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The Problem of Sovereignty: Reading Hobbes through the Eyes of Hannah Arendt

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In this paper I examine how Hobbes’ philosophy can be read from an Arendtian perspective. I argue that Arendt provided two different interpretations of Hobbes: one set down in The Origins of Totalitarianism , where Hobbes is depicted as the spokesman of the emerging bourgeoisie; and another that she developed later, scattered among various texts such as The Human Condition and Between Past and Future . I focus on this second interpretation and on her analysis of concepts such as common sense, authority and sovereignty. Firstly, I examine how she changes the meaning of common sense, and how this shift is linked to what Arendt understands by the expression “estrangement from the world.” Secondly, I explain how Hobbes redefined the concept of authority and how his notion of sovereignty deliberately conflated the dual concepts of authority and power.

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In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt reads Hobbes’ Leviathan as a prefiguration of totalitarian politics. She does so in a unique manner, criticising not his overbearing sovereignty, but the incessant accumulation of power, which turns into an unstoppable process of destruction. Arendt claims that the ultimately self-annihilating accumulation of power is necessitated by bourgeois societies’ pursuit to increase property. This paper first clarifies the methodological assumptions which allow Arendt to read Hobbes’ theory as a clue to bourgeois history in general. It then reconstructs her portrait of the “power-hungry individual” as a result rather than starting point of Hobbes’ political model, and examines her verdict that the Hobbesian sovereign is inherently unstable. With the help of passages contained only in the expanded German version of Origins, Arendt’s more familiar Luxemburgian critique of territorial expansiveness is completed by a Benjaminian analysis of the temporality of accumulation: colonial catastrophe.
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