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Hobbes’ Frontispiece: Authorship, Subordination and Contract

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In this article I argue that the famous image on Hobbes’ frontispiece of Leviathan provides a more honest picture of authority and of contract than is provided by today’s liberal images of free and equal persons, who are pictured as sitting round a negotiating table making a decision as to the principles on which to base laws. Importantly, in the seventeenth century, at the start of modern political thought, Hobbes saw no contradiction between contractual agreement and subordination. I will draw out these arguments by comparing three images of politics that employ the human body: Hobbes’ frontispiece is compared firstly with an earlier picture of the state, the illustration of the Fable of the Belly, and then with a later Rawlsian image of the social contract described above. At stake is Hobbes’ view of two associated concepts: authorship and authority. I argue that Hobbes’ image is a vivid portrayal of a ‘persona covert’, akin to the feme covert, a wife characterised in common law as so dominated by her husband that she is imagined as being ‘covered’ by his body.

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  2. My thanks to my anonymous referee for this point.

  3. See the enlarged image from Kristiansson and Tralau (2014, p. 308); detail of earlier manuscript, detailing faces:

  4. Goodrich (2013a, p. 148) draws on Selden (1614) to argue that the husband is a lesser figure whose power is in imitation of the Sovereign. Similarly, Agamben discusses ‘vicarious Dei’—employed by popes and sovereigns—in terms that are relevant to the idea of the husband having vicarious power (Agamben 2011, pp. 138–139). Thanks to my referee for this last point.

  5. For the argument that equality of all under God was transformed to equality under one Sovereign, see Stanton (2011, p. 164). He makes no specific reference to women but there is no evidence that they are excluded from his argument. This would be very unlikely because Locke argues against Filmer’s claim that women’s subordination is natural, albeit that Locke also states that if there is a conflict between husband and wife that the husband should win (Locke 1988, p. 30). See also Waldron (2002) and Poole (2004).

  6. For an analysis of the way in which western philosophy has been obsessed with death but has not dealt conceptually with birth see Battersby (1998).

  7. The first report of this immortality is in Plowden’s Commentaries, collected and written under Queen Elizabeth I. The most famous case before the courts was The Case of the Duchy of Lancaster (1561).

  8. R v R [1991] 3 WLR 767.


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I would like to thank Justin Clemens for inviting me to Melbourne University’s Conference on Genre, Affect and Authority in Early Modern Europe, where I started to discuss the frontispiece of Leviathan. Thanks also to the anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Janice Richardson.

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Richardson, J. Hobbes’ Frontispiece: Authorship, Subordination and Contract. Law Critique 27, 63–81 (2016).

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