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Hobbes, the Scriblerians and the History of Philosophy by Conal Condren (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 43-45 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0038

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Hobbes continues to loom over English intellectual history with a power much like that represented by the iconic image of the sovereign on the frontispiece to Leviathan. But few writers have been as misunderstood as Hobbes, who has been viewed, in his time and in ours, as both an atheist and unflinching advocate of absolute monarchy. Thankfully, recent scholars, such as A. P. Martinich on Hobbes’s faith and Jeffrey Collins on his politics, have challenged hoary assumptions about the “Monster of Malmesbury.” In Mr. Condren’s monograph, this revisionism continues. He argues that once we clear away the disciplinary divisions that have severed ties between philosophy and literature, we can recapture a sense of Hobbes as a satirist who sought to expose absurdity and the Scriblerians as philosophers who hoped to be taken seriously.

Mr. Condren briefly surveys the philosophic persona from Lucian and Menippus to More and Erasmus. This serio ludere tradition, according to him, is exemplified by Hobbes, who influences the Scriblerians. To understand this tradition, Mr. Condren recaptures the unity of persona and proposition. In other words, what someone says reflects who that person is. This notion of unity, however, is not without its potential for distortion. Mr. Condren observes that it frequently leads to reductio ad absurdum and ad hominem arguments rarely seen in philosophical writing today, where analytic philosophy has taught us never to confuse propositions with the persona behind them. But to forget this unity is to impose today’s scholarly conventions on a world that did not share them. Mr. Condren believes this forgetfulness helps explain why philosophical writing was much funnier then than now.

At first, it might seem that Hobbes and the Scriblerians, however loosely we define them, make an odd pairing, since the differences are acute. Hobbes, unlike the Scriblerians, cast his lot with the moderns. He hardly shared Swift’s or Pope’s theology, and both found his materialism offensive. And despite the social cohesion depicted in Leviathan’s frontispiece, the Scriblerians considered Hobbes a dangerous representative of the kind of unhinged singularity that led to civil wars rather than prevented them. But, as Mr. Condren argues, what they shared is a similar sense of the “importance of absurdity in marking the limits of philosophy, and the role of satire in exposing it.” Hobbes displays his satiric sensibility in his skepticism toward ancient philosophy (Aristotelian pretension for distinguishing humans from animals). This penchant for absurdity is also evident in Roman Catholicism, the traditions of which he equates with those of fairyland. For Hobbes, classical philosophy and Roman Catholic theology, in their own ways, press beyond the boundaries of reason and credibility.

For all the fun Hobbes must have had unleashing his satiric sensibility, his rejection of well-established political and theological traditions left him vulnerable to the critique he leveled against others. He simply could not resist the “Satyrical way of nipping,” and it would come back to bite him. By distancing himself from received wisdom, Hobbes grew isolated from the scholarly community and subject to caricature. Mr. Condren argues that any thinker who prided himself on his intellectual independence and innovation could easily be construed as rebellious and tyrannical, much like Satan. As a result, Hobbes the man could readily be transformed into Hobbes the monster, a metamorphosis made all the easier by his choosing titles such as Leviathan and Behemoth. It would take a bad man to write such bad books.

Hobbes provided an irresistible model for Martinus Scriblerus, the archmodern who hoped to turn all human learning into a science. Of all those castigated by the Scriblerians, Mr. Condren argues Hobbes was far more of a “modern” than Bentley and Wotton, and hence more dangerous since “new science could mean new religion.” For the Scriblerians, it was a quick descent from Hobbesian materialism into atheism, a fall that could only be stopped by rendering absurd both its pronouncements and personas. For Mr. Condren, Martinus Scriblerus physically resembles Hobbes: “Tall and black browed, as Hobbes had been, the philosopher is singular, isolated, alien in his own land, an egregious, if abstemious, modern.”

But why attend today to the significance of philosophic persona, when analytic philosophy has...

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