Dr R Balashankar
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, edited by Noel Malcolm, in three volumes, Oxford University Press, Pp Volume I-380 (HB), Volume II-574 and Volume III-1400, £195.00
Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy is one of the most discussed academic subjects. His famous Leviathan has been commented about, discussed, debated and argued about by scholars since he wrote it in 1651. He wrote a more elaborate version in Latin, which was published in 1668. Hobbes believed in absolute monarchy and advocated against ceding of powers away from the sovereignty.
Noel Malcolm is a walking encyclopaedia on Hobbes and Leviathan. He has written extensively about both and has a long record of intense work on the subject. Hence his three- volume Leviathan has to be accepted as the last word on this. The first volume is Introduction. In this volume running into 380 pages, Malcolm prepares the reader for the reading of the next two volumes. He discusses the timing of writing Leviathan, the differences between the English and Latin versions, Leviathan juxtaposed with his previous works, like De cive and the philosophy itself, it is exhaustive.
“In De cive, the original meeting of people to set up a sovereign power is itself a democracy, because of the act of coming together implies a kind of proto-covenant to treat the will of the majority as sovereign: ‘those who have come together to set up a commonwealth, almost by the very fact that they have come together, are a democracy.” However, in Leviathan this explicit claim about the priority of democracy is entirely abandoned, and the majoritarian principle which applies to the original assembly is treated merely as a necessary procedural assumption,” says Malcolm.
Hobbes discoursed in all his treatises on the causes of conflicts and in each of them there was some variation. According to Malcolm, in The Elements of Law he said it was the search for glory that was the most fundamental cause of conflicts. In De cive it was slightly modified as competition of good and bad, the quest for superiority, in a way glory. “In Leviathan, glory is mentioned as one of the causes of conflict, but the whole tenor of argument has changed. The ‘race’ is omitted, and the account of power is framed in absolute, not relative terms. Where the explanation of conflict is concerned, there is, so to speak, a de-psychologizing of the argument, which ceases to depend on claim about the particular passions that drive ‘the greatest part of men.’ Instead, the argument rests primarily on a structural assumption about interpersonal behaviour, regardless of the contents of particular passions…”
A scant understanding of the English history would help in reading Leviathan. In November 1640 the Long Parliament was established. This was called so as the members had voted to a right to dissolve this only by their consent (eroding the king’s prerogative to call and dissolve the parliament). Long Parliament followed a Short Parliament, which had lasted only about nine months. Hobbes, an absolute monarchist thought he was a marked man because of his The Elements of Law and fled to Paris. He lived a decade there and started writing his magnum opus Leviathan. He came back home in 1651 and published this work.
Hobbes says that there are unlimited powers the sovereignty must exercise. Of these, there are some he marks out as essential. They are: “the power to judge what doctrines are taught; the power to make laws (which includes power to determine all the subjects’ property rights); the right of ‘Judicature’; the right of making war and peace (which includes the right to command armed forces, and the right to raise taxes for war); the power to appoint all public ministers, officers, and counsellors; and the power reward and punish (to which is added the power to award ‘titles of Honour).”
Malcolm says “Overall, the purpose of this edition is to present to readers, on each opening (i.e., pair of facing pages), all the materials that they will need in order to study the entire development of the text, from the manuscripts of the English Leviathan (which itself bears witness to an earlier manuscript, no longer extant) to the second edition of the Latin.”
Volume II and III carry the complete text of Leviathan, with English on the left and Latin on the facing page. Wherever the Latin text is adding to the English it is marked. There are footnotes throughout helping reading. Just a sample of the reading. In Volume II, page 302, he says that if there is no precedence of the kind of governance indicated either in custom or in the Testament, then Monarchy would be the system. The ruler should prefer his own child, male or female for succession “because men are presumed to be more enclined by nature, to advance their own children, than the children of other man; and of their own, rather a Male than a Female; because men, are naturally fitter than women, for actions of labour and danger. Thirdly, where his own Issue faileth, rather a Brother than a stranger;…”
Leviathan is one of the most celebrated works in the world. And one of the West’s best treatises on politics and governance. The English is slightly old but with Malcolm’s excellent editing and footnotes, the task gets easier. It is a masterpiece, made more accessible.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP)