The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes
Three Discourses: A Critical Modern Edition of Newly Identified Work of the Young Hobbes
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…
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