Making and Breaking the Image of King Charles I

Here we have an official a portrait of Charles Stuart (1600-1649) done in the studio of Anthony van Dyck c. 1636. He is of course at the height of his powers and in his full regal regalia. He ruled from 1625 to 1649 when he was executed by Parliament.

When he was in prison awaiting his sentence and then execution Charles Stuart (King Charles I) wrote a defence of himself, his position, and his actions during the Civil Wars which he called “The Image or Icon of the King” (“Eikon Basilke” in Greek) which included some self-serving images, most notably a very detailed Frontispiece.

The full title of the book was: Εἰκὼν Βασιλική (the Image of the King), The Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings (1649) which we have put online. See the facs. PDF of the first edition – with the frontispiece and one without. Also an HTML version of the 1904 edition by Almack.

There were two demolitions of this “iconography of the king”, one a satirical image suggesting he was a mere puppet of the Catholic Church, and one in print by Milton denouncing Charles as a tyrant who deserved his death, in Eikonoklastes (the “iconoclast” or the destroyer of images) [HTML] and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates [HTML] which Milton also published in 1649 and which was his second defence of regicide. As he subtitled The Tenure of Kings, “That it is Lawfull, and hath been held so through all Ages, for any who have the Power, to call to account a Tyrant, or wicked KING, and after due conviction, to depose and put him to death; if the ordinary MAGISTRATE have neglected or deny’d to doe it”.

The Official Frontispiece

See also a slightly different and larger version: larger size 3162×2717 pixels.

Charles is depicted dressed in his finest robes and kneeling in what appears to be a small chapel. A beam of light from heaven (“sacred heat”) breaks through the dark clouds outside on the left and strikes him on the top of his head. At the same moment he is looking heavensward towards the upper right and sees one of the three crowns in the picture. This is “his” “Starrie Crown
of Gloirie ” which will be his after his execution. The world outside the chapel on the left is a scene of physical and man-made torment. Nature is pounding the rock (Charles is the rock) with violent waves and fierce storms (the civil wars and revolution of the past 7 years), but it/he stands “unmov’d triumphant”. In the fields stands a palm tree (another symbol of Charles) on which have been hung two heavy weights which one would think were designed to prevent it growing too tall (constitutional limits on his power?) but which have the opposite effect of causing it/him to grow (more straight and high). At his feet there is the second crown (his earthly crown) in the picture which lies at his feet (knocked from his head by the Parliamentary regicides and republicans) and which he now “disdains”, He now turns for solace to the Bible while holding the third crown, Christ’s “crown of thorns”, as he sees himslef as a martyr to the cause of monarchy and God.

In one edition from 1649 there is this “Explanation of the Frontispiece”:

A Sacred heat inspires my Soul to trie
If Pray’rs can give Me what the Warres denie,
Three Crowns distinctly here in order do
Present their objects to my knowing view,
Earths Crown lies humbled at my foot, disdain,
‘Twas bright, but heavie, and withal but vain,
And now by Grace a Crown of Thorns I greet.
Sharp was this Crown, but not so sharp as sweet
This was Christs crown, my book upon my bord
Explains my heart, My hope is in thy Word.
My Starrie Crown
of Gloirie last I see,
As full of Blisse, as of Eternitie.
Now look behind, and midst most troubled skies
Behold, how clearer I from darknesse rise,
And stand unmov’d triumphant, like a Rock,
‘Gainst all the waves, & winds tempestuous shock
So like the Psalm, which heaviest weights do trie,
Virtue opprest, doth grow more straight and high.

In another editon there is a Latin and English key to the emblems:

The English reads:

Though clogg’d with weights of miseries
Palm-like Depress’d, I higher rise.

And as th’unmoved Rock out-brave’s
The boist’rous Windes and rageing waves
So triumph I. And shine more bright
In sad Affliction’s Darksom night.

That Splendid, but yet toilsom Crown
Regardlessly I trample down.

With joie I take this Crown of thorn,
Though sharp, yet easy to be born.

That heavn’nly Crown, already mine,
I view with eies of Faith divine.

I slight vain things: and do embrace
Glorie, the just reward of Grace.

The Latin incrsiptions and labels in the large version of the Frontispiece are as follows in a literal translation:

  • IMMOTA, TRIVMPHANS — “Unmoved, Triumphant” (scroll around the rock);
  • Clarior é tenebris — “Brighter through the darkness” (beam from the clouds);
  • CRESCIT SUB PONDERE VIRTVS — “Virtue grows beneath weights” (scroll around the tree);
  • Beatam & Æternam — “Blessed and Eternal” (around the heavenly crown marked GLORIA (“Glory”); meant to be contrasted with:
    • Splendidam & Gravem — “Splendid and Heavy” (around the Crown of England, removed from the King’s head and lying on the ground), with the motto Vanitas (“vanity“); and
    • Asperam & Levem — “Bitter and Light”, the martyr’s crown of thorns held by Charles; contains the motto Gratia (“grace”);
  • Coeli Specto — “I look to Heaven”;
  • IN VERBO TVO SPES MEA — “In Thy Word is My Hope”;
  • Christi Tracto — “I entreat Christ” or “By the word of Christ”;
  • Mundi Calco — “I tread on the world”.


A Satirical Version of the Frontispiece

There is a satirical print held by the British Museum <> from a book called Eikon alethine (The True Ikon or Image)) which mocks the idea that Charles had the brains to write a defense of his monarchy and that he had been manipulated as a puppet of the Church.

The image has the title “Spectatum admissi risum teneatis” (If you saw such a thing, could you restrain your laughter – a quote from Horace, Ars Poetica V) and reveals a cleric who had been hiding behind a curtain which has been pulled back by a hand reaching down from above (much like a hand in the Monty Python TV show). The poem below the image states:

The Curtain’s drawne; All may perceive the plot,
And Him who truely the blacke Babe begot:
Whose sable mantle makes me bold to say
A Phaeton Sol’s chariot ruled that day.
Presumptuous Priest to skip into the throne,
And make his King his Bastard Issue owne.
The Author therefore hath conceiv’d it meet,
The Doctor should doe pennance in this sheet.


Milton’s “Iconoclasm”, or the Smashing of Political Idolatry

Milton was very aware of what Charles and his supporters were attemtping to do in publishing the Eikon Basilike with its emblems of power in the Frontispiece, as these comments in the Preface show very clearly. I have put in bold some of the most striking passages:

First, then, that some men (whether this were by him intended, or by his friends) have by policy accomplished after death that revenge upon their enemies, which in life they were not able, hath been oft related. And among other examples we find, that the last will of Cæsar being read to the people, and what bounteous legacies he had bequeathed them, wrought more in that vulgar audience to the avenging of his death, than all the art he could ever use to win their favour in his lifetime. And how much their intent, who published these overlate apologies and meditations of the dead king, drives to the same end of stirring up the people to bring him that honour, that affection, and by consequence that revenge to his dead corpse, which he himself living could never gain to his person, it appears both by the conceited portraiture before his book, drawn out to the full measure of a masking scene, and set there to catch fools and silly gazers; and by those Latin words after the end, Vota dabunt quæ bella negarunt; intimating, that what he could not compass by war, he should achieve by his meditations: for in words which admit of various sense, the liberty is ours, to choose that interpretation, which may best mind us of what our restless enemies endeavour, and what we are timely to prevent. And here may be well observed the loose and negligent curiosity of those, who took upon them to adorn the setting out of this book; for though the picture set in front would martyr him and saint him to befool the people, yet the Latin motto in the end [Vota dabunt, quae bella negârunt], which they understand not, leaves him, as it were, a politic contriver to bring about that interest, by fair and plausible words, which the force of arms denied him. But quaint emblems and devices, begged from the old pageantry of some twelfthnight’s entertainment at Whitehall, will do but ill to make a saint or martyr: and if the people resolve to take him sainted at the rate of such a canonizing, I shall suspect their calendar more than the Gregorian. In one thing I must commend his openness, who gave the title to this book, Εἰκὼν Βασιλική, that is to say, The King’s Image; and by the shrine he dresses out for him, certainly would have the people come and worship him. For which reason this answer also is entitled, Iconoclastes, the famous surname of many Greek emperors, who in their zeal to the command of God, after long tradition of idolatry in the church, took courage and broke all superstitious images to pieces. But the people, exorbitant and excessive in all their motions, are prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of idolatry, in idolizing their kings: though never more mistaken in the object of their worship; heretofore being won’t to repute for saints those faithful and courageous barons, who lost their lives in the field, making glorious war against tyrants for the common liberty; as Simon de Momfort, earl of Leicester, against Henry the IIId; Thomas Plantagenet, earl of Lancaster, against Edward IId. But now, with a besotted and degenerate baseness of spirit, except some few who yet retain in them the old English fortitude and love of freedom, and have testified it by their matchless deeds, the rest, imbastardized from the ancient nobleness of their ancestors, are ready to fall flat and give adoration to the image and memory of this man, who hath offered at more cunning fetches to undermine our liberties, and put tyranny into an art, than any British king before him: …

A very hard-hitting and quite funny rhetorical device which is so typical of Milton the political pamphleteer was to compare the desire of Charles to dominate Parliament (the “mother” of English liberty) and usurp its law-making capacity to that of the sun giving life-giving energy to the soil before anything could grow, or even more wickedly to compare Charles to a “mother-fucker” (the masculine tyrant raping “mother” Parliament) as this passage discussing Section XI “Upon the Nineteen Propositions” shows:

Yet so far doth self opinion or false principles delude and transport him, as to think “the concurrence of his reason” to the votes of parliament, not only political, but natural, “and as necessary to the begetting,” or bringing forth of any one “complete act of public wisdom as the sun’s influence is necessary to all nature’s productions.” So that the parliament, it seems, is but a female, and without his procreative reason, the laws which they can produce are but wind-eggs: wisdom, it seems, to a king is natural, to a parliament not natural, but by conjunction with the king; yet he professes to hold his kingly right by law; and if no law could be made but by the great council of a nation, which we now term a parliament, then certainly it was a parliament that first created kings; and not only made laws before a king was in being, but those laws especially whereby he holds his crown. He ought then to have so thought of a parliament, if he count it not male, as of his mother, which to civil being created both him and the royalty he wore. And if it hath been anciently interpreted the presaging sign of a future tyrant, but to dream of copulation with his mother, what can it be less than actual tyranny to affirm waking, that the parliament, which is his mother, can neither conceive or bring forth “any authoritative act” without his masculine coition? Nay, that his reason is as celestial and life-giving to the parliament, as the sun’s influence is to the earth: what other notions but these, or such like, could swell up Caligula to think himself a god?

No wonder that that the restored Stuarts put a price on Milton’s head and wanted to destroy all his books and pamphlets.

James Gillray on Debt and Taxes during the War against Napoleon

James Gillray (1756-1815) trained as an engraver but became best known for making hundreds of caricatures of British social and political life in the 1790s and 1800s. He satirized in particular King George III, William Pitt, the French Jacobins, Napoleon, and many others in the British political and military establishment. A recurring theme in his work was the dramatic increase in taxation and the national debt which was imposed in order to fight the wars against Napoleon and which placed a growing burden on the English people (represented as “John Bull”).

Gillray also satirized the large numbers of well-connected people in the government and the military who profited from increased government expenditure by depicting them as greedy cormorants, sucking pigs, highway men, and wasps and hornets. These individuals came from both sides of the political spectrum (from the both the Whig and the Tory parties) and were thus called members of the “Broad Bottom’d” (or bipartisan) party.

“BEGGING no ROBBERY; i.e. Voluntary Contribution; or John Bull escaping a Forced Loan” (1796) s one of several caricatures Gillray did about the “voluntary loan” which was a thinly veiled threat by the government that a “forced loan” would be imposed on taxpayers to raise money for the war effort if they did not make “voluntary” contributions to the exchequer.

Here we see John Bull riding an emaciated horse which looks like it is on its last legs. He has been waylaid by highwaymen hiding in the bushes as he rides by and is obliged to make a “donation” of coins into their hat instead of being forced to make a loan to the government to fund the army. The men in the bushes on the right have pistols pointed at him and are wearing fine robes and hats which suggest that they represent the aristocracy, the church, and the law. The man kneeling by the roadside is a soldier wearing torn and bedraggled clothes. He has in his pocket a pistol and a sheet of paper which says “forced loan in reserve”. He is holding a blunderbuss on which is written “standing army”. In the speech bubble above him it says “Good Sir, for Charity’s sake, have Pity upon a poor ruin’d Man; drop if you please, a few bits of Money into the Hat, & you shall be rewarded hereafter.”

“More PIGS than TEATS, or the new Litter of hungry Grunters sucking John Bull’s old Sow to death” (1806). In this caricature John Bull is shown as a pig farmer who has come to check on his old sow in the pig stye. The sow represents the British economy which was being sucked dry by all the demands being placed upon it by the British government in order to fight the war against Napoleon, especially the new war taxes. Those doing the “sucking” are the vested interests which benefited from the policy of war, such as members of the government, the law, the military, and the aristocracy. John Bull is shocked to see his poor emaciated sow (emaciated and near death, with a very forlorn look on her face) being besieged by “hungry Grunters” wanting to suck at her teats. John Bull says “O Lord. O Lord! I never had such a dam’d Litter of hungry pigs in all my life before! why they’s beyond all count! [I count 28 (editor)]. where the devil do they think I shall find Wash & Grains for all their Guts? zookers, why they’ll drain the poor old Sow to an Otomy! (?) e’cod She’ll make but bad Bacon for Boney [the English nickname for Napoleon Bonaparte], when they’s all done sucking o’her!!!”

“A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream” (1806). In this caricature, on the left we see John Bull (the personification of Britain) in a sinking boat which has been swamped by a mass of new taxes to fund the war against Napoleon. He has lost hold of an oar with the name of “William Pitt” written on it. [William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister from 1804-1806 as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (or minister of finance)]. On the right we see a man’s head (probably Lord Henry Petty the new Chancellor of the Exchequer) from whose mouth pours a fountain of water labeled “new taxes” which are named in the cascades of the fountain (taxes on salt, tea, hops, malt, sugar, alcohol, candles, horses, servants, soap, houses, land, stamps, windows, property, etc.). In the foreground we see 10 hungry cormorants with human heads devouring the fish, crabs, and eels which thrive in the waters of the tax fountain. In the middle ground there are 2 other human-headed birds; in the distance we can see dozens more hungry cormorants heading towards the tax feast. The heads of the cormorants probably depict prominent politicians and other figures of the day.

In these cartoons Gillray seems to have an understanding of a classical liberal theory class analysis where the productive many are exploited by the unproductive few. This view is epitomised in this 1816 illustration of John Bull as a modern “Atlas” who has to carry the parasitic British establishment of the monarchy and the standing army on his shoulders.

For a discussion of more images by Gillray, see this illustrated essay and “John Bull as the British Atlas” (1816).

See also “Images of the Ruling Class and the State” and “Images of the Ruled as “Atlas”

One Volume Surveys of Classical Liberal Thought

[Katsushika Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (c. 1829–1833)]

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

When did classical liberals become self-conscious that they were advocating an entire worldview (Weltanschauung) of politics, economics, and social relationships in general which was a) consistent internally, b) was different from other worldviews (such as socialism),and c) which could be articulated in one volume? I have made an attempt to list some examples of this.

I begin with a collection of one volume surveys of the classical liberal position which have appeared over the past two centuries. The defining characteristic is that they are an attempt to provide the reader with a survey of the basic political and economic principles behind the classical liberal tradition as well as some concrete proposals for reform in order to bring about a freer society. The defining characteristic is that they are an attempt to provide the reader with a survey of the basic political and economic principles behind the classical liberal tradition as well as some concrete proposals for reform in order to bring about a freer society.

With the exception of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s The Limits of State Action which was written in 1792 but was not published in full until 1854, it seems that it was not until the mid-19th century before people began thinking of classical liberalism as a coherent body of thought which could be encapsulated in a one volume treatment. I include in this early group Gustave de Molinari, Herbert Spencer, and John Stuart Mill who published their books between 1849 and 1859. Molinari’s Evenings on Saint Lazarus Street (1849) is perhaps the first one volume, comprehensive statement of the classical liberal political and economic worldview designed to appeal to an educated reader rather than a specialist, ever written.

We can mark this group or “first wave” as part of the emergence of “classical liberalism” per se, which saw the dramatic liberal reforms of the Victorian period, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws which ushered in the period of free trade which lasted up until the First World War.

There is a second group which emerged in the 1970s when the modern libertarian movement appeared in the United States and include works by John Hospers, David Friedman, and Murray Rothbard, . Several of these were designed to be political “manifestos” for groups like the Libertarian Party (founded 1971).

One might also pinpoint the period of the last 10 years as the latest burst of activity with works by Eric Mack, Richard Ebeling, Deidre McCloskey, and perhaps George Will.

I have been putting online as many of the “first wave” of these books as I can find.

Here is my list ( a version of which is at my website in the section on “The Great Books of Liberty”:

First wave:

  • Wilhelm von Humboldt, Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen (Ideas presented in an Attempt to determine the Limits of State Activity) (1792, 1854)
  • Benjamin Constant, Principes de politique, applicables à tous les gouvernemens représentatifs (The Principles of Politics which are applicable to all Representative Governments) (1815)
  • Gustave de Molinari, Les Soirées de la rue Saint-lazare (Evenings on Saint Lazarus Street) (1849)
  • Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (1851)
  • JS Mill, On Liberty (1859)
  • Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics (1879)
  • Bruce Smith, Liberty and Liberalism (1888)

Second wave (20th century before the modern libertarian movement emerged)

  • Ludwig von Mises, Liberalismus (Liberalism) (1927)
  • Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960)
  • Milton Friedman (with the assistance of Rose D. Friedman), Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago, 1962)

Third wave (which coincided with the emergence of the modern libertarian movement):

  • John Hospers, Libertarianism – A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow (Los Angeles: Nash, 1971)
  • David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (1973)
  • Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan, 1973)
  • Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1980; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980)

And the current, perhaps “Fourth” wave:

  • Eric Mack, Libertarianism (Key Concepts in Political Theory. Polity, 2018)
  • Richard Ebeling, For a New Liberalism (American Institute for Economic Research, 2019)
  • George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility (Hachette Books, 2019).
  • Deirdre McCloskey, Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All (Yale University Press, 2019)

Of course, in spite of this latest wave of libertarian activity, the world may nevertheless still end up in an ideological and political shipwreck for lovers of liberty.

[Théodore Géricault, “Scène de Naufrage” (Shipwreck Scene) or “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–19)]

Thomas Hobbes’ Iconography of the Leviathan State

See my longer “illustrated essay” on this topic.

In a recent post on the cover art of the French thinker Étienne de la Boétie I remarked about one cover that:

This edition by Payot (2016) shows the classic illustration from Thomas Hobbes’ book *Leviathan* (1652). The “leviathan” monarch’s body is composed of thousands of small figures of his subjects. If the individuals which made up the Leviathan’s body decided to walk away or do something else, then the “body politic” would collapse and the Leviathan would then no longer exist.

This got me thinking about the meaning of Hobbes’s frontispiece as a piece of political iconography, which is a topic I have been exploring for a couple of decades in my collection of “illustrated essays” on “Images of Liberty and Power”. There has been some interesting recent research on the imagery used by Hobbes in his political writings and I am glad to see the historical profession catching up with me.

In analysing Hobbes’ imagery there are a number of perspectives one could take.

The Biblical Leviathan

In the original story in The Book of Job (which Hobbes quotes at the top of the frontispiece to his book Leviathan (1652)) the arrogant and authoritarian Christian God boasts to the persecuted and hapless Job about the complex and magnificent things he alone had the power and the will to create, including “Behemoth” (a land-dwelling “beast” or “monster” which was unspecified in the Book but interpreted by later readers as being a hippopotamus, of all things) and “Leviathan” (a water-dwelling creature or “sea monster” which was also unspecified but later interpreted to be a whale or a crocodile, neither of which was a fish).

The most famous depiction of Behemoth and Leviathan was was the English radical poet William Blake who did illustrations for a published edition of The Book of Job (1821):

What caught Hobbes’ eye was this passage (Job 41):

23. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
24. His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.
25. When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves.
26. The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
27. He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.
28. The arrow cannot make him flee: slingstones are turned with him into stubble.
29. Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.
30. Sharp stones are under him: he spreadeth sharp pointed things upon the mire.
31. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.
32. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.
33. **Upon earth there is not his like**, who is made without fear.
34. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.

Hobbes’ Leviathan

Hobbes took a personal interest in the design of the frontispiece of his book as he wanted to show a direct connection between the image of Leviathan and the view of the state he advocated in the book. So, in the opening section he clearly stated that the “Governour” of the people should be feared and obeyed without question as if if he were a real “Leviathan” who had emerged from the depths of the sea:

Hitherto I have set forth the nature of Man, (whose Pride and other Passions have compelled him to submit himselfe to Government;) together with the great power of his Governour, whom I compared to *Leviathan*, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one and fortieth of *Job*; where God having set forth the great power of *Leviathan*, calleth him King of the Proud. *There is nothing, saith he, on earth, to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. Hee seeth every high thing below him; and is King of all the children of pride.* But because he is mortall, and subject to decay, as all other Earthly creatures are; and because there is that in heaven, (though not on earth) that he should stand in fear of, and whose Lawes he ought to obey; I shall in the next following Chapters speak of his Diseases, and the causes of his Mortality; and of what Lawes of Nature he is bound to obey.

What this image and the fine detail which is not always obvious to the causal observer actually means is debated. One group have argued that Leviathan is an actual “Man-Fish” who has fins which are just barely visible over the crest of the hill just under the right arm of Leviathan:1

Thus a full body view of Leviathan might look something like this contemporary drawing:

And that all the little people who seem to make Leviathan’s body are like the scales of a fish.

Another historian believes that Leviathan is really a “living statue”, an automaton, robot, or “Artificial man” like the ones described in ancient Greek stories of Daedalus and Prometheus.2 Hobbbes actually used the term “Artifical man” who had an “artificial soul” as well as joints and nerves and so on:

For by Art is created **that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State**, (in latine Civitas) which is but an **Artificiall Man**; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; The Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts; Reward and Punishment (by which fastned to the seate of the Soveraignty, every joynt and member is moved to performe his duty) are the Nerves, that do the same in the Body Naturall; The Wealth and Riches of all the particular members, are the Strength; Salus Populi (the peoples safety) its Businesse; Counsellors, by whom all things needfull for it to know, are suggested unto it, are the Memory; Equity and Lawes, an artificiall Reason and Will; Concord, Health; Sedition, Sicknesse ; and Civill war, Death. Lastly, the Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.

Hobbes’ Depiction of “Imperium” (Power) and “Libertas” (freedom) in De Cive (1642)

The image of Leviathan should be compared to another frontispiece Hobbes helped design for his book De Cive (On the Citizen) (1642) for more insights into his thinking about the the kind of state he wished to see rule over mankind.

For a fuller analysis of the meaning of these images please see the longer version of this post, my “illustrated essay”.

In essence he believes that a condition of “Libertas” without a powerful dictatorial state to keep things in check would result in a condition of constant war, cannibalism, and poverty as this detgail depicts quite graphically:”

My response to the frontispiece of De Cive is that Hobbes has things completely backwards, that life under “Imperium” (Power) or total state control of people’s lives and property would be one of poverty, death, and uncertainty about the security of one’s life and property and an absence of all individual liberty.

In conclusion, I think that the purpose of images such as those in the frontispieces, especially that of Leviathan, was one of propaganda for the absolutist state, or rather a Christian dictatorship or “Christian Common-Wealth” as he called it, to depict in a visually striking and powerful manner, the size and overwhelming power of the “Common Power”, the “Common-Wealth”, the “State” as he wanted it to become. These images were designed to instill awe and fear in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens who would never dare from now on to challenge the power of the Leviathan State. They would be “terrified” of this power and what could happen to them if they challenged it or disobeyed its command.

  1. Magnus Kristiansson and Johan Tralau, “Hobbes’s hidden monster: A new interpretation of the frontispiece of Leviathan,” European Journal of Political Theory (2014 13: 299). []
  2. Horst Bredekamp, Thomas Hobbes Visuelle Strategien. Der Leviathan: Das Urbild des modernen Staates. Werkillustrationen und Portraits. Berlin, Akademie, 1999. []
Posted in Art

The Cover Art of Voluntary Servitude

The Cover Art of Boétie’s Discourse

I was drawn back to Étienne de la Boétie’s wonderful essay on “Voluntary Servitude” (written c. 1550, published 1576) because of recent events. Boétie asked perhaps the most fundamental question of political theory, namely, why does the majority allow itself, even asks for it , to be ruled by a small minority of people (a sovereign monarch, politicians in Parliament, the bureaucrats who run things, and the technocrats who advise the government). They allow this rule over them even when it is at their own expense in terms of their own property, the jobs they work or businesses they run, their freedom of movement and congregation, and even the ideas they are permitted to believe in or discuss.

As he put the question at the beginning of his essay:

I would only understand how it is possible and how it can be that so many Men, so many Cities, so many Nations, tolerate sometimes a single Tyrant, who has no Power but what they give him; who has no Power to hurt them but only so far as they have the Will to suffer him; who can do them no Harm except when they chuse rather to bear him than contradict him. A wonderful Thing, certainly, and nevertheless [5] so common, that we ought to have more Grief and less Astonishment, to see a Million of Millions of Men serve miserably, their Necks under the Yoke, not constrained by a greater Force but, as it were, enchanted and charmed by the single Name of one, whose Power they ought not to be afraid of, since he is alone, nor love his Qualities, since he is with regard to them inhuman and savage. Such is the Weakness of Mankind.
… BUT, good God!—what can this be? How shall we call this? What Misfortune [7] is this? What sort of unhappy Vice is it, to see an infinite Number, not only obey, but serve, not governed but tyrannised, having neither Goods, Parents, Children, nor Life itself which can be called theirs? To bear the Robberies, the Debaucheries, the Cruelties, not of an Army, not of a barbarous Camp, against which we ought to spend Blood, nay even our Lives, but of one Man : not a *Hercules* or *Sampson*, but a little Creature, and very often the most cowardly and effeminate of the whole Nation : One not accustomed to the Smoak of Battles, but scarcely to the Dust of Tilts and Tournaments

So, I decided to gather all the material I had on Boétie and put it online. Over the past few weeks I have put online 9 different versions of the essay – 5 in French (c. 1560s, 1576, 1577, 1892, 1922) and 4 in English translation (1735, 1942/1975, 1966). I also built two pages so one could view the different texts side-by-side. One is the 1922 illustrated version by the Catalonian engraver and typographer Louis Jou (1881-1968) with the illustrations surrounding the text on the left and a modern (also 1922) French version on the right. The second allows the reader to compare many of the different texts side-by-side, either French or English, or either on the right or on the left (depending on what is being compared).

As I searched online for various editions I came to realise two things; one, was that there have been more editions (especially in French) than I had realised; and secondly, that many of these editions had striking cover art. I arranged these covers by theme: chains and cages, classic portraits and art, oppressed figures and their oppressors, minimalist design and abstract art, cartoons and drawings, and advertising for events or performances

Below is a small sampling of what I have found. See this other page for the full collection.

An edition by Flammarion (Jan. 1993) with a roughly drawn empty bird cage with the door open. It suggest that if we could only refuse to voluntarily grant servitude to the state, then we could fly away free as a bird.

An edition by Vrin (Oct. 2014) with essays by André Tournon and Tristan Dagron. The image is Benvenuto Cellini’s statue of “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” (1545–1554). Perseus has beheaded the Gorgon Medusa whose hair is made up of snakes and who turns to stone anyone who looks at her. This is an unusual choice of image as Boétie did not advocate violent resistance to the state (like chopping its head off) but rather non0violent, passive resistance by withholding cooperation.

An edition by “Exuvie” (no date) with a preface by the Belgian anarchist Raoul Vaneigem. The image is of a very small figure of Atlas carrying on his shoulders a very large rock. It is interesting that the left have also seized upon Boétie’s essay. The German socialist anarchist Gustave Landauer translated it into German in 1910 and this Belgian anarchist wrote an introduction to this more recent edition. What struck me was the Randian connotation of the image: Boétie was in fact urging Atlas to “shrug” off the burden of the state in order to be free.

Another socialist version of Boétie. This is a German edition by Malik-Verlag (1924). It has a cover by the artist Georg Grosz which shows a submissive worker standing before a rich capitalist who is enjoying the finer things of life. Servitude according this interpretation is a result of working for wages within the capitalist system. Freedom will thus come about when the workers’ go on strike and overthrow the system in a socialist/Bolshevik revolution.

This edition by Payot (2016) shows the classic illustration from Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan (1652). The “leviathan” monarch’s body is composed of thousands of small figures of his subjects. If the individuals which made up the Leviathan’s body decided to walk away or do something else, then the “body politic” would collapse and the Leviathan would then no longer exist.

This is a striking but rather cryptic cover for the edition by Librio (Sept. 1993). It also contains Benjamin Constant’s “De la Liberté des Anciens et les Modernes”, and La Fontaine’s fable of “The Wolf and the Dog” (hence the cover illustration of the dog). In Fontaine’s fable the wolf was wild, free, but hungry; the dog was domesticated and well-fed but had the scars of the collar it wore around its neck. Thus people, by implication, can either lead a free but uncertain life (like the wolf), or have the security, regular meals, and shelter enjoyed by a house-trained and domesticated dog, but the sot of this is having to wear a collar and come at the master’s whistle or call.

Being a text-oriented person, I found this edition by Bouchene (Jan. 2015) beautiful, elegant, and clean. The cover shows the opening paragraphs of the Mesmes manuscript edition.