Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Behemoth, and the State

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary

What would life be like without the state? Thomas Hobbes’ famous declaration in Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical or Civil that such a life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is often understood as a cynical bon mot, shorthand to a timeless, transcendental truth about human animals and our limitations. But Hobbes’ analysis and understanding of the world and its political structures was both philosophically materialist and deeply grounded in history. In particular, his works orbit the tumultuous years of the English Civil War and “The Protectorate” of Oliver Cromwell, which Hobbes hardly considered worthy of the name. Indeed, far from the secure and prosperous sovereignty outlined inLeviathan, Cromwell’s rule manifested itself as an ugly, violent, clumsy, and deeply destructive non-state that ravaged Britain and Ireland — a phenomenon Hobbes addressed in his far less commonly read treatise Behemoth, or the Long Parliament.

In this class, we will interrogate both works not only in light of their foundational status for liberal thought but also attending to the themes of state, subjectivity, limitation, flourishing, and freedom that animate Hobbes’ political philosophy and that of such disparate later thinkers of liberalism, communism, and anarchism as John Rawls, Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, and Robert Nozick. We will examine the central questions Hobbes introduces through these texts: Does man have natural rights? How does the transaction of rights occur? And why are his arguments about rights, security, and freedom, so much thicker and more entangled than the contemporary security state allows for? We will spend the first two weeks reading selections from Leviathan, examining closely the arguments put forth for the “social compact,” “sovereignty,” and “society.” We will then turn to the much neglected Behemoth to understand Hobbes’ own analysis of a “war of all against all” and his belief in the impossibilities of socially salutary anarchy. Finally, in our last week, we will engage with a series of contemporary applications, historical and theoretical, centered around Franz Neumann’s use of Hobbes’ Behemoth in his own Behemoth: the Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944 to argue that Nazi Germany in particular, was, far from “totalitarian”, a dissolving state eerily similar to what had Hobbes described. Together, we will consider the implications of this reading of Hobbes and sovereignty for an array of questions in contemporary politics and political thought from the revival of political theology to the neoliberal reorganization of the state.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm
January 28 — February 18, 2016
4 weeks

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