Aesthetic Politics/Political Aesthetics in Hobbes

Primary version of this post as Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of frontispiece!

Picture above is frontispiece from Hobbes’ Leviathan

When the actor doth anything against the Law of Nature by command of the author, if he be obliged by former Covenant to obey him, not he, but the Author breaketh the Law of Nature; yet is is not his: but contrarily, to refuse to do it, is against the Law of Nature, that forbiddeth breach of Covenant.

Thomas Hobbes (1651), Leviathan Chapter 16, Of Persons, Authors, and Things Personated

The quotation above does not refer directly to theatre, and can be understood in purely legal-constitutional terms, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of seeing a reference to the author’s relation with actors in a theatrical performance, particularly as two paragraphs later Hobbes introduces the idea of ‘being represented by a Fiction’. That aesthetic sense is reinforced by Hobbes’ own suggested frontispiece to Leviathan,

which shows a giant towering over the land.

The giant has the signs of kingship, so is the single person sovereign, but is also the combination of many people who make up his body. This suggests the way that a multitude becomes a single will through the covenant which establishes the ‘artificial man’ of sovereignty, The sovereign is always an Artificial Man for Hobbes, though the sovereign could be an aristocratic or democratic assembly, rather than one individual. In all cases, Hobbes needs to present the sovereign as the Artificial Man which gives an idea of why Hobbes thinks the best form of sovereignty must be monarchy.

The frontispiece is itself an example of the use of art to communicate political ideas. The quoted text suggests that we can take the giant as an Actor who obeys the Author. The Author is the multitude who agreed the covenant. Whatever the Artificial Man created by the covenant does must be the responsibility of the author, suggesting we see the Artificial Man as a character scripted by the multitude in the covenant.

The Actor who follows the Author in breaking the Law of Nature (what we now normally call natural law), is not guilty of breaking natural law, the Author is guilty here. The Actor who refuses to obey the Author by following the command to break natural law does break natural law, This is rather interesting, since the construction of the Artificial Man largely replaces the decisions of the multitude with the decisions of the sovereign. Natural law justifies civil law (state made law) in Hobbes, but natural law means obeying the sovereign who gives meaning to laws, and the sovereign commands define good and evil. That might leave us wandering what natural law there is to follow or break. In any case, the sovereign appears to be bound to obey something outside sovereign will. What Hobbes is probably trying to argue here is that the covenant gives the sovereign absolute power and that the sovereign is bound by the covenant to keep that power, never giving it away.

We are left with the sovereign as Actor following the Author, which is very definitely a translation of older notions of the monarch following God’s will translated into secular terms. The Author is now a multitude which must suffer what the Actor does, even if it is against natural law. To make sense of what Hobbes is saying is not easy as he is crossing between the fictional world created by an author and the non-fictional world which contains things constructed by law, and so could be called fictions. The reference to Actor brings up the world of theatre which is physically real but fictional, a level of fictionality between a non-performance text and the fictions of law. The actor on stage would rightly obey the author in doing something against natural law within the play, and would wrongly refuse to do such a thing. Though we cannot see Hobbes are just referring to theatre, it is surely implausible that anyone could really grasp the quoted passage without bringing in references to theatre, thereby introducing something aesthetic into politics, and further leading us to see something political in the aesthetics of drama.

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