Meier 2020

Title: "The political psychology of the Hobbesian subject"

Sarah Meier


Subjects within Hobbes’s Leviathan are often assumed to be passive, dependent, and apolitical. Support for this reading is found, first, in Hobbes’s account of human psychology and practical deliberation. Critics argue that he theorizes deliberation as ruled largely by passions and insufficiently informed by reasons. Second, Hobbes establishes fear as the ascendant political passion. Peace and stability thus require harnessing subjects’ fear of one another and redirecting it towards the coercive power of the state. Finally, in authorizing a sovereign representative, subjects agree to adopt its will as their own. Many thus conclude that Hobbesian subjects are necessarily unreflective about normative questions concerning public morality, politics, and law. In other words, it does not matter whether or not subjects can endorse the content of sovereign-made law or identify with conventionally defined values.

In this paper, I first argue that although Hobbes defines deliberation as the alternation of desires and aversions, it is not a narrowly appetitive process. Experience and reason both have roles to play in motivating voluntary action. When it comes to the psychology of subjects in commonwealth, moreover, the above reading conflicts with Hobbes’s stated commitments to sovereign transparency, civic education, and free inquiry. In his later works, Hobbes emphasizes the danger of suppressing ‘true philosophy’ (L xlvi.42); defends a limited freedom of religious belief (as opposed to public worship); claims that sovereigns are obligated to teach their subjects the “grounds” of sovereign right (L xxx.4); and defines “good laws” as only those that are “needful” and “withal perspicuous,” where perspicuity requires declaring the “causes and motives for which (the law) was made” (L xxx.21). All of this suggests the view that civil order cannot be maintained by fear or coercion, but instead requires subjects’ active allegiance. I will thus conclude with some broad reflections on Hobbes’s place within burgeoning early modern conceptions of citizenship.

Draft Paper

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