Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Thomas Hobbes (15881679)
[The philosopher of Malmesbury, as it used to be the fashion to call him, was born at that town on the 5th of April, 1588, and was the son of the vicar of Charlton, a village in the immediate neighbourhood, then a seat of the Knyvets, which early in Hobbes life went by marriage to the Howards, and before his death was connected with Dryden. He went early to Magdalen Hall at Oxford, and took his degree. Somewhat before his majority he was recommended to the Cavendish family, as tutor to the future (second) Earl of Devonshire, and for the greater part of a century he remained a client of the house, and not unfrequently a member of the household. He made the grand tour with his pupil in 1610, and returning to London became acquainted with most of the literary society of James the Firsts time, being closely associated with Bacon. His own first literary effort was late and not original, being a translation of Thucydides which he published in 1628, his fortieth year. It is, though not rigidly exact, a very good translationas good as his subsequent attempt on Homer is bad. In the same year his pupil died. He returned to his old business, and conducted the son of Sir Gervase Clifton over the Continent, but he soon resorted again to the Devonshire family, making his third journey abroad as tutor in charge of his first pupils son. He now, in the middle of the fourth decade of the century, was introduced to the strongly mathematical and philosophical group of Parisian men of letters. He plunged, not with happy results, into mathematics; he attacked philosophy with results, in part at least, very happy. On his return to England he took the Royalist side, and, being always a very timid person, fled abroad again, lest the Parliament should take notice of his published or MS. works. Of these De Cive appeared in 1642; Leviathan in 1651. The wonderful little Human Nature had been written as early as 1640, but was not published till much later. As he had fled from England to France, so he fled from France to England, owing to some slight from Charles II. to whom he had been tutor for a time. But after the Restoration Charles gave him a pension. He enjoyed it for nearly twenty years and died at Hardwick Hall, on 4th December, 1679, in his ninety-second year. His works are chiefly known in the edition (16 vols.) of Molesworth, which, though the print and paper are excellent, is simply not edited at all. A Danish scholar, Dr. Tonnies, has recently given some careful recensions of particular works from MS.]
BUT slight reference need, or indeed can, be made here to the matter of the remarkable works of Hobbes. His philosophy, so-called, was a philosophy rather of the eighteenth than of his own century, almost destitute of a metaphysic, and contenting itself chiefly with certain nominalist or anti-idealist glances in the ontological direction, while it busied itself with law, religion, politics, ethics, psychology, and, to some extent, physics. Man was quite the centre of the universe to Hobbes, though he had no very exalted idea of humanity: and the reproachful use of the term Hobbist in his later days and after his death to signify Deist, is to be justified, if justified at all, less by any actively anti-Christian doctrine in his writings than by his uncompromising anthropology. Hobbes might have defined man as an extremely troublesome animal who sometimes has brains enough to see the necessity of keeping his own and others troublesome instincts in order for his own and others good. And this is the basis alike of his politics, his ethics, and, so far as he indulges in it, his psychology.
His manner, which is here of more interest to us than his matter, is also extremely remarkable and curious. He wrote, as has been said above, late; he constantly produced (not always in exact counterpart) his works both in English and in Latin; and in some cases, if not in most, it would appear that the Latin was his own work and the English that merely of an amanuensis, though much revised and altered by himself. This, however, though odd and a little disquieting to the critic, is not of much real importance, the personal and individual impression in his English work being so distinct and so uniform that the exact circumstances and process of composition may be neglected.
It would hardly be possible to take Hobbes for anything but a seventeenth-century writer, even if his work were anonymous and undated, but he possesses among the English writers of the seventeenth century very marked characteristics. They have been to some extent traced to the influence of Ben Jonson, of whom Hobbes saw much in early middle life, and whose style in his Discoveries is by no means unlike that of Hobbes, though it is less unadorned. But in truth the resemblances of Hobbes to Jonson in form, as well as his resemblances to Bacon, another early associate or patron of his, in some other respects, are not resemblances of imitation. To whatever causes they were due on the side of the elder writers, they came on Hobbess part from idiosyncrasy, from study, and from the working of his peculiar theories. To a very mature period of life he wrote nothing, it would seem, but Latin (remarkably strong and clear Latin, but bare of all ornament or Ciceronianism, and indeed rather ugly), or else the severe and unadorned English of his Thucydides. His studythough his contempt of the schoolmen is almost ultra-Baconianhad evidently been much in school divinity and philosophy, as well as in technical writers on law and other dry subjects. But the character of his philosophy itself must have had even more influence than these things on the character of his style. Hobbes is a Nominalist of Nominalists. He will have no other universals than names; he pours scorn on nesses and tudes and ties. Define what you mean by your words; define it strictly and exactly, and then add, subtract, divide, and otherwise treat the quantities so defined as confidently as in actual computationthis is the summary, almost in his own words, of his method. Philosophically, of course, the result is frequently faulty. In the effort to reject the vague, Hobbes often leaves large parts of his problems unaccounted for; and in the effort to secure the precise he often attaches non-natural meanings to words of which men feel, but which they cannot sharply express, the natural meanings. Thus, for instance, he makes a point, though perhaps a point more apparent than real, when he scornfully dismisses the supposed corruptions of the Three Governmentsanarchy for democracy, oligarchy for aristocracy, and tyranny for monarchyas names given to the things themselves by those who do not like them. But when he says that pulchrum is that which promises good his reader can only reply, Philosopher of Malmesbury, when you and I talk of beauty we talk of two different things, and when he says, Contempt or little sense of the calamity of others is that which men call CRUELTY, his reader can only say, You may be of such men, I am not.
Still every one must see what a character, what an intense force and personality, this exaltation of names and this constant endeavour to identify them as exactly as possible with ideas, must impress upon style if the writers power of expression be suitable to his design. In Hobbes the power was so suitable. His style is not engaging. It is frequently arid and hard; the life-blood seems to have been squeezed out of it, and only a dried preparation to remain. At times, indeed, as in some famous passages of the Human Nature and the Leviathan, the dry bones are agitated by a curious gust of more human feeling; but this is rare. Hobbes process of argument is the articulating of a skeleton rather than anything else; but the articulation is faultless, and the subject is superbly treated. He is never unimpressive; he is never, as writers who aim at extreme precision and the rejection of all superfluity often are, trivial; he is very seldom, indeed, to any reader who takes the slightest genuine interest in his subject, dull. His language always has a stuff and substance of thought, though it may sometimes, as has been said, be rather twisted and nonnatural thought: his thought never fails to clothe itself in clear and accurate language. Difficult he may sometimes be, but he is hardly ever obscure, and he is absolutely free from a common vice both of easy and difficult philosophers, the vice of talking without really saying anything. Crabbed is the favourite, and on the whole the most appropriate, epithet for him; but it may be questioned whether it does not apply better to the harsh and ungrateful character of his ethical teaching than the peculiarities of style which usually receive that name in writing. It is to be observed that in actual controversy Hobbes does not show at his best. His objections to Descartes verge on the petty and quibbling. It is possible that school divinity may be, as he says, the kingdom of darkness. But when you condescend to argue with an inhabitant of that or any kingdom, you must adopt his language, or get him to accept yours, or arrange for a common interpreter. To argue with a school divine as Hobbes does with Bramhall by saying, actus simplicissimus signifieth nothing is but weak.
It is when he is not jangling with others, but speaking in his own pulpit that Hobbes is at his best. The two first parts of the Tripos, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (for the third, Liberty and Necessity, is a mere controversial appendix) the Philosophical Elements, the Leviathan, and the critical-narrative Behemoth (somewhat better presented in Dr. Tönnies edition) are the places to see him thus. It is true that like other philosophers he is more convincing in appearance than on examination. The rigid definition of every term, of every idea as it occurs, has a noble appearance of equity; but as each definition gives room for a fresh assumption it is perhaps not quite so equitable as it looks. This, however, is a purely material objection. As far as the outward dress of philosophy goes, and no doubt often a good deal farther, Hobbes, yielding to many in beauty, yields to none in a certain majesty of form. His disdain for ornament carries with it more than an apparent, it carries with it a real freedom from sophistry. His fallacies, such as they are, lie open for any tolerably acute reasoner to detect: they are not masked and wimpled in a cloud of words. Nor for all his love of names does he ever descend to that barren playing with terminology which is so common in philosophical writing. Almost all great philosophers have had, as it were inevitably, the style of their philosophy, but none has had it so much as Hobbes. His style is bare, uninviting, uncompromising, rugged, but strong, ready at any moment for defence or attack, without an ounce of superfluous ornament or flesha style like the armour and condition of a veteran legionary.