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Forget Hobbes

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Abstract

This article has a threefold aim. First, it criticises the instrumentalisation of intellectual history in international relations (IR) that clouds issues of contemporary politics rather than illuminating them. Second, benefiting from the recent advances in Hobbes’ studies in the field of political theory and emphasising the importance of both textual plausibility and authorial intentions for preserving the ‘horizon’ of the possible interpretations, it suggests that ‘IR’ were of no particular concern to Hobbes, and the few scattered remarks on the ‘superpolitical’ state of the many governments interacting with each other are functionally subservient to the purpose of demonstrating the reality of the state of nature. Third, by pointing to the ‘security continuum’ of various states present in his political theory, the article challenges the reading of Hobbes as authoring the discipline’s foundational inside/outside difference. It concludes by making a case that the field would benefit from curing itself from the ‘Hobsession’ it seems to be suffering and from forgetting Hobbes to open space for rethinking international politics.

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Notes

  1. Hobbes, who apparently seems to have been a rather merry, if somewhat anxious, fellow, was epitomised by his enemies as the ‘Devil’s Secretary’, the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’ or the ‘Agent of Hell’ (Parkin, 2007a).

  2. I owe this pun to a colleague Vit Benes at the Institute of International Relations Prague who generously provided comments on an early version of the argument presented here.

  3. The political writings analysed include in particular Leviathan, Behemoth, On the Citizen [De Cive], Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (Elements of Law), A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student, of the Common Laws of England, and the introduction and the translator’s notes to Thucydides’ Eight Books of the Peloponnesian War.

  4. The argument here therefore follows the practice of inquiring into artificially constructed traditions in the discipline and their practical consequences and, more particularly, inquiries into the concept of international anarchy and the conditions under which the realist reading of Hobbes has become dominant in the discipline (see, for example, Ashley, 1988; Walker, 1993; Bell, 2002; Malcolm, 2002; Williams, 2005; Sorrell, 2006; Prokovnik and Slomp, 2011). The volume edited by Prokovnik and Slomp (2011) in particular usefully undermines the distinction in Hobbes’ writings between domestic and international politics. However it also strives, on this basis, to make Hobbes relevant in the current post-sovereign world, thus producing an entire series of ‘Hobbeses’ the modern day international theorists.

  5. Herz (1959) would later credit Butterfield for illuminating the logic of ‘security dilemma’ for the first time, referencing this passage.

  6. A rare instance of classification of Hobbes as a ‘second image’ theorist, the domestic constraints thesis is not convincing because Hobbes seems adamant in claiming that the sovereign is the only judge of war’s necessity, and the counsel he takes only assists him in determining whether the war has a chance of success (A Dialogue, pp. 20–22).

  7. Equality in IR is actually nowhere discussed by Hobbes. The second disanalogy most likely originates from a careless reading of Bull (1977), who summons this argument, originally made by Spinoza in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus 3.11, to prove that Hobbes was an international society theorist. Sleep actually plays a rather positive role for Hobbes, for it gives man, troubled by fear of death and other calamities that may befall him, a rare chance to repose and ‘pause his anxiety’ (Leviathan 12.5). There is little support for the third disanalogy as well, particularly given that the commonwealth is metaphorised as a mortal God and its death is repeatedly identified with civil war (see below).

  8. For another reading of Hobbes that stresses the importance of discipline, see also Devetak (2008, pp. 270–272).

  9. ‘Men are therefore in the state of war so long as they judge good and evil by the different measures which their changing desires from time to time dictate’ (De Cive 3.31; cf. Leviathan 15.40).

  10. Earlier suggestions of this linkage are found in Elements of Law 20.5 and De Cive 7.18.

  11. Neither the translation nor the occasional marginal remarks tell much about Hobbes’ view of ‘IR’. Hobbes’s empirical observation in the introductory essay that ‘without pretext, no Warre followes’ and his stressing in a marginal note Thucydides’s conclusion that ‘the truest Quarrell, though least in speech, I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power’, which incited fear in Lacedaemonians, barely serve as evidence to the contrary (Eight Books, 14; Haslam, 2002, p. 56).

  12. In the Latin Leviathan, Hobbes further gives the example of Cain’s murder of Abel and, in correspondence to François Peleau, also that of soldiers serving in different places and masons who work under different architects. At the same time, he makes it clear that he does not argue that the state of nature once existed all over the world (Skinner, 2008).

  13. This was meant, specifically, to counter the ideological offensive by the Catholic Church, a ‘rogue’ non-state actor of the time according to Hobbes, which used the same media to perpetuate both civil and foreign war (Behemoth, pp. 39–40).

  14. In contrast to the state of nature as a prepolitical condition, where the conflict is overdetermined, brought about by structural causes, epistemic causes and causes pertaining to human nature, regarding the superpolitical condition the only cause implied is structural (absence of common power). Indeed, in A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student Hobbes suggests that under the conditions of anarchy it may be predicted that ‘mutual fear may keep [states] quiet for a time, but upon every visible advantage they will invade one another …’ (A Dialogue, p. 12). This ‘offensive realist’ position, however, should be contextualised. An isolated remark, it is not congruent with Hobbes’ other empirical statements about the superpolitical condition, and it is made in a discussion of the importance of obedience and not by the character in the dialogue with whom Hobbes usually identifies.

  15. Suffice it to say that this set featured both marginalisation and exclusion, and engagement and influence (see Parkin, 2007a, 2007b; Mintz, 1969; Armitage, 2006; Rogers, 2007).

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Ditrych, O. Forget Hobbes. Int Polit 53, 285–302 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/ip.2016.6

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