Snaring the elusive leviathan

Aspects of Hobbes

October 24, 2003

John Dunn applauds an insight into Hobbes that is scholarly, British and long

Scholarship can be an obsession, and Noel Malcolm must be one of the most obsessive of all living scholars. Once his interest is caught, he will follow any trail, however far it leads and however long it takes. Tireless in his energies and bewilderingly broad in his interests, he is also a figure of incisive intelligence and great literary tact. Aspects of Hobbes shows his astonishing range to great advantage, casting light from all points of the compass on his single most enduring obsession, the incomparable Thomas Hobbes. It can be seen, helpfully, as a series of outworks or preliminary studies for what is clearly, and altogether appropriately, the labour of a lifetime: the first biography of Hobbes to be even distantly commensurate with the grandeur of its subject.

Hobbes took the precaution of writing his own biography, and also had the singular good fortune to have John Aubrey, a more than adequate and appreciably nicer 17th-century counterpart to Lytton Strachey, as his close and passionately devoted friend. But aside from Aubrey's stunning portrait and the manuscript treasures of Chatsworth, the biographical materials he left behind are sporadic, dispersed and often hard to interpret. Modern scholarship, much of it of outstanding intellectual quality, has thrown much light on his political thinking. But until Malcolm set to work it had never given the faintest hint that it might capture the man himself. The biography, of course, has yet to be published, and its quarry therefore remains at large. But Aspects strongly suggests that the hunt will not have been in vain.

What makes Hobbes such an elusive quarry is the way he dealt with, not just an inordinately dangerous external world and an intellectual environment, most of which was profoundly out of sympathy with his cast of mind, but with quite close intellectual friends and companions. As he put it to Jean-Baptiste Lantin in Paris, the setting in which he worked most closely and persistently with other savants and would-be philosophers, "he sometimes made openings, but could uncover his thoughts only half way - that he imitated those who open the window for a few moments but shut it promptly for fear of the storm".

In face of his subject's purposeful self-seclusion, Malcolm adopts two drastically contrasted approaches. He lurks endlessly in the shadows, waiting for those brief openings in his quarry's defences, and he scours the intellectual landscape of Europe across the centuries to plot the slow, fitful shiftings of imaginative sympathy and antipathy, as its denizens change their mind about life, nature, man and God, and how to judge what they should believe, about each.

Aspects has notable instances of each approach. It begins with a brief and trenchant synoptic biography of Hobbes and an elegant comparison of his political theory with that of Spinoza, and includes excellent treatments of the connections and disjunctions between Hobbes' theory of politics and his conception of science, and of his view of the political character of the relations between states. Throughout these Malcolm corrects the views of other commentators, always courteously but often quite devastatingly.

The bulk of the book is more idiosyncratic. Several chapters burrow deeply into particular episodes in Hobbes' biography or bibliography, conjuring up characters such as the truculent French mathematician Gilles de Roberval, with whom Hobbes had for a time surprisingly warm personal ties.

But the most impressive components of the book deal with Hobbes not personally and intimately but relatively impersonally and sometimes from considerable distance. One, a beautifully poised analysis of Hobbes'

relations with the Royal Society, is a model of how to tread delicately on very unfirm ground. The two longest, "Hobbes, Ezra, and the Bible" and "Hobbes and the European Republic of Letters", present him superlatively in the full sweep of the continent's intellectual history. Both are extraordinarily instructive and full of surprising material. Both show Malcolm's subtle feel for the conceptual and ideological pressures that lead arguments to converge from very different starting points. Between them, they show more, more reliably, about the nature of the early Enlightenment than can be found between the covers of any other volume.

They are masterpieces of a historical genre that is exceptionally demanding but also, when done with this exemplary sensitivity, enormously revealing.

Malcolm began his scholarly career, conventionally enough, as an academic, but for some time earned his living principally as leader writer for a newspaper that, whatever its other limitations, seldom condescends intellectually to its readership. He has reached the acme of rational academic envy as a senior research fellow of All Souls. If this enables him to complete his biography, it will be as grand a gift to the tattered residues of the global Republic of Letters as the college could well offer.

In the meantime, the perfect apologia for Aspects comes from a quirky early 18th-century German admirer of Hobbes, Nicolaus Hieronymus Gundling, professor and subsequently Rector Magnificus of the University of Halle. Hobbes, as Gundling noted, "cries out for a reader who is attentive, acute and deeply thoughtful, not one blinded by prejudices, nor overwhelmed by much reading of useless things". This plainly is Malcolm as he would like to see himself, with the prudent concession that "some disagreement is always possible about which things are useless, and which may turn out to be useful". It is a compelling likeness and the most implausible things have already proved remarkably illuminating.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Aspects of Hobbes

Author - Noel Malcolm
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 644
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 924714 5

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