Researching Hobbes

Notes for January 23

What is Leviathan?

We’re going to devote ourselves to one book, Hobbes’s Leviathan. It’s sort of like studying the Bible or Shakespeare’s major plays. This is a great book and I want to give you a sense of how to read it, how its parts fit together, and where it stands in intellectual history. Here, I’m going to give you a little background about Leviathan; you can get more from Curley’s excellent introduction to the edition we’re using. I especially recommend the chronology and biographical materials (pp.xlvii-lxxi).

Hobbes wrote three books in political philosophy. The first, The Elements of Law was circulated but not published. He wrote it during the 1630s, when disputes between Parliament and the monarchy were starting to send the English state into crisis. The second, De Cive was published in Latin. It was intended to the be third work in a series: De Corpore (“of body”) was about the physical world, De Homine (“of man”) was about human nature and especially optics, and De Cive (“of the citizen”) was about the ‘artificial’ man of the state. De Cive was published before the other parts, in 1642, as the civil war broke out.

Leviathan was composed while Hobbes was living in Paris with the exiled court. Parliament had defeated the royalists but there was a long, strange period in which the Charles I was held captive while negotiating a settlement. These negotiations came to an end when the Army purged the Parliament and executed Charles in 1649. Hobbes finished Leviathan in late 1650 and soon thereafter returned to England. Leviathan was originally written in English but translated into Latin after the restoration of the monarchy in 1668.


There are many good editions of Leviathan. I chose the one edited by Edwin Curley because it’s the easiest one to use. The glossary is a life-saver, the annotations are great, it includes important variations from the Latin edition, and Curley simplified some of the punctuation, spelling, and paragraph breaks. (See his notes on pp. lxxiii-lxxvi.) You get all this for a ridiculously low price. What’s not to like? I have four of five copies myself: I just leave them in the places I regularly go.

Putting together a modern edition of Leviathan isn’t as simple as finding an old copy and transcribing it. There were different print runs in the seventeenth-century that are not all exactly identical. So you have to compile them and make choices about which variant to accept.

There is a new edition of Leviathan edited by the amazing scholar Noel Malcolm. It will be the final word on all this for, well, hundreds of years. It’s part of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes. You can have it for a mere $375. In addition to the price, it’s in three hefty volumes. Maybe Oxford will eventually release a student edition. But for now, this is largely of interest to people who make a living off of Hobbes.

There are other less intimidating editions as well. Cambridge University Press has a very nice one edited by Richard Tuck. It was probably the most accurate one available before the Clarendon edition came out. Yale University Press has an edition with several good scholarly essays. A. P. Martinich edited an edition for Westview Press with many helpful annotations. I use this edition and Curley’s quite a lot.

You will see references to “Molesworth”, “English Works”, and “EW” followed by a roman numeral. These are references to volumes of Hobbes’s collected works; there were two collections, English Works (EW) and Opera Latina (OL). These were edited by William Molesworth and published in the nineteenth century. They are being supplanted by the Clarendon edition, but you still need them to track down references in the secondary sources. You can find them in the library. But it’s often easier to look them up in the PastMasters collection I will describe next.


Trying to remember a phrase that you remember but can’t find in the text? Do a search! Specifically, go to the PastMasters database and use the British Philosophy 1600–1900 collection. Voila, searchable Hobbes! It’s helpful for writing papers too: you don’t have to type a passage that you’re trying to quote, just copy and paste.

There are two internet encyclopedias that I would use if I wanted to get a sense of the scholarly discussion of Hobbes: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I love A. P. Martinich’s A Hobbes Dictionary. Martinich gives you all the textual references for a topic, explains the analytical and interpretive issues, and frequently includes useful references to the secondary literature and historical context. Basically, whenever I find myself thinking “Hobbes seems to have contradicted himself there, but he couldn’t have done that, could he?” I turn here.

There are also two good Cambridge Companion volumes on Hobbes. These consist of chapters written by experts that are meant to describe the state of the art rather than advancing a novel thesis of their own. That makes them helpful when you’re most interested in getting the lay of the land. They are the Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (1996) and the Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan (2007).

Early English Books is the place to go for primary sources. You get a bundle of world class rare book repositories right there. And you can do computerized text searches too: there’s no need to request and read hundreds of fragile documents to find what you’re after. It’s amazing. Still, there’s something about seeing the real thing. It’s just go down the road at the Huntington Library in San Marino. They have an original copy of Leviathan on display. Plus an art collection. And jaw-dropping gardens. And one of the world’s finest collections for the period we’re discussing. (Of course, most of it is available through Early English Books. But still.)

It wouldn’t hurt to have a copy of the King James Bible handy. There are lots of Biblical references in Leviathan, sometimes in places where you least expect them. Project Gutenberg is where I go.

Finally, it would be a good idea to have a look at some of Euclid’s geometry. By the way, Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition is quite amazing. There’s no need to study it. But look over a few pages. It will give you a feel for the sort of thing that Hobbes aspired to do.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 6, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar