Tag Archives: political theory

Tracking the Leviathan

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, which outlines his theory of moral and political philosophy. The book’s title comes from a metaphor of the state as a giant made up of individuals in the way that an individual is made up of molecules: “For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or State, (in latine Civitas) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.”

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Detail from the engraved title page of Leviathan (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651) showing the sovereign as the head of a Leviathan composed of citizens of the commonwealth.

In Leviathan, Hobbes hypothesized that in their natural state, without government or societal bonds, people are motivated predominantly by self-interest, especially self-preservation. In such a state, every individual would be in competition with every other, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Human reason, which pursues our long-term self-interest rather than immediate desires, suggests that peace is desirable for our self-preservation, but is impossible while every individual is the sole arbiter of his or her own behaviour. Therefore, it is in our collective best interest to join together to form a commonwealth in which individuals hand over certain natural rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection from violence. The sovereign wields absolute power for the purpose of maintaining peace, but the sovereign’s right to rule extends only as far as his ability to  protect his people. 

This theory rejects the divine right of kings, and replaces it with the idea that sovereignty comes from a social contract between a ruler and his subjects. Published at the end of the Civil War in England, these arguments made Hobbes many enemies on both sides of the political conflict, as well as in the church. Parliamentarians took offense at his support of absolute monarchy, while royalists rejected Hobbes’ claim that because the king could not protect his people in England, their self-preservation was best served by accepting the authority of the new regime. Meanwhile, the church was outraged at his assertion that because supreme authority derives from the consent of the governed and not from God, the authority of the church must be subordinate to that of the state.

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Pamphlets like this one criticizing Hobbes’ philosophy appeared soon after Leviathan‘s publication.

Almost immediately after the publication of Leviathan, critics began to publish scathing attacks on Hobbes’ arguments. The Catholic Church placed Leviathan on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and Oxford dismissed faculty who were sympathetic to Hobbes’ arguments. In spite of, or perhaps because of this notoriety, Leviathan enjoyed tremendous popularity—a fact which is can be seen in its early publication history.

After the appearance of the first edition in 1651, any further printing of Leviathan in the vernacular was prohibited. Nevertheless, the book remained in high demand. Consequently, 17th century publishers were reluctant to put their own name to the publication, but were even more reluctant to miss out on an opportunity for profit.

According to Hugh Macdonald and Mary Hargreaves’ bibliography of the works of Thomas Hobbes, “there are three editions of Leviathan each bearing the imprint ‘Printed for Andrew Crooke at the Green Dragon in St. Paul’s Church-yard’ and the date 1651,” but only one of these imprints is true. The three editions are commonly referred to by the woodcut ornaments on the printed title page: a head with scrolls and tassels, a bear with foliage, and five rows of fleuron ornaments. The Cardiff Rare Books collection includes two copies of Leviathan, both from the “head” edition.

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Three editions exist with the same imprint, but different ornaments on their title pages. The “head” edition shown here comes from the Cardiff Rare Books collection; the other two are from Early English Books Online.

Using evidence taken from the errataengraved title page, typefaces, and watermarks in the paper, it is possible to determine roughly where and when the three editions were produced. In the “head” edition, all of the mistakes identified in the errata are still present in the text, and the plate from which the engraved title page was printed appears to have been in good condition at the time. The evidence suggests that this is the true first edition published by Andrew Crooke in 1651.

In the “bear” edition, the errata list is identical to that of the “head” edition, but some of the mistakes have been corrected in the text, and the engraved title page shows signs of wear to the plate. The Italic typeface used in the “bear” edition is unlikely to have been used in England before the end of the 17th century. Macdonald and Hargreaves traced the use of the bear ornament in other publications, revealing that it was used only in books printed in Holland between 1617 and 1670, suggesting that this edition was most likely printed in Holland not long after 1651.

In the “ornaments” edition, there is a new misprint in the errata list itself, and more of the mistakes have been corrected than in the “bear” edition. The engraved title page shows signs that the plate has been retouched; much of the detail on the tiny figures within the leviathan has been lost. The typeface and paper can be identified as having been in use much later than 1651. More specifically, Anthony Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses mentions an edition of Leviathan “Reprinted there again with its old date, an. 1680.” This statement would place the “ornaments” edition the year after Hobbes’ death, a time when Hobbes’ writings are known to have been much discussed in the coffee-houses around London.

The existence of these two concealed editions provides an intriguing glimpse of a time when the public’s appetite for philosophical writing was great enough to motivate publishers to defy church and government censorship. It’s also a good reminder for cataloguers and researchers alike that books are not always what they claim to be!