Revolution sent Thomas Hobbes into exile; reaction sent him back. In 1640 parliamentary opponents of Charles I such as John Pym were denouncing anyone “preaching for absolute monarchy that the king may do what he list.” Hobbes had recently finished writing The Elements of Law, which did just that. After the king’s top adviser and a theologian of unlimited royal power were both arrested, Hobbes decided it was time to go. Not waiting for his bags to be packed, he fled England for France.
Eleven years and a civil war later, Hobbes fled France for England. This time, he was running from the royalists. As before, Hobbes had just finished a book. Leviathan, he would later explain, “fights on behalf of all kings and all those who under whatever name bear the rights of kings.” It was this seeming indifference about the identity of the sovereign that was now getting him into trouble. Leviathan justified, no, demanded, that men submit to any person or persons capable of protecting them from foreign attack and civil unrest. With the monarchy abolished and Oliver Cromwell’s forces in control of England and providing for the people’s safety, Leviathan seemed to recommend that everyone, including the defeated royalists, profess their allegiance to the Commonwealth. Versions of that argument had already gotten Anthony Ascham, ambassador for the Commonwealth, assassinated by royalist exiles in Spain. So when Hobbes learned that clergymen in France were trying to arrest him–Leviathan was also vehemently anti-Catholic, which offended the Queen Mother–he slipped out of Paris and made his way back to London.
It’s no accident that Hobbes fled his enemies and then his friends, for he was fashioning a political theory that shredded longstanding alliances. Rather than reject the revolutionary argument, he absorbed and transformed it. From its deepest categories and idioms he derived an uncompromising defense of the most hidebound form of rule. He sensed the centrifugal pulses of early modern Europe–the priesthood of all believers, the democratic armies massing under the banner of ancient republican ideals, science and skepticism–and sought to convert them into a single centripetal force: a sovereign so terrible and benign as to make any challenge to such authority seem not only immoral but also irrational. Not unlike the Italian Futurists, Hobbes put dissolution in the service of resolution. He was the first and, along with Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of counterrevolution, a blender avant la lettre of cultural modernism and political reaction who understood that to defeat a revolution you first must become the revolution.
And how has he been treated by the party of order? Not well. In an essay about Bishop Bramhall, a royalist who locked horns with Hobbes, T.S. Eliot (an adroit blender himself) called Hobbes “one of those extraordinary little upstarts whom the chaotic motions of the Renaissance tossed into an eminence which they hardly deserved.” Of the four twentieth-century political theorists identified by Perry Anderson as “The Intransigent Right”–Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich von Hayek–only Oakeshott saw in Hobbes the faintest glimmer of a kindred spirit. The rest viewed him as the source of a malignant liberalism, Jacobinism or even Bolshevism.