The First Counter-revolutionary | The Nation


The First Counter-revolutionary

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

At the individual level, freedom means being one's own master; politically, it requires a republic or democracy. Only a full sharing in and of the public power will ensure that we enjoy our freedom in the "particular way" freedom requires. It is this movement from the personal to the political--the notion that individual freedom entails political membership and participation, that it is fatally abridged by our not being full citizens of the polity--that is arguably the most radical element of the theory of popular government and, from Hobbes's view, the most dangerous.

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

How did the conservative ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school become our economic reality? By turning the market into the realm of great politics and morals.

Since the ’70s, liberals and leftists have misidentified the source of conservatism’s appeal.

Hobbes sets about destroying the argument from the ground up. Breaking with traditional understandings, he argues for a materialist account of the will. The will, he says, is not a decision resulting from our reasoned deliberation about our desires and aversions; it is simply the last appetite or aversion we feel before we act, and that prompts the act. Deliberation is like the oscillating rod of a metronome--back and forth our inclinations go, alternating between appetite and aversion--but less steady. Wherever the rod comes to rest--and produces an action or, conversely, no action at all--is our will. If that seems arbitrary and mechanistic, it should: the will does not stand above our appetites and aversions, judging and choosing among them; it is our appetites and aversions. There is no such thing as a free or autonomous will; there is only "the last Appetite, or Aversion, immediately adhaering to the action, or to the omission thereof."

Imagine a man with the keenest appetite for wine, racing into a building on fire in order to rescue a case of it; now imagine a man with the fiercest aversion to dogs, racing into that same building to escape a pack of them. Hobbes's opponents would see in these examples only the force of irrational compulsion; Hobbes sees the will in action. These may not be the wisest or sanest acts, Hobbes acknowledges, but wisdom and sanity need not play any part in volition. They may be compelled, but so are the actions of a man on a listing vessel who throws his bags overboard in order to lighten the load and save himself. Hard choices, actions taken under duress--these are as much expressions of my will as the decisions I make in the calm of my study. Extending the analogy, Hobbes would argue that the surrender of my wallet to someone holding a gun to my head is also a willed act: I have chosen my life over my wallet.

Against his opponents, Hobbes suggests that there can be no such thing as voluntarily acting against my will; all voluntary action is an expression of the will. External constraints like being locked in a room can prevent me from acting upon my will; being on a chain gang can force me to act in ways I have not willed. But I cannot act voluntarily against my will. In the case of the mugger, Hobbes would say that his gun changed my will: I went from wanting to safeguard the money in my wallet to wanting to protect my life.

If I can't act voluntarily against my will, I can't act voluntarily in accordance with a will that is not my own. If I obey a king because I fear that he will kill or imprison me, that does not signify the absence, forfeiture, betrayal or subjection of my will; it is my will. I could have willed otherwise--hundreds of thousands during Hobbes's lifetime did--but my survival or liberty was more important to me than whatever it was that may have called for my disobedience.

Hobbes's definition of freedom follows from his understanding of the will. Liberty, he says, is "the absence of...externall Impediments of motion," and a free man "is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to." I can be rendered un-free, Hobbes insists, only by external obstacles to my movement. Chains and walls are such obstacles; laws and obligations are another, albeit a more metaphorical, sort (Skinner's discussion of the latter is especially lucid, illuminating an argument that has long vexed scholars). If the obstacle lies within me--I don't have the ability to do something; I am too afraid to do it--I lack power or will, not freedom. That lack says more about what Hobbes, in a letter cited by Skinner, calls "the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent" rather than the conditions of his political environment.

And that, in Skinner's suspenseful retelling of how Hobbes came to this understanding of freedom, is the purpose of Hobbes's effort: to separate the status of our personal liberty from the state of public affairs. Freedom is dependent on the presence of government but not on the form that government takes; whether we live under a king, a republic or a democracy does not change the quantity or quality of the freedom we enjoy. This separation had the dramatic effect of making freedom seem both less present and more present under a king than Hobbes's republican and royalist antagonists had allowed.

On the one hand, Hobbes insists that there is no way to be free and subject at the same time. Submission to government entails an absolute loss of liberty: wherever I am bound by law, I am not free to move. When republicans argue that citizens are free because they make the laws, Hobbes claims, they are confusing sovereignty with liberty: what the citizen has is political power, not freedom. He is just as obliged (perhaps more obliged, Rousseau will later suggest) to submit to the law, is just as un-free, as he would be under a monarchy. And when the constitutional royalists argue that the king's subjects are free because the king's power is limited by the law, Hobbes claims that they are just confused.

On the other hand, as Skinner shows in a set of elegant passages, Hobbes thought that if freedom is unimpeded motion, it stands to reason that we are a lot freer under a monarch, even an absolute monarch, than the royalist and the republican realize (or care to admit). First and most simply, even when we act out of fear, we are acting freely. "Feare, and Liberty are consistent," says Hobbes, because fear expresses our negative inclinations; they may be negative, but that doesn't negate the fact that they are our inclinations. So long as we are not impeded from acting upon them, we are free. Even when we are most terrified of the king's punishments, we are free: "all actions which men doe in Common-wealths, for feare of the law, are actions, which the doers had liberty to omit."

More important, wherever the law is silent, neither commanding nor prohibiting, we are free. One need only contemplate all the "ways a man may move himself," Hobbes says in De Cive, to see all the ways he can be free in a monarchy. These freedoms, he explains in Leviathan, include "the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; & the like." To whatever degree the sovereign can guarantee that freedom of movement, to go about our business without the hindrance of other men, we are free. Submission to his power, in other words, augments our freedom. The more absolute our submission, the more powerful he is and the freer we are. Subjugation is emancipation.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size