Modern Intellectual History, 6, 2 (2009), pp. 343–367 C 2009 Cambridge University Press doi:10.

1017/S1479244309002121 Printed in the United Kingdom

quentin skinner’s hobbes and the neo-republican project∗
jeffrey r. collins
Department of History, Queen’s University E-mail:

For nearly half a century, Quentin Skinner has been the world’s foremost interpreter of Thomas Hobbes. When the contextualist mode of intellectual history now known as the “Cambridge School” was first asserting itself in the 1960s, the life and writings of John Locke were the primary topic for pioneers such as Peter Laslett and John Dunn.1 At that time, Hobbes was still the plaything of philosophers and political scientists, virtually all of whom wrote in an ahistorical, textual-analytic manner. Hobbes had not been the subject of serious contextual research for decades, since the foundational writings of Ferdinand T¨ nnies.2 For o Skinner, he was thus an ideal subject, providing a space for original research on a major figure, and an occasion for some polemically charged methodological manifestos. Both of these purposes animated his 1965 article “History and Ideology in the English Revolution,” and his 1966 article “The Ideological Context of Hobbes’s Political Thought”.3 The latter of these remains to this day one of the most widely cited scholarly articles in the fifty-year run of Cambridge’s Historical Journal.4 Among other results of these early efforts was the scholarly controversy


2 3


I would like to thank Mark Kishlansky, John Morrill, Andrew Jainchill, Jeffrey McNairn, Matthew Maguire, Ana Siljak, and the editors of Modern Intellectual History for comments on this essay. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, 1960); John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (Cambridge, 1696). Ferdinand T¨ nnies, Hobbes: der Mann und der Denker (Stuttgart, 1910). o Quentin Skinner, “History and Ideology in the English Revolution”, Historical Journal 8 (1965), 151–78; and idem, “The Ideological Context of Hobbes’s Political Thought”, Historical Journal 9 (1996), 286–317. Both have been revised and republished in idem, Visions of Politics, vol. 3, Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge, 2002). Mark Goldie, “Fifty Years of the Historical Journal”, Historical Journal 51 (2008), 851.


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during which Howard Warrender chided Skinner for having reduced the “classic texts in political philosophy” to mere “tracts for the times”.5 Needless to say, Skinner was undaunted. His articles of the 1960s and 1970s launched modern Hobbes scholarship, and made Hobbes a central subject of research within the entire Cambridge School project. As a result, few figures in the history of European political thought have been treated so regularly and so well by contextualist historians. The past four decades have seen biographical studies of Hobbes, reception studies, linguistic contextualizations, and contextual interpretations variously concerned with political, social and religious questions. Quentin Skinner, in many respects, presided over the entire enterprise. His own original interpretation of Hobbes stimulated a great deal of new work. Previous studies—if they attended to context at all—had tended to portray Hobbes as a political theorist who either wrote in the kind of splendid isolation befitting a grandee of the philosophical canon, or whose absolutist account of sovereignty was intended straightforwardly to serve the royalist cause during the English Civil War. Hobbes was also implicitly cast as John Locke’s interlocutor, as foil to the Anglo-American constitutionalist tradition, and as court theorist for Europe’s ancien r´gime. e Skinner upset this tidy conventional wisdom by taking a fresh look at Hobbes’s interactions with the actual texts and debates of the English Civil War. He foregrounded the dispute about political obligation that roiled England after the regicide of Charles I.6 As a rights-oriented contractualist, Hobbes rejected divine-right legitimism and emphasized the link between political obedience and protection. This deference to de facto power-holders marked Leviathan in particular, and served to justify accommodation with the post-regicidal Commonwealth. Skinner’s careful reconstruction of the revolutionary debates over obligations that informed Leviathan opened up whole new angles of vision on Hobbes’s writings and their political implications. Hobbes scholarship since that time has largely been constructed on this cornerstone achievement.7 The publication of Skinner’s monumental The Foundations of Modern Political Thought in 1978 marked an inflection point in his career, one that would redirect his Hobbes scholarship in fundamental ways. The Foundations was a work in



“To consign them to their contemporary milieu, with whatever honours, is to bury them.” Howard Warrender, “Political Theory and Historiography: A Reply to Professor Skinner on Hobbes”, Historical Journal 22 (1979), 931–40. Also opening up this subject was John M. Wallace, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (New York, 1968). For an excellent overview of Hobbes’s place within post-regicidal debates over political obligation, one that charts Skinner’s modifications to his original position, see Kinch Hoekstra, “The De Facto Turn in Hobbes’s Political Philosophy”, in Tom Sorell and Luc Foisneau, eds., Leviathan after 350 Years (Oxford, 2004), 33–74.

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two volumes, the first dedicated to the political thought of the Renaissance and the second to that of the Reformation era. The latter volume contained some of Skinner’s most original arguments; it remains the only major work of his career centrally oriented around religious categories.8 From this point on, however, it was the Renaissance and the intellectual patterns of humanism that would dominate his scholarship. Indeed, for the next decade he wrote chiefly on Machiavelli and republicanism, a topic that had been anticipated a few years earlier by J. G. A. Pocock’s masterpiece, The Machiavellian Moment. Skinner’s interests in republican humanism and in Hobbes finally conjoined in the 1990s. The conjunction, in fact, produced two very different (although compatible) contextualizations of Thomas Hobbes. The first, presented in Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), charted Hobbes’s participation in Renaissance debates about the political and philosophical implications of rhetoric. The book posited a shift in Hobbes’s understanding of rhetoric, which moved him from an unalloyed hostility to it for its lack of scientific transparency, towards a regretful acceptance of rhetoric as necessary to the art of persuasion. Skinner thus presented Hobbes as he had earlier presented Machiavelli, as a thinker driven by the scholarly categories and disputes of humanism. The English Civil War played a causal role in Reason and Rhetoric, forcing Hobbes to “reconsider his views about the place of rhetoric in public debate”.9 The book, in fact, had little to say about the Civil War, but Skinner tentatively theorized in its conclusion that Hobbes’s re-evaluation of rhetoric had been forced by the malignant rhetorical effectiveness of religious zealots and the parliamentary republicans (or “democraticall gentlemen”).10 Skinner thus imputed a certain foundational importance to Hobbes’s anti-republicanism, but his book did not present a sustained reading along these lines. Indeed, though the Civil War and its political factions functioned as something of a backdrop to Reason and Rhetoric, the book’s attentions were largely directed towards the chronologically and geographically broad context of humanist intellectual culture. Increasingly, however, Skinner was signalling an engagement with republicanism (or, in his then-preferred terminology, “neo-romanism”) as a particular tradition of thinking about liberty. This was not a new interest per se. Indeed, early approaches to the topic had appeared in articles of the 1980s, and in his classic essay of 1990, “The Republican Ideal of Political


9 10

Mark Goldie, “The Context of The Foundations”, in Annabel Brett and James Tully, with Holly Hamilton Bleakley, eds., Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 2006), 3–19. Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), 431. Ibid., 435.

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Liberty.”11 Here Skinner formulated a critique of the dominant polarized model of positive and negative liberty most famously sketched by Isaiah Berlin. Concerned that modern liberalism was “sweeping the public arena bare of any concepts save those of self-interest and individual rights”, but unwilling to join more foundationalist communitarians in espousing traditional “common meanings and purposes”, Skinner presented what he took to be a “third concept” of political freedom. This republican tradition protected individual liberty but demanded civic participation. It eschewed any common, comprehensive definitions of human flourishing, but relied upon a shared understanding of civic virtue. Republican law “forces” us to exercise honestly our civic responsibilities (it is a “positive liberty” in this limited sense), but in the service of our own private freedom, rather than of a single moral vision.12 In his 1998 Liberty before Liberalism (derived from his inaugural lecture as the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge), Skinner expanded on this thesis. He adopted a claim by the political theorist Philip Pettit that republican theorists did not merely espouse what would become the classic liberal definition of freedom as “non-interference”. Instead, they defined freedom as “non-dependency”, a definition which forbade any “dependency on the good will of another, even dependency in the case where there is no actual coercion”.13 Republican concern to prevent interference in individual freedom was thus supplemented by a concern to root out the mere possibility of arbitrary domination in political life. “Discretionary powers invariably serve to reduce free nations to the status of slaves.” This doctrine, more than a hostility to monarchy, an attachment to mixed constitutions, or devotion to classicizing “civic virtue”, marked republicans out as “protagonists of a particular ideology”. This ideology, in turn, “rose to prominence in the course of the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century”, and animated the political thought of “supporters of the parliamentary cause”.14 After the regicide, “we find the neo-roman theory





Quentin Skinner, “The Idea of Negative Liberty”, in Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner, eds., Philosophy in History (Cambridge, 1984); idem, “The Paradoxes of Political Liberty” (Cambridge, 1985); Quentin Skinner, “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty,” in Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner and Maurizio Viroli, eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge, 1990), 293–311. Skinner, “Republican Ideal of Political Liberty,” 304–9. For Skinner’s engagement with the communitarian critics of liberalism see Marco Guena, “Skinner, Pre-humanist Rhetorical Culture and Machiavelli”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 66–9. Philip Pettit, “Keeping Republican Freedom Simple: On a Difference with Quentin Skinner”, Political Theory 30 (2002), 339–41. More fully in idem, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997). Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, 1998), x, 10, 49.

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at the heart of the propaganda commissioned by the new government in its own defence.”15 Liberty before Liberalism thus made some strong claims, holding that a “non-domination” understanding of liberty was the glue that held the seventeenth-century English “republican” cohort together, and that their “neoRoman”understanding of liberty was a major discourse of political opposition during the English Revolution.16 In his efforts to reconstruct, and to commend, the republican idea of liberty, Skinner had from the start taken Hobbes as a foil. There has been a long tradition of reading Machiavelli and Hobbes as the twin progenitors of modern statecraft, but Skinner has sought to pit them in opposition. In Liberty before Liberalism Hobbes figures as the primary alternative to the “neoRoman” understanding of liberty as “non-dependence”. As a staunch absolutist and an uncompromising materialist, Hobbes rejected any definition of liberty that rendered it more than a mere absence of physical constraint. He believed that republicans, by characterizing slavery as mere dependence (even in the absence of actual interference), had spawned both an ontological and a political absurdity. This Hobbesian doctrine, in Skinner’s account, became hegemonic in utilitarian liberalism, and has left us moderns with both a reduced sensitivity to the dangers of servility and a worrisome tolerance for “liberal” authoritarians.17 Hobbes has thus long functioned as an important interlocutor in Skinner’s account of neo-Roman liberty in England, and this “anti-republican” reading of Hobbes has proven influential.18 In spite of this, however, Hobbes was rather schematically portrayed in Liberty before Liberalism. The text treated Leviathan in isolation (neglecting Hobbes’s other works), and it merely gestured at the specifics of Hobbes’s presumed engagement with the republican theorists of the Revolution. Skinner’s latest book, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, is his effort to thicken this contextual reading of Hobbes as an anti-republican. For the

15 16

17 18

Ibid., 13. Skinner’s definition of English republicanism differs significantly from those of Pocock, who emphasizes republican attachment to civic virtue, and Blair Worden, who has convincingly portrayed English republicanism as a fitful and late-developing reaction to constitional crises. See, for instance, Worden, “English Republicanism”, in J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie, eds., The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700 (Cambridge, 1991), 443–64. Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 59–60. In virtually all accounts of English republicanism, Hobbes is deployed as a foil. See, for examples, David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Ethics, and Politics, 1627– 1660 (Cambridge, 1989), 35; Sarah Barber, Regicide and Republicanism: Politics and Ethics in the English Revolution, 1649–1659 (Edinburgh, 1998), 192; Markku Peltonen, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1995), 12.

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first time he has argued in detail for a dynamic process of development, whereby Hobbes’s hostility to republican liberty gathered force during the 1640s and 1650s. Underdeveloped in the manuscript “Elements of Law” and in De Cive (1642), Hobbes refined his own definition of liberty in Leviathan in order to counter the increasingly assertive efforts of the republicans. Leviathan’s new understanding of liberty constituted a “powerful attack on a number of new opponents of absolute sovereignty who had risen to fatal prominence in England during the period since the publication of De Cive in 1642”. In Skinner’s account, Hobbes’s riposte to republican notions of liberty is the fundamental innovation in Leviathan. This claim, in turn, sustains his argument that such notions of liberty “rose to unparalleled prominence in English public debate” during the Revolution itself. Skinner construes the dialogue between Hobbes and the republicans as nothing short of “an epoch-making moment in the history of Anglophone political thought”.19 This is, at base, a historical argument. It may be sufficient for a theorist such as Pettit to isolate Hobbes’s theory of liberty, bundle it together with utilitarian liberalism, and allow the whole to function as a foil for his own advocacy of a republican theory of liberty as non-domination. Skinner’s historical contextualist methodology requires more. In a familiar vein, he writes,
I approach Hobbes’s political theory not simply as a general system of ideas, but also as a polemical intervention in the ideological conflicts of his time. . . I try to bring Hobbes down from the philosophical heights, to spell out his allusions, to identity his allies and adversaries, to indicate where he stands on the spectrum of political debate.20

These are the problems, neglected somewhat in Liberty before Liberalism, that Skinner seeks to address in Hobbes and Republican Liberty. He has certainly produced a typically insightful book. Nevertheless, what was often said of Liberty before Liberalism might be equally well said of its successor. As an analysis of Hobbes’s account of liberty and its incompatibility with the classical republican tradition, the book is compelling. As an attempt to recover Hobbes’s writings as artefacts of the broader English Revolution, it is flawed. Turning first to the book’s considerable virtues, there can be no doubt that Skinner has here provided an exceptionally deft analysis of Thomas Hobbes’s distinctive account of human liberty. The account was most fully argued in the twenty-first chapter of Leviathan, where Hobbes offered a perversely narrow definition of liberty as the mere absence of “external impediments of motion”. Hobbes was an uncompromising materialist and a determinist, and he thus held that “liberty and necessity” were consistent. Human will, determined by the motions of appetites and aversions, enjoyed only the liberty that, say,
19 20

Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge, 2008), 138, 142, 149. Ibid., xvi.

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free-flowing water did. In either case, only actual physical restraint could hinder liberty. Completing this austere account, Hobbes explicitly affirmed that “fear and liberty are consistent”. Fear would certainly strongly determine human will and would thus direct action, but all human will was determined in any case, and thus it was absurd to claim that fear, uniquely among the passions, deprived agents of liberty.21 To scholastics, and indeed to the broader intellectual culture that scholasticism had shaped, this argument conflated liberty with mere physical spontaneity. But Hobbes’s account of the human will, his ontology of matter in motion, nullified such traditional distinctions. His insistence that he was merely refining the “proper signification” of the word “liberty” was a classic example of his notorious rhetorical gamesmanship. In Skinner’s account, Hobbes deployed his definition of human liberty primarily on two fronts: to describe the “natural liberty” of bodies in motion, and to characterize the “liberty of subjects” living under sovereignty. In truth, only the former was “properly” called liberty, and Hobbes’s main polemical point was to efface the distinction between the liberty of men (as physical bodies) and the liberty of subjects. “What it means,” summarizes Skinner, “to be deprived of your liberty, and hence to lose the status of being a free-man, is simply to be ‘stopped’ by some external impediment from exercising your powers— your ‘strength and wit’—at will.”22 Skinner effectively exposes this as a piece of rhetorical “effrontery”, repellent to scholastic definitions of free will, and incompatible with political understandings of free-men as agents enjoying some level of self-mastery. “No one,” writes Skinner, had
previously offered an explicit definition of what it means to be a free-man in direct competition with the definition put forward by the writers of republican liberty and their classical authorities. But Hobbes states as plainly as possible that what it means to be a free-man is nothing to do with being sui iuris or living independently of the will of others; what it means is simply to be unopposed by external impediments from acting according to one’s will and powers.23

Having reduced free subjects to mere free bodies, Hobbes was positioned to recast drastically the traditional definition of “free states”. On the one hand, Hobbes essentially equated free states with sovereign states, acting as artificial persons in a state of natural liberty. Skinner presents this as a feint on Hobbes’s part, and argues that the real polemical thrust of Hobbes’s redefinition of “free states” attended to the internal workings of states (rather than their external,


22 23

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: with Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, 1994), 136–7. Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 151. Ibid., 157.

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geopolitical condition). Following from his narrow understanding of liberty itself as physical liberty, Hobbes argued in Leviathan that any actions undertaken for fear of the law were done willingly, and thus freely. Even under absolute sovereigns, we are not (as a matter of course) physically prevented from acting, “from which it follows that we are always entirely free to obey or disobey as we choose.” Fear of the law will doubtless often determine our actions, but does not restrain our freedom.24 There is a great deal to be said for this analysis, and perhaps for Skinner’s suggestion that it represents the original sin of modern, anglophone political thought.25 If the pitiless specifics of Hobbes’s account of human liberty were generally abandoned by later liberals, they nonetheless set a template according to which liberty was fundamentally cast as non-interference. This was particularly the case in the utilitarian tradition. Skinner has beautifully explicated Hobbes’s contribution to the tradition of enlightened despotism (a tradition that Isaiah Berlin, infamously, reconciled with liberalism). He caps his discussion of Leviathan with a subtle account of those rights (more extensive than traditionally recognized) that Hobbes deemed inalienable, and those liberties that a wellordered society would shelter under the “Silences of the Law”. Commentators, from Leo Strauss to Carl Schmitt, who have been interested in casting Hobbes as a founding liberal, have typically “Hobbesified” liberalism in an effort to critique it in various ways. Skinner, though clearly disenchanted with aspects of the modern liberal order, is honest enough to “liberalize” Hobbes.26 But these aspects of Skinner’s interpretation, if more fully presented in his latest book, are not new. The fresh contribution of Hobbes and Republican Liberty is its historical case for a process of evolution in Hobbes’s account of liberty, an engagement with the republican tradition of the Revolutionary era that is supposedly revealing and significant because of its dynamism. Such a claim— for the contextual primacy (not just the analytic interest) of Hobbes’s antirepublicanism—implicates a larger interpretation of the English Revolution itself. The Revolution is cast as an episode in a metanarrative that is deeply engrained in our modern political imaginary, according to which the rival discourses of proto-liberalism and republicanism war for the soul of the modern state.

24 25


Ibid., 157–61. Although Charles Larmore, among others, has cogently criticized the Pettit–Skinner “republican” school for overstating the differences between republicanism and nonutilitarian liberalism. Liberals from Locke to Rawls have worried about reliance on the arbitrary will of sovereignty, and even a figure such as Constant (who formatively distinguished ancient from modern liberty) voiced such concerns. See Charles Larmore, “A Critique of Philip Pettit’s Republicanism”, Noˆ s 35 (Oct. 2001), 229–43. u Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 166–9.

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The historical claims of Hobbes and Republican Liberty, however, are only imperfectly sustained. Partly this may be blamed on the brevity of the volume. Quentin Skinner is one of the great historical essayists of our time, but it is regrettable that his books on the republican tradition of liberty have been largely essayistic in scale. Such compression forces him to sustain large arguments with impressionistic evidence. This is particularly true when he is documenting the broad “discourses” of the Revolutionary era, but even his discussion of Hobbes himself is at times surprisingly thin. For instance, Skinner makes very little use of Hobbes’s correspondence or his minor writings, some of which contain highly relevant evidence. Nor does Skinner discuss Hobbes’s biography, or say very much about the reception of his work. In this volume, at least, Skinner’s contextual method has produced a juxtaposition of Hobbes’s main works against the productions of canonical writers such as Henry Parker, James Harrington, and John Milton. The political narrative against which all of these texts emerged is scarcely discussed at all (Oliver Cromwell is mentioned once in passing). Skinner’s approach does not allow for a full reconstruction of the “ideological conflicts of Hobbes’s time”, and it leaves him vulnerable to the charge of interpretive selectivity. This is not to suggest that his historical case is completely faulty, merely that it relies on some disputable generalities and elisions. Hobbes and Republican Liberty makes two large and necessarily interlocking claims for historical change: first, that Hobbes dramatically revolutionized his understanding of liberty during the 1640s; and second, that Hobbes was driven to these conceptual innovations by a rising republican tradition that he wished to counter. These claims may be evaluated in turn. “Hobbes’s analysis of liberty in Leviathan”, Skinner writes, “represents not a revision but a repudiation of what he had earlier argued, and this development reflects a substantial change in the character of his moral thought.”27 Through exceptionally close and typically shrewd readings, he certainly demonstrates some shifts. “The Elements of Law” had offered Hobbes’s basic view (intrinsic to his materialist determinism) that the determined will (resulting from deliberation) was indeed free. But the manuscript had not specifically discussed whether acting under duress—though clearly wilful—should be characterized as “free”. Discussing free subjects, the “Elements” had flatly denied that a sovereign’s subjects could preserve meaningful liberty. De Cive reiterated these points, but in the work’s ninth chapter Hobbes devised a more generic definition of liberty as the “absence of impediments to motion”. Crucially, according to Skinner, De Cive offered two categories of such impediments: external impediments (actual blockages), and arbitrary impediments (our passions, particularly fear). Both


Ibid., xvi.

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constrain liberty, and in the latter case they seem to explain why terror of the law or of God might constitute restraints on liberty. Leviathan is more expansive than Hobbes’s other writings on the question of human liberty. There Hobbes innovated still further, by more reductively defining restraints on liberty as “the absence of external impediments to motion”. Such a refinement rendered it impossible for Hobbes to continue categorizing an emotion such as fear as a constraint upon liberty. This, according to Skinner, was the crucial, “epoch-making” innovation in Hobbes’s account, “one of the most remarkable developments in his civil philosophy”.28 It enabled him to expand still further his counterintuitive notion of what it meant to be a “free subject”, and thus to offer a theory of liberty that fixated on interference (rather than domination) in an extremely reductive, physical sense. Skinner claims that these changes were more than mere refinements, but this is far from obvious.29 The distinctiveness of the account of liberty in “The Elements” is largely attributable to its brevity. De Cive’s more general account of liberty (in all senses of the term) is not inconsistent with the earlier text, except perhaps for its consideration of so-called “arbitrary impediments” to liberty. But Hobbes’s discussion of arbitrary impediments, Skinner concedes, is confused, and seems to contradict his overall desire to reduce both wilful and free actions to appetites and aversions. It may also be correct that, when discussing civil liberty, “The Elements” had “somberly” emphasized the loss of natural liberty under sovereignty, while De Cive more optimistically foregrounded the civil liberty enjoyed by virtue of the silence of the law. But these are compatible propositions distinguished by relatively minor differences in tone. Leviathan’s account of liberty is more internally consistent than Hobbes’s previous treatments, and it is more expansive. Skinner makes a great deal of the fact that “the concept of liberty” receives its own chapter in Leviathan but not in De Cive, but it is worth noting that the former text has forty-seven chapters, and the latter only eighteen. Leviathan expanded on a great many Hobbesian topics. It is surely interesting that Hobbes streamlined his definition of liberty in Leviathan, shedding the concept of “arbitrary” impediments and casting all restraints on liberty as “external impediments”. But little of significance in De Cive had depended on the notion of arbitrary impediments, and Skinner concedes that Hobbes’s abandonment of the idea may have been merely an effort to resolve certain inconsistencies in his systematic discussion of liberty.30 It is important to note that in all of Hobbes’s main writings, he expressly denies that covenants
28 29


Ibid., 127. Philip Pettit has also dissented from this claim of dramatic evolution in Hobbes’s account of liberty. See his Republicanism, 168, n. 15. Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 138.

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motivated by fear are unfree. Silently dropping the confused category of arbitrary impediments removed a contradiction. Likewise, Hobbes may only have flatly equated free actions and wilful actions in his Latin Leviathan of 1668, but in this he was only more clearly stating what was an obvious implication of his previous work. Skinner’s most compelling observation is that Hobbes’s brutally reductive definition of liberty in Leviathan permitted him more effectively to rile certain defenders of civil freedom by defining a “free-man” as any subject capable of wilfully acting when unconstrained physically. The perverse suggestion that those willing to act in the face of terrifying law were “free” paralleled Hobbes’s mordant remark that, even under heathen despots, Christians enjoyed a perfect freedom to martyr themselves.31 By 1651, Hobbes was no longer willing to concede that the freedom of subjects was the just wage demanded by sovereignty. By more narrowly defining what counted as a restraint upon civil freedom, he permitted himself a more radical formulation: civil liberty and political subjugation were compatible. No trade-off was required. This paradox was only expressed in its most bracing form in Leviathan, and Skinner is surely right to flag it as a significant rhetorical feature of Hobbes’s masterpiece. In particular, Hobbes’s crabbed definition of liberty would prove consequential later as part of the doxa of utilitarian liberalism. That said, Skinner overstates the extent to which Leviathan represented a “repudiation” of Hobbes’s earlier theories of civil liberty. Those earlier discussions had been rather rudimentary and self-contradictory, and one might well read their gestures towards a more traditional understanding of civil liberty as a vestigial use of conventional terminology. The more forceful discussion of civil liberty in Leviathan, after all, was an all but inescapable consequence of Hobbes’s long-standing account of both the determined natural will, on the one hand, and the nature of original political covenants, on the other. In both cases, Hobbes had already exploded the traditional opposition between necessity and freedom. Thus, on the topic of civil liberty, Leviathan perhaps offered not a theoretical departure, but rather a sharpened argumentative strategy. To present these shifts as a “revolution” in Hobbes’s thinking about liberty is implausible. And if this is the case, some of the cogency of Skinner’s efforts to synchronize Hobbes’s conceptual “revolution” with the actual English Revolution is lost. This raises the second of Skinner’s historical claims. Leviathan may well have further distilled Hobbes’s account of liberty (albeit in arguably minor ways), but the role of republicanism in forcing this conceptual development is unclear. As Skinner himself concedes, Hobbes’s final version of the “proper signification


Hobbes, Leviathan, 410.

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of liberty” did not first appear in Leviathan, but was instead developed in the mid-1640s during Hobbes’s famed dispute with Bishop Bramhall over free will. Bramhall was a staunch throne-and-altar man, and was, needless to say, not a notable advocate of the “non-domination” theory of civil liberty.32 That Hobbes clearly and forcefully expressed his most reductive definition of liberty in the context of his dispute with Bramhall strongly suggests that natural philosophical considerations first forced the change.33 Skinner tries to massage this implication by noting that Hobbes first published his new account of liberty in Leviathan, but this does nothing to diminish the import of the Bramhall dispute as evidence of a context for Hobbes’s discussion of liberty that had nothing to do with republicanism. In this sense it is crucial to recognize that, while Hobbes could and did deploy his innovative understanding of liberty against “democraticall” gentlemen, he also deployed it against scholastic notions of free will, defenders of the liberties of Parliament and the common law courts, advocates of a robust right to free conscience, and defenders of the ecclesial liberty of the corporate church. Indeed, as we will see, these latter targets greatly outranked the readers of ancient political texts on his roll of intellectual enemies. It is also true that, where Hobbes assailed constitutional positions that we might characterize as broadly republican, he was not always targeting the nondependency account of liberty that Skinner believes most clearly delineated that republican tradition. Skinner’s account seems to claim, in essence, that non-domination accounts of liberty begin to attach themselves by degrees to “republican” constitutional positions during the unfolding of the Revolution. Before this, the “paramount distinction in civil associations” between “those who enjoy the status of liberi homines or ‘free-men’ and those who live in servitude” is found in a spectacular array of sites: among the ancients, in the Digest of Justinian, in Henry de Bracton, in Magna Carta and the common-law tradition, in Cardinal Contarini, in Machiavelli, in late Tudor parliamentarians, in early Stuart constitutional royalists, in Henry Parker, in William Prynne, in the Levellers, and elsewhere. The rhetoric of liberi homines and enslavement was



Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Skinner elsewhere (at 156) quote’s Bramhall’s The Serpent Salve (1643) for evidence of a broader discourse denying the foundational claim of the non-domination republicans (i.e. that “living independently of others” was the definition of “freedom”.) It is also interesting that Hobbes did not reformulate the discussion of “arbitrary impediments” in the 1647 edition of De Cive, despite this intervening discussion with Bramhall and despite many other textual additions. This suggests either that Hobbes was vacillating on the question of liberty (unlikely), or that Skinner is overstating the significance of De Cive’s mention of “arbitrary impediments”.

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spectacularly promiscuous.34 Within England, it was only after the regicide of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649 that writers were “cautiously” willing to “draw the explicitly republican inference that, if we wish to evade such servitude, we must be sure to establish a free state” by “abolishing the office of king.”35 Hobbes’s final account of liberty, however, had set by 1645 (if not earlier). Thus, if it is to be construed primarily as a response to the constitutional implications of a “non-dependency” account of liberty, it must have been targeted primarily at mixed constitutionalism. The difficulty is that mixed constitutionalism, within England, was primarily a discourse of common-law traditionalism, and not a republican discourse. Quite naturally, given the limited nature of the English parliament as a representative body, mixed constitutionalism was not primarily built on accounts of liberty that valorized non-dependency for all free subjects. Nor did Hobbes’s hostility to mixed constitutions typically foreground any debate about the liberty of freemen in this sense. Hobbes’s constitutional theorizing tended to fixate on the question of stability, and the impossibility of establishing a single sovereign will in conditions of institutional plurality. In fact, democracy was theoretically acceptable in Hobbes’s terms. Likewise, English constitutionalists could look to shelter the liberties of liberi homines under the wing of good lordship, and could thus accommodate both a robust notion of royal prerogative and a fundamentally “negative” understanding of their own freedoms. Their complaints about monarchical incursion were often, perhaps usually, concerns about “interference” with either individual liberty or the liberty of institutions such as parliament and the common-law courts. Thus not every invocation of the liberties of freemen and the evils of slavery will suit Skinner’s purposes. He is naturally aware of this, and he does, valuably, recover some evidence that the mere existence of arbitrary monarchical power was at times a concern in the early years of the Civil War. Such concerns do, for instance, seem to have fuelled opposition to the royal veto. But just as often, Skinner’s evidence begs the question. It proves very difficult to distinguish between opposition to the “mere existence of arbitrary power” and its ill exercise. For instance, he places great weight on the struggle against Ship Money. It is certainly true that opposition to this hated levy, both inside and outside Parliament, deployed the distinction of free-men and slaves. But most opponents of Ship Money accepted the prerogative rights of the monarch to collect it. The outrage was that Charles I had abused this prerogative by collecting Ship Money in peacetime, or on inland counties that were traditionally exempt. The


For a similar criticism see J. G. A. Pocock, “Foundations and Moments”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 46–7. Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 143.

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king’s tyranny lay in the ill exercise of his prerogative, not in its mere existence. Even Henry Parker, who went further than most in condemning the “absolute discretion” of kings, accepted the exercise of prerogative powers when they were “good and profitable for the people”. English royal prerogative needed to be “balanced” so as not to “oppresse the people in unjust things” or to “disable the King in just things.”36 The test, even for one as radical as Parker, was often the justice of the exercise of prerogative power, not its mere existence. Indeed, the same could be said for much of the opposition to Charles I. The Militia Ordinance, for instance, whereby Parliament asserted control over the kingdom’s militias, was perhaps the most polarizing political act of the fraught year of 1642. Skinner interprets this ordinance as an example of rising concern about the mere existence of arbitrary power. In fact, most parliamentarians understood the Ordinance as a temporary measure forced by necessity. Indeed, in later negotiations with Charles, Parliament typically demanded control of the militias for a ten- or twenty-year period. The problem was thus not the traditional royal control of the militia, but the failures of a particular king in exercising that control (most flagrantly by threatening Parliament itself, it was alleged by Charles’s enemies).37 Likewise, the heavy reliance of parliamentarians on the theme of evil counsellors implied a critique of misdirected power and of a failure of good lordship, not a crusade against arbitrary power per se. Skinner asserts that the case against arbitrary power (as such) found its “clearest summary” in John Goodwin’s Anti-Cavalierisme of 1642. Here Goodwin supposedly condemned discretionary powers and defined liberty as the disposal of self and property at one’s “own will”. But this is at best a very partial reading of Goodwin’s text, which in fact dwelt chiefly (and with near hysteria) on the “Jesuitical and Cavalierish” conspirators who had, “through some black art or other gotten the chiefe treasure of the Land, the King, into their possession, setting him still in front of all their desperate designs”. Royal prerogative per se was not the chief concern of Goodwin, indeed he affirmed the legitimacy of any constitutional form (including unmixed monarchy) that ruled in accord with justice and Godliness. Divine providence, showing its face against Antichrist, sanctioned resistance to the Cavaliers. Goodwin’s infatuation with a providentially active divine law is hard to reconcile with republican notions of self-mastery. The bulwarks of freedom were not self-governing, republican free-men, but the



Henry Parker, The Case of Ship-Money Briefly Discoursed. . . (London, 1640), 6–9, emphases added. Quentin Skinner, “Classic Liberty and the English Civil War”, in Martin van Gelderen and Quentin Skinner, eds., Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2002), 2: 9–29.

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“purity of religion”, and the parliamentary “worthies of the land”, to whose “zeale and expense. . . you and your whole Nation owe your lives and liberties, both spiritual and temporall”.38 This is not a language of “non-dependence”. Goodwin’s text does not recall Livy and Sallust so much as Godly reform, English constitutionalism and the feudal resistance theory of the sixteenth century. Skinner has not sustained the view that the English Revolution was triggered by a coherent tradition of thinking about liberty as non-dependency, rather than non-interference. He cannot compellingly construe the constitutional cause of Parliament, the common lawyers, and the “hot protestants” in this way, nor does he convincingly supplant those actors as the primary foils of Hobbes’s political theory.39 Skinner finds more hospitable terrain when he attends to those textual passages in which Hobbes specifically flays the democratical writers of antiquity and their modern d´vots. But here again, not every piece of evidence will advance his e case. Hobbes condemned the ancient historians and moralists for any number of sins. He rejected the mixed constitutionalism of authorities such as Polybius and Aristotle. He feared the capacity of ancient literature to conjure grandiose delusions in the imaginations of political actors. His preference for single-man rule made him contemptuous of “democraticall gentlemen”. But none of these positions necessarily depended upon a “non-domination” account of liberty. Skinner’s argument thus requires more specific evidence than a mere Hobbesian contempt for the readers of the “Greek and Latin authors”. To be sure, he does find some evidence in chapter 21 of Leviathan. There, Hobbes rejected the notion that the moralists and historians of antiquity upheld the “liberty of particular men”, and instead he construed “free-states” as merely sovereign states. In this respect a republic such as Lucca and a despotism such as Constantinople were equally free. In this passage Hobbes seemed to be redeeming, rather than repudiating, the teachings of the ancients (in that he accuses contemporaries of misreading them). But Hobbes also heaped contempt on the ancients for falsely teaching that all who “lived under monarchy were slaves”.40 Hobbes reinforced this critique in a few passages of his history of the Civil War, Behemoth. There is thus no doubt that at times in Leviathan Hobbes’s account of liberty was a useful weapon against the “democratical” ancients and the notion of

38 39


John Goodwin, Anti-Cavalierisme. . . (London, 1642), 2–7, 40–41. Emphasis added. His effort to construe the absolutism of the “Elements of Law” as primarily a rejoinder to Contarini, rather than English constitutionalists, is impressionistic and inconclusive. He concedes that De Cive was more concerned with English constitutionalism. Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 62–4, 105–6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 140. With this last remark, Hobbes put his boot on the neck of a straw man. No one among the ancients or moderns condemned monarchy this hyperbolically.

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freedom that they had spawned. By 1651 the Revolution had outstripped the constitutional formulae of the common law. The English state had been abruptly rendered kingless, and its defenders necessarily moved beyond traditional constitutionalism. In this context, Skinner finds more evidence of a classically inflected discourse against dependency within English radicalism. Here we find John Hall, for instance, speaking of “advancement” wrung from monarchs as “but a more splendid and dangerous slavery”, and John Milton excoriating those whose liberties depend on “the gift and favour of a single person”. Skinner finds some useful evidence in the writings of the Levellers as well. Not all republicans, however, were equally dedicated to notions of non-dependence. This was not, for instance, a consistent theme for Marchamont Nedham, who alloyed his republicanism with a hard-nosed de-factoism and an expansive accommodation of interest. And while Skinner finds some compelling evidence in the writings of John Milton, Milton’s fulminations against enslavement to kings often targeted monarchs’ lack of wisdom in exercising power, and he occasionally conceded at least the theoretical possibility of a virtuous king. Even in his most republican tract, his preferred constitution was a perpetual senate of the “gravest authorities”, who would acts as “keepers of our libertie”.41 Milton, and Skinner, might rejoin that “non-domination” need not imply broad political participation. But this begs the neo-republican question. If rights and liberties can be secured by a permanent committee of the wise, why not equally by an enlightened king? To construe such closed regimes as “non-arbitrary” implies not a politics of active self-government, but an older understanding of “arbitrary” power as wilful, irrational and self-interested, no matter what its constitution or the extent of its prerogatives. Hostility to the latter sort of “arbitrary power” could have commanded the agreement of King James I. This is not to deny that Skinner has found evidence for his more robust understanding of “non-domination” in the writings of men such as Goodwin and Milton, but merely to observe that the commitment of these men to the independence of free-men often seems subordinate to their highly specific understanding of civic virtue. Even the most zealous of English republicans was capable of suggesting that it was the duty of subjects to emulate just government, rather than participate in its direction. Nevertheless, Hobbes and Republican Liberty finds its surest footing in the years between 1649 and 1651, when Hobbes did at times deploy his understanding of liberty against what might be construed as a rival non-domination account. But

John Milton, The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. . . (1660), 45–50, 55–6, 72, emphasis added. On these aspects of Milton’s republicanism see Paul A. Rahe, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (Cambridge, 2008).

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Skinner’s case for the vast significance of this finding requires that it be not a detail of Leviathan, but a central thematic component, driving a “revolution” in Hobbes’s previous account of liberty and explaining the timing and structure of Hobbes’s masterpiece. This considerably overstates the case. Arguably, Hobbes’s account of liberty did not significantly evolve after 1640, and it certainly did not after 1645, long before republican accounts of liberty had a major public presence in England. Leviathan, furthermore, pre-dated the major theoretical works that might be read as contributing to a tradition of republican “non-domination”. There are, in sum, three rotating parts to Skinner’s thesis in Hobbes and Republican Liberty: evolving “republican” constitutional theories during the 1640s and 1650s (moving from mixed constitutional to anti-monarchical), Hobbes’s varied complaints about the intellectual authority of the ancients, and competing accounts of civil liberty as either non-dependency or non-interference. Making his argument work requires that Skinner synchronize these three gears, but the alignment is imperfect and the gears slip. Hobbes’s blasts at the ancients were too scattershot. The constitutional positions that concerned him were often not derived from the republican tradition. Neither the parliamentarians of the 1640s nor the republicans of the 1650s reliably espoused liberty’s “third way” of non-domination. The former often laboured to hedge liberties that we would understand as fundamentally “negative”. The latter deployed definitions of virtue and of human flourishing that were often decidedly “positive”. For his part, Hobbes’s own account of liberty found polemical uses in such diverse contexts that it is reductive to classify it simply (or even primarily) as “anti-republican”. Hobbes and Republican Liberty certainly enriches our understanding of one of the many contextual resonances of Hobbes’s account of liberty, but the stronger claims of the book, its broader reading of the Revolution and of Hobbes’s reaction to it, rely on a reductive account of radical thought in the 1640s and 1650s, and on a reading of Hobbes’s own thought that exaggerates the dynamism and prominence of his account of the “liberty of subjects”. In the final analysis, it is this lack of proportion in Skinner’s account that is most problematic. Even if we grant (as many will not) that the discussion of civil liberty in Leviathan marks an innovation in Hobbes’s thinking on that matter, his direct exploration of “the liberty of subjects” consumes approximately six pages in modern editions that run to nearly five hundred pages in length. Hobbesian invective against the ancient democrats and their modern students is likewise limited to a few passages.42 When Hobbes began composing Leviathan (likely in

This is also the case in Hobbes’s history of the Civil War, Behemoth, which Skinner mines for anti-republican sentiment. He cites two passages, both of which rail against “readers of ancient texts” who prefer democracy to monarchy. The theme is certainly there to be found in Behemoth. See Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth: or, the Long Parliament (Chicago,

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1649), he was returning to his civil science for the third time, thereby interrupting work on the already much delayed natural-philosophical aspects of his system. This was the first time that he had framed his political thinking for an English audience, and Leviathan was his first philosophical production to be published (in authorized form) in London. Leviathan was more than twice the length of De Cive, was full of new material, and had radically different political overtones than Hobbes’s earlier work. Hobbes knew before its publication that it would anger his royalist associates. It immediately did so, and ensured his banishment from the exiled royalist court. A compelling contextualization of Leviathan must plausibly account for these basic historical features of its production. An explanation which foregrounds the text’s relatively brief discussion of civil liberty will not do the trick. The royalists clearly did not take this to be the point of the book, nor did Hobbes expect them to do so. And if Hobbes had intended Leviathan primarily as a rebuke to the republicans, he presumably would have lingered on this theme at more length, and signalled its importance with more vigour. Indeed, one of the striking features of Hobbes and Republican Liberty is its failure to account for what Thomas Hobbes himself actually said about Leviathan’s political significance. “The cause of my writing that book”, Hobbes would recall of Leviathan, “was the consideration of what the Ministers before, and in the beginning of the Civill War, by their preaching and writing did contribute thereunto.” In the Latin translation of Leviathan (1668) he reiterated that the book had been animated by the belief that “the civil war which was being waged then throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, had no other cause than the disagreement, first between the Roman church and the Anglican, and then in the Anglican church between the Episcopal pastors and the Presbyterians concerning theological matters”.43 As any reader of either Leviathan or Behemoth will immediately see, Hobbes understood the English Revolution as a religious war. A great deal could be said on this topic, but suffice it to say that Hobbes loathed both the supposedly destabilizing otherworldliness of orthodox Christian theology, and what he took to be the seditious designs of Christian clergy to erect dualist structures of temporal and spiritual power. In all of his major works, and in private correspondence, he held that “the dispute for precedence between the spiritual and the civil power, has of late more than any other thing in the world, been the


1990), 26, 204. The work as a whole, however, is structured as a scathing attack on clerical usurpation and religious dualism. Behemoth must be primarily understood within this vastly more important context of religious polemic. See Hobbes, Six Lessons to the Professors of the Mathematiques. . . (London, 1656), 56; idem, Leviathan, 538–9.

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cause of civil wars in all places of Christendom.”44 It is not an exaggeration to say that defusing the political threat of Christian theology and ecclesiology was an obsessive theme in Hobbes’s writing. It was also a dynamic theme, rising in prominence as the English Revolution unfolded, until in Leviathan the effort to resolve the problem of religious sedition consumed literally hundreds of pages. Hobbes was always perfectly clear that these religious sections constituted the most innovatory and unsettling aspects of his masterpiece.45 They were themes that he clearly and persistently linked to the context of the Revolution itself, and they dwarf Hobbes’s sporadic comments on the republicans. No contextualization of Leviathan that fails to account for its religious dimensions can be fully convincing.46 The point of this criticism is not to chide Quentin Skinner pedantically for ignoring a subject that the present reviewer finds interesting. The point is, rather, that due attention to the religious context of Hobbes’s theoretical productions directly implicates, and in some measure undercuts, Skinner’s reading of Hobbes as an “anti-republican” first and foremost.47 This is true in two respects. To begin with, Hobbes’s doctrines on politics and religion very much complicated republican reactions to Leviathan. Though they disliked his “addiction to monarchy” and his condescension toward the ancients, virtually all of the major republicans of the 1650s, with the notable exception of Milton, eagerly endorsed Hobbes’s anti-clerical and staunchly Erastian teachings. James Harrington, Marchamont Nedham, John Hall, Francis Osborne, William Petty, William Rand, Henry Stubbe: all of these important republicans reacted to Hobbes in this schizophrenic manner. Furthermore, it is by no means evident that, in contextual terms, their admiration for his ecclesiology was less significant than their distaste for his absolutism. And as historians such as Justin Champion and Noel Malcolm have demonstrated, the positive appeal of Hobbes’s ecclesiological





Hobbes to Devonshire, 23 July 1641, The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Noel Malcolm, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1994), 120. See also Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge, 1998), 81; also Hobbes, Leviathan, 228. Resistance to this fact can be remarkably dogged, particularly among political theorists. For one recent and particularly unconvincing attempt to explain it away see Deborah Baumgold, “The Difficulties of Hobbes Interpretation”, Political Theory 36 (2008), 839, 844–7. Revealingly, Skinner’s work has always been difficult to reconcile with the best general interpretations of the English Revolution, most of which heavily emphasize its religious dimensions. See, most pertinently, the work of his Cambridge colleague, John Morrill, particularly “The Religious Context of the English Civil War”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 34 (1984), 155–78. Here and below I borrow from my own The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 2005), chap. 5 and conclusion.

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doctrines remained a major influence within later, Enlightenment republicanism. Indeed, the former has argued that the fundamentally Hobbesian project of disabling Christianity eventually trumped the anti-monarchism of English republicans.48 But even in the 1650s, the major republicans and Hobbes agreed that England’s religious wars should be resolved by abolishing clerical power, providing some room for a passive religious liberty, and subordinating public religious power to the purposes of the state. A common dedication to the tradition of civil religion went some way towards reconciling both Hobbes and the republicans to the rule of Oliver Cromwell. No discussion of either Hobbesian or republican notions of liberty can overlook these dimensions of the question. On matters of individual religious liberty, the pernicious institutional liberty of the corporate church, and the liberty of sovereignty to act independently of religious strictures, Hobbes and the republicans were in broad accord. And for Hobbes in particular, these were issues of all-engrossing concern. Skinner’s inattention to religious questions raises a second problem for his general interpretation of Hobbes’s revolutionary importance. If we step back and take the broadest view of Skinner’s project, what emerges as its clearest theme is his discomfort with the absolutizing tendencies of modern sovereignty. He dislikes the atomization and privatization implicit in liberal theories of the state. He finds its notions of freedom and its account of civil society impoverished. He seeks a political model that will preserve individual rights and interests, but will sustain more robust notions of participatory obligations and of the conditions required to maintain liberty. In the neo-republican project, Skinner believes that he has found a tradition capable of nudging liberalism in these directions, without moving unacceptably close to more traditionally minded communitarians. He writes: “The Aristotelian or Thomist assumption that a healthy public life must be founded on a conception of eudaimonia is by no means the only alternative to contemporary liberalism.” We need not, he elaborates, try to “slip back into the womb of the polis”.49 Here is the promise of liberty’s “third way”. Skinner’s historical interest in republicanism has been increasingly animated by this contemporary political engagement. It is fair to wonder, however, whether the model of liberalism and republicanism in endless struggle—whatever the merits of the latter as an ideology for the European Union—is an appropriate



Noel Malcolm, “Hobbes and the Republic of Letters”, in idem, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford, 2002), 514–17; Justin Champion, Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies (Cambridge, 1992), 134–5; idem, Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696–1722 (Manchester, 2003), 111 et passim. Skinner, ‘The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, 66–7.

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interpretive device for understanding the political theory of the seventeenth century. Such a model, placing Hobbes at one axial end and a Machiavellian republicanism at the other, entails a false polarization on critical issues. It misses essential commonalities, and ignores the broader struggle against the dualist structures of Christendom that united a “proto-liberal” such as Hobbes and a republican such as Harrington. For contemporary critics who defended an Augustinian or Thomistic (or Laudian) religious corporatism, Hobbes and the Interregnum republicans spoke the common language of sovereignty. Alike they sought to disable what had for centuries been the primarily institutional check on unfettered statecraft. This struggle, for Hobbes certainly, became definitive as the English Revolution progressed. And if, a century later, a republican such as Rousseau could condemn Hobbes’s philosophy of right as a theory of enslavement, he was also capable of honouring him as the first thinker “who dared to propose the reunification of the two heads of the eagle”.50 Skinner’s neglect of Hobbes’s religious context, in other words, does not just sacrifice historical comprehensiveness. In fact, it veils the real context in which developed exactly those aspects of modern sovereignty that he dislikes. Nor will it do to acknowledge this point for its antiquarian accuracy, but then sideline the religious context of early modern political thought as an “arcane” question, dead to us post-religious moderns. Geopolitically, the struggle between modern liberal sovereignty and traditional religious doctrines retains the power to swing elections and inflame wars. In the West, to be sure, religious and political authorities long ago made their peace, but the status of religion in the public sphere remains a bitterly contested matter. Jurisprudence, in the United States particularly, continues to haggle over the fine points of church–state separation.51 Much recent political theory has obsessively disputed the moral foundations of liberalism, the implications of its lineage in traditional Judaeo-Christian thinking, and whether its latter-day notions of “neutrality” and “public reason” constitute a sectarian secularism.52 If liberalism’s modern critics were once provoked chiefly by its political economy, they are now more prone to engaging with the ethical assumptions embedded within liberalism. Of course, it is inaccurate and unjust



Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in idem, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis, 1987), 222. For one example among many, see Hein v. the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the 2007 Supreme Court case that unsuccessfully challenged funding for “faith-based initiatives” initiated by President George W. Bush and strongly supported in principle by President Barack Obama. For one version of the debate, conducted civilly by iconic figures, see J¨ rgen Habermas u and Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularism: On Reason and Religion (NY, 2007); also Habermas’s “Religion in the Public Square”, European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2006), 1–25.

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to characterize such modern debates as a reignition of early modern Europe’s “theologico-political” problem.53 They do, however, echo that original context, and cannot be fully understood if that context is forgotten or veiled. By contrast, and despite the erudite reconstructive efforts of Skinner, Pettit and others, it is the republican tradition that appears like a museum piece these days. Indeed, those who deploy the term “republican” to characterize their dissent from the more soulless aspects of liberalism seem to come in two camps: communitarians sympathetic to traditional religion (Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel) and those who are effectively socially democratic liberals (Philip Pettit, Maurizio Viroli). One thus wonders if the apparatus of neo-republicanism has advanced us very far beyond familiar intellectual struggles. It is a further question whether Quentin Skinner’s interest in neorepublicanism has led him, a touch ironically, into the construction of a “useful history”. He is, these days, less prone than he once was to methodological broadsides against all who dare impose a coherence of continuity on the past. He now seeks more than mere incommensurability in history. “I have become,” Skinner has recently written, “more interested of late in the contrasts between our past and present systems of thought, and have even come to believe that this kind of history can have a practical significance.”54 Many will appreciate this turn towards engaged history. But if the old “perennial debates” and “transhistorical themes” of yesteryear’s intellectual history were prone to mythologizing, so too is a contextualism that is overly selective and partial. That is particularly the case if the historian’s partiality mirrors his or her current political engagement. It is striking that a great deal of Quentin Skinner’s writing in the latter stages of his career has been informed by his strongly held philosophical and political commitments. His attempts to trace the prehistory of neo-republicanism are obvious examples of this. So too, one might argue, was Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, where his effort to establish Hobbes’s “manner of writing philosophy” as one of his “enduring legacies” not only exemplified Skinner’s historical methodology, but also sought to establish the prehistory of the twentieth-century language philosophy that undergirded that methodology.55 In and of itself, engagement of this kind is inevitable in most historical work and is often unproblematic, even valuable (although in the present context it might raise a wry grin from those venerable historians of ideas who were flayed by a more




On which see Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton, 1995), chap. 1. Quentin Skinner, “Surveying the Foundations: a retrospect and reassessment”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 237. Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), 6–16, 437.

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youthful and polemical Quentin Skinner for trying to “trace the morphology of some given doctrine”.56 ) What may be problematic, however, is how such an engaged historian reconciles him- or herself to the interpretive methodologies of Cambridge School contextualism. It may be that “context” as defined by that school is too fluid to ground impartial historical reconstruction. Following its master practitioners—J. G. A. Pocock and Skinner himself, above all—Cambridge School intellectual historians have insistently defined context linguistically. They seek to account for ideas as “speech acts” and printed “utterances”, variously deploying or manipulating traditions of “discourse”.57 Their histories seek to establish whatever language context “enables us to appreciate the nature of the intervention constituted” by such “utterances”. Such histories are thus “heavily textual”, and “essentially linguistic”.58 Skinner, in particular, has cast his historical method as an implication of the language philosophy of Wittgenstein and Austin.59 It has been often observed that the sheer textuality of Cambridge School intellectual history has oddly replicated one feature of the old “history of ideas” that served as its original foil, namely a fixation with self-reflective, printed works of theorization. We need not indulge the complaint of “elitism” levelled by social historians such as Robert Darnton to see how such a focus may pose difficulties for a compelling contextualization of any given text.60 Linguistic context— discourse traditions—can become remarkably expansive both chronologically and geographically, and can crowd out attention to more immediate and material features of context, such as authorial biography, immediate textual reception, the social and political situation of given texts, their history as circulating material objects. But it is precisely in these latter dimensions of context that the historian finds fixity, a stable body of evidence permitting a relatively neutral reconstruction of past meanings and textual situations. Linguistic contextualization, by contrast, can become easily unmoored. The universe of “discourses” available to an author such as Hobbes is almost infinitely varied. Interpretation thus becomes more selective, and, too often, with selectivity comes partiality.

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Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas”, in idem, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002) 62. Ibid., 78. J. G. A. Pocock, “The Concept of Language”, in Anthony Pagden, ed., The Language of Political Theory in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1987), 28; Quentin Skinner, “Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts”, in idem, Visions of Politics: Regarding Method, 116–20, 125. Quentin Skinner, “Retrospect: Studying Rhetoric and Conceptual Change”, in Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method, 175–87. Skinner himself rejected Darnton’s critique in “On Intellectual History and the History of Books”, Contributions to the History of Concepts 1 (2005), 29–36.

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There is no need to exaggerate the point. The best historical work will avail itself of various methods and source materials synthetically. Nor would it be fair to accuse Quentin Skinner of a free-floating hermeneutic technique, constructing discourse traditions with Derridean riot. His methodological reduction of all ideas into “ideology” has sometimes been criticized as “postmodern”, and he has perhaps invited this with gestures towards Nietzsche and Foucault.61 However, Skinner’s understanding of ideology is probably better characterized as Weberian,62 and if this sociological inheritance may partly explain the reflexive secularity of his work, it also lends it considerable evidentiary rigor. His recent work, nevertheless, has often sought to trace the origin of some aspect of modernity that currently interests him. In doing so, he tends to locate past thinkers in far-flung contexts, rather than in their own. Thus does Hobbes become either a “contributor to a series of debates about the moral sciences in Renaissance culture”, or a prototype of Benthamite, utilitarian liberalism.63 Skinner’s latest book has attempted to ground this latter reading of Hobbes in a historical account of his life and times, but with only partial success. The “antirepublican” reading of Hobbes pits him interestingly against antique republican thinkers, and reads him, perhaps still more interestingly, in the light of various modern theorists of liberty. But this interpretation does not offer what Skinner promised it would: a clear account of Hobbes’s “allies and adversaries” and his “position on the spectrum” of contemporary debate. “If we allow ourselves to approach the past with a less importunate sense of ‘relevance’”, Skinner once wrote,
we may find our studies taking on a relevance of a different and more authentic kind. We may find, in particular, that the acquisition of a historical perspective helps us to stand back from some of our current assumptions and habits of thought, and perhaps even to reconsider them. The study of the past need not be any the less instructive when it uncovers contrasts rather than continuities with the present.64



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See, for instance, Michael Drolet, “Quentin Skinner and Jacques Derrida on Power and the State”, History of European Ideas 33 (2007), 234–55. For Skinner on Foucault see his “Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts”, 118; on Nietzsche see his “Surveying the Foundations”, 244. Skinner, “Moral Principles and Social Change”, in Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method, 145–57. Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric, 6. Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric, 15. Jeremy Waldron recently made a similar point when he defended the intellectual value of “texts-in-context” for offering a “richer and more interesting source of ideas for modern deployment, or a richer and more provocative reproach to modern assumptions”. Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge, 2002), 11.

quentin skinner’s hobbes


This is a compelling apology for the value of intellectual history. It is fair to wonder, however, whether a reductively linguistic understanding of context is a sufficient methodological tool for the reconstruction of “authentic” historical contrasts. Often, the immense reach and flexibility of “discourse” traditions— leaping between countries and centuries in single bounds—seems better suited to the recovery of continuities and origins (“authentic” or otherwise).65 And the “relevance” of any account of origins is a relevance defined by present-day imperatives. In this sense, Hobbes and Republican Liberty is a history written at least partially in the service of the modern, neo-republican project. Skinner’s commitment to this project has encouraged him to focus tightly on the small differences between the liberal and the republican accounts of sovereignty as they emerged in the seventeenth century. He thus neglects the epochal shift in religious and moral understanding that the notion of sovereignty itself entailed. Given his broader concerns about the lordly autonomy of the modern state, this is not a negligence that his history can afford.


Skinner is still prone to deriding such quests for intellectual origins (see, for instance, his “Surveying the Foundations”, 237). But in many respects his most recent book is exactly such a history.

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