Thomas Hobbes was born near Malmesbury, England, in 1588, the year that the Spanish Armada approached nearest to the English coast. He claimed that the threatened attack prompted his birth—“mother dear/ Did bring forth twins at once, both me and fear”—and moreover filled him with a lifelong hatred for England’s enemies and a corresponding love of peace and study. Hobbes spent his adult life alternating between Paris and London, avoiding as best he could the tumult of the “ill times”: the English Civil Wars and the prominence of radical political-religious groups, the beheading of Charles I, and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Continually embroiled in controversy, and sometimes threatened with prosecution and death, Hobbes remarkably survived to the exceptional age of 91.
Hobbes’s family was undistinguished; his father was the vicar of a small parish, but was forced to flee town after engaging in a fight in front of his own church. Hobbes’s education was financed by a wealthier uncle, Francis Hobbes, who arranged for private schooling and who underwrote Hobbes’s education at the University of Oxford (Magdalen Hall), beginning at age fourteen. Although Hobbes excelled at Greek and Latin as a young student, he left no mark at Oxford. Hobbes wrote that he spent much of his time there learning Aristotelian physics and logic, and that he afterward “dispensed” with these, to “prove things after [his] own sense.”
Shortly after taking his degree, Hobbes became engaged as a tutor to the Cavendish family, with whom he maintained a close connection for the rest of his life. Hobbes was first hired to serve as a tutor and companion to William Cavendish, later the Second Earl of Devonshire, and subsequently taught William’s son and grandson. In 1610, Hobbes and his first charge embarked on a grand tour of the continent, traveling primarily to France and Italy.
Hobbes remained with William for the next twenty years, later serving as his secretary and becoming a close friend and confidant. Hobbes published nothing during this time, although he was amply provided by the Cavendish family with leisure and a library, and used these to further his studies. He may have contributed three essays (on Tacitus, Rome, and law) to a 1620 work that William published anonymously, Horae Subsecivae (Leisure Hours). Shortly after William died, Hobbes published the first translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War into English (1628). During this period, Hobbes also worked occasionally for the Lord Chancellor and great scientist Francis Bacon, who highly valued him as a secretary, translator, and conversation partner.
After the death of his employer and friend, Hobbes was discharged with a pension. He traveled to Europe for eighteen months as a tutor to another young nobleman, Gervaise Clifton. While traveling in Geneva, Hobbes happened to see a book of Euclid lying open in a gentleman’s library, and was struck by the deductive method of proof Euclid employs, in which a conclusion that at first seems impossible becomes self-evident if one accepts the original definitions and follows each small step of the demonstration. Hobbes’s friend and biographer, John Aubrey, portrays this as a turning point in Hobbes’s thought. Hobbes often referred to Euclidian geometry as the model of true science, and characterized his moral and political works as following this method of deductive reasoning.
Eighteen months after leaving the Cavendish family, Hobbes was called back to serve as tutor for William’s son, whom he also took to Europe. At this point, Hobbes was working steadily on the elaboration of an argument that would deduce propositions concerning physical, psychological, and political subjects from basic principles of matter and motion, a project inspired by his desire to apply geometric methods to moral and political matters. While in Paris, Hobbes became close friends with the philosopher and astronomer Pierre Gassendi and engaged Rene Descartes in argument; in Florence, he talked with Galileo. He presented his developing thoughts on physics, optics, and psychology to Marin Mersenne, a friar whose salon was the hub of continental science and philosophy. Mersenne “prais’d and approv’d” Hobbes’s thoughts on these matters, and from then onward Hobbes “was reputed a philosopher.”
Hobbes returned to England in 1637 to find the country in a state of unrest. Charles I had antagonized Parliament by attempting to raise money without its consent and by holding High Anglican views on ecclesiastical matters (which some feared were inspired by his Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria). He refused to convene Parliament for nine years, but was forced to do so in 1640 to raise money to combat the rebellion of the Scots, who resented his attempts at religious reform. Parliamentary members took the opportunity, upon meeting, to present a set of grievances against Charles. Charles quickly dissolved the Parliament, but was forced to recall it several months later. These political contentions prompted Hobbes to write his first work of political philosophy, a short treatise entitled The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, which was privately circulated in 1640. A pirated version was published in 1650, in two parts: Human Nature and De Corpore Politico.
In The Elements of Law, Hobbes began to promulgate the view that reason (including political argument) should be reduced to instrumental thinking, figuring out means to given ends, rather than seeking to understand the ends themselves. This narrowing of the goals of reason allowed Hobbes to model his arguments concerning political subjects on a geometric, or deductive, method. Accordingly, he argued that sovereignty, by definition, requires that subjects renounce their rights to the sovereign power and yield to the sovereign’s decision about what is necessary for the polity. Since the members of Parliament in 1640 did not deny the king’s sovereignty, Hobbes argued, they could not deny him what he requested (taxes) without making an error in reason, like incompetent geometers. This argument, though only privately circulated, caused Hobbes to fear that he might be targeted by the Parliamentarians. He therefore decided to “shift for [him] self,” and in 1640 returned to Paris, where he lived until 1651.
Hobbes planned to write a set of treatises elaborating his materialistic approach to physics (the study of bodies in motion), psychology (the study of motion in the brain, or the passions), and political science (the study of the motions of individuals in a commonwealth). These were organized under the general title Elements of Philosophy, and eventually became the trilogy Of Body, Of Man, and Of the Citizen (first published in Latin as De Corpore, De Homine, and De Cive). These works were, however, written and published only slowly over the next eighteen years, in part because the continuing political upheavals in England provoked Hobbes to write the last volume, De Cive, first. This treatise was published in Latin in 1642, and earned Hobbes an international reputation. (It was translated in 1651, in a possibly unauthorized version, as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society.)
After finishing De Cive, Hobbes began writing the first volume of Elements of Politics, (De Corpore), but once again political events persuaded him to alter his intentions. During Hobbes’s self-imposed exile in Paris, civil war broke out in England. In 1646, Charles I was captured and imprisoned, and his son fled to Paris. From 1646 to 1648, Hobbes served occasionally as the mathematics tutor to the exiled Charles II. During this time, he put De Corpore aside to begin writing Leviathan, the first half of which connects his understanding of how reason and passion operate to his view of the proper, rational basis for political order. The second half of Leviathan is devoted to the definition of a Christian commonwealth and an exposé of the “darkness” that results from the promulgation of false religious ideas and philosophical concepts. However, by the time Leviathan was completed, in 1651, Charles I had been charged with treason and executed, and Charles II himself had made a failed attempt to restore the monarchy by force. Charles II made a narrow escape back to Paris in 1651, and Hobbes took the opportunity to present him with Leviathan. The book, however, angered many of the courtiers who had gone into exile with Charles, especially the Anglican bishops, and Hobbes was quickly barred from the court-in-exile.
The Leviathan earned Hobbes tremendous fame, but also further notoriety. He angered royalists by arguing that the sovereign rules not by divine right, but by consent, and by portraying the sovereign power as a convention. Hobbes’s secular and skeptical view also angered French Catholics, who attempted to arrest him in 1651. Hobbes once again feared for his life, and decided to return to England and submit himself to the Council of State overseeing the Commonwealth. He added a “Review and Conclusion” to Leviathan that considered the question of when a subject has the liberty to renounce his obligation to one sovereign and submit himself to another power, and which concluded that, since sovereignty is identical with the ability to protect, one has no obligation to a person who has ceased to provide this service.
Hobbes’s political allegiance has been the subject of much commentary. His ambiguous position seems to have depended in part on his attempt to accommodate himself to the shifting circumstances of his time, and in part to the rational, rather than partisan, character of his principles. As Hobbes explained in the dedicatory letter to Leviathan, he found himself in the middle of a fierce quarrel between those who “contend… for too great liberty” and those who argue “for too much authority,” and it was “hard to pass between the points of both unwounded.” It is remarkable that Hobbes managed to antagonize virtually every powerful party of his time, and yet live and work productively for so long. Ferdinand Toennies, in his classic biography of Hobbes, suggested that Hobbes accomplished this feat by being intentionally so obnoxious to all parties that none was willing to afford others the satisfaction of his death—or by offering such a powerful argument that none was willing to definitively distance his cause from it by too vigorous persecution.
During the nine years that Hobbes spent in London under the reign of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard, he tried to keep a low profile on political matters, and focused largely on mathematical questions. He succeeded in finishing De Corpore, which was published in 1655, and De Homine, which was completed in 1658. However, it proved difficult for Hobbes to keep out of controversy. His criticism of the English universities in Leviathan provoked a widely read response by Seth Ward, an Oxford Professor and Bishop of Salisbury. Ward defended the university curriculum and furthermore criticized Hobbes’s writings on optics, accusing him of plagiarizing Descartes. Another Oxford Professor, John Wallis, published a scathing critique of Hobbes’s claim to give proof that the circle can be “squared” in De Corpore, a critique that included an accusation of disloyalty and atheism. Hobbes responded to these attacks with “Six Lessons to the Professors of Mathematics” (appended to the 1656 English translation of De Corpore), and later with “Considerations upon the Reputation, Loyalty, Manners and Religion of Thomas Hobbes” (1662). Furthermore, earlier correspondence with the Anglican Bishop John Bramhall was published without authorization in 1654. The debate between Hobbes and Bramhall concerned determinism, free will, and divine punishment, and was published under the title “Of Liberty and Necessity.” Bramhall assumed that Hobbes betrayed his confidence and published an angry reply, to which Hobbes in turn responded with a piece entitled “The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance” (1656). Bramhall continued to pursue Hobbes with his book The Catching of the Leviathan (1658).
In 1659, conflicts between the English Army and Parliament led to the dissolution of Parliament, the resignation of Richard Cromwell, and a new Parliament, which recalled Charles II from France and restored him to the throne in 1660. Hobbes was then faced with defending his decision to return to England and submit to Cromwell. Hobbes’s friend John Aubrey, a famous biographer of the time, arranged a seemingly chance encounter that reconciled Charles II to Hobbes, and that resulted in Hobbes receiving a pension and free access to court. At court, Hobbes became known as “the bear” for the ease with which he was baited into argument by the ambitious men around Charles II. Charles II remained a protector of Hobbes, but did not allow him to publish Behemoth, his history of the English Civil War, or to reprint Leviathan.
Throughout the 1660s and 1670s, Hobbes continually fended off attacks by those who accused him of atheism, of denying objective moral values, and of promoting debauchery. “Hobbism” became, in the popular lexicon, synonymous with these reprehensible views. Some of these attacks were veiled jabs at the perceived libertinism of Charles II’s court, although some were more seriously directed at Hobbes himself. In the early 1660s, it was rumored that Anglican bishops were planning to try Hobbes for heresy, and, in 1666, a committee in the House of Commons threatened to investigate blasphemous books, “in particular… the Leviathan.” In response, Hobbes burnt many of his papers, and wrote a treatise on laws concerning heresy. He also published several defenses of his own conduct and beliefs, including an appendix to the Latin version of Leviathan (1668), and an autobiography in Latin verse (1679).
Hobbes was very active and productive throughout his later years, furthering his scientific and philosophical studies, keeping up correspondence with his friends and admirers throughout Europe, and responding to his many attackers. He had suffered from the “shaking palsy” since the mid-1660s and had to dictate most of his works. In October of 1679 he fell seriously ill and suffered a stroke in December of that year, which shortly thereafter resulted in his death. He was buried near Hardwick Hall, under a tombstone with an inscription purportedly written by himself: “He was a virtuous man, and for his reputation for learning, he was well known at home and abroad.” It is rumored that Hobbes had formerly proposed: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.”
For more detailed biographical information, see:
Noel Malcolm Aspects of Hobbes, Oxford: 2004.
For primary sources, from which the quotes in this essay are drawn, see the prefatory matter in Edwin Curley’s Leviathan, New York: 1994.