmatic thinkers who emerged from the reason of state tradition, and the metaphysical and utopian forces of the Republic of Letters, cultivated in the private sphere created by the early modern state.63 In this latter tradition of enlightenment, unconstrained by the requirements of the political, self-censorship would become less a necessary political virtue than an unacceptable compromise. This is the legacy which, in various ways, we still live and continue to grapple with today.64


*This paper was originally composed for the Morrell Conference on Censorship and Self-Censorship, held at the University of York in September 2008. I would like to thank audiences at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and at the Institute of Historical Research in London for helpful comments. I would particularly like to thank Dr Tim Stanton for discussion of the issues raised here, and also for his help in clarifying the presentation of the argument.

1 I should stress at the outset that in this paper I am primarily concerned with self-censorship understood as a form of self-constraint, where an individual adopts values that constrain the expression of their attitudes. This is distinguished here from the other very common discourse of self-censorship in early-modern societies (to be considered elsewhere), which arises from consideration of situations where individuals are dominated by others such that they are forced to self-censor in accordance with the dominating agent. This form of self-censorship by proxy can be held to be distinct from self-censorship by self-constraint insofar as the latter is not dependent upon the existence of a dominating agent external to the individual. The distinction is not absolute but constitutes a useful way to differentiate commonly recognised forms of self-censorship. For discussion see the recent work of Philip Cook and Conrad Heilman, ‘Two types of Self-Censorship: Public and Private’ March 20 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1575662. For discussion of self-censorship in situations of domination see particularly the work of Quentin Skinner: ‘Freedom as the Absence of Arbitrary Power’ in Laborde, C. and Maynor J. (eds), Republicanism and Political Theory (2008), pp. 83-102, at pp. 91-4.

2 Here I have in mind particularly the work of Reinhart Koselleck, particularly his analysis in Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1959), which has recently been revived for an English-speaking audience in the work of Ian Hunter (see his Rival Enlightenments (2001).

3 See particularly Kinch Hoekstra’s 'The End of Philosophy: The Case of Hobbes' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 1 (2006), pp. 23-60

4 For discussion of a variety of self-censoring practices see particularly P. Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in early Modern Europe (1990), especially ch. 12.

5 Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Tuck (1991), p. 343; see also ch. 26, p. 198: ‘…for mens beliefe, and interiour cogitations, are not subject to the commands, but only to the operation of God…’

6 Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Tuck, p. 249.

7 Ibid., pp. 343-4; see also the example in De cive ch. 15, pp. 183-5 where Hobbes considers the case of Christian ordered to perform acts against their faith.

8 The Naaman passage was a classic text associated with ‘Nicodemism’, a term deriving from Calvin’s disparaging name for Protestants who conformed outwardly to Catholicism (after Nicodemus, the Christian Pharisee from John 3:1-2 who concealed his faith). Much of the early modern debate over the passage turned on whether Elisha’s comment to Naaman ‘Go in peace’ signified the prophet’s approval or a simple ‘goodbye’. Hobbes’s interpretation, although controversial, was not out of line with other orthodox Christian accounts of the passage.

9 See for example, Bishop Bramhall’s in Castigations of Mr Hobbes (1657), pp. 491-2; Thomas Tenison, The Creed of Mr Hobbes Examined (1670), p. 199; Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, A Brief View and Survey of Leviathan (1676), pp. 249-51; John Whitehall, The Leviathan found out (1679), pp. 63ff.

10 Hobbists would always simply recant any position not approved by the magistrate, a difficulty encountered by those prosecuting the Cambridge Hobbist Daniel Scargill in 1669. A contemporary broadside caught the difficulty quite nicely: ‘If Justice Catch Leviathan in’s hook/ Will he implore the Benefit of’s book?’ The atheist’s help at a dead lift (1670). For the Scargill affair, see J. Parkin, Taming the Leviathan (2007), pp. 244-52.

11 Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 101-3.

12 The point was noted by William Lucy, Observations, Censures and Confutations of Notorious Errours in Mr Hobbes his Leviathan (1663), 222-3 and more recently has formed the subject of an interesting debate between Kinch Hoekstra and Peter Hayes; see Hoekstra, ‘Hobbes and the Foole’, Political Theory, Vol. 25, No. 5, 620-654 (1997); P. Hayes, ‘Hobbes's Silent Fool: A Response to Hoekstra ‘,Political Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 225-229; K. Hoekstra, ‘Nothing to Declare?: Hobbes and the Advocate of Injustice’ Political Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 230-235.

13 Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 103-111.

14 Ibid., p. 107.

15 Ibid.

16 S. Frost, ‘Faking It: Hobbes's Thinking-Bodies and the Ethics of Dissimulation’, Political Theory, 29 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 30-57.

17 This was because they shadowed a recognisably Protestant understanding of the free will issue. Indeed, Hobbes would refer to this fact in the course of his debate with Bramhall, whose account of free will Hobbes would attempt to associate with Roman Catholic theology.

18 Parkin, Taming the Leviathan (2007), pp. 39ff.

19 Hobbes’s position is set out very clearly (and amusingly) in response to Bramhall: ‘A wooden top that is lashed by the boys, and runs about sometimes to one wall, sometimes to another, sometimes spinning, sometimes hitting men in the shins, if it were sensible of its own motion, would think it proceeded from its own will, unless it felt what lashed it. And is a man any wiser, when he runs to one place for a benefice, to another for a bargain, and troubles the world with writing errors and requiring answers, because he thinks he doth it without other cause than his own will, and seeth not what are the lashings that cause his will?’ Hobbes, English Works (1845) vol. v, p. 55.

20 Hobbes, Of libertie and necessitie (1654), pp. 35-6.

21 Bramhall comments that ‘…if there be no liberty, there shall be no day of doom, no last judgement, no rewards nor punishments after death. A man can never make himself a criminal if he be not left at liberty to commit a crime. No man can be justly punished for doing that which was not in his power to shun. To take away liberty hazards heaven, but undoubtedly it leaves no hell.’ V. Chappell, Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity (1999), p. 4.

22 Hobbes, Questions concerning liberty, necessity and chance (1656), p. 334.

23 We have no record of Hobbes’s views actually being used to underpin justifications of libertinism, although the thought that they might underpin the libertinism of the 1670s was explored in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Libertine(1675), where the serial-killer anti-hero Don John excuses his various crimes by quoting directly from Hobbes. See, Parkin, Taming the Leviathan, pp. 304-11.

24 Hobbes’s views were eventually published in a pirated edition of his manuscript copied by one of his amanuenses, John Davies of Kidwelly. Kinch Hoekstra suggests that if this had not happened, we would not know much about Hobbes’s views of free will. However, as we shall see, most of Hobbes’s position was reproduced very clearly in Leviathan; it would be the context in which the argument was released that made the difference for Hobbes.

25 Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 17, p. 120: The Hobbesian subject promises to ‘owne, and acknowledge himselfe to be Author of whatsoever he that so beareth their Person, shall Act, or cause to be Acted, in those things which concerne the Common Peace and Safetie; and therein to submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgements, to his Judgement.’

26 See particularly Hoekstra’s ‘The End of Philosophy’, but this is also an implication of Jeffrey Collins’s recent book The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (2005).

27 In this my argument hopefully supports Noel Malcolm’s suggestion (pace Hoekstra) that in spite of some obvious similarities, Hobbes’s position ultimately goes beyond reason of state theory. See his comments in Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years’ War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes (2007), pp. 121-3.

28 For general surveys of of reason of state theory, see P. Burke, ‘Tacitism, scepticism, and reason of state’, in J.H. Burns and M. Goldie (eds.), The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700 (1991), pp. 479-498, and Richard Tuck’s discussion in Philosophy and Government 1572-1651 (1993), pp. 31-136.

29 See particularly Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Q. Skinner and R. Price (1988) ch. 18, p. 62; for the instrumental use of religion see Machiavelli’s Discourses, ed. L. Walker (1970) I.11, pp. 139-42.

30 J. Lipsius, Politicorum libri sex (1589), pp. 204-16. On Lipsius and his influence see G. Oestreich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (1982); A McCrea, Constant Minds: Political Virtue and the Lipsian Paradigm in England 1584-1650 (1997).

31 D’Aubigne, La confession du sieur de Sancy, quoted in Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, p. 19.

32 It is worth noting that the distinction between internal and external spheres was hardly new in itself, being an integral part of the Christian tradition, and familiar from the work of Augustine and Aquinas. However the changes wrought by the Reformation removed the possibilities for reconciliation traditionally offered by the visible insititution of the church, which held both together. This combined with the increasingly sceptical character of politique thought generated the basis for the novel accounts of subjectivity found in politique writers. See also the discussion in Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, p. 29, n. 27.

33 For a general account of politique philosophy during this period, see Keohane, Philosophy and the state in France (1980).

34 P. Charron, Of wisdome (1608), p. 252

35 Ibid., p. 2.

36 See also Charron’s comments to this effect: ‘He that hath an erroneous knowledge of himselfe, that subiecteth his minde to any kinde of seruitude, either of passions or popular opinions, makes himselfe partiall; and by enthralling himselfe to some particular opinion is depriued of the libertie and iurisdiction of discerning, iudging and examining all things.’ Ibid., Sig A2r: ‘For a helfpul recent discussion of politique concepts of selfhood see Geoff Baldwin’s ‘Individual and Self in the Late Renaissance’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 341-364. Although Charles Taylor does not discuss these writers, or indeed Hobbes in much detail, his comments on Montaigne are also relevant. Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989).

37 Quoted in McCrea, Constant Minds, p. 57.

38 Bacon, ‘Of Simulation and Dissimulation’, in Essays, ed. J. Pitcher (1985), pp. 76-8; see also McCrea, Constant Minds, ch. 2.

39 Torquato Tasso, Il secretario (1605), p. 6, quoted in Hoekstra, ‘The end of philosophy’, p. 43.

40 Malcolm, Reason of state, p. 109-10.

41 Hobbes was acquainted with the Venetian state counsellor Fulgenzio Micanzio, a friend of Paulo Sarpi, and facilitated a correspondence between him and his employer, the Earl of Devonshire.

42 Hobbes, Correspondence, I, pp. 1-4.

43 Thomas Hobbes, Three Discourses (1995), ed. N.B. Reynolds and A. W. Saxonhouse.

44 Malcolm, Reason of State, pp. 105-23.

45 It is possible to argue that those identifying Hobbes too closely with reason of state discourse fall into a similar trap as commentators like Martinich do when it comes to interpreting Hobbes’s religious views. The mere presence of orthodox elements conceals that fact that Hobbes’s approach reconfigures them in accordance with his distinctive broader agenda. For Martinich’s discussion of religion see The Two Gods of Leviathan (1992).

46 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 10.

47 Ibid.

48 C. Schmitt, The Leviathan in the state theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and failure of a political symbol, trans. G. Schwab and E. Hilfstein (1996), especially ch. 5, pp. 53-63.

49 Ibid., p. 56-7: ‘The distinction between private and public, faith and confession, fides and confession, is introduced in a way from which everything else was logically derived in the century that ensued until the rise of the liberal constitutional state. The modern ‘neutral’ state, derived from the agnosticism and not from the religiosity of Protestant sectarians, originated at this point. If looked at from the perspective of constitutional history, a dual beginning was made here: first, the juristically…constructed beginning of modern, individualistic right of freedom of thought and conscience and thereby the characteristic individual freedoms embodied in the structure of the liberal constitutionalist system; and, second, the evolution of the state from one inherently…into a justifiable external power, the stato neutrale e agnostico of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ Schmitt goes on to state that Hobbes ‘underscores the importance of absorbing the right of private freedom of thought and belief into the political system. This contained the seed of death that destroyed the mighty Leviathan from within and brought about the end of the mortal god.’

50 Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, pp. 38-9: ‘Pressed by the need for a lasting peace, the State conceded to the individual an inner space that did not much impair the sovereign decision; as a matter of fact, it was essential to that decision. It was essential for the State to be politically neutral if it was to preserve its political form. Moral neutrality was the distinguishing mark of the sovereign decision…The State created a new order, but then – in genuinely historic fashion, fell prey to that order. As evident in Hobbes, the moral inner space that had been excised from the State and reserved for man as human being meant…a source of the unrest that was originally exclusive to the Absolutist system. The authority of conscience remained an unconquered remnant of the state of nature, protruding into the formally perfected state.’

51 Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 32-3.

52 Ibid., pp. 146-7.

53 Ibid., p. 48.

54 J. Tralau, ‘Hobbes contra Liberty of Conscience’, Political Theory 39 1 (2011), pp. 58-84. Tralau’s exposition of Hobbes’s position on liberty of conscience complements the position argued for in this paper.

55 I would like to thank Tim Stanton for this compelling explanation of the relationship between Hobbes’s materialism and his nominalism.

56 Hobbes, Leviathan., p. 10.

57 I think that the lack of this extensive political account of the natural necessity of sovereignty was the reason why Hobbes self-censored his doctrine of free will in 1646. Presented without it, the argument could be used to legitimise any form of action, and this is why Hobbes felt able to publish it in the broader context of Leviathan in 1651.

58 Hobbes’s scheme therefore required that Leviathan’s doctrine, or at least a summary of key arguments, should be taught in the universities. It should be noted that this was not, as David Wootton has recently suggested, simply a form of brain-washing. Hobbes makes clear, as we have noted, that the beliefs and opinions required for the stability of the political community, cannot simply be commanded. Individuals have to be persuaded by the argument. Hobbes thought he had produced a suitably persuasive argument that would prove its worth by delivering peace. For this view see my forthcoming paper ‘Toleration of Education?: Hobbes’s Project in the later 1660s’. For David Wootton’s interpretation of Hobbes as a Machiavellian, see his ‘Thomas Hobbes's Machiavellian Moments’, in The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain, ed. D. Kelley and D. Sacks (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998) , 210-42

59 Hobbes, On the Citizen, p. 5.

60 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 120. It should be noted that this analysis brings Hobbes’s position much closer to Spinoza’s.

61 Both writers were clearly indebted to Hobbes in their dualism, although this became harder to admit as the reaction to Hobbes gained momentum. However in rejecting Hobbes’s materialism and lacking a convincing account of divine obligation, they arguably failed to find a response to the problem.

62 For Locke’s reconfiguration of what he calls the ‘penalized self’, see James Tully’s essay ‘Governing Conduct: Locke on the reform of thought and behaviour’ in his Locke in Contexts (1993), pp. 179-241.

63 Hunter, Rival Enlightenments (2001), pp. 364-376, see also Noel Malcolm’s suggestive comments on the character of the Republic of Letters, which also appear to follow Koselleck’s analysis. Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (2002), pp. 537ff.

64 For some of the implication of this position for the contemporary situation see Ian Hunter’s remarks at the end of his Rival Enlightenments (2001), pp. 364-376, particularly p. 376.



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