Gnostic but not Rationalist

Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2002

Three Views of Hobbes= Leviathan B Strauss, Oakeshott, Voegelin*

Copyright 2002 Wendell John Coats, Jr.


This paper explores the views of three well known and original twentieth century political philosophers on the significance of Hobbes= achievement in Leviathan - - those of Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott and Eric Voegelin, to name them in the order in which their major Hobbes writings appeared. The intent is to see if any new insight, however modest, is to be gained by such a juxtaposition of their views, insight into either Hobbes= project or into their own respective projects. The differences between Strauss and Oakeshott over Hobbes have received considerable attention in the scholarly literature;1 my aim here in particular is to see what is to be gained by bringing into the debate Eric Voegelin=s view of Hobbes in his 1952 work, The New Science of Politics. Oakeshott=s views are taken from the writing collected in Hobbes on Civil Association; Strauss=s from his 1935 The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, and the section on Hobbes in his 1953 Natural Right and History.

In brief, and to state the obvious, Strauss sees Hobbes as the propounder of a bourgeois morality, placing (comfortable) self-preservation over more political considerations about the common good; Oakeshott sees Hobbes as the last of the scholastic nominalists, creating a masterful account of civil obligation and authority based upon radically individualist pre-suppositions; and Voegelin sees Hobbes primarily as an opponent of Puritan gnosticism who bordered upon generating a new gnosis by closing off completely the political question from the spiritual sources of human life. The interesting, manageable questions which present themselves here for inspection in my view, are these: (1) was Strauss essentially correct in characterizing the Hobbesean project as the creation of a bourgeois morality, in spite of Oakeshott=s protests? (2) How fair is Voegelin=s claim that Hobbes= generated a new political gnosis, i.e., a new attempt at certain, elite knowledge in the realm of the political? And (3) are there areas of agreement among the three over Hobbes= project, (in spite of apparent differences) and over the characteristics of political modernity, generally?

I. Hobbes as propounder of a new bourgeois morality? Although Strauss does not explicitly refer again to a bourgeois morality in his treatment of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (1953), the argument is fundamentally the same as in Strauss=s 1935 work, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, namely, that in spite of Hobbes= personal admiration for the qualities of the aristocracy, his Apolitical philosophy is directed against the aristocratic rules of life in the name of the bourgeois rules of life. His morality is the morality of the bourgeois world.@2 Strauss also suggests that the centrality of the terrors of the state of nature in Leviathan=s argument is tailored to supplement the political weakness of the bourgeois, i.e., the failure to think and act as citizens except under duress: AThe bourgeois existence which no longer experiences those terrors will endure only as long as it remembers them.@3

In Natural Right and History, Strauss is still attempting to demonstrate that the arrangements of Leviathan imply the worldview of the modern bourgeoisie and modern liberalism (allied with modern science) in their emphasis on the primacy of individuality and individual rights grounded in the natural passion for self-preservation;4 and in their demand for as much certainty and universality as possible in the actualization of Leviathan=s arrangements in political life, through control over extreme cases: AMan can guarantee the actualization of the right social order because he is able to conquer human nature by understanding and manipulating the mechanism of the passions.@5 (In this case, the near universal passion or fear of violent death).

Now, Oakeshott=s general criticism of this account of the Hobbesian project is to argue that Hobbes was not attempting to impart a substantial moral vision (the bourgeois or any other), but rather, in the interest of civil peace, simply to build upon certain already existent human passions, pointing out the rationality or utility in assenting to legitimate authority: AFor the apprehension of shameful death and the aversion from it are not reasons why we have an obligation to endeavor peace; these are the causes of motives of our doing so.@6 One of Oakeshott=s criticisms of Strauss=s 1935 views, then, is that Hobbes was not propounding any substantive moral vision about how men might otherwise live their lives when not explicitly endeavoring peace.

Another of Oakeshott=s criticisms is that Strauss did not fully see (at least in his first book) that pride was not always used by Hobbes in a derogatory fashion, referring to Hobbes view that a man might keep his word not from fear from consequences, but from Aa glory or pride in appearing not to need to break it.@7 Oakeshott speculates that such rare characters (like Sidney Godolphin, to whose memory Leviathan is dedicated) might be the first social contractors precisely from such a pride, careless of the risks of being first to surrender some of their natural rights; and Oakeshott goes so far as to assert that Hobbes Ahimself understood human beings as creatures more properly concerned with honour than with either survival or prosperity.@8 (In an unpublished paper Oakeshott even suggested in Hegelian fashion that it was not death but the loss of recognition entailed in death which was the predominant fear among individuals in the state of actions.9) Yet, in my view, Oakeshott=s reason for why Hobbes did not pursue this line of thought as a civil strategy, undermines Oakeshott=s own claim contra Strauss that Hobbes was not the propounder of a Abourgeois morality.@ Oakeshott cites Hobbes= own view on the rarity of this kind of pride in keeping one=s word for its own sake: AThis, he says, >is a generosity too rarely to be found to be presumed, especially in pursuers of wealth, command and sensual pleasure; which are the greatest part of Mankind.=@10 In my view, it is the wide-spread fear of the substantive aspect of death (i.e. the end of physical life implied in this quotation) which undermines Oakeshott=s claim that for Hobbes human beings were more concerned with honor than either survival or prosperity; and which undermines Oakeshott=s Hegelian - like claim in the unpublished paper that it was the loss of recognition entailed in death which most men feared.

Similarly, Oakeshott=s other criticism of Strauss on this point, is not strong in my view. It is that Hobbes was not suggesting a Abourgeois morality@ in the sense of Aa single approved condition of human circumstances for all conditions of men@ but, as we have observed, the motives for obeying the civil law, rather than with Awhat a man might otherwise do with his life.@11 Yet, as I have argued elsewhere on this point:

... this observation is true as far as it goes; but is it not somewhat disingenuous to say that Hobbes is not interested in what a man might otherwise do with his life, when Hobbes lays out a systematic theory of human life relating it all back to the conditions for Aendeavoring peace@? And can Oakeshott=s objection here overcome the force of Strauss=s implicit argument (and my explicit one) that Hobbes propounded a Abourgeois morality@ in the sense that he taught his countrymen to think in such a way a to link all to the attempt to secure certain control over the threats to continued physical existence and comfort, at the expense of other goods.... Is this not an attitude historically characteristic of the middling, commercial classes?12

In my view, Oakeshott and Strauss each emphasize something present in Leviathan, neither of which necessarily entails the other. That is, Hobbes has cobbled together in his political theory at least three elements which can be made logically consistent with one another, but which have not always been historically present with one another. Hobbes has articulated an incipient commercial, individualist morality (in which freedom is lack of impediment to motions such as buying, selling, raising a family, and so on), which draws upon Roman procedural and legal ideas about the legitimacy of authority (without the Roman love of political glory) for its sustainability, all of which is grounded on a modern scientific emphasis on certainty and control over extreme cases, in this case thorough reliance upon the near universal passion, fear of violent death. Strauss has chosen to emphasize the modern bourgeois and Baconian/scientific aspects of Hobbes= thought (and they are surely there); Oakeshott has chosen to fix on the Roman insight in Hobbes= account that perceived obligation to law is primarily a matter of assenting to the legitimacy of the procedures by which it was made (rather than with agreeing with its substantive vision of things), and that this is a proven and sustainable approach to civil order.

II. Hobbes as Propounder of a new AGnosis@? How does this account of different Oakeshottian and Straussian emphases in the Hobbesian synthesis square with Voegelin=s indictment of Hobbes for laying the groundwork for a new AGnosticism@ in his attempt to counter the Puritan Agnosis@? Obviously, Voegelan, like Strauss, sees Hobbes as having done more much than simply give an account of the motives for endeavoring peace; rather, as having provided a substantial vision of a new moral order which was revolutionary.

In the New Science of Politics (1952), Voegelin is concerned to identify, name, and describe a comprehensive approach to knowledge and political action characteristic of modernity, which he calls modern gnoticism, and which has identifiable roots reaching back to Joachim of Flora in the thirteenth century. In brief, Voegelin sees this orientation arising to make up for the sense of loss entailed in the Christian de-divination of the pagan world of political action, and the relegation of (a reduced) public meaning in history to the realm of the spiritual, controlled by the Church. Although only one strand of modernity (co-existing with classical and Christian influences), modern political gnotisicms, from Cromwell to Lenin, have all been characterized by the attempt to re-infuse the realm of political action and history with redemptive meaning, by creating a controlled and manipulated dream world collapsing the fundamental tensions and dualisms inherent in the structure of human reality; and promising some sort of human perfection through some version of an immamentized Christian eschaton existing in some sort of simplified contraction of the broad cultural differentiation achieved in the classical and Christian experiences.

Now, in the case of Hobbes, Voegelin argues that in order to counter the Cromwellian gnosis, he (Hobbes) laid the basis in Leviathan for a new, unsustainable contraction of human experience, symbolized in the coincidence of the respective truths of the English church and state:

... when he tried to fill the vacuum by establishing Christianity as the English civil theology. He could entertain this idea because he assumed Christianity if properly interpreted, to be identical with the truth of society .... He denied the existence of a tension between the truth of the soul and the truth of society .... On the basis of this assumption, he could indulge in the idea of solving a crisis of world-historical proportions by tendering his expert advice to any sovereign who would take it.

... Hobbes reveals his own Gnostic intentions; the attempt at freezing history into an everlasting constitution is an instance of the general class of Gnostic attempts at freezing history into an everlasting final realm on this earth.13

Now, what is to be said about Voegelin=s characterizations of Hobbes in this regard, and, also, what might Oakeshott have said about these characterizations? In my view, Voegelin=s attempt to lump Hobbes into the mold of Gnostic thinkers who attempt to freeze history on earth is weak on this last point. Although Hobbes does say that Leviathan has provided a model for an everlasting constitution (less the fact of external violence), this is clearly a rhetorical trope, unlikely to influence any but the weakest minds capable of reading it. Voegelin=s more serious charge, in my view, is that Hobbes has laid the groundwork for a new political gnosis by severing all spiritual sources of political life, and severely compacting a richly differentiated civilizational inheritance, held together by spiritual and political tensions. Hobbes may have seen himself as providing a rhetorical technique and a political model for deflating and containing fanacticisms,14 but, on Voegelin=s view, he is nurturing a new form of secular fanaticism by conflating the truths of the soul and the truths of society, and in the call for a state religion interpreted by the sovereign (even though Hobbes thought he had avoided this kind of thing in his conception of a very loose state religion which did not inquire deeply into the realm of the individual conscience).

Voegelin and Strauss would seem to agree on this general point, in spite of different formulations, that Hobbes has done something worrisome in encouraging his readers and political contemporaries, to take all their bearings from the prospect of controlling and avoiding at all costs a worst case scenario - - violent death. For Voegelin, this approach compacts a highly differentiated inheritance, and closes off human open-ness to the divinely transcendent in experience; for Strauss, this approach reduces the human possibility by elevating to the level of an important life-goal what should at best be a means for higher things. And, on this point, it is difficult not to agree that any civilization which continuously and continually takes its bearings from avoidance of worst cases at all costs, is likely over time to dry up its spiritual, spirited, and creative sources and resources.15 On this point, Voegelin and Strauss remind us that Leviathan is not a book for all seasons, but rather a book at its most appropriate during long periods of such civil and social upheaval, that most people would agree that sovereign power is not so hurtful as the want of it.16 (And, even then, there are other, Polybian and Madisonian alternatives, more likely to sustain moderate political life over time, if fortunate enough to be instituted.) And, on Oakeshott=s view, we have seen, Leviathan is primarily about clarifying, and strengthening the motives for endeavoring civil peace, and there is no way to address the origins of the kind of grand questions raised by Voegelin and Strauss in connection with Hobbes, short of elementary logical and categorical errors of irrelevance.17

III. Areas of Agreement Concerning Modernity Among Strauss, Voegelin and Oakeshott? Oakeshott=s critique of modern Rationalism (though, as we have seen, not to include Hobbes),18 Strauss=s critique of political modernity, and Voegelin=s critique of modern gnosticism all share common suspicions about the direction and methods of the politics (from left to right) of the past four centuries. Very generally, all see a politics incapable of attaining its own goals through its chosen means owning to fundamental confusions about the structure of political and human reality as it is lived and discovered by discerning practitioners.

Consider in this connection the following. Oakeshott criticizes what he calls modern Rationalism (the predominant post-Renaissance intellectual tradition) for destruction of evolved skills and moral habits in its misguided attempt to fashion a universally applicable method for the ubiquitous satisfaction of felt needs.19 Strauss criticizes modern liberalism for the misguided and alienated attempt to achieve wide-spread human fulfillment through elevation to the status of goals or ends of what should be (by the Eudaimonian standard of nature) no more than political means (e.g., freedom and security).20 And Voegelin criticizes modern gnoticism for its creation of dream worlds maintained only by authoritative manipulation and ideological distortion, in a misguided attempt to deliver expert knowledge capable of permanently collapsing the structural tensions of political existence.21 Each of these twentieth century thinkers felt a fundamental uneasiness in the face of the various politics of the left and right they witnessed (though not equally so), and each sought in previous centuries for the origins and antecedants of the basic confusions they thought they saw. And each would probably have also agreed that a discerning reading of Aristotle=s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics should be capable of forestalling and/or containing at least some of the confusion and mis-matched ends and means they observed in the politics of modernity.22


1. For a discussion of some of the issues, see Wendell J. Coats, Jr., Oakeshott and His Contemporaries (London: Associated University Presses, 2000), 39-64

2. Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 120-121.

3. Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 122.

4. Or, in the language of Natural Right and History, all bourgeois political duties, such as they are, are derived from individual natural rights grounded in the desire for (comfortable) self-preservation. For the view, (which I cannot follow entirely) that Strauss significantly modified his characterization of Hobbes in Natural Right and History, see Pit Kapetanovic, ADie Hobbes-Rezeption bei Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott@, unpublished Master=s Thesis, Department of Philosophy, University of Heidelberg, March 2000.

5. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), 194.

6. Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 94.

7. Cited by Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, 122.

8. Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, 125.

9. Cited and characterized by Patrick Riley, in AMichael Oakeshot, Philosopher of Individuality,@ The Review of Politics 54, no. 4 (Fall 1992), 657: ADeath itself is not the significant thing in Hobbes=s argument .... The point is being killed .... It signifies failure in the >race= for precedence@ See, also, in this connection Oakeshott=s 1974 review article, ALogos and telos,@ which interprets the Hobbesian state of nature as a highly Asocial@ condition. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 356.

10. Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, 124.

11. Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association.

12. Coats, Oakeshott and His Contemporaries, 61.

13. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 159-60.

14. For a characterization of the influence of Hobbes= philosophic and rhetorical style on subsequent English philosophy, see the conclusion to Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

15. That is, as a sustained focus, concentration on worst or extreme cases closes off opportunities for the highest and fullest human potential, one of the most common-sensical insights of the Eudamonian philosophical inheritance, in my view. For the now unfamiliar criticism of Eudaimonian ethics (Athe life of the psychikos@) as spiritually deadening, see the epistles of St. Paul, especially First Corinthians, Chapter 2, and St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 19.

16. Though Hobbes would reply that reading of Leviathan in all seasons is precisely the remote and pre-emptive cure for such civil upheavals.

17. For Oakeshott=s views on the logical error involved in passing loosely across different categories of inquiry, see Experience and Its Modes (1933) and the first essay of On Human Conduct (1975).

18. Oakeshott thought Hobbes viewed human beings as primarily creatures of passion and faith who could be aided by a limited and carefully constructed form of nominalist reasoning understood as addition and subtraction of names. See, in this connection, the introduction to his 1946 edition of Leviathan.

19. See the title essay to Rationalism in Politics, either edition.

20. A.... Locke identifies the rational life with the life dominated by pain which relieves pain .... The painful relief of pain culminates not so much in the greatest pleasures as in having those things which produce the greatest pleasures=. Life is the joyless quest for joy.@ Strauss, Natural Right and History, 250-51.

21. AThe identification of dream and reality as a matter of principle has practical results which may appear strange .... Gnostic societies .... will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will ... be met by magic operations in the dream world such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions .... The intellectual and moral corruption which expresses itself in ... such magic operations may pervade a society with the weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum ....@ Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 170.

22. I allude simply to the obvious difficulty in vulgarizing Aristotle=s ethical and political views in the direction of any sort of ideological extremism, and to the balance nurtured by a reading of his taxonomy of the moral and intellectual virtues.


  Voegelin and Oakeshott on Hobbes:

Gnostic but not Rationalist?

Copyright 2002 Elizabeth C. Corey


    Eric Voegelin and Michael Oakeshott are famous for similar descriptions of a particular aspect of modernity that Voegelin terms gnosticism and Oakeshott calls rationalism.  A common impulse informs both gnostics and rationalists: the desire to possess complete knowledge and thereby to transform the world.  Gnostics and rationalists share many common traits, such as their desire to escape the anxieties of worldly existence and their reliance on ideologies as shortcuts for solving problems.  Given these similar theoretical frameworks, one might expect Oakeshott and Voegelin to approach certain modern philosophers from the same vantage point.  However, it will come as no surprise to readers of both thinkers that they emphatically do not.  While Voegelin considers almost all the major political philosophers at some length in his corpus, Oakeshott considers only a select few in explicit detail.  And since it was Hobbes to whom he gave the most attention, so it is Hobbes who provides the best case study for examining the thought of both Voegelin and Oakeshott.  This essay first discusses gnosticism and rationalism in turn, before examining the reasons for Voegelins perception of Hobbes as a gnostic and Oakeshotts view that Hobbes was no rationalist.  Finally, it suggests several ways in which their differing views of Hobbes point to differences in Voegelins and Oakeshotts conceptions of the philosopherwhat exactly reason can accomplish, how reason ought to be oriented, and the limits of philosophical reflection.

It is necessary at the outset to describe exactly what is meant by the terms gnosticism and rationalism in this context, since both terms are used by other writers in various ways.  For present purposes, gnosticism and rationalism may best be understood as technical terms meant to describe a specific and circumscribed set of phenomena, as will be discussed in the paragraphs to follow.  Thus, for example, although Voegelins term gnostic has its historical roots in Christian gnosticism, his use of this term considerably broadens its Christian meaning.  Gnosticism is no longer solely a religious phenomenon but has moved into the secular realm of modern politics.  For Oakeshott, likewise, rationalist is a pejorative term to be sure; but his criticism of rationalism is not meant to imply that one ought to abandon reason or ground thought and activity in something like intuition.  Rather, Oakeshotts criticism of rationalism combats a quite specific use (or misuse) of reason.  


Voegelin describes gnosticism in two distinct ways: historically and psychologically.  He sets out his conception of the historical emergence of gnosticism most explicitly in The New Science of Politics, where he locates the origin of modern gnostic phenomena in the person of a twelfth-century monk, Joachim of Flora.  It was Joachim who first conceptualized human history as a series of three successive stages, each superseding the other and culminating in a mystical and final Third Realm.  This periodization of history is the first symbol Voegelin identifies as an essential part of gnosticism.  Following closely upon this is the appearance of the leader, who will emerge to guide all men toward the perfection of the final realm.  The third symbol Voegelin examines is the prophet, whose task it is to make the inevitable course of history intelligible to all.  And the final gnostic symbol identified here is the brotherhood of autonomous persons which will emerge to populate this final realm.  No longer in need of grace, these autonomous persons attempt to perfect themselves and society through their own efforts.  These four symbolsthe Third Realm, the leader, the prophet, and the brotherhood of autonomous personscomprise the crucial parts of Voegelins historical account of gnosticism as it has emerged since Joachim. 

This account, however, is only one of the two ways in which Voegelin describes gnosticism; for his broad, historical description cannot take account of the particular psychological characteristics of the gnostic thinker himself.  Thus in Science, Politics and Gnosticism Voegelin takes another approach which might be termed psychological, identifying six essential characteristics of the gnostic.  The first and most fundamental characteristic is a dissatisfaction with the world as it is and a desire to change it.  The gnostic sees the world as a prison from which an escape is desirable; he is alienated from this world and wishes for an alternative reality.  Second, the gnostic places an extremely high value on human knowledge.  His approach to knowing is not the love of wisdom of classical philosophy, but rather the desire to wield knowledge as a weapon and intentionally to change human circumstances.  Such a view assumes (wrongly, Voegelin insists) that one can step out of experience and view the world as a whole.  The third characteristic of the gnostic thinker is his construction of second realities in which skeptical questions are prohibited.  In such a second reality, the gnostic surrounds himself with those who approve his view of the world and who take part in his attempts to change the structure of reality.  Fourth, the gnostic believes that the world is poorly organized.  Not unlike the first characteristic (a fundamental dissatisfaction with the world), such an assessment implicitly questions the goodness of God and his creation.  Fifth, the gnostic believes salvation is possible through his own efforts.  No longer need he depend upon a providential God; he sees the way to salvation on his own.  By the same token, the Christian virtues of faith and hope are no longer required.  And finally, the sixth characteristic of the gnostic thinker is his tendency to construct a formula for his own (and the worlds) salvation.  Seeing himself as a prophet, he will show the way to the final realm of fulfillment. 

The crux of Voegelins account of modern gnosticism is his contention that the gnostic has misapprehended the structure of reality; and, furthermore, that this misapprehension is not honest but deliberate.  Because the gnostic lacks the strength to exist in the metaxy (which is the middle ground of human existence between the divine and material realms) and to endure the anxiety that comes with faith in a transcendent order, he denies transcendence altogether and attempts to save himself. 


            The notion that life presents a problem to be solveda predicament, as it werehas much in common with Oakeshotts conception of rationalism.  The emphasis throughout Oakeshotts famous essay, Rationalism in Politics, is on the tendency of the rationalist to conceive of experience as a series of crises that call out for solution.  Like the gnostic, the rationalist sees experience as fundamentally flawed, and he attempts to change a world which appears to him unsatisfactory.

            Oakeshott locates the origins of rationalism in the thought of Descartes and Bacon, the latter of whom he blames for developing a corrupting technique of inquiry.  Bacons technique requires that knowledge begin with a purge of the mind and end only with conclusions that can be demonstrably proven by means of certain propositions.  The talent or individuality of the inquirer is accordingly downplayed; the knowledge that Bacon values is to be attainable by all who seek it.  Oakeshott sees this as the central epistemological assumption behind modern rationalism: one can (and should) abandon habit, custom and tradition as ways of knowing, since these are imprecise and uncertain.  One should depend only on the sort of knowledge gained through a clearly formulated method of inquiry.  But, Oakeshott argues, this is a misunderstanding of the sources of knowledge.  There can be no clean slate in human experience, since we always depend on knowledge acquired in diverse ways.  Moreover, the personality of the inquirer cannot help but influence the study of a given subject.  Thus Bacon has misrepresented the character of intellectual inquiry.

            Unfortunately, this misrepresentation is widespread in the modern world.  Oakeshott describes it clearly by making a distinction between what he terms technical and practical knowledge.  Technical knowledge is the knowledge of the rulebook, the formulated procedure expressed in propositions and instructions for the novice (e.g., correspondence courses and do-it yourself manuals).  No doubt such knowledge is valuable (a convenient way learning to sheetrock ones attic), but it is only one type of knowledge.  A major problem with rationalism is that it mistakes the part for the whole, by supposing that everything can be learned through technical instruction.

            The more important (and more often ignored) type of knowledge is what Oakeshott calls practical knowledge.  Practical knowledge is the knowledge of the apprentice, gained only by observation of a master orin politicsof a tradition of conduct.  Practical knowledge is neither formulated in a rulebook nor is it susceptible to propositions.  Though it relies on technical knowledge (e.g., one cannot learn how to play the piano musically without first being able to play scales) it adds something essential to this knowledge.  What it adds is not more technical mastery but rather style, prowess or expertness.  Practical knowledge is thus having a feel for ones pursuit or being able to adapt on the spur of the moment to any new circumstance.  It is, in Aristotelian terms, a hexis for any given activity.  Rationalists tend to dislike this practical conception of knowledge and activity, because it is hard to attain and there is no guarantee that one will be able to attain it.  It is mysterious and inegalitarian, and most certainly does not conform to any sort of preconceived method.  The rationalist eschews this knowledge, preferring the shortcut that is provided by the adoption of an ideology.  Better to appeal to certain principles! declares the rationalist, than to orient oneself by ones own experience.  Arguing against this sort of thinking, Oakeshott suggests that true moral education comes only in the context of an unselfconscious moral tradition. [1]

            Oakeshotts rationalist, therefore, may be described as follows: he favors the clean slate approach to knowledge, believes wholeheartedly in technical rather than practical knowledge, approaches experience as a series of problems to be solved, and relies on ideology as a shortcut to knowing how to conduct himself.  In a word, as Oakeshott puts it, his cast of mind is gnostic, for he grasps at certainty as a way of overcoming his anxiety about his place in the world.  Oakeshotts rationalism and Voegelins gnosticism obviously have a great deal in common.  The question, therefore, with which the remainder of this essay will be concerned is this: Why should Oakeshott and Voegelin have reached such radically different understandings of Hobbes?  In other words, why does Voegelin see Hobbes as the quintessential gnostic while Oakeshott sees him as no rationalist at all? 


            Voegelins classification of Hobbes as a gnostic thinker seems intuitively correct.  Hobbes, after all, is the creator of a system (that favorite pursuit of gnostic thinkers), and he goes so far as to suggest that this system can solve the problems of human nature. [2]   With his typical rhetorical style and power Voegelin thus makes a strong case for Hobbes as a gnostic, and it is worth recounting here the major components of his argument.  His argument centers around one major idea: that Hobbes has collapsed the tension between immanent and transcendent being.  Voegelin analyzes this collapse on two distinct levels: that of the individual and society.  Given the anthropological principle that the city is man writ large, the individual and society are of course inextricably linked.  Yet it is worthwhile to clarify Voegelins argument by considering each of these in turn.

The conception of a human being as composed of different types of being (ranging from apeirontic depth to the desire for godliness) is well known to all readers of Voegelin. [3]   It follows from this account of human nature that some parts of the psyche are oriented toward transcendence while others are oriented toward immanent being.  In a complete person all parts are constantly present and all are vital to the health of the psyche.  If any part of the soul is ignored or denied, then the person suffers from various forms of deficiency and incompleteness. 

According to Voegelin, Hobbes has consciously and deliberately ignored the higher realms of spirit in man by describing the soul only in terms of its passions.  Passions require governance by reason, says Voegelin, and by constant recourse to transcendent reality.  But Hobbes gives no such account of the soul.  Hobbes moreover appears to Voegelin to have neglected the extent to which the passions are the source of corruption in man.  Because [Hobbes] did not . . . interpret passion as the source of corruption in the life of the spirit, . . . he could not interpret the nature of man from the vantage point of the maximum of differentiation through the experiences of transcendence. [4]   Furthermore, in focusing on passions Hobbes has chosen to ignore the objects of those passions and has thus placed himself in opposition to classic and Christian moral philosophy. [5]   In other words, Voegelin believes that Hobbes hasperhaps consciouslymisrepresented the nature of human beings.  It might have been possible for Hobbes to save himself in Voegelins eyes had he argued that the passions ought to be rightly ordered (though this begs the question of how passions could order themselves without the aid of a governing faculty of reason).  But Voegelin finds that Hobbes has made no attempt at orienting passions rightly; in fact, he has perverted the classic Augustinian distinction between amor sui and amor dei.  Voegelin observes that Hobbes has completely removed the amor dei and relied for his psychology on the amor sui, in his language the self-conceit or pride of the individual, alone (NSP 184).  Love of selfin the desire to avoid death, in the hope of preeminence, in the never-ceasing wish for moreis made the organizing principle of human personality.  Hobbes has thus turned the natural order of things upside down.

The argument next moves to the level of society, where Voegelin finds the same corruption that existed in Hobbess account of the individual.  A fully differentiated society, on Voegelins account, is conscious of itself as existing in a tension between divine and human reality.  Members of this society knowor ought to knowthat they will not find their fulfillment solely in their existence as citizens but rather in another realm altogether.  By its very nature Christianity is a truth of the soul that lies beyond immanent existence; fulfillment comes not in this world but in another.  Hobbess project of constructing a civil theology, however, has collapsed the transcendent truth of divine reality into the immanent realm of political activity.  He has attempted to eliminate the tension of life in this in-between state, but has succeeded only in eliminating the transcendent realm itself. 

Specifically, Voegelin argues that Hobbes eliminates transcendence because he attempts to show that the immanent (civil law) can and should contain the transcendent (the law of nature).  Or, put another way, for Hobbes the law of nature derives its force over men only secondarily by being God-given law.  Its primary force comes from the fact that it is promulgated by the sovereign.  Voegelin summarizes Hobbess argument as follows: [the] law of nature, finally, is not a law actually governing human existence before the men, in whom it lives as a disposition toward peace, have followed its precept by combining in a civil society under a public representative, the sovereign. [6]   Thus divine law is made subject to a human ruler, all opportunity for public debate is eliminated, and the potentially positive tension caused by the conflict between divine and human law is removed.  Hobbes has reverted back to the compactness of a society in which the distinction between immanent and transcendent is not recognized, denying the existence of a tension between the truth of the soul and the truth of society. [7]   As Voegelin reads Hobbes, civil theology now exhausts theology itself.  This is the crucial element of Voegelins interpretation of Hobbes as a gnostic.  With this idea . . . of abolishing the tensions of history by the spreading of a new truth, Hobbes reveals his own Gnostic intentions; the attempt at freezing history into an everlasting constitution is an instance of the general class of Gnostic attempts at freezing history into an everlasting final realm on this earth. [8]  

Voegelins analysis is persuasive, but it raises two questions.  First, although Voegelin attributes to Hobbes a number of the psychological characteristics of the gnostic thinker (i.e., the desire to construct a system, the hope of achieving a permanent solution for political problems), he does not mention the fact that Hobbess project does not fit particularly well with the historical account of gnosticism.  Hobbes does not, for example, speak of a three-stage progression of history, nor of a prophet or leader; and there is no brotherhood of autonomous persons in Hobbess thought. [9]   And second, although he is quick to condemn Hobbes for trying to construct civil society on the basis of passions, Voegelin does not ask why Hobbes does this.  He assumes the worst: that Hobbes wants deliberately to eliminate all that is good in classical and Christian thought.  But it seems clear, as Oakeshott points out, that Hobbess motives could have been good or, at the very least, not deliberately destructive.  There are elements of Voegelins analysis that seem to anticipate the outcome before the analysis itself is undertaken; and the question of Hobbess motives is one of these.


            It would seem, then, that Oakeshott has set himself a difficult task in making the case that Hobbes is not a rationalist.  Oakeshotts case, however, centers around a claim about the nature of knowledge.  Perhaps the most important reason that Hobbes is not, for Oakeshott, a rationalist is his skepticism and his belief in the limitedness of philosophy.  One recalls that for the rationalist, reason is the answer to every problem, and the world can be explained and fixed with only the reason that resides in the rationalist himself.  Nothing, of course, could be further from Hobbess conception of reason.  For while it is true that Hobbes uses reason to explain the causes of civil association and the necessary conditions for its survival, Hobbess reason has little in common with that of Oakeshotts rationalist.  It will be instructive, therefore, to distinguish these two types of reason: rationalist and Hobbesian.

            As noted above, reason for the rationalist is assumed to have almost magical powers.  It is available to all alike, requires little in the way of prior education, and is proposed as the solution to all problems.  Rationalism in politics is the politics of ideology, of the rulebook, of the politically inexperienced.  But reason for Hobbes is something quite different than this.  Reason merely investigates causes and effects and does not concern itself with final causes because, asks Hobbes, how could one know these?  Its aim, when turned to theorizing politics, is merely to provide the minimum conditions for the establishment and maintenance of civil association.  In this endeavor, Oakeshott observes that Hobbes is in good company; for his aspiration is not unlike Augustines. [10]   Civil association itself does not provide felicity or salvation; it is merely a negative gift which takes away some of the impediments that tend to inhibit an individuals search for fulfillment. [11]   In Oakeshotts view Hobbes, like Augustine, aims merely at peacenot, like the rationalist, at an immanent realm of perfection.

            Given his conception of reason as the investigation of cause and effect, it follows that things which do not lend themselves to this formulation are excluded from the realm of reason.  And this, of course, excludes theology.  One cannot assert that God is caused nor say exactly what the effects of Gods existence are, at least not in the normal language of cause and effect.  When one speaks of God one moves outside the realm of nature into the supernatural or transcendent or divine.  Whatever one chooses to call this realm, it is not part of philosophy as Hobbes understands it.  Yet this does not mean that Hobbes denies its existence; for as Oakeshott reminds us, Hobbes denies only its rationality. [12]   We can have, says Oakeshott quoting Hobbes, no natural knowledge of mans estate after death. [13]   Philosophy, in Hobbess view, excludes the consideration of the universe as a whole, things infinite, things eternal, final causes and things known only by divine grace or revelation. [14]   But this only means that natural knowledge of these things is limited, not that the things themselves do not exist or that we cannot apprehend them in other ways (meditation, prayer, intuition).  Now it seems evident that meditation and prayer are not Hobbess particular gifts or inclinations, though his construction of civil association leaves a significant realm of freedom for those who do wish to pursue such intimations of divinity.  But Hobbes clearly believesand here he differs from Voegelinthat transcendent reality has little bearing on the practical political arrangements of a society.  These must rest on a surer and more universally accepted foundation.  The crux of this argument about Hobbess skepticism is that he does not flatly deny the existence of God or transcendent reality; he merely questions our ability to know such things by means of philosophy.  He is a skeptic; not a dogmatic atheist. [15]   His civil association does not deny the possibility of faith, but does render this faith an individual matter.  Oakeshott seems to agree with this assessment of things in his own philosophical writings, since in general he focuses not on divine experience but on human affairs and institutions.  As he observes in On Human Conduct, the theorist easily understands that nothing will come of questioning everything at the same time . . . he has a heavenly home, but he is in no hurry to reach it.  If he is concerned to theorize moral conduct or civil association he must forswear metaphysics. [16]   And yet perhaps the question of the relationship between metaphysics and politics is somewhat more complicated than Oakeshott implies here.  As noted in the final section of this essay, this question of the relationship between transcendence and politics gets at the core of the philosophical differences between Voegelin and Oakeshott.


            The foregoing pages have suggested that the primary reasons that Oakeshott and Voegelin read Hobbes differently are because of their quite different understandings of philosophy and transcendence.  Voegelin thinks that Hobbes has ignored the fundamental structure of reality by collapsing immanent and transcendent and is therefore a gnostic, while Oakeshott sees Hobbess reason as skeptical and his project as limited, and so he is not a rationalist.  But such observations beg the questions of exactly how and why the two philosophers differ so dramatically.  What is it about transcendence that makes it essential for Voegelins political philosophy but not for Oakeshotts?  Do Voegelin and Oakeshott conceive of transcendence in the same way?  If not, how do they differ?  And why does Oakeshott believe that philosophy and practice are separate realms while Voegelin argues that practice must be guided by a proper philosophical understanding?  These are only some of the crucial questions that a comparison of Oakeshott and Voegelin brings to the fore.  And while the present essay cannot, of course, treat any of these differences in appropriate detail, it is worthwhile to suggest the basic outlines of some of them as well as why they are provocative starting points for future discussion.


            Oakeshotts and Voegelins conflicting analyses of Hobbes illuminate a fundamental difference in their views about the nature and function of philosophy.  For while gnosticism and rationalism are similar constructs, their general philosophical projects differ significantly.  Oakeshott tends to consider the world in more circumscribed segments, as in his discussion of modes of experience.  His analyses focus on particular levels of being, (to borrow a Voegelinian phrase) although Oakeshott does not in general distinguish levels in a vertical hierarchy like Voegelins.  Voegelin, on the other hand, tends to relate all phenomena to the measuring stick of the entire realm of experience, ranging from immanent to transcendent.  Indeed not to do so is, for Voegelin, a violation of the order of being which permeates all of existence.  In simplest terms, Oakeshott focuses on particular problems: political activity, poetry, or education, without feeling the need constantly to relate these to an overarching and governing purpose.  Voegelin, on the other hand, suggests that this purpose must always and everywhere be recognized.

            To put this point another way, the two philosophers differ over the question of teleology.  Oakeshott has often been chided for following Hobbes in throwing out the summum bonum, for to do so is seen as relativistic and perverse.  The summum bonum, according to Voegelin, is the essential condition of rationality itself.  In his discussion of Hobbes Voegelin writes the following: Now, Hobbes knows that human action can be considered rational only if it is oriented beyond all intermediate stages of ends and means to a last end, this same summum bonum . . . if there is no summum bonum, however, there is no point of orientation that can endow human activity with rationality. [17]   The question this raises, however, is twofold.  First, does Hobbes know that human action is rational only if it is oriented to a last end?  The possible answers are (a) that he does know this and purposely ignores it (as Voegelin assumes) or (b) that he knows no such thing.  If he knows no such thing, we must consider a second question: if there are other ways of orienting ones action besides the summum bonum, what would these be?  And what exactly is Hobbess (and, for that matter, Oakeshotts) problem with the idea of a telos? 

            These questions, of course, require a far more careful treatment than this paper can give.  But one answer immediately suggests itself.  It relates, once again, to the thought of Hobbes, and particularly to his skepticism.  The problem with teleology, for Hobbes and Oakeshott alike, lies in our ability to know what our summum bonum consists in.  While there are any number of goods that one might aim at in a more intermediate fashion, postulating a final good for man lies beyond the scope of philosophy for both Hobbes and Oakeshott.  Is our final good the life of pure contemplation?  Or is it the life of the religious mystic?  Or might it be a simple life lived in devotion to ones family?  Selfless devotion to ones country?  Any of these goods is good, but they are vastly different, and each requires distinct choices and sacrifices.  Neither Oakeshott nor Hobbes can postulate one of these alternatives as the summum bonum, nor would either philosopher find much use in talking abstractly about the good without specifying what it is for a concrete human being.  Thus they conceive of rationality as something other than orienting oneself toward a far-off good; and so it is possible for Hobbes not to have known that action can be considered rational only if it is oriented . . . to a last end. [18]   Voegelin certainly believes that action must be oriented this way, but it seems to remain a rather more open question than he allows.  In simplest terms, the core question is the following: How can we know our summum bonum, and if we know it, how exactly does it help us in choosing our actions? 

            But although contrasting approaches to the question of teleology are important in understanding Voegelin and Oakeshotts philosophical differences, there is also another important contrast that has more to do with style than content.  In his introduction to Leviathan, Oakeshott reminds his readers that one would do well to consider the temperament, cast of mind, and style of writing of a philosopher as a means of better understanding him. [19]   And this holds true for Oakeshott and Voegelin, too.  It is a simple point: Voegelin sees philosophy as therapy for a disordered age, while Oakeshott sees it as a pursuit that can offer us no direct guide to conduct.  Voegelin observes that the gnostic impulse may pervade a society with the weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in our time in the Western crisis. [20]   The gnostics attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society. [21]   Philosophys task, therefore, is to combat this disorder.  Voegelins work is a forceful and direct response to the atrocities of the twentieth century, and he finds the roots of these atrocities in long-established intellectual currents.

            Oakeshott, on the other hand, rarely speaks of crisis.  His style is detached, urbane, skepticaland some would say, ultimately unsatisfying, since he offers us no solution to the problem of modernity.  But then again Oakeshott does not necessarily see modernity as a problem, and this distinguishes him from Voegelin and others of his generation.  Oakeshott is not, however, uncritical, nor does he accept without question the values of modern society; but Oakeshott understands himself as a philosopher, and he understands philosophy itself to stand apart from politics, even as it considers politics a subject worthy of examination.  Ultimately the political philosopher, in Oakeshotts view, can do little to affect the politics of his own time; and if one wants to have an effect, he should be a politician, not a philosopher.  This is, admittedly, a very unusual view, and it has appeared to many critics as if it unduly discounts the position of the philosopher.  But here it is possible to see clearly why he and Voegelin are at odds: Voegelin argues throughout his corpus that a proper understanding of philosophy is essential for understanding politics; and that without the right philosophical grounding society is in grave danger.  Oakeshott, on the other hand, categorically separates philosophy and politics; and one should remember that Oakeshott offers us no solution to rationalism, for to do so would be to concede the battle itself.  Indeed, the problem/solution construct is largely absent in Oakeshotts thought, whereas it is central to Voegelins.


            As has been implied in the paragraphs above, Oakeshott and Voegelin disagree in their assessments about Hobbess intentions.  As Oakeshott reads Hobbes, he is a true skeptic: with Hobbes the prime mover was doubt. [22]   His conception of reason/philosophy is limited to the categories of cause and effect, and because of this he excludes a number of realms of experience.  Hobbes does not consider transcendence as part of philosophy, not because he is certain it doesnt exist, but because he doubts his own ability to apprehend it.  So much for Oakeshotts view.

            Voegelin, however, sees things quite differently, as is evident from his use of language.  He regards Hobbes as a thinker who has willfully misrepresented his own knowledge; he accuses Hobbes of saying things that he knows to be untrue.  In his discussion of Hobbess views on teleology Voegelin asserts that Hobbes knows that human action can be considered rational [only if is oriented toward the summum bonum]. [23]   Elsewhere, Voegelin attributes to Hobbes a very clear intentionality in deciding the course his civil philosophy would take.  He solved the conflict [between private individuals and public order] by deciding that there was no public truth except the law of peace and concord in a society . . . In order to support his decision, Hobbes used the following argument . . . [24] Now Voegelin may or may not be right in attributing to Hobbes a moment of conscious decision in which he oriented the whole of his philosophy.  But what is transparent in Voegelins use of the language of decision is that Voegelin finds Hobbes unphilosophical, at the very least.  Decision is no part of philosophy as either Voegelin or Oakeshott understands it (with the exception perhaps of the original decision to submit to philosophical reflection).  Philosophy is the examination of postulates (Oakeshott) or of the order of being (Voegelin), but it dictates its own subject matter and cannot be decided upon.  Voegelins use of the language of moral choice to describe Hobbes implies that Hobbes knew exactly what he was doing, knew it was wrong, and chose it anyway.  This reading of Hobbes discounts the skepticism that Oakeshott attributes to him.


            The question of transcendent experience in politics is, of course, an extraordinarily complex one; and it is also closely tied to the question of teleology, since on many accounts mans telos is his reconciliation with God.  Voegelins conception of transcendence is that it somehow permeates all of political activity, as explained in his famous principle of completeness. [25]   And on an even more immediate, individual level, an experience of transcendence lies at the heart of human experience itself, according to Voegelin: Man experiences himself as tending beyond his human imperfection toward the perfection of the divine ground . . . any construction of man as a world-immanent entity will destroy the meaning of existence, because it deprives man of his specific humanity. [26]   Now it is hard to argue with this formulation; for certainly most human beings perceive that they are not complete in themselves, and that there exist realms of being of which they are only dimly aware.  What is less clear is exactly how this transcendence ought to structure political existence in the world.  It would seem to be possible to admit transcendence as an essential part of human life without making it a part of all political theorizing.  It is important to recall that for Hobbes and Oakeshott political activity is one of the least transcendent of human undertakings: it provides the minimum conditions for peace so that people may be free to seek transcendence where they may find it.  How ought one to reconcile the directly conflicting views of Voegelin, on the one hand, and Oakeshott, on the other?  The question may also be put this way: how exactly does Voegelin expect transcendence to structure the life of a society, when transcendence can only be experienced by individuals? 

            Perhaps a starting point for thinking about this problem is to observe that Oakeshott and Voegelin come to political philosophy with quite different assumptions.  Voegelins conception of politics might be called broad and Oakeshotts narrow, in that when Voegelin speaks of political activity he seems to mean far more than attending to the institutional arrangements of a society.  Political life for Voegelin seems to consist not only in politics as it is usually understood but also in moral and religious activity of all sorts.  Indeed, as Voegelin writes in the introduction to The New Science of Politics, his analysis of politics is an exploration of the symbols by which political societies interpret themselves as representatives of a transcendent truth. [27]   Oakeshott, on the other hand, sees no such function for politics.  The civil condition, in his view, is something that exists for human beings in their particularly human situation; the philosophers task is to discern the mode of intelligent relationship it postulates. [28]   In designating a limited scope for politics Oakeshott appears particularly modern, particularly in contrast to Voegelins expansive, classical conception.  But the crucial questions regarding Oakeshott and Hobbes in this respect would have to be, first, why they limit politics in the way they do, and second, whether or not this limitation eliminates transcendence altogether from human life or, instead, somehow recasts it. 

            This essay began by describing a similarity between Voegelin and Oakeshott (their constructs of gnosticism and rationalism) but it has ended by observing that the two philosophers differ in significant ways.  And yet it is worth pointing out their similarities on a number of questions: they object to the excesses of the modern scientific method in politics and find positivism a deeply flawed approach to inquiry; they are both fundamentally conservative; and they are both devoted to the life of philosophy.  In other words, they share a sense of having emerged from a common tradition; and while their responses to the world are different they do speak directly to the same issues.  The present essay makes no pretense of having answered the sorts of major questions it has posed: i.e., how do Oakeshott and Voegelin differ philosophically?  And how do they understand transcendent experience and its place in politics?  But this preliminary inquiry does function as a way of getting at the substantive philosophical issues that distinguish these two philosophers.  As Oakeshott observes, Hobbess philosophy has always aroused strong feelings in his readers; and the investigation of those strong feelings tends to reveal as much about those readers as it does about Hobbes.  


[1] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, in Rationalism in Politics, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1991), 41.

[2] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Washington: Regnery, 1997), 71.

[3] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 114.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Ibid., 180.

[6] Ibid., 154.

[7] Ibid., 160.

[8] Ibid., 161.

[9] The argument could be made that the Leviathan functions as the leader in Hobbess thought.  But this seems to confuse the character of the type of leader to which Voegelin refers.  The gnostic leaders mandate is to lead others bravely into an as-yet unforeseen future while Hobbess monarch functions more as an arbiter concerned to maintain the status quo. 

[10] Michael Oakeshott, Introduction to Leviathan, in Hobbes on Civil Association (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1975), 79. 

[11] Ibid., 79.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 75.

[14] Ibid., 18.

[15] The question of Hobbess position on religion is, of course, much debated.  The dimensions of this debate are well summarized in Ronald Hepburns essay, Hobbes on the Knowledge of God in Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 85-108.

[16] Michael Oakeshott , On Human Conduct (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 25.

[17] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, 70.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Michael Oakeshott, Introduction to Leviathan, 9.

[20] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 170.

[21] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, 9.

[22] Michael Oakeshott, Introduction to Leviathan,11.

[23] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, 70, italics mine.

[24] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 153, italics mine.

[25] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, 114.

[26] Ibid., 103-104

[27] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 1.

[28] Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, 114.

  A Comparison and Evaluation of

Interpretation:  Voegelin and Strauss on

Thomas Hobbes

Copyright 2002 Jeremy J. Mhire

In the beginning of his essay on Thomas Hobbes in What is Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss asks the rather salient question of why we, as students of political philosophy in contemporary times, should read Hobbes? [1]   The simplicity of this question, to say nothing of its relevance, cannot be overlooked.  To study Hobbesian political philosophy is to say that it is relevant to us in some way; it speaks to us precisely because it allows us the ability to understand ourselves more fully.  As our self-understanding is at least partially informed through the modern perspective, it makes sense to return to the thoughts of one who was influential in creating that perspective.  This was certainly the standpoint of both Strauss and Eric Voegelin, two of the most influential political philosophers of the last century.  By returning to Hobbess thought, both Strauss and Voegelin wished to revive those insights that played a crucial role in defining how we understand ourselves today.  This essay, then, is first and foremost a general attempt to understand the ways in which both Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss used Hobbess political philosophy as a means through which the modern project, or modernity more simply, could be better understood. This will involve an examination of the key themes that both Voegelin and Strauss thought important to properly understand Hobbess political philosophy in particular, and its relationship to modernity more generally. 

I. Voegelins Hobbes          

In beginning the examination with Eric Voegelins thoughts on Thomas Hobbes, what stands out is two interrelated themes whose scope exceeds that of Hobbes himself. Voegelins interpretation of Hobbes, while fully accounting for the political philosophy, is at the same time an interpretation of the essence of modernity. For Voegelin, Hobbess thought represents the quintessential modern moment whereby a western society came of age through a series of spiritual and temporal conflicts whose origins lie outside of modernity itself. To understand Voegelins Hobbes, then, is to understand how the themes of history and politics play themselves out on the world stage, or more specifically, how the movement of history and the particularity of the political inform one anothers self-interpretation.  The themes of history and politics must first be examined separately, and then in relation to one another, so as to understand Voegelins Hobbes, particularly as he relates to the essence of modernity.


The Relevance of History


The theme of history in the writings of Eric Voegelin is of fundamental importance. As Voegelin says in the memorable lines that begin The New Science of Politics, The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history. [2]   History is inextricably linked with philosophy, as the former provides the substance upon which the latter can base both interpretations and speculations.  An interpretation of a philosophical system, such as that of Thomas Hobbes, must both examine the historical particulars with which the philosopher had to deal, as well as the effectiveness and accuracy of the answers he suggested. Voegelins Hobbes is uniquely situated between the two; his philosophy is both the product of historical circumstances in which he found himself, as well as a key factor in the subsequent course of history, particularly that of modern history. Voegelins interpretation fulfills both criteria by providing a deep and penetrating account of the way history shaped and was shaped by Hobbess political philosophy.

            To interpret Hobbess political philosophy, then, requires our examination to digress momentarily in order to frame the theoretical perspective through which Hobbes can be properly understood. According to Voegelin, Hobbess political philosophy falls into the second of three great epochs that have defined the history of western civilization. [3] This epoch, which on the one hand is marked by St. Augustines theoretical influence, and on the other hand is mired in the crisis precipitated by the concurrent fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, sets the historical stage from which Voegelins Hobbes emerges. The Roman Empire represented a unification of both temporal and spiritual order, maintained and expressed through an existential and transcendent polytheistic symbolism. As the empire crumbled and Christianity rose to the level of imperial orthodoxy, the temporal sphere of human existence was de-divinized; the polytheistic symbolism lost its existential meaning when Rome no longer served as a source of temporal order and the divine sphere was pushed beyond history into the transcendent.  The new spiritual symbols of grace and salvation as represented in the church helped to precipitate this de-divinization of politics and secular society, and the concomitant notion of a final kingdom, whether immanent or transcendent, tended to occupy the vacuum left by the now defunct imperial symbols.

            This historical circumstance is the context in which we find the theoretical relevance of Augustine.  Augustine dismissed the possibility of an immanent kingdom that would be realized in the foreseeable future.  The divine came in the form of the church, representing the spiritual order of society and existing until the last judgment, apart from any temporal order that existed in human history. Augustines influence had the effect of splitting western civilization into two wholly separate spheres. Whereas the Roman Empire unified the existential and transcendental order, western civilization, under the influence of this Augustinian dualism, maintained separate representation and symbolism for both the temporal and spiritual orders. Each order had its own head, the emperor in the temporal order, and the pope in the spiritual.  However, because this new representation was built upon the remnants of the once mighty empire, remnants that had not fully withered away, a tension between the two orders existed, one that tended toward their reunification.

            In effecting this change of orientation, Augustine also influenced western civilization in another fundamental way.  The kingdom of God had no equivalent in the existential order, and as such, the plight of individual men was symbolized as a pilgrimage towards salvation that existed beyond time.  This had the resulting effect of de-emphasizing temporal things. Human history in its purely temporal aspects, which is mans experience in the existential realm, was rendered essentially meaningless. Mans political existence in history had no intrinsic meaning other than as a transition to the transcendent kingdom of God. The purposelessness of Augustines historical perspective, given the tension created by the separation of the temporal and spiritual orders, paved the way for a new aggregate of symbols that would represent the self-interpretation of the period.  It is here that Voegelin introduces Joachim of Flora, the man who would affect the re-divinization of history.

            The relevance of Joachim of Flora as the purveyor of modern Gnosticism is well known to anyone that has any acquaintance with Eric Voegelins thought. It is Joachim that breaks with Augustines thinking, rejecting the purposelessness of history, The Joachitic speculation was an attempt to endow the immanent course of history with a meaning that was no provided in the Augustinian conception. [4] In addition, Joachim marks the first significant attempt to remedy the uncertainty that is a part of the Christian faith. In order to do so, Joachim proposed a new notion of history, one that imbued both a sense of purpose and an element of certainty through a new aggregate of symbols. These four symbols, which include the three-phase periodization of history, the leader, the prophet of the new age, and a brotherhood of autonomous persons, became the paradigm through which western society would interpret itself. [5]

            The attempt to achieve certainty in the realm of history, according to Voegelin, is the product of Gnostic speculation:

The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. [6]  


The essence of modernity, then, is to be found in the conception of history that Joachim elaborated.  Modernity is characterized by an ever-increasing tendency to speculate on the meaning of history.  But this tendency found itself within the larger symbolic structure of Augustine, one where the separation of existential and transcendent order was still intact.  The outcome of Joachims influence on the separation was to heighten the existing tension toward a complete unification of order. It is this tension that returns our examination to its specific theme.

            Voegelin places Hobbess political philosophy in the middle of a unique case study that makes clear how this Joachitic-Augustinian turmoil played itself out in political reality.  The English context in which Hobbes found himself was dominated by a single event that influenced his thinking the English Civil War.  The civil war in England was, according to Voegelin, the product, in particular, of the Puritan insurrection and, more generally, of the residual effects of the reformation.  The Puritan movement, characterized by Voegelin as a Gnostic movement, was a challenge to the existing English temporal order.  Its uniqueness centered on the exclusivity of its complete and unquestionable claim to scriptural truth, a claim that translated into a justification for revolution under the auspice of divine righteousness; The various groups engaged in the civil war were so heaven-bent on having the public order represent the right variety or transcendent truth that the existential order of society was in danger of floundering in the melee. [7]  

            Hobbess political philosophy, according to Voegelin, was an attempt to answer the challenge presented by the Puritan movement to the public order.  The issue itself was simple,

 On the one hand, there is a political society that wants to maintain its established order in historical existence; on the other hand, there are private individuals within the society who want to change the public order, if necessary by force, in the name of a new truth. [8]


The answer that was posed was equally as simple:   Hobbes solved the conflict by deciding that there was no public truth except the law of peace and concord in a society; any opinion or doctrine conductive to discord was thereby proved untrue. [9]    In order to meet the challenges posed by the Puritan movement, the entire basis upon which it rested had to be rejected.  All transcendent truth, particularly any that could be derived from divine scripture, had to be rejected in order to secure the peace necessary to preserve the temporal order.

            As Voegelin points out, Hobbess enterprise was not without its merit. [10]   Any doctrine of truth would do, in so far as it was amenable to the existing temporal order and did not promote divisiveness or sectarian political movements.  But by basing his political philosophy on such a foundation, Hobbes made the public order, which is to say the state or the sovereign, the ultimate arbiter of what is true and what is not. The justification for Hobbess political philosophy could not come from a higher source of order or truth; its justification must lie in its own principles, constructed to meet the needs of internal consistency. Hobbes felt it necessary to construct his own aggregate of symbols that would accurately express the totality of mans existence while also justifying his political philosophy. By doing so, and affectively freezing history under the dominion of the sovereign, however, Hobbes himself fell into the trap of Gnosticism. [11]  


The Political Solution


Now that that theme of history and its relevance to Hobbesian political philosophy has been explored, our examination must turn to the practical prescriptions that Hobbes advocated.  Hobbess historical context forced him to deal with the issue of public order, one that he hoped could be settled permanently. The result of his enterprise was the creation of three wholly new symbols, that of a new psychology, a new nature of man, and the Leviathan. [12] The first of these symbols, the new psychology of man, was, according to Voegelin, Hobbess way of expressing what he understood to be the reality of his situation. [13] In the absence of a teleological end for man that was beyond doubt, or more specifically, of absolute certainty, Hobbes decided to deal with man from the perspective of his most basic elements.  According to Voegelin, a fundamental dichotomy characterizes Hobbess theory of human nature; it is at the same time defined by both an appetite toward pleasure and an aversion to pain. [14]   There is no higher good, no summum bonum towards which mans nature is compelled.  There is only pleasure and pain, and happiness is the fulfillment of the desires to attain pleasure and avoid pain.  But because man is forced, of necessity, to pursue his desires in a natural world of scarcity in which other men also live, conflict exists as a necessary part of mans existence.

            The new psychology that Hobbes presented in his aggregate of symbols expressed the depth of this ever-present conflict.  Since man is always in competition, what secures his victory and the fulfillment of his desires is his power. Mans only concern is with the greatness of his power, that is, the ways in which he can further secure his future felicity. Pride, then, is the derivative of mans existential situation; man can concern himself with his own greatness only when the meaning of his life is a product of a competition with others like him. Moreover, because pride is the derivative of the desires and has no structure within which it can orient itself, it admits of excess, excess that ultimately becomes madness. 

            Hobbess new psychology characterizes man in terms of sensual self-interest; his existential nature ranges from being proud to obsessive vanity to madness.  For Voegelin, this new psychology was the way in which Hobbes understood the Puritan movement. [15] The grandest expression of madness is to think ones self divinely inspired, and then to translate that belief into immanent and revolutionary political action. Hobbess answer to the Puritan problem is to reinvent man, constructing a hypothetical state of nature in which man, defined by this new psychology, exists as a radically autonomous individual. Mans new nature is defined by radical self-interest, and his existential situation escalates to a war of all-against-all.  Mans basic desires to gain pleasure and avoid pain are played out on the field of life and death competition. Hobbess solution is to institute the Leviathan, the third of his aggregate of symbols. 

            Since there is no summum bonum, a community of men cannot be constructed from a common social bond.  By constructing a new psychology and human nature predicated on appetite and aversion, however, Hobbes is able to institute a society based on a summum malum. The greatest of all desires is the fear of death, a fear to which even those stricken with madness are susceptible. Man, desperate to get out of this state of nature plagued by an ever-present possibility of death, surrenders his right to seek what will fulfill his appetite for pleasure in exchange for allaying his aversion to death. Agreeing to the contract breaks down the radically autonomous individual; all that remains once the contract is final is the sovereignty of the omnipotent mortal god. 

            The problem of public order for Voegelins Hobbes, then, is solved in and through the creation of the Leviathan.  The Leviathan is the unquestionable arbiter of truth, and as Voegelin points out, affects both the spiritual and legal closure of the state. [16]   This culmination of Hobbess political philosophy in the form of the mortal god Leviathan is the first step to understanding Voegelins perspective on modernity. Hobbess historical situation was shaped by the growing presence of Gnostic movements in the sphere of political reality.  The tendency to collapse the temporal and spiritual orders symbolized in Augustines thought and replace them with Joachitic symbols reached political significance in Hobbess time, demanding a response to the immanent threat to public order.  In doing so, however, Hobbess himself appropriated several Gnostic elements, rendering his solution almost as dangerous as the problem it was meant to cure: 

Hobbes in his zeal has contributed importantly to the understanding of the totalitarian state; his recipes for the total spiritual and intellectual control of the people are followed to the letter by present totalitarian governments, perfected by modern techniques.  And this technique of control by the mortal God is probably the inevitable instrument of peaceful order among men who have lost their immortal God. [17]


The political philosophy of Voegelins Hobbes, then, is both the product of Gnostic movements and the cause of modern Gnostic political manifestations. By positioning Hobbes at the crossroads of Gnostic influences and modern development, Voegelins interpretation sets the stage for a comprehensive understanding of the modern project.


II. Strausss Hobbes

            When turning from Voegelins interpretation to that of Leo Strauss, one is struck almost immediately by a rather obvious, yet fundamental, difference from what has gone before.  Whereas Voegelin demanded that his reader come to terms with the influence of history on Hobbess political philosophy, Strausss approach demands a completely different orientation one that is almost entirely devoid of historical context.  In the only book Strauss devoted singularly to the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, there is nothing like the treatment of history offered by Voegelin present in the examination. [18] The difference of orientation may be summed up for now in this way:  according to Voegelin, . . . the substance of history is to be found on the level of experience, not on the level of ideas. [19]   For Strauss, the exact opposite is true.  Strausss hermeneutical approach, then, is first and foremost a systematic study of ideas, and history is relevant to the study of political philosophy only in so far as it represents accurately the substance of those ideas.

A-Historical History


            The study of political philosophy for one who adopts Strausss approach is essentially a students study of an ongoing dialogue carried out over the course of more than two full millennium by a handful of the most intelligent and influential thinkers of all time. To say that the substance of history is on the level of ideas is to say that history is driven and directed by ideas, ideas that are not themselves the product of history.  Strausss pantheon of political philosophers includes those men whose ideas drive the direction of human thought and history.  These men are not conditioned by their historical circumstances the way other men are; they are able, by becoming fully aware of themselves through philosophy, to change the future of thinking and history with what they understand to be the truth.  According to Leo Strauss, Thomas Hobbes is one of these fundamentally influential human beings, for Hobbes believed that he was affecting a great intellectual change. [20] Hobbess political philosophy, from his own point of view, must be understood as the culmination of the history of political philosophy with a notion of the political things that is true simply.

            Strausss Hobbes affects his break by challenging all that had gone before.  Most importantly was the tradition of classical political philosophy, a tradition that included such fundamental thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, and that held a great deal of legitimacy even in Hobbess time. But Hobbess idea for a new political philosophy also went beyond the tradition of the ancients; it included another thinker who also thought of himself as the founder of a new way of thinking.  Hobbess intellectual predecessor was Machiavelli, a man who had already staged a quarrel with the ancients and had believed himself victorious.  The influence that Strauss believed Hobbess political philosophy had on modernity, then, can come to light fully only by understanding the nature of Machiavellis quarrel with the ancient tradition, the shortcomings Hobbes found in Machiavellis answer, and what Hobbes himself proposed in order to remedy these shortcomings.

            Machiavellis quarrel with the ancient political philosophers can be stated rather simply:

            He rejected classical political philosophy, and therewith the whole tradition of political philosophy in the full sense of the term, as useless:  Classical political philosophy had taken its bearings by how man ought to live; the correct way of answering the question of the right order of society consists in taking ones bearings by how men actually do live. [21]


The standard of political activity for the ancient political philosophers had been virtue, that is to say, the perfection of both ones moral and intellectual characters.  Machiavelli disagrees with this; the goodness of a society will be determined by how well it deals with men as they actually are, not as they might become.  Political philosophy, if it is to be both a truthful expression of political reality and a prescription for future societies, must lower its standards to raise the possibility of achieving stability and order;

            Machiavelli consciously lowers the standards of social action.  His lowering of the standards is meant to lead to a higher probability of actualization of that scheme which is constructed in accordance with the lowered standards.  Thus, the dependence on chance is reduced:  chance will be conquered. [22]


            Machiavelli could justify this new standard only by first rejecting the one the ancients had championed.  That rejection, however, required more than characterizing the ancient philosophies as utopian.  It required rejecting the notion of virtue that underlies the ancient schemes only if the ancient notion of virtue was proved wrong could the standard of politics be justifiably lowered. Machiavelli accomplished this by rejecting the ancient political virtue par excellence:  justice. According to Strauss, Machiavelli justified his demand for a realistic political philosophy by reflections on the foundations of civil society, and this means ultimately by reflection on the whole within which man lives. [23] All societies are founded on acts that are fundamentally unjust, and as such, justice itself can be nothing more than positive law; all legitimacy has its root in illegitimacy; all social or moral orders have been established with the help of morally questionable means; civil society has its root not in justice but in injustice. [24]   

Machiavelli affects his break with classical political philosophy by renouncing any assertion that there is support for justice outside of the political order.  Man is not by nature inclined toward justice in the way the ancients had thought, nor is he inspired toward justice by some higher force. Outside of political society man is selfish and individualistic and must be compelled to harmonious living; By nature man is radically selfish.  Yet while men are by nature selfish, and nothing but selfish, hence bad, they can become social, public spirited, or good. [25] By suggesting that justice is a creation of civil society, and that civil society must be constructed according to how men actually are as opposed to what they may become, Machiavelli reorients the way political philosophy deals with the problems of political order. Replacing the ancient notion of justice as the goal of political societies with a more realistic goal increases the probability that the goal is achieved.  But what is substituted in place of justice is crucially important, for the goal must be one that can order society while being achievable for naturally selfish and self-seeking men.  The answer that Machiavelli proposes, according to Strauss, is the common good of existing societies, which is to say those things by virtue of which societies are created and maintained:

            By the common good we must understand the objectives actually pursued by all societies.  These objectives are:  freedom from foreign domination, stability or rule of law, prosperity, glory or empire.  Virtue in the effectual sense of the word is the sum of habits which are required for or conducive to this end.  It is this end, and this end alone, which makes our actions virtuous.  Everything done effectively for the sake of this end is good.  This end justifies every means. [26]


The achievable political goal in the realm of radically selfish, if not evil, individuals is the common good of those individuals; the political virtue par excellence in the new scheme is that which binds and effectively holds individuals together. 

            For Strauss, Machiavelli affected the break with the classical tradition by substituting a wholly new understanding of man, and hence, political society.  As was mentioned before, however, Hobbes believed that he, and not Machiavelli, was the founder of modern political philosophy.  Hobbes could only assert this by disagreeing with the alternative Machiavelli proposed as a substitute to the classical tradition.  Machiavelli based his alternative on the notion that political society preceded justice, and hence, that justice had no basis in nature.  Hobbes found this supposition untenable.  That all societies in all parts of the world throughout all of human history were founded on fundamental acts of injustice was too much to assume for a thinker who sought certainty where none existed before. According to Strauss,

            For certainly Hobbes took justice much more seriously than Machiavelli had done.  He may even be said to have defended the cause of justice:  he denies that it is of the essence of civil society to be founded on crime.  To refute Machiavellis fundamental contention may be said to be the chief purpose of Hobbess famous doctrine about the state of nature.  He accepted the traditional notion that justice is not merely the work of society but that there is a natural right. [27]


Strausss Hobbes agreed with Machiavelli that the classical tradition aimed too high.  The substitution offered by Machiavelli, however, was equally as flawed.  By rejecting the notion that justice was anything more than positive law, Machiavelli, from Hobbess perspective, had no basis upon which to affect a wholly new philosophical teaching.  If there is no justice prior to the inception of society, than it is impossible to say that all societies are founded upon an injustice.  For Strausss Hobbes, there must be something that is right by nature, and this fundamental right, whatever it may be, will provide the foundation for a true political teaching:

            It was the difficulty implied in the substitution of merely political virtue for moral virtue or the difficulty implied in Machiavellis admiration for the lupine policies of republican Rome that induced Hobbes to attempt the restoration of the moral principles of politics, i.e., of natural law, on the plane of Machiavellis realism. [28]        



The New Political Approach



            The answer to the challenge posed by Machiavelli, for Strausss Hobbes, was to start from the beginning.  In order to prove Machiavelli wrong, Hobbes needed to find the most basic premise from which all political order was derived.  But this was no easy task, for as Strauss points out, reason (according to Hobbes) is impotent because reason or humanity have no cosmic support:  the universe is unintelligible, and nature dissociates men. [29]   Hobbess solution was to look to the one element of nature that was intelligible.  Mans nature is intelligible because it is both the source and product of man himself.  While reason cannot penetrate the depths that separate and keep all matter unintelligible, it can, under the right circumstances, understand both itself and that which it creates.  And those things that are artificial, which man himself creates such as human institutions and political orders can be understood because they are extensions of the nature to which they owe their existence.  There is, then, a duality in mans nature, one that gives him something with which he can create, as well as the ability to affect such a creation.  Hobbes was forced to look for the starting point of political society in the nature of man, or more specifically, in the nature of men who are not now or have ever been a part of political society.

            When one examines human nature unencumbered by the pressures brought to bear upon it by civil society, one finds, according to Hobbes, radically autonomous individuals.  This specific aspect is not in itself new, as Machiavelli made the same observation when examining men as he thought them truly to be.  The uniqueness of Hobbess observation, according to Strauss, is that mans nature, while disassociating him, also endows him with a basic and fundamental right.  Every human is born with the most basic and fundamental desire to preserve his own life, that is, every man may use whatever means is necessary to preserve his life and avoid violent death. Pre or a-political man is animated by the responsibility for the preservation of his person, and as such, he is put into a fierce competition with other men over the means to secure that preservation.  Mans most basic condition, according to Strausss Hobbes, is a state where his nature reigns supreme, which is to say, a state where the most basic and fundamental fact is a war of all against all; this means that not the glitter and glamour of glory or pride but terror of fear of death stands at the cradle of civil society:  not heroes, if fratricidal and incestuous heroes, but naked, shivering poor devils were the founders of civilization. [30]

            Strausss Hobbes finds mans foremost and most intelligible condition in the state of nature.  This doctrine, if it can be so called, is Hobbess way of answering both the ancient tradition and Machiavellis alternative.  Instead of finding his starting point in a teleological end that required both perfection and sociability, Hobbes saw fit to begin his political teaching from the most basic and elementary point of existence.  Expressed in a slightly different manner, whereas the ancients began from the end or the ceiling, Hobbes began from the beginning or the floor; death takes the place of the telos.  Or, to preserve the ambiguity of Hobbess thought, let us say that the fear of violent death expresses most forcefully the most powerful and the most fundamental of all natural desires, the initial desire, the desire for self-preservation. [31]   And in opposition to the alternative proposed by Machiavelli, Hobbess state of nature teaching offered a basis for justice and society with more legitimacy than a willful act of injustice on the part of a founder. 

            The natural right of every man to protect his life translates into the foundation of political society through the state of nature doctrine.  The states most fundamental role, if not its only true role, is to ensure the preservation of each citizens life by mitigating the competition that is inherent in the state of nature.  By founding political society on natural right, Hobbes was able to construct a political teaching that had an end, but an end that preserves the first right of nature, not the teleological end of perfection.  The political virtue par excellence for Strausss Hobbes remains as justice, but it is a form of justice whose definition has been reduced to include only those virtues that maintain peace and tranquility those virtues that mitigate the horrors found in the state of nature:

Just as Machiavelli reduced virtue to the political virtue of patriotism, Hobbes reduced virtue to the social virtue of peaceableness. Those forms of human excellence which have no direct or unambiguous relation to peaceableness courage, temperance, magnanimity, liberality, to say nothing of wisdom cease to be virtues in the strict sense.  Justice (in conjunction with equity and charity) does remain a virtue, but its meaning undergoes a radical change. [32]          


The end of the political society, then, is not to live well, but merely to live.  Those things that promote peaceful living become virtues for Strausss Hobbes, virtues that take their bearings from the new quintessential good.  And in so far as man is now sheltered in civil society from the horrors that plague pre-political man, his concern with his own self-preservation and the fulfillment of his desires can rise to an unprecedented new level; respectable, pedestrian hedonism, sobriety without sublimity and subtlety, protected or made possible by power politics this is the meaning of Hobbess correction of Machiavelli. [33]

            The political philosophy of Strausss Hobbes stands as a fundamental cornerstone for much of what is now known to be the modern project.  By disagreeing with the ancients about the end of man and political society, Hobbes was able to set the stage for a political teaching that could be achieved in the realm of political reality.  In also rejecting Machiavellis alternative to the ancient solution, Hobbes could maintain a notion of right by nature that antedated political society, and that could serve as a foundation for a stable and peaceful community. In this way, the political philosophy of Strausss Hobbes helps one to understand modernity because it is the first true attempt to articulate a teaching of rights or pre-political justice, both of which are commonplace themes in the modern mindset.  Moreover, for Strausss Hobbes, right antedates duty.  This rather simple pattern, one that completely reversed the ancient paradigm, serves as a basis for the whole classical liberal tradition upon which so much of modernity is either founded upon or takes as its staring point; If we call liberalism that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental political fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights, we must say that the founder of liberalism was Hobbes. [34]   The relevance of reading Hobbes for Strauss, then, can be easily summed up by taking seriously the latters first statement of the thought of the former:  Thomas Hobbes regarded himself as the founder of political philosophy or political science. [35]


III.   Comparing Voegelin and Strausss Hobbes


            Having now explored the ways both Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss read and understood Thomas Hobbes, what can be garnered if we compare these two interpretations? While a complete answer to this question would require an endeavor that exceeds the scope of this essay, a few brief and preliminary remarks are in order.  Earlier in this examination, a key difference came to light in our transition between Voegelins interpretation and that of Strausss.  The hermeneutical approach of both thinkers differs with regard to the relevance each places on the notion of history.  Voegelin and Strauss, to be sure, have different conceptions of history.  The ways in which these conceptions differ signify something about how they approach the writings of Thomas Hobbes, and how those approaches fit within their respective paradigms. 

To understand Thomas Hobbes as a political thinker, it is necessary, according to Voegelin, first to understand the situation in which Hobbes found himself when he wrote his political works.  From Voegelins perspective, Hobbes falls within a philosophy of history whose structure, but not substance, has been fully realized.  Hobbess situation, that of a civil war concurrent with the rise of Gnostic movements, produced the historical experiences with which Hobbes had to deal. These experiences also conditioned the response that Hobbes would offer to the situation; a response that, through the course of history, would influence future events and institutions, particularly modern totalitarian governments.  Hobbess thought, then, can be understood from Voegelins perspective as a politically relevant philosophy in whose form the tensions of pre-modern history came to full realization, and which in turn articulates a responses that provides a foundation for the modern world.

            Strausss interpretation does not differ from Voegelins over the importance of Hobbes to the modern world.  For Strauss, Hobbes is clearly important in order to understand the modern project.  In fact, if Hobbes is truly the author of the modern project in the way that he himself says he is, his writings are of utmost importance.  The difference between the two interpretations, as has been said before, lies in the relevance of history.  For Strauss, Hobbes was a first rate philosopher who shaped the course of history and modernity by stepping outside of history, to the realm of ideas on whose plane he could affect a change in theoretical and practical perspectives that Machiavelli had attempted but failed.  Modernity, for Strauss, is defined most easily and properly as a break with the classic tradition.  But for this break to be complete, it had to be done properly, which is to say, it had to be done effectively.  Strausss Hobbes thought that he had truly affected this break because he was the first, in his opinion, to offer a substantive and consistent alternative to the ancient paradigm that could serve as a stable and peaceful base for political society. 

 The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, for Strauss, must be taken on its own terms; his teaching must be studied as if it were true simply and relevant for all times and societies. To understand modernity and the influence Hobbes had on it is to understand his arguments as he understood them himself. Only once one has done this can the audience to whom those arguments are directed be properly understood, and the way in which this ongoing philosophical dialogue shapes subsequent thinking be made clear. It would not be too far of a stretch, in light of these two approaches to characterize their relationship by saying that, for Voegelin, Strauss represents a variant of the Gnostic experience, and for Strauss, that Voegelin embodies the essence of historicism.  


[1] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 170.

[2] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Ibid., p. 119.

[5] Ibid., pp. 111-112.

[6] Ibid., p. 124.

[7] Ibid., p. 162.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] Ibid., p. 153.

[10] Ibid., p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 160-161.

[12] Ibid., p. 184-186.

[13] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume VII:  The New Order and Last Orientation, in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 25, (Columbia:  The University of Missouri Press), p. 59-62.

[14] Ibid., p. 62.

[15] Ibid., p. 64.

[16] Ibid., p. 68-70.

[17] Ibid., p. 71.

[18] Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1952).  This also hold true for Strausss other writings that deal with Hobbes in the context of other examinations.

[19] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, p. 125.

[20] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 166.

[21] Ibid., p. 178

[22] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p.41.

[23] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 178.

[24] Ibid., p. 179.

[25] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p. 42.

[26] Ibid., p. 42.

[27] Ibid., p. 48.

[28] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 179.

[29] Ibid., p. 201.  Parentheses added.

[30] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p. 48.

[31] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 181.

[32] Ibid., p. 187.

[33] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p. 49.

[34] Leo Strauss, Natural Rights and History, p. 182.

[35] Ibid., p. 166.