The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes: Vols I-II 
edited by Thomas Hobbes and Noel Malcolm.
Oxford, 592 pp., £60, September 1994, 0 19 824065 1
Show More
Show More

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.

Hobbes was betrayed by closer friends than Barlow. Henry Stubbe, at one time hard at work on a translation of Leviathan into Latin, did not hesitate, when put on the spot, to protest that he had never read any of Hobbes’s books. He even had the effrontery to warn Hobbes that this was what he was about to do, and, in order to make his lie credible, proceeded to remove his friend’s books from his shelves. The poet Waller, asked by Aubrey after Hobbes’s death to write an elegy, replied frankly ‘that he was afraid of the Churchmen.’ Hobbes would scarcely have blamed him, for he saw himself as being ‘a perpetual object of hatred’ to all the theologians, and would not have expected his death to placate them. It is touching to find him in 1662 thanking Margaret Cavendish for the gift of one of her own works: ‘For tokens of this kind are not ordinarily sent but to such as pretend to the title as well as to the mind of friends.’ Hobbes had had too much experience of friends who would share their thoughts with him, but would not own him in public.

A further disappointment of this correspondence is that few of the letters touch on politics, though we catch glimpses in them of an egalitarian, liberal mind. Hobbes writes to his patron, William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, in 1635, to tell him ‘once for all, that though I honour you as my lord, yet my love to you is just of the same nature that it is to Mr Payne, bred out of private talk, without respect to your purse,’ or, one might add, to his rank. In 1668, Hobbes was asked his opinion of Martha Taylor, a victim of what we would now call anorexia nervosa, whose ability to survive without food was thought miraculous. Did she pass excrement or urine? Hobbes naturally wondered, and then checked himself: ‘I think it were somewhat inhuman to examine of these things too nearly, when it so little concerneth the commonwealth; nor do I know of any law that authorises a Justice of Peace or other subject to restrain the liberty of a sick person so far as were needful for a discovery of this nature. I cannot therefore deliver any judgment in the case.’ Hobbes, who had burnt many of his own papers for fear they would be used to convict him of heresy, had no desire to invade another’s privacy.

Even his prose is exceptionally plain and direct, betraying little concern to assert its author’s status. In 1660, he writes, for example, a short, moving letter to Sorbière expressing his grief over the death of their friend du Bosc: ‘news which I do not wish to know can never, I think, be too slow in coming.’ Within a few months, Sorbière had published what he claimed was the text of Hobbes’s letter, but in which only this one sentence survives as Hobbes had written it, the rest being composed in what Sorbière complacently described as ‘a thoroughly philosophical style’, but which seems to a modern reader infinitely inferior to Hobbes’s own prose.

In the course of his work on the correspondence, Noel Malcolm has developed an extraordinary familiarity with Hobbes’s handwriting and that of his friends and associates. The anonymous collector who owns ‘Considerations touching the facility or difficulty of the motions of a horse’, a work always previously attributed to Hobbes, will be dismayed to find it re-attributed to one of his closest friends, Robert Payne. Another tract, of considerable importance as it has generally been taken to be Hobbes’s first major work of philosophy, the ‘Short Tract on First Principles’, has also recently been re-attributed to Payne, correctly in Malcolm’s view, although the original argument was flawed as it took as specimens of Payne’s handwriting letters written indeed by Payne, but transcribed by Thomas Birch. It is a shame that arguments which depend on this sort visual evidence are not supported by photographs.

Recent work by N.B. Reynolds and J.L. Hilton forces us to ask how reliable judgments of style (whether of hand or prose) can be. They subjected an anonymous volume of essays published in 1620 under the title Horae Subsecivae to computer analysis. Many years ago, Leo Strauss discovered that part of this volume existed as a manuscript in Hobbes’s handwriting. He was too sensible to ascribe the essays to Hobbes, as the same manuscript claimed they were by his pupil William Cavendish, but he suspected it might be possible to trace Hobbes’s influence in them. Later, less cautious scholars have claimed them, evidently mistakenly, as the work of Hobbes himself. Reynolds and Hilton invite us to turn our attention not to these manuscript essays, but to the other essays in Horae Subserivae, which have no known manuscript source. These, they claim, are written in a style indistinguishable from Hobbes’s.

Cavendish’s essays are not without interest as an indication of Hobbes’s intellectual concerns in the 1610s and 1620s, when he was in his twenties and thirties, but had yet to publish or discover geometry. One of them, ‘Of Affectation’, contains a mocking account of those who claim to study affairs of state: Hobbes and Cavendish must have met many such men in their Continental journey of 1610-3, and the first surviving letter to Hobbes, which was written in 1622, makes it clear that he was thought of as an expert in the analysis of contemporary politics. Perhaps the affectation Cavendish mocks is Hobbes’s. Another essay, ‘Of Detraction’, discusses the ease with which good things can be given wrong names:

as, if a man be liberal, he is prodigal; if parsimonious, covetous; it magnificent, ambitious; if courteous, then he is of a weak and servile spirit; if grave, then proud; if considerate in danger, then a coward; if valorous, rash; if silent, cunning; if a discourses, then one that loves to hear himself talk. When John Baptist came neither eating, nor drinking, they said he had a devil; and when our Saviour came eating, and drinking, they said, ‘Behold a glutton, and a wine-bibber.’

Such mislabelling, it argues, leads not only to moral confusion, but also to political chaos. The subject of this essay is the rhetorical technique of paradiastole, or the misdescription of ethical behaviour, a preoccupation with which, Quentin Skinner has recently argued, lies at the heart of Hobbes’s mature moral and political philosophy, and which we can imagine found a central place in the education of his pupil.

But internal evidence alone is sufficient to identify these essays as being by a wealthy aristocrat, not the penurious Hobbes. It is a quite different matter when it comes to the three lengthy essays on Tacitus, Rome and the law which Reynolds and Hilton attribute to Hobbes. Their style is different, their author holds far less conventional opinions when it comes to matters of religion, and he sees the world from the point of view of the poorer classes. Is it Hobbes? If it is, these essays provide not only our earliest evidence of his religious views, not only striking confirmation that his earliest preoccupations were with reason-of-state theory, but even, remarkably, an early draft of his notorious claim that life in the state of nature would involve a war of all against all, and would consequently be nasty, brutish and short:

If men were not limited within certain rules such confusion would follow in government that all the differences in right and wrong, just and unlawful, could never be distinguished; and that would cause such distraction in the people, and give so great an overthrow to conversation and commerce amongst men, that all right would be perverted by power, and all honesty swayed by greatness. So that the equal administration of justice is the true knot that binds us to unity and peace amongst ourselves, and disperseth all such violent and unlawful courses as otherwise liberty would insinuate, preserving every man in his right, and preventing others, who if they thought their actions might pass with impunity, would not measure their courses by the rule of Aequum and Justum, but by the square of their own benefit and affections. And so, not being circumscribed within reasonable bounds, their reason becomes invisible; whereas when they find that Justice hath a predominant power, they are deterred from proceeding in those acts that otherwise their own wills and inclination would give them leave to effect.

In my judgment these three essays do indeed read like Hobbes. If they are his, he was already by 1620 a political philosopher, and the story of how he came to be one is one on which his correspondence throws no light. The second letter is from 1628, a full six years later than the first, and in it Hobbes (who was shortly to discover Euclid) announces that his translation of Thucydides is in the press. By mid-1640 he had completed his first mature work of political philosophy, the Elements of Law. He was 52, yet only 28 letters to and from him (and virtually no other manuscripts) survive from these formative years. In 1636, Hobbes wrote that ‘the extreme pleasure I take in study overcomes in me all other appetites.’ What did he have to show for his years of study by the time he wrote these words? Very little in the way of natural philosophy, if the ‘Short Tract’ is not his, though within a year Sir Kenelm Digby was to address him (ironically?) as ‘you that know more than all men living’. Rather more in the way of political philosophy, if Reynolds and Hilton are right. If their claim is accepted (Chicago arc shortly to publish the essays in question), it will require a major revision of our understanding of Hobbes’s intellectual development.

Why read these letters, then, if they are for the most part so uninformative? One reason is that they provide an opportunity to meet Hobbes’s most eccentric correspondent, François du Verdus. We first encounter du Verdus as he struggles to learn English in order to read Leviathan: his inability to make sense of the text results in page after page of comic queries, such as ‘“ no argument taken from thence can become a doctor.” Does an argument turn into a doctor?’ In 1656 he writes for Hobbes a short account of his own life, describing quite rationally how his guardian (his father had died when he was two months old) had cheated him of his inheritance. He sold his claim on it to a friend, who insisted he become a subdeacon so that he could never produce legitimate heirs who might claim it back. But his friend never delivered on his side of the bargain, and his sister, who had become a nun, was driven out of her convent by poverty. She then became the centre of a plot involving the Archbishop of Bordeaux and the Jesuits, who were determined to deprive du Verdus of his property. By 1664 his stories have a logic all their own: ‘But where others are concerned, I have become battle-hardened. For three years I have seen, in my room, noble ladies who have husbands but who also have the pox; pretty girls and young widows, who played fair with me, but who were in any case pregnant; and many other worthy people, who, however, I decided were spies.’ By the end of his life du Verdus was clearly given to fits of lunacy (he himself describes paralysis and amnesia, and his paranoia is self-evident). Amongst the achievements of his last years was an erotic lesbian love poem (which ends with a lesbian marriage). This was written in Italian when passion restored him briefly to his senses (and to his knowledge of the language), and he hoped it would be published after his death. Now at last it sees the light of day, because it was enclosed in a letter to Hobbes.

Du Verdus’s letters draw one on, as one awaits confirmation of the first niggling suspicion that he is quite mad. Long after it comes, and long after his other friends have abandoned him, Hobbes continues to write faithfully, and offers to dedicate a forthcoming work to him. ‘You are a good friend,’ Sorbière told Hobbes, and it is pleasant to have such a clear example of selfless behaviour towards an old friend in trouble, particularly from a philosopher of egotism. Indeed, one is pleased to make the acquaintance of du Verdus himself. It may be an irony that the result of Oldenburg’s officiousness is that we have Hobbes’s replies to du Verdus, not his replies to Leibniz, and that the end product of Malcolm’s labours is that we know more about du Verdus’s hopes and fears than Hobbes’s.

Another reason for reading these volumes is to delight in Noel Malcolm’s scholarship. He provides careful transcriptions and sound translations (Hobbes wrote Latin as fluently as English): we expect as much. He has not only hunted for letters across the globe, but sought out every detail of information which might cast light, not only on Hobbes himself, but on anyone with whom he exchanged letters; indeed, on anyone mentioned in a letter to or from Hobbes. Malcolm doesn’t boast about the innumerable small archival triumphs which adorn the notes: the most important is the discovery of a previously unknown copy-book of Blount’s which throws new light on his intellectual interests and opinions. Only Malcolm’s failures give some indication of his assiduity. Thomas de Martel, for example, wrote four letters to Hobbes between 1654 and 1657. Malcolm sets out to reconstruct his life and rescue him from obscurity. But when did he die? Most editors would, after a day or two’s labour, have given up, cheerfully confessing ignorance. When Malcolm tells us that after 1679 ‘he disappears from the records entirely’ he pauses to list the series of documents in the archives of Montauban, de Martel’s home town, that he has searched, and all the other sources he has explored without success.

Malcolm is the most discreet of editors, never intruding his own views, and this self-effacement means, unfortunately, that we cannot yet be sure what he thinks we have to learn from these letters. He has long been working on a biography of Hobbes; only when it appears will we know what larger conclusions he believes can be drawn from the detailed evidence he has so painstakingly assembled. Meanwhile, the last word should go to Hobbes. In what was probably his last letter he wrote to Charles II asking that payment of his pension be resumed ‘considering his extreme age, perpetual infirmity, frequent and long sickness, and the aptness of his enemies to take any occasion to report, that your petitioner by some ill behaviour hath forfeited your wonted favour’. So, surrounded by his enemies, he died. It is fitting that, more than three centuries since the University ordered copies of Leviathan to be burnt, Oxford University Press should at last treat him with the respect he was denied in his lifetime.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences