The beast stirs. Thomas Hoobes is often dismissed as a reactionary thinker. But in fact he was a pioneering liberal who has much to teach us today. By John Gray

Aspects of Hobbes

Noel Malcolm Clarendon Press, 644pp, £40

ISBN 0199247145

I was once taken to task by a well-known American philosopher, who, in response to a less than wholly favourable review I had written of a book by the late John Rawls, protested against an unflattering comparison I had made between Rawls and Thomas Hobbes. He did so by making the bizarre claim that no one could reasonably think of Hobbes as a liberal. A lack of knowledge of intellectual history is commonplace among philosophers nowadays. Still, the notion that Hobbes stands outside the liberal tradition is so outlandish that it can hardly be explained by mere ignorance. It comes just as much from a parochial view in which the core of liberalism is a set of basic rights that are owed to every human being. For a great many people today, the liberal project is to ensure that these rights are accepted and enforced everywhere.

The trouble with this sort of liberalism is that it passes over some awkward facts. It is all very well to say that everyone has a right to freedom of religion, but what if exercising this right threatens civil conflict? Think of the tortured deliberation that has gone on about religious marches in Belfast, or the bitter controversy over Islamic headscarves for women in France. In such disputes, there is no way of reconciling the conflicting claims so that all can be fully met. Freedom for one party to the conflict means a loss of freedom for another. Currently fashionable theories think of basic liberties as having fixed boundaries, but in the real world they alter their shape as they come into conflict with one another and with the requirements of peace.

If there is any sort of liberalism that

can measure up to these discomforting realities, it owes a good deal to Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes, the liberal project is not about making certain rights universal. It is about finding terms of coexistence among people who are drawn to violence by their conflicting passions. Some human conflicts are rooted in natural competition, others - the most intractable, Hobbes thought - in opposed beliefs. Like Locke, who struggled with the same problem in a more muddled way, Hobbes thought the solution was to formulate a minimal morality that could be accepted by everybody. The basis of morality was

self-interest, the core of which - Hobbes believed - was the avoidance of violent death. In the past, rulers had grounded their authority on God. In other words,

on faith. In future, it would rest on reason. By understanding why humans act as they do, rulers could secure what Hobbes called commodious living - a condition

of thriving arts, sciences and industry,

in which human passions are no longer a source of destructive conflict.

Hobbes believed that commodious living is something every reasonable person wants. It is at this point that the limitations of his way of thinking begin to show. Hobbes's goal of founding morality on self-interest was one he shared with many Enlightenment thinkers. Indeed, in looking to a form of government founded on reason, Hobbes was one of the founder thinkers of the Enlightenment. As Noel Malcolm writes in the closing sentence

of his new book: "Hobbes's project of Enlightenment was, in the end, the Enlightenment's project too." If Hobbes was at one with the Enlightenment in his aims, he also shared some of its illusions. Elias Canetti observes in his great book Crowds and Power that Hobbes took much too simple a view of self-interest. It is true that he never seems to have come to terms with the way human beings are prone to identify themselves with their beliefs and even - as in the case of martyrs - to die for them. But nor could he have done. Because our identities are partly shaped by our religious and political beliefs, contrary to Hobbes, self-interest is not something we all have in common. It means different things to different people.

Aspects of Hobbes is a work of profound scholarship, displaying a breadth and depth of erudition that is beyond praise. But it is much more than that: Malcolm never loses the reader in the fascinating details of Hobbes's intellectual background and influence that he has uncovered. By linking the minutiae of his life and times with the core claims of his works he has given us a remarkable study in early modern European intellectual history. One of Malcolm's goals is to show that Hobbes's philosophy is not the defence of amorality portrayed by some of his critics. For Hobbes, the most basic rules of life are "convenient articles of peace", conventions that enable us to live together in society. But at the same time, the pre-social state of nature is no moral vacuum. Where there is no government, we are justified, Hobbes believed, in resorting to any kind of force or fraud if it aids survival. But this is not a licence to engage in gratuitous cruelty, or enjoy violence for its own sake. The same law of self-preservation that entitles us to defend ourselves limits what we

may do to other people. Hobbes developed his philosophy at a time - the first half of the 17th century - when England was sliding towards civil war. His aim was to resolve once and for all the questions about