I’ve found that a strong majority of books reputed to be classics do indeed live up to their reputation, both in fiction and non-fiction. Once in a while, though, I’ll finish one and think, “That’s it?” Unfortunately, that was my reaction to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.
Now, I’ll be conservative in judging the book. It could be that I’m the problem – intellectual hubris is one of modernity’s characteristic vices, and I don’t want to fall into that if I can help it. Besides, the book certainly does have some good material. For example, while discussing things that harm a commonwealth, Hobbes compares the idea of dividing sovereignty among multiple branches to a Siamese twin, which is an apt analogy. Elsewhere, he writes that “Leasure is the mother of Philosophy; and Common-wealth, the mother of Peace, and Leasure. Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.” The best artistic and intellectual work has often been done or sponsored by those with leisure, i.e. the nobility. Furthermore, the advance of philosophy depends upon peace, which seems like an obvious point but moderns often shy away from measures that help ensure peace and take civilisation for granted.
However, Leviathan does have some problems. It seems far too wide-ranging, for one thing. The most famous portion of the work is that on civil government, but this is only the middle part. Before that Hobbes discusses the senses, the nature of language, memory, and other topics that seem rather too basic as a starting-point. The last part concerns “a Christian Common-wealth,” and is essentially a work of theology or moral philosophy, and a good deal of Protestant apologetics. He spends most of one chapter, for example, attempting to refute a work by St. Robert Bellarmine on papal authority, though since I haven’t read the book in question I don’t know if he succeeded or not. His arguments in this part vary widely in quality, but frankly a course in Protestant theology is not at all what I signed up for, so to speak, though I’ll admit that may be unfair on my part.
I read the edition published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Richard Tuck. CUP’s books tend to be about as nice as paperbacks come, plain covers aside, and I appreciate that it retained Hobbes’s spelling and marginal notes, which serve essentially as a running outline of the work. Tuck also provides a helpful introduction and footnotes that point out variances in the early editions of Leviathan, though these tend to be so minor that only the most devoted students will likely be interested.
Should one read Leviathan, then? It’s hard to say “no,” simply because the work is so well-known and respected that anyone who takes political science seriously ought to have some familiarity with it. For myself, I found Sir Robert Filmer’s short commentary on Leviathan more interesting than the original work, as Filmer strikes at Hobbes’s first principles and assumptions. In any case, go ahead and give it a read, then check out Filmer afterward.