The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism by John Gray - review by Alan Ryan

Alan Ryan

Nasty, Brutish, and Now

The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism


Allen Lane 192pp £20

Readers who are anxious that the contents should match what is written on the tin will have much to complain about with John Gray’s new book. Little of it is literally about ‘new Leviathans’, the name Gray gives to modern states. Nor is it obviously full of thoughts that could only be had ‘after liberalism’. There is, though, a good deal about Hobbes in the book: he provides the epigraph to every chapter and Gray also supplies an extended discussion of Hobbes’s views on absurdity. And, of course, the book opens with the famous passage in which Hobbes describes the horrors of the state of nature and the life of man as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

The New Leviathans is essentially a collection of reviews and short essays on a variety of topics. Because Gray is a voracious, indeed an omnivorous, reader, and a vivid writer, they are individually enjoyable and interesting. The essay ‘The Return of Leviathan’ is a good example of Gray’s talent for crisp, critical analysis. It begins with a quick contrast of the aspirations of Hobbes’s Leviathan and those of its modern successors. In Gray’s view, Hobbes wanted his absolutist state to prevent us from doing one another harm but otherwise not to take a lot of interest in our souls, while the modern state wants to provide our lives with meaning, a task for which it is ill-suited.

Gray’s immediate target is Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). One may think that, all these years later, criticising Fukuyama is a case of shooting fish in a barrel, but this would be somewhat unfair on Gray. His target is the frame

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