Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz
January/February 2013 ATLANTIC
Edited by Noel Malcolm
This three-volume edition of Leviathan—a book that Malcolm rightly pronounces “one of the most important works of political philosophy written in the West”—is the latest installment of Oxford’s Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, a monument of British scholarship (its editors include two of the greatest figures of the post-war British academy, Quentin Skinner and Keith Thomas) and among the great publishing projects of the past quarter century. Hobbes’s enormous significance today lies partly in the fact that he was both a great thinker and one of the greatest writers in the language. Michael Oakeshott noted, “There is no hiatus between his personality and his philosophy”—and few writers in the history of English prose have developed a style that more closely mirrors their character.
Intellectually, Hobbes kept his powder dry: he didn’t publish a word until he was 53. His style—mature, utterly sure—reflects a mind that has thoroughly worked things out. To the assured authority of his thinking and personality he married an agile combativeness, which lends to his prose a disarming, invigorating amalgamation of lucidity, wit, and sententiousness. As Oakeshott somewhat ruefully observed: “Like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth.” In other words, “there is sagacity in Hobbes, and often a profound deliberateness; but there is no repose.”
The lavish, meticulous annotation, which reconciles Hobbes’s manuscripts and the early published English and Latin versions (Hobbes wrote the book in both languages), is certainly this edition’s most significant contribution to the republic of letters. But the general reader will probably find Malcolm’s introduction, a tour de force that takes up the entire first volume, to be of greatest value. Malcolm, the general editor of the entire Clarendon Edition; editor of the two volumes of Hobbes’s correspondence in the series; author of works on Balkan history and politics and of the pathbreaking study Aspects of Hobbes, among other books; former foreign editor of The Spectator; and former political columnist for The Daily Telegraph—that is, a towering figure in British intellectual life—fluently and authoritatively sets Leviathan and its author in their time and provides a keen and detailed study of Leviathan’s genesis. Malcolm’s volume itself is an enduring work of history.