The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes

Primary Contributors:

Noel Malcolm


Thomas Hobbes, by John Michael Wright. c. 1669–70. Oil on canvas. (Source of image: National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG225)

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is best known as a political theorist; his Leviathan (1651) is one of the most influential works in the entire Western canon of political philosophy, and his earlier treatise De cive (1642) was also widely read in the European republic of letters. But his interests ranged much more extensively: he wrote also about optics and mathematics, and made serious contributions to fields as diverse as psychology and biblical criticism. Many of his wider interests are reflected in his correspondence.

Hobbes was one of the most long-lived of early modern thinkers, reaching the age of 91; his correspondence runs from 1622 to 1679. Yet it has to be admitted that the total number of surviving letters (213 texts or fragments of text, plus a few lost letters of which some modern description has survived) is disappointingly small. This seems a very slender harvest when set alongside the surviving corpora of letters by Descartes, Locke, or Leibniz; only Spinoza, among philosophers of comparable importance, seems to have left fewer. And, what is more, the majority of the surviving items of Hobbes’s correspondence consist of letters to him, not from him. Chance has played a role here; we know (from his own statement in his letter of 29 December 1656 / 8 January 1657) that he was scrupulous about replying to each letter he received from his foreign correspondents, but none of them left the kind of personal archive in which his letters might have been preserved. As for the drafts, or retained copies, of his own letters: not a single one of these survives among his own papers, a fact which may be partly explained by his friend John Aubrey’s recollection that Hobbes burned a quantity of papers at some time in the 1660s when he feared being investigated by Parliament for his heretical opinions.

Nevertheless, the letters that have come down to us are full of interest. Hobbes’s correspondents included some very significant thinkers: René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Sir Kenelm Digby, Pierre Gassendi, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (though in Leibniz’s case, it is not clear whether the one letter he sent to Hobbes ever actually reached him). The short-lived but substantial epistolary exchange with Descartes, conducted via Mersenne in early 1641, was a bruising encounter in which Descartes’s philosophical disagreements with Hobbes were stated in a positively contemptuous way. But other discussions of philosophical or natural-philosophical matters from the 1630s and 1640s, with Digby, Mersenne, and two of Hobbes’s patrons, the Earl of Newcastle and his brother Sir Charles Cavendish, give a better sense of how Hobbes was accepted, and respected, as someone with original contributions to make on a range of issues.

It is particularly in the 1650s and 1660s, however, that Hobbes’s letters offer a rich resource, qualitatively as well as quantitatively, for assessing various aspects of his thinking and for understanding how his works were received by like-minded people. A number of admirers and followers — especially Henry Stubbe in England, and Samuel Sorbière, François du Verdus, Thomas de Martel, and François Peleau in France — wrote to him repeatedly, exploring arguments in his published writings and sometimes eliciting clarifications which, even if our knowledge of them comes only from summaries or passing remarks in their subsequent letters to him, can cast real light on his thinking. In the last part of his life, when he was routinely vilified by writers in his own country, Hobbes took pride in the fact that he had an international following. For that sense of pride we too must be grateful, as it led him to keep the collection of letters from foreign friends which, remaining in the archive of his employers, the earls and dukes of Devonshire, at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, forms the largest single element in his surviving correspondence.


Partners and Additional Contributors

Metadata for this catalogue of Hobbes’s correspondence were taken from Noel Malcolm’s edition (published in print by Oxford University Press in 1994: volume 1, 1622–1659, and volume 2, 1660–1679) and were supplied by Oxford Scholarly Editions Online [OSEO]. The dataset was prepared for upload to EMLO by Digital Fellows Lucy Hennings, Alex Hitchman, and Robin Usher, with help from EMLO’s Editorial Assistant Charlotte Marique.

Metadata describing five additional letters (of which one survives in the care of Lambeth Palace Library; the second is known from a copy sent to Gilbert Sheldon now in the British Library; and the whereabouts of a further three remain unknown, but for each one or more records exist in a London sale catalogue) were provided by Sir Noel Malcolm. EMLO is most grateful to Sir Noel for the text on this introductory page.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Thomas Hobbes, The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Noel Malcolm, 2 vols, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), vol. 1, 1622–1659, and vol. 2, 1660–1679.

Noel Malcolm and Mikko Tolonen, ‘The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes: Some New Items’, in The Historical Journal, 51, 2, (2008), pp. 481–95.

 


Further resources

Noel Malcolm, ‘Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), philosopher‘, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Thomas Hobbes, The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Noel Malcolm, 2 vols, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (requires subscription or log-on from a subscribing institution). Volume 1: 1622–1659; and Volume 2: 1660–1679.

For a full bibliography compiled by Noel Malcolm, please see ibid., vol. 2, pp. 933–72.

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