Hobbes’ political writings are commmonly discussed in isolation from the historical circumstances in which they were produced. Commentators treat his theory as a timeless contribution to an eternal philosophical debate. They often claim that the solutions which he offered to the problems of political philosophy were flawed, and they themselves helpfully suggest improvements. Their focus is less on what Hobbes said or why he said it than on questions of modern political philosophy. Certainly, much that is of importance to present-day concerns may be gleaned from Hobbes. But there are dangers in doing modern political philosophy by way of commenting on the old classic texts (read with little or no reference to their historical contexts). One is that the texts may easily be distorted by anachronistic readings. Another is that the authors of those texts — say Thomas Hobbes or Thomas Aquinas — can too readily come to be treated as authorities, and this may discourage impartial consideration of their words and reasons. Hobbes himself warned against this kind of thing when he wrote that ‘words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other Doctor whatsoever, if but a man’ (Lev 4: 28–9/15).
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Johann P. Sommerville
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