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Oakeshott and Hobbes

Source: Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, foreword by Paul Franco (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). Chapter: Foreword

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Foreword by Paul Franco

Though Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) is best known as a political philosopher in his own right, he was also a profound student of the history of political philosophy, and he was a major scholar on the thought of Thomas Hobbes. Oakeshott’s interest in Hobbes emerged quite early in his career—he wrote a review-essay of recent Hobbes scholarship in 19351 —and it continued throughout most of his life—he published a lengthy review of a book on Hobbes in 1974.2 It seems at first strange that this last gasp of the British idealist school—in his first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), Oakeshott named Hegel and F. H. Bradley as his greatest influences—should have turned to Hobbes for inspiration, but the development of Oakeshott’s political philosophy gradually revealed the deep affinities he had with his seventeenth-century predecessor. The themes Oakeshott stresses in his interpretation of Hobbes are, for the most part, themes that animate his own political philosophy: skepticism about the role of reason in politics, allegiance to the morality of individuality as opposed to any sort of collectivism, and the idea of a noninstrumental, nonpurposive mode of political association, namely, civil association. This last-named idea receives explicit recognition in the title Oakeshott chose for this volume.

With the exception of the reviews mentioned above, the essays collected in this volume (which was originally published in 1975) represent almost the whole of Oakeshott’s writings on Hobbes. By the elephantine standards of contemporary scholarship, it may seem a rather slender output, but Oakeshott disdained the more industrial side of academic scholarship, and he generally packs more into a single essay than most authors manage to express in an entire book. It is indisputable that these essays—especially the Introduction to Leviathan and “The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes”—have influenced Hobbes studies far beyond their modest length and that they disclose a distinctive portrait of Hobbes with which any contemporary scholar of Hobbes’s philosophy must come to terms.

The earliest of the essays is “Dr. Leo Strauss on Hobbes” (1937), an admiring but not uncritical review of Strauss’s important book The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis. One of the things that no doubt attracted Oakeshott to this book (which he actually reviewed three different times)3 was its attempt to replace the traditional, positivist image of Hobbes as a naturalistic philosopher engaged in a scientific analysis of politics with an image of Hobbes as a genuine moral philosopher. Though Oakeshott shares this general aspiration with Strauss, he rejects Strauss’s specific argument that the original and real basis of Hobbes’s political philosophy was a prescientific moral attitude upon which Hobbes in his mature writings merely superimposed a scientific form but never really abandoned. For Oakeshott, the argument of Leviathan constitutes a genuine advance in Hobbes’s philosophical thinking, not because it is more “scientific”—to Oakeshott “Hobbes was never a scientist in any true sense . . . his ‘science’ is conceived throughout as an epistemology”— but because it represents Hobbes’s attempt “to find a firmer basis than merely a moral opinion” for his political philosophy.

Oakeshott also qualifies Strauss’s rather grand claim that Hobbes was the originator of a new tradition in political philosophy and the founder of modern political philosophy. Though Oakeshott accepts Strauss’s thesis that Hobbes’s political philosophy, in its substitution of right for law as the basis of the state, represents a break with the dominant natural-law tradition, he does not see this move as completely unprecedented, and he argues that Strauss neglects Hobbes’s significant affinities with an earlier, Epicurean tradition. Beyond this, Oakeshott argues that Hobbes also lacks something vital to modern political thought, namely, a satisfactory theory of volition. Here Oakeshott expresses a rare criticism of Hobbes, one that reflects his own Hegelian background—he cites Hegel’s doctrine of the rational will as an attempted remedy to this defect—and suggests the direction Oakeshott’s own reconstitution of Hobbes’s civil philosophy will take.

Almost a decade passed—a tumultuous one in world events— before Oakeshott’s next writing on Hobbes appeared. This was his now-famous introduction to Leviathan, published in 1946. The version of the Introduction found in this volume is slightly revised from the original and bears the imprint of some of Oakeshott’s later thinking on Hobbes and civil association. Many of the themes that were sketched in the essay on Strauss are here developed and gathered into a coherent and strikingly novel image of Hobbes’s thought. Oakeshott sweeps away the received view of Hobbes’s philosophy as naturalistic and grounded in a scientific doctrine of materialism, suggesting instead that the thread that runs through Hobbes’s system is an idea of philosophy as reasoning. Hobbesian “reasoning,” however, is not to be confused with the more substantial Reason of the classical tradition. It yields only hypothetical or conditional knowledge; it can never provide us with knowledge of ends. In terms of political philosophy, this skeptical doctrine of the limits of reasoning entails the replacement of reason by will as the foundation of political authority. Herein lies the historic significance of Hobbes for Oakeshott: he is the first thorough expositor of the tradition that explores political life in terms of the master-conceptions of will and artifice as opposed to reason and nature.

It is Hobbes’s voluntarism and individualism that receive the greatest emphasis in Oakeshott’s introduction to Leviathan. And Oakeshott is particularly concerned to refute the view that Hobbes, though an individualist at the beginning of his theory, ends up as some sort of absolutist. Hobbes’s austere idea of authority is ultimately more compatible with individual liberty than is the classical notion of reason and rule by “those who know.” “[I]t is Reason, not Authority, that is destructive of individuality.” Oakeshott puts this point in the most provocative way: “Hobbes is not an absolutist precisely because he is an authoritarian.... Indeed, Hobbes, without himself being a liberal, had in him more of the philosophy of liberalism than most of its professed defenders.”

The most charming piece in this collection is “Leviathan: A Myth,” which was originally delivered as a radio talk in 1947. Here again Oakeshott dismisses the interpretation of Leviathan as a work of reductive science, considering it instead as a work of art, a profound and imaginative exploration of the myth or collective dream of our civilization. After tracing the Christian roots of this myth, Oakeshott concludes that there can be no mistaking the character of Hobbes’s rendering of the human condition in Leviathan. “It is myth, not science. It is perception of mystery, not a pretended solution.”

In the latest of the essays in this volume, “The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes” (1960), Oakeshott returns to the issue of the nature and role of reason in Hobbes’s thought. The question around which this essay revolves is whether the conduct that Hobbes held to be preeminently rational, namely, endeavoring peace, he also held to be morally obligatory, and, if so, whether Hobbes was not thereby contradicting his view of reason as merely hypothetical or instrumental and improperly invoking the older meaning of reason as sovereign master or guide. In an elaborate discussion, in which he considers the very different arguments of Strauss and Howard Warrender on this question, Oakeshott shows that Hobbes did not contradict himself in this way. Hobbes never confused rational conduct with moral conduct, and he therefore never abandoned his instrumental notion of reasoning for the sovereign reason of the classical tradition. Oakeshott concedes to Warrender that there are places in which Hobbes writes as though he did believe there were “natural laws” imposing a “natural obligation” on men to endeavor peace, but he ascribes to Hobbes in these places an exoteric intention to show his contemporaries where their duties lay and to conceal his more radical teaching.

Oakeshott considers one other objection to Hobbes’s interpretation of the moral life: that Hobbes’s solution to the human predicament privileges fear and the desire for security over pride and thereby one-sidedly defends the morality of the tame man, or even the bourgeois man. But Oakeshott shows that there is evidence in Hobbes’s writings of an alternative derivation of the endeavor for peace out of the passion of pride. The presence of this aristocratic element in Hobbes’s moral outlook refutes the simple designation of it as “bourgeois.” In general, while Oakeshott is willing to concede the bourgeois character of Locke’s moderate brand of liberalism, he believes that the term grossly underestimates the radical individuality that lies at the heart of Hobbes’s moral outlook.

How are we to judge Oakeshott’s interpretation of Hobbes? That is a question that lies beyond the scope (and charge) of this Foreword. One thing, though, can be asserted with confidence: Oakeshott has given us a Hobbes that is vastly more interesting, imaginative, complicated, and compelling than almost any other. After reading Oakeshott’s essays, one wants to go back and read Hobbes.

paul franco

[1. ]Michael Oakeshott, “Thomas Hobbes,” Scrutiny 4 (1935–36), 263–77.

[2. ]Michael Oakeshott, “Logos and Telos,” Government and Opposition 9 (1971), 237–44 ; reprinted in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 351–59.

[3. ]Besides the review contained in this volume, he reviewed Strauss’s book in The Cambridge Review 57 (1936–37), 150 ; and in Philosophy 12 (1937), 239–41.

Last modified April 10, 2014