Subverting the Leviathan

Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat

James R. Martel
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/mart13984
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  • Book Info
    Subverting the Leviathan
    Book Description:

    In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes's landmark work on political philosophy, James Martel argues that although Hobbes pays lip service to the superior interpretive authority of the sovereign, he consistently subverts this authority throughout the book by returning it to the reader.

    Martel demonstrates that Hobbes's radical method of reading not only undermines his own authority in the text, but, by extension, the authority of the sovereign as well. To make his point, Martel looks closely at Hobbes's understanding of religious and rhetorical representation. In Leviathan, idolatry is not just a matter of worshipping images but also a consequence of bad reading. Hobbes speaks of the "error of separated essences," in which a sign takes precedence over the idea or object it represents, and warns that when the sign is given such agency, it becomes a disembodied fantasy leading to a "kingdom of darkness."

    To combat such idolatry, Hobbes offers a method of reading in which one resists the rhetorical manipulation of figures and tropes and recognizes the codes and structures of language for what they are-the only way to convey a fundamental inability to ever know "the thing itself." Making the leap to politics, Martel suggests that following Hobbes's argument, the sovereign can also be seen as idolatrous-a separated essence-a figure who supplants the people it purportedly represents, and that learning to be better readers enables us to challenge, if not defeat, the authority of the sovereign.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51148-3
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION Hobbes’s Conspiracy Against Sovereignty
    (pp. 1-20)

    WHAT HAPPENS WHEN we read a book (especially a good one)? What internal states does the book evoke, shape, or produce in us? How do these internal states translate or become externalized, articulated as interpretation and/or meaning? How much do we as readers experience those states as being “our own” as opposed to those of the author? Finally, what are the politics of reading? What limits can we make on claims that this seemingly very private action is a basis for larger public discourse and action, even when each act of reading remains isolated and seemingly unrelated to other readings?...

  5. 1 Hobbes’s Use of Rhetoric
    (pp. 21-38)

    THIS BOOK MAKES a claim about Leviathan’s rhetoric, about the act and art of reading as a critical exercise. It also makes a claim about the reception of such rhetoric, about how texts are interpreted and understood in a particular political community, and how a community can be changed by acts of reading and interpretation. To explore this, we must first understand the nature of rhetoric and the idea that rhetoric “does” something to a text. We must understand how that “doing” affects the reader(s) themselves.

    Hobbes brings up this issue at the end of part 3 of Leviathan when...

  6. 2 Public & Private Reading
    (pp. 39-78)

    IN LOOKING AT the chaos and disruption of the English civil war, Hobbes presents us with a conundrum. In Leviathan and elsewhere he lays blame for the war largely on the faulty interpretation of Scripture.¹ Competing interpretations of the Bible by, among others, the Church of England, Puritan radicals, Quakers, even Catholics, were all claimed as correct by their respective adherents, and with these claims was a commensurate political vision that many were ready to fight and die for. For Hobbes, there may be as many scriptural interpretations as there are interpreters of Scripture. The conundrum is that for Hobbes,...

  7. 3 A Skeptical Theology?
    (pp. 79-106)

    THE NEXT TWO chapters form a two-part exploration of Hobbes’s theory of representation. Here, I will attempt to follow Hobbes as he reads Scripture, taking his model for reading the Bible as a model for reading in general. This chapter concerns itself with Hobbes’s demonstrated preference for the blank or empty sign. Hobbes consistently reads Scripture in ways that deny any kind of literal or true meaning, emphasizing instead the rhetorical construction of those texts. In the next chapter, I will link this reading style to Hobbes’s attacks on idolatry and what he calls “demonology,” to argue that his understanding...

  8. 4 False Idols & Political Representation
    (pp. 107-134)

    THE QUESTION OF idolatry gets to the heart of Hobbes’s theory of reading and representation. By examining the issue, we gain a clearer sense of the political and religious implications of Hobbes’s reading of Scripture in Leviathan. Idolatry is for Hobbes a misreading of representation, a practice of reading signs too literally, of assuming that they have an actual meaning instead of a rhetorical one. This chapter will explore this distinction between reading and misreading, arguing that although for Hobbes the difference is largely a matter of intent and understanding, it is not simply a matter of taking Hobbes’s word...

  9. 5 The True Covenant
    (pp. 135-176)

    HAVING ESTABLISHED HOBBES’S theory of reading, we can look directly at its political, social, and religious implications, both in terms of how to interpret Leviathan and how we can envision a politics that exists independently of the sovereign principle. This chapter will focus especially on the question of obligations, promises, and covenants, those political arrangements that we make with one another both within and without sovereign authority. For Hobbes, these promises and covenants are the lasting basis for an alternative politics to sovereignty; the “horizontal” relationships that people form with one another serve as a font of authority that is...

  10. 6 “The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit”
    (pp. 177-220)

    OUR EXAMINATION OF the kingdom(s) of God and its consequences for Hobbes’s political and religious thinking would not be complete without looking at the third and expressly nonexistent kingdom in his panoply, namely the “kingdom” of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as we have seen, is the figure representing the person of God for our time (recall that it is the figure for the “person” of the “Apostles, and their successors, in the Office of Preaching, and Teaching, that had received the Holy Spirit, have represented [God] ever since.”)¹ If we find ourselves suspended between the sovereignty of the...

  11. CONCLUSION: Politics Without Sovereignty
    (pp. 221-248)

    HAVING MADE VARIOUS arguments about Hobbes’s theories of reading, authority, and representation (in all its rhetorical, religious, and political variants), we must still more closely examine the implications of this analysis, for Hobbes’s politics and our own. What does a rhetorical reading of Leviathan finally tell us? How do we reconcile this reading with the text itself, or with our impression of what Hobbes “meant” when he wrote it? Most importantly, even if we accept the basic premises of such a reading, what is its significance for contemporary considerations of the question of sovereignty, authority, and politics, especially given that...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 249-282)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 283-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-309)