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The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and the Theory of the State from Hobbes to Smith, written by Paul Sagar

In: Hobbes Studies
Author: Elad Carmel1
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Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018. Hardcover. $45. ISBN 9780691178882. 280 pp.

Paul Sagar’s The Opinion of Mankind is an incredibly ambitious book. It seeks to recover David Hume and Adam Smith as first-rate, yet hitherto underappreciated, political theorists, and thence to change the way in which we think about political theory today. Sagar achieves these two goals, making his book one of the most impressive recent books in political theory.

Political theory, or at least the Western canon of modern political thought, is widely considered to have started with Hobbes, the intellectual founder of the modern state or the modern doctrine of sovereignty. Yet Sagar suggests that Hobbes’s importance notwithstanding, we must consider whether a “privileged emphasis on Hobbes is liable to generate mistaken, partial, and distorted appraisals of both the history of political thought and the forms that political theory may take” (p. 7). In the final analysis, he hopes to show that there are good reasons for political theorists to leave Hobbes behind—and turn to the theories of Hume and Smith instead. Sagar’s main point is that for Hume and Smith there is no clear philosophical notion of sovereignty, but rather an ever-changing notion of opinion. Thus, they were not part of an existing sub-tradition in the history of political thought, but major innovators in their own right.

Before outlining Sagar’s arguments in detail, it is worth presenting his unique methodological approach. Sagar develops Bernard Williams’s distinction between “the history of philosophy” and “the history of ideas”. By opting for the former, Sagar offers us “philosophy before it is history”. He is interested mainly in philosophies, particularly those of Hume and Smith, while not neglecting their contexts. His aim is to investigate patterns of arguments rather than explicit and conscious engagements of one thinker with another, which allows him to talk about thinkers who are, or are not, in agreement with one another in a broader sense. This position also allows him to link the questions of eighteenth-century thinkers with our own questions. This is a crucial aspect of the book and I shall return to it later.

Although the book urges us “to get out from under Hobbes’s shadow”, it acknowledges that “we must first spend a considerable amount of time in the shade” (p. 8). Indeed, Sagar’s first chapter, “Sociability”, begins with a discussion of Hobbes’s “natural unsociability”, which is explained by human pride and the consequent seeking of reputation, that is, glory. In order to establish a large and lasting society in the face of the dangerous interaction between pride and the drive to self-preservation, Hobbes introduced his fear-based concept of sovereignty. Pride is defined as a breach of the law of nature that dictates us to acknowledge each other as equals (even if we are not). For Sagar, pride stands at the centre of Hobbes’s account: it is a central feature of the human psyche, and it generates the central problem of human (un)sociability, which Hobbes’s entire science of politics is meant to solve. While Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, totally rejected Hobbes’s view of human nature, Bernard Mandeville presented a similar view to Hobbes, but believed that pride could be re-directed towards harmless forms of competition and that sociability could be acquired over time. For Hume, unlike Hobbes and Mandeville, the cornerstone of human psychology was not pride but sympathy. Sympathy leads humans to have an ardent desire for society, so seeking recognition may become, however surprisingly, socially conducive. It is this difference between Hobbes’s and Hume’s views of human nature that generated their different if not opposing views of politics. These differences are explored further in subsequent chapters.

In the second chapter, “History and the Family”, Sagar investigates the role of history and the account of the pre-political state from Hobbes to Hume. He argues that Hobbes had a historical explanation for how commonwealths were constructed, namely, his idea of sovereignty by acquisition, a process initiated by historical conquests by powerful families. Hobbes’s idea of sovereignty by institution, on the other hand, is an analytic device aimed at illustrating the mechanism of political authority. However, while Hobbes aspired to establish a science of politics based on demonstration, not on history, his eighteenth-century successors were free to use history to draw their own conclusions. In the end, it was Hume who made the decisive intervention. For him, the state of nature is a pure thought experiment, which means that there is no need to explain how justice was invented in this hypothetical state, but only in actual history, as a convention among early tribes, and so before, not after, government. Interestingly, as a result of Sagar’s original account of Hobbes’s theory of the family and history, Hobbes is distanced from the school of contractualism but becomes an ancestor for the conjectural history of the Scottish Enlightenment.

In the third chapter, “The State without Sovereignty”, Sagar draws out the implications of the previous chapters for Hume’s political theory, which, as the title clarifies, is not a theory of sovereignty. Here Hume’s theory is constructed primarily in opposition to Locke’s theistic political thought and particularly against his idea of tacit consent as the basis of political authority. Hume, Sagar shows, took on the challenge of finding an alternative theory of authority. For him, modern authority is based on a complex psychological process—the work of human imagination, influenced by “general rules”—which transcends simple calculations of self-interest. Thus, authority becomes a function of opinion: by judging who possesses authority, the “opinion of mankind”, rooted in the moral sentiment, actually generates authority. This may seem like an account of political sociology, not political theory; but, as Sagar demonstrates, Hume’s theory offers us a new way to think about politics precisely in that it refuses to provide us with an external normative standard of justification to determine moral and political questions. We should therefore rethink philosophy and its relationship with practice in general. Philosophy can help us assess our own values, not create them for us, and this might mean that sometimes it will have little practical to offer us. This is a particularly interesting and important chapter, since here Sagar’s major points on Hume—who emerges as the main figure of this book—seem to come to a climax.

If the primary focus of the book up to this point was on the rival theories of Hobbes and Hume, the following chapters investigate the futures of these theories. The fourth chapter, “Rousseau’s Return to Hobbes”, presents Rousseau’s theory of sovereignty as essentially Hobbesian despite its attempt not to be so, and hence as unsuccessful. The fifth chapter, “Adam Smith’s Political Theory of Opinion”, reveals Smith’s Humean political thought—namely, opinion- rather than sovereignty-focused—through a careful analysis of his historically and materially oriented theory of regime forms which centred around the interaction between power and property. As a result of his approach, Smith tended to support the separation of powers, but he too had to admit that when it came to the limits of these powers, philosophy could not provide all the answers.

What can we learn from Hume, and Smith following him, about how we think of politics and how we approach political theory today? The sixth and last chapter, “Alternatives and Applications”, stands out from the rest of the book and offers a refreshing point of view one rarely encounters in a work of this kind. For Hume and Smith, Sagar summarises, “the modern state is that institutionally ordered human community that (successfully) organizes and coordinates the promotion of utility within a certain territory” (p. 213). Yet, the specifics—of the forms of government, for example—might vary and depend largely on the practice of the age. This raises the question of what we can take from these thinkers, given that there is a significant distance between the practices of our age and of theirs. One intriguing example that Sagar gives relates to our understanding of the modern state and the Western welfare state in particular. Taking a deep historical perspective and analysing politics from the point of view of a “commercial sociability” based on mutual utility rather than benevolence, as Hume and Smith would advise, will lead us to interesting and perhaps new insights. It will show us that the welfare state emerged as a response to particular challenges and as a result of particular conditions of the post-war twentieth century, and that it may now be in decay. The latter insight has a practical implication: that it may need to be defended to survive rather than taken for granted. In any case, Sagar emphasises, engaging with such processes is more urgent than formulating abstract models of the just society, which are increasingly removed from reality. Finally, Sagar concludes:

Hume and Smith emerge as more instructive guides than those in the Hobbesian tradition, insofar as they rightly view the role of the theorist as the modest one of trying to explain the world as it actually is, and how we should conduct and adapt our normative evaluations accordingly, rather than attempting to impose upon it a vision of how we might like it to be for the sake of our moral urges and desires for theoretical finality—urges and desires that we ought by now be disenchanted enough to accept will not be fulfilled (p. 234).

One of the main points of the book, therefore, is that Hume and Smith stand in a different tradition of political thought than Hobbes and Rousseau. Moreover, these are conflicting traditions: one emphasising sovereignty, another emphasising opinion; one trying to give definitive answers, another ascribing a much more limited and dynamic role to political theory. Thus, Sagar argues, Hume arrived at a result that was distinctively “anti-Hobbesian” or “counter-Hobbesian”. This brings us once more to methodology.

In the introduction, Sagar explains that the evidence suggests that Hume read Hobbes but perhaps not too closely. As Sagar elaborates, Hume mentioned Hobbes explicitly only twice in the Treatise of Human Nature and once in the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, where he associated Hobbes (and Locke) with a “selfish system of morals” (p. 16; pp. 52–3). Sagar mentions a quote from the Treatise in which Hobbes was notably not mentioned among the “late philosophers in England, who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing” (p. 14). Sagar argues that Hume was not responding directly to Hobbes—in fact, he argues, it seems that Hume’s idea of Hobbes’s position on sociability was closer to the common caricature thereof—but that the problems Hume addressed, and especially the question of sociability, had been set out by Hobbes and, subsequently, dealt with by the “late philosophers”.

The question that remains, therefore, is whether by “anti-Hobbesian”, or simply by “Hobbesian”, Sagar means the common caricature of Hobbes or a more nuanced understanding of what Hobbes actually thought—the one that Sagar offers us—since the two are not one and the same. Throughout, Sagar gives us reasons to believe that the two options might both be correct, but the relationship between them is not fully explored. In other words, could there be a reading of Hobbes—for example, one in which human beings learn to modify their desires as part of a process of socialisation thorough political education—that makes Hobbes’s project closer to Hume’s? (Sagar comes close to considering and rejecting this option in several places; in one, he argues that “there was no place in Hobbes’s scheme for a developmental account of human cognitive capacities that might make the conditions and methods for achieving peace contingent upon stages of mental change, as Mandeville and Rousseau would later posit” (p. 74). I disagree with him on this point.)1

Sagar is clear that his book offers us an overview that covers much more than the relationship between any two thinkers. His broad approach enables him to make a remarkable contribution to numerous debates on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers—including Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and even Kant—and on the most fundamental questions of sovereignty and sociability. The Opinion of Mankind spans a very wide range of issues at the heart of the history of political thought and political theory and offers a rich and sophisticated discussion that is both intelligible and enjoyable. Students and scholars of these disciplines certainly have much to learn from it.

1

I present my thesis of Hobbes’s developmental account of reason in my article in this issue. I argue that for Hobbes, all humans have a natural capacity to reason, but only in a civil context they enjoy such leisure that enables them to upgrade their reasoning and to fulfil their rational potential. I suggest that following this path, we can see Hobbes’s hope for humankind, making him a proper Enlightenment thinker.

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