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Blair Worden

Authority Figure

The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes - Leviathan Vol 1: Introduction; Vols 2 & 3: The English and Latin Texts
Edited by Noel Malcolm (Oxford University Press Vol 1 380pp Vols 2 & 3 1,400pp 195)
Frontispiece from 'Leviathan'

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan is by common consent one of the masterpieces of political theory. Yet its greatness is hard to pinpoint. It lies partly, again by common consent, in the quality of its prose. Even readers horrified by Hobbes's authoritarian arguments thrill to the manner of their expression. It is a prose as utterly individual as that of his contemporaries Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne and Milton - and as hard to categorise. Its darts and flashes, compressions and difficulties can call to mind the metaphysical poets, his other contemporaries. Yet metaphysical inspiration was one of Hobbes's targets, bent as he was on the subjection of political argument to the realism of the scientific revolution, the area of thought where his prior interest lay. Anyway, the attraction of his prose can explain only so much. The impact of the work, especially on the Continent, was largely indebted to his Latin translation of it. The year of the English edition, 1651, also produced Milton's Latin vindication of the execution of Charles I in 1649, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, another book whose literary properties dazzled readers shocked by its thesis. Hobbes was one of them. His own Latin deserved and commanded no such wonder.

There can be no great theoretical prose without great thought behind it. Yet Hobbes's thinking has its lacunae. Until he wrote, political thought was essentially historical thought, the deduction of general rules from the observation of past conduct. Hobbes himself drew on historical observation, much of it ropey, but he subordinated it to theoretical abstractions. He likened his search for political principles to the 'rigid' study of geometry, 'the Mother of all Naturall Science'. Yet the logical connections between the theory of human nature announced in his opening chapters and the political analysis that follows them are tenuous.

There is another awkward jump. The governing motive of Hobbesian man is fear, which impels him towards conflict with his neighbour until a sovereign power frightens him into obedience. Hobbes acknowledged his own 'extraordinary timorousness'. Having been born in the year of the Spanish Armada, he famously wrote that he and fear were twins. The fear of Catholic invasion or Catholic conspiracy, a dominant anxiety of English politics for the first fifty years of his life, pervades Leviathan, which gives full scope to its author's aversion to popery and to its doctrinal foundations. Yet by the time the book appeared, around the time of his 63rd birthday, new fears had overtaken the old. Since 1642 the nation had been plunged into civil wars fought within Protestantism. Civil war was to Hobbes the 'greatest evill that can happen in this life'. Leviathan was meant as a recipe for its termination. His unresolved difficulty was to link the horror of Puritan revolt to his anti-Catholic theme.

In any case his explanations of the civil wars are mostly nonsense. He lived in Paris - to which he had timorously fled in 1640 rather than risk parliamentary investigation into his first essay in political theory - until after the publication of Leviathan. Though connected to the exiled Stuart court and eager to influence its policies, he understood little about developments in England. Having an egghead's confidence in the primacy of ideas, he took the wars to be solely about them. Because 'the Actions of men proceed from their Opinions', the way to end the conflict was to propound opinions conducive to peace and to proscribe the perverse Roundhead notions that had broken it. His supposition that the cohesion of society requires compulsory common beliefs was conventional enough, and would remain so until the state's acquisition of a standing army and police force had made the tolerance of dissent easier to countenance. But his claim that the wars had been caused by the universities, that 'core of rebellion', where the parliamentarian gentry and clergy had allegedly drawn seditious inferences from the 'babbling philosophy' of classical antiquity and from outdated scholasticism, was preposterous.

Order would return to England, he maintained, only when its inhabitants caught up with his insights. He offered Leviathan as a set text in the universities, where he evidently envisaged its lessons being mutely imbibed at the command of the sovereign. Students would learn from the book their duty to submit to a sovereign authority 'as great ... as possibly men can be imagined to make it'. Being indivisible, sovereignty could be shared neither with parliament, that Roundhead pipedream, nor with the church, that perennial goal of ecclesiastical ambition. Parliamentarian concepts of mixed or limited monarchy belonged to the disastrous classical legacy. Yet time would hardly vindicate Hobbes's position. It was the principles of divided and restricted sovereignty, not the efforts to suppress them, that would lastingly cure the instability of the 17th century.

Hobbes cryptically announces the subjection of human values to the state's judgement: 'no Law can be Unjust'; 'where Law ceaseth, sinne ceaseth'. He turns parliamentarian premises upside down. Roundheads fought and then executed the king on the principles that political legitimacy derives from consent, and that parliaments, as the 'Representative of the people', could call him to account. Hobbes adopts the idea of consent and representation - only to explain that our 'Representative' is not parliament but the sovereign whom our consent has established, and whose decrees we have thereby authorised and so cannot challenge.

Yet the consent is not unconditional. We are entitled to desert or resist a ruler who threatens our survival or fails to protect us. There are also other qualifications, uncertainly worded but potentially extensive. Though Leviathan was a fiercely royalist work, its royalism was of an eccentric kind, which appalled or troubled many royalists. Hobbes was as hostile to Anglican clericalism as to its Catholic and Puritan counterparts. He made none of the customary claims for the antiquity of kingship. Turning another commonplace on its head, he answered all appeals to the sanction of time with the remark that the oldest age is the present. Social deference and feudal hierarchy are swept away by his insistence on our equality before the sovereign. Here we approach the real greatness of the book, which lies in its assault on inherited assumptions, indeed on a whole mental system that, to Hobbes's mind, dressed up doctrines concocted by powerful interest groups as universal truths. In that sense he is perhaps the first sociologist of knowledge. His assault on superstition and 'priestcraft', precisely because it was detachable from his political arguments, wove itself into the origins of the Enlightenment. Ideally Noel Malcolm's new edition should be read alongside his Aspects of Hobbes (2002), especially its last two chapters, which explore the more positive and enduring features of Hobbes's thought.

Malcolm's book-length introduction to the edition is more concerned with the context than with the reasoning of Leviathan. Its most striking suggestion is that Hobbes conceived of the book, which issues many injunctions about the duties that accompany the powers of sovereigns, as a manual of advice for the future Charles II, to whom he taught mathematics in Paris. Hobbes's image as the Mr Nasty of political theory softens when we turn from the powers to the duties. Prick him and you find, behind the chilling axioms and the unflattering depiction of the perpetual and restless selfishness of atomised humanity, conventional notions of benevolent and responsible government, of public service and social amelioration, of the binding power of love of country. Peace is something more than the avoidance of war. It is the necessary framework of civility and 'commodious living'.

After publishing Leviathan, Hobbes, following his own logic, returned to England and submitted to the new republic. For if its whose origins in rebellion and regicide had outraged him, it had the capacity to protect him, as the exiled court, which had anyway disowned him, could not. Though he thought monarchy the best form of government, he regarded other forms as equally legitimate, provided that their sovereignty was undivided. The unicameral parliament of the republic met that condition. Besides, many of the proposals advanced by leading figures in the new government - for law reform, poor relief, the promotion of commerce and navigation, even perhaps for religious reform - conformed to his ideals. He offered Leviathan to the universities just after Cromwell had become Oxford's Chancellor.

Prospective readers of Leviathan will henceforth face a choice. Perhaps most will still read it in one of the paperback editions. Few may want to lug Malcolm's three weighty volumes or pay 195 for them. His monumental scholarly apparatus mainly addresses specialist needs. Yet even to handle these volumes is a glory. There are hardly the words to convey the scale, the resourcefulness, the assiduity or the exactness of an enterprise that sets quite new standards of editorial scholarship. The textual and publishing history of Leviathan is recovered with inexhaustible devotion and precision. An ingenious, intricate layout, expertly and handsomely designed, enables readers to trace variations among the surviving versions, English and Latin, of Hobbes's text. In Noel Malcolm's hands the reading of Leviathan acquires a new dimension. Go on, spoil yourself.


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Blair Worden's God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell is published by OUP.


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