College Quarterly
Winter 2009 - Volume 12 Number 1
Reviews Hobbes and Republican Liberty
Quentin Skinner
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In a decade, a century and a millennium that have begun not only with enormous concerns about climate change and financial collapse, complicating factors such as religious extremism, genocide and pre-emptive wars might seem to invite the theory and practice of governance to acquire a special urgency. As it has happened, however, political philosophy is not so much in disrepute as it is invisible and inaudible. If any of the world leaders have more than a superficial grasp of the greats of ancient, medieval or modern political theory, they are not admitting it, much less bringing any insights openly to bear on current issues. The likelihood that, with such “role models,” college students would flock to courses dealing with Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s Prince, Locke’s Civil Government or Mill’s Liberty (to say nothing of the dozens of others with equal or greater claim to our attention) is infinitesimal. Indeed, even the best and brightest of the twentieth century are disregarded by politicians who fear rejection for alleged elitism—the apparent cost of brazenly wielding a library card in public.

This is a pity, for civic competence could be much enhanced if only a small number of our younger folk were enticed to attempt a life in something other than the specious present. How much better public discourse might become if young and old alike were to activate an interest in the concepts and theoretical engagements needed to describe and analyze power relationships, to formulate standards for equity and justice, and to propose alternatives to the current alienation, anomie, apathy and easy cynicism. The common disengagement from political life, however, now combines with toxic measures of solipsism and narcissism to makes the prospect of a healthy polity seem to fade with every passing emergency—real, imagined or just made up.

Nonetheless, not all is lost, stolen, strayed or forgotten. Deeply insightful, wise and erudite women and men continue to partake of the political tradition in the noblest sense of the phrase. True, they mainly work unnoticed and unappreciated in academic warrens where they may inspire a few students and write learned treatises for the use of others like themselves; however, with the exception of a few celebrated “public intellectuals,” their potentially salutary influence remains unrealized.

For those who stubbornly maintain more than a passing acquaintance with the history of political thought, the name of Quentin Skinner is arguably the most celebrated in terms of the late twentieth-century’s trend toward interpreting and assessing political theorists in their historical contexts. For many years, the history of ideas had presented great thinkers and their works as timeless elements in a contextless, transcendent intellectual universe in which thought stood above action, words escaped from their historical circumstances and ideas were elevated to participate almost celestial dialogues in which St. Augustine could debate Hegel, Nietzsche could address Kant and Feuerbach could assail Thomas Aquinas with glee.

In such ahistorical circumstances, the purpose of a philosopher’s musings was to understand the world, and neither to change it nor to be understood in terms of mundane limitations on pure thought. So, the elements of the theory of the social contract, for example, could be contemplated without regard for the events of the English Civil War, the material interests of the competing parties and the blood which flowed in defence of specific doctrines related to actual people caught up in real hostilities in which the price of failure was not a dent in one’s academic armor, but death.

In Hobbes and Republican liberty, Quentin Skinner considers the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes who, if he is remembered at all, is likely best to be recalled as a illuminator of “the state of nature,” in which human beings are depicted as akin to beasts, being wholly self-centred, prone to violence, aggression and cupidity. In Hobbes’ primal state (never mind what modern anthropology has to say on the subject), everyone was their own master, but only to the extent to which their power could be exercised over others. Everyone was eager to dominate the other, and each was susceptible to domination by the other. Unrelenting avarice, a primordial desire to accumulate such wealth as was available (which, of course, wasn’t much) and the necessity to compete in the absence of rules and reciprocity was embedded in the character of our species.

Hobbes famously proclaimed that, in our natural state, there was no law, no commerce, no religion, no morality, no art, no agriculture, no literature, no science and no trappings of civilization whatsoever. Fierce competition for scarce resources prevailed and, in his most remarkable phrase, human life amounted to a “war of all against all" and individual lives were necessarily "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

For Hobbes, the life of liberty was therefore intolerable; but, thanks to the rational capacity which coexisted with our fearsome nature, it was not inevitable. Accordingly, in Hobbes’ account, reason ultimately prevailed and our ancestors agreed to yield their liberty to a supreme authority who would then guarantee their survival, their development and their achievement of all the comely arts, sciences and mutually beneficial relationships that made our once terrifying lives comfortable, prosperous and safe. The only danger now became the temptation to undo the social contract which had long since been secured, and to descend into the mayhem of unfettered self-interest, licentiousness and disobedience. For Hobbes, the exchange of liberty for security was not a bad bargain.

It is Skinner’s compelling argument that, if Hobbes’ depiction of our primitive selves is disturbing, his recognition of our prevailing reason and his construction of the first truly significant theory of the social contract set us on the path toward liberal conceptions of the state.

If neither natural nor god-given, it followed that government was a human invention, and it was therefore a relatively short step to reach different conclusions from the same basic premise. Thus, it merely fell to John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others to develop more generous and optimistic accounts of human nature in order to make Hobbes over from an apologist for absolute monarchy into a courageous innovator who, in making individual liberty the primary element of his nonetheless authoritarian political theory, opened the door to constitutionalism and democracy as we enjoy them today. Though Hobbes himself would have recoiled in horror from such contrivances as the American Bill of Rights, the United Nations Universal Charter of Human Rights and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it cannot be gainsaid that his recognition of primordial existential freedom was instrumental in beginning the modern discourse on human rights—their origins, their justifications and even their limits.

Skinner’s book is mainly about the concept of liberty. As Gerry Mackie nicely set it out, liberty may be conceived in three basic ways: negative liberty, which is the absence of obstacles to achieving one’s ends; positive liberty, which is the freedom to “realize the true self,” often translated for practical purposes into the right to the necessities of life; and “republican” liberty meaning freedom from arbitrary domination, most commonly by the state. Hobbes, having no experience with the growth of the welfare state, was limited to the debate between negative liberty and republican liberty. The kernal of the debate lies in the fact that Hobbes does not see the authority of the monarch as a necessary limitation on liberty, so long as people are free to pursue their interests, subject only to the law. For republican theorists (perhaps best linked, albeit circuitously, to contemporary libertarians) the mere existence of authority, which constitutes a potential obstacle to free choice, is in principle unacceptable and freedom is therefore “subverted by the mere presence of arbitrary power” and is “lost or forfeited even in the absence of any acts of interference.” Skinner contends, rightly as defenders of the English constitution would hold, that Hobbes’ sees republican liberty as anathema to the practical liberties of the English, that defensible freedom cannot be won in an unregulated state, and that the height of human political wisdom was reached when individuals ceded their unfettered liberty to authority; all else is a retreat to brutality.

Herein, incidentally, is to be found an antecedent to the differing political cultures of the United States and Canada—the first a liberal society in the manner of John Locke, the second a conservative society, temporarily at least a trifle more indebted to Thomas Hobbes.

In any case, one of North America’s quintessential Hobbesian scholars, Bernard Gert, defers to the quality of Skinner’s account. Despite having published translations of Hobbes’ work, written numerous articles on Hobbes including some contributed to a number of standard reference works, it took this volume to show him “how little I knew about Hobbes.” It is a formidable work.

Gert’s modesty, of course, does not prevent him from taking Skinner to task at other points, but that need not detail us here. Instead, I would like to focus on one of the things that Skinner did not need to teach Gert: it is the importance of Hobbes’ determinism and materialism to his overall political theory. Here again, the relevance of Thomas Hobbes to modernity is obvious. Hobbes rejected the scholastic tradition and even the traditional Christian concept of “free will.” He was certainly no classicist. He scorned the “the babbling philosophy” of the ancient Greeks, rejected the “venom of heathen politicians,” and inveighed against the “seditious doctrines” espoused in the universities of his day. This, too, betokens a break with classical metaphysics and an embrace of science. Galileo, it should be recalled, was not one of Hobbes’ most esteemed teachers for nothing. For Hobbes, liberty in nature is “the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” In society, it remains “the absence of external impediments, which impediments may often take away part of a man’s power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according as his judgment and reason shall dictate to him.”

In effect, liberty may be retained even under an absolute monarch, whereas in the absence of a civil authority, the false liberty of disorder prevails. For Hobbes, and for Canadians of a certain age, the political ideal is associated intimately with the “peaceable kingdom.” He writes: “The office of the sovereign … consisteth in the end [of] the procuration of the safety of the people … [but] by safety here is not meant a bare preservation, but also all other contentments of life, which every man by lawful industry, without danger or hurt to the commonwealth, shall acquire to himself.”

What we have, in essence, are the bones of what could be called a modern “conservative” view of freedom, as contrasted with a modern “republican” view. This contrast is crucial for sorting out some of the inherent definitional problems of distinguishing people who call themselves “conservatives” in North America—George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Stephen Harper—but who are, in reality, opponents of authentic conservatives whose purpose has always been to legitimize the power of authority over individualism and obligation over freedom.

Some may object that I am just quibbling over semantics; I reply that if we do not know what our words mean, we literally do not know what we are talking about.

Some may object that it is unnecessary to pour through the antique pages of a seventeenth-century thinker in order to know how to make sense of political language and how to formulate coherent theories of the polity that may serve as practical guides in deciding what to do today. Indeed, some may insist that it is Hobbes’ distance from current realities that properly consign him to the domain of eccentric antiquarians. With this I might be tempted to agree, if I took his work and that of other “greats” to be disembodied and disembedded from the stark realities of their times. When, however, we see men like Hooker, Hobbes and Hume and women like Mary Woolstonecraft grappling with the issues of their day and seeking to make sense of them and to come to judgments about what ought and what ought not to be done as practical matters, then context and language matter.

Permit me to present a specific example. Some time ago, in the Province of Ontario, college teachers negotiated a collective agreement with the provincial authority, the Council of Regents, which provided for wage increases and other provisions. In 1993, the Government of Ontario, temporarily in the hands of a putative “social democratic” government, responded to an economic recession by ripping up public sector collective agreements, reversing negotiated wage gains, imposing ten unpaid “furlough” days which not only cost unionized college employees money in the short-rum, but short-changed pension savings in perpetuity. This unprecedented assault on collective bargaining rights was initiated by Premier Bob Rae, a future Liberal and a twice-failed candidate for that party’s national leadership. Apart from the material disadvantages to college faculty and staff and any residual moral issues associated with attacking the very people who had elected him to office, Mr. Rae called his anti-labour legislation a “social contract.” Although Orwellian language is a staple of low-level political debate, such an abuse of political speech has seldom been exceeded in mature parliamentary democracies. Calling Barack Obama a “socialist” is, of course, the bizarre exception that proves the rule. Essential to the concept of a legitimate contract, after all, is the presumption that it must not be coerced; using the power of the state to impose conditions is precisely coercive and therefore obviates the use of the word contract. This is not just putting lipstick on a pig, it is claiming that a pig is a butterfly.

Now, it may be that Mr. Rae’s opponents (and I am plainly and unapologetically one of them) will say that it doesn’t matter what name is applied to a bad act; it is the quality of the act and not the label that counts. It may also be that Mr. Rae’s supporters will say that it doesn’t matter what name is applied to a good act; it is the quality and not the label that counts.

This, I contend, is a recipe for sloppy language, but it is also an invitation to sloppier legislation, policies and practices and, more critically, morals and ethics. If anything typifies political discussion today, it is a preference for slogans over deliberation, clever sound bites over serious reflection and dramatic action over prudence and wisdom.

We can speak quickly and amusingly because it seems that we have so little to say. Quite apart from whether a reconsideration of the writings of Thomas Hobbes in the original or through the works of learned commentators and critics is intrinsically rewarding (and I believe that they are), such efforts are of immense practical value for those wishing to elevate political debate. As well, for those with a purely heuristic interest, and who are content to stand aside, observe, diagnose and write diaries containing the prognosis for our damaged public life, the endeavour may also be worthwhile. In either case, I am confident that Skinner’s volume will serve as an enduring rejoinder to men like Howard Warrender, who as Jeffrey Collins reminded me, once “chided Skinner for having reduced the ‘classic texts in political philosophy’ to mere ‘tracts for the times.’” The sentiment was not unlike that expressed by my old humanities professor John Bruckmann, who contemptuously dismissed anything written since the thirteenth century as “poor journalism” about “current events.” Curmudgeonly charming after a fashion, these opinions do more harm than good in the effort to revivify political discussion worthy of the name.

p>Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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