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.
The other way in which Dr. Malcolm sheds new light on this period is by publishing for the first time a full translation and discussion of the Latin correspondence between Hobbes and Descartes in 1641. They began their argument when the French mathematician and philosopher Marin Mersenne sent Descartes a letter containing Hobbes’s objections to the account of motion that underpins the explanation of reflection and refraction in the Dioptrique. The ensuing clash of titans is perhaps the most fascinating episode in the Correspondence. Descartes responds without preamble by telling Mersenne that he finds himself “very surprised” by Hobbes’s letter. “Although the style in which it is written makes its author look clever and learned, he seems to stray from the truth in every single claim which he advances as his own.” He adds that Hobbes’s account of motion “has no semblance of truth,” and that his explanation of refraction “is evidently incorrect.”
Dr. Malcolm’s translations of the subsequent flurry of letters are enviably readable and exact. My only quibble is that he fails to reproduce the devastating tone of irony with which Hobbes opens his first riposte. (Hobbes is using litotes, the form of understatement that was one of his favorite rhetorical tricks.) “I am extremely sorry,” he begins, “that M. Descartes is somewhat less than delighted by what I have written.” He goes on to make some telling criticisms of Descartes’s arguments, especially about the alleged impossibility of small forces causing large bodies to move. But at the same time he repeatedly assures Mersenne that he regards Descartes, as “a great man,” and that “there is no one to whose criticism I would rather submit.”
Descartes, by contrast, insists on being as scornful and patronizing as possible. He retorts that Hobbes’s arguments, especially about refraction, are “completely illusory” and “contrary to the principles of mechanics.” Hobbes is tenacious in reply, and shrewdly develops his earlier doubts about Descartes’s general theory of determined motion. Faced with the need to respond yet again, Descartes descends to personal abuse. Hobbes is so childish and ridiculous, he declares, that it makes no sense to spend any more time refuting him. Haughty and oversensitive, Descartes emerges from the battle (as from others he fought) looking intellectually commanding but humanly rather absurd.
Hobbes’s last and greatest achievement in the 1630s was to apply his new understanding of scientific method to the study of politics. By May 1640 he had finished and circulated the manuscript of his Elements of Law, and in 1642 he put into print a revised and extended version of its political sections as De Cive. Together these works contain a sketch of both the psychological and political theories that were later given their definitive form in Leviathan. Drawing on analogies between natural forces and destructive human tendencies, Hobbes already argues that our primary concern in public life should be the preservation of peace and security, not of liberty and rights. He further contends that if our security is to be guaranteed, we must be prepared to give up our right to exercise most of our rights. Above all, we must recognize the irrationality of permitting ourselves to retain any powers of questioning or judging the laws designed to maintain peace. Those laws are to provide a political mechanism comparable to the mechanistic universe governed by laws of nature. Hobbes admits that the operation of such an absolute form of sovereignty will bring many inconveniences. But he insists that these will always be fewer than the inconveniences caused by endless civil strife, the sole and inevitable alternative.
Hobbes’s conversion from the humanities to the sciences was so dramatic that one naturally turns to the Correspondence to see whether the shift can be pinpointed with any accuracy. Hobbes himself supplies us with a very precise date. Accused of plagiarism at one point in his argument with Descartes, he insists that he first articulated his theory “of the nature and production of light, sound, and all phantasms or ideas” in the presence of “those most excellent brothers William Earl of Newcastle and Sir Charles Cavendish” as early as the year 1630. It seems to have been this declaration that prompted Ferdinand Tönnies, in his pioneering work on Hobbes’s manuscripts over a century ago, to attribute to Hobbes, and to date to the year 1630, an anonymous manuscript to which Tönnies gave the title A Short Tract on First Principles. The Short Tract has now been published in a full-scale critical edition by Professor Jean Bernhardt, and he, too, concludes that the work is by Hobbes and was written between 1630 and 1631.2
The question of whether the Short Tract is indeed by Hobbes is of considerable importance to students of the scientific revolution. It certainly looks to be a thoroughly Hobbesian piece of work. Although it includes some claims that Hobbes subsequently repudiated, it is strongly reminiscent of his characteristically deductive and demonstrative style of reasoning. Moreover, it seeks to fulfill his basic ambition of outlining a purely mechanistic conception of nature and applying it to the explanation of human perceptions and faculties. Professor Bernhardt goes so far as to proclaim that, with its completion in 1631, we arrive at a moment of epoch-making importance: the beginning not merely of Hobbes’s contributions to modern philosophy but of modern philosophy itself.
Dr. Malcolm drops a bombshell at this point, but he detonates it in such a remote corner of his work that one might easily fail to notice. In the entry on Robert Payne in his “Biographical Register” he claims that the manuscript of the Short Tract is in Payne’s handwriting, and infers that the work “can plausibly be attributed” to Payne rather than Hobbes. Doubts have been expressed before about Hobbes’s authorship, but no one has previously ascribed the Short Tract so confidently to someone else. Dr. Malcolm’s authority in these matters is unsurpassed, but I must confess that I experienced a tremor of doubt at this point. I do not feel quite so sure as he does that the manuscript (which is preserved in the British Library) is unquestionably in Payne’s hand. But even if the handwriting is Payne’s, the contention that the Short Tract can therefore be attributed to him surely involves a non sequitur. Payne is known to have acted as a translator and copyist of other people’s work, and might well have been acting on this occasion as a copyist for Hobbes. I hesitate to cross swords with Dr. Malcolm, especially since 1631 admittedly strikes me as an implausibly early date for Payne to be performing such a service. But it seems to me that a number of mysteries surrounding the Short Tract remain to be solved.
After Hobbes’s change of direction in the 1630s he remained actively engaged in scientific research for the rest of his long life, increasingly concentrating on a series of intractable problems in geometry. When he published his Problemata Physica in 1660 he even persuaded himself that he had succeeded in squaring the circle, and instructed his publisher to solicit a reaction from the great Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens. It is painful to read the letter in which Huygens patiently explains that in his own book, De circuli magnitudine, he has already demonstrated that Hobbes’s key assumption is false for any numerical value whatsoever. Still more painful is his response to the further proofs that Hobbes insisted on sending him. The truth is, he concludes, that Hobbes “has so diminished his credit with everyone that, almost as soon as they see a new problem propounded by Hobbes, they declare that a new incorrectly drawn figure has appeared.”
Everyone except Hobbes recognized that his true bent lay not in the natural but in the human sciences. The culmination of his efforts in this field came with the publication of Leviathan, which first appeared in English in 1651 and was reissued (with extensive revisions and additions) in Latin in 1668. Hobbes tells us in his verse autobiography that he started to compose his masterpiece in the summer of 1646, but adds that initially he suffered great anxiety and could scarcely write at all. Post-Freudian readers will not be surprised to learn that after a year of trying he fell mysteriously ill and very nearly died. Recovering at the start of 1648, he must have begun to write at prodigious speed, but it is fascinating to see from his correspondence that he decided to keep his great work a secret. He was in touch with both Mersenne and the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi—two of his most trusted friends—in the summer of 1648 to give them his news, but he never mentioned his book. Still more strikingly, he definitely conveyed the impression when writing to another French philosopher, Samuel Sorbière, as late as June 1649 that he was working full time on his long-promised De Corpore, which eventually appeared in 1655.
After September 1649 we lose sight of Hobbes altogether. Not a single letter to or from him survives from that moment until his correspondence starts up again in the middle of 1651, immediately after the publication of Leviathan. From other evidence it is clear that the winter of 1649–1650 must have been a time of intense creativity. In a letter of May 1650 to Gilbert Sheldon, Robert Payne states that he has just received a note from Hobbes (now unfortunately lost) in which Hobbes reports—again using his favorite device of ironic understatement—that he is completing a new “trifle,” his subject being “Politique in English.” A year later Payne was able to inform the same correspondent that Hobbes’s trifle had just arrived in the bookshops of Oxford, and that “he calls it Leviathan.”
The publication of Leviathan brought Hobbes the lasting fame he had always craved. It is true that in his native country his reputation soon became deeply tinged with notoriety on the grounds of his supposed atheism. Samuel Pepys complains in his Diary that he had to pay three times the original price to obtain a copy of Leviathan in 1668, the reason being that it is “a book the Bishops will not let be printed again.” By contrast, the circulation of Leviathan in France and Germany brought Hobbes not merely fame but fervent discipleship. He began to receive numerous letters from a widening circle of continental admirers, and these make up the bulk of his correspondence from the closing years of his life.
It is perhaps unfortunate that by far the most faithful of these correspondents was the French mathematician François du Verdus. He pestered Hobbes with embarrassing effusions in Italian verse, including what he describes as a “philosophical night poem” and “a sort of short opera.” He became subject to fits of paranoia, writing that his enemies were poisoning him and casting spells to make him seem insane. Worst of all, he conceived the ambition of translating Leviathan into French, a project that led him to bombard Hobbes with page after page of queries which make one feel relieved that the work never appeared. Hobbes, for example, had joked at the end of his chapter “Of Counsel” that taking advice from large assemblies is as bad as trying to play tennis in a wheelbarrow. Du Verdus earnestly writes that “I have never seen anyone playing tennis in a wheel-barrow,” and asks Hobbes to say “whether it is played in that way in England” so that he will be able to translate the passage correctly.
Fortunately Hobbes’s other admirers were less eccentric, and there is much of great value in their letters, almost all of which are printed for the first time by Dr. Malcolm. Some of the most interesting came from the obscure but impressive figure of François Peleau, who raises some very good questions about Hobbes’s views on the political virtues and the anti-political aspects of human nature. Most impressive of all are two glowing tributes from Leibniz in the early 1670s. One of them congratulates Hobbes on being the first philosopher to use “the correct method of argument and demonstration” in political philosophy. The other ends by announcing that “I know of no other writer who has philosophized as precisely, as clearly, and as elegantly as you have—no, not excepting Descartes with his superhuman intellect.” Perhaps these words did something to compensate Hobbes for the bruising treatment he had suffered at Descartes’s hands all those years before.
If there is a disappointment in this part of the Correspondence, it is that so few letters from Hobbes himself survive. He once assured Sorbière that he always replied to any letters from his principal French correspondents. He must therefore have responded not merely to Du Verdus’s endless inquiries but to Peleau’s fascinating doubts about his theory of human nature. Dr. Malcolm makes it clear in his notes and bibliography that he has searched in every relevant French archive for any trace of these letters. We can be sure that these investigations will have been as thorough as humanly possible, and probably more so. But nothing has come to light.
As Dr. Malcolm concedes, however, this was perhaps to be expected. Hobbes and his correspondents lived in interesting times, a fact of which we are frequently made aware as we read of their efforts to evade the march of warfare and plague. Sometimes it seems a miracle that any letters have come down to us at all. Moreover, Hobbes had a good reason for not preserving his manuscripts in later life. John Aubrey, his first biographer, tells the story with chilling brevity. During the early 1660s, some of the bishops in Parliament “made a motion to have the good old gentleman burned for a heretic.” Hobbes “feared that his papers might be searched by their order,” and destroyed a large number of them. He may well have included some of his correspondence, for it is surprising as well as disappointing that not a single draft or fair copy has ever been found.
Despite the fact that only about seventy of Hobbes’s own letters survive, one of the pleasures of these volumes is the unexpected amount of information they yield about Hobbes’s character. The personality that emerges is fascinatingly different from the embattled and intolerant dogmatist portrayed by so many of his adversaries. One of his appealing qualities is a wryly deprecating sense of humor. Another is his evident concern to sustain a tone of magnanimity, even when feeling sorely provoked. Most attractive of all is his unswerving distaste for all displays of arrogance and self-importance. Nowhere is this better expressed than in his letter of 1638 to the Hon. Charles Cavendish, the younger brother of the Earl of Devonshire. Learning that Cavendish has been guilty of ill temper and harsh language, Hobbes responds by sketching an ideal of good conduct in tones of magnificent reproof. “The words of a gentleman,” he declares,
should be perspicuous and justifiable, and such as show greatness of courage, not spleen: To encourage inferiors, to be cheerful with one’s equals and superiors, to pardon the follies of them one converseth withall, and to help men off, that are fallen into the danger of being laughed at, these are signs of nobleness and of the master spirit. Whereas to fall in love with oneself upon the sight of other men’s infirmities, as they do that mock and laugh at them, is the property of one that stands in competition with such a ridiculous man for honour.
This is one of the many letters that leaves one deeply regretting that so much of Hobbes’s correspondence has been lost. But we must be grateful not merely for the letters that remain but for the truly spectacular job that Dr. Malcolm has done in making them available. The concept of definitive scholarship has been made to seem almost paradoxical in these postmodern days. But research of the quality displayed in these volumes reminds us that the ideal is by no means wholly out of reach.
April 4, 1996
Note that when quoting Hobbes’s letters, I have modernized spelling and punctuation. ↩
Thomas Hobbes, “A Short Tract on First Principles” in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, edited by Ferdinand Tönnies, new edition (London, 1969), pp. 193–210. Thomas Hobbes, “Courte Traitée des Premières Principes,” edited by Jean Bernhardt (Paris, 1988). ↩