The Leviathan is Hefty

This summer, I had the privilege of holding a first edition copy of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. It was downright terrifying; there were no gloves, no preservation measures, just me and the book (and its caretakers, watching intently off to the side). Asides from the fact that this book was valued at many times my annual income, and that the oil from my hands was likely aiding in its rapid deterioration, the experience of encountering this (both literally and figuratively) massive work was truly incredible.

Hobbes first published the Leviathan in 1651, in the period between the English Civil War and the Restoration. Therein, he argued that the ideal government is to be formed by social contract–yes–but that such contractual agreements should and will eventually lead to an absolutist ruler. It was indeed a stark contrast to the rampant republican parliamentarianism and decentralized congregationalism that was infectious during the Civil War, and it would serve as a philosophical support for absolute rule under Charles II and James II. Moreover, it is also interesting to contextualize the Leviathan against other roughly contemporary political theorists. John Locke wrote his major works following the Glorious Revolution, an event that lent English and Scottish politics a more republican, less absolutist tone. Likewise, his writings reflected the social contract of Hobbes, but in a form more palatable to the more parliamentary political climate of his time.

In any case, seeing such a book in its physical form–as it would have been read in the latter half of the seventeenth century–really solidified the concept that such events and ideas were at one time tangible. They reside forever in the distant past, affecting people and societies that have long since passed on in the currents of time, and yet this book remains as a hefty reminder that ideas have consequences.


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