A Visit with Noel Malcolm

A Visit with Noel Malcolm

One of the deep joys of being a part of Oxford University is having access to some of the finest scholars on the planet. In the field of Hobbesian scholarship there is no one more respected than Professor Noel Malcolm of All Souls College. I first met Malcolm through his book Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 2002) a series of 14 essays ranging in topics from the minutest detail of the design and meaning of The Leviathan’s iconic title page to the grand perspective of Hobbes’s theory of international relations. Since my own work on this sabbatical is focused on this latter issue – the international implications of Hobbes’s Social Contract theory – I was obviously drawn to Noel Malcolm. But I had no idea what an amazing range of depth and perspective he has personally contributed to the understanding of Thomas Hobbes, until I began seriously to read in the field.

On finishing my second reading of Chapter 13 (“Hobbes’s Theory of International Relations”) of Aspects, and having underlined more of the text than not, and written marginal notes on almost every page, my first reaction was to go back to the flat, pack up and return to Denver. As we say back home, put a fork in it, it’s done! But then I was having too much fun to leave, even if I now knew how far over my head I was in this pretentious undertaking of mine. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) Noel Malcolm is the Lord of this manor.

In 1997 Malcolm completed and published the second of his two volume work on Thomas Hobbes’s correspondence. Every extant letter that Hobbes wrote and every significant letter Hobbes received in his 91 year lifetime is catalogued, annotated and preserved. And in the case of Hobbes this sort of laborious scholarship was absolutely critical, because much of the old philosopher’s papers have been lost or, by Hobbes himself, destroyed. A sad chapter in Hobbes later years was his burning many of his unpublished papers out of fear of arrest and trial for heresy. The contribution of Noel Malcolm in cataloging and publishing these original sources is monumental.

Quentin Skinner in The New York Review of Books put a fine point on the value of Dr. Malcolm’s work on the correspondence of Hobbes:

“Superb….The state of our knowledge has suddenly been transformed….We must be grateful not merely for the letters that remain but for the truly spectacular job that Dr. Malcolm has done in making them available. The concept of definitive scholarship has been made to seem almost paradoxical in these post-modern days. But research of the quality displayed in these volumes reminds us that the ideal is by no means wholly out of reach.”

With no little trepidation I decided to contact Noel Malcolm and ask if we could visit briefly. My email got an immediate reply:

Dear Dr Seawell,
Thank you for your message. Yes, I’d be happy to talk about Hobbes; would you be able to come to tea in All Souls at 4 pm on either Thursday or Friday of this week?

Yours sincerely,

Noel Malcolm

March 24.2009

All Souls College is a special place. Founded in 1438, it is a college without students! But it has a magnificent endowment, an extensive library, commodious buildings and unparalleled faculty. My old boss and friend. Gary Hart, is a fellow of All Souls. I was proud just to get past the porter at the college lodge (Porters are somewhat akin trolls at ancient bridges. The Lodge is the little security office at the entry to each college in Oxford.) and meet Professor Malcolm.

What a gracious person! A thin, bespectacled gentleman (central casting did an excellent job!), Noel Malcolm ushered me along to a wood-paneled-bookcase-lined-leather-chairs-in-abundance faculty room where tea was in process. For the next hour and fifteen minutes we just talked. He shared with me a small breakthrough in the work he is doing for a new publication of The Leviathan. Turns out that the word “leviathan” was used early in the 16th Century – well before Hobbes’s birth in 1588 – for the organizing principle of government or community. So it wasn’t just a beast of an idea that Hobbes had, it was also a concept already current having to do with those elements which hold human community together.

I got to ask a lot of questions. One of the least important, but most fun, was to find out if Malcolm knew the truth or not of the rumor that Thomas Hobbes (who never married) had an illegitimate daughter. A. P. Martinich in his Routledge Philosophers Series book, Hobbes, writes, “There’s no reason to doubt that Hobbes had a daughter, whom he referred to as the joy of his youth.” (Hobbes, A. P. Martinich, Routledge, 2005,  p. 8).  Well, there’s every reason in the world to doubt this as far as Noel Malcolm is concerned! Professor Malcolm veritably bristled when I brought the matter up. “A scurrilous rumor that was used against Hobbes by his enemies during his life time. Not one shred of evidence to support it!” I actually felt badly about having dared to raise the question. Three hundred and thirty years after Hobbes death and I was perpetrating the same old invidious political gossip!

Malcolm proceeded to tell a wonderful story about how the rumor might have started. A little girl, the daughter of a musical instrument tuner, came to the manor where Hobbes was living following his return from Paris in 1651. The young child apparently traveled with her dad as he went about the countryside tuning harpsichords and such, and while at Hobbes’s residence her father had died. The servants at the place adopted the little girl, and Hobbes took great delight in her. He would in the end make provision for her in his will. And it may be that her inclusion in the will, supported some scholars’ assumptions (ala Martinich above) that the child was his illegitimate daughter.

I also talked to Noel Malcolm about the main thesis of my work on Hobbes, i.e. that we enter the 21st Century in terms of international politics without a functional social contract and that outside the jurisdiction of nation-states exists nothing less than the state of nature Hobbes so famously described. I asked if Malcolm knew of anyone developing a parallel between the potential of environmental collapse (the death of the species) with Hobbes’s foundational theory of human nature – i.e. the fragility of individual human life is the fundamental reason behind the necessity of social contract development. To my great surprise, he simply said he did not, and that he wanted to think more about the legitimacy of the extension and application of Hobbes’s social contract theory that I was making. Whew!

The ancient college room had emptied of faculty. I had taken way longer than I had advertised. But Noel Malcolm seemed unperturbed, in fact he seemed to have enjoyed helping a bumbling Yank find his way through the labyrinth of 17th Century British history, biography and philosophy. In his responsive and gracious manner Noel Malcolm defined for me the meaning of collegial.


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