Citizen Hobbes

Noel Malcolm

Hobbes studies are booming. The production of books and articles on Hobbes and everything (Hobbes and Laughter; Hobbes and the American Constitution; Hobbes and Vico, or Dryden, or Hegel ...) has reached record levels. Yet the essential scholarly machinery on which one might expect such a thriving industry to depend is in fact jerry-built and creaking with age: the standard edition of Hobbes’s works was published nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and suffers from incompleteness, unreliable transcriptions and an often arbitrary choice of copy-texts. Scholars have always known that most of Hobbes’s works have complex textual histories, but they have usually shied away from the task of tackling them editorially. Now at long last Howard Warrender has produced what promises to be the first work in a new complete edition of Hobbes’s philosophical writings. The text he has tackled is one of the most complex of all, and it is not surprising to learn that his painstaking work on it took nearly twenty years to finish (though it is rather surprising that it then apparently spent more than four years in the press).

Hobbes scholars were, of course, already indebted to Warrender before he embarked on his editorial work. The post-war surge of interest in Hobbes owes its impetus to the writings of three men: Howard Warrender, Quentin Skinner and Michael Oakeshott; of these, it is Warrender’s book The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1957) that has produced the greatest quantity of subsequent discussion and development. This book had the merit of taking Hobbes seriously as a major moral and political philosopher and at the same time tying him down to some quite specific, technical issues in the theory of obligation. The essence of Warrender’s view was that Hobbes did not reduce moral ‘oughts’ to prudential ‘shoulds’ or psychological ‘musts’. Moral obligation existed independently of these, but could be prevented from operating if certain prudential or psychological conditions were not met. To Warrender’s critics this seemed like saying, ‘you needn’t do what you are obliged to do unless you also want to do it (or could in principle want to do it),’ which did not sound like a strong defence of the difference between obligation and motivation. But Warrender might well have answered that this was a criticism not of him but of Hobbes. His interpretation, unlike many others, allowed him to recognise Hobbes’s claim that the Laws of Nature continue to oblige in conscience even in circumstances where they cannot safely be obeyed. Warrender’s philosophical account of Hobbes carried some historical implications: it suggested that Hobbes was much closer to the Natural Law tradition than most previous critics had allowed. Yet Warrender was engaged in a very different sort of interpretative enterprise from that of Quentin Skinner, who, in a famous series of articles, set about placing Hobbes’s ideas in a detailed historical context. It is, nevertheless, from a work which is in some ways close in spirit to Skinner, Richard Tuck’s Natural Rights Theories, that the most penetrating recent criticism of Warrender has come.

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