Oakeshott and Hobbes

Here is a trailer from possibly the greatest living Hobbes scholar – Noel Malcolm – who we were lucky enough to nab for our Companion.

Even those who know only a little about Michael Oakeshott know that he had a strong and abiding interest in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His edition of Leviathan (1946) became the standard edition for several generations of students, and his substantial Introduction to that volume, which was reissued in a revised version in 1975, remains one of the classic texts of modern Hobbes interpretation. Oakeshott’s special interest in Hobbes had developed more than a decade before the appearance of that edition; his first publication devoted to Hobbes was a long essay in the literary-critical magazine Scrutiny in 1935, in which he surveyed a range of recent publications on Hobbes’s political thought and emphasized that the old caricature of Hobbes as a philosopher of “despotism” was now completely untenable (CPJ 110-21). In 1937 Oakeshott returned to this subject with a review of another book, a study of Hobbes’s political philosophy by Leo Strauss; here he agreed with Strauss that Hobbes’s political thought was not grounded on a crudely “naturalistic” kind of science, while disagreeing with Strauss’s attempt to derive it from a set of purely moral assumptions. After the Introduction to Leviathan, Oakeshott wrote another lengthy exploration of Hobbes’s moral theory (with an “appendix” on his theory of the formation of the state), an essay entitled “The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes,” published in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). With the exception of the Scrutiny article, these items were gathered (together with a short essay, originally a radio talk, entitled “Leviathan: a Myth,” which 304 Oakeshott described as “a conversation piece, a flight of fancy”) in a volume published under the title Hobbes on Civil Association in 1975. And from the same period (1974) dates also a substantial book review, of a monograph on Hobbes by Thomas Spragens, which was later reprinted under the title “Logos and Telos” in the expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics; here Oakeshott once again challenged the idea that Hobbes’s philosophy was simply modeled on natural science, emphasizing that it explored, rather, a world of human intentions and human meanings. In every one of these texts it is evident that Oakeshott wrote about Hobbes not merely as a historian of ideas, but as a philosopher who found, in Hobbes’s central arguments, something valid and philosophically important.