THE GREATEST WORK OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY WRITTEN IN ENGLISH

Leviathan, or the matter, forme, and power of a common-weath ecclesiastical and civill.

London, Printed for Andrew Crooke, 1651.

Folio, pp. [vi], 1–248, 247–256, 261–396, with an engraved pictorial additional title (laid down) and a folding letterpress table; fore-edge of the printed title reinforced, paper flaw to p. 175-6 resulting in the loss of a couple of letters, some light waterstaining to the upper outer corner of the initial quires, some scattered foxing; withal a good copy in contemporary calf, rebacked with some repairs to the sides, endpapers renewed; ownership inscription of John Horseman (Oxford scholar, correspondent of William Godwin) dated 1797 to the title-page.

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Hobbes was very interested in the settlement of North America, and was even technically once a landowner there (as an aide to the earl of Devonshire, a prominent member of the Virginia Company in the 1620s). In Leviathan Hobbes refers to the government of Virginia, and, most importantly, he cites ‘the savage people in many places of America’ as a concrete example of one of his key concepts, the state of nature, ‘where every man is enemy to every man’, a condition of ‘continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’.

Yet Hobbes’s references to America are sporadic: ‘The problem of the American Indian in Hobbes’s works . . . is akin to the problem of the dog that did not bark in the night: why did Hobbes make so little use of his special knowledge? The answer must lie mainly in his distaste for anything that might tie his argument to empirical questions of fact. But it may also be suspected that the data raised more difficulties for Hobbes than they solved. Although he could write that “the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord wherof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all . . . ”, he must have been aware, if he had read accounts such as that of Purchas, that some Indian tribes did conform to his model of a commonwealth. This must have been embarrassing for his subsidiary theory that all the benefits of civilization sprang directly from the leisure provided by secure government; if Indians could have a sovereign and remain savages, then the political explanation of civilization supplied at best a necessary, not a sufficient, cause’ (Malcolm, ‘Hobbes, Sandys and the Virginia Company’, in Aspects of Hobbes pp. 75–6).

‘Hobbes was not an enthusiastic proto-imperialist. Having direct experience of colonial policy (he was an active participant in the Virginia Company), he had good reason to consider the question of how colonization could be justified. The most convenient justification available was the neo-Aristotelian argument, which portrayed the native
people of the Americas as “natural slaves”; but Hobbes responded to Aristotle’s original version of this argument with withering scorn. In his view, colonization was a permissible way of employing people who could not otherwise be supported by the economy of the mother-country; however, the colonists were under a moral duty to treat the native people humanely, and to encourage them to use greater productivity to compensate for the loss of territory. As he explains in Leviathan, the colonists “are to be transported into countries not sufficiently inhabited: where neverthelesse, they are not to exterminate those they find there; but constrain them to inhabit closer together, and not range a great deal of ground, to snatch what they find; but to court each little plot with art and labour” ’ (Malcolm, ‘Hobbes’s theory of international relations’, in Aspects of Hobbes pp. 441–2).
Alden 651/85; Corbett & Lightbown 20; Macdonald & Hargreaves 42; Pforzheimer 491; PMM 138; Wing H2246. For the engraved title (‘perhaps the most famous visual image in the history of modern political philosophy’) and for the two editions falsely dated ‘1651’ but printed some time later, see also Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes pp. 200–33, 336–82.

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