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Hobbes's Silent Fool: A Response to Hoekstra

Author(s): Peter Hayes

Source: Political Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 225-229
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/191830
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Political Theory

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A Response to Hoekstra

University of Sunderland

KINCH HOEKSTRA makes the novel argument that Hobbes's attack on

the fool is directed not against those who silently believe that covenants can
sometimes reasonably be broken, but only against those who openly declare
it ("Hobbes and the Foole," Political Theory 25 [October 1997]: 620-54). On
the basis of a painstaking reading of a passage in chapter 15 of Leviathan,
Hoekstra contends that for 300 years, commentators have mistakenly
assumed that the fool is silent (p. 640). Many critics have compounded their
error by pointing to the weakness of Hobbes's defense of performing cove-
nants against the selfish reasoning of a silent fool; they believe that they have
identified a "chink in Hobbes's argumentative armour" where in fact they
have been jousting against a straw man (p. 620). Hoekstra concludes that
Hobbes's argument can be seen to be much more powerful when it is realized
that it is applied only to the explicit fool. Thus "we have one more reason to
take Hobbes seriously" (p. 641).
If Hoekstra is correct in asserting that Hobbes is only responding to an
explicit fool, then we have one less reason to take Hobbes seriously rather
than one more. The only fool worth arguing against is the silent one. It is not
the explicit fool but the silent fool who "is deadly to the Commonwealth"
(p. 628). Hoekstra reminds us that the Latin origin of the word fool is "wind-
bag" (p. 642, n. 10). An explicit fool may indeed be a windbag: all talk and no
action "enclined onely to ostentation; but not to attempt." While the explicit
fool talks, those who remain silent have the chance to "strike first" (Hobbes
1968, chap. 11,163). Hoekstra points out that it is obviously stupidly foolish
to announce in advance that you are liable to break your word (p. 623). This
only confirms that if Hobbes really intends to limit his refutation to the
explicit fool, then the problem that is posed to his social contract theory by the
silent fool remains unanswered. An examination of the passage in which the
fool appears, however, suggests that Hoekstra's interpretation, for all its force

POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 27 No. 2, April 1999 225-229

( 1999 Sage Publications, Inc.


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226 POLITICAL THEORY / April 1999

and originality, is incorrect. Hobbes presumes that most fools will have suffi-
cient prudence to act silently.
Hobbes introduces the fool as follows:

The Foole hath sayd in his heart, there is no such thing as Justice; and sometimes also
with his tongue; seriously alleaging, that every mans conservation, and contentment,
being committed to his own care, there could be no reason, why every man might not do
what he thought conduced thereunto: and therefore also to make, or not make; keep, or
not keep Covenants, was not against Reason, when it conduced to ones benefit. (Hobbes
1968, chap. 15, 203)

Hoekstra takes the singular tense in this passage literally in order to conclude
that the fool has, undoubtedly, sometimes given voice to his silent thoughts.
He argues that to read it otherwise "is to treat 'Agent A has said x to himself
and sometimes to others, seriously alleging. . .' as tantamount to 'All A-like
agents, both those who say x only to themselves and those who say x to oth-
ers, believe . ."' (p. 643, n. 14). Hobbes's interest in the precise use of words
might seem to support such a literal reading of the text. It is, therefore, neces-
sary to enumerate the reasons thatjustify reading the sentence in a plural way
so that "the fool" is transformed into "fools" and "sometimes" into "some

(I) By referring to the fool in the singular tense, Hobbes departs from literal exactitude to
maintain stylistic consistency with the poetry of the Psalms, which he quotes later in the
paragraph: "the same Foole hath said in his heart there is no God."
(II) A fool who confines the thought that there is no God to his heart is imprudent toward
God (who can read his thoughts), but not toward men (who cannot). It is out of character
for such a fool to abandon all prudence in saying that he believes it reasonable to break
his covenants with his tongue. This suggests that those fools who do so will be in the
(III) In the same paragraph that contains the fool, Hobbes describes instances of "Successful
wickednesse," including Jupiter's deposition of Saturn and the murder of a king by his
heir. The success of such treasonous acts necessarily depends on the silent resolve of the
perpetrators to act without warning.
(IV) Hobbes does not wish to articulate seditious ideas that are not already in the public do-
main. He therefore uses explicit examples of what some have said with their tongues to
express what others believe in their hearts.

Hoekstra takes up this fourth point to make Hobbes's argument against the
explicit fool appear more pressing. According to Hoekstra, an explicit fool
refers not only to someone who stupidly declares his duplicitous intentions
but also to someone who incites others to do so. In other words, the explicit
fool is an agitator who justifies rebellion in "books, pamphlets, sermons and
speeches" (p. 628). Hoekstra is quite correct to say that Hobbes is concerned

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about the activities of agitators; those who loudly encourage others to break
the law are liable to foment civil war. However, it is misleading for Hoekstra
to identify agitators, unambiguously, with the fool. The first problem with
Hoekstra's equation of the fool with an agitator becomes evident when Hob-
bes goes beyond the case of treasonous accession to the throne to discuss
fools who are subject to the law. Under these circumstances, Hobbes frames
the adverse consequences of foolishness in terms of a fool being cast out of
society rather than causing society to break down around him:

He ... that breaketh his Covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with
reason do so, cannot be received into any Society, that unite themselves for Peace and
Defence, but by the errour of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retayned
in it, without seeing the danger of their errour; which errours a man cannot reasonably
reckon upon as the means of his security: ... if he live in Society, it is by the errours of
other men,... all men that contribute not to his destruction, forbear him onely out of
ignorance of what is good for themselves. (Hobbes 1968, chap. 15, 205)

If the fool is understood primarily as an agitator who declares that others may
break the law, then, paradoxically, his security within society depends on the
recognition of his error by other men rather than their ignorance of it; civil
war is in no one's interest. It makes much more sense to understand this pas-
sage to refer to a silent fool who attempts to exploit a society in which others
agree to obey the law for his own benefit, but who is unmasked by his actions.
The second problem with unambiguously identifying the fool as an agita-
tor is found in the paragraphs that follow this argument. Here Hobbes begins
to refute those who claim that it is reasonable to rebel against human law in
order to follow the laws of God and so attain paradise (Hobbes 1968, chap. 15,
205-6). Such people are plainly not fools insofar as they believe in God. They
are, however, agitators. Hobbes condemns agitators in his account of the ori-
gins of the English Civil War, and this leads Hoekstra to suggest that "the
Explicit Foole ... could plausibly be called the main character of Behemoth"
(p. 629). However, those who Hobbes singles out for blame for inciting others
to rebellion in this work are not atheists; they are preachers (Hobbes 1990,
Dialogue 1, 2-3).
Although Hoekstra's argument that Hobbes views fools as agitators is
flawed, it is, nonetheless, interesting because it hints at the somewhat obscure
connection Hobbes draws between (a) atheistic fools and (b) people who can
conveniently be labeled as religious zealots. Hobbes blends his discussion of
the fool into an account of zealots, who argue that it is reasonable to breach
one's covenant for "the attaining of an eternall felicity after death" (Hobbes
1968, chap. 15, 205). Fools are linked to these zealots through Hobbes's
ambiguous answer to a rhetorical question posed on the fool's behalf. This

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228 POLITICAL THEORY / April 1999

question, which rather confusingly appears just after Hobbes has called the
fool an atheist, is as follows: "The Kingdome of God is gotten by violence:
but what if it could be gotten by unjust violence? were it against Reason so to
get it, when it is impossible to receive hurt by it?" (Hobbes 1968, chap. 15,
203). Hoekstra takes this passage to refer to a hypothetical assault on heaven,
and he argues that in this case all fools are explicit fools, as it is no use trying
to mount a surprise attack on God (pp. 631-2). He is partly right in this inter-
pretation; gaining the kingdom of God does mean an assault on the divine, as
the reader discovers in the case of Jupiter. However, the Kingdom of God has
multiple meanings; it also refers to God's earthly kingdom over his reasoning
subjects (Hobbes 1968, chap. 31). In this instance unjust violence refers to
that perpetrated by the fool against men who are not omniscient and who are
thereby apt to be deceived by silence. If, as the fool claims, this violence is
reasonable, then he enters the Kingdom of God by virtue of acting in accord
with the "Dictates of Right Reason" (Hobbes 1968, chap. 31, 397). A fool
who obeys the precepts of reason is, ultimately, following the laws of God.
Hobbes, therefore, wants to argue that the fool's violence is unreasonable
notwithstanding his silence.
Two paragraphs later, shortly before Hobbes explicitly introduces the
zealot, he appears to provide a partial answer to the rhetorical question posed
on behalf of the fool: "As for the Instance of gaining the secure and perpetuall
felicity of Heaven, by any way; it is frivolous: there being but one way imag-
inable; and that is not breaking, but keeping of Covenant" (Hobbes 1968,
chap. 15, 205). The problem with this response is that the atheist fool, who
does not act on the expectation of reaching paradise, is unlikely to be swayed
by Hobbes's argument. This apparent answer to the fool is, therefore, better
read as anticipating the position of the zealot. Hobbes's almost identical lan-
guage ("secure and perpetuall felicity in Heaven" vs. "eternall felicity after
death") suggests that this anticipatory reading is at least partly his intention.
A more thorough examination of the fool passage provides further exam-
ples of multiple meanings and argument by anticipation, until Hobbes's
account of fools and zealots becomes a series of overlapping thought associa-
tions that are similar to his description of the link between the English Civil
War and the value of a Roman penny (Hobbes 1968, chap. 3, 95). Religious
and secular aspirations are intermingled, and it is possible to move both for-
ward and backward through the text with equal logic. The Kingdom of God
on earth is associated with perpetual felicity in Heaven because the inhabi-
tants of both the earthly and heavenly kingdoms are equally subject to God;
the fool whose objectives are entirely earthly and the zealot whose objectives
are heavenly both believe that they can reasonably break the law to gain their

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desires. By staying silent the fool hopes to deceive other men; by speaking of
what he believes, the zealot hopes to reveal the truth to other men.
It would be possible to extend the exegesis of these few tantalisingly
evocative and challengingly opaque paragraphs almost indefinitely, but
enough has been said to reestablish the silence of the fool. Hoekstra suggests
that Hobbes's explicit fool is somewhat like Thrasymachus (p. 642, n. 13). If,
as has been argued here, the fool is silent, a better analogy is with Glaucon's
Gyges (Rhodes 1992, 93). Plato's response to the secret injustice that allowed
Gyges to violently accede to the throne takes up the greater part of The
Republic. If Hobbes's response to the fool is similarly interpreted as taking up
a large part of Leviathan, rather than a few pages of a single chapter, then it
might be possible to find better reasons to take him seriously.


Hobbes, Thomas. 1968. Leviathan. London: Penguin.

. 1990. Behemoth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hoekstra, Kinch. 1997. "Hobbes and the Foole," Political Theory 25:620-54.
Rhodes, Rosamond. 1992. "Hobbes's Unreasonable Fool," The Southern Journal of Philosophy
30:93-10 1.

Peter Hayes teaches politics at the University of Sunderland. He has recently published
on Conrad in ARIEL (1997), on Northern Ireland in Regional and Federal Studies
(1998), and on Hobbes in Polity (1998).

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