Thomas Hobbes in Racist Context

In: Hobbes Studies
Adrian Blau Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, London, UK

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Is it anachronistic to talk about racism in Hobbes? After all, racism is usually seen as biological: the disliked group must have innate characteristics which are inherited biologically. This is mostly said to be a modern idea. Yet biological racism can be found in medieval and early modern times, as with the Spanish doctrine of limpieza de sangre (cleanliness/purity of blood). Racism, including biological racism, was much more common in Hobbes’s England than we might think, including in texts he may have read; the language of race was hardly uncommon either. Moreover, someone can be called a racist whether or not their dislike of a group is based on characteristics of a group that are inherited biologically, I argue. Whether Hobbes was a racist remains open to debate; this paper offers evidence both for and against that proposition. But we should not reject the question of Hobbes’s racism as anachronistic.


Is it anachronistic to talk about racism in Hobbes? After all, racism is usually seen as biological: the disliked group must have innate characteristics which are inherited biologically. This is mostly said to be a modern idea. Yet biological racism can be found in medieval and early modern times, as with the Spanish doctrine of limpieza de sangre (cleanliness/purity of blood). Racism, including biological racism, was much more common in Hobbes’s England than we might think, including in texts he may have read; the language of race was hardly uncommon either. Moreover, someone can be called a racist whether or not their dislike of a group is based on characteristics of a group that are inherited biologically, I argue. Whether Hobbes was a racist remains open to debate; this paper offers evidence both for and against that proposition. But we should not reject the question of Hobbes’s racism as anachronistic.

1 Introduction

Why study Hobbes on race? Many would call this anachronistic: the language and idea of race comes later. In particular, race properly conceived is often said to be a modern idea, involving biological inheritance; this makes it hard to accuse early modern writers of racism. “To call, say, a seventeenth-century figure a racist may be to impute to him a position that had not yet been articulated,” writes Andrew Valls.1 Robert Lee Nichols thinks it an anachronistic “absurdity” to find Hobbes guilty of racism.2 Many scholars restrict “race” and “racism” to the 18th or 19th centuries onwards.3 For Hannah Arendt, there was “race-thinking” before the 19th century, but racism itself only arose in the 19th century.4 Benjamin Isaac discusses “proto-racism” in ancient Greece and Rome, but sees racism as an 18th-century idea, and scientific racism as a 19th-century idea.5

Moreover, there is no unambiguous evidence that Hobbes was a racist. There are no signs that he, unlike Locke, was involved in the transatlantic slave trade.6 Hobbes says little about issues which we would call racial. He disagrees with “ignorant men” that “one man’s blood [can be] better than another’s by nature.”7 His comments on non-White peoples are far from completely negative: for example, he is positive about Indian, Persian, Chaldean and Egyptian civilizations,8 and writes that commodities such as arts, sciences, architecture and navigation – which not even all Europeans have – are enjoyed “by most of those in Asia, and by some of Africa.”9

Of course, his depictions of Amerindigenes are much more negative.10 The commodities just mentioned are totally lacking for “the Americans, and they that live near the Poles.”11 Leviathan’s infamous depiction of the state of nature – no industry, no agriculture, no navigation, no arts, “[a]nd the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” – applies to “the savage people in many places of America.” The only government they know is that of small families, “the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust.” And they still live in a “brutish manner.”12 The visual depiction of Amerindigenes in the frontispieces to the 1642 and 1647 versions of De Cive involve some woeful stereotypes. (See Figure 1 for the 1642 frontispiece.13)

Figure 1
Figure 1

Frontispiece of De Cive (1642)

Citation: Hobbes Studies 36, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/18750257-bja10058

source: ec65 h6525 642e, houghton library, harvard university

What Hobbes does not say also raises some concerns. For example, he mentions “the barbarity of the American savages”14 but not that of European colonists, which he may well have known about through his involvement in the Virginia Company.15 His attendance at Virginia Company meetings would presumably have given him “special knowledge” of Amerindigenes, but in terms of his later philosophy, these pieces of information “raised more difficulties for Hobbes than they solved”: examples of Amerindigene government and sovereignty, for example, did not fit into his required dichotomy between anarchy in the state of nature and government in civil society, with Amerindigenes meant to sit in the former.16

Still, his account of Amerindigenes is not entirely negative. Yes, Amerindigenes lacked reason, but even in European civil society, “very few have [reason], and but in few things.”17 People who lack reason (which, implicitly, includes Amerindigenes) might do better than those who get reason wrong.18 Moreover, this lack of reason is, ultimately, what distinguishes savages and civilized people. When considering bodies of knowledge such as mathematics, navigation, surveying, architecture, Hobbes asked rhetorically: “all which supposed away, what do we differ from the wildest of the Indians?”19 This sounds like a cultural difference, not biological racism.

I said above that there is no unambiguous evidence that Hobbes was a racist. His depiction of Amerindigenes in the state of nature is consistent both with racist depictions that existed in his day but also with non-racist depictions of the state of nature like those of Cicero.20 Overall, his relatively few comments on matters that we might consider racial are ambiguous, and nowhere near the extreme views of Hume or Kant, say.21

So, many people would find it pretty pointless to ask about Hobbes’s racism, for one or both of two reasons. First, in general, it is anachronistically inappropriate to apply modern ideas of biological racism to early modern England. Second, in particular, Hobbes’s depiction of Amerindigenes are not uniformly negative and reflect cultural not biological factors, so cannot be racist.

This paper rejects the first claim. Historical analysis shows that it is not anachronistic to speak of racism in Hobbes’s day. Much European racism, dating back at least to medieval Spain, was deeply biological. These ideas, and even the language of race, were available to Hobbes.

I also argue to some extent against the second claim, by focusing on the definition of racism. Most importantly, I want to suggest that we should not restrict “racism” to biological racism only, both in general and when assessing Hobbes. Historical analysis is telling here. Many medieval and early modern White Europeans clearly had a profound distaste for Africans, Amerindigenes, Jews, Muslims, Roma and/or other peoples, essentializing them as groups, viewing them as inferior, and accepting their mistreatment, exile, enslavement or even murder. We can and should call this racism, whether or not such views assume that biological inheritance is the source of the alleged defects of members of these groups.

1.1 Defining Racism

I define racism as thoughts, actions and/or expressions of inferiority and/or antipathy towards members of a racialized group. The first part of the definition (“thoughts, actions and/or expressions”) is my contribution, to help analyze racism in historical philosophy. Thoughts, actions and expressions of course overlap, but when analyzing racism in historical philosophy, it helps to keep them separate. For example, we do not know if Locke had racist thoughts; most people would say that he acted in racist ways, given his involvement in the translatlantic slave trade; but whether his moral and political philosophy is racist is a different question.

The second half of the definition follows Lawrence Blum. Racism involves views of inferiority, or antipathetic attitudes, or both. Blum also recommends talking of a “racialized group” to avoid implying that races exist.22 A racialized group is of course different to a group based on other characteristics, e.g. gender, sex, class. I leave open the basis of the racialized group, but would highlight the narrowness of US-centric color-coded ideas of racism. This tends “to concentrate on physical aspects,” whereas historically, racism included “discrimination that existed in spite of the physical similarity of the discriminated.”23 US-centric color-coded ideas of racism may make it harder for us to understand racism historically.

The above definition describes individual racism. Another possibility for Hobbes scholars is systemic racism – “a racialized system of power relations embedded throughout the social fabric of contemporary societies.”24 In Hobbes studies, the best-known account of systemic racism is Charles Mills’s work on the racial contract.25 On this view, social contracts, whether theoretical ones like Hobbes’s or Locke’s, or the actual ones under which many of us effectively live, are not racially neutral; but they were contracts between Whites which acted to suppress non-Whites, whether inside or outside the society. (Different kinds of racial contracts exist in non-White-majority countries.)

Note that in discussing whether it is anachronistic to call Hobbes a racist, I focus only on the classification of “racism,” not the normative standard. Some would call it anachronistic to hold Hobbes to contemporary standards, given that so many people in his day knew no better; but I only ask if it is anachronistic to call Hobbes a racist.

1.2 Hobbes

Why ask whether Hobbes was a racist? Could we not conclude that his comments on Amerindigenes were pejorative and stereotyped, and leave it at that? I would reply that the language of racism can help us probe salient discussions in his writings, potentially improving our understanding of his position. We can ask, for example, if Hobbes essentialized Amerindigenes or recognized their diversity, whether he saw Amerindigenes as inherently inferior or thought they could become civilized, and so on. In this sense, asking apparently anachronistic questions can help our understanding of an author.26

The first step in such an analysis is to reject the assumption that racism must be biological. Section 2 thus starts with a historical comparison of biological, theological, cultural, and environmental racism. Theological racism was still much discussed in Hobbes’s day, and to his credit he does not endorse it. Cultural racism is a likelier charge; Blum distinguishes between three kinds of cultural racism, any of which might fit Hobbes. Environmental racism itself is absent in Hobbes’s work, although his translation of Thucydides offers a pejorative environmental explanation of one people’s character.

Section 3 shows that even biological racism – both the idea and the language – was available to Hobbes, sometimes in books in his own library. 16th-century Spanish ideas of limpieza de sangre (cleanliness/purity of blood) are clearly biologically racist, as was the anti-Semitism of English writers such as John Foxe and Thomas Calvert. Two plays by Ben Jonson, meanwhile, portray Africans and Gypsies losing their dark skin color as they become civilized. We cannot thus say that it is anachronistic to talk of Hobbes’s racism.

Does this contextual analysis make Hobbes look more racist, or less racist? Alas, the evidence remains ambiguous. All evidence is ambiguous, of course – a fundamental feature of textual interpretation.27 But in this case, the evidence can very plausibly be read in two very different directions. On the one hand, Hobbes was almost certainly exposed to many racist ideas, and there is much more circumstantial evidence about this than most scholars have discussed. Scholars such as Mary Nyquist have done much to place Hobbes’s ideas in their racist contexts; the current paper builds on these analyses. So, it is extremely plausible that racist ideas leaked into Hobbes’s account of Amerindigenes.

On the other hand, Hobbes does not actually voice most of the racist ideas he would have been exposed to. His extant writings do not discuss blackness being associated with devilishness, dark skin color turning white after conversion to Christianity, Jews being cursed by God, and suchlike. In this respect, placing Hobbes in context makes his racism look less apparent than before. He had many potential racist resources and yet still does not use them.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to settle this matter, although I intend to investigate further in the future. But we can draw one very important conclusion: far from it being anachronistic to discuss racism in Hobbes’s day, it is anachronistic to deny that there was racism in Hobbes’s day. Historical analysis shows both that non-biological racism existed and that biological racism was clearly present in medieval and early modern writing, including in texts available to Hobbes. Whether Hobbes was a racist remains open to debate; but it is a debate that we can legitimately have.

2 Four Kinds of Individual Racism in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe

Is racism essentially biological? That is, does racism require that the disliked characteristics of the reviled group are seen as innate and hereditary? If so, it might be anachronistic to talk of racism in Hobbes’s day, if that narrow definition of racism only developed later. This view is common in academia (section 1). I often hear it when talking with other academics. I would say that it is an orthodoxy.

I reject this orthodoxy, based on recent scholarship charting racism historically.28 This scholarship shows, first, that biological racism was indeed present in medieval and early modern Europe, and second, that “racism” in these times was not just biological.

Again, the intuition I am encouraging is that if some 17th-century Europeans see Africans, Amerindigenes, Jews, Muslims and/or Roma people as dark-skinned, lazy, evil and inferior, then when deciding if this is racism, it does not matter whether these Europeans based their views on biology or something else. It is racism. So, far from it being anachronistic to discuss racism in early modern Europe, it is anachronistic to deny its presence.

To understand this, we should make two sets of distinctions. The first is between racialists and racists. Both believe that there are different races, but racialists take a normatively neutral stance, whereas racists have antipathy and/or feelings of superiority towards one or more races. Racialists might simply seek to explain why alleged races differ, whereas racists make value-judgements about differences between the alleged races.29

Historically, there are four main forms of racialism/racism, i.e. four main explanations for the characteristics of “races.” The four forms are biological, theological, cultural, and environmental. Section 3 offers detailed discussion of biological racism; here I offer early-modern and (occasionally) Hobbesian examples of the rest.

2.1 Biological Racialism/Racism

Differences between groups are often explained biologically, via hereditary characteristics. We now usually think of such hereditary characteristics in terms of genetics. For biological racists, different races have different biological characteristics which makes some races inferior to others (or towards which the racists are antipathetic), with these biological characteristics passed on to children. Nazi racism was strongly biological, for example.

2.2 Theological Racialism/Racism

Historically, many people thought that God had damned certain groups, usually those with dark skin. The most common such explanation in medieval and early modern times was the curse of Ham (sometimes called the curse of Cham, Cush, Noah or Canaan). The Old Testament tells how Noah got drunk; his son Ham, unlike Ham’s two brothers, did not respect or protect Noah’s nudity. Noah cursed Ham’s son and his descendants, and said that they would be slaves. Ham’s descendants were widely thought to be Africans, and the curse of Ham was often invoked to explain African skin color and African inferiority, and was sometimes used to justify African slavery.30

These ideas were still being discussed in Hobbes’s day. Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of 1628 mentions Ham’s curse but does not make the link to skin color. John Selden’s The Right and Dominion of the Sea of 1662 talks of Africa as the home of “Cham and his posterity.”31 The curse was also discussed in Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage, two different versions of which are in the Hardwick Library, which Hobbes helped to develop.32 The 1625 edition, for example, mentions “Cham … the first Author, after the Floud, of irreligion,” and talks of how Syrians “degenerated in the wicked off-spring of cursed Cham.”33

William Strachey’s The Historie of Travel into Virginia Britannia (1612) even suggests that the curse of Ham might apply to Amerindigenes: “it is very probable … that both in the travailes and idolatry of the famely of Cham, this portion of the world westward from Africa, upon the Atlantique sea, became both peopled and instructed in the forme of the prophane worship, and of an unknown deity.” Thus did the “vagabond race of Cham … discend into this newe world.” And “where the abused Trinity of religion” disappears, then men “become so grossed and barbarous” that there would be little difference “betweene them and brute beasts.”34

Interestingly, Selden and Purchas were both members of the Virginia Company,35 while Strachey was a settler at Jamestown, overseen by the Virginia Company. But obviously, we have no idea if the curse of Ham or similar ideas were expressed in meetings that Hobbes attended. To his credit, he never invokes the curse of Ham, but he would surely have known of it. Nor does Hobbes describe another common form of theological racism – the idea that Jews were cursed by God for killing Jesus.36

There is thus no need to discuss theological racism further, except to make a crucial classificatory point: theological racism can be biological racism too. Consider George Best’s True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie (1578), which says of Ham’s son Cush that “not only it selfe, but all his posteritie after him, should be so blacke & lothsome, that it might remaine a spectacle of disobedience to all the World.” And “the cause of ye Ethiopians blacknesse, is the curse & infection of bloud” which continues via “lineall discente.”37 Clearly, it is not anachronistic to ask if early modern Europeans were racist: the widely discussed theological idea of racism is also a form of biological racism.

2.3 Cultural Racialism/Racism

I will sidestep the large modern literature on cultural racism (or differential racism) today.38 I focus instead on medieval and early modern views that a group may be inferior due to factors such as education. Whereas biological racialism/racism attributes group differences to biological inheritance, cultural racialism/racism involves “socially inherited characteristics.”39

One example may well be Hobbes’s claim that Amerindigenes’ backward state reflected a lack of “bodies of knowledge such as mathematics, navigation, surveying, architecture.” Had Amerindigenes developed or learned “those excellences,”40 then other cultural products would have followed, as listed in the famous “solitary, poore” passage.

Blum distinguishes three kinds of cultural racism, in a rare example of a categorization of racism informed by intellectual history. Inherentist cultural racists see a group’s culture as more or less unchangeable, while malleable cultural racists and colonial cultural racists accept more changeability, depending on whether they think that members of the stigmatized culture can progress by themselves, or whether they need the help of a colonializing power.41

Hobbes scholars could usefully apply Blum’s distinctions to his account of Amerindigenes. He might be an inherentist cultural racist, but malleable cultural racism seems likelier, and colonial cultural racism is a possibility, if Hobbes thought that the only or most likely way for Amerindigenes to develop philosophy was via European colonizers.

Ali Rattansi shows that biological and cultural racism can be hard to separate.42 These ideas are so intertwined that some racists may not be clear about why they find a group inferior or have antipathy to it. Hochman, too, rightly argues that there seems no reason to restrict racism to discrimination against color-coded groups rather than religious bloodlines.43 Historically, the different kinds of arguments were basically the same.

2.4 Environmental Racialism/Racism

Environmental explanations of behaviour go back at least to classical Greece, including Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics.44 Hobbes even voices one such view in a footnote to his translation of Thucydides: the Spartan colony of Tarentum had “fruitful and luxuriant soil” and “soft and voluptuous climate,” which “engendered” an “effeminacy of character.”45 Many writers invoked planetary/astrological influences on peoples’ character, including Aquinas and Bacon.46

Skin color was often attributed to heat, as in Stephen Batman’s 1582 Batman uponn Bartholome, which was also in the Hardwick Library.47 In this adaptation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (c. 1240), we hear how sun and heat makes Africans “short of bodie, more blacke of face, with crispie haire.” Because “spirites” escape from their open pores, this makes Africans “more coward of heart.” By contrast, in Europe, the cold weather means closed pores, which makes men hotter inside, “& so the more bolde & hardie.” (These are Bartholomaeus’s claims, not Batman’s.)48 Inner heat making men bolder was a common claim.49

The mature Hobbes does not discuss such environmental influences. But he comes so close that we might infer he has it in mind. De Homine discusses six reasons why men’s dispositions vary, and one is that “those of warmer constitution are, other things being equal, for the most part more daring; those of colder constitution are more timid.”50 Hobbes does not, alas, explain why some people have warmer constitutions than others. Perhaps he has environmental influences in mind; perhaps he does not. Either way, his description is not pejorative: timidity is not cowardliness. Indeed, for Hobbes timidity may be a virtue. So, if the mature Hobbes thinks that climate can affect our behaviour, this does not look like racism.

3 A Brief History of Medieval and Early-Modern Racism

While Hobbes would surely have been exposed to theological, cultural, and environmental racism, what about biological racism? Against the view that it was a later invention, this section argues that biological racism, even the language of race, pre-dates Hobbes. Yet historical examples will also lead me to reiterate a point I have already made: in deciding whether something is racism, it does not really matter if the source is biological, theological, cultural, or environmental.

Increasing numbers of scholars now argue that “the concept of race is late medieval. It appears to have emerged for the first time at around the middle of the fifteenth century, in Spain.”51 Anti-Semitism in Spain had been increasing over the 14th century, leading up to the 1391 massacres. Many Jews thus converted to Christianity, but eventually came to be seen as qualitatively different to Cristianos de natura (Christians by nature). The same applied to Spanish Muslims. According to the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (cleanliness/purity of blood),

Jewish and Muslim blood was inferior to Christian; the possession of any amount of such blood made one liable to heresy and moral corruption; and therefore any descendent of Jews and Muslims, no matter how distant, should be barred from church and secular office, from any number of guilds and professions, and especially from marrying Old Christians.52

So, “the reproduction of culture is embedded in the reproduction of the flesh.”53 Conversion to Christianity did not make one fully Christian: one’s blood remained tainted. “It is unclear what we might call this new approach to group identity, where membership is determined by ‘blood,’ if not by the name of ‘race’,” concludes Hochman.54

George Fredrickson, too, writes:

the Spanish doctrine of purity of blood was undoubtedly racist. It represented the stigmatization of an [sic] entire ethnic group on the basis of deficiencies that allegedly could not be eradicated by conversion or assimilation. Inherited social status was nothing new; the concept of ‘noble blood’ had long meant that the offspring of certain families were born with a claim to high status. But when the status of large numbers of people was depressed purely and simply because of their derivation from a denigrated ethnos, a line had been crossed that gave ‘race’ a new and more comprehensive significance.55

Medieval biological racism can still be biological racism despite being narrower than modern biological racism. According to Hochman, medieval biological racism assumes that race is biologically inherited, that races arise through reproductive isolation, and that races constitute major human lineages. Modern biological racism adds two further assumptions: all humans belong to at least one race, and race is the taxonomic level below species for humans.56

The language of race accompanied these conceptual developments. Raza was initially closer to the modern term “pedigree” in animals. In 1438, one author wrote that if a farmer’s baby and a knight’s baby were brought up away from their parents, the babies would grow up to like farming and arms/equestrianship respectively. The babies were described as having “bad” and “good” race (raça), respectively.57 Raza, along with terms like casta (caste) and linaje (lineage), was “part of a complex of closely associated terms that linked both behavior and appearance to nature and reproduction.”58 In 1435, one writer stated: “From the days of Alexander up till now, there has never been a treasonous act that did not involve a Jew or his descendants [linaxe].”59 Spanish terminology of race may have entered England in this period.60 “Race” was used in English in 1508 by the Scot, William Dunbar. Discussing envy, he compares flattery to men’s faces with “bakbyttaris of sindry racis” (backbiters of sundry races).61 Such language appears to have been sufficiently widespread that Hobbes would surely have read and heard it. I have already discussed the 1625 edition of Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage and its references to the curse of Ham. Meanwhile, the 1613 edition – also in the Hardwick Library – talks of “race” 19 times. Three references involve animals (horses, oxen and apes) but the other 16 all involve non-White non-Europeans. Of these 16 references, some simply imply family lineage but the majority refer to peoples.

Strikingly, then, Purchas’s book only seems to use “race” for animals and for non-White non-Europeans. Of course, the book is about travels outside of Europe, but Purchas could easily have mentioned race in his frequent discussions of the French and Spanish, say. It is revealing that Christians are described as being “of the house of Israel” in the same sentence as Moslems are referred to as being “of the Race of Ishmael.” So, it does appear as if “race,” in this text, is something which only animals and non-White non-Europeans have.62

Also in the Hardwick library was the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (popularly known as the Book of Martyrs), which refers to a false prophet being executed along with his son, “lest any more false prophetes should ryse of that race.”63 Later editions used the language of race much more liberally. The 1570, 1576 and 1583 editions use the term many times, the most interesting of which is a reference in the 1570 and 1576 editions to the “whole race” of the Jews, in a discussion of the “execrable Inquisition of Spayne,” and a reference to the “race and stocke of Abraham” in the 1583 edition. But the 1570 edition also talks of “the whole race of mankinde,” “the race of the corrupt generation of Adam,” and “two noble personages of the Spanish race.”64 Clearly, in these texts the term just indicates lineage, whether of a wide or narrow group. There seems to be nothing derogatory here.

The same cannot be said of Foxe’s language of race in a 1578 sermon on the christening of a Jew. This Jew has come from “the vttermost parts of Barbarie into England,” and Foxe prays that “the whole remnant of the circumcised Race” will also seek to be christened. Foxe links Jewishness to blood: “the Iewish Infidelitie” is “their inheritable disease … from their mothers wombe, naturally caried through peruerse frowardnes, into all malitious hatred, & contempt of Christ, & his Christians.”65 An “inheritable disease” from a mother’s womb is biological, not cultural. This sermon and its contents were sufficiently well-known to be cited in Calvert’s Blessed Jew, which I discuss shortly.

It should not be surprising to realize that people understood aspects of biological inheritance well before Darwin’s time. This even included core features of animal breeding in ancient times.66 The different skin colors of children born to White and Black couples, for example, would have been obvious. Spaniards invented terms like mestizo (“mixed”) and mulato (offspring of Spaniards and Blacks), in the 1530s and late 1540s respectively, to describe the children of mixed-race parents. These terms “derived from a zoological vocabulary and implied crossbreeding,” so “neither appellation was exactly flattering.”67 In 1646, the English physician Sir Thomas Browne affirmed that skin color was passed on through reproduction, and even suggested that blackness might be transmitted in sperm.68

Many White Europeans seem to have been fixated on skin color. We know that Hobbes was fond of the theatre, where skin color was sometimes a big issue. Particularly interesting here is the 1605 Masque of Blackness by Ben Jonson, a playwright with whom Hobbes was personally “well acquainted.”69 Jonson’s play is just one in a long line of stories about whether dark skin color can be washed off, dating back at least to one of Aesop’s fables, about a slaveowner who tries and fails to wash off a slave’s blackness.70 The Masque of Blackness tells how Niger, the god of the Nile, wants his daughters’ skin to be whitened. Skin color is first presented as immutable:

No cares, no age can change, or there display

The fearful tincture of abhorrèd grey;

Since Death herself (herself being pale and blue)

Can never alter their most faithful hue.71

But the Ethiopian moon-goddess tells him to go to Britain, where the “sun is temperate, and refines / All things on which his radiance shines.”72 The overall message of the play is racist: white skin is better.

Fascinatingly, James’s wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, had requested Jonson write the play and specifically asked that she and her ladies should appear in blackface, as Niger’s daughters. Dudley Carleton mp expressed his disgust at seeing “owr Lady-Moores,” i.e. the Queen and ladies in blackface: “theyr faces and armes up to ye elbowes were painted black,” and “you can not imagine a more ougly sight then a troope of leane-cheek’t moores.” This was “a very lothsome sight, and I am sory that strangers should see owr court so strangely disguised.”73 Carleton seems to have been embarrassed that the ambassadors saw the Queen painted as an African.74

Jonson’s interest in the changing of skin color is also manifested in The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621). In the play, the gypsies, played by the Duke of Buckingham and other courtiers, are stereotyped (fortune-telling, thieving, etc.) but, under the influence of King James, metamorphose from dark to light skin color. King James enjoyed the play so much that he requested it three times. (In the real world he persecuted the Roma appallingly.)75 Another fan was William Cavendish, Hobbes’s patron, whose secretary transcribed the play in the early 1630s.76

Roma people had been demonized in print as early as 1068.77 Comments about their dark skin color, mostly derogatory, were being made in the 15th and perhaps even 14th centuries.78 Interestingly, dark skin color was sometimes seen as cultural, not biological: Roma babies were sometimes said to be born with white skin, but then dyed by their parents.79 (William Strachey said this of Native Americans and ancient Britons too.)80 However, in terms of characterizations of racism, I do not see how it matters whether the skin colors of Roma people were explained in biological, cultural or other terms. They were essentialized as a group, and dark skin was seen as disgusting and as threatening.

Of course, then, as now, racism often overlapped with other exclusions: racism has rarely just been racism. Anti-Gypsy prejudice in England partly reflected the fact that Gypsies were threatening to elites in so many ways: they were often poor, they were itinerant not sedentary, they did not work in the same way as other English, and so on.81 Amerindigenes likewise violated what Hobbes and many others saw as civilized norms.

Overall, there is abundant evidence that racism was far more widespread in Hobbes’s day than we might think; even the language of race was not uncommon. Talking about race and racism in early modern Europe is not anachronistic.

4 Conclusion

None of this shows that Hobbes was a racist. Racist ideas were certainly present in his day, including in books he may have read. This may cast new light on his depiction of Amerindigenes. But perversely, these racist contexts may make Hobbes look less racist: he never uses the language of race, and he does not voice many racist ideas that he could plausible have voiced.

Resolving this issue is beyond the scope of this paper. My main conclusion has instead been that we cannot play the anachronism card to rule out the possibility that Hobbes was a racist. Historical analysis suggests that racism was not uncommon in Hobbes’s day – including biological racism, which many people assume was a much later invention. That latter view, it seems, is the real anachronism. Moreover, I have questioned whether we should really restrict racism to biological racism, as many scholars do. Medieval and early-modern White Europeans sometimes had loathsome views of entire groups (Africans, Amerindigenes, Jews, Roma, Saracens, and so on), regarding them as inferior, lazy, loathsome, animals, or suchlike. Whatever the source of such hostility, it is still racism.


For comments and criticisms on earlier versions of this paper, I thank Deborah Baumgold, Robin Douglass, Humeira Iqtidar, John Meadowcroft, and Diana Popescu.


Andrew Valls, “Introduction,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 5.


Robert Lee Nichols, “Realizing the Social Contract: The Case of Colonialism and Indigenous Peoples,” Contemporary Political Theory 4 (2005), 47.


See references in David Nirenberg, “Was There Race Before Modernity? The Example of ‘Jewish’ Blood in Late Medieval Spain,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 234–8.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, second edition (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1958), passim.


Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 1. My paper sidesteps the issue of scientific racism, i.e. allying racism to scientific principles. This is only one kind of modern racism. For a historical account, see Jonathan Marks, “Scientific racism, history of,” in Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, volume 3, ed. John Hartwell Moore (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008).


Robert Bernasconi and Anika Maaza Mann, “The Contradictions of Racism: Locke, Slavery, and the Two Treatises,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 89.


Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, in Human Nature and De Corpore Politico, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ch. 17 §1, p. 93.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012), ch. 46, p. 1054 [368]. (Leviathan pages in square brackets refer to the Molesworth edition.)


Thomas Hobbes, De Corpore, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, volume 1, ed. William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839), ch. 1 §7, pp. 7–8.


I follow Mary Nyquist in mostly talking of “Amerindigenes” rather than “native Americans” or “Amerindians.” See Mary Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (Chicago: University of Chicago University Press, 2013). Anthropologists tend to use “Amerindian” for Indigenous groups of South America, and “‘Native Americans” for North American Indigenous groups. As we do not always know which part of America Hobbes was referring to, “Amerindigenes” is a more general and neutral term, except when I am citing someone specifically discussing Native Americans.


Hobbes, De Corpore, ch. 1 §7, pp. 7–8.


Leviathan, ch. 13, pp. 192–4 [62–3]. See also the equivalent passages in Hobbes, Elements of Law, ch. 14 §12, p. 80, and in Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), ch. 1 §13, p. 3. See too Thomas Hobbes, The Answer of Mr. Hobbes to Sir William Davenant’s Preface before Gondibert, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, volume 4, ed. William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1840), pp. 449–50.


For an analysis of these frontispieces, see Pat Moloney, “Hobbes, Savagery, and International Anarchy,” American Political Science Review 105 (2011), 192–4; Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule, 284–92; Ioannis Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 80–8; Theodore Christov, Before Anarchy: Hobbes and His Critics in Modern International Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 37–43, 49, 57.


Hobbes, Gondibert, 450.


On Hobbes and the Virginia Company, see Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 53–79, and Patricia Springborg, “Hobbes, Donne and the Virginia Company: Terra Nullius and ‘the Bulimia of Dominium’,” History of Political Thought 36 (2015).


Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes, 75–6.


Leviathan ch. 13, p. 188 [60]. For more on Hobbes’s implication that reason was not even widespread in civil society, see Adrian Blau, “Reason, Deliberation, and the Passions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 210, 212–3, 216.


Leviathan ch. 5, p. 74 [21].


Elements of Law, ch. 13 §3, p. 74.


See the different depictions of of “savage” peoples, including by Cicero, in Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule, 262–74.


On Hume’s racism, see especially Aaron Garrett and Silvia Sebastiani, “David Hume on Race,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, ed. Naomi Zack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). On Kant’s racism, see e.g. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology,” The Bucknell Review 38 (1995), 213–9, and Robert Bernasconi, “Will the Real Kant Please Stand Up: the Challenge of Enlightenment Racism to the Study of the History of Philosophy,” Radical Philosophy 117 (2003).


Lawrence Blum, ‘I’m Not a Racist, But …: The Moral Quandary of Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 8–9, 160. On “racialized groups,” see the helpful account by Adam Hochman, “Racialization: a Defense of the Concept,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 42 (2019), especially 1246.


Isaac, Invention of Racism, 51.


Sean Elias and Joe Feagin, Racial Theories in Social Science: A Systemic Racism Critique (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 6.


See especially Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).


For another defence of anachronism in helping us understand Hobbes better, see Adrian Blau, “Hobbes’s Practical Politics: Political, Sociological and Economistic Ways of Avoiding a State of Nature,” Hobbes Studies 33 (2020), 113–4, 133–4.


Adrian Blau, “History of Political Thought as Detective-Work,” History of European Ideas 41 (2015), 1180, 1184–6.


See especially George Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity”; Audrey Smedley and Brian Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, fourth edition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012); and Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). I leave aside the question of racism in ancient Greece and Rome, although many similarities can be found. See Isaac, Invention of Racism, and Denise McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2012).


Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Racisms,” in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 4–6.


Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (London: Verso, 2010), 65–76.


Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, 74.


Richard Talaska, The Hardwick Library and Hobbes’s Early Intellectual Development (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2013), 101. But note that Talaska’s catalogue of the Hardwick Library is unreliable. See Noel Malcolm, book review, Hobbes Studies 26 (2013).


Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage, volume 1 (London: William Stansby, 1625), ch. 10, p. 44; ch. 15, p. 67.


William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, ed. R.H. Major (London: Hakluyt Society, 1869 [1612]), 46–7.


Springborg, “Hobbes, Donne and the Virginia Company,” 121–3; Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes, 60.


Fredrickson, Racism, 18; on anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism more generally in medieval times, see 18–26.


George Best, A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discouerie (London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578), 30–3.


For a summary, see Carol Mukhopadhyay and Peter Chua, “Cultural Racism,” in Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, volume 1, ed. John Hartwell Moore (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008).


Eugenia Shanklin, Anthropology and Race (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1994), 105 (emphasis added), quoted in Peter Wade, Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 7.


Elements of Law, ch. 13 §3, p. 74.


Lawrence Blum, “‘Cultural Racism’: Biology and Culture in Racist Thought,” Journal of Social Philosophy (forthcoming), 3–10.


Ali Rattansi, Racism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 100–105.


Adam Hochman, “Is ‘Race’ Modern? Disambiguating the Question,” Du Bois Review 16 (2019).


Isaac, The Invention of Racism, 10, 55–102.


Thomas Hobbes, The History of the Grecian War Written by Thucydides, translated by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, volume 9, ed. William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1843), 161.


Marian Tooley, “Bodin and the Mediaeval Theory of Climate,” Speculum 28 (1953), 66–7, 70, 76–80.


Stephen Batman, Batman vppon Bartholome his booke De proprietatibus rerum (London: Thomas East, 1582), 390–1. For its presence in the Hardwick Library, see Talaska, The Hardwick Library, 74.


Batman, Batman vppon Bartholome, 224.


Tooley, “Bodin and the Mediaeval Theory of Climate,” 74–5.


Hobbes, De Homine, in Man and Citizen, ed. Bernard Gert (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), ch. 13 §1, p. 63.


Hochman, “Is ‘Race’ Modern?,” 648.


Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity?,” 242.


Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity?,” 257.


Hochman, “Is ‘Race’ Modern?,” 652.


Fredrickson, Racism, 33.


Hochman, “Is ‘Race’ Modern?,” 652.


Nirenberg “Race Before Modernity?,” 250.


Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity?,” 248.


Quoted in Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity?,” 248.


Smedley and Smedley 2012, 37.


Quoted in Michael Banton, Racial Theories, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 17.


Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage, passim.


John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London: John Day, 1563), 116. For its presence in the Hardwick Library, see Talaska, The Hardwick Library, 51.


See the editions online at


John Foxe, A Sermon Preached at the Christening of a Certaine Iew at London (London: Christopher Barker, 1578).


Nirenberg, “Race Before Modernity?,” 236.


María Elena Martínez, “The Language, Genealogy, and Classification of ‘Race’ in Colonial Mexico,” in Race and Classification: The Case of Mexican America, ed. Ilona Katzew and Susan Deans-Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 32.


Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812, second edition (Williamsburg, VA: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 15–16.


Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes, 91.


Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 56–8.


Ben Jonson, The Masque of Blackness (1605 edition), ed. David Lindley, lines 107–10;


Jonson, Masque of Blackness, lines 218–9.


Letter from Sir Dudley Carleton to Ralph Winwood, January 1605, in Masque Archive, ed. Katharine Craik and Karen Britland (, document 12; letter from Sir Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 7 January 1605, in Masque Archives, document 6.


Matthieu Chapman, “The Appearance of Blacks on the Early Modern Stage: Love’s Labour’s Lost’s African Connections to Court,” Early Theatre 17 (2014), 91.


Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 177.


Tom Rutter, “The Cavendishes and Ben Jonson,” in A Companion to the Cavendishes, ed. Lisa Hopkins and Tom Rutter (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2020), 114.


Heng, Invention of Race, 420.


Heng, Invention of Race, 422, 424, 428–9.


Iyengar, Shades of Difference, 173, 182–3.


Strachey, Historie of Travaile, 63–4.


Iyengar, Shades of Difference, 175–80; David Cressy, “Trouble with Gypsies in Early Modern England,” The Historical Journal 59 (2016), 45, 49.

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