April 17, 2008

Hobbes's education


Reading Quentin Skinner's Ford lectures, as I am at the moment, its interesting to reflect on the education of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was one of the great philosophers of his or any other age- he was an innovative thinker, reviled in his own time but incredibly influential on a whole range of philosophers, both contemporaries like Spinoza and later individuals like Vico and Rousseau. Hobbes's education was typical of his era and his time- as a predigiously intelligent individual he went through a traditional education, through Oxford University and became eventually secretary to the Duke of Devonshire: as secretary to the Duke, Hobbes was able to take advantage of the library at Chatsworth and furthermore to exploit the contacts that Devonshire could give him, with intellectuals working for other English noblemen (though Skinner does not mention it, other noblemen had intellectuals working for them in similar capacities: Henry Parker for example worked for Lord Saye and Sele, Henry Ireton (a future commander in the New Model Army) worked in some capacity for Lord Wharton). Others had similar commitments- John Rushworth worked for the Fairfaxes for example and continued working for them through the civil war.

That environment brought a young intellectual like Hobbes right into the centre intellectually of the seventeenth century. Through accompanying the Duke's son through Europe, he met Mersenne, Descartes and others. Hobbes's background was incredibly conventional and strains of it were retained when he came to look at his future work: the style of his work was humanist even though its content was not. The style of his work was influenced by the fact that he Hobbes was a Latinist, who had consumed vast ammounts of classical literature. Despite saying that his time in Oxford was wasted (something he shares with that other great English intellect of the early modern period, Edward Gibbon), he learnt a great deal there- gaining a background both in classical history and in classical philosophy. He probably wasn't involved in texts which were definitely produced at Chatsworth, including a translation of Tacitus in the mid-1620s, but it was translation that took his fancy early on. We have his magisterial translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponesian Wars: Thucydides had in analysing the break up of the democracy in Athens and the society of Corcyra (modern Corfu) provided the great classical accounts of social instability- which were to influence Hobbes's later famous account.

But even more than that, such studies influenced what Hobbes's works looked like. The Humanist scholars of the17th Century loved to illustrate their work with pictures which denoted their ideas. Hobbes translated humanist texts from 1627 onwards and despite disagreeing with them, he adopted the conventions of humanist presentation in this form at least. Take a look at the frontispeice of Leviathan (1651) shown above- it represents the central idea- that the state is a corporate personality made up of many men in a simple illustrative version. Hobbes in that sense was as in many others typical of his times, his atypicality was a production, a swerve out of what most people were doing but he used the ladder of a humanistic education, in order to demolish humanism as an idea later in life. I'll pass to his ideas and Skinner's lectures on them soon- but I think it is interesting that the relationship between this incredibly influential individual and his times was not that he sprung original from the womb, but that he was a typical educated man of the 17th Century, who had some new and revolutionary ideas.

1 comments:

Semaj Mahgih said...

And don't forget, Tiberius, Hobbes was fond of his dram.