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Difference without Disagreement: Rethinking Hobbes on “Independency” and Toleration

  • Teresa M. Bejan


In arguments for a more tolerant Hobbes, Leviathan's endorsement of “Independency” is often Exhibit A; however, the conditionals Hobbes attached have received little attention. These—and the dangers of “contention” and sectarian “affection” they identify—are essential for understanding Hobbes's views on toleration. Together, they express a vision of “difference without disagreement” in which the accommodation of diversity in religious worship and association depends on the suppression of disagreement through sovereign- and self-discipline over speech. This expressly antievangelical ideal of toleration as a civil silence about difference presents a challenge to the more tolerant Hobbes thesis, particularly in its recent “Erastian Independency” guise. It also raises deeper questions about what might be at stake in applying the labels of “intolerant” or “tolerant” to Hobbes today.



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1 Named after the sixteenth-century theologian Thomas Erastus, “Erastianism” refers to the theological view that the state should be supreme in ecclesiastical and religious matters.

2 Leslie Stephen, Hobbes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 233.

3 Alan Ryan, “Hobbes, Toleration, and the Inner Life,” in The Nature of Political Theory, ed. David Miller and Larry Siedentop (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 197–218; and Alan Ryan, “A More Tolerant Hobbes?,” in Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives, ed. Susan Mendus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 37–59.

4 Richard Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 30.

5 Richard Flathman offers a particularly radical statement of this view: “The best of Hobbes's thoughts concerning religion… are gathered in his endorsement, at first sight surprising but in fact consonant with much of what is most admirable in his political philosophy, of the religious freedom and pluralism that obtained in the earliest days of Christianity” (Richard Flathman, Thomas Hobbes: Skepticism, Individuality, and Chastened Politics [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002], 154). See also Edwin Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes'sLeviathan,” ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 309–36; Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Owen, J. Judd, “The Tolerant Leviathan: Hobbes and the Paradox of Liberalism,” Polity 37, no 1 (2005): 130–48; Tuck, Richard, “Warrender's De Cive,” Political Studies 33, no 2 (1985): 308–15; and Richard Tuck, “The Utopianism of Leviathan,” in Leviathan after 350 Years, ed. T. Sorrell and L. Foisneau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 125–38. These arguments build on earlier interpretations. See Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Genesis, trans. Elsa Sinclair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952); and David Johnston, The Rhetoric of “Leviathan”: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

6 See Jeffrey Collins, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Abizadeh, Arash, “Publicity, Privacy, and Religious Toleration in Hobbes's Leviathan,” Modern Intellectual History 10, no 2 (2013): 261–91; Mark Goldie, “The Reception of Hobbes,” in The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700, ed. J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 589–615; Richard Tuck, “Hobbes and Locke on Toleration,” in Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory, ed. Mary Dietz (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 153–71; and Tuck, Hobbes.

7 Citations to Hobbes's works are abbreviated as follows: EL = The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic: Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (1640), ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); DC = On the Citizen (1642/1647), ed. Richard Tuck, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); L = Leviathan (1651), 3 vols., ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and B = Behemoth, or the Long Parliament (1668/1681), ed. Stephen Holmes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

8 According to Flathman, this passage “go[es] well beyond toleration… . [It] is a celebration of freedom, of pluralism, above all of individuality and individual self-making” (Flathman, Hobbes: Skepticism, Individuality and Chastened Politics, 154).

9 See, for example, Richard Boyd, Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism (New York: Lexington Books, 2004), 66; and James Farr, “Atomes of Scripture: Hobbes and the Politics of Biblical Interpretation,” in Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory, 189.

10 Most notably in Behemoth, but in the manuscript copy of Leviathan presented to the future Charles II, as well. See Sommerville, Johann, “Hobbes and Independency,” Rivista Critica di Storia della Filosofia 59, no. 1 (2004): 155–73; A. P. Martinich, The Two Gods of Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and “Anglicanism,” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Hobbes, ed. Sharon A. Lloyd (London: Bloomsbury, 2013); and Jon Parkin, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England, 1640–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

11 Clarendon, who had been with Hobbes in exile, read this passage as further evidence of Hobbes's hypocritical conformism “because Cromwell was then thought to be of that faction.” See Edward Hyde, A Brief View and Survey of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors to Church and State, in Mr Hobbs's Book entitled Leviathan (Oxford, 1676), 309. Noel Malcolm expresses the updated critical consensus when he calls it “an anomaly… [with] the air of a last-minute adjustment designed to align [Hobbes's] theory a little more closely with the religious preferences of the prevailing power.” See Malcolm, introduction to Leviathan, i.64.

12 Collins offers the following resounding judgment: “Modern commentators have badly underestimated the significance of the endorsement of Independency… . [It] was not a casual or ill-considered aside, but a carefully structured conclusion” (Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 130). And yet in a book of several hundred pages devoted to substantiating this claim, he says little about the carefully structured conditionals attached to it.

13 See John Coffey, “Scepticism, Dogmatism and Toleration in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Persecution and Pluralism: Calvinists and Religious Minorities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Richard Bonney and David J. B. Trim (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), 156; Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 39–40; Boyd, Uncivil Society, 76; Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 70n. Farr is a notable exception in this regard, but his treatment of both conditionals is confined to a single sentence (Farr, Atomes of Scripture, 189).

14 For just a few examples, see Abizadeh, “Publicity, Privacy, and Religious Toleration in Hobbes's Leviathan,” 261; Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration,” 325; Malcolm, introduction to Leviathan, i.62; and Owen, “The Tolerant Leviathan,” 142–43.

15 Although it may be possible to disagree with a person or a proposition internally, without expressing it, I shall use “disagreement” throughout to refer to the outward expression of one's different opinions or beliefs to others. Thus the difference/disagreement distinction on my account tracks the internal/external distinction essential for Hobbes. As we shall see, Hobbes viewed disagreement as such as a problem, and not simply its contentious or argumentative expression.

16 E.g., Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration,” 325; Owen, “The Tolerant Leviathan,” 141.

17 John Owen's Of Schisme (1657) is a prime example.

18 See Goldie, “The Reception of Hobbes,” 153–71. The tolerant Hobbes was by no means an invention of Leslie Stephen. The first reference to Leviathan in print came only a few weeks later in The Christian Moderator, a pseudonymous tract calling for the toleration of English Catholics. Collins and Abizadeh note that Independents like Henry Stubbe appealed to Hobbes in defending the ecclesiastical policies and limited toleration of the Protectorate. See Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, and Abizadeh, “Publicity, Privacy, and Religious Toleration.” Malcolm and Curley point to Dutch republicans and, of course, Spinoza. See Malcolm, “Hobbes and the European Republic of Letters,” in Aspects of Hobbes, chap. 14, and Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration.”

19 Hyde, Brief View and Survey, 308.

20 Parker, himself a notoriously intolerant latitudinarian, would be accused of Hobbism by John Locke: “That the magistrate should restrain seditious doctrines who denies, but because he may, then has he power over all other doctrines to forbid or impose… . How far is this short of Mr. Hobbes's doctrine?” (quoted in Goldie, “The Reception of Hobbes,” 613). See also Marshall, John, “The Ecclesiology of the Latitude-Men, 1660–1689: Stillingfleet, Tillotson, and ‘Hobbism,’Journal of Ecclesiological History 36, no. 3 (1985): 407–27.

21 Roger Williams, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Work of Roger Williams, ed. J. C. Davis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 128.

22 John Milton, Considerations Touching the Likeliest means to remove Hirelings out of the Church (London, 1659), 33; my emphasis.

23 See Andrew Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), chap. 3; Blair Worden, “Toleration and the Cromwellian Protectorate,” in Persecution and Toleration: Studies in Church History, ed. W. J. Sheils (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 207–10; and Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 102, 170–71.

24 The many Protestant sects that had emerged during the Civil War flourished, but many of these “fanatics,” most famously the Quaker James Nayler, found themselves on the receiving end of antiblasphemy prosecutions. In Behemoth, Hobbes described the passing of the Toleration Act approvingly as “vot[ing] liberty of conscience to the sectaries” and “liberty from… Presbyterian tyranny” (B 169).

25 All Independents, as good Calvinists, argued that liberty of conscience was a God-given right, but what they meant was that the “godly”—i.e., true Christians like themselves—should be free to follow their consciences and order their congregations without interference. The “erring” consciences of false Christians and non-Christians were another story. See Coffey, John, “Puritanism and Liberty Revisited: The Case for Toleration in the English Revolution,” Historical Journal 41, no 4 (1998): 961–85.

26 For Hobbes's influence on Bagshaw, see Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 238–39. Bagshaw's pamphlet The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent in Religious Worship (1660) was the subject of Locke's antitoleration polemic in the First Tract of Government. For Hobbes's influence on the latitudinarian Anglican defenders of comprehension, see Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 273–74; Goldie, “The Reception of Hobbes,” 612–13; and Marshall, “The Ecclesiology of the Latitude-Men.”

27 See Tuck, “Hobbes and Locke on Toleration,” 163, and Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 102–3.

28 Drawing on Benjamin Kaplan's discussion of clandestine worship in the Dutch Republic in Divided by Faith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), Abizadeh argues that Independency offered Hobbes a way to maintain the uniformity of “public,” i.e., representative, worship in the commonwealth while allowing for dissenting preaching and worship in an increasingly public “private” sphere (“Publicity, Privacy, and Religious Toleration,” 263).

29 In The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, Collins notes that two additional references to the Independents appear in the manuscript copy presented to Charles that do not appear in the published version: one accusing “the doctrinall factions of presbyterians and Independents” of instructing the people in the pernicious doctrine of divided sovereignty, and the other complaining about “factions for government of Religion, as of Papists, Protestants, Independents.” The published version substitutes the phrase “Dissenters about the Liberty of Religion” for the former and a simple “&c.” for “Independents” in the latter (ibid., 145–46).

30 That Hobbes viewed this as a defining feature of Congregationalist ecclesiology is clear from his definition of an ekklesia as “a Congregation assembled, of professors of Christianity” yet whose commands would not be binding on “absent” or dissenting members (L iii.39.730–32).

31 See Farr, “Atomes of Scripture”; Boyd, Uncivil Society; and Garsten, Saving Persuasion. For the development of Hobbes's theory of liberty in relation to the republican conception, see Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

32 For an expanded version of this argument, see Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Tolerating Disagreement in Early Modern England and America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

33 The Latin makes the link with “contention” explicit: “Etenim non modo contra contendere, sed etiam hoc ipsum non consentire, odiosum est.”

34 Hence, they “judge each other's worship unseemly and impious; and [do] not accept that the others [are] worshipping God at all” but “heaping scorn upon [Him]” (DC 183).

35 This is one of those “darker properties of men in groups” that Boyd examines among the “perils of pluralism” in Hobbes's thought. See Boyd, Uncivil Society, 56. Boyd cites the first conditional but neglects the second, which addresses the problem of sectarianism directly.

36 Hobbes was not prone to the illusion of philosophic impartiality.

37 Collins's appeal to John Cotton as an exemplary magisterial Independent in his explications of Hobbes's views illustrates the incongruity. See Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 102.

38 “I dare say he did with his heart, as well as by his tongue, quit that party the very day that the King was proclaimed, as he is ready to quit all his other Opinions true or false… which makes whatever he saies, the less to need answering.” See Hyde, A Brief View and Survey, 308–9. This, of course, did not stop Clarendon from devoting hundreds of pages to a detailed rebuttal.

39 Here again, the multiple significations of “prophesy,” particularly among Independents, are important—Perkins defined it as any “publique and solemne speech of the Prophet [i.e., the ‘Minister of the Word’], pertaining to the worship of God and to the salvation of our neighbor” (1). His further claim that “every Prophet is partly the voice of God, to wit, in preaching: and partlie the voice of the people, in the acte of praying” was exactly what Hobbes wanted to deny.

40 His interest in lay preaching, occasionally cited as evidence of a willingness to liberalize expression, was rather part of his insistence that only duly—and civilly—ordained voices be heard. As he told Wallis in his 1657 Markes of the Absurd Geometry, Rural Language, Scottish Church Politicks, and Barbarismes of John Wallis: “Ordination of Ministers depends not now on the imposition of hands of a Minister or Presbytery, but on the authority of the Christian Soveraign… . If [he] give me command (though without the ceremony of imposition of hands) to teach the Doctrine of my Leviathan in the Pulpit, why am not I… a Minister as well as you, and as publick a person as you are?” See Hobbes, Markes of the Absurd Geometry, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Molesworth, vol. 3 (London: Bohn, 1839), 17–19.

41 Evidently professors must not only have true opinions, but the same opinions, in order to avoid scholarly contention.

42 In 1646, this meant purging hundreds of Episcopalian and royalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge. The visitations continued during the Interregnum with an Independent bent—although several prominent Presbyterians managed to retain their positions, including Wallis. See Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 172, 208. One imagines that Hobbes wished they had been more thorough.

43 Collins notes that this affirmation is all the more striking for occurring in a work written after the Restoration and presented personally to Charles II. Although he did not mention the system of Triers and Ejectors, Hobbes expressed sympathy for a similar system of lay committees as early as 1641. See Collins, Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, 167–68, 80.

44 The Humble Proposals declared that “Persons of Godlinesse and Gifts, in the Universities and elsewhere, though not Ordained, may be admitted to preach the Gospell, being approved when they are called thereunto.” Although “this looks like an attempt to accommodate the belief that a call from his congregation is sufficient to legitimize a preacher without requiring training or ordination… the necessity for approbation… denie[d] the sufficiency of the call”—as tolerationist Independents critical of The Humble Proposals like Williams and Milton pointed out. See Polizzotto, Carolyn, “The Humble Proposals Controversy,” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38, no 4 (1987): 573.

45 See Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration,” 314.

46 If “none but such as are sent to the conversion of Infidels” possess that “warrant to preach Christ come in the flesh,” only they are “obliged to suffer death for that cause” (L iii.42.788).

47 From this, it seems safe to assume that Hobbes did not approve of the Corporation for Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel established in 1649 and dedicated to funding the missionary activities of New England Independents like John Eliot, the so-called Apostle to the Indians. For other examples of Independent interest in missionizing in the New World, see Bejan, Teresa M., “‘The Bond of Civility’: Roger Williams on Toleration and its Limits,” History of European Ideas 37, no 4 (2011): 409–20.

48 See Kaplan, Divided by Faith, and Alexandra Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).

49 Judith Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 24.

50 Curley links Hobbes's anticlericalism to a commitment to religious freedom, suggesting that Hobbes viewed “the clergy as an inherent threat, not only to the authority of the king, but also to religious liberty.” Insofar as he wrote to undermine the influence of both, as “a card-carrying member of the radical Enlightenment… he served the cause of religious toleration” (Curley, “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration,” 326).

I am grateful to Bryan Garsten, Quentin Skinner, Kinch Hoekstra, Richard Tuck, Jeffrey Collins, Arash Abizadeh, Ronald Beiner, Emma Planinc, Polly Ha, Megan Dias, Megan Spurrell, and the Review's editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Cambridge Political Thought and Intellectual History Seminar, the European Hobbes Society 2013 annual meeting, and the Georgetown Political Theory Workshop.

Difference without Disagreement: Rethinking Hobbes on “Independency” and Toleration

  • Teresa M. Bejan


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