June 15, 2009


You’ve seen it before – the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan. Like an amulet, the image ascends over a village landscape from out of the depths, brandishing sword and scepter, staring outwardly into the distance not exactly at us but rather through us with a flaunted – even ecstatic – gaze of power.

Upon closer inspection the crowned figure also contains within it many smaller individual forms grouped together anonymously, facing towards the enormous being, as if their inclusion were actually conditional upon being captivated by its power in a state of awe. As Hobbes would write later in the text, “And though they shine, some more, some less, when they are out of his sight, yet in his presence they shine no more than the stars in the presence of the sun.”

Intriguingly, the mass accumulation of bodies also seems to constitute some coat of arms or bizarre costume which dresses – perhaps even obscures – the figure’s natural body ostensibly ordained. Perhaps they bear resemblance to the scales of a giant fish. Actually, the image can be said to encapsulate an absolute closure of politics by an act – or perhaps spectacle – of absolute state power. That was Hobbes’ intention. Yet that all is quiet and orderly in this image may make us wonder whether all can be truly secure and peaceful indeed. Of course, the point here is obviously not to press the purported accuracy of the frontispiece as a simple stand-in for Hobbes’ political theories but rather to prompt some questioning of those theories. How can the well-being, peace, and security of the populace, (“salus populi”,) be possible, at least theoretically we may wonder, amidst the unrestrained and arbitrary prerogatives of the state?

Upon pondering the frontispiece further we may also notice our own reflection mirrored in those who unassumingly fill out “his” form, as if to say we readers, we political theorists too, should see ourselves as another complicit party, falling in line and finding our place with all the rest when in the presence of Hobbes’ magnum opus. It has even been suggested, (but I cannot remember by whom,) that the figure donning the coat of arms of bodies on the frontispiece, waving sword and staff, bears a striking resemblance to Hobbes himself.

The politicization of theory by Hobbes was evident in his politicization of Scripture, as well as the Universities, which he likened to “the fountains of civil and moral doctrine,” and where the mighty Leviathan should “profitably” be taught. Hobbes was a self-admitted timorous man but also bold thinker armed to the hilt with numerous scientific methods and rhetorical means. That he certainly worried about the tumultuousness and stirrings of the demos did not however mean he liked to shrink from debating with other learned men like himself. Power was especially appealing to Hobbes, at least as a theorist, as manifest in his epic ability to wield numerous inquiries, interests, and “subjects,” (whether on religion, science, language, phenomenology, jurisprudence and law, ontology, etc.) into one goliath of a project. As one commentator put it, “Hobbes spoke to the men of science, to the men of commerce, and to Puritans alike, but (addressed) each of these constituencies with different arguments which required (being) mutually consistent.” Thus the frontispiece can be said to beckon deeper into the text a diverse array of readers, asking of us to philosophically confront its arguments, scrutinizing their many moves and gestures by opening to the possibilities presented by their author, tracing them into expected and logical areas as well as into their abrupt turns. In this respect, the frontispiece’s spectacle of power introduces a masterful rhetorical move which establishes a moment of reflection as readers simultaneously conjecture their eventual and absolute submission.

But let us emphasize that to understand is to interpret, not to replicate. That is why real theoretical success is not simply black and white, in or out, yes or no, right or wrong, regardless of what we may want to argue. We do not read a book like Hobbes’ Leviathan in its own terms but at least partially also in our own. Thus it is much to too easy and banal to tally up and blanket thinkers “right” or “wrong,” as if nothing remains of importance other than whether or not they measure up to questions, standards, and certainties we in the present happen to settle upon in advance. That is why great artists and great thinkers are not retrieved or grasped entirely or even definitely. Far more interesting and important is to look for the permutations and tenacity of their formulations which through careful and thoughtful reading enable their output to become “relevant” in a variety of ways, in a variety of contexts. “We must,” as Gramsci once wrote, “use the criterion that a philosophic position should be criticized and evaluated not for what it pretends to be but for what it really is…”