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Notes on Thomas Hobbes from The Critic, Volume 43, 1905:
Although most of Hobbes's "great discoveries" have since proved of the "stuff that dreams are made of," and the "Behemoth" and the once formidable "Leviathan" are interesting chiefly as intellectual fossils, yet his influence on English thought was definite, positive, and distinctly exhilarating. "Hobbes appears to have been the first writer who clearly announced that 'civil philosophy' must be based upon 'natural philosophy,' or, in other words, that a sound 'sociology' must be based upon scientific knowledge. He may be called a Herbert Spencer of the seventeenth century." He "succeeded in working out a legal or political theory which had a very genuine and powerful effect upon the course of speculation,"—chiefly by way of repulsion. The method he learned from Euclid he hesitated not to apply to politics, ethics, religion; "he lays down with the utmost calmness and confidence the most startling principles. He thinks them so reasonable and obvious that you might expect even a bishop to accept them," — and to his surprise and consternation found himself regarded as a dangerous person. All the antipathies which in the nineteenth century were roused by materialism, evolutionism, agnosticism, and destructive criticism, were in the seventeenth century excited by Hobbes.
With all his astonishing indifference to current beliefs and methods, for Hobbes the role of martyr was invested with no distinction. Strong as his intellectual audacity was the incongruous and inconvenient element of extreme timorousness—due perhaps to Mrs. Hobbes's misinformation concerning the Armada's "objective." No woman was ever more frankly afraid of a mouse than Hobbes was of personal danger, and when in the political crisis of 1640 the circulation of a manuscript treatise brought a hornet's nest about his ears, he "went over into France, the first of all that fled," he states unblushingly. Still it is no light affliction to lose one's head, even though the loss is a purely personal one, and Hobbes's was his most valued possession.
Of Hobbes's philosophy the greater part is now obsolete. He will be quoted for a pungent aphorism rather than as a theorist. Yet he remains the greatest thinker between Locke and Bacon: and if great thinkers did not break up the ground, roughly and imperfectly perhaps, there would be little use of seed-time and harvest. Hobbes in his impatient casting aside of the intricate and meaningless "jargon" of the schoolmen—the blinding web of "comments and glozes" through which little meaning escaped,—his sturdy striking out into new ways of thought, and, above all, for his unhesitating application of scientific methods to problems, sociological, psychological, and theological—for this, English thought will always be his debtor.
This careful, scholarly, sympathetic, and enlightened exposition of the old philosopher's life and work is, after all, a fitting close to Sir Leslie Stephen's life-work. When he could no longer write, the book, not quite completed, was placed in Mr. F. W. Maitland's hands, but Mr. Maitland decided wisely. "Before his death I had sent him word that the book was so complete that no second hand ought to touch it."
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Stephen Holmes, a professor of political science and law at the University of Chicago, is the author of Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism.
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