Modernity’s Bodyguard

Phil Withington

Four historians in a Cambridge bar, c.1998: one literary, a second legal, the third political, and the fourth a social historian. All specialise in the 16th and 17th centuries. The social historian, desperate for something to say, asks: ‘So who’s the most important writer of the early modern period?’ Without hesitation the legal and political historians reply, in unison: ‘Hobbes.’ Eyes turn to the literary historian, who has a reputation for irascibility, expecting the conversation to kick off. After a considerable pause he says: ‘I’m afraid that on this occasion I can only agree.’

Thomas Hobbes, political philosopher and inveterate royalist, has always had his admirers and loathers: from the moment his greatest work, Leviathan, was published in 1651, he has attracted reverence and spite, though rarely indifference, in equal measure. But over the last forty years he has become more than simply a writer with whom to agree or disagree on the fundaments of political society, ecclesiology or human nature. He has emerged, rather, as the fulcrum, emblem or even ghost in the machine for a number of ways of writing early modern history. In terms of the way historians approach and conceive of the era, Hobbes’s shadow may well be longest.

Who was he and why is he now seen to be so important? One of the most informative and entertaining hagiographies, and the starting point for all modern treatments, was written by the antiquarian John Aubrey towards the end of Hobbes’s long and eventful life (1588-1679). This became the fullest of the pen-portraits which make up Brief Lives, and from Aubrey we learn that Hobbes was, in many respects, a quintessential product of the age. He grew up in the small borough of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, the son of a troubled vicar (troubledness being a vocational hazard in post-Reformation England), with close kin among the prosperous tradesmen of the town. His uncle was a successful glover and burgess – the same trade and standing as Shakespeare’s father – who ensured that Hobbes, like Shakespeare, received the best education locally available. This was something of a golden age for English schooling, certainly for clever boys like Shakespeare and Hobbes, born into the burgeoning middle ranks of society, and Hobbes made the most of it. He proceeded to university (again supported by his uncle) and from there into the service of the powerful Cavendish family – which included the earls of Devonshire and Newcastle – with whom he spent the rest of his life as tutor and secretary. It was in this capacity that he became a familiar fixture among the political and intellectual elites not only in England but across Europe, with access to all the intellectual resources he required (his duties included running the Devonshires’ library at Chatsworth).

Aubrey describes him as tall (‘six feet high’ and ‘erect’) with a close-shaved beard and skin that Hobbes’s friend Francis Bacon said was as soft as goose-skin. He had ‘a good eye, and that of a hazel colour’ – an eye that even in his seventies shone like a ‘bright live-coal’ when he was ‘earnest in discourse’. The Cavendish family ‘loved his company for his pleasant facetiousness and good nature’; he liked ‘good wine’ but gave it up ‘after sixty’; preferred to ‘contemplate’ rather than to read books (he thought ‘with great steadiness’ and hardly ever took a ‘false step’); and always had a board of lined paper at the ready to jot down his thoughts. ‘When a line came into his head, he would, as he was walking, take a rude memorandum of it, to preserve it in his memory until he came to his chamber.’ In later years he always ate dinner at 11 a.m., after which ‘he took a pipe of tobacco’ before having ‘a nap of about half an hour’. The picture emerges, in short, of a man whose privileged position in the household of one of England’s leading noble dynasties allowed a remorseless devotion to his own intellect. Such a position was comparable to the learned seclusion offered by university colleges, though with two important differences. Hobbes was not constrained by curriculums and collegiate responsibilities. And he was always only one door away from the realities of state politics. He had plenty of time for ‘contemplating’; but his ‘sharp wit’ was informed by and directed at political circumstances and events.

And what circumstances they were. He was born the year the English miraculously staved off invasion by the Spanish; was a child of the European wars of religion; was exiled in middle age by a long civil war, and then forced to comprehend not only the execution of Charles I but also the abolition of monarchy; survived to see the restoration of kings, and indeed the royalist Cavendish family, to power; and died the year England seemed to be inexorably slipping once again into civil catastrophe. He enjoyed the dubious pleasure of living in ‘interesting times’, and his philosophical response was equally dramatic. He grasped more clearly than perhaps any of his contemporaries the disruptive power of the cultural forces that characterised the age, leading him to condemn the various stripes of religious militancy and activism unleashed by the Reformation, whether Catholic, Calvinist, independent, Episcopalian or sectarian. He also attacked some of the prevailing shibboleths of the Renaissance. Most obviously, he decried the widespread habit among his peers of proclaiming Greek democracy and Roman republicanism as appropriate templates for modern polities. He also came to share Bacon’s contempt for the contemporary obsession with language and rhetoric that Renaissance teaching – and his own education – encouraged.

For Hobbes, this fetish for language and discourse didn’t only obscure the material reality of things, not least the basic will to power which was what really drove men to speak and act. It also led to a dangerous relativism, according to which no opinion or argument could claim and exert authority over another. Hobbes looked to construct what he called a ‘doctrine’ of political society in which disruptive forces – whether religious enthusiasm, classical emulation or human ambition – were nullified and the supremacy of sovereign authority systematically explained and defended. This he did by imagining ‘the state’ from the bottom up. Its foundation stones were an account of human psychology and motivation rooted in the will to power; its brickwork was the basic contract between governors and governed, whereby the state ensured the individual’s right to life; its roof was the arch of an undivided sovereignty which exerted final and definitive authority in both civil and spiritual affairs. For Hobbes, in short, the only antidote to ideological chaos and endemic warfare was the absolute sovereign state.

His long influence can be found in at least three traditions of early modern history-writing since the Second World War. He has become central to what has become known as the contextual approach to political thought and political philosophy. He is emblematic of the characterisation of the 16th and 17th centuries as modern and modernising. And his phantom haunts accounts of the past that conceive of human behaviour and societies primarily in terms of power. While some of these legacies are more explicit than others, all are resonant with a Hobbesian view of the world. And what is especially striking is that this view is by no means limited to accounts of elite politics and philosophy.

Take the new social history, which was encouraged by the ‘sociological turn’ in the humanities during the 1960s. A key concept of this turn – perhaps the key concept – was power. One of its leading exponents, Keith Wrightson, ruminated in 1996 that although social historians had not said much about ‘affairs of state’ over the past few decades, they had been wholly preoccupied with ‘politics’ in the broader sense: with ‘the social distribution and use of power’, with the way ‘different actors and different meanings’ contend ‘with one another for control’, with the ‘political dimensions of everyday life’. From citizenship to marital relations, from learning to read and write to public drinking, from receiving and giving charity to coping with plague: power insinuated and explained everything people did. One can imagine Hobbes drawing on his pipe after dinner and nodding sagely, because he reduced everything to power too. For him it included personal qualities – a person’s ‘Strength, Form, Prudence, Arts, Eloquence, Liberality, Nobility’. It accounted for social, or what he termed ‘instrumental’ powers: riches, reputation, friends, popularity, patriotism, knowledge, even good luck. And the point of all these powers was to harvest more power, whether personal or instrumental. Hobbes didn’t privilege the power of class and gender, as social historians have done. He didn’t rage against the inequalities that power induced (it was disorder rather than inequality that haunted him). Nor, in this instance, was his shadow felt directly: it was Hobbes’s intellectual descendants – Marx and Weber on the one hand, Nietzsche and Foucault on the other – to whom sociologists and historians turned for their conceptual cues. But it was unquestionably Hobbes who etched the first lines on this particular palimpsest.

Hobbes’s silhouette is clearer when it comes to modernity. His shrewder peers identified him as ‘modern’ from the start; the greatest work of classical republican theory in English, James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (published in 1656), was written as a direct refutation of the ‘modern prudence’ of Leviathan. Hobbes subsequently looms in the emergence of modern scientific and philosophical inquiry – in Susan James’s wonderful history of the emotions in 17th century thought, for instance, or Simon Schaffer’s definitive discussion of the birth of modern scientific experimentation (a method that chafed against Hobbes’s absolutist conception of epistemological order). Indeed Hobbes is so central to these stories that Bruno Latour has called him the prime source of our discombobulated modern condition.

But as with his appreciation of power, what is most surprising about Hobbes’s modernity is that it haunts our understanding not only of elite politics and science but of popular culture. An important undertow in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, for example, is that belief in magic and other supernatural phenomena became increasingly problematic in the face of modern learning and attitudes. Hobbes accordingly appears throughout the book as a kind of sceptical enforcer. When Thomas wants Catholic sacraments exposed as superstition, he calls on Hobbes. When he wants to show the perceived limitations of Renaissance medicine, or the unlikelihood of miracles, or divine revelation, or ghosts, he quotes Hobbes. Indeed, Thomas’s essential narrative of a culture becoming modern is derived in no small part from a keen appreciation of Hobbes’s scepticism.

Even as social and cultural historians were establishing the power dynamics and belief systems of early modern England, another group of historians was turning to Hobbes in order to carve out a different agenda. Rather than interpreting English society through the timeless prism of power, or using Hobbes’s scepticism to tell a story of modernisation, this agenda looked to place the texts, ideas and language of canonical thinkers in their immediate historical context. This rubbed against traditional political philosophy, which regarded ideas as largely independent of the circumstances in which they were conceived and thinkers as a relay team passing the conceptual baton – democracy, say, or freedom – from one generation to the next. And it also had implications for understanding political ideas and language more generally: if canonical texts were always symptomatic of the culture in which they were produced and communicated, then the culture itself must be resonant with the text in ways more complicated than historians had necessarily assumed.

A significant moment for this new approach to political culture was Peter Laslett’s 1960 edition of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Whereas the Two Treatises had traditionally been regarded as a justification for the Glorious Revolution (a natural assumption given that it was published in 1689) and as the rock on which modern liberal constitutionalism was built, Laslett demonstrated that it was written ten years earlier, as part of a significantly different and altogether more radical set of conversations. But it was Quentin Skinner’s work on Leviathan that transformed Laslett’s attention to circumstantial detail into a full-blown methodology. Skinner placed the text in the immediate context of its publication, as justifying obedience to the nascent English republic. He also began to excavate the complex cultural traditions that made its writing possible. And now that it has become entirely orthodox for intellectual historians to consider ideas in context, it is the ideas of Hobbes which, it seems, they still most want to contextualise.

The phantom of social history, modernity’s bodyguard, the epitome of historicised political thought: it is little wonder that Hobbes was the unanimous writer of choice in that bar in Cambridge, or that this Oxford edition of Leviathan has been so eagerly awaited. Noel Malcolm’s magnificent feat of scholarship, which presents the English (1651) and Latin (1668) versions of Leviathan side by side, does not disappoint. Malcolm presents us with three volumes. The introduction, a scholarly monograph in its own right, discusses the contexts in which Hobbes wrote the English Leviathan as well as the somewhat different circumstances in which he translated his own prose into Latin. Malcolm also provides detailed and reflective chapters about the editorial process. Because the English and Latin editions are presented side by side the book is cumbersome, requiring two large volumes and 1400 pages, but the chance to move at a glance from English to Latin and back again is worth it. Despite his materialism, or rather because of his deep suspicion of rhetoric, Hobbes was extremely interested in the power of words. As a result, much of Leviathan can be read as an extended dictionary in which the author determines the meaning of terms in order to retain authority over the argument. It is therefore entirely appropriate, as well as extremely useful for the reader, that Malcolm invests considerable editorial energy in excavating and historicising key terms.

These high editorial standards should not be surprising given Malcolm’s reputation as the leading Hobbes scholar of his generation, and the interpretative ambition of his introduction matches the care and rigour of the edited volumes. Specific textual issues which will excite specialists are dealt with. Malcolm examines the extent to which Leviathan echoes and differs from Hobbes’s earlier treatise De Cive. He demonstrates that Hobbes did not write the Latin Leviathan before the English version, as some scholars have claimed. And he argues that politics and Leviathan were, in fact, unwanted distractions for Hobbes, who spent most of the 1640s wrestling with ‘his treatise on logic, metaphysics and physics, De Corpore’. But the main purpose of the introduction is to conjure a ‘Laslett moment’, when, thanks to his recovery of the chronology and intent of Leviathan, Malcolm makes us see it in a markedly new and different light. His claim is that Hobbes originally conceived of Leviathan in 1646 in Paris, while acting as tutor to the future Charles II. Its purpose was to set out his ‘theories of human nature and political authority in an accessible way’. The status of the project changed with the regicide in 1649 and the very real possibility that Charles would succeed to the throne: the text Hobbes had been compiling became less a pedagogic tool, more an advice manual on the conditions of monarchical sovereignty. The situation changed again when the possibility of a royal succession receded and Hobbes decided to end his exile and make his peace with the republicans. Malcolm is at pains to emphasise that at each moment his basic idea of absolute and undivided sovereignty – monarchical or republican – remained constant; but the effect and meaning of that idea varied according to where and to whom it was articulated. In this respect Hobbes’s decision to make the text available ‘not merely to Charles and to sympathetic members of his immediate circle … but to a wider public’ is crucial. Unfortunately, the moment and his motives are ‘hard to guess’. Despite his detective work, despite drawing on every shred of evidence available, Malcolm concedes that the scenario must ultimately be ‘very speculative; the solid evidence is lacking.’

Yet although Malcolm is unable to find a signed affidavit by Hobbes explaining his actions between 1646 and 1651, he certainly demonstrates Hobbes’s royalism and the provenance of Leviathan within the politics of the exiled Caroline court. This is clearly important for historians of early modern political culture. It is worth asking whether it alters the longer historiographical shadow cast by Hobbes – as a theorist of power, for example, or as the exemplary modern sceptic. That the immediate answer is no is confirmation, perhaps, of his complex legacy. However, it is also a reminder of the limitations of the contextual approach to ideas and texts. Not only is the method extremely difficult to apply properly. It also needs to account for the adoption and genealogy of ideas after their initial formulation; for the many subsequent contexts; and for the possibility, even, that these ideas eventually become part of the conceptual repertoire of early modern historians. It is they who write the history, after all.