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Bringing Back a New Hobbes

The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes

edited by Noel Malcolm
Oxford University Press, Volume 1, 511. Volume 2, 497 pp., Volume 1, $78.00. Volume 2, $78.00

Three Discourses: A Critical Modern Edition of Newly Identified Work of the Young Hobbes

by Thomas Hobbes, edited by Noel B Reynolds, edited by Arlene W Saxonhouse
University of Chicago Press, 181 pp., $27.50

Thomas Hobbes’s reputation as one of the leading figures in the history of European philosophy chiefly rests nowadays on a single work, his Leviathan of 1651. It is hardly surprising that Leviathan continues to attract so much attention. As Michael Oakeshott once memorably remarked, it is “the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language.” It would be misleading, however, to think of Hobbes as someone exclusively or even primarily concerned with the theory of politics. By the time of his death, in 1679, at the age of nearly ninety-two, he had published over twenty books on a remarkable variety of themes, ranging from optics, physics, and mathematics to history, theology, and the theory of literature. He also translated a string of major classical texts, beginning in the 1620s with Thucydides’ History and ending in the 1670s with a complete rendering of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into English verse. If we wish to take the measure of his achievement, we not only need to consider the full extent of these intellectual activities; we also need to ask how far he may have thought of them as aspects of some larger whole.

Admittedly those seeking this kind of broader understanding have until recently faced considerable difficulties. One problem has been the lack of a comprehensive modern edition of Hobbes’s works. Scholars have been obliged to rely on the collected edition produced by Sir William Molesworth as long ago as the 1840s, an edition which includes at least one text not written by Hobbes and omits several others that Hobbes unquestionably wrote. It is good to be able to report that this scandalous situation is at last being rectified. The French publishing house of Vrin has begun to issue a new collected edition under the general editorship of Professor Yves Charles Zarka. These volumes will be translations rather than critical editions, but the texts so far published have been very professionally edited. Meanwhile, the Clarendon edition of the works of Thomas Hobbes is well under way. Publication began in 1983 with Professor Howard Warrender’s two-volume edition of De Cive, and Dr. Noel Malcolm has now contributed a further two volumes with his superb edition of Hobbes’s Correspondence.

A second difficulty facing those interested in the entirety of Hobbes’s career has been the lack of a reliable outline of his life. When and why did his philosophical interests begin to burgeon? What were the intellectual circles within which he moved and worked? Here, too, the state of our knowledge has suddenly been transformed, for these are the very questions on which Dr. Malcolm’s edition contains the largest amount of fresh information and argument. For the first time, he has assembled every surviving letter written or received by Hobbes, and printed almost half of them. Many were originally in Latin, Italian, or French, and in these instances Dr. Malcolm has supplied his own translations alongside the original texts. His standards of transcription and translation are extraordinarily high, and I have detected only a vanishingly small number of errors, none of the least significance.

Dr. Malcolm has also annotated the entire correspondence with exemplary care and skill. He has uncovered forgeries, redated a considerable number of items, and deciphered passages that no one else has been able to read. Finally, he has added a formidably learned “Biographical Register” at the end of volume two. I once tried to trace some of Hobbes’s more obscure correspondents myself, and eventually decided that several of them must have disappeared from the historical record. But Dr. Malcolm has conjured them all back into sight, illuminating even the most shadowy inhabitants of Hobbes’s world by dint of almost unimaginable amounts of archival detective work.

The earliest of Hobbes’s surviving letters is dated November 1628, and is addressed to Christian Cavendish, Countess of Devonshire. Hobbes, the son of a Wiltshire vicar, entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, a few months short of his fifteenth birthday. He joined the household of the Devonshires immediately after graduating in 1608, serving first as tutor and later as secretary to the second Earl. Throughout this period his interests and activities remained those of a typical humanist intellectual of the Renaissance. His verse autobiography informs us that, after a dissolute year spent with his young master in London, followed by a trip to France and Italy, he settled down to a sober and scholarly mode of life. He devoted himself in particular to perfecting his command of Latin and Greek. First he put his skills as a Latinist to work in helping Francis Bacon to translate a number of his Essays. Soon afterward he wrote and presented to the Earl of Devonshire a long and ambitious Latin poem in praise of the countryside around the Earl’s estates. He crowned these literary labors in 1629 with his majestic translation of Thucydides, the first English version to be drawn directly from the original Greek text.

Hobbes’s early absorption in Renaissance literary culture has recently been fascinatingly underlined by a new discovery about his intellectual activities during this period. A computer analysis of a volume of “observations and discourses” published anonymously in 1620 under the title Horae Subsecivae has revealed that, while much of the book is probably the work of the second Earl of Devonshire, three of the longer “discourses” are statistically indistinguishable from undoubted works by Hobbes. These dramatic findings are announced by Noel Reynolds and Arlene Saxonhouse in their new edition, entitled Three Discourses: A Critical Modern Edition of Newly Identified Work of the Young Hobbes. The briefest of these essays, A Discourse of Laws, includes some familiar Hobbesian arguments of a kind he later sought to place on a scientific basis, including the claim that it is always rational to obey the laws, and that it would be impossible in their absence to distinguish right from wrong.

What is striking about the other two Discourses, however, is that both of them are such conventionally humanist literary exercises. One is called A Discourse of Rome, and takes the form of a rhetorical declamation in praise of the city’s greatness, an example of one of the most popular forms of Renaissance “demonstrative” oratory. The other, A Discourse upon the Beginning of Tacitus, follows the typically humanist method of glossing a classical work of history and seeking to draw from it some general lessons about the conduct of government. As Professor Saxonhouse notes, Hobbes’s title suggests that his model may even have been Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy’s history of Rome, the best-known example of such a commentary at the time. Besides employing these distinctively humanist genres, Hobbes’s three Discourses are sprinkled with Renaissance common-places of exactly the kind he was later to repudiate with so much ferocity, including the claim that civic liberty is only attainable under republican forms of government, and that the modern age is in a state of decline by comparison with the glories of the ancient world.

During the 1630s Hobbes’s interests underwent a profound change. He turned himself into a student of mathematics and the natural sciences, and in 1642 went on to publish his first major treatise, De Cive, in which he applied the methods of science to the explanation of political life. This sudden awakening, coming as it did when Hobbes was in his forties, entitles him to be regarded as one of the latest of all the late developers in the history of philosophy. When and why did it take place? This is where Dr. Malcolm has some of his most important new findings to report.

The earliest sign of Hobbes’s new interests can be found in a letter he sent in 1634 to the Earl of Newcastle, the cousin of the Earl of Devonshire. “My first business in London,” he writes,

was to seek for Galileo’s Dialogues. I thought it a very good bargain when at taking my leave of your lordship I undertook to buy it for you, but if your Lordship should bind me to performance it would be hard enough, for it is not possible to get it for money…. I hear say it is called in, in Italy, as a book that will do more hurt to their Religion than all the books have done of Luther and Calvin, such opposition they think is between their Religion and natural reason.1

Hobbes’s scientific appetite was further whetted when he accompanied the third Earl of Devonshire (the son of his former patron) on a tour of France and Italy later in 1634. While staying in Florence he even managed to arrange a meeting with Galileo, whom he later hailed in his De Corpore as the greatest scientist not merely of his own but of any age.

Hobbes’s letters from this period also show him beginning to take an active part in the scientific experiments at Welbeck Abbey, the principal residence of the Earl of Newcastle. The Earl took a serious interest in optics and physics, while his younger brother, Sir Charles Cavendish, ranked as one of the leading English mathematicians of the age. (The Cavendish family remained important patrons of the sciences and later established the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where the atom was split and the structure of DNA discovered.) By 1636 we find Hobbes writing confidently to Newcastle on a variety of scientific subjects. He offers his opinions on local motion and its relation to heat, and more generally on the nature of scientific proof. He also discusses the optical experiments being carried out at Welbeck by Robert Payne, who was soon to become a close friend. Payne was employed by Newcastle nominally as his chaplain, but he devoted much of his time in the mid-1630s to studying the phenomenon of refracted light, a subject that quickly attracted Hobbes’s attention as well.

Dr. Malcolm provides valuable new information about two of Hobbes’s projects from these centrally important years. He shows that it must have been around this time that Hobbes began to draft his Latin treatise on optics, in which he outlined his theories of vision, refraction, and the nature of light. As Dr. Malcolm demonstrates, Hobbes was spurred into action by the appearance in 1637 of Descartes’s Dioptrique, the essay on optics appended to his Discourse on Method. Hobbes must in fact have been one of Descartes’s first English readers. Sir Kenelm Digby sent him a copy of the Discourse on Method as early as October 1637, predicting in his covering letter that Hobbes would find it “a production of a most vigorous and strong brain.”

Hobbes never published his own treatise on optics, but his manuscript survives in the British Library, and Dr. Malcolm has made an important discovery about it. Hitherto it has never been dated with certainty, but many scholars have assumed that it must belong to a later stage of Hobbes’s career, perhaps as late as the mid-1640s. Dr. Malcolm has conclusively established that the surviving manuscript is a copy made for Sir Charles Cavendish in 1640. He reports this finding very briefly and modestly in his Introduction, but he is the first scholar to date Hobbes’s treatise other than conjecturally, and his discovery is obviously crucial to an understanding of Hobbes’s scientific thinking and how it evolved.

  1. 1

    Note that when quoting Hobbes’s letters, I have modernized spelling and punctuation.

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