Thomas Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes. books and biography

Thomas Hobbes

Name: Thomas Hobbes
Birth: April 5, 1588 Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England
Death: December 4, 1679 Derbyshire, England
School/tradition: Social contract, realism
Main interests: Political philosophy, history, ethics, geometry
Notable ideas: modern founder of the social contract tradition; life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"
Influences: Plato, Aristotle, Tacitus, Grotius, Galileo, Thucydides
Influenced: All subsequent Western political philosophy
"Hobbes" redirects here. For other people called Hobbes, see Hobbes (disambiguation).

Thomas Hobbes (April 5, 1588–December 4, 1679) was an English philosopher, whose famous 1648 book Leviathan set the agenda for nearly all subsequent Western political philosophy.

Although Hobbes is today best remembered for his work on political philosophy, he contributed to a diverse array of fields, including history, geometry, theology, ethics, general philosophy and what would now be called political science. Additionally, Hobbes's account of human nature as self-interested cooperation has proved to be an enduring theory in the field of philosophical anthropology.


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Early life and education

Hobbes was born in Wiltshire, England on April 5, 1588 (some sources say Malmesbury[1]). His father, the vicar of Charlton and Westport, was forced to leave the town, abandoning his three children to the care of an older brother Francis. Hobbes was educated at Westport church from the age of four, passed to the Malmesbury school and then to a private school kept by a young man named Robert Latimer, a graduate from Oxford University. Hobbes was a good pupil, and around 1603 he was sent to Oxford and entered at Magdalen Hall (see Hertford College). The principal of Magdalen was the aggressive Puritan John Wilkinson, and he had some influence on Hobbes.

At university, Hobbes appears to have followed his own curriculum; he was "little attracted by the scholastic learning". He did not complete his degree until 1608, but he was recommended by Sir James Hussey, his master at Magdalen, 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.[1]

Hobbes became a companion to the younger William and they both took part in a grand tour in 1610. Hobbes was exposed to European scientific and critical methods during the tour in contrast to the scholastic philosophy which he had learned in Oxford. His scholarly efforts at the time were aimed at a careful study of classic Greek and Latin authors, the outcome of which was, in 1628, his great translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, the first translation of that work into English from a Greek manuscript. Hobbes believed that Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian War showed that democratic government could not survive war or provide stability and was thus undesirable.

Although he associated with literary figures like Ben Jonson and thinkers such as Francis Bacon, he did not extend his efforts into philosophy until after 1629. His employer Cavendish, then the Earl of Devonshire, died of the plague in June 1628. The widowed countess dismissed Hobbes but he soon found work, again as a tutor, this time to the son of Sir Gervase Clifton. This task, 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, awakening in him curiosity over key philosophic debates. He visited Florence in 1636 and later was a regular debater in philosophic groups in Paris, held together by Marin Mersenne. From 1637 he considered himself a philosopher and scholar.

In Paris

Hobbes's first area of study was an interest in the physical doctrine of motion. Despite his interest in this phenomenon, he disdained experimental work as in physics. He went on to conceive the system of thought to the elaboration of which he would devote his life. His scheme was first to work out, in a separate treatise, a systematic doctrine of body, showing how physical phenomena were universally explicable in terms of motion, at least as motion or mechanical action was then understood. He then singled out Man from the realm of Nature. Then, in another treatise, he showed what specific bodily motions were involved in the production of the peculiar phenomena of sensation, knowledge, affections and passions whereby Man came into relation with Man. Finally he considered, in his crowning treatise, how Men were moved to enter into society, and argued how this must be regulated if Men were not to fall back into "brutishness and misery". Thus he proposed to unite the separate phenomena of Body, Man and the State.

Hobbes came home, in 1637, to a country riven with discontent which disrupted him from the orderly execution of his philosophic plan. However, by the time of the Short Parliament he had written not only his Human Nature but also De corpore politico, which were published together ten years later as The Elements of Law. This means his initial political doctrine was not shaped by the English Civil War.

When in November 1640 the Long Parliament succeeded to the Short, Hobbes felt he was a marked man by the circulation of his treatise and fled to Paris. He did not return for eleven years. In Paris he rejoined the coterie about Mersenne, and wrote a critique of the Meditations on First Philosophy of Descartes, which was printed as third among the sets of "Objections" appended, with "Replies" from Descartes in 1641. A different set of remarks on other works by Descartes succeeded only in ending all correspondence between the two.

He also extended his own works somewhat, working on the third section, De Cive, which was finished in November 1641. Although it was initially only circulated privately, it was well received. He then returned to hard work on the first two sections of his work and published little except for a short treatise on optics (Tractatus opticus) included in the collection of scientific tracts published by Mersenne as Cogitata physico-mathematica in 1644. He built a good reputation in philosophic circles and in 1645 was chosen with Descartes, Gilles de Roberval and others, to referee the controversy between John Pell and Longomontanus over the problem of squaring the circle.

Civil war in England

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, and when the Royalist cause began to decline from the middle of 1644 there was an exodus of the king's supporters to Europe. Many came to Paris and were known to Hobbes. This revitalised Hobbes's political interests and the De Cive was republished and more widely distributed. The printing was begun in 1646 by Samuel de Sorbiere through the Elzevier press at Amsterdam with a new preface and some new notes in reply to objections.

In 1647, Hobbes was engaged as mathematical instructor to the young Charles, Prince of Wales, who had come over from Jersey around July. This engagement lasted until 1648 when Charles went to Holland.

The company of the exiled royalists led Hobbes to produce an English book to set forth his theory of civil government in relation to the political crisis resulting from the war. It was based on an unpublished treatise of 1640. The State, it now seemed to Hobbes, might be regarded as a great artificial man or monster (Leviathan), composed of men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions. The work was closed with a general "Review and Conclusion," in direct response to the war which raised the question of the subject's right to change allegiance when a former sovereign's power to protect was irrecoverably gone. Also he took advantage of the Commonwealth to indulge in rationalistic criticism of religious doctrines. The first public edition was titled Elementa philosophica de cive.

Frontispeice from De Cive (1642)
Frontispeice from De Cive (1642)

During the years of the composition of Leviathan he remained in or near Paris. In 1647 Hobbes was overtaken by a serious illness which disabled him for six months. On recovering from this near fatal disorder, he resumed his literary task, and carried it steadily forward to completion by the year 1650, having also translated his prior Latin work into English. In 1650, to prepare the way for his magnum opus, he allowed the publication of his earliest treatise, divided into two separate small volumes (Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policie, and De corpore politico, or the Elements of Law, Moral and Politick). In 1651 he published his translation of the De Cive under the title of Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. Meanwhile the printing of the greater work was proceeding, and finally it appeared about the middle of 1651, under the title of Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, with a famous title-page engraving in which, from behind hills overlooking a landscape, there towered the body (above the waist) of a crowned giant, made up of tiny figures of human beings and bearing sword and crozier in the two hands.

The work had immediate impact. Soon, Hobbes was more lauded and decried than any other thinker of his time. However, the first effect of its publication was to sever his link with the exiled royalists, forcing him to appeal to the revolutionary English government for protection. The exiles may very well have killed him; the secularist spirit of his book greatly angered both Anglicans and French Catholics. Hobbes fled back home, arriving in London in the winter of 1651. Following his submission to the council of state he was allowed to subside into private life in Fetter Lane.


Main article: Leviathan (book)
Frontispiece of Leviathan
Frontispiece of Leviathan

In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of societies and legitimate governments. This became one of the first scholarly works on Social contract theory. In the natural condition of mankind, while some men may be stronger or more intelligent than others, none is so strong and smart as to be beyond a fear of violent death. When threatened with death, man in his natural state cannot help but defend himself in any way possible. Self-defense against violent death is Hobbes' highest human necessity, and rights are borne of necessity. In the state of nature, then, each of us has a right, or license, to everything in the world. Due to the scarcity of things in the world, there is a constant, and rights-based, "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). Life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (xiii).

But war is not in man's best interest. According to Hobbes, man has a self-interested and materialistic desire to end war — "the passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them" (xiii, 14). He forms peaceful societies by entering into a social contract. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath an authority, to whom all individuals in that society covenant just enough of their natural right for the authority to be able to ensure internal peace and a common defense. This sovereign, whether monarchy, aristocracy or democracy (though Hobbes prefers monarchy), should be a Leviathan, an absolute authority. Law, for Hobbes, is the enforcement of contracts. The political theory of Leviathan varies little from that set out in two earlier works, The Elements of Law and De Cive (On The Citizen). (A minor aside: Hobbes almost never uses the phrase "state of nature" in his works.)

Hobbes's leviathan state is still authoritative in matters of aggression, one man waging war on another, or any matters pertaining to the cohesiveness of the state. It should say nothing about what any man does otherwise; so long as one man does no harm to any other, the sovereign should keep its hands off him (however, since there is no power above the sovereign, there is nothing to prevent the sovereign breaking this rule). In actuality, however, the extent to which this sovereign may exercise this authority is conditioned by the sovereign's obligations to natural law. Although the sovereign has no legislative obligations, it is more beneficial for him to abide by those laws which prescribe peace for security (the laws of nature.) Thus this conditions the authority of the sovereign with a prudential morality, or, more accurately, a moral obligation. A sovereign also maintains equality within the state, since the common people would be "washed out" in the glare of their sovereign; Hobbes compares this "washing out" of the common people in their sovereign's presence to the fading of the stars in the presence of the sun. In essence, Hobbes's political doctrine is "do no harm." His negative version of the Golden Rule, in chapter xiv, 35, reads: "Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself." This is contrasted with the Judeo-Christian golden rule, which encourages actively doing unto others: for Hobbes, that is a recipe for social chaos.

Leviathan was written during the English Civil War; much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

In Leviathan, Hobbes explicitly states that the sovereign has authority to assert power over matters of faith and doctrine, and that if he does not do so, he invites discord. Hobbes presents his own religious theory, but states that he would defer to the will of the sovereign (when that was re-established: again, Leviathan was written during the Civil War) as to whether his theory was acceptable. Tuck argues that it further marks Hobbes as a supporter of the religious policy of the post-Civil War English republic, Independency.


Main article: Hobbesian

The word "Hobbesian" is sometimes used in modern English to refer to a situation in which there is unrestrained, selfish, and uncivilised competition. This usage, now well-established, is misleading for two reasons: first, the Leviathan describes such a situation, but only in order to criticise it; second, Hobbes himself was timid and bookish in person. Other uses, popular immediately after Hobbes published, carry connotations of atheism and the belief that "might makes right."


With Bramhall

Hobbes now turned to complete the fundamental treatise of his philosophical system. He worked so steadily that De Corpore was first printed in 1654. Also 1654 a small treatise, Of Liberty and Necessity was published by Bishop John Bramhall addressed at Hobbes. Bramhall, a strong Arminian, had met and debated with Hobbes and afterwards wrote down his views and sent them privately to be answered in this form by Hobbes. Hobbes duly replied, but not for publication. But a French acquaintance took a copy of the reply and published it with "an extravagantly laudatory epistle". Bramhall countered in 1655, when he printed everything that had passed between them (under the title of A Defence of the True Liberty of Human Actions from Antecedent or Extrinsic Necessity). In 1656 Hobbes was ready with his Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance, in which he replied "with astonishing force" to the bishop. As perhaps the first clear exposition of the psychological doctrine of determinism, Hobbes's own two pieces were important in the history of the free-will controversy. The bishop returned to the charge in 1658 with Castigations of Mr Hobbes's Animadversions, and also included a bulky appendix entitled The Catching of Leviathan the Great Whale. Hobbes never took any notice of the Castigations.

With Wallis

Beyond the spat with Bramhall, Hobbes was caught in a series of conflicts from the time of publishing his De Corpore in 1655. In Leviathan he had assailed the system of the original universities. In 1654 Seth Ward (1617–1689), the Savilian professor of astronomy, replying in his Vindiciae academiarum to the assaults by Hobbes and others (especially John Webster) on the academic system. Errors in De Corpore, especially in the mathematical sections, opened Hobbes to criticism from John Wallis, Savilian professor of geometry. Wallis's Elenchus geomeiriae Hobbianae, published in 1655 contained an elaborate criticism of Hobbes's whole attempt to put the foundations of mathematical science in its place within the general body of reasoned knowledge—a criticism which exposed the utter inadequacy of Hobbes's mathematics. Hobbes's lack of rigour meant that he spent himself in vain attempts to solve the impossible problems that often waylaid self-sufficient beginners, his interest was limited to geometry and he never had any notion of the full scope of mathematical science. He was unable to work out with any consistency the few original thoughts he had, and thus was an easy target. Hobbes took care to remove some of the worst mistakes exposed by Wallis, before allowing an English translation of the De Corpore to appear in 1656. But he still attacked Wallis in a series of Six Lessons to the Professors of Mathematics in 1656.

Wallis had an easy task in defending himself against Hobbes's criticism, and he seized the opportunity given him by the English translation of the De Corpore to re-confront Hobbes with his mathematical inconsistencies. Hobbes responded with Marks of the Absurd Geometry, Rural Language, Scottish Church Politics, and Barbarisms of John Wallis, Professor of Geometry and Doctor of Divinity. The thrusts were easily parried by Wallis in a reply (Hobbiani puncti dispunctio, 1657). Hobbes finally took refuge in silence and there was peace for a time.

Hobbes published, in 1658, the final section of his philosophical system, completing the scheme he had planned more than twenty years before. De Homine consisted for the most part of an elaborate theory of vision, whose fundamental importance in relation to his political philosophy has often been overlooked. The remainder of the treatise dealt cursorily with some of the topics more fully treated in the Human Nature and the Leviathan.

Wallis had meanwhile published other works and especially a comprehensive treatise on the general principles of calculus (Mathesis universatis, 1657). Hobbes, now with time on his hands, took it upon himself to re-spark their clash. He decided once more to attack the new methods of mathematical analysis and by the spring of 1660, he had managed to put his criticism and assertions into five dialogues under the title Examinatio et emendatio mathematicae hodiernae qualis explicatur in libris Johannis Wallisii, with a sixth dialogue so called, consisting almost entirely of seventy or more propositions on the circle and cycloid. Wallis, however, would not take the bait. Hobbes then tried another tack having solved, as he thought, another ancient problem, the duplication of the cube. He had his solution brought out anonymously in French, so as to put his critics off the scent. No sooner had Wallis publicly refuted the solution than Hobbes claimed the credit of it, and went more astray than ever in its defence. He republished it (in modified form), with his remarks, at the end of a 1661 Latin dialogue which he had written in defence of his philosophical doctrine. The Dialogus physicus, sive De natura aeris attacked Robert Boyle and other friends of Wallis who were forming themselves into a society (incorporated as the Royal Society in 1662) for experimental research. Hobbes saw this as a direct contravention of the method of physical inquiry enjoined in the De Corpore. The careful experiments recorded in Boyle's New Experiments touching the Spring of the Air (1660), which Hobbes chose to take as the manifesto of the new "academicians," seemed to him only to confirm the conclusions he had reasoned out years before from speculative principles, and he warned them that if they were not content to begin where he had left off their work would come to naught. To this ill-conceived diatribe Boyle quickly replied with force and dignity, but it was from Wallis that true retribution came, in the scathing satire Hobbius heauton-timorumenos (1662). Hobbes seems to have been "fairly bewildered by the rush and whirl of sarcasm" and wisely kept aloof from scientific controversy for some years.

However, in response to the more personal attacks Hobbes wrote a letter about himself in the third person, Considerations upon the Reputation, Loyalty, Manners and Religion of Thomas Hobbes. In this biographical piece, he told his own and Wallis's "little stories during the time of the late rebellion" with such effect that Wallis did not attempt a reply.

With geometers

After a time Hobbes began a third period of controversial activity, which he dragged out until his ninetieth year. The first piece, published in 1666, De principiis et ratiocinatione geometrarum, was an attack on geometrical professors. Three years later he brought his three mathematical achievements together in Quadratura circuli, Cubatio sphaerae, Duplicitio cubii, and as soon as they were once more refuted by Wallis, reprinted them with an answer to the objections. Wallis, who had promised to leave him alone, refuted him again before the year was out. The exchange dragged on through numerous other papers until 1678.

Later life

In addition to publishing some ill-founded and controversial writings on mathematics and physics, Hobbes also continued to produce and publish philosophical works. From the time of the Restoration he acquired a new prominence; "Hobbism" became a fashionable creed which it was the duty of "every lover of true morality and religion" to denounce. The young king, Hobbes's former pupil, now Charles II, remembered Hobbes and called him to the court to grant him a pension of 100.

The king was important in protecting Hobbes when, in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness. On October 17 of that year, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred "should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness... in particular... the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan." (House of Commons Journal Volume 8. British History Online. Retrieved on January 14, 2005.) Hobbes was terrified at the prospect of being labelled a heretic, and proceeded to burn some of his compromising papers. At the same time, he examined the actual state of the law of heresy. The results of his investigation were first announced in three short Dialogues added as an Appendix to his Latin translation of Leviathan, published at Amsterdam in 1668. In this appendix, Hobbes aimed to show that, since the High Court of Commission had been put down, there remained no court of heresy at all to which he was amenable, and that nothing could be heresy except opposing the Nicene Creed, which, he maintained, Leviathan did not do.

The only consequence that came of the bill was that Hobbes could never thereafter publish anything in England on subjects relating to human conduct. The 1668 edition of his works was printed in Amsterdam because he could not obtain the censor's licence for its publication in England. Other writings were not made public until after his death, including Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England and of the Counsels and Artifices by which they were carried on from the year 1640 to the year 1662. For some time, Hobbes was not even allowed to respond, whatever his enemies tried. Despite this, his reputation abroad was formidable, and noble or learned foreigners who came to England never forgot to pay their respects to the old philosopher.

His final works were a curious mixture: an autobiography in Latin verse in 1672, and a translation of four books of the Odyssey into "rugged" English rhymes that in 1673 led to a complete translation of both Iliad and Odyssey in 1675.

In October 1679, Hobbes suffered a bladder disorder, which was followed by a paralytic stroke from which he died in his ninety-second year. He was buried in the churchyard of Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire, England.

Selected bibliography

  • 1629. Translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War
  • 1650. The Elements of Law, Natural and Political, written in 1640 and comprising
    • Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policie
    • De Corpore Politico
  • 1651-8. Elementa philosophica
    • 1642. De Cive (Latin)
    • 1651. Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society (English translation of De Cive)
    • 1655. De Corpore (Latin)
    • 1656. De Corpore (English translation)
    • 1658. De Homine (Latin)
  • 1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Online.
  • 1656. Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance
  • 1668. Latin translation of the Leviathan
  • 1675. English translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
  • 1681. Posthumously Behemoth, or The Long Parliament (written in 1668, unpublished at the request of the King).

Hobbes in popular culture

  • Hobbes, the tiger in Bill Watterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, who often makes remarks on human nature, was named after Thomas Hobbes, while his companion Calvin was named after the Reformation theologian John Calvin.



  • Macpherson, C. B. (1962). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Strauss, Leo (1936). The Political Philosophy of Hobbes; Its Basis and Its Genesis. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Strauss, Leo (1959). "On the Basis of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," in What Is Political Philosophy?, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, chap. 7.
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.


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