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above: Thomas Hobbes, oil on canvas, by John Michael Wright c. 1669-1670 (National Portrait Gallery/public domain)

Society & Culture

Hobbes, the First Individualist

Too many conservatives get  Thomas Hobbes wrong. In a recent piece for The Imaginative Conservative, Bradley Birzer argues that the famed 17th century English philosopher is responsible for supplying the recipe for “a collectivist horror.” 

He credits Hobbes with having “inspired countless tyrants,” and says that “his collectivist nightmare…is not just the stuff of George Orwell[’s] and C.S. Lewis’s dystopias, but the basis of real-life hellholes, such as those found in twentieth-century Germany, Russia, and Cambodia.”

Others in the contemporary conservative movement have taken Birzer’s position. Nationally syndicated talk radio host, author, and Fox News personality Mark Levin, for one, largely agrees with him in seeing Hobbes as a source of mischief. In his 2012 book Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, Levin rails against the dangerous “restrictiveness” of Hobbes’ vision of individual freedom.

These conservatives are mistaken, embarrassingly and scandalously so.

This is not merely a theoretical concern. Getting Hobbes correct can help us acquire a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, our present circumstances. The politics of crisis that have been the lifeblood of American political life and, more generally, European politics for much of Western history, has been on steroids during the last few...

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