Cambridge University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-107--15379-0, 234 pages, $105.00. Available as an e-book ISBN: 9781316944509, $84.00.
There are many ways to make one’s mark in Hobbes scholarship. One way is to ask new questions. Another is to begin with familiar questions and work one’s way towards contentious answers. Christopher Scott McClure’s Hobbes and the Artifice of Eternity takes the second path. Many Hobbes scholars acknowledge the rhetorical character of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Notwithstanding his cautions against mixing rhetoric and philosophy, Hobbes is now counted an accomplished practitioner of both. McClure pushes us to confront the next question: if Hobbes was such as successful rhetorician, why was he so often attacked for his views on human nature, the conclusions of his science, and his theology (pp. 30–31)? Although McClure does not mention it, if we assume Hobbes was merely a scientist ahead of his time, then the answer is within grasp. Who in the seventeenth century could keep up with a game theorist or with the next recent innovation that might be retrojected into Hobbes’s prose? For those of us who insist upon his eloquence and his rootedness within historical contexts there are complications.
The quandary presented by Hobbes’s rhetoric must have priority for McClure, but other questions motivate his reading. Are Hobbes’s criticisms of Aristotle fair? Short answer: no (pp. 36–40). If the purpose of the theology of the third part of Leviathan was to make the conclusions of the first half of the volume more acceptable, why was Hobbes so often targeted for his theology (pp. 88–89)? Most importantly for McClure, why does Hobbes recognize that human beings do not always prioritize their survival, and yet insist that the fear of death be our primary motivation in creating a lasting state (pp. 13–29, passim)? More questions are addressed, but it must be sufficient to list these.
The noteworthy aspect of McClure’s approach to these questions is his consistent refusal to grant a mundane possibility that most readers of Hobbes feel compelled to seriously entertain. If Hobbes was attacked for his political, religious, or philosophical assertions, asserts McClure, it was not because he may have been mistaken. He likewise rules out that Hobbes was unknowingly incoherent or, where correct, that he may have underestimated what it would take to move his contemporaries from their established beliefs to his new conclusions. These are the things one must consider if one takes it for granted that Hobbes was a political philosopher who was trying his best to convince his audience of the rationality – or even the mere reasonableness – of his arguments. When McClure gazes upon Hobbes, he sees something else. He sees a provocateur and prevaricator with a world historical purpose, and these characteristics above all else. If McClure thinks that Hobbes miscalculates, he isn’t telling. He is more open, if only slightly, to the possibility that Hobbes may have been mistaken in his ultimate aims, about which more below.
Most readers of Hobbes who allow that he sought the help of rhetoric see it as an aid to the philosopher’s task. Rhetoric may be used, however surreptitiously, to help the philosopher win the argument. McClure’s fundamental departure is to reject, at nearly every turn, the notion that this was Hobbes’s use for rhetoric. Rhetoric is said to work upon passions rather than reason. McClure’s Hobbes makes the manipulation of passions his priority, but where this interpretation makes its break is in insisting that the prize Hobbes sought was not victory in debate. The goal was to trigger a series of controversies that would one day make us less confident in our chances for immortality. Other readers of Hobbes, for example C.B. Macpherson, Leo Strauss, or David Johnston see in the philosopher a person involved in a social or cultural transformation. McClure, however, takes a more radical view of the means towards that end. It is neither philosophical nor theological persuasiveness that effects the transformation. The notion that Hobbes unconsciously reflected growing historical changes is likewise long since off the table.
The transformative force is, according to McClure, found in Thomas Hobbes’s deep and sophisticated strategic use of arguments. Rather than win arguments, his assertions stir passions, and beget counter-arguments. Hobbes is playing the long game. These moves ultimately yield a people that no longer finds it within itself to resist becoming the kind of modern persons we have, in fact, become. McClure continues with the useful trend of turning to Hobbes’s critical contemporaries for an improved understanding of the significance of his work, but in his approach an adroit reader such as the Earl of Clarendon (no matter how insightful his views of Hobbes’s arguments) is ultimately the perfect tool in the implementation of Hobbes’s greater design. His assaults on Hobbes’s theology were evidently made-to-order. In showing that the philosopher’s intentions were to perplex and disturb rather than enlighten, Clarendon was doing Hobbes’s bidding (pp. 92–99). The debate broaches impious possibilities. Hobbes himself chose not to mention these, but the conflict he stirred helped undermine confidence in immortality.
What are the precise ends of this design? Here again, elements of familiar arguments are radically extended. In writers like Strauss and Macpherson, Hobbes is made a player in transformation set against a background wherein everyone knows that the aristocracy and its codes of honor were ultimately displaced by the bourgeoisie who think not of honor but mere survival and endlessly strive for small gains. In the wake of the assault upon grand narratives, the linguistic turn(s), and the revisionist impact on our understanding of history it has been some time since everybody has known this. In McClure’s Hobbes the war on honor and pride is no longer witnessed as a moment in the historic conflict between classes. That war and the histories that once accompanied it are cast into oblivion. The burden of transforming human beings is now substantially transferred, heavily, upon rhetoric’s shoulders. To meet this challenge the very concept of rhetoric must expand beyond its old boundaries. The investigation of Hobbes’s rhetoric in this work has no time for ferreting out and classifying the various species of rhetorical techniques. They are beside the point. The effort is instead devoted to revealing secret intentions, willful incoherencies, and acts of provocation that work towards the singular goal of reducing the confidence of those who seek immortality.
McClure is willing to assume that Hobbes was sincere in his professed wish to create a political system that would last. The desire for immortality, in its various forms, was according to McClure, “the greatest obstacle” to its realization. This is the insight that, on this reading, allows us to pull back the curtain on his assault upon Christianity – for who would obey the sovereign if doing so appeared to jeopardize one’s fate in the afterlife – and upon glory seekers. In spite of what Hobbes may have written about the fear of death, McClure maintains that Hobbes actually believed the desire for immortality was a permanent part of human nature. The goal, therefore, was not to eradicate it, but to tame it and turn it into the salutary desires for mere longevity. We could neither seek immortality, nor be so short-term in our thinking that we could not see the consequences of our actions. Hobbes was aiming for “medium range self-interest” (p. 178) Hobbes, in short, had to change the way we thought of death, and if it meant becoming a caricature – the “Monster of Malmesbury” – by offering up either unpersuasive arguments (disobeying the sovereign yielded damnation) or gloomy one-dimensional pictures of human nature, than Hobbes was ready to assume that role (pp. 8–9).
If Hobbes’s arguments seem deficient, it is for McClure because we have not understood their true purpose. A full confrontation with what Aristotle actually wrote regarding the difference between seeking mere life and living well, or in the dignity of living free rather than in servitude would undermine Hobbes’s goals regarding immortality (pp. 38–39). He likewise will not confront the Periclean notion that the desire for glory founds cities rather than destroys them (p. 85) Although McClure is like Strauss in finding an author with secret intentions, in at least one respect he turns this element of Strauss’s interpretative style inside-out. Hobbes was not, according to McClure, content to let the masses believe the theology that the philosophical few could secretly know was false. The bizarre interpretations of scripture, writes McClure, make sense when we understand that his purpose was to foster religious uncertainty. What some scholars have called Hobbes’s esoteric teachings are in fact, his exoteric ones. (pp. 107, 115, 136) Moreover, because Hobbes “did not expect his theology to be taken seriously” we also should not assume that he wished to see it taught (p. 185). True to form, McClure ends his book by suggesting that not even Heidegger and Nietzsche understood that Hobbes had fostered modern disenchantment as a necessary evil rather than an unintended consequence.
If we can assume that it was McClure’s intention to persuade (given his admiration for Hobbes’s “rhetoric,” and his reference in the work’s last sentence to the monument to Hobbes’s “unageing intellect,” one must stress this “if”), then there are some familiar difficulties that must accompany interpretive claims about such deep, secretive, intentions. McClure is comfortable declaring that some of Hobbes’s claims are not serious. Why some and not others? Do not philosophers sincerely offer claims readers find incoherent and bizarre? McClure offers few criteria for the distinction detached from his prior assumptions regarding Hobbes’s ultimate ends. The quest for underhanded means places so many more strings within our grasp. The problem is the likelihood of the entire garment of Hobbes’s work unravelling once we permit ourselves to start pulling. McClure finds true admiration for General Monck in Hobbes’s Behemoth. After the restoration, the General did not remain popular. Why isn’t this another provocation? Indeed, why should we assume that a philosopher so interested in stirring up controversies was actually pursuing the peace he said he wanted to promote? The views of suspicious royalists and Anglican bishops gain more currency every day in Hobbes scholarship. Even if we accept – as this reviewer does – that Hobbes was looking to create a lasting state, why should we further assume that seventeenth century publications that anticipate a state filled with persons with smaller ambitions are responsible for bringing such states into being? More substantively, one might see in Hobbes a philosopher who wished for a transformation without having to assign such an incredible burden upon his rhetorical capacities and insights. What if his evident account of human nature was, as some think, more subtle than simplistic? What if his assault upon the vain-glorious was meant to carry this load by moving the audience in the more conventional manner? What if the many other arguments that look so much like they were designed to persuade truly were designed to persuade? Some of the more concrete and historically plausible approaches towards transforming the new generation, including the public teaching of his doctrines, are discussed, but they were due greater consideration.
Hobbes was not the only one interested in effecting grand changes in seventeenth century Britain through the introduction of new doctrines. Before we rush to turn him into the genius exception it is useful to consider how often he conformed to prior practices and pursued his own path while still keeping intellectual company with others then pursuing philosophical distinction. That said, McClure’s extensions of prior hypotheses regarding Hobbes’s intent will make his book an interesting read for many Hobbes scholars. Even in his own times there was a feeling that Hobbes was capable of doing more than anyone could imagine. John Eachard, Master of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, mocked this aspect of Hobbes’s reputation. Hobbes himself noted that some people thought the work of geometry to be magic. McClure’s interpretation reminds us that there is something about the philosopher that inspires not merely wonder, but disagreement and suspicion. To a point, Hobbes obviously relished controversy, and Hobbes scholars who pursue either their own or other’s disagreements or suspicions will wish to consider McClure’s claims.