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9 - Thomas Hobbes's Machiavellian moments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Donald R. Kelley
Affiliation:
Rutgers University, New Jersey
David Harris Sacks
Affiliation:
Reed College, Oregon
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Summary

… and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.

– Thomas Hobbes's translation of The History of the Grecian War

Written by Thucydides (1629)

Behemoth was written in or around 1667; Leviathan was published in 1651. But I want to start earlier. Just how early one can safely start is, as we will shortly see, a difficult question. For now let us stay on safe ground. In 1629 Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides, including that most compact of all analyses of power politics, the Melian dialogue. There the Athenian ambassadors swiftly reject arguments from right, justice, or principle as irrelevant, and assume such arguments will be recognized to be so:

But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.

There is an evident similarity between the Athenian view and Hobbes's insistence over twenty years later in Leviathan that there could be neither contract nor justice without a sovereign authority. Yet recent scholarship has tended to take Hobbes at his word when he insists that Leviathan is a work of geometrical and not historical argument, written under the influence of Euclid and not Thucydides. Consequently hardly anyone refers to the Melian dialogue when interpreting Leviathan. Hobbes the translator of history is presumed to be irrelevant to Hobbes the theorist of politics.

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The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain
History, Rhetoric, and Fiction, 1500–1800
, pp. 210 - 242
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1997

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