Satan's Trouble With Eve

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reading Hobbes as Literature (Reminder)

This early post back in mid-January explained that our reading of Hobbes' Leviathan is a literary, not a philosophical, reading, and gave a sense of how a literary reading will proceed. Topic number one in our mid-term assignment directed just such a reading.

In response to hearing from a class-fellow who recounted past experience with professors who have advised a literary reading but then required a philosophical, I can say clearly that a "philosophical" reading is not in our purview.

To recapitulate, in a course, such as ours, designed to teach as full an understanding as possible of literature in the seventeenth century, an understanding of Leviathan is realistically indispensable. Hobbes practically personifies the essential polemical, intellectual, and political character of the seventeenth century and its writers: indeed, Hobbes would stand supreme among the century's literati, were it not for a rival writer who was equally polemical, intellectual and political .... being, of course, John Milton.

As we have learned, Hobbes' was widely read among seventeenth century literary public. Now to us, Hobbes may seem "philososphical." But that is simply because we have (without asking the writer himself) imprisoned Hobbes in a tiny area restrictively called "Philosophy Departments" where Leviathan is only read for the mechanics of it Ideas.

This is not, however, how Leviathan was read by ordinary seventeenth century readers. They read it -- as we are strongly advised to be reading it -- as literature: for its rhetoric, its humour, its characterisations, its plot, for what it might reveal of the person of its writer and his social context.

The thematic elements of Leviathan that do contain important ideas -- exactly as Paradise Lost or the poetry, say, of Henry Vaughan, contain important ideas -- will be detailed in lecture. Put directly, during your reading of Leviathan you do not need to worry in any way if the ideas may not be clear: nor will you be judged or disadvantaged in this course in any way should you not successfully engage the ideas in your reading of Leviathan.

The intention is for you to finish the course with a literary appreciation for, and understanding of, the Leviathan: as, I assume, is required of scholars of the century.


  • For the term paper, I've understood that we must side either with the metaphysicals or Hobbes. So when reading Leviathan, I've been almost exclusively engaging with Hobbes ideas.

    Ultimately, I assumed that I would assert whether Hobbes' view of man either does or does not conform with my own personal views (with support or opposition of the poets as well). Is this a philosophical -- and therefore, unenglish -- approach to the text?

    By Blogger Jason, at 7:10 PM  

  • I'd like to expand on what Jason said. When we study literature in an academic environment we look at themes, allusions, 'deeper meanings', etc--literary elements I suppose we call them. But when we analyze a predominant theme in say a Shakespeare play, or even in an epic poem such as Milton's, we are simply engaging with the ideas that the author has put forth to be engaged with, right? So ultimately we must engage with the ideas presented in Leviathan, because that is simply how we analyze texts in academic English studies. So there is really no escaping the philosophical issues in Leviathan if we are to take any sort of critcal analysis view of the text.

    However, having said that, I get the impression that Dr. Ogden is stressing that we don't lose sight of the fact that these authors were not writing with the sole intention of debating philosophical issues; rather, they were writing creatively, while incorporating what we would now call philosophical ideas as the themes of their works. Metaphysics, philosophy--this is just what people were thinking about during the 17th century, so naturally many authors of the time addressed these ideas, while expressing themselves creatively. Just as some contemporary literature addresses issues of feminism, the literature of the 17th century addressed issues of metaphysics.

    So when we analyze Hobbes' Leviathan, our focus should be more on how he presents his ideas in a creative work, rather than what those ideas specifically are. Am I totally off-base here, or is that correct?

    By Blogger Sean, at 2:22 AM  

  • Dear Jason:

    Good point you raise. I'll be sure to lecture shortly on the status of ideas in literature. My understanding has been influenced strongly by Lionel Trilling's classic "The Liberal Imagination." In a (very tiny) nutshell, poets & novelists engage relevant ideas, comprehend and distill their human significance, and then transmute them into poetry or fiction.

    Thus, a writer of Hobbes' genius can author a text which philosophers can analyse with applied logic, political scientists can expound for its practical political implications, psychologists use as framework for understanding of mind and motivation ... and literary scholars can interpret for its literary representation of the ideas.

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 12:10 AM  

  • Dear Sean:

    Along with Jason, well said, sir! You two are not on base -- you have hit a home run.

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 12:17 AM  

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