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The Art of Being Ruled

March 20, 2010

Jeffrey Collins in WSJ:

On Jan. 30, 1649, Charles I, king of England, mounted a hastily built scaffold. Thousands of his own subjects thronged before him, kept at bay by armed soldiers. After years of savage civil war against his own rebellious Parliament, Charles had been defeated and declared a traitor. In a brief speech he defended his now tattered royal powers. “I go,” he proclaimed, “from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.” He then lay over the newly sawn boards, prayed and stretched out his arms. On this signal an ax cleaved the winter air and the king’s head.

As news of the regicide spread, the royal courts of Europe were thrown into black-draped mourning. Clergy turned to the book of Lamentations. But the most momentous reaction to the execution was a very different sort of book. From Paris, where he had sheltered himself for a decade, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes pondered the agonies of his native land and began to write his masterpiece. In 1651 he published it in London as “Leviathan.”

Hobbes’s “Leviathan” is perhaps the greatest work of political theory in modern times. Scores of books have attempted to explain its meaning, but the latest to appear commands particular attention. [More]

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