Thomas Hobbes - Political Philosopher

Thomas Hobbes, natural philosopher, was born to a local vicar and his wife on April 5, 1588, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England. Aspects of his early family history remain obscure, but his uncle, Francis Hobbes, a successful merchant, took over his upbringing and early education. Hobbes, a talented and serious student, entered Magdalen College, Oxford, at age 14 and graduated with his B.A. in 1608.

Following his graduation, Hobbes became tutor and then secretary to William Cavendish, who would become the second earl of Devonshire. This connection would mark a lifelong association with the Cavendish family. The position also allowed Hobbes a return to study. Following William’s death, Hobbes took employment as a tutor to the son of Sir Gervase Clinton of Nottinghamshire from 1628 to 1631.

In the midst of this period, he published his translation of Thucydides and began at age 40 a vigorous study of mathematics. He returned to the Cavendish family as tutor to the third earl of Devonshire in 1631 and spent time on the Continent meeting important scholars such as Galileo Galilei in 1636 as well as other intellectuals during his travels with Cavendish.

Political and Religious Strife

Hobbes’s life intersected with an era of turbulent political and religious divides, and as a committed Royalist, Hobbes left for Paris in fear for his life when the Civil War erupted in 1640. Here he challenged René Descartes’s Meditations, studied optics, and published De cive in 1642, which examined the roles of the church and state.

Hobbes also in these exile years tutored the prince of Wales from 1646 to 1648. In 1651, he completed his most famous work, the Leviathan, and returned to England. Hobbes tempered his Royalist views, angering some Royalists along the way, and seemingly accepted the Puritan government, which had triumphed in the Civil War.

The Leviathan established Hobbes’s lasting reputation and marked him as an important transitional thinker from medieval to modern thought. As the age seemed to confirm, Hobbes had an essentially dark view of human nature and mankind’s selfish appetites. Humans left to their own devices allowed evil impulses to flourish. Because of these traits and conditions, mankind must create a state, or Leviathan, for protection.

For Hobbes, the best ruler the state could produce was a monarch. Other issues such as freedom, property rights, justice, law, and morality were social creations without natural meaning. It was the existence of the power of the state alone that prevented war and chaos. The natural state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To escape from his base and animal nature, mankind enters into a contract, giving up individual interests for a covenant of security and peace, which the state provides. The sovereign, through its arbitrary power, guarantees these freedoms by the exercise of absolute authority. In this way, citizens are given their liberty. Mankind can follow his/her will without interference, yet this falls far short of the concept of free will in a religious sense.

Hobbes’s examination of human society and human nature introduced a mechanistic and materialist world-view and stressed the importance of rationalist thought in understanding man and society. He also wrote in English, which allowed philosophical thought to be expressed in a common voice not dependent upon classical thinkers.

The Leviathan was followed by De corpore (On the Body, 1655) containing large mathematical sections, and De homine (On Man, 1657). These works completed his philosophical trilogy. Following the restoration in 1660, Hobbes gained the protection of Charles II as well as a state pension. However, Hobbes agreed to allow the king to vet his future publications for possible controversy.

Hobbes mathematical works and his attacks on methods of mathematical analysis led to further debate. Hobbes defended his mathematical arguments until the end of his days against a variety of scholarly attacks, some of which dismissed him as a serious mathematical thinker.

Other works followed such as his Dialogue (1681), an attack on common law, and Behemoth (1682), a history of the Long Parliament and the Civil War. Both had to await publication until after his death. He completed his autobiography in 1672, and in 1675 at age 86, he published translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Hobbes returned from London to spend his final years with the Cavendish family and died at the age of 91, on December 4, 1679, at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. He never retired and was working on a book on squaring the circle at the time of his death.