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Confronting Leviathan: Timely collection of essays on the thinkers behind the modern state

Book review: David Runciman uses elegance and clarity to present complex ideas, says Paschal Donohoe

Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas
Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas
Author: David Runciman
ISBN-13: 978-1788167826
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £20

Do not leave your home. Close your business. Stop shaking hands. You must wear a mask. Such instructions by a government, in the pre-pandemic era, would have appeared impossible. The power required to dispense these directions would have been associated with a dictator or all-powerful monarch. But states all over the world did this. The majority of citizens adhered to their directions. This is the clearest recent demonstration of the power of the modern state.

Confronting Leviathan is an incredibly timely collection of essays on the thinkers who have influenced the development and understanding of the state. Author David Runciman hosts the exceptional weekly podcast Talking Politics, which delivers original insights on the most familiar of topics. The essays here are based on a set of talks he delivered in 2020.

To be a citizen in such a state confers, by historical standards, great advantages but also exceptional responsibilities and challenges. The author argues that this is the core paradox of modern politics: “Is the state that we built to keep us safe going to be our saviour or our destroyer?”

A distinctive feature of this collection is the breadth of philosophers considered. Thomas Hobbes, who initiated the philosophy of the modern state during the English civil war, is a conventional starting point. But a journey of ideas that includes Mahatma Gandhi, Mary Wollstonecraft and Francis Fukuyama brings freshness to a frequently examined theme. And the spring of this freshness is the wonderful elegance and clarity through which complex ideas are presented.


The opening essay on Leviathan, written by Hobbes in 1651, offers a bleak description of human nature. Hobbes argued that humanity tends towards conflict. This is the catalyst to the creation of the modern state. Runciman writes that “seeking peace is a recipe for war because we cannot agree on what counts as peace”. A powerful ruler is required to resolve this tension and “suddenly you have a society and a state through the creation of a sovereign”.

This is not a democratic vision. Power is delegated.

Volatility and stability

The consequences of this creation are explored in Confronting Leviathan. An essay on the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville focuses on the early democratic life of the modern state. It describes a paradox of American political life in the 19th century, the relationship between surface volatility of a society and underlying stability of a state. The author argues that the crucial tension is the delegation of huge power by the individual to the state, but that this same power could be used to harm the individual.

A more functional assessment is more frequent and relevant – is that delegated power helping the citizen to meet his or her needs and freedoms in a meaningful way? Function, more than fear, is a critical test.

The role of the state is also explored through a feminist lens in considerations of Wollstonecraft and her A Vindication of the Rights of Women and, more recently, Catherine MacKinnon and her A Feminist Theory of the State. These essays describe how the first thinker argued that women and men “have become divided between reason and sentiment. Reason was for men. Feelings were for women.” The gap could be closed only by universal education and suffrage.

Runciman explains the thinking of MacKinnon by noting how a liberal definition of the state can re-enforce existing inequalities. Citizens require protection from the state. Institutions must also stand above the conflicts that they must regulate. This, the author argues, weakens their ability to reduce unfairness.

The best essay is on Max Weber and his lecture Politics as a Vocation, delivered in Munich in 1919 during a time of great political uncertainty. Weber argued for the vocation and value of politics and professional politicians. Such decision-makers must always grapple with the balance between the convictions that motive their actions and the consequences of these actions. The author magnificently describes the context of the lecture and succinctly summarises the insights of Weber, concluding that it is “the great secular sermon in the history of modern politics”.

The concluding essay focuses on Francis Fukuyama and his belief in the strength of democratically controlled states. Fukuyama is now less optimistic, warning of a “vetocracy”, in which it is easier to say why something should not happen and not why it should.

The reader does not need to be considering the power behind lockdowns to read Confronting Leviathan. That the book helps make thinking about the state enjoyable is just the least of its many exceptional qualities.

Runciman writes: “The modern state is also somewhat awe-inspiring and mysterious and magical.” This collection is a great guide to this most vital of our creations.

Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance and president of the Eurogroup

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a Fine Gael TD and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform