A Perpetual Object of Hatred to All Theologians

David Wootton

  • The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes: Vols I-II edited by Thomas Hobbes and Noel Malcolm
    Oxford, 592 pp, £60.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 824065 1

Although Thomas Hobbes lived to be 91, and was one of the most famous philosophers of his day, there are only 211 surviving letters to or from him. This compares with 3656 to or from Locke, some twenty thousand to or from Leibniz. For the last three decades of his life Hobbes suffered from Parkinson’s disease, but he always had the assistance of a secretary, and he seems to have replied to letters whenever he received them. Alas, few people wrote to him. Worse, most of his correspondents were obscure and insignificant. Between the letter from Henry Oldenburg, soon to be secretary of the Royal Society, in 1655 and Leibniz’s of 1670, the only letters between Hobbes and an intellectual of the first rank are two scathing reports transmitted through intermediaries by Christian Huygens. In them he dismisses Hobbes’s claim to have transformed geometry by a number of major discoveries, such as that the value of pi is the square root of ten, as ‘absurd childish nonsense’. Hobbes believed geometry was the queen of sciences because nobody contested the truth of geometrical proofs. It must have been deeply embarrassing for him to discover that his own efforts to square the circle convinced nobody, but provided yet further opportunities for his enemies to attack him. One of the best books on the reception of Hobbes’s philosophy is called The Hunting of Leviathan, and what we find in these two volumes is the correspondence of a philosopher who has been driven out of polite society.

Oldenburg’s letter of 1655 is a nice example of how uncomfortable respectable people (at least after the publication of Leviathan in 1651) were when dealing with Hobbes, who was assumed to be an atheist. (Malcolm thinks this assumption was false, but Hobbes’s close friend Sorbière seems to have shared the common view, judging by his paraphrase of Lucretius in his letter of 1645.) Oldenburg was writing to Hobbes about applied mathematics, but, like so many others, could not resist baiting him. (‘Here comes the bear to be baited,’ Charles II is reported to have said, seeing Hobbes approach.) What is needed, says Oldenburg, is a telescope capable of looking into the next world, and demonstrating the existence of a life after death. ‘But I do not digress into this point for fear of troubling you.’

Characteristically, Leibniz’s 1670 letter was never delivered. He sent it via Oldenburg, who commonly served as a faithful postman to the republic of science, and Oldenburg evidently suppressed it as insufficiently hostile. In it Leibniz had adopted the ironical tone that even Oldenburg had thought sufficient in 1655 – ‘The only thing I wish for is that you (who are more capable of it than anyone) may consider that task which Descartes started but did not finish, of strengthening our hopes of immortality’ – not realising that the gap between Hobbism and respectability was now too wide to be bridged by a joke. Another letter from Leibniz, which contains a telling but sympathetic critique of Leviathan, seeking to show that less drastic conclusions might be derived from Hobbes’s premises, survives only in draft, and it, too, was probably never seen by Hobbes. In the last nine years of his life the only significant intellectual to write to Hobbes, apart from his faithful friend John Aubrey, was the freethinker, and far from respectable, Charles Blount, whose letter is display of learning which – as Blount’s work often does – turns out to have been plagiarised, on this occasion from a manuscript by Henry Stubbe.

When they did write, respectable scholars sometimes had difficulty preventing themselves from troubling Hobbes. Bodley’s librarian, Thomas Barlow, writes in 1656-7 to thank him for the gift of a book: ‘I neither do nor ever did like your fierce censurers.’ But within a few lines he notes that Hobbes’s works appear heretical. (‘I know not what were the contents of Mr Barlow’s letter, but I begin to suspect they did not please you,’ their mutual friend Stubbe wrote a few weeks later.) Twenty years later, Barlow was to write an essay demonstrating that Hobbes could lawfully be executed for blasphemy, while protesting in the same breath that he loved him as a true friend.

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