The Philosopher and His Scholar

Noel Malcolm’s magisterial new edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan is a fine example of why, in the 21st century, scholarship still matters

Books Philosophy Politics

The title page of “Leviathan”: The axis around which political theory still turns

I should begin by declaring an interest. Dr Noel Malcolm — as well as being one of my oldest and dearest friends — has been a considerable cause of aggravation to me for the past 40 years or so.

It was my fate, as an aspiring student of history in the year below him at school, to be greeted from time to time (when an essay was returned) with an exceedingly annoying phrase along the lines of: “This is all right; but not, of course quite at Malcolm’s level” — and roughly the same thing happened throughout my time at university. Bad enough in itself, yet more irritating when one has the dreadful suspicion that it is true.

Since those days, Dr Malcolm’s aggravating academic superiority has been rather widely acknowledged. Indeed, his distinctions virtually constitute a cursus honorum of British academic life: a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford; a fellow of the British Academy; an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and of Peterhouse, Cambridge; a speaker of more languages than there are colours in a large rainbow; a distinguished musicologist; the author of important works on the Balkans; the writer of more interesting journalism than almost any journalist; an authority on nonsense verse; the biographer of some of the most romantic of early modern figures; and, above all, an intellectual historian of astonishing erudition and subtlety, whose classic edition of Hobbes’s correspondence has now been followed by this definitive edition of Leviathan — all in preparation for the magisterial biography of Hobbes itself that we await.

Even as I write these words (which in fact provide only a partial account of Dr Malcolm’s multitudinous activities and distinctions), I am — not for the first time — struck with awe at the thought that one single person can have done quite so much, and of such a quality. 

As I survey the three volumes of this latest magnum opus, three further thoughts crowd in on me. First, that this is a work of meticulous scholarship — each page of the general introduction and of the textual introduction, each footnote to the text, is the product of painstaking precision and of years of scholarly endeavour, both wide and deep. Second, that such scholarship should need no defence. And third that, alas, such scholarship does need a defence.

The question “What is the point of it?” is in one sense the best question in the world — because it matters to distinguish what is important from what is not. Saving the baby matters more than getting rid of the bath-water. But asking about the point of everything is also, in another sense, the worst question in the world — because if you ask for the point of anything ultimate (God, life,  nature, art) — you will miss the point about the things that matter most of all.

So when someone asks about a sublime piece of scholarship like this, “What is the point of it?”, I am inclined to suppose that they are asking the worst kind of question, and to reach promptly for my gun. But I know that I should in fact resist any such temptation, because there is, alas, a live (albeit somewhat covert) debate at present about whether scholarship matters. 

In the world of “research” — research councils, research grants, research fellowships, research evaluation assessments, research impact assessments and all the rest of it — the barbarians are at the gates. And, among the barbarians, there is a terrible tendency to suppose that “mere scholarship” does not quite count. I have never heard it said openly, but you can pick it up in tones and undertones; and it’s easy to see how this destructive idea can get a purchase.

Why, after all, should we care exactly what Hobbes meant to write in Leviathan and exactly how he came to write it? Isn’t it enough to know roughly what he wrote and roughly how he came to write it?

Not many people who know anything at all about intellectual history or political theory would want to deny that Hobbes himself matters — because his work (and, in particular, Leviathan) is one of the axes around which political theory still turns. 

As we see the great “ideological” divides of the 20th century give way to the quasi-religious conflicts, civil eruptions and anarchic warlords of the 21st century, we are reminded both of the significance and of the fragility of “law and order”. And it was precisely the fragility and significance of law and order that preoccupied Hobbes. His work is an antidote to the complacent Lockean assumption that the alternative to a strong state is a broadly civilised condition of pleasant anarchy. He saw very clearly that the alternative to authority is in fact a hugely unattractive anarchy — and he thereby has a claim to be one of the natural political theorists of the 21st century. If Locke, Montesquieu and Marx were the philosophers of the Cold War, Hobbes and the intellectuals of Hezbollah are the theorists of Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This brings us to the question of whether it matters to have a definitive edition of Leviathan, with a meticulous apparatus that enables us to see the evolution of Hobbes’s thought. 

I suppose the answer to this question depends upon the answer to the further question, “Does the history of ideas really matter?” — because, if you once admit that the history of ideas does matter, you are virtually bound to admit that it matters to know as much as possible about the origin and evolution of the most important works in that history. 

So we turn to the question, does the history of ideas really matter?  

There was a time (now, mercifully, mainly past) when it was fashionable in Anglo-Saxon philosophy departments to deride the history of thought. In this particular form of heresy, the great thinkers who have largely created the intellectual atmosphere in which we all, more or less consciously breathe were either disregarded entirely as “old hat” or else taken wholly out of context as if they could be fully understood without any reference whatsoever to the intellectual atmosphere in which they themselves breathed.

The truth is, of course, that this heresy  can only impoverish philosophy. The great thinkers of the past are as much a part of the continuing conversation of our civilisation as are the thinkers of the present. But they are participants whose contributions can be fully understood only by reference to the context within which they operated. And the subtler points of their contextualised contributions can be grasped only through reading a text which is as near as we can get to what the author himself intended.

So yes, the history of ideas really does matter, and the precision of the great texts in the history of ideas also matters, not just because our history matters in itself but also because the ability to see accurate texts accurately placed in the context of their history contributes to an understanding of the ideas that constitute philosophy and, in particular, political theory. 

These are points that Dr Malcolm himself (and indeed his two very distinguished co-editors of the Clarendon edition of Hobbes, Quentin Skinner and Keith Thomas) would of course regard as so obvious as to be hardly worth making. But, in defence of civilisation against the barbarian incursions, these things do in fact sometimes need to be restated — and there seems to be no more suitable time to do so than in the course of reflecting on Dr Malcolm’s magnificent edition of Leviathan.