Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Literary style and method of work
  Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies Leviathan  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 9. Literary style and method of work.

Hobbes is one of a succession of English writers who are as remarkable for their style as for the originality of their thought. Bacon, Hobbes, Berkeley and Hume—to mention only the greatest names—must be counted amongst the masters of language, wherever language is looked upon as conveying a meaning. And, in each case, the style has an individual quality which suits the thought and the time. Bacon’s displays a wealth of imagery and allusion significant of the new worlds which man’s mind was to enter into and to conquer; it has the glamour not of enchantment but of discovery; greater precision and restraint of imagery would not have befitted the pioneer of so vast an adventure. The musical eloquence of Berkeley is the utterance of a soul rapt in one clear vision and able to read the language of God in the form and events of the world. Hume writes with the unimpassioned lucidity of the observer, intent on technical perfection in the way of conveying his meaning, but with no illusions as to its importance. Hobbes differs from all three, and, in his own way, is supreme. There is no excess of imagery or allusion, though both are at hand when wanted. There is epigram; but epigram is not multiplied for its own sake. There is satire; but it is always kept in restraint. His work is never embellished with ornament: every ornament is structural and belongs to the building. There is never a word too many, and the right word is always chosen. His materials are of the simplest; and they have been formed into a living whole, guided by a great thought and fired by the passion for a great cause.   20
  Aubrey tells us something of his method of work:
He had read much, if one considers his long life, but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say, that if he had read as much as other men, he should have continued still as ignorant as other men. The manner of writing [Leviathan] was thus. He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn, carried always a note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entered it into his book, or otherwise might have lost it.
This careful forethought for idea and phrase was always controlled by the dominant purpose, which was to convince by demonstration. How the method worked may be seen from a characteristic passage. Speaking of undesigned trains of thought, he says
And yet in this wild ranging of the mind, a man may oft-times perceive the way of it, and the dependance of one thought upon another. For in a discourse of our present civil war, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman penny? Yet the coherence to me was manifest enough. For the thought of the war introduced the thought of the delivering up the king to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason; and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for thought is quick.
Here, the illustration strikes home; the sarcasm hits the party he hated most; and the last four words clinch the whole and bring back the discourse to the matter in hand. Attention is arrested, not diverted, so that the single paragraph in which these sentences occur may be taken as having started the line of thought which issued in the theory of association, for a long time dominant in English psychology.
  To understand the underlying ideas of Hobbes’s philosophy, portions of his Latin work De Corpore must be kept in view; but his lasting fame as a writer rests upon three books: Elements of Law, Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (the English version of De Cive) and Leviathan. The first of these books is a sketch, in clear outline and drawn with unfaltering hand, of the bold and original theory which he afterwards worked out and applied, but never altered in substance. It contains less illustration and less epigram than the later works, but it yields to neither of them in lucidity or in confidence. The circumstances which led to its issue in two fragments, arbitrarily sundered from one another, have hindered the general recognition of its greatness. Nor did it appear at all till De Cive was well known and Leviathan ready for press. The latter works are less severe in style: they have a glow from the “bright live coal” which (we are told) seemed to shine from Hobbes’s eye when he spoke. De Cive is restricted to the political theory; but his whole view of human life and the social order is comprehended in Leviathan.   22

  Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies Leviathan  
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