Four historians in a Cambridge bar, c.1998: one literary, a second legal, the third political, and the fourth a social historian. All specialise in the 16th and 17th centuries. The social historian, desperate for something to say, asks: ‘So who’s the most important writer of the early modern period?’ Without hesitation the legal and political historians reply, in unison: ‘Hobbes.’ Eyes turn to the literary historian, who has a reputation for irascibility, expecting the conversation to kick off. After a considerable pause he says: ‘I’m afraid that on this occasion I can only agree.’
Vol. 35 No. 2 · 24 January 2013
In the course of an interesting discussion of the different ways in which Hobbes has been read by contemporary historians, Phil Withington offers a brief account of Hobbes’s theory of the state, one element of which he describes as ‘the basic contract between governors and governed’ (LRB, 3 January). What Hobbes proposes is not a contract between governors and governed, but a covenant ‘of every man with every man’ whereby each gives up his right of governing himself to one man or assembly of men, on condition that the others do so too. This is the creation of Leviathan, a commonwealth in which a multitude of men unite to institute a sovereign whose actions are authorised by each and every one of them. The sovereign is not a party to this, as Hobbes emphasises, explaining that because his authority is given to him ‘by covenant only of one to another, and not of him to any of them’, he cannot forfeit that authority by breach of covenant. The sovereign cannot do just as he likes; his office is to procure the good of the people, to which he is obliged, not by contract, but by the law of nature, and is accountable to God, and to no one else. It is evident that Hobbes’s argument for absolutism depends on the sovereign’s not being a party to the covenant.