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THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF HOBBES'S POLITICAL THOUGHT*

  • JAMES J. HAMILTON (a1)

Abstract

The social context of Hobbes's political thought is ripe for reassessment in light of advances in the social history of seventeenth-century England in the past half-century. The evidence does not support C. B. Macpherson's claim that England had a “possessive market society” which became the social model for Hobbes's political theory, nor the case that Hobbes was a bourgeois ideologist. A new examination of his social theory, his social identity, his social prejudices and his understanding of what we today call social class instead produces a picture of an intellectual of the “middle sort” with strong aristocratic, pro-court sentiments. A clearer understanding of his social views would probably have prevented the current controversy over his political sentiments or channeled it in a different direction. The issues make a strong case for more social contextualization at the macro level of analysis in intellectual history.

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I wish to thank Duncan Kelly and an anonymous reader for helping make this article possible.

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1 Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford, 1962; repr. 2011), 9106. Also Arendt, Hannah, “Expansion and the Philosophy of Power,” Sewanee Review, 54 (1946), 601–16, 609–10; Strauss, Leo, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, trans. Sinclair, Elsa M. (Chicago, 1963), 58; Hill, Christopher, Puritanism and Revolution (New York, 1964), 278. Macpherson's thesis still has its enthusiasts. Townsend, Jules, C. B. Macpherson and the Problem of Liberal Democracy (Edinburgh, 2000), 3161.

2 Macpherson, Political Theory, 162.

3 Berlin, Isaiah, “Hobbes, Locke and Professor Macpherson,” Political Quarterly, 35 (1964), 444–68; Letwin, William, “The Economic Foundations of Hobbes’ Politics,” in Cranston, Maurice and Peters, Richard S., eds., Hobbes and Rousseau (Garden City, NY, 1972), 143–64; Tully, James, An Approach to Political Philosophy (Cambridge, 1993), 7195; Ryan, Alan, “Hobbes and Individualism,” in Rogers, G. A. J. and Ryan, Alan, eds., Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 2002), 80–105, 81, 100–4.

4 Thomas, Keith, “The Social Origins of Hobbes’ Political Thought,” in Brown, K. C., ed., Hobbes Studies (Oxford, 1965), 185–236, 186.

5 Ibid., 189, also 191, 202–3.

6 Ibid., 229.

7 Burgess, Glenn, “Contexts for the Writing and Publication of Hobbes's Leviathan,” History of Political Thought, 9 (1990), 675702; Sommerville, Johann P., “Lofty Science and Local Politics,” in Sorell, Tom, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), 246–73; Tuck, Richard, “Introduction,” in Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, 1996), xliii–xliv; Malcolm, Noel, “General Introduction,” in Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Malcolm, Noel, 3 vols. (Oxford, 2012), 1: 24–5; Hamilton, James J., “Hobbes the Royalist, Hobbes the Republican,” History of Political Thought, 30 (2009), 411–54.

8 Martel, James, Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat (New York, 2007), 1618. Liberal theorists also sometimes argue that Hobbes had democratic or republican sympathies. For example Herb, Karlfriedrich, “Au-delà de la citoyenneté: Hobbes et le problème de l'autorité,” Rivista di storia della filosofia, 59 (2004), 219–25, 220.

9 Collins, James R., The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 2005), 116–18.

10 Fukuda, Arihiro, Sovereignty and the Sword (Oxford, 1997), 1, 6, 38–40, 60–61; Hoekstra, Kinch, “The de facto Turn in Hobbes's Political Philosophy,” in Sorell, Tom and Foisneau, Luc, eds., Leviathan after 350 Years (Oxford, 2004), 33–73, 45, 48; Parkin, Jon, Taming the Leviathan (Cambridge, 2007), 8590; Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty 1640–1700 (Cambridge, 2008), 179.

11 Wrightson, Keith, “Mutualities and Obligations: Changing Social Relationships in Early Modern England,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 139 (2006), 157–94; Walter, John, “The Social Economy of Dearth in Early Modern England,” in Walter and Schofield, eds., Famine, Disease and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (Cambridge, 1991), 75128, 96.

12 French, Henry and Barry, Jonathan, “Introduction,” in French and Barry, eds., Identity and Agency in England, 1500–1800 (Basingstoke, 2004), 137, 21.

13 Wrightson, “Mutualities,” 168, also 186; Walter, “Social Economy,” 113; Barry, Jonathan, “Bourgeois Collectivism? Urban Association and the Middling Sort,” in Barry, Jonathan and Brooks, Christopher, eds., The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550–1800 (Basingstoke, 1994), 95; Muldrew, Craig, Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness (Cambridge, 2011), 84–112, 287; Thomas, Keith, The Ends of Life (Oxford, 2009), 192; Goldie, Mark, “The Unacknowledged Republic: Office-Holding in Early Modern England,” in Harris, Tim, ed., The Politics of the Excluded, c.1500–1850 (Basingstoke, 2001), 159–94.

14 Aubrey, John, Brief Lives, ed. Barber, Richard (Woodbridge, 1982), 148; Hobbes, Thomas, Six Lessons to the Savilian Professors of the Mathematics, in SirMolesworth, William, ed., The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (EW), 11 vols. (London, 1839–45), 7: 181356, 355.

15 Rogow, Arnold A., Thomas Hobbes: Radical in the Service of Reaction (New York, 1986), 20.

16 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Hobbes, Thomas.”

17 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 148.

18 Ibid., 149–50; Malcolm, Noel, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford, 2002), 23.

19 Ibid., 53–79.

20 Levy Peck, Linda, “Hobbes on the Grand Tour: Paris, Venice, or London?Journal of the History of Ideas, 57 (1996), 177–83, 180; Martinich, A. P., Hobbes: A Biography (Cambridge, 1999), 28–9, 43, 58, 60.

21 Hobbes to Clifton, 23 November[/3 December] 1632; Hobbes to Newcastle, 26 January[/5 February 1634], both in The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Noel Malcolm, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1997), 1: 18–19; Martinich, Hobbes, 27–8, 57, 59.

22 Hobbes to Newcastle, 29 July/8 August 1636, in Correspondence, 1: 33. Also Stone, Lawrence, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558–1641 (Oxford, 1965), 415, 453; Hobbes, Thomas, Verse Autobiography, in Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Curley, Edwin (Indianapolis, 1994), lxiii.

23 Martinich, Hobbes, 121.

24 Hobbes, Thomas, Behemoth or The Long Parliament, ed. Seaward, Paul (Oxford, 2010), 269.

25 Hobbes to Scudamore, 2/12 April 1641, in Correspondence, 1: 114–15.

26 Thomas Hobbes, Considerations upon the Reputation, Loyalty, Manners, and Religion of Thomas Hobbes, in EW, 4: 409–40, 415.

27 Hobbes to Sorbière, [24 September/]4 October 1646, in Correspondence, 1: 138–9; Malcolm, “General Introduction,” 1: 53.

28 Ibid., 1: 96–100.

29 Nicholas to Hyde, 1/11 January 1651/52, in The Nicholas Papers, ed. George F. Warner (London, 1886), 284.

30 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 154. Also Hobbes, Considerations, 424–5.

31 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 155.

32 Sorbière to Hobbes, [21 June/]1 July 1664, in Correspondence, 2: 619.

33 Schuhmann, Karl, Hobbes: Une chronique (Paris, 1998), 195. Hobbes dedicated Behemoth to Arlington, a sign of Arlington's patronage.

34 Correspondence, 2: 818; Hobbes to Charles II, n.d., in ibid., 2: 774.

35 Schuhmann, Chronique, 210.

36 Rogow, Hobbes, 112; Grassby, Richard, The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1995), 76, 261–2; Hill, Puritanism, 181. He was also receiving 12li per annum in interest on a loan, plus room, board and a clothing allowance while living with the Cavendishes. The salary of 50li appears to have been additional to the annual net yield of five holdings on a manor granted to him by William (II) Cavendish in 1628. Malcolm, “General Introduction,” 1: 77 n. 300.

37 Ibid.; Hobbes, Verse Autobiography, lxiii.

38 “Condita hic sunt ossa Thomae Hobbes Malmesburiensis, qui per multos annos servivit Duobus Devoniae comitibus, Patri et Filio. Vir Probus, et Fama Eruditionis Domi Forisque bene cognitus.”

39 Heal, Felicity and Holmes, Clive, The Gentry in England and Wales 1500–1700 (Stanford, 1994), 30.

40 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London, 1651), 29. (All references are to this edition unless otherwise specified.)

41 Ibid., 47.

42 Hobbes, Thomas, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. Tönnies, Ferdinand (New York, 1969), 30.

43 Hobbes, Thomas, Critique du “De Mundo” de Thomas White [Anti-White], ed. Jacquot, Jean and Jones, Harold Whitmore (Paris, 1973), 415–16.

44 Hobbes, Leviathan, 34.

45 Ibid., 38.

46 Hobbes, Anti-White, 415–18.

47 Hobbes, Elements, 169. Also Hobbes, Leviathan, 86.

48 Hobbes, Thomas, De Cive: The Latin Version, ed. Warrender, Howard (Oxford, 1983), 232.

49 Hobbes, Leviathan, 41, 188–9.

50 Ibid., 44–45. Also Hobbes, Elements, 87–8.

51 Ibid., 35. The value of women was usually derivative of that of men. Women, Hobbes says, are “more accustomed” than men “to measure their power by the power and love of others that protect them” such as fathers and husbands. Ibid., 42–3.

52 Hobbes, Leviathan, 42, also 127; Hobbes, Elements, 35.

53 Alexandra Shepard, “Honesty, Worth and Gender in Early Modern England, 1560–1640,” in French and Barry, Identity and Agency, 87–105, 90–91, 99; Craig Muldrew, “Class and Credit: Social Identity, Wealth and the Life Course in Early Modern England,” in French and Barry, Identity and Agency, 147–77, 149.

54 Hobbes, Elements, 48.

55 Hobbes, Leviathan, 77. Also Hobbes, De Cive, 113.

56 Hobbes, Leviathan, 41. Nobility is honorable not, as most people thought, because one inherits the honor of one's ancestors by blood, but because it reflects their power and “laudable actions.” Ibid., 48; Hobbes, Elements, 35.

57 Stone, Crisis, 54–5, 65; Adamson, John, “The Tudor and Stuart Courts 1509–1714,” in Adamson, ed., The Princely Courts of Europe 1500–1750 (London, 1999), 95117, 109.

58 Hobbes, Leviathan, 46, also 44–6, 184.

59 James, Mervyn, Society, Politics and Culture (Cambridge, 1986), 308415.

60 Hobbes, Leviathan, 43–4, also 42, 45–6, 92–3.

61 Hobbes, Elements, 180.

62 Hobbes, De Cive, 201.

63 Levy Peck, Linda, Consuming Splendor (Cambridge, 2005), 6. The social role of reputation in Hobbes's thought also entails hierarchy. Thomas, “Social Origins,” 193.

64 Hill, Christopher, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York, 1967), 262.

65 Hobbes, Leviathan, 49.

66 Ibid., also 44; Levy Peck, Splendor, 7; Thomas, Ends, 115–16.

67 French, H. R., The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600–1750 (Oxford, 2007), 23–4. Also Keith Wrightson, “‘Sorts of People’ in Tudor and Stuart England,” in Barry and Brooks, Middling Sort, 28–51, 28–9, 33–4, 41, 45.

68 Hobbes, Behemoth, 110. Also Hobbes, Thomas, “To the Readers,” in Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Hobbes, Thomas, ed. Grene, David (Chicago, 1989), xxixxiv, xxiii; Cust, Richard and Hughes, Ann, “Introduction: after Revisionism,” in Cust and Hughes, eds., Conflict in Early Stuart England (London, 1989), 1–46, 19; Heal and Holmes, Gentry, 274; Cust, Richard, “‘Patriots’ and ‘Popular’ Spirits: A Narrative of Conflict in Early Stuart Politics,” in Tyacke, Nicholas, ed., The English Revolution c.1590–1720 (Manchester, 2007), 51.

69 Hobbes, Behemoth, 141. Also Hobbes, Leviathan, 170–1.

70 Walter, “Social Economy,” 91; Muldrew, Craig, “Economic and Urban Development,” in Coward, Barry, ed., A Companion to Stuart Britain (Chichester, 2006), 148–65, 148–9.

71 Hamilton, “Hobbes,” 415–18.

72 Stone, Crisis, 403–49; Adamson, “Courts,” 95–117.

73 Hobbes, Leviathan, 42.

74 Hobbes, Elements, 34.

75 Hobbes, Leviathan, 86.

76 Ibid., 47. Also Stone, Crisis, 401.

77 Hobbes, Leviathan, 189.

78 Hobbes, Elements, 35.

79 Hobbes, Leviathan, 44.

80 Ibid., 41.

81 Hobbes, Elements, 84.

82 Hobbes, Thomas, De Homine (London, 1658), 66; Hobbes, De Cive, 213; Hobbes, Anti-White, 416–17.

83 Hobbes, Leviathan, 66.

84 Ibid., 75.

85 Peck, Linda Levy, “Benefits, Brokers and Beneficiaries: The Culture of Exchange in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Young Kunze, Bonnelyn and Brautigam, Dwight D., eds., Court, Country and Culture (Rochester, NY, 1992), 109–28, 112–13.

86 Hobbes, Leviathan, 166, added emphasis.

87 Ibid., 42.

88 Ibid., 389.

89 Hobbes, Behemoth, 192, original emphasis. Also Richard Cust, “Politics and the Electorate in the 1620s,” in Cust and Hughes, Conflict in Early Stuart England, 134–67, 150.

90 Hobbes, Behemoth, 200. Also Hobbes, Leviathan, 166, 183; Hobbes, De Cive, 200–1.

91 Hobbes, Elements, 35. Also Heal and Holmes, Gentry, 137; Thomas, Ends, 128; Levy Peck, Splendor, 27.

92 Hobbes, Elements, 36.

93 Hobbes, Leviathan, 364. Also Heal and Holmes, Gentry, 338, 369; Thomas, Ends, 149, 152.

94 Hobbes, Elements, 71.

95 Ibid., 44.

96 Hobbes, Leviathan, 41. Also Thomas, Ends, 190–2.

97 Hobbes, Behemoth, 159. Also Hill, Christopher, God's Englishman (New York, 1970), 58–9.

98 Hobbes, Leviathan, 136.

99 Hobbes, Behemoth, 198. He is speaking of members of the Long Parliament.

100 Hobbes, Leviathan, 118; Heal and Holmes, Gentry, 41, 101.

101 Hobbes, Leviathan, 181, also 47.

102 Hobbes, De Cive, 191–2; Hobbes, Anti-White, 418–19; Hobbes, De Homine, 72–3; Hobbes, Behemoth, 276; Grassby, Business, 199.

103 Hobbes, Leviathan, 41. Also Hobbes, De Homine, 63–4.

104 Hobbes, Behemoth, 165, added emphasis. Also Grassby, Business, 31, 34, 38–9, 115, 293–4; Thomas, Ends, 160.

105 Hobbes, Behemoth, 299.

106 Hobbes, Leviathan, 47.

107 “Contemptus divitiarum (non maximarum) Pulchrum.” Hobbes, De Homine, 66.

108 Grassby, Business, 36.

109 Hobbes, Behemoth, 139.

110 Thomas, “Social Origins,” 219.

111 Muldrew, Food, 233, 282–3.

112 French, Middle Sort, 165. Also Hobbes, Behemoth, 276; Macpherson, Political Theory, 66, 94.

113 Hobbes, Leviathan, 44, also 179; Hobbes, Behemoth, 299.

114 Hobbes, Leviathan, 44. Also Muldrew, Food, 29; Muldrew, “Economic and Urban Development,” 154; Muldrew, “Class,” 149.

115 Muldrew, Food, 207, also 26, 36, 205.

116 Laslett, Peter, The World We Have Lost (New York, 1965), 51.

117 Hobbes, Leviathan, 179. Also Hobbes, De Cive, 191; Hobbes, De Homine, 64.

118 Hobbes, Leviathan, 44. Also Thomas, Ends, 164.

119 Hobbes, De Cive, 173. The context is the myth of Prometheus. Also Hobbes, Leviathan, 174.

120 Hobbes, Elements, 13.

121 Hobbes, Behemoth, 195, also 141, 197.

122 Hobbes, Elements, 65. When Hobbes says that “[t]he common sort of men seldome speak Insignificantly,” he is not praising the intelligence of common people, who just think in concrete images, but insulting the intelligence of the scholastics with a social slur. Hobbes, Leviathan, 39.

123 Hobbes, Leviathan, 183.

124 Ibid., 176–9.

125 Cust, “‘Patriots’,” 47–8, also 54–5.

126 Hobbes, Leviathan, 41, also 177–8; Hobbes, Elements, 182–3; Hobbes, De Cive, 200.

127 See chaps. 11, 12 and 13 of De Homine.

128 Heal and Holmes, Gentry, 8.

129 Hobbes, Leviathan, 166, 182; Hobbes, Thomas, A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student, of the Common Laws of England, ed. Cromartie, Alan (Oxford, 2005), 48–9.

130 Hobbes, Leviathan, 169–70.

131 Ibid., 168–9.

132 Ibid., 380.

133 Ibid., 42.

134 Hobbes, Behemoth, 146–7.

135 Hobbes, Leviathan, 48, also 49, 154, 185; Hobbes, Behemoth, 110.

136 Hobbes, Behemoth, 108; Hill, God's Englishman, 102–3.

137 Hobbes, Leviathan, 173. Also Baumgold, Deborah, Hobbes's Political Theory (Cambridge, 1988), 122; Hamilton, “Hobbes,” 450; Hobbes, Behemoth, 252, 373.

138 Hobbes, Behemoth, 291 (my emphasis), also 325; Collins, Allegiance, 149–51.

139 Hobbes, Behemoth, 150.

140 For Hobbes's comments on “Tyrannies” of the major generals see ibid., 363–4.

141 For two examples see Hobbes, Leviathan, 93, 160–61.

142 I owe this term to an anonymous reader.

143 Skinner, Quentin, “Conquest and Consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy,” in Aylmer, G. E., ed., The Interregnum (London, 1972), 7998 (subsequently revised).

144 Hobbes, Leviathan, 385.

145 Ibid., 390.

146 Sommerville, Johann P., “Hobbes, Behemoth, Church–State Relations, and Political Obligation,” Filozofski vestnik, 24 (2003), 205–22, 208.

147 Collins, Allegiance, 148–9, 156, 206.

148 Metzger, Hans-Dieter, Thomas Hobbes und die Englische Revolution 1640–1660 (Stuttgart–Bad Cannstatt, 1991), 148–53.

149 Malcolm, “General Introduction,” 1: 77–8; Hamilton, “Hobbes,” 452.

150 Hobbes, Six Lessons, 7: 335 (my emphasis), also 7: 336; Hobbes, Leviathan, 395; Hobbes, Thomas, Vita, in SirMolesworth, William, ed., Opera philosophica quae Latine scipsit, 5 vols. (London, 1839–45), 1: 1516; Hobbes, Considerations, 4: 439.

151 Hobbes, Behemoth, 128.

152 For a contemporary reading of Behemoth portraying Cromwell as Tacitist see Malcolm, Noel, “Behemoth Latinus: Adam Ebert, Tacitism, and Hobbes,” Filozofski vestnik, 24 (2003), 85120.

153 Gross, Neil, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (Chicago, 2008); Collins, Randall, The Sociology of Philosophies (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

154 Mannheim, Karl, Ideology and Utopia, trans. Wirth, Louis and Shils, Edward (New York, 1936), 310 (my emphasis).

155 Bourdieu, Pierre, The State Nobility, trans. Clough, Lauretta (Cambridge, 1998); Foucault, Michel, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–76, ed. Bentani, Mauro and Fontana, Alessandro, trans. Macey, David (New York, 2003), 8999.

156 Darnton, Robert, “In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas,” Journal of Modern History, 43 (1971), 113–32.

157 Skinner, Quentin, Visions of Politics, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 2002), 1: 145.

158 Ibid., 87.

159 Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978), 1: xi.

160 Skinner, Visions, 1: 179, and chap. 8.

161 Ibid., 1: 180.

162 Skinner, Hobbes, 179.

163 Brett, Annabel, “What is Intellectual History Now?” in Cannadine, David, ed., What Is History Now? (Basingstoke, 2004), 113–31, 124.

164 She is explicit about this in Liberty, Right and Nature (Cambridge, 2003), 7 n. 19. But this is also true of Brett, Annabel, “‘The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth’: Thomas Hobbes and Late Renaissance Commentary on Aristotle's Politics,” Hobbes Studies, 23 (2010), 72102.

* I wish to thank Duncan Kelly and an anonymous reader for helping make this article possible.

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