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(Detail from painting by John Michael Wright, c. 1669)
Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) was an English philosopher of the Age of Reason. His famous 1651 book "Leviathan" and his social contract theory, developed during the tumultuous times around the English Civil War, established the foundation for most of Western Political Philosophy.
His vision of the world was strikingly original at the time, and is still relevant to contemporary politics. He did not shrink from addressing sensitive issues head on, and while few have liked his thesis, many have seen the political realism it represents.
Like Machiavelli before him, Hobbes looked on politics as a secular discipline, divorced from theology, and he has always attracted his share of powerful (and often vitriolic) detractors. Others have taken issue with his apparent assumption of mankind as not inherently benevolent, but rather self-centered and competitive.
Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England on 5 April 1588. His father, also Thomas, was the vicar of Charlton and Westport, but he abandoned his three children to the care of his older brother, Francis Hobbes, and fleed to London after an altercation outside his own church. Nothing is known of his mother.
Luckily, Francis was wealthy enough to provide for Thomas' education, and he was educated at Westport Church from the age of four, before passing to Malmesbury School and then to a private school kept by a young man named Robert Latimer, a graduate of Oxford University. Hobbes was a good pupil and, around 1603, he moved to Magdalen College, Oxford to continue his education. He was little attracted by the Scholastic learning of the day, and largely pursued his own curriculum, graduating in 1608. Sir James Hussey, his master at Magdalen, recommended him as tutor to William, the son of William Cavendish, Baron of Hardwick (and later Earl of Devonshire), and began a life-long connection with that family.
In 1610, as companion to the younger William, he undertook a grand tour of Europe, where he was exposed to European scientific and critical methods (in contrast to the Scholastic philosophy which he had learned in Oxford). Although he associated with literary and philosophical figures such as Ben Jonson (1572 - 1637) and Sir Francis Bacon (and shared Bacon's Atomist beliefs for a time), he did not extend his efforts into philosophy until after 1629. His only output before that time was the first English translation of the "History of the Peloponnesian War" by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, which was published in 1628.
After his employer, the Earl of Devonshire, died of the plague in June 1628, the widowed countess dismissed Hobbes, but he soon found work as tutor to the son of Sir Gervase Clifton. This time, chiefly spent in Paris, ended in 1631, when he again found work with the Cavendish family, tutoring the son of his previous pupil. Over the next seven years, as well as tutoring, he expanded his own knowledge of philosophy, including a visit to Florence in 1636 and attendance at regular philosophical debates in Paris.
During these years, he first developed a theory of physical motion and momentum (although disdaining any experimental work in physics), and then extended this to the more human phenomena of sensation, knowledge, affections and passions, and from there he began to consider the sociological and political aspects of human interaction. The first two parts of his three-part treatise, "Human Nature" and "De Corpore Publico", were written in 1640, but, before publishing them, and in the light of the uncertain political climate in the run up to the English Civil War of 1642 - 1651, he cautiously decided to move to Paris, where he remained for the next 11 years. There, he continued to work on his treatise, critiqued and corresponded with René Descartes among others, and developed a good reputation in philosophic circles.
When the Royalist cause in the English Civil War began to decline in the middle of 1644, there was an exodus of the king's supporters to Europe, and especially to Paris. Hobbes's political interests were revitalized, and the third (and most political) part of his three-part treatise, "De Cive", was republished and more widely distributed in 1646. In 1647, after some months as mathematical instructor to the young Charles, Prince of Wales (later to become Charles II of England), he was persuaded by his Royalist friends to set forth his theory of civil government in detail, especially in relation to the political crisis resulting from the Civil War. Despite a serious illness which disabled him for six months, he continued in this task until 1651, when his famous masterwork "Leviathan" was published.
The work had immediate impact, and soon Hobbes was both more lauded and decried than any other thinker of his time. The secularist spirit of his book greatly angered both Anglicans and French Catholics, and he was ultimately forced to flee the exiled royalists back to England and to appeal to the new revolutionary English government for protection.
From the age of about sixty, he began to suffer "shaking palsy" (probably Parkinson’s Disease), which steadily worsened over the years. In addition to publishing some ill-founded and controversial writings on mathematics and physics, Hobbes also continued to produce and publish philosophical works. "Behemoth", published posthumously in 1682, though written rather earlier, was his account of England's Civil Wars.
From the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he acquired a new prominence, and his former pupil, now Charles II, remembered Hobbes and called him to the court to grant him a pension of £100. The king was also important in protecting Hobbes when, in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against Atheism and profaneness, which specifically targeted "Leviathan". In the end, the only consequence was that Hobbes was disallowed from publishing anything in England on subjects relating to human conduct (including even responses to the attacks of his enemies), and later editions of his works were printed in Amsterdam. Despite this, his reputation abroad remained formidable.
His final works were a curious mixture: an autobiography in Latin verse in 1672, and a translation of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" in 1675. In October 1679, Hobbes suffered a bladder disorder, which was followed by a paralytic stroke from which he died on 4 December 1679 in Derbyshire, England, aged 91.
Hobbes was not (as many have charged) an atheist, but he had a boundless contempt for Scholastic philosophy and the speculations of the Scholastics, (with their combinations of Christian theology and Aristotelian Metaphysics), and he was insistent that theological disputes should be kept out of politics. He also adopted a strongly Materialist metaphysics, which made it difficult to account for God's existence as a spiritual entity. He claimed there is no natural source of authority to order our lives, and that human judgment is inherently unreliable, and therefore needs to be guided.
He was deeply influenced by the new deterministic science of the age (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke, etc) and by the certainty of mathematics. He was interested in constructing a completely mechanical model of the universe and, after visiting Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642), he came to believe that the entire physical world could be explained by the new science of motion. He further believed that the human body was also explicable as a dynamic system, as were even the workings of the mind and the whole of civil society.
In his "Leviathan" (subtitled "The Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil") of 1651, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments, based on social contract theories (Contractarianism). It was written during the English Civil War of 1642 - 1651, and much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority and the avoidance of the evils of discord and civil war. It built on the earlier "Elements of Law" of 1640, (which was initially an attempt to provide arguments supporting the King against his challengers), and particularly on his "De Cive" of 1642.
He argued that the human body is like a machine, and that political organization ("commonwealth") is like an artificial human being. Beginning from this mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulated what life would be like without government, a condition which he called the "state of nature" and which he argued inevitably leads to conflict and lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". In order to escape this state of war and insecurity, men in the state of nature accede to a "social contract" and establish a civil society. Thus, all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection, and any abuses of power by this authority must be accepted as the price of peace (although in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is to be expected). In particular, he rejected the doctrine of separation of powers, arguing that the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers, which some have seen as a justification for authoritarianism and even Totalitarianism.
Thus, Hobbes' ethical views were based on the premise that what we ought to do depends greatly on the situation in which we find ourselves: where political authority is lacking (as in his famous natural condition of mankind), our fundamental right is self-preservation (to save our skins by whatever means we think fit); where political authority exists, however, our duty is merely to obey those in power.
In other fields, he was also known as a scientist (especially in optics), as a mathematician (especially in geometry, although some of his mathematical work has been unceremoniously slammed as inadequate and unrigorous), as a translator of the classics, and as a writer on law.
See the additional sources and recommended reading list below, or check the philosophy books page for a full list.