Ambivalence towards the state: Koselleck on Hobbes


Jon Elster has written incisively on the varieties of political theory that draw their principles selectively from the institutions of the “forum and the market.” Social choice theory conceives of political action as instrumental and private; the Habermasian theory of the public sphere views politics as aiming at rational agreements among participants within a consensual public; participatory democratic theory understands politics as entailing a “transformation and education of the participants.” (Elster 1986, p. 103) In the democratic political imaginary, either institutional framework, the public sphere or the bazaar, could provide the basic principles, motivations and outcomes of what might purport to be socially just. My interest in the forum as a model of the political lies in understanding how power is conceived to operate within this space of social interaction. The most influential (and controversial) model of the forum is Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere,” a space of public political life based on the normative principle of the honest exchange of ideas. (Habermas 1974; 1989) The idea of such an arena of coercion-free discussion has been criticized for idealizing a “bourgeois” model of political discussion and civility at the expense of a ‘gendered’ understanding of this space and the delegitimation of working class and non-bourgeois forms of public political life. (See Ryan 1992; Eley 1992) However, what initially recommended this model of democratic politics was less a concern for efficiency or justice than the potential it held for attenuating what had come to be considered illegitimate conditions of the exercise of power (authority).

In the eighteenth-century, the forum (a space of free exchange of political ideas) offered critical vantage points from which the forms of power and the institutionalization of authority typified by the “Absolutist State” were challenged. Reinhart Koselleck’s discussion of the “initial situation” of the modern concept of the political provides insight into the philosophical discourse of sovereign power. His study of the crisis of political authority, which elaborates Carl Schmitt’s thesis concerning the crisis of modern sovereignty, reconstructs the “political situation of the bourgeoisie in the Absolutist State.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 6) The “utopian” and “hypocritical” character of the Enlightenment is rooted, he argues, in the fact that its proponents conceived it as a refusal of political power.

The structure of Absolutism, which was rooted in the dichotomy between sovereign and subject, between public policy and private morality, prevented the Enlightenment and the emancipation movement produced by it from seeing itself as a political phenomenon. Instead the Enlightenment developed patterns of thought and behavior which, at the latest from 1789 onwards, foundered on the rocks of the concrete political challenges that arose. (Koselleck 1988, pp. 1-2)

While Koselleck views this political weakness of Enlightenment political philosophy as the source of successive historical episodes of Terror (French, Soviet and National Socialist), I will focus on his specific insight into the Enlightenment aversion to (political) power. The self-conception of Enlightenment critics of absolutism as representatives of universal (moral) standards of reason lead the emergent definition of enlightened politics to be understood as diametrically opposed to the Realpolitik of the State. As the only legitimate source of political authority, the Absolutist State was conceived as the ultimate expression of power which was deemed illegitimate from the standpoint of enlightened reason.

The Enlightenment critics understood the political as an immoral space of royal action. This sensibility was produced by the sociohistorical development of the Absolutist State. Against the backdrop of religious warfare, “the princely State […] developed a supra-religious, rationalistic field of action. […] This realm found its theoretical expression in the doctrine of raison d’état. What was made room for here was an area where politics could unfold regardless of moral considerations.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 16) An ethically neutral sphere of action sealed the State off from the demands of religious fractions. Cuius regio eius religio affirmed the subordination of these fractions to the Prince. The doctrine of raison d’état took root among the absolutist monarchies of the Continent as well as the parliamentary government in Britain.

By demarcating a symbolic boundary between the publicness of politics and the privacy of conscience, reason of state demanded obedience to a strict logic of self-preservation. The most important political task of the prince was the maintenance of state sovereignty above and against internal and external threats. The most representative work articulating the logic of self-preservation, Machiavelli’s advice to the modern Prince (c. 1513), achieves great clarity on the obligation of self-preservation and the means to fulfilling it. Machiavelli suggests that while faith and honesty are praiseworthy qualities in a ruler, “one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with their astuteness; and in the end they overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty.” (Machiavelli 1985, p. 69) Distinguishing between “two kinds of combat [laws and force],” Machiavelli goes on to illustrate the fact that “the first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second.” (Machiavelli 1985, p. 69) The “prudent lord” does not observe faith, for he/she recognizes that because men “are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them.” Hence, a concern with moral goodness is the least likely quality of the successful prince.

[…] A Prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion. And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity.” (Machiavelli 1985, p. 70)

Machiavelli can be read as counseling merely duplicitous and expedient political behavior at the expense of honest, virtuous action only if the primary good, the preservation of the State, falls out of view. The recommendation to the prince to “enter into evil” when necessary is not prescribed as an end in itself, but rather is offered as a means to efficacious sovereignty.

In the second half of the seventeenth-century, Hobbes – in the midst of civil war – articulated with great depth the predicament of moral conscience for political sovereignty. Unlike Machiavelli, whose analysis of conscience remains at the level of the prince, Hobbes located the problem of moral conscience within what had become an uncivil society. On Koselleck’s account, rather than being a cause of peace (causa pacis) or the general good, Hobbes considered the “authority of conscience in its subjective plurality” as a “causa belli civilis.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 29) The war of subjective moral consciences, which devolved into self-righteous posturing and, hence, undermined their own moral presuppositions, could be surmounted only “beyond the traditional realm.” As Koselleck argues, “the need to found a State transform[ed] the moral alternative of good and evil into the political alternative of peace and war.” Therefore, “the subordination of ethics to politics” typical of Machiavelli “was thematically pointless for Hobbes, since reason removes whatever difference may exist between the two domains.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 25)

At the base of the Hobbesian conception of the political is the doctrine auctoritas, non veritas facit legem (authority, not truth, makes the laws). Koselleck summarizes the core premise of this doctrine: the Hobbesian State deprives private opinions of any political status and the “public interest” becomes the domain of the sovereign alone. By alienating conscience from the state, the former is transformed into “private morality.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 31) The highest moral good is not coterminous with traditional morality, but rather is associated with the morality of “political reason.” Hence, the “ruler’s absolute political sovereignty” stands as a “moral necessity” for the various communities of consciences. The philosophico-moral conditions of possibility for this alignment of morality and politics is the potential state of civil war: “It is only in respect of civil war, and of reason’s supreme commandment to put an end to this war, that Hobbes’s system becomes logically conclusive.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 33)

In Hobbes’s political philosophy, ratio itself is placed in the service of voluntas. Sovereign will alone creates the possibility of perpetual peace. Koselleck notes that the “rationally construed State” in Leviathan is not the “pure ‘state of reason’” that would appear in the eighteenth-century. Rather, “reason thus creates a neutral zone of State ‘technology’ in which there is no law but the prince’s will.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 33) Morality sustains this technology only as a bulwark against civil war. The political morality of Leviathan is expressed in the purely formal command to end the bellum omnium contra omnes, to preserve civil society. A century later, such conditions no longer sufficed as a reasonable defense of raison d’état, for “to the extent which this initial situation, the religious civil war to which this State owed its existence and its form, was forgotten, raison d’état looked like downright immorality.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 39)

It would appear ironic that Hobbes, who is normally treated as the architect of Absolutism, articulated the very logical conditions under which Absolutism would be rendered powerless in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Yet Koselleck pursues this fruitful reading in his analysis of Locke’s reconstruction of the Hobbesian distinction between conscience (morality) and the political (the State). In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke elevates what were no more than private opinions for Hobbes to the level of moral laws: “In Locke’s mind, the citizens’ views about virtue and vice no longer remained in the realm of private opinion; rather, their moral judgements themselves had the character of laws.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 55) This essentially bourgeois morality was now seen to be borne by society, which no longer was required to render absolute obedience to the State. Accordingly, the “citizens themselves do what Hobbes reserved for the sovereign: they set ‘the mark of value’ of all acts ‘and give the name of virtue to those actions, which amongst them are judged praiseworthy, and call that vice, which they account blamable.’” (Koselleck 1988, pp. 55-56)

Locke’s political conception of public morality had the effect, in Koselleck’s view, of breaking the bond between self-preservation (the moral charge of the protection of civil society) and obedience which was the backbone of Hobbesian Absolutism: “Morality was no longer a formal matter of obedience, was not subordinated to the politics of Absolutism, but confronted the laws of the State.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 58 [emphasis added]) The main import of the opposition of “civic morality” and the political authority of the State was the draining of ethical content from the actions of the sovereign. However, whereas Locke strove for a “co-ordination” or “juxtaposition” of morality and politics, the bifurcation of politics and morality was radicalized in the Republic of Letters and Masonic lodges of the eighteenth-century. (Koselleck 1988, pp. 60, 62) As a critic of the Enlightenment’s undermining of the legitimacy of political authority, Koselleck describes precisely the effects of the public censure of society on such authority: “In the eyes of the hypocritical proponent of Enlightenment power is identical with the abuse of power. […] In the view of the political privateer power becomes force.” (Koselleck 1988, p. 119)

The openness of public opinion contrasted sharply with the reason of state, closeted in royal cabinets. Forms of authority that could not be subjected to and also withstand the moral criticism of a rational public appeared arbitrary. The opposition between ratio and voluntas, those sources of decision that had been reconciled in the Hobbesian framework, provided the basis not only for emancipatory project of the bourgeoisie, but also a conception of political power as immoral.

Jon Elster. 1986. “The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory.” Pp. 103-132 in Foundations of Social Choice Theory, edited by Jon Elster and Aanund Hylland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Geoff Eley. 1992. “Nations, Publics, and Political Culture: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth-Century.” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Jürgen Habermas. [1962] 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Jürgen Habermas. 1974. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article.” New German Critique 3: 49-55.

Reinhart Koselleck. [1959] 1988. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Niccolò Machiavelli. 1985. The Prince, translated and introduced by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mary P. Ryan. 1992. “Gender and Public Access: Women’s Politics in Nineteenth-Century America.” Pp. 259-288 in Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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