I am a historian of political thought centrally concerned with questions of political legitimation and the relationship between legal and non-legal exercises of political power. In my dissertation, “Laws Living and Armed: the Legal and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes,” I scrutinize the legal arguments of Thomas Hobbes and how they bear on longstanding questions in political theory. I work primarily through conceptual and textual analysis partnered with rigorous historical contextualization. My dissertation focuses on Thomas Hobbes and the early modern period; other research interests of mine include Ancient Greek political thought, contemporary philosophy of law and punishment, and the relationship between liberal and colonial theory in the modern period.
My dissertation, “Laws Living and Armed,” corrects a longstanding tradition of misreading Hobbes’s theory of law and its relationship to his political theory. In addition to offering the first comprehensive account of a Hobbesian theory of positive law, my dissertation demonstrates that Hobbes’s arguments about law make at least three significant and previously overlooked contributions to political theory. First,I show that Hobbes’s theory of law is not one of unilateral command, but rather depends on (a) the relationship between ruler and ruled, (b) the system of administration through which the sovereign rules, and (c) the goals of the laws. Traditionally Hobbes is portrayed aspromoting a simplistic command theory of law that is a sort of crude precursor to legal positivism. Recent provocative scholarship has successfully highlighted many of the overlooked legal arguments Hobbes makes; however, these recent interpretations all portray Hobbes as a proponent of the rule of law constraining the sovereign. I show that Hobbes held that positive law is dependent, not just on having been commanded, but on many other factors such as the system of law in place and the legal understanding of those subject to law. However, this more complex understanding of the requirements of law serves, not to weaken sovereign power, but rather to bolster Hobbes’s theory of unified political authority over and above the law.
Second, I show that Hobbesian political power is fundamentally legalistic. Hobbesian political power is almost universally portrayed as being arbitrary and frequently understood in terms of physical force or the fear thereof. The famous frontispiece of Leviathan, the sovereign larger than life, wielding a sword over and above the land, seems to embody this arbitrary power. However, as I show, Hobbes was extremely concerned with creating a theory of the state that was legalistic and procedural. The Hobbesian sovereign is absolute in that legitimate sovereign action necessarily extends beyond law. Yet, the sovereign will is generally executed through law and, as such, sovereignty for Hobbes depends upon how the officers of sovereignty interpret and apply the law. This throws into question the distinction between the right of sovereignty and the exercise of sovereignty that has been made popular recently in political thought.
Third, Hobbes conceives of legal interpretation and execution as existing outside the sovereignlegislator, and therefore empowering subjects to act against the sovereign; but I differ from recent work that defends a Hobbesian right of resistance by arguing that he gives subjects this power only in order to protect and further empower sovereignty itself. On my interpretation, there is not only an asymmetrical relationship between obligation and authority in Hobbes’s theory (in which authority is absolute but subjects’ obligations are qualified), but a further obligation of subjects to support the absolute authority of sovereignty even againstthe sovereign herself. Looking at Hobbesian absolutism through a legal lens reveals that the sovereign has absolute power, not simply because she has the sword, or because she has been authorized absolutely. Rather, it is because subjects have a moral and legal obligation not merely to obey sovereign command, but to actively ensure that sovereign right remains absolute even should the sovereign herself attempt to legislate otherwise. Subjects must, if necessary, defend absolute sovereignty against the sovereign.
I have completed drafts of four of the five chapters of the dissertation, and will soon turn to developing it into a book manuscript. Three pieces that have emerged from the dissertation research in independent finished form and are either under review or ready to send out are “Thomas Hobbes on Absolute Authority and the Limits of Law,” “Legal Punishment in Hobbes’s De Cive,” and “Equity and Legal Battles in Thomas Hobbes.”
My research examines conceptual problems that arise at the intersection of legal and non-legal action, and their relationship with legitimation. In my dissertation I have offered a new look at the legal theory woven throughout Hobbes’s justifications of absolute sovereign authority, and the impact of that legal theory on Hobbes’s view of the modern political science he claimed to establish. My future work will continue to be historically situated, though methodologically distinct as I believe the relationship between historical work and contemporary normative problems changes depending on the project. In some cases, the history of political thought aims to excavate a lost theory to highlight just how different the past was and to destabilize contemporary convictions. In other cases, it can reveal the past that is still present. I am committed to both these modes of inquiry as I continue my research.