The Life of Thomas Hobbes
by Miles H. Hodges


Thomas Hobbes called for an all-powerful sovereign (the "Leviathan") who would serve the interests of the larger political community (i.e. England) by holding it tightly together under his sovereign authority—in order to curb the kind of human wantonness experienced in the Wars of Religion. For Hobbes such powerful rule was not to be founded on the ancient rule of "divine rights" of monarchs—but on the basis of the needs, even rights, of the community to be served by such anall-powerful ruler. In justifying this utilitarian approach to state-building, he used "natural" theory or logic rather than scripture or tradition, putting forth the first efforts to establish a modern "political science." (His arguments were not greeted warmly by the English monarchy, which found "divine rights" as the foundation of its power much more to its liking!)



His Youth

Thomas Hobbes was born as the second son of the vicar of Westport and Charlton (Wiltshire) England in April of 1588—reportedly prematurely because of the stress created by the news of the approaching Spanish Armada. Hobbes later considered it a sign that he was born under: the burden of fear and the consequent passion for peace.

His father abandoned the family in Thomas' early youth and he was raised by a well-to-do uncle. Thomas began his schooling early in his life and entered Magdalen College, Oxford, at 15 years of age. However, he showed little interest in the more philosophical elements of his studies—though maps and charts held his attention.

Upon his graduation at age 19 he became connected to the Cavendish family, serving as private tutor to William Cavendish (later 2nd Earl of Devonshire)—a man not much younger than himself. A tour with William to the European continent opened up his philosophical horizons and he began to study the classics in earnest thereafter. He began to develop a growing interest in the movement of history—in the fates of nations and empires. In 1629 he published a translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War—motivated in part by his desire to send a warning to England about the dangers of democracy gone amiss, as happened in ancient Athens.

He Embraces Mathematics and Science

His friend William died (1628), but a couple of years later he was called back from Paris into service to the Cavendish family as tutor to his friend's son and namesake, William. He took his young charge to the continent in 1634—and along the way opened his own intellectual vista to include the study of mathematics and science. He took an interest in Euclid's Elements, in the clarity of the logic presented there, and became determined to come under a similar intellectual self-discipline.

He was also deeply influenced by the new assumptions arising within European scientific circles that the cause of all things was not some inherent urge of things to a particular self-realization or self-fulfillment (as per Aristotle), but was instead a transcending system of various principles of motion (as per the newly rising science of physics or mechanics). By the time of his third journey to the continent in 1636, when he met Galileo, he had become a devotee to the new science of mechanics.

He Begins to Formulate a Grand Theory of Behavior

From this new passion Hobbes undertook to write three works—all related to the application of the principles of mechanics or motion to all life. De corpore (published eventually in 1655) focused on the behavior of physical life—how it was guided or determined by these principles of motion. De homine (published eventually in 1658) focused on the actions or behavior of the human body and mind—and how this too was determined by these principles. And De cive (appearing in 1642) applied these principles to man's organized social life.

His Thoughts Turn to Political Matters

But his return from the continent in 1636 was disturbed by the growing disharmony in England over the question of the royal prerogative. Royalist and anti-royalist factions were forming, and Hobbes, ever the adversary of dissent, in 1640 put together a manuscript, The Elements of Law, Natural and Political, designed to demonstrate that the royal prerogative belonged by nature to the monarchy.

But this pleased neither faction in the dispute. Hobbes conceived of the royal prerogative as an evolved principle of governance arising from an ancient contractual transfer of power of popular or democratic society when democracy showed itself unable to govern properly. The royalists were not pleased at Hobbes' building a logical explanation of royal power on some kind of social contract theory arising from the consent of the people—for they claimed that royal power came solely and undisputedly from God. But the anti-Royalists were unhappy with his work because it built a strong argument for absolute royal power.

Hobbes, ever nervous about the movement of political events, decided that life would be safer for him in Paris, where he spent the next 11 years. He and Descartes parted ways over Hobbes' critique of Descartes' Meditations. Hobbes own works began to draw interest on the continent, especially De cive—which accorded monarchy absolute rights over the peace of the land, including even over issues of a religious nature.

When in 1646 the young expatriate English King Charles II fled to Paris, Hobbes was invited to become his instructor in mathematics. But deep involvement with other English expatriates turned Hobbes' thoughts more and more to political matters.


De cive soon underwent a second edition, and The Elements of Law finally went into published form in the next few years. But even more important was the publication in 1651 of his masterwork, Leviathan: or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil.

But the work did not have the effect Hobbes supposed it would. By this time the monarchy in England was ended and the country lived under the rule of Cromwell and his Parliamentary army. Leviathan was intended to make a powerful case for a restored monarchy—except that the logic or justification employed was again a utilitarian one: people should submit to royal authority because it has the unique power to protect the people from civil disorder. Again his work did not give any support whatsoever to the royalist argument concerning the divine rights of kings.

Worse, the work took on the arguments of both the Presbyterian and Papal factions which used scripture to undergird their claims. This further antagonized the Royalists, who were mostly fiercely Catholic and detested his attacks on their religious position (his similar attack on the Presbyterian position notwithstanding!)

Personal Controversy in England

Now Hobbes felt unsafe in Paris and returned to England—and submitted himself to the Cromwellian political system. He settled in London and joined some of the vibrant intellectual circles there. But unfortunately an old argument concerning human free will was brought back to life by one of Hobbes' admirers who decided to publish private correspondence between Hobbes and Bramhall, Bishop of Londonderry. Thus did Of Liberty and Necessity appear in print. This produced Bramhall's rebuttal, A Defence of True Liberty, which in turn led to Hobbes' answer in The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance.

Also, his attack in Leviathan on the academic credentials at Oxford brought a sharp rebuttal from several mathematics professors there, which then Hobbes answered in an appendix to a newly published English translation of De corpore. This debate degenerated into an attack by Hobbes on Robert Boyle and the group then in the process of forming the Royal Society—an institution dedicated to promoting empirical research, a stepping away from the deductive methods employed by Hobbes and the continental Rationalists. This debate got personal and public—in a number of publications that carried the argument back and forth, especially with his nemesis John Wallis. Wallis at one point even accused Hobbes of disloyalty to the king in his earlier wanderings back and forth between England and the continent (by this time the monarchy was restored in England and Charles now reigned as Charles II), so bitter did the debate become.

But Charles was still well-disposed to his former tutor—though many in the royalist ranks were not, especially over Hobbes' "atheism" demonstrated by his attacks on the church in his Leviathan. By the mid 1660s both the Great Fire of London and outbreaks of the plague in England stirred the superstitions of the day—and led the government to be vigilant in its ferreting out heresies that might be responsible for bringing the wrath of God on English society. Hobbes thus came under scrutiny for heresy.

Controversy to His Dying Days

Though the heresy furor eventually abated, Hobbes was barred from printing any more of his writings on social issues. Though Hobbes had promised his protector Charles II to not stir up further controversy, the publication in 1679 of Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England (probably written about 1668), put Hobbes in jeopardy.

His death that same year (1679—at age 90) was probably all that spared him from the wrath of the royalist party.


Hobbes was a rationalist, building his arguments on deductive design, at a time in which English science was moving more closely toward the empirical method of truth-building, that is, using inductive methods to validate hypotheses. He built strong metaphysical arguments in favor of a mechanics-based vision of life.


But he offered no empirical proof for his ideas—which was rapidly becoming the bottom line for scientific proof in England. Nonetheless, his ideas were so elegantly laid out that they provided a strong hypothetical foundation for subsequent research in this area—the kind that John Locke was soon to take up. Continental scholars, themselves still largely rationalist in bent, were less critical of his methodology. Indeed, Hobbes had a strong influence on Spinoza—though Spinoza took a much more secular approach than did Hobbes in his logical demonstrations (Hobbes inclined all things still to the will of God).


Biography ©2000 Miles H. Hodges. All Rights Reserved.
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Reproduced in Luminarium with express written permission.

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