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Scientific squabblings

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes

Bill Hanage 7 December 2008

Philosophical differences: theorists duke it out aimlessly with experimentalists

There is a tremendous human dimension to these stories which the play brushed aside, instead preferring its scientists to be lofty and philosophical

The Royal Society of Great Britain is gearing up to celebrate its 350th year in 2010. That’s 350 years since the new and popular monarch Charles II bestowed his blessing in the form of his charter on the curious group of men calling themselves ‘natural philosophers’. They would gather together in rooms at Gresham College to demonstrate to each other their various discoveries. These included questions like what happened when you opened up a live dog, or put a bird into a glass chamber and then removed the air using a vacuum pump. Their new society would grow, become esteemed, and serve as the model for others around the world. To this day it is at the cutting edge of science in Britain, publishes original research, and funds those not fortunate enough to be, like its founders, of ‘independent means’. People like me, that is.

How the Royal Society came to be is laid out in dramatic form in Adriano Shaplin’s new play, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, just finishing up its run at London's Wilton Music Hall. It might as well be subtitled ‘or how the Royal Society got its Charter, with a coda concerning the Tragedy of Mr Robert Hooke’. It is a sprawling, unfocused monster of a play. While parts of it are nasty, and some brutish, it’s certainly not short – to misquote its protagonist.

These days Thomas Hobbes is not much remembered as a scientist or mathematician. What he is remembered for is his political theory. According to Hobbes, in the ‘state of nature’ – that is outside civil society – the life of humanity was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And we owed allegiance to any leader, any sovereign, who could improve this miserable situation through the exercise of state power. While this theory, leaving as it does little room for notions such as democracy, now seems dated, it was admirably well suited to the convulsions of England in the 17th century. One sovereign, Charles I, was unable to protect his people (having lost the English civil war) and so the ‘correct’ source of allegiance shifted to Cromwell (not for nothing was he called ‘Lord Protector’). Once Cromwell was dead, and Charles II had been restored to the throne, it was both convenient and entirely consistent to pledge loyalty to him.

The play joins the action as Hobbes returns to Cromwell’s England, a little nervous about the treatment he can expect. He finds that Cromwell and his puritans have decided that what is really fun is subduing Ireland in a vicious campaign that will produce violent sectarian conflict for centuries to come, and is if this weren’t enough, they’ve banned the theatre too (I know I’m summarizing a bit, but so does the play). The immediate upshot is that resting actors are forced to make a living as somewhat clumsy devices for a 21st century playwright to get his audience to understand what is going on. While they might be clumsy, they are also fun, generating most of the evening’s laughs and, especially in a play within the play at the start of the second half, some of its most trenchant commentary.

It doesn’t take long for Hobbes to start a fight. He’s played by Stephen Boxer with a magnificent roaring intensity which nevertheless made me think of something out of Blackadder III. His opponents, the weasels who seek to supplant him, are the founders of the Royal Society. Unlike Hobbes, they are devoted to experiment, rather than pure reason – even if the experiment is ‘let’s see what happens if we cut up a live dog’. The stage is set for a major conflict. But the drama is undercut by the fact that Hobbes' enemies are a bunch of quarreling juveniles with nothing like his gravitas. The characterization of this little group is weaker than airline coffee, and none really leap to life with the exception of Hooke.

This is a shame, because the story of the battle between Hobbes and mathematician John Wallis, which forms the bedrock of the story, is an interesting and little known one. Hobbes fancied himself a geometer, and had published on this. He was proud of it, but unfortunately his ideas were very wrong. Indeed the problem he had set himself was not even soluble using classical geometry. Mathematician Wallis, an early member of the Royal Society, set out to show this was so. His was no disinterested search after truth; Wallis wanted to destroy Hobbes. And did so, at least from the point of view of geometry.

But geometry makes crap drama, and so the specifics of the feud have been reduced to Hobbes waving pamphlets in the air and explaining how he has squared the circle. As the play proceeds, Charles II returns and the political machinations of both groups resume. The staging of the play, which is directed at a pleasingly cracking pace by Elizabeth Freestone, makes great use of the space, with characters spread throughout the theatre and several levels of scaffolding, leaping between them at will. It often looks spectacular, with some set pieces during the staged experiments lit to recall the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. There are some very good set pieces on the process of seeking funding and patronage, and the fickleness of both, before the final denouement which leads to the granting of the Royal Charter to the society.

Throughout this, the character of Robert Hooke, master mechanic and artificer, has been steadily developing. And in a strange epilogue following the fall of Hobbes and his ideas we see, at breakneck pace, the way his ideas, once so new in comparison to those of Hobbes, were in their turn superseded by Newton’s (an appalling piece of casting I’m afraid). I really enjoyed this coda, and though it rather exaggerated Hooke’s achievements (which are quite brilliant enough as they are), its sharp physical theatre was a refreshing change. I just have no idea why it was there.

And this captures the problem with the play. There are far too many ideas in it. The feud between Newton and Hooke is a great subject. It deserves better treatment. So too do the earlier handbags between Wallis and Hobbes.

But what I felt most of all, on leaving the theatre, was a missed opportunity. There is a tremendous human dimension to these stories which the play brushed aside, instead preferring its scientists to be lofty and philosophical. Hobbes in fact did not want to destroy the Royal Society; he wanted to join it. But thanks to Wallis, they would never have him. Contrary to the idea that he was destroyed, he continued to thrive in society and his name is today better known than that of his principal tormentor. But it seems that Hobbes was tortured by the quarrel, for he thought that if one of his ideas were wrong, they all had to be suspect. And that’s another reason he would never have made a good scientist. His devotion was to reasoning rather than experiment. The poster for the play refers back to this, showing Hobbes in characteristically enraged state as a bust mounted on a pedestal stamped with the words "Take No Man’s Word": the translation of the Royal Society's motto Nullius in verba.

The reason the Royal Society, and Wallis, were so wary of Hobbes was not his shaky commitment to empiricism, but the widespread suspicion that he was an atheist. What the members of the Society wanted more than anything was respectability, and the resulting security. This would have been compromised had they welcomed Hobbes among them. The tenets to which Hobbes held dear, among them materialism and the search for natural rather than supernatural causes, were those which animated those early empiricists. It would have been easy to group them together. It seems ironic that Hobbes, who so valued the protection of his sovereign, should have not realized this. The tragedy of Thomas Hobbes was that the peers he esteemed turned their back on him not because of fundamental disagreements, but because they were too alike.