Written by David Runciman
Why did Hobbes write Leviathan?
With some philosophical masterpieces this might seem a redundant question: they got written because their authors felt the truths in them had to be set down. But Thomas Hobbes broke off from writing what was meant to be his philosophical masterpiece in order to produce Leviathan. In the late 1640s, while in Paris to escape the extreme hazards of the English civil war, Hobbes had been laboring away on De Corpore, the foundational part of a projected Latin trilogy of natural and social philosophy. He was stuck, bogged down in intractable puzzles of metaphysics and mathematics. For years he had been promising friends it was nearly done; for years he had been missing his self-imposed deadlines. The third part of the trilogy – the political part – was already finished and had been published in 1642 and then more widely in 1647, under the title De Cive. Yet in the summer of 1649 Hobbes stopped work on De Corpore to churn out another treatise on politics that essentially rehashed the arguments he had circulated two years before (as Noel Malcolm says, the earlier book was almost certainly open on his desk as he wrote the later one). His progress on Leviathan was as fast as his work on De Corpore had been slow: he had a draft of the first thirty-seven chapters written in less than a year, and the whole thing (over 200,000 words) was done by early 1651. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the greatest work of political philosophy in the English language was a giant displacement activity.
Yet no one writes with such concentrated energy simply to avoid writing something else. Hobbes had things he felt needed to be said that he had not been able to say before. The fundamental claims about politics in Leviathan– that civil life is only possible under an absolute sovereign who has the power to take life-anddeath decisions on behalf of everybody, which must include the power to decide what counts as a life-anddeath decision – were ones from which Hobbes never really budged throughout his long writing life (from the late 1620s to the late 1670s).
Nonetheless, the book has some highly distinctive features. The most important is in some ways the most obvious: it was written in English. Hobbes had written an earlier version of his political philosophy in English – the Elements of Law of 1640 – but this was a privately circulated manuscript. De Cive had gained Hobbes considerable attention and some notoriety around Europe, in the Netherlands as well as in France. But it had not been translated from the Latin. Leviathan was a book ultimately written to be published – Malcolm
The urgency was driven by the pace of events in England (and Scotland). The war was clearly reaching a climax of sorts by 1649, and Hobbes wanted a version of his political philosophy available to suit the times. But the times kept changing. One of Hobbes’s jobs while in Paris had been as an occasional maths tutor to the exiled heir to the throne, the future Charles II. It may be that Leviathan began its life as a very traditional kind of writing: advice to a prince. This would be consistent with the idea that Hobbes began thinking about the book and making notes for it from 1646–7 onwards. One of the striking differences between De Cive and Leviathan is that the later book devotes much more space to describing the mechanics of government and the sovereign’s role within it. Previously Hobbes had seen things primarily from the point of view of the ruled, not of the ruler. As many readers have noted, De Cive (“On the Citizen”) is a somewhat puzzling title for Hobbes’s political thought given that his conception of citizenship seems so attenuated: it is boiled down to a relationship of obedience and protection, in which all power resides with the protector. Nonetheless it points to the primary audience Hobbes had in mind in the early 1640s: he wanted to instruct citizens thinking of rebelling why they should think twice. By the second half of the decade, with the rebellion in full swing, he had another aim in mind: to instruct the future king, once he got his kingdom back, how to stop it all happening again.
However, when Hobbes came to write Leviathan, two things happened to upset this plan.
First, Hobbes lost his post at the court of Charles in Paris. Hobbes’s strict views about the civil source of all religious authority – essentially, he thought sovereigns should tell clergymen what to do, never the other way round – made him deeply suspect to the exiled Anglican clergy around Charles, many of whom had Catholic sympathies. Hobbes was the last person they wanted dishing out political advice to their protector, since that advice threatened their hold over him. So Hobbes became persona non grata.
Second, it had become increasingly clear that the Stuarts would not be getting their kingdom back any time soon. The execution of Charles I in 1649, followed by the decisive military ascendancy of the new regime over recalcitrant royalists during the following year, pointed to a fundamental shift in power. Scotland remained in flux (and an ongoing source of royalist hopes), but England at least was now under parliamentary rule. Hobbes had always argued that rulers should be obeyed, whoever they were. So should royalists now endorse the new regime?
When he came to the end of writing Leviathan late in 1650, Hobbes reluctantly concluded that the answer was yes. He added a “Review and Conclusion” to the book which indicated that although the rebels had been wrong to rebel, now that they were sovereign they should be obeyed. This seeming volte-face was partly prompted by Hobbes’s desire to return home, which he eventually did at the end of 1651. As Malcolm points out, Hobbes’s reputation as a known royalist would have made his endorsement a particular prize for the new regime. But this was not just a piece of political pragmatism. Hobbes was trying to be consistent: he believed that obedience followed protection, and if Charles was no longer in a position to protect his subjects, he could no longer expect to be obeyed. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Hobbes had to do a lot of wriggling to try to explain what he had done a decade earlier. He claimed his intentions had never been anything other than to pursue the royalist cause by whatever means were available: at that point (late 1650), with nothing to be gained by continuing the fight, he was simply advocating a husbanding of resources until the struggle could be resumed. Why antagonize the new regime, when what mattered was waiting it out? In 1662 Hobbes wrote a careful mea culpa to explain himself to the new king: “Fighting against your enemies, and seizing whatever weapons I could, I used one sword that had a double edge”. This was disingenuous. The fundamental lesson of Leviathan is that only sovereigns can decide who is entitled to wield the sword, and as Hobbes knew full well, in 1650 neither he nor his future king were in a position to make that decision.
The present-day reputation of Leviathan is somewhat ironic. Modern readers are shocked by the book’s political philosophy, with its seemingly bleak view of human nature and its endorsement of sovereign power with no constitutional constraints. Yet in fact Leviathan offers perhaps the most accommodating version of Hobbes’s political thinking. It adds to the earlier argument of De Cive a novel conception of political representation, which although far removed from the modern democratic understanding of the idea, displays some of the lineaments of it. In De Cive Hobbes envisaged the state as having a democratic foundation in popular consent that must necessarily be abandoned in favour of monarchy for reasons of practicality. In Leviathan he offers an account of politics that is open to multiple different political forms. I suspect one reason Leviathan has retained its fascination is that Hobbes’s attempt to map his idea of sovereignty on to a shifting political landscape gave it an open-ended quality, which has allowed later readers to find what they were looking for in it. Hobbes’s contemporaries were more confused than outraged by his political views: they couldn’t be sure if he was really a monarchist or not. What scandalized them were the parts of the book that modern readers skip over: the assault on religion.
Noel Malcolm deals with this rich and intriguing history in his superb introduction to the new edition of the text in Oxford’s Clarendon series (of which Malcolm is one of the general editors, along with Quentin Skinner and Keith Thomas). Everything about these three volumes is testimony to Malcolm’s extraordinary scholarly range and precision. Just as impressive is the lucidity of Malcolm’s own prose. The issues with which he deals in his introduction – eventeenth-century theology and politics, the twists and turns of the civil war, the intrigue and infighting in Paris, even the multifarious possible interpretations of the term “Leviathan” itself – are intricate and potentially confusing, but he writes about them with exemplary clarity. Specialists will find fresh insights on almost every page, but the argument could be followed by an undergraduate (though by pricing the volumes at nearly £200, Oxford University Press has ensured that almost none will be able to buy it). Malcolm’s measured and gently sceptical style is a perfect complement to Hobbes’s own extravagant scepticism, which in Leviathan can be overwhelming.
The text itself is laid out as a parallel edition of the English and Latin versions of the book. The Latin translation was produced by Hobbes himself around 1667–8. It is shorter than the English version, and not just because Latin is a more parsimonious language. Hobbes made his own contractions and omissions, which included ditching the whole of the “Review and Conclusion”. Many of these adjustments were in the ongoing spirit of making the politics suitable for the times – so, for instance, Hobbes eliminated any passages that indicated it was acceptable to pledge allegiance to successful rebels, now that the rebels were no longer successful. But at the same time, the Latin Leviathan barely modifies the theology of the original – if anything, it doubles down on some of its more outrageous elements. Hobbes added an appendix that spelled out the theological implications of his materialist philosophy, including the deeply contentious idea that God must be a corporeal entity, since the idea of “incorporeal substance” was in Hobbes’s terms an obvious absurdity. He also stuck to his guns on the question of the afterlife: since the only form of resurrection that made sense for Hobbes was the restoration of a body to motion, he insisted that the elect would resume life on earth as corporeal beings. All in all, the Latin Leviathan confirms the impression left by the English one: Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy was more adaptable than is sometimes supposed; his theology much less so. On the question of why Hobbes wrote Leviathan, Malcolm concludes that in relation to the parts of his argument that first dominated the attention of his intended audience, the straightforward answer might yet be the most lausible. “Where Hobbes’s unorthodox theology is concerned, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he wrote as he did for one compelling reason above all: he believed that what he wrote was true.”
© David Runciman
David Runciman is Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge.
He is the author, most recently, of The Confidence Trap: A history of democracy in crisis, which is due to be published later this year.
Copyright © The Times Literary Supplement Limited 2011.