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Commentary: Why a New German Edition of Behemoth was Necessary

A new German translation of Behemoth

This year Meiner Verlag fur Philosophie published Peter Schröder‘s new translation and edition of Behemoth. Dr. Schröder explains why this new edition was necessary, and outlines some of the main arguments of his new introduction to the text:

There are obvious practical reasons why a new German translation of Behemoth was desirable. The fact that the existing translation has been out of print for quite some time is the most evident one. My new translation makes this important text available in German again. Even if German students are rightly asked to engage with the original text, a reading in translation of their native language facilitates access to the often undervalued sophistication of the arguments in this text. This new translation also offered the possibility to address some shortcomings and even factual errors of the previous translation, done in 1927 by Julius Lips and reproduced more or less unaltered in Herfried Münkler’s 1990 edition. The explanatory notes of this new edition are considerably expanded and key concepts in English are directly inserted in the text, which should lead to a better understanding of what Hobbes was trying to do. Given that Paul Seaward’s edition of Behemoth in the Clarendon edition was published recently, this was also the opportunity to provide references to this edition on each page of the German translation. This allows German readers to navigate easily between the German translation and the English original now available in Seaward’s edition.

Apart from these specific needs of German students of philosophy, politics, law and the history of political thought, this edition also provided a welcome opportunity to highlight the importance of Behemoth within the oeuvre of Hobbes’s political thought. In my introductory essay “Behemoth or the Long Parliament im Kontext von Hobbes’ politischer Philosophie” (p. VII-LIII), Behemoth is interpreted as a specific contribution to Hobbes’s political philosophy. Despite the obvious link, already suggested by their titles, there is a closer argumentative connection between Leviathan and Behemoth than has been previously recognised. My introduction traces developments from the Elements via De Cive and Leviathan to Behemoth. I argue that Hobbes was increasingly aware that state authority or sovereignty depended not only on de facto power, but also – and perhaps even more crucially – on the ability to direct public opinion. As has been argued before, Behemoth can be seen as an attempt to influence public opinion and to describe the necessary conditions for how this can be achieved. Two main aspects can be discerned in this respect: the importance of confessional strife and the role universities play in public education. Behemoth was also one of Hobbes’s attempts to ward off the increasingly hostile attacks against him by the Anglicans, who had regained considerable political influence after the restoration. Hobbes tried hard to coin, and influence the use of, concepts through which contemporary discussions of political power and its execution were framed. This was a promising strategy in a serious ideological and political battle. Despite Hobbes’s attempts to portray himself as an objective arbiter of the ideological conflicts of the Civil War, such a position was impossible. One way to understand his goals in Behemoth, therefore, is that it was yet another, albeit failed, attempt to present his theory as above the fray of ordinary politics.