Hobbes’s Strategy of Convergence

In: Hobbes Studies
Alison McQueen Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

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In his political works, Thomas Hobbes proliferates arguments and overdetermines his conclusions. This article hypothesizes that at least some of this overdetermination was intentional. It was part of a “convergent strategy” meant to appeal to a broad, diverse, and unknown audience. The article draws on Leviathan to offer evidence for this hypothesis.


In his political works, Thomas Hobbes proliferates arguments and overdetermines his conclusions. This article hypothesizes that at least some of this overdetermination was intentional. It was part of a “convergent strategy” meant to appeal to a broad, diverse, and unknown audience. The article draws on Leviathan to offer evidence for this hypothesis.

1 Introduction

One of the great virtues of contemporary philosophy is that its practitioners tend to give us their best argument for a conclusion, rather than all their arguments. Ideally, the best argument is the one that the philosopher thinks most accurately captures the truth. She may amend and adapt her argument in response to persuasive objections, perfecting and polishing it. But she does not burden the reader with the arguments that did not make the cut. They are quietly discarded. And, on the whole, the reader is grateful for this. There is a pleasant—if humdrum—parsimony about it all.

But this parsimony is a luxury in other domains, like politics and law. There, the truth of the matter may be muddy or hotly contested. The author’s audience may be largely unknown to her. Perhaps her audience has deep reasons to reject the argument that she believes best captures the truth. In cases like this, it sometimes makes pragmatic sense to proliferate arguments—to offer a range of independent arguments, rather than just the best one. The politician or lawyer who offers these arguments probably does not think they all track the truth equally well. But each of these independent arguments has the advantage of converging on a single conclusion. Let us call this a convergent strategy. When an author uses a convergent strategy, her conclusion is overdetermined.

The most common species of the convergent strategy is the argument in the alternative. Consider a famous example from the Texan criminal defense lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes: “Say you sue me because you say my dog bit you…Well, now this is my defense: My dog doesn’t bite. And second, in the alternative, my dog was tied up that night. And third, I don’t believe you really got bit…[And finally] I don’t have a dog.” 1

The first three claims are compatible. It can be true that (1) “my dog doesn’t bite” and (2) that “my dog was tied up” and (3) that you were not bitten. However, the fourth claim contradicts the first two. It cannot at once be true that my dog doesn’t bite or that it was tied up that night, and that I don’t have a dog. What I am calling a convergent strategy need not include incompatible arguments. Its defining feature is that it proliferates multiple independent arguments (which may or may not be compatible) in order to overdetermine its conclusion.

In this article, I offer evidence in favor of the hypothesis that Thomas Hobbes uses a convergent strategy in his political works, and especially in Leviathan. In the second section, I will consider how various scholars have dealt with Hobbes’s tendency to overdetermine his conclusions. In the third section, I will offer some examples of argument proliferation that might plausibly be explained by Hobbes’s use of a convergent strategy. In the fourth section, I will offer some contextual evidence to support this hypothesis about Hobbes’s approach.

2 Interpreting Overdetermination

Interpreters are most interested in argument proliferation when the arguments involved are (or appear to be) inconsistent. This inconsistency might be external (i.e. occurring between two or more works) or internal (i.e. occurring within a single work). Let us first consider external inconsistency. Hobbes’s changing arguments about the relationship between liberty and self-government offer a stark example. 2 In Elements of Law, Hobbes argues that freedom and political subjection are antithetical—they “cannot stand together.” He reasons that “liberty in a commonwealth is nothing but government and rule, which because it cannot be divided, men must expect in common; and that can be no where but in the popular state, or democracy.” 3 Most startling of all, he then cites with approval Aristotle’s argument on the necessary connection of liberty and self-government. 4 When men agitate for liberty, Hobbes argues, they are demanding a share in government. 5

Lest we get carried away and start interpreting Hobbes as a crypto-democrat, we should note that he thinks this view is dangerous because it leads liberty-seekers to clamor for honors and even to rebel. The mistake of these rebels is not that they have misunderstood either the meaning of or the political conditions necessary for liberty; it is that they have overestimated the relative value of liberty. Reasonable people should be willing to sacrifice liberty for effective government. The latter is so obviously more valuable.

In De Cive, Hobbes rejects this connection between liberty and self-government altogether. Those who agitate for self-government in the name of liberty have misunderstood the meaning of and therefore the political conditions necessary for liberty. In a stunning reversal of his earlier argument, Hobbes now claims: “When private citizens, i.e. subjects, demand liberty, what they are demanding in the name of liberty is not liberty but Dominion; but in their ignorance they never see this…those citizens who deplore loss of liberty in a Monarchy are only annoyed because they are not called to play a role in the government of the Country.” Liberty does not require self-government and “the citizens have no greater liberty in a popular state than in a Monarchical” one. 6 Those who confuse liberty and self-government are dangerously wrong. Their error is a threat to rightful sovereigns everywhere.

This example of external inconsistency is interesting not just because it tracks important changes, but also because Hobbes’s more general conclusions remain the same. In both Elements and De Cive, Hobbes is arguing for the conclusion that pressing for popular government in the name of liberty is dangerous and leads to rebellion. But the rebels of Elements are not guilty of a conceptual misunderstanding, whereas the rebels of De Cive are.

What explains this shift in Hobbes’s reasoning? Robin Douglass argues that Hobbes had a philosophical change of mind. In both Elements and De Cive, Hobbes strongly (though sometimes implicitly) relies on a conception of freedom as the absence of obligation. 7 Law is a kind of obligation; where laws begin, freedom ends. The argument about freedom and self-government in Elements is in tension with this conception, whereas the revised argument in De Cive is not. If freedom is the absence of obligations, there is no reason to think that citizens of a democracy are any less free than the subjects of a monarchy.

Other explanations for external inconsistency might appeal to contextual factors. For example, if one could show that Hobbes had reason to think the threat of republican arguments about freedom and self-government had increased since he had written Elements in 1640, perhaps this would explain his change of position. It might have made polemical sense to avoid conceding any conceptual ground to the republican side. 8 Other contextual explanations for external inconsistency might plausibly appeal to Hobbes’s shift in audience from the royal advisers and Members of Parliament to whom Elements is directed to the broader European readership that De Cive targets. 9 Given that the views and prejudices of this European audience were less predictable to Hobbes, he might have thought it best to close the conceptual door to self-government lest his theory be appropriated for rebellious ends. 10

Regardless of the explanation one favors, external inconsistencies like this reveal multiple routes to a single conclusion. In this case, these routes are incompatible—a fact that would be immediately clear if both arguments were in the same work. Either liberty requires self-government and the mistake of liberty-obsessed rebels is to overvalue freedom relative to stability, or liberty does not require self-government and liberty-obsessed rebels have made a conceptual error. In both cases, the rebels are wrong. They ought not to be pressing for popular government in the name of liberty. But the two routes to this conclusion are incompatible. For the sake of consistency, one has to choose. Hobbes chose.

While external inconsistency can often be explained by appealing to changes of mind or changes of circumstances, internal inconsistency is a harder problem. 11 Let us consider a striking example. 12 Within Leviathan, Hobbes makes both of the following arguments:

  1. (1) The conquest theory claim: Legitimate political authority is grounded in effective might. Subjects are (only) obligated to obey whichever authority is effectively protecting them. 13
  2. (2) The consent theory claim: Legitimate political authority is grounded in consent. Subjects are (only) obligated to obey a political authority to which they (ought to) have consented. 14

These arguments appear to be inconsistent. The interpreter cannot easily appeal to changes of mind because the two arguments appear in the same work. 15

One way to grapple with internal inconsistency is to show that the inconsistency in question is more apparent than real. In the case of this example, Kinch Hoekstra offers a powerful instance of this interpretive strategy. This interpretation hinges on the thinness of Hobbes’s conception of consent. For Hobbes, free consent can be given by those in mortal terror. Those who institute a commonwealth do so “for fear of one another”; those who subject themselves to a conqueror do so for fear of him. 16

In addition, consent need not be given expressly. It can be attributed or presumed on the basis of certain states of affairs. One of these states of affairs is the effective exercise of political power for the general preservation and benefit of subjects. Even when a subject has not expressly consented to this power, his consent can be presumed because the exercise of this political power is “necessary for his conservation.” 17 Once we see this, we can see that the consent theory claim and the conquest theory claim are not inconsistent. Effective “might implies consent, and consent confers right, therefore might implies right.” 18 Properly interpreted, the inconsistency dissolves.

This strategy of excavating an underlying conceptual consistency is one way of dealing with the proliferation of arguments that appear to be inconsistent. For self-consciously systematic thinkers like Hobbes, it ought to be the first strategy an interpreter tries.

What if the inconsistency remains after a good faith effort to resolve it? The inconsistency might not be simply apparent, but also real. Hobbes scholars have offered a few explanations for real inconsistencies. We can divide these into accounts which take the inconsistencies to be unintentional and those that see them as intentional.

One of the most powerful explanations for unintentional inconsistencies in Hobbes’s work appeals to his writing process. Deborah Baumgold has persuasively shown that Hobbes used serial composition. This was a common practice in the seventeenth century. Over time, Hobbes added new lines of argument to existing structures, often leaving older formulations intact. 19 For example, De Cive offers an account of the social contract that suggests that subjects are agreeing to not resist the will of the sovereign. Much of Leviathan retains this argument. 20 However, Hobbes adds a new argument about authorization. Subjects are the authors of the sovereign’s actions and are thereby implicated in what the sovereign does on behalf of the commonwealth. 21 These inconsistent accounts of the sovereign-subject relationship sit side-by-side in Leviathan. Here, Hobbes’s process of serial composition turned “developmental inconsistencies between works into internal inconsistencies within…Leviathan.” 22 Baumgold’s Three-Text Edition of Hobbes’s political works surfaces many other examples of the same phenomenon.

There are two important things to note about Baumgold’s explanation for internal inconsistency. First, Baumgold’s approach certainly accounts for some of the tensions that accrete over time in Hobbes’s political works. However, her approach also accounts for something that is less rarely seen as puzzling (but should be)—Hobbes’s tendency to proliferate multiple lines of consistent argument. After all, if Hobbes added new lines of argument to existing structures, it stands to reason that some of these new arguments would have been consistent with the old ones. I will explore this issue in more detail below. For now, I simply want to mark that Baumgold’s approach explains argument proliferation as a general phenomenon whose specific instances include both inconsistent and consistent lines of argument.

Second, if we are persuaded by Baumgold’s explanation, we must accept that at least some instances of both argument proliferation and inconsistencies between arguments were unintentional on Hobbes’s part. He was not trying to proliferate arguments or to introduce inconsistencies. Rather, “inconsistency was simply the product of Hobbes’s composition process…[I]n some to many instances, it may have no greater rationale than his way of writing.” 23 If this is the case, it raises a further puzzle. Why did Hobbes not remedy the inconsistencies introduced by his compositional method? Did he not see them? While this seems difficult to accept about a thinker who was at pains to get things right, early modern philosophy certainly has its share of cavalier carelessness. 24 However, I tend to think that this ought to be an explanation of last resort without compelling evidence of a pattern of sloppiness.

Perhaps Hobbes simply did not think others would notice the inconsistencies. If so, he grossly misjudged this. Critics like Bishop Bramhall took great delight in listing both real and apparent inconsistencies in Hobbes’s argument. 25 Maybe it is worth considering the possibility that Hobbes introduced inconsistencies (or allowed those produced by his compositional method to remain) for some reason of his own.

Jon Parkin has argued that this reason can be found in Hobbes’s use of paradox. 26 In the seventeenth century, “paradox” could be understood in one of two ways. First, it could be understood literally as “a statement that was beyond (para) common opinion (doxa).” 27 Second, it could be understood as a statement involving apparent absurdity or self-contradiction. When Hobbes’s readers called him a “paradoxical” writer, as many of them did, they meant at the very least that his work contained many statements that were beyond common opinion. 28 Hobbes’s critics, like Bishop Bramhall, also took advantage of the second meaning of paradox when they accused Hobbes of contradiction, confusion, and error. 29

Hobbes himself accepted and even embraced the label of “paradoxical” writer. He used the label himself to describe various doctrines in his three major political works. 30 Furthermore, as Parkin has noted, in his personal correspondence Hobbes betrays a certain pride in this quality of his writing: “My odde opinions are bayted. But I am contented wth it, as beleeuing I haue still the better when a new man is sett vpon me; that knows not my paradoxes, but is full of his owne doctrine, there is something in the disputation not vnpleasant.” 31 Indeed, Hobbes thought paradoxes could haul mankind out of darkness and ignorance. Adopting a more optimistic stance than his contemporaries, he defines a paradox as “an opinion not yet generally received.” 32 There are grounds for hope.

On Parkin’s interpretation, Hobbes thought that well-presented paradoxes might provoke wonder and curiosity, leading readers to greater knowledge. 33 For instance, following the lead of Hobbes’s readers and critics, Parkin describes Hobbes’s discussion of natural law as paradoxical. Throughout chapters 14 and 15 of Leviathan, Hobbes refers to these dictates as “laws of nature,” only to then reveal that they are improperly called laws. A law, “properly is the word of him that by right hath command over others.” 34 The reader, then, is presented with a paradox in the literal sense—the claim that natural laws are not laws was no doubt beyond (some) common opinion at the time. 35 But there is also an apparent absurdity or self-contradiction here. Natural laws both are and are not laws. Hobbes quickly moves to reassure the reader that when the laws of nature are issued by God, “then they are properly laws.” However, the astute reader may fail to be convinced and the reassurance is omitted entirely in the Latin Leviathan. The paradox elicits curiosity and encourages the reader “to investigate for themselves” and find a solution to the apparent contradiction. 36

Of course, other readings of this example are possible. While the argument in the first half of Leviathan is primarily a secular one based on reason, Hobbes recognizes that some of his readers are sincere religious believers who will want to square this argument from reason with the demands of their faith. Perhaps Hobbes aimed to show that, whether they accept a secular or a theistic account of the foundations of natural law, readers can converge on the conclusion that these are the rules that, if followed, lead to peace. In short, one could read Hobbes’s discussion of natural law as an example of a convergent strategy—one that proliferates multiple lines of argument and that overdetermines the conclusion in order to persuade diverse readers.

I propose that Hobbes uses this strategy in his political works and that there are many instances of it in Leviathan. This proposal shares with Baumgold’s interpretation the aim of explaining not only particular instances of inconsistency but also Hobbes’s general tendency to proliferate arguments. If we assume that parsimony was one of Hobbes’s aims, then argument proliferation ought to be puzzling—even when the claims involved are consistent. 37 My proposal shares with Parkin’s interpretation the conviction that at least some of Hobbes’s argument proliferation was intentional.

3 The Puzzle of Proliferation

Hobbes’s tendency to proliferate arguments has primarily been noted by scholars focused on his religious and scriptural arguments. 38 This is where the tendency is on clearest display. Consider the following three examples, each at a different level of analysis.

First, at the broadest level, Hobbes casts the first and second halves of Leviathan as two independent lines of argument that converge on a defense of absolutism. The first half of the book makes the case by appealing to “Principles of Reason.” Some readers, Hobbes acknowledges, may reject this line of argument on the grounds that there are no extant commonwealths that fully instantiate these principles. He thinks this would be a silly reason to dismiss the argument—it would be akin to the “Savage people of America” denying that there are any rational principles for building a long-lasting dwelling simply “because they never yet saw any so well built.” Yet Hobbes is willing to grant the objection arguendo: “But supposing that these principles of mine are not Principles of Reason; yet I am sure they are Principles from Authority of Scripture; as I shall make it appear, when I shall come to speak of the Kingdome of God.” 39 The case for absolutism is grounded in principles of reason. But, even if it is not, it is grounded in principles of scripture. The two halves of the book contain independent arguments that converge on the conclusion of absolutism.

Second, at an intermediate level, I have argued elsewhere that Hobbes proliferates several scriptural arguments that converge on the conclusion that religious subjects ought to obey their civil sovereign. In brief, his set of arguments is as follows.

  1. (1) The sovereign control claim: the civil sovereign has ultimate jurisdiction over ecclesiastical and religious matters. 40
  2. (2) The coincidence claim: Whether or not (1) is true, the requirements of salvation coincide with the requirements of obedience. 41
  3. (3) The tolerable hell claim: Whether or not (1) and (2) are true, hell is not a state of everlasting torment. The threat of hell is not sufficiently bad to justify disobedience to one’s sovereign on the grounds of faith. 42

The three arguments are not inconsistent—they can all be true at once. However, they do overdetermine the conclusion. For instance, if the sovereign control claim persuades, Hobbes does not need the coincidence claim. The fact that he offers the latter claim suggests that he thinks some readers will not accept the former.

The proliferation of claims allows readers who do not accept one or more of the arguments to converge on Hobbes’s conclusion. An Erastian might acceptthe sovereign control and coincidence claims, but not the tolerable hell claim. A moderate Puritan might accept the coincidence claim but not the sovereign control or tolerable hell claims. A dabbler in Socinianism might accept the tolerable hell claim, but have doubts about the sovereign control and coincidence claims. 43 In principle, however, they can all converge on Hobbes’s conclusion.

Third, at the most granular level, Hobbes often proliferates arguments on specific aspects of Christian doctrine. His arguments about apostolic succession are an illustrative example. Hobbes aims to refute a common argument by seventeenth-century churchmen that they were the successors of Christ’s apostles and inherited all their rightful powers, including over some civil matters. Hobbes responds with the following two arguments.

  1. (1) The apostolic succession claim: Apostolic authority was limited to literal witnesses of Jesus. There are no apostolic successors. Therefore, contemporary churchmen are not apostolic successors. 44
  2. (2) The apostolic authority claim: Christ did not wield civil authority. He only held powers of teaching and persuasion. Therefore, even if contemporary churchmen are apostolic successors, their authority is similarly limited. 45

Once again, Hobbes has overdetermined the conclusion that contemporary churchmen have not inherited civil powers from the apostles. The fact that he makes the apostolic authority claim suggests that the thinks there may be those who do not accept the apostolic succession claim. Both groups can, in principle, converge on the conclusion that contemporary churchmen did not inherit jurisdiction over civil matters from the apostles.

Despite some important interpretive differences, the scholars who have highlighted Hobbes’s tendency to proliferate arguments tend to agree that this was an intentional strategy. 46 It was a response to the violent religious pluralism of his time. For example, S. A. Lloyd argues that Hobbes saw clearly how the “transcendent interests” of diverse religious believers were a threat to civil peace. In order to neutralize this threat, believers had to be convinced that their obedience to a Leviathan state was compatible with the demands of their faith. On this reading, Hobbes proliferates arguments in order to meet believers where they stand—to persuade them on their own terms that their faith requires civil obedience. He was trying to construct a kind of proto-Rawlsian overlapping consensus. 47

Jon Parkin argues that while Hobbes wanted to block certain religious beliefs that would threaten peace, he also recognized that Britain’s religious future was open. Hobbes wanted to ensure that whatever religious settlement Britain reached, it would be conducive to political order and civil peace. He proliferated religious arguments to show diverse audiences how they might rearticulate their commitments along Hobbesian lines in the interests of peace. On this reading, Hobbes’s aim was to offer “arguments that were (i) credible to a variety of religious believers, (ii) familiar to particular audiences, (iii) constituted in a provocative and challenging manner, and which (iv) allowed scope for readers to engage with them in their own ways.” 48 For Parkin, this aim accounts for the critical reception of the religious arguments in Leviathan, which were described as a “farrago,” a “rhapsody,” and in other ways that suggest a confused miscellany of arguments. 49

I have argued elsewhere that the strategy that Hobbes uses to persuade a diverse audience in conditions of violent religious pluralism was a well-established strategy in forensic or judicial rhetoric. 50 I will offer some additional evidence in support of this interpretation in the next section.

These three interpretations share the notion that, particularly in Leviathan, Hobbes proliferated arguments in order to appeal to a broad, diverse, and unknown audience. 51 There is little doubt that this was Hobbes’s ambition for Leviathan. He wrote the book in English, he published it, and he hoped the book would be widely read and its doctrines broadly disseminated. 52

If this is the case, then we should expect to find Hobbes using a convergent strategy not only in the book’s religious arguments, but in its secular ones as well. A few Hobbes scholars have had suspicions that this is the case, though none have made sustained arguments for this view. Conal Condren suspects that Hobbes employs a convergent strategy throughout Leviathan in order to persuade a large and varied audience. While he thinks this might account for the work’s lack of discursive uniformity, he does not offer detailed examples of the strategy. 53

Kinch Hoekstra raises a similar possibility in the course of his argument that the aim of Hobbes’s philosophy is peace:

[I]f Hobbes sees his words as actions intended to bring about peace, then we should interpret them in terms of that goal. Given his practical end, for Hobbes to produce different arguments for different readers need be no more inconsistent than a company that produces different products for different markets in order to boost overall sales. If we interpret Hobbes as pursuing his stated goal of persuading people into peace, we can see that he appeals to a range of premises or assumptions to bring readers from different starting points to the same conclusion or result. Accordingly, Hobbes’s willingness to draw on conquest theory and then consent theory, for example, need not be explained as a theoretical inconsistency, nor as a theoretical shift. 54

Hoekstra also entertains the possibility of intentional overdetermination of irenic conclusions when he examines Hobbes’s proliferation of arguments about tyranny. 55 I have also suggested above that Hobbes’s treatment of the laws of nature might be an instance of a convergent argument.

Where else might Hobbes be using a convergent strategy? While this article is primarily intended as an invitation for future work to test the convergence strategy hypothesis, let me propose one further example. Leviathan’s treatment of the causes of conflict in the state of nature might be viewed as a convergent argument.

This treatment causes a number of interpretive difficulties because there are at least two accounts of the causes of conflict that seem to run through the work. First, there is an account that is “an Inference, made from the Passions.” 56 Consistent with the arguments offered in both Elements of Law and De Cive, the passion Hobbes stresses most heavily is vainglory, or an unjustified belief in one’s own power and superiority. This passion causes conflict by prompting the vainglorious to pick fights they are likely to lose and by making the vainglorious violently sensitive to perceived signs and acts of dishonor. Vainglory need not be evenly distributed throughout the population in order to result in conflict. It is enough that some people are so motivated, that this fact is generally known, and that we are uncertain about what sort of person we are dealing with in any given encounter. 57

However, Leviathan develops a largely new and parallel account of the causes of conflict. This second account is structural and “de-psychologized.” 58 On this view, conflict is caused by the fact that we are all equal in our capacity to kill another and that we desire and seek the same scarce things. This brings us into competition, which in turn leads to distrust and assurance problems and makes preemption the most rational strategy. Once this disposition is generally known, the state of nature becomes a state of war. 59 While the first account stresses passions that drive us to irrationally risk our own lives for the sake of glory and honor, the second explains how instrumentally rational individuals who are motivated by nothing more than a desire for self-preservation and a fear of death may find themselves in conflict with one another.

Much interpretive effort has been spent attempting either to reconcile these two accounts or to make a case for Hobbes’s “authentic” view of the causes of conflict. 60 However, it seems plausible that the two accounts are part of a convergent argument. Hobbes’s accounts of human nature and the state of nature in De Cive had been targets of criticism. 61 One way to respond to this criticism in Leviathan might be to argue as follows.

  1. (1) The vainglory claim: the state of nature is a state of war because some sufficient number of individuals are motivated by vainglory;
  2. (2) The de-psychologized claim: whether or not (1) is true, instrumentally rational individuals will nonetheless find themselves in a state of war when we desire and seek the same scarce goods.

This strategy could allow those with a range of views on human nature to converge on the conclusion that the state of nature is a state of war. 62

4 Convergence and Context

In the last section, I presented textual evidence in support of the hypothesis that Hobbes uses a convergent strategy in Leviathan. In this section, I will offer two pieces of contextual support for this hypothesis.

First, Hobbes’s Tudor humanist education would have exposed him to convergent strategies as a rhetorical technique. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian argues that a convergent strategy is particularly useful in a judicial context. Some arguments “are weak and trivial when they stand alone, but…have great force when produced in a body. We must, therefore, concentrate such arguments and our tactics should be those of a charge in mass.” While these tactics should be used sparingly, they are particularly useful when dealing with diverse audiences because “different arguments move different people.” A lawyer or an orator facing a diverse audience is like a marksman who cannot be sure he will hit his target. Instead of launching a single shaft, he “will do well to launch several and give fortune a chance to come to his assistance.” 63

Renaissance rhetoricians advanced similar arguments. Philosophers, Lorenzo Valla claims, undermine the practical power of their work by advancing single arguments. The rhetorician, by contrast, proliferates claims. A military analogy shows the advantages of this approach: “What could be more stupid, to argue as the philosophers do[?…] [H]ow inefficient the general who depends upon the spirit of a single soldier. It is necessary to fight with the whole army […] so that if one soldier should fall, one squadron be overcome they may be replaced with others.” 64 If one wants one’s arguments to have practical power, as Hobbes clearly did, one needs to proliferate claims.

Thomas Wilson, the author of one of the most important Tudor texts on rhetoric, made a similar argument. In arranging our arguments, it is sometimes useful to proliferate claims and overdetermine our conclusions. “We must heap matter,” Wilson argues, “and find out arguments…making first the strongest reasons that we can, and after, gathering all probable causes together, that being in one heap, they may seem strong, and of greater weight.” 65 The classical rhetorical tradition in which Hobbes was deeply steeped attended closely to convergent strategies.

Second, Hobbes’s critics often expressed frustration with his tendency to proliferate arguments. I have already mentioned that Leviathan was often described using terms like “farrago” and “rhapsody,” which suggest a confused heap of arguments. Among the most frustrated of Hobbes’s critics was Bishop Bramhall. He saw in Hobbes’s convergent strategy an attempt to protect Leviathan’s arguments from just criticism. “What should a man say to this man?” complains Bramhall. “How shall one know, when he is in earnest, and when he is in jest? He setteth down his opinion just as gipsies tell fortunes, both ways; that if the one miss, the other may be sure to hit; that when they are accused of falsehood by one, they may appeal to another;—‘but what did I write’ in such a place.” 66 For Bramhall, this proliferation of arguments is the tactic of the charlatan—the “mountebank,” the “gipsie.” As we have seen, however, it is also perhaps the tactic of an irenic philosopher addressing a diverse audience.

5 Conclusion

This article is motivated by the conviction that Hobbes’s tendency to proliferate claims is a puzzle that deserves interpretive attention, even when the claims involved are consistent. I have presented textual and contextual support for the hypothesis that Hobbes proliferates claims as part of a convergent strategy of argument. At times, he argues more like a lawyer or a rhetorician than a twenty-first century analytical philosopher. This may have been a very sensible approach in Hobbes’s context.

I hope other Hobbes scholars will take the observations here as an invitation to further test this hypothesis. In order to do so, we will have to be alive to the phenomenon of proliferation. We will have to avoid a tendency to “overcorrect” Hobbes—to focus on the claims that seem most plausible, whilst ignoring the rest. In other words, we will have to avoid the temptation of interpreting Hobbes into a twenty-first century analytic philosopher. 67 Attending to the puzzle of argument proliferation opens up new questions about Hobbes’s aims and argumentative strategy. In a secondary literature that is almost four centuries old, new questions should be welcome.


As quoted in Beth Nissen, “For the Defense: Texas Attorney Gains Fame Winning Cases That Seem Impossible,” Wall Street Journal (October 31, 1978): 35.


This example, as well as my interpretation of it, is drawn from Robin Douglass, “Thomas Hobbes’s Changing Account of Liberty and Challenge to Republicanism,” History of ­Political Thought 36 (2015): 281–309. For other examples, see: Jeffrey R. Collins, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 58–158; Noel Malcolm, Introduction to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012), 12–24; Jon Parkin, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England, 1640–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 18–94; Richard Tuck, “The ‘Christian Atheism’ of Thomas Hobbes” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, eds. Michael Hunter and David Wootton (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 111–30. Instances of external inconsistency have become much easier to identify and track with the publication of Deborah Baumgold (ed.), Three-Text Edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Political Theory: The Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).


Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 164 [ch. 27 §3]. See also p. 137 [ch. 24 §2].


Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 231 [bk. 6, 1317a].


Hobbes, Elements of Law, p. 164 [ch. 27 §3].


Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen (De Cive), eds. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 121–2 [ch. 10 §8].


See, for example: Hobbes, Elements of Law, p. 84 [ch. 15 §9]; Hobbes, De Cive, p. 36 [ch. 2 §10].


Whether or not this was the case does not matter much here. I aim merely to highlight a type of contextual explanation for external inconsistency. On this approach generally, see Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).


On audience considerations generally, see Parkin, Taming the Leviathan; Geoffrey M. Vaughan, “The Audience of Leviathan and the Audience of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,” History of Political Thought 22 (2001): 448–71.


The initial release of De Cive was handled extremely cautiously, which suggests that Hobbes and his friends like Marin Mersenne were not sure how the book would be ­received. See: Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 472–3; Parkin, Taming the Leviathan, 34. It also seems reasonable to think that Hobbes would have been attentive to the potential for subversive appropriation of his arguments for more radical political ends. After all, Hobbes himself regularly appropriated parliamentarian and republican arguments, narratives, and imagery for absolutist ends. See: Alison McQueen, “Mosaic Leviathan: Religion and Rhetoric in Hobbes’s Political Thought,” in Hobbes on Politics and Religion, eds. Laurens van Apeldoorn and Robin Douglass (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 128–134; Franck Lessay, “Hobbes’s Covenant Theology and Its Political Implications,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 258.


Of course, given that individual works are also composed over time, it may be possible to draw on some of the explanations for external inconsistency mentioned above. I thank an anonymous reviewer for this point and I will gesture at examples of these sorts of explanations in note 15, below.


This example, as well as my interpretation of it, is drawn from Kinch Hoekstra, “The de facto Turn in Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,” in Leviathan after 350 Years, eds. Tom Sorell and Luc Foisneau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 33–74.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012), p. 1141 [395–6].


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 249 [82], p. 264 [88]. The parenthetical “ought to” here anticipates part of Kinch Hoekstra’s resolution of the tension between these two arguments. I think that resolution is correct.


Some interpreters have argued that the Review and Conclusion, which contains the starkest statement of the de facto-ist argument, was a late addition to Leviathan. It marks a change of mind on Hobbes’s part. The problem, on this account, is more akin to one of external inconsistency than internal inconsistency. See: Richard Tuck, Introduction to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xi–xii, xliv; Deborah Baumgold, “When Hobbes needed history,” in Hobbes and History, eds. G. A. J. Rogers and Tom Sorell (London: Routledge, 2000), 34–7. The problem, as Hoekstra shows, is that other arguments in Leviathan also support the de facto-ist argument. See, for instance: Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 344 [114]; p. 468 [156].


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 306 [102].


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 232 [76]. See also: Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 238 [78], p. 336 [111]; Hobbes, Elements of Law, p. 80 [ch. 14 §12]; Hoekstra, “The de facto turn,” 67–8.


Hoekstra, “The de facto turn,” 68.


There is both textual and contextual evidence to support Baumgold’s reading. Textually, this practice becomes visible when one looks at the major political texts side-by-side, as one can in Baumgold’s own Three-Text Edition. Contextually, Baumgold cites John Aubrey’s account of the way in which Leviathan grew out of De Cive, which in turn grew out of Elements of Law. She also cites Aubrey’s description of Hobbes’s tendency to walk, contemplate, jot ideas down, and then fit them in to preexisting argumentative structures. See John Aubrey, Aubrey’s Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), 151.


This is especially clear when Hobbes addresses the question of what subjects ought to do when their sovereign commands them to act against their own judgments or conscience. They are to believe what they like in their souls but comply outwardly. Subjects need not worry that obedience in these cases puts their souls in jeopardy because “whatsoever a Subject…is compelled to in obedience to his Soveraign, and doth it not in order to his own mind, but in order to the laws of his country, that action is not his, but his Soveraigns” Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 784 [271].


Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 260–2 [87–88].


Deborah Baumgold, “The Difficulties of Hobbes Interpretation,” Political Theory 36 (2008): 844.


Baumgold, “Difficulties of Hobbes Interpretation,” 831.


As Hobbes himself might quip, a review of René Descartes’ work would be a good place to start in order to bear this out.


For a sampling, see Parkin, Taming the Leviathan, 85–135.


Jon Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, eds. Al P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 624–42. Patricia Springborg has also written about Hobbes’s use of paradox. However, her focus is on unintentional, systemic paradoxes. Springborg does not explicitly define “paradox.” As a result, it is not always clear how Hobbes’s purported paradoxes might be distinguished from other phenomena, like heterodoxy, inconsistency, or error. See Patricia Springborg, “The Paradoxical Hobbes: A Critical Response to the Hobbes Symposium,” Political Theory 37 (2009): 676–88; Deborah Baumgold, “UnParadoxical Hobbes: In Reply to Springborg,” Political Theory 27 (2009): 689–93.


Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” 626.


For a sampling, see Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” 628.


John Bramhall, “The Catching of Leviathan,” in Leviathan: Contemporary Responses to the Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes, ed. G. A. J. Rogers (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1995), 162–179.


See, for instance: Hobbes, Elements of Law, p. 178 [ch. 29 §3]; Hobbes, De Cive, p. 137 [ch. 12 §8]; Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 1227 [359] [“Insunt in singulis partibus Paradoxa quaedam tum Philosophica, tum Theologica”]. See also: Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” 628–9 for a review of this evidence.


Thomas Hobbes, Letter to Edmund Waller ([29 July/] 8 August 1645), in Thomas Hobbes, The Correspondence, vo. 1, ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 124.


Thomas Hobbes, Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance (London: 1656), 239 (emphasis mine).


Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” 629–634.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 242 [80].


This is by no means to suggest that common opinion on several surrounding questions, particularly those pertaining to a long debate about the relationship between ius and lex, was settled. On this longer history, see: Michael J. White, “How Ius (Right) Became Distinguished from Lex (Law): Two Early Episodes in the Story,” History of Political Thought 40 (2019): 583–606.


Parkin, “Hobbes and Paradox,” 638.


As will become clear, I am not sure that parsimony was one of Hobbes’s aims. But this simply pushes the puzzle back a step to the question of why it was not one of his aims.


S. A. Lloyd, Ideals as interests in Hobbes’ Leviathan: the power of mind over matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Jon Parkin, “Hobbes and the Future of Religion,” in Hobbes on Politics and Religion, eds. Laurens van Apeldoorn and Robin Douglass (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 184–200; Alison McQueen, “‘A Rhapsody of Heresies’: The Scriptural Politics of On the Citizen,” Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide, eds. Robin Douglass and Johan Olsthoorn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 188–192; Alison McQueen, “Absolving God’s Laws” (unpublished manuscript).


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 522 [176].


Hobbes, Elements of Law, p. 162 [ch. 26 §10]; Hobbes, On the Citizen, pp. 232–3 [ch. 17, §27]. This claim persists in Leviathan, pp. 850–55 [294–298], but Hobbes deepens it with a largely new attack on prophetic authority (e.g. pp. 580–4 [196–198]; 658–80 [224–232]) and an expanded treatment of Moses as a paradigmatic Leviathan sovereign (pp. 738–48 [250–253]).


Hobbes, Elements of Law, pp. 141–54 [ch. 25 §§1–14]; Hobbes, On the Citizen, pp. 234–246 [ch. 18 §§ 1–14]. This claim persists in Leviathan (e.g. pp. 928–54 [321–331]), but Hobbes deepens it in Part iv with a barrage of responses to “errors” of scriptural interpretation that prevent people from affirming the coincidence claim.


Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 716–8 [244–245], 990–4 [345–346].


For a more detailed discussion of this example, see McQueen, “Rhapsody of Heresies,” 188–92; McQueen “Absolving God’s Laws.”


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 830 [287–8].


Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 824–8 [285–287].


Some of these differences center around the question of just how committed Hobbes was to the truth and coherence of the arguments he proliferated. Lloyd wants to maintain that he was committed to both. While Parkin does not weigh in on these questions directly, his interpretation suggests that Hobbes was willing to sacrifice truth and coherence in order to avoid disorder and shape the religious future of Britain. McQueen, following both Parkin’s insights and Hoekstra’s detailed demonstration of Hobbes’s irenic model of philosophy, directly questions Lloyd’s interpretation. However, all of these differences exist against a backdrop of substantial agreement about Hobbes’s aims. See: Lloyd, Ideals as Interests; Parkin, “Hobbes and the Future of Religion”; McQueen, “Absolving God’s Laws”; Kinch Hoekstra, “The End of Philosophy (The Case of Hobbes),” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (2006): 25–62.


Lloyd, Ideals as Interests.


Parkin, “Hobbes and the Future of Religion,” 193.


For a sampling of responses, see Parkin, “Hobbes and the Future of Religion,” 188–9.


McQueen, “Rhapsody of Heresies,” 188–92; McQueen “Absolving God’s Laws.”


See also David Johnston, The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 66–91.


Hobbes hoped that both sovereigns and the “Preachers, and the Gentry” being trained at the universities would disseminate the work’s doctrines to a broader audience. See Leviathan, 574 [193], 1140 [395]; Vaughan, “The Audience of Leviathan.”


Conal Condren, “On the Rhetorical Foundations of Leviathan,” History of Political Thought 11 (1990): 713–6.


Hoekstra, “The End of Philosophy,” 59. The choice of example here is striking, given Hoekstra’s earlier conceptual resolution of Hobbes’s use of conquest and consent theory in Leviathan. See Hoekstra, “The de facto Turn.” However, I take his point to be that intentional overdetermination is a hypothesis worth testing.


Kinch Hoekstra, “Tyrannus Rex vs. Leviathan,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 (2001): 420.


Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 194 [62].


Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 136 [42], 154 [48–49], 190 [61], 258 [86–87]. See also Hobbes, On the Citizen, pp. 21–6 [ch. 1 §§2–5; Hobbes, Elements, pp. 50–1 [ch. 9 §1], 78 [ch. 14 §§3–5], 93 [ch. 17 §1].


Malcolm, Introduction, 18.


Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 188–92 [60–62].


For a thorough survey and a masterful attempt at a resolution, see: Arash Abizadeh “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory,” American Political Science Review 105 (2011): 298–315. See also: Arash Abizadeh, “Glory and the Evolution of Hobbes’s Disagreement Theory of War: From Elements to Leviathan,” History of Political Thought 41 (2020): 265–298.


Hobbes, On the Citizen, pp. 24–5 [notes on ch. 1 §2]; Parkin, Taming, 34–5, 51.


Of course, this raises questions down the line for Hobbes’s account. If one accepts the de-psychologized claim, then the task of the state is to use its coercive power to make disobedience more costly. If this is the job of the state, then Hobbes’s Leviathan state might seem to be overkill. If one accepts the vainglory claim, then the task of the state is to use its coercive power to make the vainglorious feel puny, to maintain a monopoly on the economy of honors and titles, and to use the full force of religion and education to inculcate a salutary fear of mortal death and abhorrence for civil disorder. This is indeed the vision of the state that Hobbes offers. It is not clear that someone who accepts the de-psychologized claim and not the vainglory claim can accept this vision of the state. I agree here with Lloyd, Ideals as Interests, 20–30.


Quintilian, The Institutio Oratoria, vol. 2, trans. H. E. Butler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard ­University Press, 1921), pp. 141, 145 [iv.v.7–8, 14].


Lorenzo Valla, Dialecticarum disputationum, book 3, Praefatio, as quoted in Condren, “Rhetorical Foundations,” 715.


Thomas Wilson, Art of Rhetoric, ed. P. E. Medine (University Park: Pennsylvania State ­University Press, 1994), 140.


John Bramhall, “The Catching of Leviathan or the Great Whale” in The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, John Bramhall, vol. 4 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844), 592.


Springborg, “The Paradoxical Hobbes,” 676; Hoekstra, “The de Facto Turn,” 71; Hoekstra, “The End of Philosophy,” 57.

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