Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England, 1640–1700. By Jon Parkin The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes. By Jeffrey R. Collins
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 324–326, March 2009
How to Cite
Wright, J. (2009), Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England, 1640–1700. By Jon Parkin The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes. By Jeffrey R. Collins. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 324–326. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_11.x
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2009
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
Pp. xi, 449 , Cambridge University Press , 2007 , $115.00.
Pp. xii, 313 , Oxford University Press , 2005 , $55.00.
Over the past several decades there has been a considerable amount of scholarship dedicated to revising our understanding of Thomas Hobbes. Rather than seeing him as aberrant, we have been taught (primarily by Samuel Mintz) that while Hobbes came under sustained and often ferocious attack from his contemporaries, those very critics were influenced by Hobbes's own strategies and methodologies. Similarly, Quentin Skinner has eloquently demonstrated that Hobbes cannot be regarded as an isolated, maverick thinker: on the contrary, he was widely read both at home and abroad and, not uncommonly, admired. Jon Parkin's impressive book is very much part of this campaign to readjust our perceptions of the philosopher of Malmesbury. Hobbes, Parkin opines, ‘might have more in common with his mainstream contemporaries than we might think.’ (p. 7). It is very easy to be distracted or misled by all the bilious criticism that came Hobbes's way – all the accusations of atheism and libertinism. However, if we look beyond all this, Parkin suggests, it becomes clear that there was too much of value in Hobbes's philosophising for him to be pushed to the intellectual margins. On the contrary, while strenuous efforts were made to denounce or attenuate Hobbes's more radical positions, some of his thought (pre-eminently his theorising about sovereign authority) ‘was too useful to ignore.’ (p. 16). Hence Parkin's title: Hobbes was a philosopher to be tamed and controlled: not one (as the title of Mintz's seminal study indicated) to be hunted down.
Parkin traces this process of reception between 1640 and 1700 and, very astutely, he adopts a chronological approach. As he concedes, this has its share of pitfalls and drawbacks – one inevitably loses the thematic structure that makes such a complex body of material more manageable. The benefits of a chronological tack are every bit as conspicuous, however. Firstly, it demonstrates that what Hobbes wrote – and how he amended and re-wrote – was dependent on historical circumstances. Secondly, we see that the response to Hobbes was equally contingent: there were moments when particular themes in his writings came under greater scrutiny, and moments (usually those of political crisis) when Hobbes's theorising took on a renewed relevance. With the arrival of the Cromwellian protectorate, as one example, Hobbes's political vision instantly became more significant, and with the death of Cromwell in September 1658 borrowings (many of them covert and unacknowledged) from Hobbes's conceptual arsenal were legion. Less positively, as concerns about arbitrary rule escalated in the later 1670s, there was a renewed stress on Leviathan's perceived role as the ‘textbook of despotic absolutism’. (p. 312)
The attempt to blacken Hobbes's reputation was extraordinarily successful but, as Parkin demonstrates, along the way Hobbes's works had exerted a crucial – and easily overlooked – role. In their way, Parkin concludes, they were one of the keystones of the British Enlightenment. It is also sobering to realise that if political developments had unfolded differently – if, Parkin hypothesises, the Royalists had won the Civil War or, paradoxically, if the Protectorate had endured – then ‘Hobbes might have been the toast of English society, rather than its philosophical bogeyman.’ (p. 12)
One of the great strengths of Parkin's book is that it insists on putting Hobbes's writing into historical context. This is an attribute shared by Jeffrey Collins's more contentious, but no less fascinating, contribution to the Hobbesian literature. Collins is respectfully critical of the obsessions of the so-called Cambridge School and its focus on the linguistic context of Hobbes's works. Such an approach has undoubtedly produced much memorable scholarship, but it also runs the risk of ‘crowd[ing] out original research into the social, political and biographical context of a given subject.’ (p. 9) It becomes all too easy to ignore the fact (and the pursuant hermeneutic consequences) that any text is written in a specific historical moment. Collins's solution is to return to more traditional methodologies: biography, prosopography, and the basic goal of placing Hobbes's writing in historical relief.
The conclusion he reaches is that recent studies that have sought to explode the image of Hobbes as a consistent royalist – someone who could never have written in full-voiced support of the revolutionary cause – have been on the right track, but have not gone quite far enough. He praises Quentin Skinner's suggestion that, in fact, Hobbes's notion that obedience should be shown to any de facto ruler (even a conqueror) fitted very well into the revolutionary milieu. Collins does not want us to see Hobbes's writing in the 1650s – and his return from exile – as merely an act of (perhaps grudging) submission to political reality or something done out of political obligation. Rather, Hobbes is recast as deliberately distancing himself from the Stuart cause and articulating ‘a positive, if partial and often hesitant, agreement with aspects of the revolution.’(p. 4) Following Richard Tuck, Collins stresses the importance of Hobbes's commitment to a radical erastian church settlement: precisely (and here was the crucial common ground) the ecclesiological model pursued by the Protectorate.
As Collins concedes, his book represents a ‘challenge [to] the assumptions of broad swathes of modern scholarship on Thomas Hobbes’ but, while some might question Collins's conclusions, it is still very pleasing to see emphasis being placed on the religious (as opposed to the more obviously political) aspects of Hobbes's thought. There are also extremely well-wrought discussions of the development of Hobbes's ecclesiological ideas and of the wider debate about erastianism during the 1640s and 1650s. ‘This book, it is hoped, will prove as interesting to historians of the revolution as to students of the philosopher’ (p. 9) It does.