The dates of his long life are as follows: He was born 5th April 1588. He was educated at Magdalen Hall, at Oxford. He was a sort of secretary to Lord Bacon, for the purpose of translating his books into Latin, and he then acted as tutor in the Devonshire family, travelling with his pupils for many years on the Continent. After the Restoration he lived at Chatsworth for many years, and died at Hardwick Hall, on the borders of Nottinghamshire, 4th December 1679, aged ninety-one.
His books were published in the following order:
Translation of Thucydides, 1628; De Cive, 1640; Human Nature, 1650; De Corpore Politico, 1650; Leviathan, 1651; his mathematical and free-will controversies at various times after 1651; Behemoth, and the Dialogue of the Laws of England (after his death), in 1681.
Till the late Sir William Molesworth collected them, some years ago, there was, we believe, no complete edition of his voluminous writings. They have a sufficiently formidable look, and are calculated to deter any one but a pretty resolute student. On examination, however, this, like many other difficulties, turns out to be considerably less than it seemed at first sight. More than half of the collection is taken up either by mathematical works which no one would now care to read, or by a set of controversies with Bishop Bramhall about free-will and necessity, which are by this time a weariness to all flesh, or by translations of Homer and Thucydides. It is worth while to read half a page or so of the former translation for the sake of its strange grotesqueness and utter want of any sort of similarity to the original; but the latter is very good. It was the first of Hobbes's works, published 'to warn his countrymen against civil wars,' in 1628.
It is, we think, greatly to be regretted that translations of prose classics should be so little esteemed and read as they are at present. If they were used more freely, they would go far to dispel a superstition which exists about the classics, and would enable even scholars to get a much more correct notion of them than they usually have. The common notion that a person who cannot read Greek must necessarily be ignorant of Herodotus and Thucydides seems to us foolish. The best scholars seldom read Plutarch in the original; and surely the Vulgate and the English version have given millions of readers a very fair knowledge of the Bible. Of course, when you have to deal with poetry, where the beauty of the thought depends essentially on the sound and arrangement of words, or with philosophy like that of either Aristotle or Plato, much of which is founded on the assumption that every word represents a thing, translations fall indefinitely short of originals; but the account of the plague at Athens, or of the expedition to Syracuse, is pretty much the same in English as it is in Greek.
Perhaps the fact is that the recognition of this would put in too broad a light, the truth that modern histories are much better than ancient ones, even when they are written by men infinitely inferior to the ancient historians. There was a certain sort of truth, notwithstanding the incorrectness of the expression, in Mr. Cobden's famous phrase about the Times and 'all the works' of Thucydides. The events recorded in the newspaper are, at all events, incomparably better certified than those which are to be read of in the history.
Whatever may be the merits of Hobbes as a translator, he is perhaps the last writer who ought to be judged by works which are not original, for a more distinctively original man never lived. Of his minor works, two— Behemoth and the Dialogue of the Laws of England —are infinitely the best and most characteristic, especially because they relate to matters of fact, and so display the practical application of his theories, and thus enable us to judge of their value.
Behemoth is an account of the Civil Wars. Its strange title was probably meant to show that, as the commonwealth is Leviathan— the most wonderful work of God— so a rebellious assemblage is an aggregation of monsters, a work displaying attributes of a different order. It is thrown into the shape of a dialogue, and is, like all its writer's later works, charmingly written. It ought to be far better known than it is; for, so far as we know, it is the only contemporary account which shows us what sceptical men of the world thought of the great contest and of its party cries.
References to persons of this class are not uncommon in the literature of that time— a circumstance which is often overlooked, but which Scott, with his usual sagacity, and, it must be added, with his usual slightness, has commemorated in Woodstock. Hobbes's account of the matter is as shrewd, interesting, and imperfect as such a man's account would naturally be.
The Kingdom of England, he says, was an absolute monarchy when the troubles began. There were, 'in every county, so many trained soldiers as would, put together, have made an army of 60,000 men,' and if they had been, 'as they ought,' absolutely at Charles's command, 'the peace and happiness of the kingdom had continued.' 'Very few of the common people cared much for either of the causes, but would have taken any side for pay or plunder;' but they were 'seduced.' The seducers were, first, 'ministers, as they called themselves, of Christ, pretending to have a right from God to govern every one his own parish;' secondly, Papists; thirdly, 'not a few who in the beginning of the troubles were not discovered, but shortly after declared themselves for a liberty in religion fourthly, 'an exceeding great number of men of the better sort,' who, having had a classical education, were led to prefer popular government to monarchy; fifthly, the great towns, 'having in admiration the prosperity of the Low Countries after they had revolted from the King of Spain,' and hoping for similar advantages; sixthly, persons in bad circumstances; and, lastly, the people at large 'were so ignorant of their duty as that not one perhaps of ten thousand knew what right any man had to command him, or what necessity there was of king or commonwealth, for which he was to part with his money against his will,' in which state of ignorance they elected as members those who were most averse to the granting of subsidies or other 'public payments.'
After this description of the state of feeling, Hobbes confutes at length the claims of the Papists or Presbyterians to independent authority, and gives a very curious and shrewd historical sketch of the rise and nature of clerical power, of its diminution at the Reformation, and of the rise of the Presbyterian system in foreign countries, where assemblies of ministers 'were not a little made use of for want of better statesmen in points of civil government.'
His description of the power and influence of the Puritanical party is singularly interesting. It is probably more or less unjust, as all caricatures are, but it has also probably the justice of a caricature. 'They went abroad preaching in most of the market towns of England, as the preaching friars had formerly done;' 'they so formed their countenance and gesture' 'as that no tragedian in the world could have acted the part of a right godly man better than these did.' 'For the matter of their sermons,' 'they did never, or but lightly, inveigh against the lucrative vices of men of trade or handicraft;' 'they did indeed with great earnestness inveigh often against two sins—carnal lusts and vain swearing; but the common people were thereby inclined to believe that nothing else was sin.' This led up to a resolution to change the form of government from a monarchy to a democracy; and Hobbes, in the true spirit of his age, imputes to the Puritans a distinct design to this effect throughout, and stigmatises them as impious hypocrites for concealing it under 'the cloak of godliness.'
That men should have mixed motives, sympathies of which they are barely conscious themselves, and a very imperfect knowledge of the true character and tendencies of their own views, seems hardly to have suggested itself to Hobbes. Nothing, indeed, is more characteristic of the difference between our own and earlier ages, than their total want of that power of entering into the views and feelings of others, which in our day is so common as to threaten sometimes, and in some persons, greatly to weaken all moral distinctions whatever.
The Parliament is treated much in the same way as the Presbyterians. A set design to deprive the King of his sovereignty and to introduce democracy is attributed to the Parliamentary leaders. Their claim to control taxation, and to interpret Magna Charta to mean that no taxes should be taken without the consent of Parliament, is described as amounting to such a design. How could the King be sovereign if, when the burden of defending the kingdom is laid upon him, 'he should depend on others for the means of performing it? If he do, they are his sovereigns, not he theirs.'
This point, laboured and presented in a great variety of forms, is the burden of the whole of Hobbes's treatise. He proves to demonstration that the real question at issue was whether the King or the Parliament was to be sovereign in the proper sense of the word, and he makes the very utmost of the logical disadvantage under which the Parliament undoubtedly lay in admitting the King's sovereignty in words, whilst every one of their acts was opposed to it.
This, however, is far less interesting in these days, than the passages which throw light on the public feeling of the time, and the occasional dissertations by which the subject is elucidated. Hobbes freely admits that there was, practically speaking, no party in favour of absolute power, and that Charles's own partisans served him very coolly. Speaking of the civil war, he says: 'Those which were then likeliest to have their counsel asked in this business were averse to absolute monarchy, as also to absolute democracy or aristocracy, all which governments they esteemed tyranny, and were in love with monarchy, which they used to praise by the name of mixed monarchy, though it were indeed nothing else but pure anarchy.' The people at large were, from the very first, quite as ignorant and prejudiced. 'King, they thought, was but a title of the highest honour, which gentleman, knight, baron, earl, duke, were but steps to ascend to with the help of riches.'
Even Clarendon was not Tory enough for Hobbes. 'Those men whose pens the King most used in these controversies of law and politics were such, if I have not been misinformed, as, having been members of this Parliament, had declaimed against ship-money and other extra Parliamentary taxes as much as any. This state of mind acted so much on the King's army that 'though it did not lessen their endeavour to gain the victory for the King in a battle, when a battle could not be avoided, yet it weakened their endeavour to procure him an absolute victory in the war'; whereas the soldiers on the other side had 'their valour sharpened with malice,' so that the Cavaliers, though equally brave, 'fought not so keenly.'
This is followed by a curious passage about the London apprentices, who, 'for want of experience in the war, would have been fearful enough of death and wounds approaching visibly in glistering swords; but, for want of judgment, scarce thought of such death as comes invisibly in a bullet, and therefore were very hardly to be driven out of the field'—where, by the way, there was no want of 'glistering swords' in the hands of as sturdy and fearless troopers as ever used them, or of 'death approaching visibly.' This surly and ungracious admission of the stubborn courage of which Englishmen of all parties are now so proud, whoever shows it, is the more remarkable, because Hobbes did not consider it a virtue. 'Fortitude,' he says elsewhere, 'is a royal virtue; and though it be necessary in such private men as shall be soldiers, yet for other men, the less they dare, the better it is both for the commonwealth and for themselves.'
The chief digressions in the book relate to the history of the House of Commons, and to the Universities, and the state of knowledge there. As to the former, it would be difficult to find anywhere a more pithy or vigorous outline of the subject, and the second is still more interesting.
The Universities had been to England 'what the wooden horse was to Troy': 'Curious questions in divinity are started in the Universities, and so are all those politic questions concerning the rights of civil and ecclesiastic government; and there they are furnished with arguments for liberty out of the works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and out of the histories of Rome and Greece, for their disputation against the necessary power of their sovereigns. Therefore I despair of any lasting peace among ourselves till the Universities here shall bend and direct their studies to the settling of it— that is, to the teaching of absolute obedience to the laws of the King and to his public edicts under the great seal of England. . . . The core of rebellion . . . are the Universities, which nevertheless are not to be cast away, but to be better disciplined—that is to say, that the politics there taught be made to be, as true politics should be, such as are fit to make men know that it is their duty to obey all laws whatsoever that shall by the authority of the King be enacted, till by the same authority they shall be repealed; such as are fit to make men understand that the civil laws are God's laws, as they that make them are appointed by God to make them; and to make men know that the people and Church are one thing, and have but one head, the King, and that no man has title to govern under him that has it not from him; that the King owes his crown to God only, and to no man, ecclesiastic or other; and that the religion they teach there be a quiet waiting for the coming again of our blessed Saviour, and in the meantime a resolution to obey the King's laws, which are also God's laws; to injure no man, to be in charity with all men, to cherish the poor and sick, and to live soberly and free from scandal; without mingling our religion with points of natural philosophy, as freedom of will, incorporeal substance, everlasting nows, ubiquities, hypostases, which the people do not nor ever will care for.'
Here we have the whole gospel of Hobbes, delivered with incomparable energy and terseness, and this must be our excuse for the length of the quotation.
The Dialogue of the Common Laws is probably the first attempt ever made in English to criticise the law of the land in anything like a philosophical spirit. The principal subject of criticism is Coke's Institutes, and in particular that part of it which relates to crimes. All the detailed criticism is admirable. Some parts of it have not even yet lost their point. For instance, he says: 'In short, it is for a man to distinguish felony into several sorts before he understandeth the general name of felony what it meaneth.' So 'it is not often within the capacity of a jury to distinguish the signification of the different hard names which are given by lawyers to the killing of a man, as murder and felony, which neither the laws nor the makers of the laws have yet defined.'
His general criticism on Coke is admirable, and will do equally well for some other celebrated lawyers: 'I never read weaker reasoning in any matter of the law of England than in Sir Edward Coke's Institutes, how well soever he could plead.'
Hobbes exposes in the true way a fallacy which has often been refuted, about the phrase 'malice aforethought.' 'If two meeting in the street chance to strive who shall go nearest the wall, and thereupon fighting one of them kills the other, I believe verily he that first drew his sword did it of malice forethought, though not long forethought.'
He also notices, as a great fault in the law, 'the want of registering conveyances of land,' and the needless division of courts into courts of law and courts of equity. This last observation, indeed, is part of a wider subject. The following is remarkable as coming from so staunch an upholder of arbitrary power. It forms part of a criticism on Coke's definitions of burglary and arson: 'I like not that any private man should presume to determine whether such or such a fact be done within the words of a statute or not, where it belongs only to a jury of twelve men to declare in their verdict whether the fact laid open before them be burglary, robbery, theft, or other felony.'
There is a long and most interesting account of heresy considered as a crime, which contains, amongst other things, the following singularly neat argument as to the innocence of error: 'Error in its own nature is no sin. For it is impossible for a man to err on purpose; he cannot have an intention to err; and nothing is sin unless there be a sinful intention.'
These are merely illustrations of the shrewdness with which Hobbes applied his mind to a great subject with which he had little technical acquaintance. The general object of the Dialogue is of a very different order of importance. One of the great points of Coke's Institutes, and indeed one of the principal objects of their author's whole life, was the glorification of the common law, and the restriction of the royal authority by means of it.
Coke continually assumes that the common law has an independent existence and authority of its own, that it is the perfection of reason, and that the judges, and even the King himself, are subject to it; and in one passage he goes so far as to limit the powers of Parliament itself by the law of nature. Indeed, the whole tendency of his writings is to invest the common law, and that legal reason of which it was, according to him, the embodiment, with a sort of personality and a modified supremacy.
Hobbes replies upon all this in the interests of his own views, with surprising ingenuity, and with a great deal of truth. Not reason, he says, but authority, makes laws. The common law therefore is law, not because it is reasonable, but because it is a command. But whose command is it? Not the command of Parliament, for that makes statute law. Not the command of the judges, for they have not, and do not even claim, legislative authority, though you, Sir Edward Coke, try to get it for them by your theories. It is therefore the command of the King. It is binding, therefore, as it is the King's command, but it is equitable or not as it agrees or disagrees with permanent and universal principles of reason. The King, therefore, has the power, and it is his duty to God to bring it into accordance with the principles of reason, and this he ought to do without reference to your precedents, 'for if judges were to follow one another's judgments in precedent cases, all the justice in the world would at length depend upon the sentence of a few learned or unlearned men, and have nothing at all to do with the study of reason.' To show you how much of such moulding the law requires, look here, and here, and here, and see what a mess you the judges have made of it, and above 'all you, Sir Edward Coke, who 'seldom well distinguish when there are two divers names for one and the same thing.'
It is obvious how much colour is lent to this argument by all Coke's phrases about the perfection of reason and the like. Hobbes always pushes the question— Whose reason do you mean? and always, by a process of exhaustion, gets out the result that it must be the reason of the sovereign— that is, that of the King. He thus effectually trumps Coke, and converts the admitted existence of a common law which was not made by Parliament, into by far the most specious argument ever put forward in favour of the absolute power of the King. It would read thus if fully expressed.
1. No one but the sovereign can make laws.
2. Either the King alone, or the King and the two Houses together, is the sovereign of England.
3. There are laws in England, to wit the common law, which were not made by the King and the two Houses together.
4. Therefore the common law was made by the King alone.
5. But the common law (witness Sir E. Coke) is the perfection of reason, and it is because it is reason that it is law.
6. But reason must be declared to be such by authority before it can be a law 'living and armed,' i.e. a coercive law, as the common law.
7. Therefore the King's declaration that this or that is reasonable, makes it part of the common law.
8. Therefore the King is sovereign to this extent, that he may make anything part of the common law by declaring it to be reasonable.
9. Therefore an Act of Parliament is only a royal grant, which the King can annul or recall, by declaring that he was deceived, or acted unreasonably in -granting it.
10. Therefore the King is absolute.
The fallacy here appears to us to lie in the second and fifth propositions, but the second was almost universally admitted in the seventeenth century, and Coke and his school were stopped from denying the fifth.
We will now proceed, in conclusion, to make a few observations on Hobbes's position in literature, and on what appears to us to be the defective side of his doctrine. Of his position as the great progenitor of the school of thought which may be traced through Locke, in one direction, to Bolingbroke and Voltaire, and in another through Berkeley and Hume to Mr. Mill, we have spoken on another occasion.
This is, however, by no means his only title to fame. There is something of everything in Hobbes. In theology, his Biblical criticism connects him with one of the most active movements of our own time, and his doctrine of the impossibility of knowing the divine nature, and of the negative or merely devotional character of all words applied to God, has the widest application. Its effect may be traced more or less in all modern theology, one of the cardinal questions of which is whether it can be escaped, or what, if it be true, is its legitimate application.
In morals and law Hobbes is the progenitor of Bentham, many of whose most remarkable speculations are developments of Hobbes's thoughts. In logic he was practically, and to a very considerable degree theoretically, the ancestor of Mr. Mill. His theory of human nature, though certainly imperfect, is full of the shrewdest and most profound observation.
Upon all these great subjects Hobbes was, as it seems to us, by far the most powerful thinker of his age, although it was the age, amongst others, of Descartes. There are, however, defects in his writings to which their very profundity, and the immense range of subjects which they embrace, give increased importance. The most obvious of them is his defective estimate of human nature, and especially the degree in which he underrates the power of the social parts of it. He regards fear of the unseen world, as the origin of religion, and the fear which men feel for each other, as the origin of society.
This, however, when fairly considered, is not so brutal as it looks. A great deal of very sincere humanity is to be found in Hobbes's writings. No one has ever written more vigorously on the virtue of equity. By justice he means law—as he would say, living and armed; but under the name of equity he praises what most people would call justice; and this, when fully analysed, is nothing but systematic benevolence—benevolence having regard to the interests, not of one, but of all. To go on to make equity a result of fear, instead of recognising the indisputable truth that benevolence is one of the original principles of our nature, was, no doubt, bad and perverse psychology, but that is the worst that can be said of it. It may be questioned whether the habit of carrying analysis too far is really more mischievous than the habit of not carrying it far enough.
As to Hobbes's great and characteristic doctrine of absolute sovereignty, it would well deserve much fuller examination than we can give it at present, for it is one of the most interesting and difficult of all moral and political problems. Of Hobbes's solution of it, it is at present enough to say that the Behemoth and the Dialogue of the Laws of England show conclusively that he had not solved it. The events which culminated in the scene of the 30th of January 1649 proved conclusively that Charles I. was not, in the philosophical sense, the sovereign of England. Properly considered, these and other similar events have proved that the actual condition of human society is not one of society in Hobbes's sense, but of what, if he had used words with perfect consistency and impartiality, he would have called anarchy, without, however, allowing the word to connote any censure. This conception is as possible as the other. It means no more than that there is amongst men no such thing as a 'great Leviathan,' or 'mortal God,' which can make men in its own image by the exercise of superior force; and that all men, or bodies of men, that appear from time to time to occupy such a position are subject, in fact, to certain unexpressed penalties, which they will do well to bear continually in mind.
Saturday Review, October 13, 1866.