You are on page 1of 5

Political Matter in Motion: A Hobbesian Psychologization of Politics in John

Drydens Absalom and Achitophel


Written in perhaps the most turbulent historical moment of English history, John
Drydens poem Absalom and Achitophel constitutes a political argument and a
pseudo-historical record at once. Serving primarily as a Tory propaganda piece, that
bring King Charless case to the people, it legitimates his stance during the Exclusion
Crisis and exacerbates the vice of those implicated in the conspiracy against the king,
vilifying the primary figures of political antagonism (with the exception of
Monmouth), while also demonizing the Whigs by connecting them with the ghost of
Cromwells theocratic monster that still haunts the nation.
Drydens poem employs a well-known episode from the Bible Absaloms rebellion
against his father, David in order to more freely, and also with seeming moderation
and subtlety, comment on the issue at hand. He thus produces a pseudo-historical
record, manipulating facts to his own agenda (e.g. making Achitophel the one who
tempts and goads Absalom into going against his father). The poem does not neatly fit
into any genre; its classification has been a matter of endless debate amongst critics. It
can be viewed as an idiosyncratic form of mock-heroic, as it employs, at equal doses,
both the heroic and the satiric aspect. It is not a straightforward political satire, even
though it mixes together aspects from satire, lampoon, etc. It is also influenced by
Varronian (Roman) satire. Thanks to this mixture of the satirical and the heroic,
Dryden can do justice to the virtues of his characters and also mock them at the same
time (as seen in David/ Charles or Achitophel/ Shaftesbury).
The poem can be read through the rubric of Thomas Hobbess political philosophy,
particularly his masterpiece, Leviathan. Dryden illustrates a picture of the
contemporaneous sociopolitical reality that is predicated on patterns of human
behaviour. All the major characters actions are motivated by emotions and
psychological states, which can be theorized through what Hobbess calls the
passions and appetites of man (cf Chapter 6 etc.). In that respect, I will employ
Hobbess theory to examine how Dryden goes about the psychological portraits of his
characters, in terms of
a) The characterization of David. Love and lust. Sexualization of politics.
Hobbes does not devote much space in analyzing his definition of love, but

he does say that which men desire, they also love (Chapter 6, paragraph 3).
Within the framework of Hobbess moral relativism, this concept can yield
interesting results when applied to Charles, a man who was generally of an
amicably nature, and who loved Monmouth very much. Following George
McFadden, I want to examine how this family, philogenitive love affects
politics, as seen in Drydens poem, and how, as McFadden argues, it is also a
form of self-love for Charles. Charless lust as a political issue. A
sexualization of politics is evident in Davids feminization in the poem (cf
Absalom, line 701, ref. to Louise de Keroualle).
b) The theme of ingratitude. Stephen Zwicker suggests the recurring motif of
ingratitude in the text, from Michal to Absalom. Ingratitude in Hobbes,
Chapter 15, paragraph 16: The breach of this law, is called ingratitude; and
hath the same relation to grace, that injustice hath to obligation by covenant.
The ingratitude justifies / legitimates Davids wrathful resort to the sword
(Absalom, lines 989-1002).
c) Absaloms characterization. The seduction of Absalom by Achitophel.
Flattery, vainglory, ignorance. Cf the analogies with the Fall of Eden, and
Miltons Paradise Lost. Hobbes on Vaine-glory (chapter 6). Characterization
of Absalom: Vain-glorious men are enclined to rash engaging (Hobbes,
chapter 11, paragraph 12) Ignorance of causes constraineth a man to rely
on the advice and authority of others (Hobbes, chapter 11 paragraph 17).
Ignorance of natural causes disposeth a man to credulity able to make a
man both to believe lies and tell them (Hobbes, chapter 11 paragraph 23) It
is an easy thing for men to be deceived, by the specious name of liberty and
for want of judgment to distinguish, mistake that for their birth right (Hobbes,
chapter 21, paragraph 9). Absalom as male Eve (his feminization mirrors
Charles). Absaloms change of mind: One time praiseth, that is, calleth
Good,what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth Evil: From whence arise
Disputes, Controversies and at last War (Hobbes, chapter 15, paragraph 40)
No man is a fit arbitrator in his own cause (Leviathan, chapter 15, paragraph
31)
d) The characterization of Achitophel. He is portrayed as shrewd and capable,
but also with trouble of mind, turbulent of wit. Cf Hobbess trouble of
mind (Chapter 6, paragraph 9). Pygmy body to decay (Absalom lines
156-7): Compare to Hobbess wens, biles and apostemes, engendered by the

unnatural conflux of evil humours (chapter 23, very last line). Achitophels
eloquence: Eloquence is power and form is power. (Chapter 10,
paragraph 12) Eloquence, with flattery (chapter 11, paragraph 16).
Ambition: Desire of office, or precedence, ambition (Chapter 6, paragraph
24). Cf the fall of angels from Heaven due to ambition (Absalom, line 310).
e) The diverse motives/ psychological (and physiognomic) portraits of the
others supporting Absalom: Zimir/ Buckingham, Corah/ Titus Oates,
Shimei/ Sherriff of London etc. Compare and contrast with Davids allies,
characterized by loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice themselves.
f) Fear: The commonwealth can stay intact, only through fear (of death).
Charles must make people respect him again and that is to fear him. Cf Good
success is power; because it maketh reputation ofwisdom, or good fortune;
which makes men either fear him, or rely on him (Hobbes, Chapter 10,
paragraph 8). Since men cannot rely on Charles, who has been proved to be
consistently unreliably, they must at least fear him, even though for Hobbes,
this is a dishonourable feeling. The passions that incline men to peace, are
fear of death (Chapter 13, paragraph 14).
g) Davids shift from forgiveness and patience to anger by the end of the
poem: To have done more hurt to a man, than he can, or is willing to
deserving to expiate, inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer. For he must
expect revenge or forgiveness; both of which are hateful (chapter 11,
paragraph 8) Charless shift towards anger in the finale: Aversion, with
opinion of Hurt from the object, feare. The same, with hope of avoiding that
Hurt by resistance, Courage. Sudden courage, anger. Anger for great hurt done
to another, when we conceive the same to be done by Injury, Indignation
(Chapter 6, paragraph 21).
Why this emphasis on psychology? The first answer to this is that Dryden wants
to present the case of Charles to the people, vindicate him, and reveal how the
rebellion against Charles was also motivated, not out of true care for the nation,
but out of personal emotions and petty appetites. In that sense, and especially
when read through Hobbess Leviathan, the rebellion against the sovereign is
completely unjustified.
But the second point that Dryden makes regards King Charles himself. I believe
that Dryden progressively makes a shift from the more satirical to the more heroic

mode, as evident in the finale of the poem. He may superficially be signaling a


stance of distancing and moderation, but the subtext is different, as Zwicker
claims. The case against Charles is predicated on two axes. On the one hand, there
is the injunction that he is too lenient (starting with the Act of Oblivion of 1660),
too soft, too forgiving, not steady in his will, and he is thus reduced by others to
an object of ridicule and of burthens, as he himself admits. His passivity, his
extraordinary ease, his prioritization of fun over political and financial matters,
puts the nation in peril. In a sense, the poem makes him come face to face with the
fact; David is feminized, on account of his too great passivity and easy-going
nature, his emphasis on sex over politics; his crown is like the boring wife waiting
to be raped, a standard trope of seduction of Restoration comedy, evident in the
pleasing rape reference (cf Absaloms feminization within the framework of the
seduction). By the end of the poem, the initially inert David has been led to
action, to anger, thus he is reconstituted as virile. The implication was that his
good, forgiving nature (thus, his arbitrariness of will over state affairs) endangers
everybody and had to change. His weakness leaves the nation exposed to the
possibility of relapsing to the State of War, as the sovereign, because of his own
forgiving nature, gives way much too easily to the multiple, diverse and often
contrasting wills and desires of others. In other words, because Charles didnt rule
with an iron fist, England was at the brink of another civil war.
The second issue again concerns the kings arbitrary will, but from a different
angle. By prioritizing lust, passivity, avoiding troubles etc., Charles is close to the
depiction of the tyrant, as described by John Locke in The Second Treatise of
Government. Does Dryden want Charles to become a tyrant? The answer is a
covert yes. We shouldnt forget that people at the time feared that Charless
reign was in danger also by outside forces and that he would be conniving to a
possible invasion by Dutch forces (commonwealth by acquisition). As Hobbes
claims, tracing the use of the word tyrant in Aristotle and ancient Greece, where
it was initially synonymous with sovereign: And because the name of tyranny,
signifieth nothing more, nor less, than the name of sovereignty, be it in one, or
many men, saving that they that use the former word, are understood to be angry
with them they call tyrants; I think the toleration of a professed hatred of tyranny,
is a toleration of hatred to commonwealth in general, and another evil seed, not

differing much from the former (A review and conclusion, paragraph 9).
Dryden neutralizes the Lockean rationale to resistance that is expressed by
Achitophel in the poem by situating this argument within a sordid context. Cf
also the idea of Hobbes that commonwealth can come about with propriety
(property) and how Charless crown is his propriety. As Hobbes says, where
there is no propriety, there is no injustice; where there is no commonwealth, there
is no propriety (Chapter 15, paragraph 3).
The poem ends in medias res. But Dryden prophesizes the future triumph of the
king. Davids royal monarchy is a holy monarchy (an embracement by God seen
both in the beginning and in the finale of the poem). The underlying message of
Drydens poem is: Charles, you should effectively become a tyrant, crash your
opponents and rule the nation with an iron fist.