Thomas Hobbes on the political theorist's vocation

Julie E. Cooper*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan offers the fiercest modern indictment against pride. Yet seventeenth-century polemicists and contemporary historians of political theory agree that arrogance is one of Hobbes's stylistic signatures. Does Hobbes, the author, fail to practise the modesty which he preaches to political subjects? Against critical consensus, I argue that Hobbes devises protocols of literary self-presentation consistent with his arguments for modesty. I make this argument by way of a close reading of Hobbes's Latin verse autobiography. Although the autobiography is usually cited as evidence of Hobbes's vanity, I read it as Hobbes's perverse profession of modesty. In the autobiography, Hobbes shuns the role of hero, casting himself as a 'poor worm' whose endeavours are motivated by fear. Acute consciousness of mortality, rather than lust for renown, moves Hobbes to philosophize. With this account of the affective springs of his own philosophy, Hobbes redefines the political theorist's vocation. Breaking with traditions that define political theory as a vehicle for heroic self-display, Hobbes defines political theory as a vocation for ordinary mortals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)519-547
Number of pages29
JournalHistorical Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2007
Externally publishedYes


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