Below is a transcript of Quentin Skinner interviewed by Nigel Warburton for the podcast Philosophy Bites. The introduction is by David Edmonds. You may use this transcript for personal research but not for any commercial purpose.
Interview © Quentin Skinner, 2007.
DE: If humans lived in a state of nature – in other words a condition in which there was no political organization, no political power – there would be catastrophic war and anarchy. At least according to Thomas Hobbes. The fame of Hobbes, who was writing in the context of turmoil and civil war in England, rests mainly on Leviathan, his book about the relationship between the citizen and the state. Hobbes argued that we should cede the power to protect us to a mighty sovereign. A leading authority – probably the leading authority – on the life and political theory of Thomas Hobbes is the Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner.
NW: Quentin Skinner welcome to Philosophy Bites
QS: Well very nice to talk to you
NW: Now the topic we want to talk to you about today is Hobbes’ theory of the state. How would you characterize Hobbes’ Leviathan, his great work of 1651?
QS: Well, I think it is a theory of the state, essentially. And the title of the book points to that. Leviathan is the name of the state. The state is the generic idea. But Leviathan as Hobbes likes to put it in a sexual metaphor is engendered, it’s brought into being. So there is an act of christening. And the name of the state is Leviathan and that’s why it’s the name of the book
NW: What is a Leviathan though?
QS: Well Leviathan is the state and the question really is, what is the state? And it’s important that Hobbes is writing in the context in which the concept of the state was very widely employed in political argument: but it tended to be associated with a view of popular sovereignty. So the state is simply the name of the body of the people organized for political power. So you can talk about the whole body of the state. What’s crucial in Hobbes’ political theory is that he thinks that the idea that the people is a body is itself an illusion; there’s no such thing as the body of the people. There are only individuals. So the question, ‘how does the state arise and what is the state?’ is a question that Hobbes asks anew. Because he repudiates the fundamental assumption that generates the idea of the state as the body of the people.
NW: And he’s got an illustration that acts as the frontispiece of Leviathan that somehow embodies that view.
QS: He certainly does. It’s in a way unhelpful that it’s the first thing we see in the book because what we see is such a fantastical portrayal of the state.
NW: Could you describe what that image looks like?
QS: Yes I certainly could. It’s a very celebrated piece of iconography. The state is shown as having a sovereign as its head, but as being made up of all the individual members of the body. Now these are each individuals and their unity is artificial. So what Hobbes is doing is to reverse the idea that the body politic creates the state and saying it’s only through having a sovereign that you gain a body of the people - otherwise it’s just a mass, a multitude of individuals.
NW: Who was Hobbes?
QS: Well, a good question, but an ambiguous one. If the question is ‘what’s his origin?’ then he’s a west country boy who is from a poor clerical family, but very brilliant as a school boy in the essentially linguistic training needed to go to the universities. He goes to Oxford at the age of 15 and then joins a noble household as a tutor. He becomes the tutor to the son of the first Earl of Devonshire and he remains in the Devonshire household throughout his life. And his life is in 17th Century terms almost inconceivably long. He was born in 1588 when the average expectation of life was 33 and he lives to be very nearly 92. Born in 1588 and going to a good grammar school where he learns Latin and Greek to an extraordinary level, he is recognizably a product of the humanistic culture of the renaissance. That’s the important point about the date of his birth and his education. His first work is in 1629 and is a translation of Thucydides, an unbelievably difficult piece of Greek. So the answer to the question who is Hobbes can be given by saying he is recognizably a humanistic, classical scholar; it’s much later that he turns to the sciences and writes his great works on motion and on physics and has his big debates with Descartes. And it’s still later that he writes his great works of political philosophy; it’s an extraordinary fact what a late developer he is. Leviathan is published when in his 60s. That is to say he should have been dead for 30 years.
NW: What was the particular political background when he’s writing in the 1640s?
QS: Yes, he turns to politics. The civil war breaks out in 1642. Hobbes has at that time written a lot of humanistic work but he says in his autobiography at the end of the 1630s he saw civil war coming. What was necessary with civil war impending was that people should understand how to produce peace instead of war.
NW: One way of understanding Leviathan is as a kind of reverse engineering. You see how something is now and take it apart and understand how the different parts function together and perhaps how they might work better.
QS: That is true. Hobbes does not actually use that image in Leviathan but in the earlier version of his political philosophy, the De Cive, the Latin version in 1642, he is quite explicit that this method is like a watch. That is to say, if you want to understand a watch you would take it to pieces and put it together again. That would show you what it is. The method that Hobbes follows in showing us how this state comes into being is recognizably the thought experiment that has been central to so much liberal political philosophy ever since of a contract with government.
NW: And that contract starts for Hobbes in what he calls the state of nature?
QS: That is correct. There’s been much discussion about how we should think of Hobbes’ understanding of the state of nature. It’s easy to imagine that it’s just a thought experiment. You think, what would life be like without law? But I think it also functions in Hobbes as a terrible warning. That what life without law would be, would be war. That is the essence of his claim. Now the reason that that would be so goes back to what we were saying about Hobbes disbelief about this fundamental assumption in so much political theory of the early modern period; namely that we can speak about the body of the people. And this body can live together in a perfectly satisfactory way. Hobbes repudiates the fundamental premise. He says in the state of nature there would be just individuals. Now you might ask, why does that bring war?
NW: Well why does it bring war?
QS: Well it brings war because Hobbes is an egalitarian. He thinks that what you have to recognize is we’re equal. We’re not only equal, but we desire the same thing. But some of what we desire is scarce goods - we can’t all have them. But if we’re equal in powers in respect of things we can’t all have, that is war. So for him the problem is how can these warring individuals cease to be warring individuals?
NW: And it’s not war as we usually understand it - it’s the war of everybody against everybody else?
QS: That is right. Bellum omnium contra omnes, in the famous phrase in De Cive. The war of all against all. You are constantly liable to sudden death. So the natural life of man he says in the most famous phrase of Leviathan will not only be solitary because each of us are individuals, but it will be nasty, brutish and short. But Hobbes believes we can see all of that so we can take steps. And the steps we have to take are to talk to each other. That’s the image. And it’s a very profound image of how you avoid war - never stop talking. There must be a point of view that you can come to share. And what you come to share, according to Hobbes, is the view that nothing is more intolerable than the sudden, violent death that is your constant fear. And you can use that fear to generate the state. So in a way it’s a commentary on the biblical thought, the fear of death is the beginning of wisdom.
NW: That’s the beginning, but how do we get to the position when we’re genuinely safe?
QS: Good, yes, that’s the point. Well, we have to covenant. But Hobbes’ covenant is a very peculiar one. The covenant, which of course was a feature of all puritan political theory assumes that there is a body of people who covenant with someone who they agree should be the sovereign. And the idea of the covenant is to set terms to that person’s rule. Now Hobbes’ point is that there cannot be such a covenant because there is no such thing as the body of the people. So the covenant can only be a covenant of each with each; you covenant with me, I covenant with you, you covenant with everybody else around, so do I. And we all covenant that someone should be our sovereign. Now we all have to agree who that sovereign is. The covenant will have to be one that creates an artificial person. The sovereign, to take the simple case, is a man or a woman, and that’s a natural person. But in covenanting that that man or woman should be our sovereign we create an artificial person, and by that Hobbes simply means we create a representative of ourselves - a representation of ourselves. And we must do that because if there is to be peace, some person’s will must count as the will of everyone. And that’s what you covenant. You covenant that whereas I used to act according to my will, if you are my sovereign I now act according to your will. I have no independent will. And that is to say that you are an artificial person; i.e. my representative.
NW: So how does Hobbes cope with the classic problem of the state asking for one course of action and the individual not wanting to go along with that course of action?
QS: A very good question and the answer is very radical. Since the state of nature is the state in which you have all your rights, you have the right to do anything that you think may be likely to preserve your life, when you covenant what you do is you give up all the rights that you have to give up in order to assure peace. And it’s a deep question for Hobbes how many of your rights you have to give up. But the short answer is practically all of them, and what you definitely give up is any right to exercise discretion because that’s to exercise your will, with respect to the law. What you covenant to have is not to have a will in relation to anything that conduces to peace. The sovereign’s will now counts as your will.
NW: That sounds suspiciously like an authoritarian state?
QS: It is, of course. It’s the abandonment of your will to somebody else. But Hobbes’ point is that the stark choice you face – and this is why the book is so profoundly rhetorical in its analysis of the state of nature – he has to persuade you that the stark choice you face is subjection or death.
NW: Within the state that’s created, what role is there for the monarch or sovereign?
QS: Hobbes’ view is that when we all covenant each with each to agree on a sovereign, that has the effect of turning the many into the one. It’s an artificial unity because it’s the unity that’s generated by agreeing that the will of the sovereign counts as the will of everybody. Now you could ask, who does the sovereign represent? And Hobbes’ answer is that the role of the sovereign is not to represent each and every one of us, it is to represent the interests of all of us considered as one. Now if you ask well what is this - all of us considered as one? The answer is that it’s a fictional entity that has been created by having a sovereign. The sovereign is the representative of that fictional entity. You could say it’s the common good. That’s to say the obligation of the sovereign is to act in such a way as to promote the good of the whole entity of the people. But what Hobbes says is that the name of the fictional entity is the state. Leviathan is a fiction, but it is the fiction that the sovereign represents; so when the sovereign acts the sovereign acts in the name of the state.
NW: And does the sovereign represent the actual wishes of the combination of the people, or is it somehow the desires they ought to have if they were entirely rational?
QS: Yes, that’s a really crucial question and it points us towards two rival theories of representation that we’ve inherited in out tradition. One says the body of the people appoints a sovereign representative and in doing so instructs him – the people are sovereign. So the sovereign is the executive arm of the people; the sovereign must do what the people instruct him to do. Hence you have something called the agreement of the people, and that’s the foundation of sovereignty. Hobbes is vehemently opposed to popular sovereignty. He wants to say ‘no that’s a misunderstanding of representation’. When you represent me what I do and the powerful example is the court of law, I say to you, look you’re my representative get me off. I don’t tell you how to do that. I just say that’s your job. And when we appoint a sovereign we say keep the peace. We’re not scrupulous about how you do that. We can’t do it, we’re at war. But if we give you all power, you can keep the peace. So Hobbes’ point is that is representative government. So he upends the whole tradition of how we used to think about representative government. And in a way his is the tradition that we’ve inherited because what we do is we appoint our representatives for 5 years. There’s nothing much we can do about them, because we’ve given them sovereign power to make the decisions about what they think is in our interests. And Hobbes’ is saying that’s what we must do. And if they go to war in Iraq and you think that’s the biggest disaster in recent times, it’s really not for you to say that according to Hobbes. Because what you did was give them power to make that decision. And what you also did was to agree that you would not question that. What we find difficult is that latter point.
NW: Must a member of society always obey the will of the sovereign?
QS: Now that is an important question and the answer is no. You have to remember that the state of nature is the state in which I have all my rights. What I must give up is any of those rights which are going to get in the way of peace. What I do not give up is any of those rights that are indispensable to my maintaining my life. Because why else would you enter the state except better to preserve your life. So there is within Hobbes this allowance of civil liberty as including the freedom under certain circumstances to act against the call of the state if you think it will endanger your life. So for example if Leviathan state tries to conscript you, you can refuse. You may be put in prison for refusing. But conscription, well joining the army, that can be dangerous, and you didn’t enter the covenant in order to do anything that might endanger your life. So Leviathan cannot conscript. More dramatically, although in the covenant you give the sovereign the power of life and death, you cannot give the sovereign the uncontested right to execute you, because that actually ends your life. Now the only reason you’ve entered into the state is to preserve your life. So that right – he’s really painted himself into a corner – but that right has to remain. And it ends with this weird image of the condemned criminal fighting his executioner upon the scaffold. He has that right.
NW: What is the continuing relevance for us of Hobbes’ Leviathan.
QS: I think what is very important is this idea that the state is something other than the name of the body of the people. Actually that is our idea of the state. We do not think that the state is the same as the body of the people, because otherwise we would run a direct form of democracy in which the people never yielded their power. But we don’t. We run what we call representative democracy. We think of the state as the name of a fictional person who embodies our values. So we talk about state education. One of the thoughts we have there is that change of regime doesn’t change any of that. There’s something more fundamental that reflects our values. That idea of the state as a represented person, which embodies the values we need to have embodied in order to live together in peace, is Hobbes’ idea of the state. And I think it’s our idea too.
NW: You’re probably the world’s leading expert on Hobbes. Are you a Hobbesian?
QS: I’m certainly not world’s leading expert on Hobbes. There are many experts on Hobbes. He was a mathematician. He was a philosopher of science. He was a scholar of the Greeks. He was a political theorist. He was a poet. There are many experts on Hobbes. But I’m not a Hobbesian, no. I think it’s a fascinating theory of the state, it’s partly our theory of the state. But there’s no doubt that Hobbes speaks for a level of uncontested political authority that we cannot see as a democratic one.
© Quentin Skinner, 2007