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.

Of the trio of Hobbes scholars I mentioned above, Oakeshott is the one whose ideas stand most in need of further development today, for he is one of the few people who find Hobbes’s vision of human nature and the state not merely interesting but in some important sense true. Oakeshott’s own political philosophy is often reverently invoked by the theorists of the ‘New Right’: but his admiration for Hobbes reflects a strand of his thought which is quite incompatible with the sort of neo-Hegelianism which we find in such works as Scruton’s on conservatism. For the neo-Hegelians, every aspect of an individual’s life gains its meaning and worth from the cultural, social and ultimately political world he inhabits: to put it in traditional language, the ends of any individual are subordinate parts of a whole system of ends, which constitutes the state. For Hobbes, the individual’s ends are private, and they are subordinated to the state only extrinsically, in the sense that, if need be, the state can overrule them. The state does not set goals to human activity, but only prescribes limits to the ways in which people may pursue their goals within it – this is what Oakeshott has called an adverbial concept of law. Individuals are not formed by the state: the state is formed by the wills of individuals. What makes Hobbes attractive to Oakeshott is, I believe, this sort of individualism: Hobbes, with his scepticism about absolute intuitable moral verities, is liberal in a way in which liberalism, with its tradition of dogmatic moralism and rationalism, is not. This may sound surprising to anyone brought up on the standard view of Hobbes as a hard-boiled authoritarian who elevated the state to the level of a ‘mortal God’. But Hobbes was in fact very unpopular with the old-fashioned authoritarians of his day, partly because he attacked their traditional notions of teleological values which could be intuited by mankind and fulfilled in the social and political order, and partly because he founded the existence and legitimacy of the state on the consenting wills of the people who formed it. Of these two objectionable lines of argument the first was developed most fully in Leviathan, where it was linked to a wider attack on the philosophical apparatus of traditional theology. But the second received if not its fullest, then at least its most striking statement in the work which preceded Leviathan, and which, significantly, was called, not The Kingdom, The King or The Commonwealth, but The Citizen: De Cive.

De Cive is the middle work in the series of Hobbes’s three statements of his political theory. The most important way in which it differs from the earlier Elements of Law is in its development of a theory of authorisation: the government becomes for Hobbes an ‘artificial person’ which represents the wills of the individuals under it. Their acknowledgment of the government’s actions as implicitly willed by them is not something that can vary according to their approval or disapproval of particular actions: it is the fundamental condition of having a government, and the need for government is unvarying. The underlying argument had been the same in the Elements of Law: but there when Hobbes discussed the rights of the government over individuals, his main emphasis was on their duties of non-resistance and its sheer superior power. In De Cive he stresses that the government’s rights derive essentially from the fact that it is the authorised agent of each individual’s will. Some aspects of this theory were developed further in Leviathan, but there is in De Cive what one might almost call a populist element which disappears in the later work. Hobbes argues that before a monarchical state can be formed, the assembled individuals must first of all be transformed from a ‘Multitude’ of separate persons into a ‘People’, which is the primary political entity. In the second edition of De Cive Hobbes added a subtle account of the way in which individuals could be both members of the subject population and members of the sovereign, and it is tempting to see a link here with the sort of republican tradition on which Rousseau was later to draw. Of course, De Cive did not look like a republican work overall, both because of its claim that the people could transfer its authority irrevocably to a single ruler, and because of the long list of arguments Hobbes supplied for showing that monarchy was the most beneficial and least corruptible form of government. This overt support for monarchy, together with Hobbes’s tendency in the first edition to frame the premises of his argument in the phraseology of traditional Natural Law (especially his use of the term ‘right reason’), helps to explain why many people who were later to be scandalised by Leviathan were, like Clarendon, comparatively untroubled by De Cive.

In England De Cive has always been over-shadowed by its more scandalous sequel. In Europe, thanks no doubt to the succession of handy Elezevir pocket editions, De Cive has come closer to holding the centre of the stage. Writers on Natural Law such as Pufendorf and Leibniz based their interpretations of Hobbes on De Cive (which Leibniz called subtilissimus); it was the only work by Hobbes in Voltaire’s library; and when Kant discussed Hobbes, it was De Cive that he cited. (War-render is, however, probably mistaken in claiming that Spinoza knew only this work and not Leviathan.) This century it has been translated into Italian (three times), German, Spanish, Polish and Czech. Warrender’s edition should bring to an end the comparative neglect in this country of this crucial transitional work.

Some important transitions take place between the successive versions of the Latin text itself. Warrender uses the first (1642) edition as his copy-text, and records all material variants both in the later 1647 editions and in the original manuscript, so that it is possible to follow and compare on each page every chronological layer of the text; and his discussion of the order and identity of these early editions will lay a great deal of confusion permanently to rest. But he stops at 1647, announcing that there is ‘no evidence’ that Hobbes had a part in the production of any Latin version of De Cive after that year. This is simply wrong. Hobbes did have a part in the production of the 1668 Blaeu edition of his Latin works, which included De Cive; Blaeu actually visited him in London in 1664 to discuss the project, and in 1667, after sending him a proof copy, Blaeu’s son wrote to Hobbes requesting him to ‘look through it carefully, so that I may correct anything you might think necessary’. As it happens, Hobbes made no changes to De Cive for Blaeu, so ignoring this publication has done no damage to Warrender’s edition of the Latin text. But the 1668edition does, I believe, provide important evidence for thinking that Warrender is wrong in attributing the English translation of 1651 to Hobbes himself.

This is the translation which Warrender has edited as a companion volume. In the past, the attribution has usually gone to Hobbes either by default or on the strength of Aubrey’s story that Waller gave up his own attempt at a translation after seeing a specimen section translated by Hobbes. Aubrey, however, only states that Waller gave up, not that Hobbes continued; and the attribution to Hobbes has been doubtful ever since H.J.H. Drummond drew attention 11 years ago to the existence of an earlier version of the 1651 translation, which contains a dedicatory epistle by the translator signed ‘C.C.’. Warrender seems determined to give the credit to Hobbes. He prints this epistle not in its proper preliminary place but as an appendix. In his Introduction he is willing only to concede that Hobbes may have had some ‘assistance’ from C.C., although the epistle clearly implies that C.C. did the translation single-handed and without Hobbes’s knowledge. His main argument is that the translation is stylistically Hobbesian. He scrupulously notes that in places the translation diverges from or embellishes the original, but he then argues that such changes amount to ‘a great deal more than Hobbes would have allowed without his own active participation and sanction’: this is surely arguing back-to-front, begging the question of whether Hobbes ‘allowed’ the translation in the first place. Two proper tests can be applied. The first is that of comparison with Leviathan, which frequently incorporated phrases or sentences from De Cive; the English rendering of such phrases in Leviathan is so often different from that of the (contemporaneous) English translation of De Cive that it must seem unlikely that they were by the same man. The second test involves the 1668 Blaeu edition. As Warrender has carefully noted, the early Latin editions of De Cive frequently give slightly inaccurate references when citing passages from the Bible (which prompts the rather pleasing thought that the Monster of Malmesbury had such an encyclopedic knowledge of Holy Scripture that he felt able to quote it extensively from memory). The 1651 translation corrects many of these errors. If Hobbes had been responsible for these corrections, we might expect him to have similarly corrected the 1668 text when asked to check it by Blaeu: but the errors reappear there unaltered.

According to Warrender, Hobbes prepared his translation in 1650 ‘under pressure from the threat of piracy’; and he cites a letter from Hobbes’s friend Robert Payne to Sheldon of May 1650 which says: ‘I sent notice to Mr Hobbes, yt his booke De Cive was translated into English, & desird him to prevent yt translation by one of his owne.’ The letter continues, however: ‘but he sends me word he hath an other taske in hand, wch is Politiques, in English.’ Hobbes was far too busy writing Leviathan to bother with translating the work which it was intended to supersede. (Whether the translation Payne heard about was the one by C.C., which was not registered at Stationers’ Hall till November, we cannot tell: but what he goes on to describe in the same letter as a copy he has seen of the English De Cive missing its third section was, as a later letter makes clear, not De Cive at all but, as Richard Tuck has pointed out, the recently published second half of the Elements of Law.) Yet when all the evidence against Hobbes’s responsibility for the translation of De Cive is counted, the fact remains that the translation is not merely usable but very good: Warrender need not feel that he has wasted his efforts in editing it so meticulously for this series.

Lastly, a handful of minor errors in the Introduction and the Appendix of correspondence: the letter of 2 November 1646 should be II November; the letter from Sorbière to Wllefeldt is taken not from a letter to Wllefeldt but from the ‘Avertissement’ which Sorbiére put at the end of his French translation of De Cive; the invitation to Hobbes to stay at Montauban came not from du Verdus but from Martel. On some small points, because of its long gestation at the press. Warrender’s material has been overtaken or supplemented by the continuing publication of the Mersenne Correspondence; and Richard Pennington’s superb catalogue of Hollar’s etchings has now supplied the prehistory of the three mysterious engravings which are reproduced from C.C.’s translation. The identity of C.C. remains, however, a mystery.

Warrender has set the textual basis of Hobbes studies on a new footing, and we should be particularly grateful to him for the immensely useful cross-references he has supplied throughout his edition to passages in the Elements of Law and Leviathan. I have one final complaint. When these books were advertised to booksellers at the end of 1983, the price was given as £25 in hardback, £10 in paperback. They appeared in March 1984 in hardback only, at £35. At this rate, the Clarendon Press will rapidly reach the dizzy heights of the CUP. A £10 paperback of the English version would be a very useful addition to the list of buyable copies of Hobbes’s works: at £35 the market is surely confined almost entirely to libraries.