Philosophy classic cracked by top professor
Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan is one of the most important works in the history of philosophy. After centuries of debate, a new edition definitively illuminates the workings of a great mind.
Noel Malcolm has a brilliant and learned mind. As a student, he was a top graduate from one of the finest universities in the world. Since then he has become a global authority on an impressive array of subjects, from philosophy to Kosovo.
But throughout his life, one project has consumed more of his abundant intelligence than any other: creating a new scholarly edition of Leviathan, a 17th Century treatise by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
With a daunting £195 pricetag and almost two thousand pages of text, it is unlikely to become a bestseller. Even Malcolm's introduction is longer than most books. Few copies will be bought, and even fewer read with any thoroughness.
So what was this monumental mental effort in aid of? In a word – knowledge. Leviathan is one of the greatest works of political philosophy ever written in English. Great thinkers have, for centuries, spent their lives considering its meaning and significance.
Now Malcolm has completed the definitive edition. It brings together centuries worth of painstaking research and analysis – including much new research of his own. For many academics, this is the most momentous event in a generation.
What is Leviathan about? Nothing less than the human condition and the nature of society. Its conclusions are powerful, original and, most would say, very bleak indeed.
In our prehistoric 'natural state', Hobbes argues, humans had a miserable time. Totally free to rob and murder in search of selfish pleasure, all humans were perpetually at war. Life was 'nasty, brutish and short.'
This misery was solved only by resigning all our freedom to a terrifyingly mighty authority – the 'Leviathan'. In return for total submission, it protects us from physical harm. If we cross it, however we will be crushed. What is this terrifying beast? The government. And sinister though it may be, Hobbes believes it is our only hope.
The ivory tower
Undoubtedly a powerful idea. Still, ask some, is it really worth an entire life's study? If only Malcolm had spent that effort working on something real, they say, perhaps he could have improved the world. Instead all he has produced is an impenetrable edition of a tired, musty old book – what a tragic waste of talent.
But for Malcolm and other academics, nothing could be more worthwhile than the pursuit of knowledge. The Leviathan might not be 'useful' in a measurable way, they admit; but that is a measly and superficial way of judging value. Searching for understanding and truth about the world around us is, they say, the ultimate human endeavour.
- Is knowledge worthwhile even if it serves no practical purpose?
- Would life in a world without authority really be 'nasty, brutish and short?'
- Write an imaginary description of humans in their natural state, before societies developed. Would it be a life of purity, freedom and contentment? Or one of selfishness and misery?
- Research Hobbes' theory of the 'social contract' and draw a cartoon or diagram illustrating how it works.
Some People Say...
“Academia is a self-indulgent waste of time, effort and money.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Does political philosophy have any effect in the real world?
- Absolutely. Philosophers, like Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have inspired bloody and world-changing revolutions. Much of the American constitution is inspired by English philosopher John Locke. Our attitude to authority, how we choose leaders or manage our economy – all of these things are informed by philosophers like Hobbes.
- But what's the point in studying philosophy that's already been written?
- For many, philosophy is enough of a goal in itself. But it is also important that great works are not misinterpreted: when they are, they can lead to very harmful actions. Hobbes, for instance, has been used to defend unlimited dictatorship; but experts say his arguments are much more complex than this.
- Political philosophy
- The grand themes of politics – government, law, justice, freedom – come under the umbrella of political philosophy. Many of the greatest philosophers in history have written on these subjects: Plato, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Hobbes, Karl Marx...
- Definitive edition
- Editions of books often claim to be 'definitive' – that is, the final word on their subject. Often this is an overstatement, but this version of Leviathan really is comprehensive: every original version of the text has been reproduced, with hundreds of pages of footnotes and an introduction to the work that spans an entire volume.
- The human condition
- The essence of what it means to be human: all the aspects of life that are universal to everybody who has ever lived. This is one of the grand themes of philosophy and the arts.
- Natural state
- Political philosophers are often preoccupied by the 'state of nature': what humans would be like in their natural environment, without artificial rules. Some see this as the ultimate freedom; others, like Hobbes, envisage a squalid and violent world.
- In the Bible, the Leviathan was a deadly, enormous sea serpent. Later it came to mean anything toweringly huge and enormous, and for Hobbes it is a metaphor for the state. 'Leviathan' is also an old-fashioned word for a whale.