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June 11, 2007

David Womersley asks, what light does a rediscovered early translation by Hobbes shed on his later work? Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes - Noel Malcolm

Posted by David Womersley

Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes
by Noel Malcolm
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007
Hardback, 35

The bringing to light of a previously-unknown work by a major writer or thinker is always a cause of excitement, and even more so when the author in question is a figure of the stature of Hobbes. Noel Malcolm's discovery amongst the papers of the first Earl of Newcastle of an incomplete manuscript translation, unmistakably in Hobbes's handwriting, of an inflammatory European political pamphlet of the 1620s, is thus a tantalising and provocative event. Even allowing for the fact that it is a rendition of another's words, the circumstance that this translation must date from so early in Hobbes's career makes inescapable the question of what influence it may have exerted over the philosophy of Hobbes's maturity.

The pamphlet is entitled Altera Secretissima Instructio ("The Second Most Secret Instruction"). It purports to be a policy briefing for the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, whose acceptance of the crown of Bohemia from anti-Habsburg rebels had launched the Thirty Years' War. It is in fact a mischievous pro-Habsburg composition which sought to damage the Elector by revealing information which would discredit him and his interests in the eyes of dispassionate observers.

In particular, the pamphlet imputed to circles surrounding the Elector amoral "ragion di stato" arguments: it was a strategy clearly intended to blacken him. Nor is it difficult to see why an English nobleman might have wanted a translation of this rare and dangerous pamphlet. Although England was not involved in the Thirty Years' War, the conflict was nevertheless of great interest in English political circles, because the Elector was the son-in-law of the English monarch, James I, and because his cause was seen by many to be that of Protestantism itself.

As Malcolm suggests, Hobbes probably composed this translation at the instigation of one of his patrons in the Cavendish family, so its existence cannot be taken as evidence of an especial interest on his part in the issues it raises. Nevertheless, this gifted political thinker (already recognised by Samuel Hartlib as possessing "a fine political brain" many years before the publication of Leviathan in 1651) must have found his mind engaged and provoked by the material that passed under his hand. How might it have influenced him?

After the publication of Leviathan Hobbes was bitterly attacked for the supposedly pernicious tendency of his thought, and in this perspective he might seem to be the natural heir of the scandalous tradition of "ragion di stato", in which the utile (or expedient) is typically preferred ahead of the honestum (or decent). Like "ragion di stato" writers, Hobbes's philosophy accords an important place to interest, to opinion, and to a consequentialist calculation of the greater good when it comes to deciding between rival courses of action - a position which of course could result in the advocacy of actions which affront traditional ideas of moral behaviour (telling the truth, not harming others, etc.).

However, as Malcolm observes, although there are superficial affinities between Hobbes and the "ragion di stato" tradition, at bottom his political philosophy is better regarded as an aggressive critique of such writing. For the theorists of "ragion di stato", politics was an art practised by insiders and incapable of systematic or theoretical expression. For them, political wisdom was shifting and fragmentary, and so one of their favourite literary forms was the maxim.

Hobbes, however, sought to reduce politics to the condition of a science, which

would demonstrate the necessity of government and the need for any government to have certain features.
Given the nature of Hobbes's mature political writings, then, it is not unreasonable to speculate that, although the hard-headedness of "ragion di stato" writers may have attracted him, their conceptual shortcomings may also have impelled him to pass beyond their formulations of the nature of political wisdom. As we read this youthful translation, we may be passing unawares over the starting points of trains of thought which were to culminate in Leviathan.

Most professional scholars - at least, those who have a share of honesty and humility (which on reflection perhaps excludes most of them) - will close this slim volume with mingled emotions of admiration and despair: admiration at the reach, precision and judgement of Malcolm's scholarship, despair over whether they could themselves emulate it. Why is this book so impressive? In the first place, Malcolm's linguistic accomplishment is prodigious. Of course, he has Latin and Greek; of course, he has the major modern European languages such as French, Spanish, German and Italian; to these, however, (and how many of us can follow him here?) he adds the languages of Eastern Europe, such as Czech and Hungarian.

Secondly, he has been exceptionally industrious: the list of manuscripts consulted shows him not only travelling the length of England, but also traversing the continent. So his judgements are based on an unusually complete awareness of the relevant information, and this occasionally produces revelatory insights (the way he is able to speculate, with a high degree of probability, that the original pamphlet emanated from diplomatic circles in Vienna from a comparison of the contents of diplomatic archives there with inside information adduced in the pamphlet, is a good case in point).

Thirdly, he moves with great sureness over the tricky terrain of two essential contexts for the understanding of this pamphlet: the military and diplomatic manoeuvring of the Thirty Years' War, and the intellectual context of "ragion di stato" writing in Europe before the 1620s. It is all the more impressive, then, in the light of these scholarly strengths, that Malcolm is not intoxicated by his achievements and betrayed into recklessness of judgement. But in assessing the overall importance of this translation in Hobbes's intellectual career, he is measured and sober, and therefore persuasive. It is a performance which whets the appetite for Malcolm's forthcoming biography of Hobbes.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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