- Hobbes: A Biography by A. P. Martinich
In his most recent biography of Hobbes, A. P. Martinich informs the reader that he is “here to praise Hobbes, not to bury his theory”—a task which the author accomplishes with a great deal of literary dexterity (233). The work is chronological in structure with each of the eleven chapters devoted to a specific period in Hobbes’s intellectual and personal development. The reader receives an in depth and well wrought treatment of Hobbes’s earliest years in Malmesbury, including a thorough discussion of his dissolute father and his tutelage in the classics under Robert Latimer. Martinich also goes into detail concerning Hobbes’s student life at Oxford, his lifelong relationship with the Cavendishes, Hobbes’s participation in the Great Tew Circle as well as his decade long exile in France and ultimate return to England. Hobbes’s later years, particularly his fruitless disputes with the Royal Society, are also admirably chronicled.
Interwoven with the above is a detailed overview of most of Hobbes’s major and minor works, from his translation of Thucydides in 1629 to Behemoth, published in 1679. Martinich pays close attention to Hobbes’s foundational works in philosophy, particularly The Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore. The author provides a clear and concise introduction to all facets of Hobbes’s philosophical system and spends time explaining what Hobbes took his project to be; namely the construction of a tripartite Elementa Philosophiae devoted, respectively, to metaphysics/physics, psychology and ethics/politics (118–9). The critical exegesis of Anti-White is exceptional, providing as it does an excellent conceptual backdrop to Hobbes’s mature and considered philosophy of science as found in De Corpore. As such, Hobbes’s philosophical corpus is presented, rightly I believe, as a continuum, by no means seamless perhaps, but nonetheless exhibiting at base a considerable amount of theoretical integrity.
As is well known, Hobbes was quite the cantankerous character engaging in numerous professional and, ultimately, personal rows with the great minds of his time. Hobbes’s acrimonious wranglings with René Descartes, Thomas White, Bishop Bramhall, Robert Filmer, Robert Boyle, Seth Ward, and John Wallis all receive their due. The comically churlish debate between Hobbes and Descartes is especially well presented. [End Page 680]
Stylistically, Martinich adopts a somewhat pithy approach (e.g., William Cavendish is described as follows: “It was not that Cavendish was unprincipled; rather, his principle was opportunism.” ) which, for the most part, is quite successful in keeping the reader’s attention, even when complex philosophical ideas are being conveyed. The work, much to Martinich’s credit, is also punctuated with numerous amusing tidbits such as his listing of the oral exam questions which Hobbes and his fellow students adequately had to answer in order to receive their B.A., e.g., “Whether a new inundation of water [over the whole earth] would be a greater catastrophe than all of it freezing” (13). Hobbes would be happy to know that things haven’t changed all that much.
Substantively, a few points are in order. First, as one might expect, Martinich spends a great deal of time discussing Hobbes’s theological views and he is at great pains to paint Hobbes as a committed Calvinist (137–43; see Martinich’s The Two Gods of Leviathan [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992]) for a fuller discussion of this issue. In all fairness, the author readily admits that his reading is a minority interpretation, but this being the case perhaps more time should have been devoted to discussing the received view, i.e., that Hobbes, if he is not an atheist, is at most a deist and not a theist. Second, Martinich portrays Hobbes’s sovereign as wholly absolute, unfettered not only by the civil, but the natural law as well. While quite correct in maintaining that the sovereign, since he or she (or they), is not subject to civil law, it does not follow that Hobbes necessarily believes that “whatever the sovereign says is law” (50). Indeed, in Chapter XXVI of Leviathan Hobbes...