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