The First Counter-revolutionary | The Nation


The First Counter-revolutionary

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Skinner is much too fastidious a historian to call Hobbes a counterrevolutionary, but his splendid little book opens a very large window onto the complexities of that enterprise. Every counterrevolutionary faces the same question: how to defend an old regime that has been or is being destroyed? The first impulse--to reiterate the regime's ancient truths--is usually the worst, for it is often those truths that got the regime into trouble in the first place. Either the world has so changed that they no longer command assent or they have grown so pliable that they mutate into arguments for revolution. Either way, the counterrevolutionary must look elsewhere for materials from which to fashion his defense of the old regime. That can put him at odds, as Hobbes came to realize, not only with the revolution but also with the very regime he claims as his cause.

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Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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The monarchy's defenders in the first half of the seventeenth century offered two types of arguments, neither of which Hobbes could endorse. The first, which Skinner does not discuss, was the divine right of kings. Itself a recent innovation--James I, Charles's father, was its major exponent in Britain--it held that the king was God's agent on earth (indeed, he was rather like God on earth); that he was accountable only to God; that he alone was authorized to govern and should not be restrained by the law, institutions or the people. As Charles's adviser allegedly put it, "the king's little finger should be thicker than the loins of the law."

While such absolutism appealed to Hobbes, the foundation of the theory was shaky. Most divine right theorists presumed what Hobbes and his contemporaries, particularly on the continent, believed no longer existed: a teleology of human ends that mirrored the natural hierarchy of the universe and produced unassailable definitions of good and evil, just and unjust. After a century of bloodshed over the meaning of those terms and skepticism about the existence of a natural order or our ability to know it, defenses of divine right seemed neither credible nor reliable. With their dubious premises, they were just as likely to spark conflict as to settle it.

Arguably more troubling was that the theory depicted a political theater in which there were only two actors of any consequence: God and king, each performing for the other. Though Hobbes believed that the sovereign should never share the stage with anyone, he was too attuned to the democratic distemper of his times not to notice that the theory had sent a third actor--the people--packing. That was all well and good when the people were quiet and deferential, but during the 1640s it wasn't viable. The people were onstage, demanding a leading role; they could not be ignored or given a bit part.

Changes in England, in short, had rendered divine right untenable. The challenge Hobbes faced was intricate: how to preserve the thrust of the theory (unquestioning submission to absolute, undivided power) while ditching its anachronistic premises. Hobbes's theory of consent, in which individuals contract with one another to create a sovereign with absolute power over them, and his theory of representation, in which the people are impersonated by the sovereign without his being obliged to them, did the trick.

The theory of consent made no assumptions about the definition of good and evil or a natural hierarchy to the universe. To the contrary, it presumed that men disagreed about such things, and so violently, that the only way they could pursue their conflicting goals and survive was to cede all of their power to the state and submit to it without protest or challenge. Protecting them from one another, the state guaranteed them the space and security to get on with their lives. Along with Hobbes's account of representation, the theory of consent had an added advantage: though it gave all power to the sovereign, the people could still imagine themselves in his body, in every swing of his sword. They created him; he represented them; to all intents and purposes, they were him. Except that they weren't: they may have been the authors of Leviathan--Hobbes's infamous name for the sovereign, derived from the Book of Job--but like any author, they had no control over their creation. It was an inspired move, characteristic of all great counterrevolutionary theories, in which the people become actors without roles, an audience that believes it is onstage.

The second argument offered in favor of the monarchy, the constitutional royalist position, had deeper roots in English thought and was therefore more difficult to counter. It held that England was a free society because royal power was limited by the common law or shared with Parliament. That combination of the rule of law and shared sovereignty, claimed Sir Walter Raleigh, was what distinguished the free subjects of the king from the benighted slaves of despots in the East. It was this argument and its radical offshoots, Skinner maintains, that quickened Hobbes's most profound and daring reflections about liberty.

Beneath this conception of political liberty lay a distinction between acting for the sake of reason and acting at the behest of passion. The first is a free act; the second is not. "To act out of passion," Skinner explains, "is not to act as a free man, or even distinctively as a man at all; such actions are not an expression of true liberty but of mere licence or animal brutishness." Freedom entails acting upon what we have willed, but will should not be confused with appetite or aversion. As Bramhall put it: "A free act is only that which proceeds from the free election of the rational will." "Where there is no consideration nor use of reason, there is no liberty at all." Being free entails our acting in accordance with reason or, in political terms, living under laws as opposed to arbitrary power.

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