Hobbes Studies presents a special issue dedicated to the career and work of Professor Johann Sommerville on the occasion of his retirement. This introduction provides a brief overview of Sommerville’s professional achievements and the major themes of his scholarly work over the past forty years. It closes with a very brief summary of the contributions made in his honor.
Ideas matter to politics: a deceptively simple claim, but one central to the task of appreciating the body of scholarship produced by Professor Johann Sommerville over a career spanning forty years. We are delighted to assemble this issue of Hobbes Studies in his honor. In so doing, we have brought together a group of scholars who have been influenced by his work on Hobbes and early modern political thought more generally, and who are united in their admiration of his scholarship.
Professor Sommerville’s interest in early modern history stems from his time in high school, where he was taught by Ernie Williams, author of The Ancien Régime in Europe: government and society in the major states, 1648–1789.1 It was through Williams that Professor Sommerville first learned of the work of Quentin Skinner and contextualist approaches to intellectual history. After matriculating at Cambridge University, Sommerville studied with both Quentin Skinner and Richard Tuck, each of whom played key roles in his education. Sommerville’s Cambridge Ph.D. (1981) featured a thesis – “Jacobean Political Thought and the Controversy over the Oath of Allegiance” – supervised by Geoffrey Elton and examined by Skinner, among others.
In his first book, 1986’s Politics and Ideology in England 1603–1640 (reissued in 1999 as Royalists & Patriots), Sommerville entered the tangled fray of 17th-century English Civil War historiography with what he calls a “plain and simple tale of principled conflict.”2 The events of the 1640’s, he argued, were prefigured by ideological debates that dated back a half century, debates that drew upon sometimes quite foundational ideas about the nature and scope of royal power, its relation to the church and individual religious practices, its relation to Parliament, and its relation to the common law and property more generally. Politics and Ideology aimed not only to recapture the impressive diversity – and the considerable stakes – of English political thought in the pre-war period; it also sought to rehabilitate the status of political ideas in thinking about what motivates political actors. Against the notion that political action is undertaken primarily if not exclusively from our interests – a notion propagated by Sommerville’s teacher, Elton, whom he cites as a significant influence – Politics and Ideology argues that to “distinguish too rigidly between ideas and interests” places us “in danger of missing the point that interests themselves are shaped by ideas.”3
This approach means taking ideas and their context seriously – this, in turn, means placing considerable emphasis on the role of ideological debate in shaping and motivating political controversies. It is this interest in debate – and in the less frequented and sometimes unloved corners of intellectual history – that has characterized Sommerville’s research project. Of particular interest here is his sustained engagement with the intellectual history of royal absolutism. Against the view that, prior to 1640, there were few absolutists in England outside of a handful of cranks and eccentrics, Sommerville has argued that absolutism was a viable and often rhetorically compelling ideological position in the early 17th-century, one whose role in the conflict long predates the crisis of the late 1630’s.4 This project of refurbishing the absolutist ideology of modern England led Sommerville to produce new editions of “minor” works in the absolutist tradition: a 1991 edition of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha and a 1994 edition of the political writings of James vi/i, both in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series.5 Sommerville introduces modern students to Filmer – a figure who serves otherwise as a somewhat inglorious footnote in the story of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government – by showing that even Patriarcha’s most curious themes – its insistence on the first families as political associations, for example – were not particularly original and, indeed, were commonly found among clergymen. Borrowing from early-17th-century royalists as well as Aristotle and especially Bodin, Filmer articulated a series of arguments against popular sovereignty that were not infrequently compelling. Filmer’s account of patriarchalism, Sommerville argues, is the most sophisticated version of a theory “commonly…held by seventeenth-century royalists and Tories”; his criticisms of democratic theory and the social contract tradition may not persuade citizens of 21st century democracies to abandon collective self-government, but his arguments are nonetheless “compelling.”6 Likewise with James vi/i – another follower of Bodin – whose work, characterized by “lively and pungent prose,” is offered as a testament to the power of ideas to motivate action. James is a fitting subject for Sommerville’s approach, representing as he does an uncommonly powerful political figure, as well as a writer concerned with power and ideology. His work is presented to 20th- and 21st-century audiences as evidence of “one of the most important British theoreticians of absolutism of the early modern period.”7 It is Sommerville’s approach that renders the absolutism of the sort espoused by James vi/i and Filmer as a set of political ideas that would have struck contemporary readers as well-grounded and even persuasive, given their use of ideas in wide circulation.8
Given this abiding interest in absolutism, it is unsurprising that Sommerville has for much of his career gravitated toward that largest sphere in the absolutist heavens, Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Hobbes was the subject of Sommerville’s second monograph, 1992’s Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context, as well as a number of subsequent pieces.9 In Thomas Hobbes as in Royalists & Patriots, Sommerville is keen to establish the degree to which Hobbes’s thought and Leviathan especially – so often described as novel by scholars but especially by Hobbes himself – conforms both to his earlier thought and to the thought of absolutists in England and on the Continent. Sommerville’s Hobbes is very nearly fully-formed by 1640 at the latest, and his absolutist framing of questions of property, taxation, and the various claims of Anglicanism and Presbyterianism against the crown and against individual conscience drew extensively on the ideological formulas of earlier debates over the extent and nature of royal power. It is Hobbes that occupies Professor Sommerville still, even in retirement; he inherits from (among others) Ferdinand Tönnies the task of editing and producing an accurate edition of The Elements of Law, which will appear in the Clarendon series upon completion.10
With respect to his service to the wider scholarly community, Professor Sommerville served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Modern History and was named a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1986; he has authored more than 90 book reviews and review essays, contributed to a variety of historical dictionaries and encyclopedias, and edited the afore-mentioned editions of early modern texts for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series. He has written on a remarkable range of topics and figures central to the study of early modern Europe: James vi/i, Suarez, Filmer, Hooker, Selden, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Donne, natural law, the ancient constitution, common law, divine right, absolutism, social contract, toleration, national identity, and ecclesiology. After finishing the Clarendon edition of Hobbes’s The Elements of Law, he hopes to return to his unpublished doctoral work on Jacobean political thought and a manuscript covering the history of political thought between the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Professor Sommerville spent most of his career in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was hired as an Assistant Professor in 1988, promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 1990, and to Professor in 1993. During his time at Wisconsin, he was awarded some of the most prestigious honors that the University offers to faculty, including a Romnes Faculty Fellowship in 1993 and a Vilas Associate Award in 1995, along with awards from the History Department, including the Karen F. Johnson Teaching Award in 2007 and the Best Professor Award from the Undergraduate History Association in 2011. Professor Sommerville’s record of service to the University is too long to enumerate, but it is worth highlighting that he played a pivotal role in the development of uw-Madison’s Center for Early Modern Studies, an organization he would advise as a member of its Steering Committee. A significant element of his career at uw-Madison, and his intellectual legacy, is the group of students with whom he worked over the years: Professor Sommerville served as the advisor for 18 students who received PhDs in History from uw-Madison, and was on the PhD committees of 42 additional students, 29 from History, 8 from English, and 5 from Political Science.
We would be remiss if we did not note, with great thanks, that we both benefited greatly from Professor Sommerville as a teacher and colleague. Brandon Turner studied early modern English thought with Professor Sommerville and was fortunate enough to have him serve as a member of his 2008 PhD committee. For Daniel Kapust, Professor Sommerville was a valuable colleague whose insights shaped several publications on Hobbes and other topics.
We will now briefly introduce the contributions to this issue of Hobbes Studies. First, Cesare Cuttica, in “‘The History of Political Thought Above All’: A Portrait of Johann P. Sommerville,” discusses Professor Sommerville’s scholarly method and his intervention in several debates within early modern British history – especially debates over revisionism and the Civil War(s). Cuttica considers the influence of Professor Sommerville’s scholarship on his own, but also offers a critique of Sommervillian historiography and its relative neglect of the cultural and, in particular, religious dimensions of political ideas. Xinzhi Zhao’s “Ideological Context and the Study of Political Theory,” the second contribution, recounts Zhao’s encounter with Sommerville as scholar and teacher at uw-Madison, an encounter that transformed her understanding of how to go about studying the history of political thought. Through Sommerville’s particular version of contextualism, Zhao came to appreciate both the centrality of contextualism to grasping the originality of works of political philosophy and as a mode of conducting political theory. We then turn to Ioannis Evrigenis, who, in “The Elements of Law and Hobbes’s Purpose,” focuses on the publication history of The Elements and its effects on the structure of the work, particularly Hobbes’s desire that the work not circulate publicly by those his method was designed to influence. The upshot of Evrigenis’ reading is that Hobbes’s views on rhetoric remained consistent throughout his works. The fourth contribution, Sharon Lloyd’s “Hobbes’s Theory of Responsibility as Support for Sommerville’s Argument Against Hobbes’s Approval of Independency,” suggests that Sommerville’s historical approach is of special use to non-historians given that he is adept at delineating rich historiographic detail, which is largely of interest to specialists, from major figures, events, and individuals of interest to non-specialists. The result of Sommerville’s approach, when combined with the balance he strikes between what Lloyd terms “mere narration,” on the one hand, and theoretically driven accounts that close off paths of interpretation, on the other, is a form of history that appeals to specialists and non-specialists alike. The fifth and final contribution, Mary Nyquist’s “Hobbes Reenvisions Hebraic and Christian History,” addresses Hobbes’s interpretation of several passages of Scripture that were of key importance to his contemporaries, interpretations that highlight Hobbes’s privileging of Hebraic politics as a way of checking Aristotelian scriptural interpretations of I Samuel, a text fundamentally concerned with tyrannical monarchs. Hobbes’s “counter-revolutionary” account of I Samuel combines with his discussion of Jesus as King of the Jews to support his views on absolutism and to counter those who believed in non-material being. Finally, we are very pleased to include two book reviews. One, by Luca Iori, reviews Andrea Catanzaro’s Politics through the Iliad and the Odyssey: Hobbes Writes Homer (Routledge, 2019); the other, by Victor Lenthe, reviews Ryan Hackenbracht’s National Reckonings: The Last Judgment and Literature in Milton’s England (Cornell University Press, 2019).
While we have assembled this issue in honor of Professor Johann Sommerville’s illustrious career, we would be remiss if we did not express our gratitude to two scholars with whom we worked closely in putting the issue together. Without the professionalism, objectivity, scholarly expertise, and deeply careful attention to detail of Deborah Baumgold and Alexandra Chadwick, this issue would have been impossible.
E.N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe: Government and Society in the Major States, 1648–1789 (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
J.P. Sommerville, Royalists and Patriots: Politics and Ideology in England 1603–1640 (London, UK: Longman, 1999 ), 215.
Sommerville, Royalists and Patriots, 216.
The stakes of the debate over early modern English absolutism are made clearest in Johann Sommerville, “English and European Political Ideas in the Early-Seventeenth Century: Revisionism and the Case of Absolutism,” Journal of British Studies 35(1996), 168–94.
Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991); King James VI and I, Political Writings (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994). See also Johann Sommerville, “Absolutism and Royalism,” in The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700, ed. J.H. Burns (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 347–73.
Johann P. Sommerville, “Introduction,” in Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha, xxiv.
Johann P. Sommerville, “Introduction,” in King James VI and I, Political Writings, xxviii.
Sommerville’s treatment of absolutism can also be found in eg. “Absolutism and Royalism,” “Early Modern Absolutism in Practice and Theory,” in Monarchism and Absolutism in Early Modern Europe, ed. Cesare Cuttica and Glenn Burgess (London, UK: Pickering and Chatto, 2012), 117–30.
Johann Sommerville, Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context (London, UK: Macmillan, 1992). See too “Hobbes and Absolutism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016); “Hobbes and Toleration,” in A Companion to Hobbes, ed. Marcus P. Adams (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2021); “Life and Times,” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Hobbes, ed. S.A. Lloyd (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); “Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and its Anglican Context,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Sommerville provides an update of this process in “Progress Report on Editing Hobbes’s Elements of Law for the Clarendon series,” Hobbes Studies 34(2021), 81–5.