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Thomas Hobbes
Born: 5 April 1588 in Westport, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England
Died: 4 Dec 1679 in Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, England


The English philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of the central figures of British empiricism. His major work, "Leviathan, " published in 1651, expressed his principle of materialism and his concept of a social contract forming the basis of society.

Born prematurely on April 5, 1588, when his mother heard of the impending invasion of the Spanish Armada, Thomas Hobbes later reported that "my mother gave birth to twins, myself and fear." His father was the vicar of Westport near Malmesbury in Gloucestershire. He abandoned his family to escape punishment for fighting with another clergyman "at the church door." Thereafter Thomas was raised and educated by an uncle. At local schools he became a proficient classicist, translating a Greek tragedy into Latin iambics by the time he was 14. From 1603 to 1608 he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was bored by the prevailing philosophy of Aristotelianism.

The 20-year-old future philosopher became a tutor to the Cavendish family. This virtually lifelong association with the successive earls of Devonshire provided him with an extensive private library, foreign travel, and introductions to influential people. Hobbes, however, was slow in developing his thought; his first work a translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian Wars, did not appear until 1629. Thucydides held that knowledge of the past was useful for determining correct action, and Hobbes said that he offered the translation during a period of civil unrest as a reminder that the ancients believed democracy to be the least effective form of government.

According to his own estimate the crucial intellectual event of Hobbes's life occurred when he was 40. While waiting for a friend he wandered into a library and chanced to find a copy of Euclid's geometry. Opening the book, he read a random proposition and exclaimed, "By God that is impossible!" Fascinated by the interconnections between axioms, postulates, and premises, he adopted the ideal of demonstrating certainty by way of deductive reasoning. His interest in mathematics is reflected in his second work, A Short Treatise on First Principles, which presents a mechanical interpretation of sensation, as well as in his brief stint as mathematics tutor to Charles II. His generally royalist sympathy as expressed in The Elements of Law (1640) caused Hobbes to leave England during the "Long Parliament." This was the first of many trips back and forth between England and the Continent during periods of civil strife since he was, in his own words, "the first of all that fled." For the rest of his long life Hobbes traveled extensively and published prolifically. In France he met René Descartes and the anti-Cartesian Pierre Gassendi. In 1640 he wrote one of the sets of objections to Descartes's Meditations.

Although born into the Elizabethan Age, Hobbes outlived all of the major 17th-century thinkers. He became a sort of English institution and continued writing, offering new translations of Homer in his 80s because he had "nothing else to do." When he was past 90, he became embroiled in controversies with the Royal Society. He invited friends to suggest appropriate epitaphs and favoured one that read "this is the true philosopher's stone." He died on Dec. 4, 1679, at the age of 91.

His Philosophy

The diverse intellectual currents of the 17th century, which are generically called modern classical philosophy, began with a unanimous repudiation of the authorities of the past, especially Aristotle and the scholastic tradition. Descartes, who founded the rationalist tradition, and his contemporary Sir Francis Bacon, who is considered the originator of modern empiricism, both sought new methodologies for achieving scientific knowledge and a systematic conception of reality. Hobbes knew both of these thinkers, and his system encompassed the advantages of both rationalism and empiricism. As a logician, he believed too strongly in the power of deductive reasoning from definitions to share Bacon's exclusive enthusiasm for inductive generalizations from experience. Yet Hobbes was a more consistent empiricist and nominalist, and his attacks on the misuse of language exceed even those of Bacon. And unlike Descartes, Hobbes viewed reason as summation of consequences rather than an innate, originative source of new knowledge.

Psychology, as the mechanics of knowing, rather than epistemology is the source of Hobbes's singularity. He was fascinated by the problem of sense perception, and he extended Galileo's mechanical physics into an explanation of human cognition. The origin of all thought is sensation which consists of mental images produced by the pressure of motion of external objects. Thus Hobbes anticipates later thought by distinguishing between the external object and the internal image. These sense images are extended by the power of memory and imagination. Understanding and reason, which distinguish men from other animals, consist entirely in the ability to use speech.

Speech is the power to transform images into words or names. Words serve as the marks of remembrance, signification, conception, or self-expression. For example, to speak of a cause-and-effect relation is merely to impose names and define their connection. When two names are so joined that the definition of one contains the other, then the proposition is true. The implications of Hobbes's analysis are quite modern. First, there is an implicit distinction between objects and their appearance to man's senses. Consequently knowledge is discourse about appearances. Universals are merely names understood as class concepts, and they have no real status, for everything which appears "is individual and singular." Since "true and false are attributes of speech and not of things, " scientific and philosophic thinking consists in using names correctly. Reason is calculation or "reckoning the consequences of general laws agreed upon for either marking or signifying." The power of the mind is the capacity to reduce consequences to general laws or theorems either by deducing consequences from principles or by inductively reasoning from particular perceptions to general principles. The privilege of mind is subject to unfortunate abuse because, in Hobbes's pithy phrase, men turn from summarizing the consequences of things "into a reckoning of the consequences of appellations, " that is, using faulty definitions, inventing terms which stand for nothing, and assuming that universals are real.

The material and mechanical model of nature offered Hobbes a consistent analogy. Man is a conditioned part of nature, and reason is neither an innate faculty nor the summation of random experience but is acquired through slow cultivation and industry. Science is the cumulative knowledge of syllogistic reasoning which gradually reveals the dependence of one fact upon another. Such knowledge is conditionally valid and enables the mind to move progressively from abstract and simple to more particular and complex sciences: geometry, mechanics, physics, morals (the nature of mind and desire), politics.

Political Thought

Hobbes explains the connection between nature, man, and society through the law of inertia. A moving object continues to move until impeded by another force, and "trains of imagination" or speculation are abated only by logical demonstrations. So also man's liberty or desire to do what he wants is checked only by an equal and opposite need for security. A society or commonwealth "is but an artificial man" invented by man, and to understand polity one should merely read himself as part of nature.

Such a reading is cold comfort because presocial life is characterized by Hobbes, in a famous quotation, as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The equality of human desire is matched by an economy of natural satisfactions. Men are addicted to power because its acquisition is the only guarantee of living well. Such men live in "a state of perpetual war" driven by competition and desire for the same goods. The important consequence of this view is man's natural right and liberty to seek self-preservation by any means. In this state of nature there is no value above self-interest because where there is no common, coercive power there is no law and no justice. But there is a second and derivative law of nature that men may surrender or transfer their individual will to the state. This "social contract" binds the individual to treat others as he expects to be treated by them. Only a constituted civil power commands sufficient force to compel everyone to fulfill this original compact by which men exchange liberty for security.

In Hobbes's view the sovereign power of a commonwealth is absolute and not subject to the laws and obligations of citizens. Obedience remains as long as the sovereign fulfills the social compact by protecting the rights of the individual. Consequently rebellion is unjust, by definition, but should the cause of revolution prevail, a new absolute sovereignty is created.


Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, adjoining Malmesbury in Wiltshire, on April 5, 1588. His father was the vicar of a parish. His uncle, who was a tradesman and alderman of Malmesbury, provided for Hobbes' education. When he was 14 years old he went to Magdalen Hall in Oxford to study, already an excellent student of Latin and Greek. He left Oxford in 1608, and became the private tutor for the eldest son of Lord Cavendish of Hardwick (later known as the Earl of Devonshire). He travelled with his pupil in 1610 to France, Italy, and Germany. He then went to London to continue his studies, where he met other leading scholars like Francis Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, and Ben Johnson.

Hobbes maintained his connection to the Cavendish family, however, in 1628 the Cavendish son died, and Hobbes had to find another pupil. In 1629 he left for the continent again for a two year journey with his new student. When he returned in 1631 he began to tutor the younger Cavendish son. It was around this time that Hobbes' philosophy began to take form. His manuscript Short Tract on First Principles was most likely written in 1630. In this piece he uses the geometrical form, inspired by Euclid, to shape his argument.

From 1634 to 1637 Hobbes returned to the continent with the young Earl of Devonshire. In Paris he spent time with Mersenne and the scientific community that included Descartes and Gassendi. In Florence, he conversed with Galileo. When he returned to England he wrote Elements of law Natural and Politic, which outlined his new theory. The first thirteen chapters of this work was published in 1650 under the title Human Nature, and the rest of the work as a separate volume entitled De Corpore Politico. In 1640 he went to France to escape the civil war brewing in England. He would stay in France for the next eleven years, taking an appointment to teach mathematics to Charles, Prince of Wales, who came to Paris in 1646.

At this time Hobbes friend Mersenne was encouraging scholars to respond to Descates' forthcoming treatise Meditationes de prima philosophia. In 1641 Hobbes sent his critique to Descartes in Holland, and they were published in Objectiones with the publication of the treatise. The two men continued their discourse, exchanging letters on the Dioptrique, which had been published in 1637. Hobbes disagreed with Descartes' theory that the mind, independent from material reality, was the primal certainty. Hobbes instead used motion as the basis for his philosophy of nature, mind and society. His correspondence with Descartes led to a paper on his views on physics and a Tractatus Opticus to works published by Mersenne.

By 1640 Hobbes had plans for his future philosophical work, expecting it to take shape in the form of three treatises. He planned to begin with matter, or body, then look at human nature, and then society. However, inspired by the political unrest in his home country, he began instead with the third treatise on society. De Cive was published in Paris in 1642. When the Commonwealth had reestablished a stable government in England, Hobbes published the same text in English under the title Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. The book was highly controversial, and criticized by both sides of the English civil war. He supported the king over parliament, but also denied the king his divine right. Oxford University dismissed faculty under the premise of being "Hobbits". Hobbes also ventured controversial views on God and religion, and the Roman Catholic Church put his books on the Index. In England ther

In 1651 Hobbes returned to England, fearing that France was no longer a safe haven for the exiled English court. This same year saw the publication of Leviathan, Hobbes' most influential work. In the introduction to the book Hobbes describes the state as an organism, showing how each part of the state functions similarly to parts of a human body. As the state is created by human beings, he first sets out to describe human nature. He advises that we may look into ourselves to see a picture of general humanity. He believes that all acts are ultimately self-serving, even when they seem benevolent, and that in a state of nature, prior to any formation of government, humans would behave completely selfishly. He remarks that all humans are essentially mentally and physically equal, and because of this, we are naturally prone to fight each other. He cites three natural reasons that humans fight: competition over material good, general distrust, and the glory of powerful positions. Hobbes comes to the conclusion that humanity's natural condition is a state of perpetual war, constant fear, and lack of morality.

In the Leviathan, Hobbes writes that morality consists of Laws of Nature. These Laws, arrived at through social contract, are found out by reason and are aimed to preserve human life. Hobbes comes to his laws of nature deductively, still using a model of reasoning derived from geometry. From a set of five general principles, he derives 15 laws. The five general principles are (1) that human beings pursue only their own self-interest, (2) that all people are equal (3) the three natural causes of quarrel, (4) the natural condition of perpetual war, and (5) the motivation for peace. The first three Laws of Nature he derives from these principles describe the basic foundation for putting an end to the state of nature. The other twelve laws develop the first three further, and are more precise about what kind of contracts are necessary to establish and preserve peace.

Hobbes saw the responsibility of governments to be the protection of people from their own selfishness, and he thought the best government would have the power of a sea monster, or leviathan. He saw the king as a necessary figure of leadership and authority. He felt that democracy would never work because people are only motivated by self-interest. He saw humanity as being motivated by a constant desire for power, and to give power to the individual would result in a war of every one against the other that would make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

After returning to England in 1651, Hobbes had spent a couple of years in London, before retreating to the home of his former pupil the Earl of Devonshire. In 1654 Hobbes was surprised by an unauthorized publication of a tract entitled Of Liberty and Necessity, which he had written in response to an attack by the bishop Bramhall on Leviathan. Bramhall was enraged by Hobbes response, and Hobbes was prompted to write a further and more elaborate defense in The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, which was published in 1656. In 1655 Hobbes published De Corpore, the first part of his philosophical system. This work looks at the logical, mathematical and physical principles that create the foundation of his philosophy. The second part of his system, De Homine, was published in 1656.

In 1667 Leviathan was mentioned in a bill passed in the Commons against blasphemous literature. Although the bill did not pass both houses, Hobbes was scared into studying the law of heresy, and wrote a short treatise arguing that there was no court that might judge him. He was forbidden to publish on the topic of religion. Many of his works were kept from publication, however a Latin translation of Leviathan was published in Amsterdam in 1668. Around this time he also wrote Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Among the titles that remained unpublished during his lifetime are the tract on Heresy, and Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England. He continued to write, and he wrote his autobiography, in Latin verse, when he was eighty-four years old. In his final years he completed Latin translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in 1675 he left London for the last time to live with the Cavendish family in Derbyshire. Hobbes died at Hardwick on December 4, 1679.










This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008