Thomas Hobbes


Thomas Hobbes (born 5 April 1588died 4 December 1679) was an English philosopher, whose famous 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory.

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

Early life and education

Thomas Hobbes was born in Wiltshire, England on 5 April 1588 (some sources say Malmesbury). Born prematurely on April 5, 1588, when his mother heard of the coming invasion of the Spanish Armada, Thomas Hobbes later reported that "my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear." His childhood is almost a complete blank, and his mother's name is unknown His father, also Thomas, the vicar of Charlton and Westport, abandoned his three children to the care of an older brother (Thomas junior's uncle), Francis, when forced to flee to London after being involved in a fight with a clergyman outside his own church. 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 of Oxford University. Hobbes was a good pupil, and around 1603 he went up to Magdalen Hall, which is most closely related to Hertford College, Oxford The principal was a puritan called 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 B.A. 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.

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' History of the Peloponnesian War, the first translation of that work into English from a Greek manuscript.

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 and physical momentum. 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 and plants. 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.

Hobbes 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, and included lines of argumentation to be repeated a decade later in the Leviathan. 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.

The Civil War in England

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, and when the Royalist cause began to decline in 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 Elsevier 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 criticized religious doctrines on rationalistic grounds in the Commonwealth. The first public edition was titled Elementa philosophica de cive.

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 Philosophicall 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, Forme, and Power of a Common Wealth, Ecclesiasticall 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 might 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.


In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments - based on social contract theories. 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.

Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This inevitably leads to conflict, a "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes), and thus lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (xiii).

To escape this state of war, men in the state of nature accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.


John 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 in 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 The 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.

John 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, particularly 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's. 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.


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 geometry 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. That same year, on 17 October 1666, 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". 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 on 4 December 1679. He is said to have uttered the last words "A great leap in the dark" in his final moments of life. He was interred within St. John the Baptist Church in Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire, England.

Selected bibliography

In popular culture



  • Macpherson, C. B. (1962). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • 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, IL: The Free Press, chap. 7.
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand (1925). Hobbes. Leben und Lehre, Stuttgart: Frommann, 3rd ed.
  • Shapin, Steven and Shaffer, Simon (1995). Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Malcolm, Noel. 2002. Aspects of Hobbes. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Skinner, Quentin. 1996. Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes's. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • World History: The Living Legend. (2004) Changes Throughout Modern Philosophy. Pearson & Hall.
  • Malcolm, Noel. 2007. Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes. Oxford University Press.


Further reading

  • A. P. Martinich, "Thomas Hobbes," The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 281: British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, Second Series, Detroit: Gale, 2003, pp. 130-144.
  • A. P. Martinch, A Hobbes Dictionary, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
  • A. P. Martinch, Thomas Hobbes, New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
  • A. P. Martinch, The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • A. P. Martinch, Hobbes: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • A. P. Martinich, trans., Computatio sive Logica: Part One of De Corpore, New York: Abaris, 1981.
  • A. P. Martinich, ed., Leviathan, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002.

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