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Ancients and Moderns: Classical Politics and the Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Thu, November 7, 3:45 to 5:15pm, Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel, Floor: Lobby Level, Betsy Ross II


While the opposition between “ancients” and “moderns" once formulated by Leo Strauss can be heuristically useful to understand the concerns of different political thinkers, this division can also obscure as much as it informs. Although later revising his thought, Strauss argued that liberation from modern thought necessitated understanding and overcoming Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy. Yet Hobbes’s political philosophy cannot fit exclusively into a boxlike category. While it may show features that scholars can distinctly call “modern,” Hobbes’s thought also evinces the influence of ancient thought. This paper briefly explores Hobbes’s engagement with key aspects of classical political thought. It first examines the character and provenance of the 'ancien régime' of classical antiquity to set a framework of comparison. Next, adjacent to the gulf between Hobbes and Aristotelian thought, it explores Hobbes’s engagement with key ideas in the classical conceptual vocabulary, specifically glory and republican 'libertas.' The analysis reveals not only the complexity of Hobbes’s engagement with classical political philosophy, but also that scholars have often oversimplified or misjudged classical thought. Glory – central to the ethos of classical antiquity – takes on a vital significance for Hobbes, but the glory that Hobbes quarreled with was more early modern than ancient. Meanwhile, Hobbes does not reject Roman 'libertas' outright, as claimed by Quentin Skinner, but instead emphasized its defensive aspects against ambitious “democraticall gentlemen.”