Title: "Hobbes and the Crisis of Exemplarity"
Esben Korsgaard Rasmussen
In recent years, a “crisis of exemplarity” has been traced to the late Renaissance (cf. Gaylard 2013; Rigolot 1998; Hampton 1990). Briefly put, this crisis designates an uneasiness over the use of exemplary, historical figures as models for political action. Detectable in multiple sources, it can be exemplified by Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Here, exemplarity is subjected to a radical critique. Not only are the conditions of political action so variable that it is hard to extract definite rules of action from history. Furthermore, the conduct of the prince is based on an intricate strategy of dissimulation and is no longer fashioned as an example of virtue to be imitated by the subjects (eg. Il principe, XV; XXV). On the model of exemplarity, political stability was premised upon the ability of the ruler to act prudently through imitation of past figures, thus becoming himself an object of imitation. With the dismantlement of exemplarity, the ruler’s mode of action and the relationship to his subjects changes simultaneously.
In this paper, I will argue that the image of the sovereign as presented in the Leviathan can be understood in light of this “crisis of exemplarity”. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must be a “visible Power” that instills “feare of punishment” in the members of the Common-Wealth (Lev. XVII). Crucially, the figure of the sovereign is not to be imitated by his subjects. As peace is contingent upon the unicity of the ruler, the ability to instill “feare of punishment” must be specific to him: the sovereign must present himself to his subjects in a manner that excludes rather than invites imitation. This configuration of political power has its profound reasons in Hobbes’s conception of human nature. Humankind is naturally competitive because we strive to secure the “way of our future desire” (Lev. XI). We always seek to replace someone of eminence as this eminence is a hindrance to our own success. Indeed, the “state of nature” could be seen as an escalating and deadly process of mutual imitation governed by prudence (Lev. VIII; XIII). To put an end to this process, we need a common, visible source of fear. Hobbes’s image of the ruler is thus the consummation of the crisis of exemplarity: neither is the sovereign to be imitated, nor is political stability dependent upon the prudential imitation of past examples.