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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas

(b Malmesbury, England, 5 April 1588; d. Hardwick, Derbyshire, England, 4 December 1679)

political philosophy, moral philosophy, geometry, optics.

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and one of England’s most penetrating philosophers, was born into an impoverished family in Wiltshire. His father, for whom he was named, was vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Westport. His mother came of a yeoman family named Middleton. According to John Aubrey, the elder Thomas Hobbes was a semiliterate man: “One of the Clergie of Queen Elizabeth’s time, a little learning went a great way with him and many other ignorant Sir Johns in those days.”1 We know at least that he was not a discreet individual; after a night of card playing he fell asleep in his church and was heard to utter, “Clubs is trumps.” Later a more serious indiscretion caused an upheaval in the family; its effect on the child Thomas can only be guessed. Standing in front of his church, the father quarreled with a fellow parson, struck him, and was obliged in consequence to flee from Malmesbury, never to return. Thus, before he reached the age of seven, Thomas Hobbes was deprived of the society of his father; and salt was rubbed in the wound when the man his father had struck became the new vicar.

The care of the Hobbes family passed to an uncle, Francis Hobbes, a glover and an intelligent man who recognized signs of precocity in his nephew and underwrote the cost of his education. When he was seven, Hobbes was sent to school at the house of Richard Latimer, described by Aubrey as “a good Grecian.” He was given a solid grounding in Latin and Greek; and at age fourteen he matriculated at Magdalen Hall (later called Hertford College), Oxford, where, however, he chafed under the restrictions of a scholastic curriculum. He preferred to “prove things after my own sense,”2 and he read deeply in areas not prescribed by his tutors. Astronomy and geography were his favorite subjects at this time.

In 1608 Hobbes, now bachelor of arts, was recommended by the principal of his college to be tutor to the son of William Cavendish, Baron Hardwicke, who later became the second earl of Devonshire. The significance of Hobbes’s appointment to the Cavendish household cannot be exaggerated. The young graduate was introduced to a cultured, aristocratic world. Although his duties at first were almost menial, he was able with the passage of time to mingle with his master’s guests on terms of some intimacy. In this way he came to know Ben Jonson, Lord Falkland, Sir Robert Ayton, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and, some time later, the poet Edmund Waller, who became a particular friend. Moreover, in Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, the great houses of the Cavendish family, Hobbes had at his disposal an excellent library in which, he said, he found the university he had missed at Oxford.

To a second branch of the Cavendish family residing at Welbeck Abbey, Hobbes owed the awakening of his interest in natural science. Sir Charles Cavendish was a skilled mathematician; and his more famous brother William, duke of Newcastle, was a scientific amateur who maintained a private laboratory and whose scientific speculations issued in such odd conclusions as that the sun is “nothing else but a very solid body of salt and sulphur, inflamed by its own motion upon its own axis,”3 Both men accepted Hobbes as a friend; and Newcastle, who had a passion for horses as well as a curiosity about optics and geometry, persuaded Hobbes to combine these interests in a curious treatise entitled “Considerations Touching the Facility or Difficulty of the Motions of a Horse on Straight Lines, or Circular, a work printed from manuscript in 1903 as described by its editor as “an irrelevant superfluity of reasoning” such as was produced by “the tailor in Gulliver’s Travel who measures his men with the help of a sextant and other mathematical instrumental.”4 It was on Newcastle’s behalf that Hobbes searched the London bookshops in vain for a copy of Galileo’s Dialogues.

In 1610 Hobbes set out on a grand tour of the Continent with his pupil. It was the year of the assassination of Henry IV of France, an event which impressed itself on Hobbes’s mind as an extreme example of the chaos that follows from the abolition of sovereignty. On this first tour, through France, Germany, and Italy, Hobbes perfected his knowledge of foreign tongues and resolved, on his return, to become a scholar. In the library at Chatsworth he immersed himself in classical studies and in 1628–1629 published a brilliant translation of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.

For a brief period before the Thucydides was published, Hobbes served as secretary to Francis Bacon, to whom he had been introduced by the younger Cavendish, one of Bacon’s friends. Bacon had by this time been deposed as lord chancellor and was living in retirement at Gorhambury, where Hobbes accompanied him on his “delious walkes” and where he acted as amanuensis and editorial assistant in the Latin translation of several of Bacon’s Essaies. The connection between these two personalities is inherently interesting, but it should not be read as evidence of a Baconian influence on Hobbes’s thought. Although they held some points in common, the two philosophers had worked out their ideas independently and essentially along different lines.

In June of 1628 Hobbes’s master and friend, the second earl of Devonshire, died. Hobbes accepted a new appointment as tutor and cicerone to the son of Sir Gervase Clinton of Nottinghamshire, with whom he embarked, in 1629, on a second tour of Europe, to Paris, Orléans, Geneva, and Venice. It was in a library in Gevene that he first read Euclid; he was ever afterward enamored of geometry.5 In particular, as Aubrey reports, he was attracted to the propositional character of geometry; it was a form of reasoning that fit in well with the conception of “truth” he was later to develop: that “truth” is the product of an analutical process in which definitions are placed in their proper order.

By November of 1630 Hobbes was recalled to the Cavendish family to serve as tutor in Latin and rhetoric to the next earl of Devonshire. With this young man, Hobbes, now in his forties, made his third grand tour of the Continent, the one which had the most important consequences for the development of his interest in natural science. That Interests had not oreviously been dormant, since as Hobbes himself tells us, he had formulated a theory of light and sound as early as 1630;6 a short manuscript tract giving a theory of sense and appetite is assigned by Dr. Frithi of Brandt to 1630. But on the third journey—to France and Italy—Hobbes made personal contact with scientific minds. In Arcetri, near Florence, he visited Galileo, whom he ever afterward held in veneration as “the first that opened to us the gate of natural philosophy universal” and in Paris he met Marin Mersenne, the Franciscan monk in whose cell informal scientific meetings, attended by some of the best scientists of the age, took place. He also met Gassendi and Roberval; he read Descartes; and everywhere he went, he meditated on the problems of motion, which he conceived to be the principle by which a wholly material universe is to be understood.

Hobbes’s deepest scientific interest was in optics. Probably this interest was awakened in him by his contact with the Cavendish circle, especially with Charles Cavendish, Walter Warner, and John Pell. A large part of the short tract of 1630 on sensation and appetite was devoted to optics; in that early work Hobbes adopted an emission or “corpuscular” theory of light, according to which there is a movement of particles of matter from the luminous source to the eye. But a letter of 1636 to William Cavendish shows that Hobbes had by this time abandoned the emission theory in favor of a mediumistic theory—light is propagated by a motion or pressure of the medium intervening between the source and the eye—and a letter of May 1640 shows that he developed the idea of the expansion and contraction of the medium as a way of accounting for the motion of the light and of the medium. He later rejected the idea of expansion and contraction because it demanded the presence of a vacuum, and a vacuum was precluded by the doctrine of plenitude in which Hobbes had come to believe.

The subtlest part of Hobbes’s theory of light is his definition of a ray as “the path through which the motion from the luminous body is propagated through the medium.” 7 He conceived of the propagated line of light as always normal to the sides of the ray; hence it may be thought of as a “ray front,” on the analogy of a wave front. 8 What distinguishes Hobbes’s conception of the ray from earlier conceptions— from that, for instance, of Descartes, who shows in his criticism of Hobbes that he entirely miscomprehended Hobbes’s theory—is that for Hobbes the ray has infinitesimal elements. He accepted that light has physical dimensions but he argued that the significant feature of light, from a mathematical point of view, is its impulse or endeavor to motion; and this impulse is to be understood as the motion of infinitesimal elements. By taking this infinitesimal approach, by arguing that “we consider the width of the ray smaller than any given magnitude,” 9 Hobbes made the important transition from physical rays to mathematical rays. He himself perceived only gradually that he had introduced a new concept; but when he recognized that a shift had taken place, he abandoned the term “ray” (radius) and adopted the new term “radiation” (radiatio).10

These views were expressed in three manuscript treatises by Hobbes, one in English and two in Latin. The first of the Latin treatises, “Tractatus opticus,” was communicated to Mersenne, who published it as book VII of the “Optics” in his Universae geometriae (Paris, 1644).11 Mersenne had also published an optical treatise by Walter Warner which Hobbes had given him in Paris, and in 1641 he had published the Objectiones ad Cartesii Meditationes, the third “objection” of which was by Hobbes. When he returned to Chatsworth in 1637, after his third journey abroad, Hobbes continued to correspond with Mersenne on questions of physics and optics. He was now forty-nine: time, he thought, to put his ideas in order. He therefore formulated the outline of a large philo-sophical system, to be composed of three parts— body, man, and citizenship—and to be described in that order, since for Hobbes body or matter is the ultimate constituent of all things, including human society. Hobbes’s early scientific manuscripts may be considered as preparation for De corpore, his formal account of the first principles of science, which he intended to put first in his system but which the pressure of events forced him to lay aside and not publish until 1655.

In the late 1630’s political passions in England were boiling. Hobbes’s inclinations were royalist, but he appears mainly to have been concerned by the imminent breakdown of civil order. In 1640, while Parliament and king were locked in political combat but before the outbreak of military hostilities in the Civil War, Hobbes considered it prudent for his safety to return to France. He did so and remained there for eleven years, part of that time with the duke of Newcastle in Paris. In Paris, Hobbes renewed his scientific contacts and almost immediately corresponded with Descartes about questions raised by the latter’s Méditations and Dioptriques. Relations between these two proud thinkers were strained because neither was willing to concede any originality in the thought of the other.

The impulse to say something to his countrymen about politics in the hour of their travail deflected Hobbes’s scientific preoccupations. In the spring of 1640, while still in England, he wrote a short treatise on politics which circulated widely in manuscript and was published in 1650 in two parts under the titles Humane Nature and De corpore politico, or the Elements of Law. In Paris he wrote De cive, published in 1642, a book which enjoyed international success. But De cive was written in Latin; and although it was separately translated into French by Samuel Sorbiëre and du Verdus, two of Hobbes’s friends, it remained inaccessible to the general English reader. Hobbes therefore set to work on an English treatise, Leviathan, published in 1651. This work is justly celebrated for the brilliance, breadth, and coherence of its philosophical vision and for its concise, vigorous, and eloquent prose style.

The outlook of Leviathan is nominalist, materialist, and anticlerical. Hobbes believed that the universe is a great continuum of matter. It was created and set in motion by God, who is himself a material being, since the universe is utterly devoid of spirit. of God’s other attributes virtually nothing can be known. Our knowledge of the external world is derived, either directly or ultimately, from our sense impressions; and since sensory knowledge is the only knowledge we can ever have, we have no grounds for believing in the independent existence of universals or absolute ideas, or classes of things as separate entitiles. Human language consists of manes of things and names of names, all joined by predicates. Names of names. or universals, must not be confused with names of things; universals exist in the mind and things exist in the external world; but universals are not therefore to be despised, because, being rooted in language, they play their part in the reasoning process. “Truth” for Hobbes is analytic, a product of the correct reasoning about names.

Hobbes was uncompromising in the application of his nominalist priciples to ethics. He argued that ethical judgments are products of human thought and culture. “For these words of good, evil and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.” The same kind of analysis was given to the notion of justice, which Hobbes believed to have no independent or absolute existence. In Hobbes’s view, jusitice is a function of postivie law, and all law is essentially positive law. “Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” Justice and injustice “are qualities that relate to men in society, not solitude,” and they draw their meaning from the declared intentions and enforcements of the civil magistrate.

Such a doctrine of ethical relativism and legal positivism was profoundly offensive to orthodox opinion in the seventeenth century; in particular, it ran counter to traditional conceptions of natural law, which were conceived of as laws of eternal and immutable morality, antecedent to positive civil law, originating, as Richard Hooker had put it, “in the bosom of God.” Modern scholars disagree about the meaning of Hobbes’s natural law doctrine. Some commentators, such as A. E. Taylor and Howard Warrender, argue that certain obligations of the citizen and all the obligations of the sovereign to his subjects are, according to Hobbes, grounded in a natural law antecedent to civil law; on the other hand, Michael Oakeshott believes that all those prerogatives of the citizen which are immune to sovereign authority, such as the citizen’s right of self preservation, and the obligations of the sovereign himself, are rational, not moral, obligations. In this view natural law is prudential. Whichever view is correct, there can be no doubt that Hobbes cast his natural law doctrine in a secular mold.

In the same secular spirit Hobbes developed his ideas of human nature. Man is a part of material nature, so his behavior, including the behavior of his mind, can ultimately be understood by reference to physical laws. Viewed from a shorter perspective, human behavoir is seen by Hobbes to be grounded in self-interest, especially in the fundamental desire to survive. Hobbes did not argue that human nature was an entity separate from human culture, but he asked his readers to imagine what life would be like in the readers to imagine what life would be like in the absence of culture—in the absence, that is, of social conventions and civil restraint. This is Hobbes’s famous hypothetical picture of the “state of nature.” Men in this condition are rapacious and predatory; and since they are equal in the things they want and equal in their capacities to satisfy their desires, they live in a state of continuous warfare or, at the very least, in a condition of fear, their lives being then “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The grimness of this picture is relieved for the modern reader by his discovery that Hobbes believed very strongly in the dotrine of human equality; and although Hobbes chose not to develop the democratic implications of this doctrine, his sense of human equality is wholly at variance with the precepts and practices of the modern totalitarian state.

What Hobbes feared more than the tyranny of a sovereign was anarchy, and so he constructed a model of the state in which he thought anarchy would be impossible. Moved by their fears and passions, and instructed by their reason, men would come to realize that they can be delivered from the state of nature only by the generation of a stable commonwealth. The process by which the state comes into being was not intended by Hobbes to be construed historically; in general he significance and utility of the “laws of nature” —or some twenty theorems of conduct conducive to peace which Hobbes enumerated, and which he said are summed up in the golden rule. But at this stage these theorems of peace are merely comprehended; what is required is the power to enforce them, and this power resides only in a commonwealth—and then only in its “soul,” the sovereign, who must rule with absolute sway.

To achieve this condition of enforceable peace, men will make a sort of contract among themselves (but not between themselves and the sovereign) to transfer their individual powers to a central sovereign authority. Hobbes did not insist that the sovereign be a single individual; although he favored monarchy, he thought that a body of men, a parliament, or even a king and parliament working in concert could achieve the same results. The main point was that the power of the sovereign be absolute, for the slightest diminution of his power would erode the security of the citizens; and it was for their security from each other that the sovereign was brought into being. Hobbes reserves to the citizens the right of rebellion if the sovereign fails to protect their security, but he treats this question warily.

The argument of Leviathan does not end with these views; fully one-third of the book examines the implications of Hobbes’s political philosophy in a Christian society. Hobbes recognized that a seventeenth-century audience would demand to know whether his principles conformed to the teaching of Scripture. He himself knew the Bible well, and he was able to find passages in it supporting his doctrine of absolute sovereignty; but other passages were inconvenient and there remained the question, Particularly vexing in an age of religious warfare, of which of several interpretations of Scripture was the correct one. Ultimately, said Hobbes, all Scripture is subject to interpretation, there being nothing about it except its existence that is agreeable to all minds. His solution to the problem of conflicting interpretation was both political and philosophical. On the political side he adopted the ultra-Erastian position that the only interpretation of Scripture that may be publicly espoused by citizens in a commonwealth is the interpretation of the sovereign authority. The natural right which citizens, by agreement among themselves, had transferred to the sovereign included the natural right of scriptural interpretation; should they retain that right, the commonwealth would inevitably lapse into a state of nature.

Moreover, Hobbes remained philosophically skeptical about the truth of Scripture. He conceded that a core of mystery in Scripture must be accepted on faith; but the greater part of the Bible is immune to human reason. His skepticism took the form of a surprisingly modern biblical criticism in which he anticipated Richard Simon and Spinoza by calling in question the number, scope, authorship, and general authenticity of the books of the Bible.

The relationship between Hobbes’s scientific ideas and outlook on the one hand and his political philosophy on the other is hard to define. The question has provoked disagreement among Hobbes’s commentators. Croom Robertson thought that the whole of Hobbes’s political doctrine “had its main lines fixed when he was still a mere observer of men and manners, and not yet a mechanical philosopher.” Leo Strauss accepts this view, but he believes that Hobbes had cast his mature political philosophy into an alien scientific mold, which resulted in a distortion of the politics but not in any significant change of its essentially prescientific, humanistic character.

Clearly Hobbes’s materialism and physics do not imply his political theory in any simple linear connection; but, as was pointed out by J. W. N. Watkins, the science implies the civil philosophy in the same way, for example, that the law of evidence has important implications for statements made by witnesses in law courts, although the law of evidence does not entail any of those statements. Watkins’ treatment of this whole question is illuminating. He has shown how Hobbes came to abandon his earliest political views, set down in the introduction to his Thucydides. Those views were “inductivist”; they advocated the study of history as a guide to rational conduct. Under the shaping influence of the new scientific outlook, however, Hobbes adopted the method called resolutive-compositive, which he derived partly from Galileo, partly from Harvey, but primarily from the philosophers and scientists of the school of Padua. (Hobbes was personally acquainted with a disciple of this school, Berigardus, author of Circulus Pisanus.) The method is described by Hobbes in De corpore. It has a large Aristotelian component. Put in its simplest form, it consists of resolving whole conceptions into their constituent parts or first principles and then recomposing them. It can be seen that this method is not an instrument of discovery in any modern sense of the idea of “science”; it appears to have more usefulness in social enquiries. Hobbes assimilated it into his political theory—as in the striking example of the break-up of society into its constituent parts called the state of nature and its recomposition into a common-wealth.

Not unexpectedly, Hobbes’s views in Leviathan, taken altogether, raised a storm of opposition. He was embroiled in controversy for the rest of his life—more, in fact, than any English thinker before or since. The first signs of opposition appeared in France before Leviathan was published. On the recommendation of Newcastle, Hobbes was appointed tutor in mathematics to the prince of Wales, the future Charles II. Because of fears expressed by clergymen that the prince would be contaminated with atheism, Hobbes was obliged to promise that he would teach mathematics only, and not politics or religion. And when Leviathan was published, no one of the English court in France liked it. Although it was absolutist, it expressed no particular bias in favor of monarchy; and it appeared to favor the Puritan regime in England when it insisted that a citizen submit to any government that can secure internal peace. Moreover, its anticlericalism and attacks on the papacy offended French Jesuits and English Catholics. For these reasons Charles ordered Hobbes to leave the English colony in France, and in 1652 the philosopher returned to England.

He stayed in London for a year and then retired to Chatsworth, where the Cavendish family treated him with affection and even a certain deference, as befitted a philosopher of international renown. But the shock inflicted by Leviathan on clerical and lay opinion produced a rising tide of hostile criticism, some of it intelligent and philosophical but much of it in the form of abuse.12 Hobbes was pronounced atheist, heretic, and libertine. He was the “Monster of Malmesbury,” “a pander to bestiality” whose “doctrines have had so great a share of the debauchery of his Generation, that a good Christian can hardly hear his name without saying of his prayers.”13 It is true that Hobbes had his admires and defenders, both on the Continent and in England, including such perceptive opponents as Samuel von Pufendorf and James Harrington, who understood that De cive and Leviathan were works to be reckoned with; but the clergy of all persuasions, as well as the common lawyers and university dons, united in their opposition to Hobbes. Indeed, his doctrines were cited by the House of Commons as a probable cause of the Great Fire of 1666.

Part of Hobbes’s difficulties can be traced to a controversy between himself and John Bramhall, bishop of Derry (Londonderry) and later archbishop of Armagh. The two had met in 1645 at Paris, where they debated the subject of free will. Bramhall committed his ideas to paper; Hobbes wrote a rejoinder. Both agreed not to publish what they had written, but Hobbes’s side of the question was put into print without his permission in a little treatise called Of Liberty and Necessity (1654). Bramhall, outraged by what he considered to be Hobbes’s discourtesy in ignoring his side, published in 1655 all that had passed between them. Thus was launched a controversy which continued until Hobbes had the last word with the posthumous publication of An Answer to a Book by Dr Bramhall Called The Catching of the Leviathan (1682). Hobbes’s views were strictly determinist. A man, he said, is “free” to do anything he desires if there are no obstacles in his way; but his desire to do anything has necessary and material causes. To Bramhall this doctrine was the essence of impiety; it would deny any meaning to rewards for good actions or punishments for evil ones, thus over turning the whole apparatus of religious worship. For his part Hobbes admitted that piety might not be promoted by his doctrine, but “truth is truth” and he would not be silent.

Hobbes was not molested personally during this last period of his life because he enjoyed the protection of Charles II, although he was deeply alarmed when, sometime in the 1660’s, a committee of bishops in the House of Lords moved that he be burned for heresy. He wrote, but did not publish, a short treatise in the form of a legal brief showing that the law of heresy had been repealed in the time of Elizabeth and had never been revived, so that there could be no legal grounds for executing him.14 Nothing came of the episcopal agitation; but the king refused to license a history in English by Hobbes of the Long Parliament, published posthumously as Behemoth, and the crown prohibited Hobbes from publishing any other works in English on the subject of politics or religion. Not included in this ban was the Latin translation of Leviathan, made by Henry Stubbe and first published at Amsterdam in 1668 and at London in 1678.

A second controversy, even more absorbing of Hobbes’s energy than his debate with Bramhall, was his dispute with John Wallis on questions of geometry. Wallis was a vastly superior mathematician who made important contributions to the development of the calculus. But he was an acrimonious, coarsetempered man; in a controversy that lasted almost twenty-five years, Wallis pressed his mathematical advantage with ferocious zeal, also attacking Hobbes for what he thought were errors in Greek, for having a West Country manner of speech, for being a rustic, for disloyalty to the crown, and so on. Hobbes’s replies were better mannered, but he too was capable of losing his temper. The issue between the two men was whether Hobbes had succeeded, as he claimed, both in squaring the circle and in duplicating the cube. Hobbes boldly announced success in both enterprises, although he modified his claim slightly in some of the later books written against Wallis. It should be observed that neither Hobbes nor Wallis doubted the possibility of a quadrature, a proof of its impossibility not having been discovered until the nineteenth century; moreover, the problem of the quadrature was not only venerable but had a particular vitality in the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, Wallis was able to show that Hobbes’s claim of success was unfounded. Hobbes made no original contributions to geometry but, as A. De Morgan has written, though Hobbes was “very wrong in his quadrature... he was not the ignoramus in geometry that he is sometimes supposed. His writings, erroneous as they are in many things, contain acute remarks on points of principle.”15 Hobbes’s passion for geometry derived from his analytic conception of truth. He appreciated the unity and logical structure of geometry, its freedom from verbal confusion, and its reasoning from definitions placed in their proper order.

Algebra, on the other hand, failed to attract Hobbes. He grossly underestimated its scope and was suspicious of all attempts to “arithmetize” geometry. He thought of algebra as a minor branch of arithmetic; Wallis’ “scab of symbols” simply disfigured the page, “as if a hen had been scraping there.”16 Nor did he appreciate the significance of Wallis’ contributions, published in Arithmetica infinitorum (1655), toward the development of the differential calculus, although Hobbes’s speculations in optics of an earlier stage in his life seemed to be leading him in the direction Wallis was taking.

In fact, Hobbes, in his sixties when he began his dispute with Wallis, was out of touch with the generation of rising young scientists and mathematicians. He was not opposed to experimentalism on principle, but he had no natural sympathy for it and considered that most of the experiments performed by fellows and correspondents of the Royal Society were either ill-conceived and poorly executed, or else they reached conclusions long ago arrived at by Hobbes through the use of his unaided reason. In this spirit he wrote “Dialogus physicus, sive de natura aeris” (1661), a brief but barbed attack on Robert Boyle’s experiments on the vacuum pump, to which Boyle replied calmly, though forcefully, in Examen of Mr. Hobbes, His Dialogus (1662) and Dissertation on Vacuum Against Mr. Hobbes (1674). Not surprisingly, Hobbes was excluded from membership in the Royal Society, a fact which he resented, although he publicly declared that he was lucky to be out of it.

Hobbes’s last years were thus clouded with controversy, but they were not without their simple pleasures and rewards. He lived comfortably on the Cavendish estates in Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall and, more frequently, in the duke of Devonshire’s house on the Strand in London. He enjoyed long walks; he played tennis until he was seventy-five; and he had an abiding love of music, listening to it whenever he could and playing on his own bass viol. Capable as he was of holding his own in public controversy, and sparkling with wit in table talk, he was always gentle with people of lower rank or inferior education. He was a bachelor, but according to Aubrey he was not a “woman-hater”; and it is possible that he had a natural daughter whom he cherished.

In his eighties, mostly to amuse himself, Hobbes published translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. And when he was ninety he published Decameron physiologicum, a set of dialogues on physical principles containing also a last salvo fired off against Wallis. He died of a stroke at the age of ninety-one.


1. John Aubrey, Brief Lives, A. Clark, ed. (Oxford, 1898), I, 390.

2. Hobbes, Life... Written by Himself (London, 1680), p. 3.

3. Margaret Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (London, 1663), p. 463; Jean Jacquot, “Sir Charles Cavendish and His Learned Friends,” in Annals of Science, 8 (1952), 13–27, 175–191.

4. S. Arthur Strong, A Catalogue of Letters and Documents at Welbeck (London, 1903), p. vii.

5. G. R. De Beer, “Some Letters of Hobbes,” in Notes and Records, Royal Society of London, 7 (1950), 205.

6. Hobbes, Latin Works, Molesworth, ed., V, 303.

7. Ibid., pp. 221–222.

8. See, on this point, Alan E. Shapiro, “Rays and Waves,” doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1970. Dr. Shapiro has made a full study of Hobbes’s optics.

9. Hobbes, Latin Works, V, 228.

10. Hobbes, “Tractatus opticus,” British Museum, Harleian MS. 6796, ch. 2, sec. 1.

11. The two other optical MSS are “A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques,” British Museum, Harleian MS 3360; and a second Latin treatise also called “Tractates opticus,” British Museum, Harleian MS 6796.

12. See Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Cambridge, 1962).

13. Bishop John Vesey, “The Life of Primate Bramhall,” in John Bramhall, Works (Dublin, 1677).

14. Samuel I. Mintz, “Hobbes on the Law of Heresy; A New Manuscript,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968), 409–414; “Hobbes’s Knowledge of the Law,” ibid., 31 (1970), 614–616.

15. A. De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes (London, 1915), p. 110.

16. Hobbes, “Six Lessons to the Professors of the Mathematics,” in Works, VII, 316.


I. Original Works. Hobbes’s works include De cive (Paris, 1642); De corpore politico, or the Elements of Law (London, 1650); Leviathan (London, 1651); De corpora (London, 1655); Problemata physica (London, 1662); Luxmathematica (London, 1672); Decameron physiologicum (London, 1678); and Behemoth (London, 1679). The standard ed. of Hobbes’s works is by William Molesworth, 16 vols. (London, 1839–1845), but it has inaccuracies and omissions. A comprehensive modern ed., to be published at Oxford, is being prepared by Howard Warrender. The standard bibliography of Hobbes’s works is by Hugh Macdonald (London, 1952). Important modern eds. of Leviathan are by Michael Oakeshott (Oxford, 1946) and by C. B. Macpherson (Baltimore, 1968). A modern translation particularly valuable for its full annotations and attention to textual problem is François Tricaud, Leviathan: Traité de la matiére, de la forme et du pouvoir de la république ecclésiastique et civile (Paris, 1971).

II. Secondary Literature. Contemporary biographies of Hobbes are John Aubrey, Brief Lives, A. Clark, ed. (Oxford, 1898); and Richard Blackbourne, in Vitae Hobbianae auctarium (London, 1681). The most important nineteenth-and early twentieth-century studies of Hobbes, in which biography is mingled with commentary and criticism, are G. Croom Robertson, Hobbes (Edinburgh, 1886); and Ferdinand Tönnies, Hobbes, der Mann und der Denker, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1912). Later twentieth-century studies of Hobbes are numerous. They include the following, listed chronologically: Frithiof Brandt, Thomas Hobbes’ Mechanical Conception of Nature (Copenhagen, 1928); Leo Strauss, Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 1936); Howard Warrender, Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford, 1957); C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford, 1962); Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Cambridge, 1962); Keith Brown, ed., Hobbes Studies (Oxford, 1965); J. W. N. Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas (London, 1965); M. M. Goldsmith, Hobbes’s Science of Politics (New York, 1966); and R. Kosselleck and R. Schnur, eds., Hobbes-Forschungen (Berlin, 1969).

Samuel I. Mintz

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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas



Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), English philosopher and political theorist, was one of the orig inators of the new mathematico—mechanical view of the world established in the seventeenth century through the interaction of philosophic reflection and natural science. While Descartes was the most influential thinker in the movement which gave rise to modern philosophy, Hobbes was equally representative of it and scarcely less important. During the 1630s Hobbes arrived, independently of Descartes, at the formulation of the mechanical conception of nature; he had also reached, independently not only of Descartes but also of Galileo, the notion of the subjectivity of sensible qualities such as light and color (Brandt 1921). Like Descartes, Hobbes rejected scholasticism as a philosophy of sterile disputation and held that mathematical reasoning must provide the model of philosophic method. His thought differed from Cartesianism, however, in its thoroughgoing materialism. In Hobbes’s view, bodies are the sole existents, and the sole cause of phenomena lies in the diversity of corporeal motions. Even more than corporeality, motion is the governing idea in Hobbes’s materialist metaphysics, and he employed it with impressive ingenuity as the universal explanatory principle in his mechanistic account of the world.

Hobbes also made an important contribution to the establishment of psychology as a field of empirical inquiry. His interest in psychology derived from his preoccupation with sensation and imagery. Realizing that mental occurrences—i.e., the phe nomena of experience itself—require explanation, he provided one which treated them as material movements in the brain. Thus, sense, according to him, “is but an apparition unto us of that motion, agitation, or alteration, which the object worketh in the brain, or spirits, or some internal substance in the head” ([1640] 1928, p. 4). He left unclear whether imaging is identical with certain minute motions in the brain or a concomitant of them. His analysis of mental phenomena has a reductionist tendency, in that it loses sight of what is distinctively psychological in its description of physical or physiological causes. His account did, nevertheless, adumbrate the possibility of a scientific psychology in which subjects such as sensation, dreaming, and imagery could be investigated by the same methods used in the sciences of nature.

Hobbes’s most enduring intellectual achievement is his theory of politics. The first expression of his political interests, however, was historical and classical, rather than philosophical. The son of a Wiltshire clergyman, he began his classical education as a child and was sent to Oxford at 14. Following his departure from the university with the b.a. degree in 1608, he became tutor to the son of William Cavendish, Lord Hardwick, who was later created earl of Devonshire. This was the commencement of a lifelong connection with the Cavendish family, to whose friendship and patronage he owed the support that permitted him to pursue his career as philosopher. In 1629, after many years spent mainly, it would seem, in the study of classical literature, he published his first book, a translation of Thucydides’ History. Hobbes conceived history’s principal business to be the instruction of a governing class in political prudence. For this purpose he thought Thucydides’ masterpiece unexcelled. It is highly suggestive that of all the ancient historians he should have preferred the writer who is the most naturalistic in his inquiry into the causes of events as well as the most profound analyst of the derangement of political life, and even of the meaning of words, which results from civil strife.

When the Thucydides translation appeared, Hobbes had already turned his attention permanently to philosophy. Until the age of 40 he knew nothing of geometry; but about 1629, according to the curious story related by Aubrey, his contemporary biographer, he came by chance on a copy of Euclid’s Elements. From the study of Euclid he perceived the demonstrative certainty attainable through geometrical reasoning (Aubrey 1898). He held thenceforth that truth is a matter of the laying down of clear definitions and the correct deduction of all their consequences.

In the 1630s Hobbes visited the Continent several times, where he formed some important intellectual friendships and became au courant with the most recent philosophical and scientific developments. His earliest surviving philosophical composition (A Short Tract on First Principles), a work framed on strictly deductive lines, dates from this period.

This was the time also when the revolution against the government of Charles I was brewing. The beginning of rebellion in Scotland and England at the close of the 1630s evidently stimulated Hobbes to develop his political doctrines. There after, wrote Aubrey, “for ten yeares together his thoughts were much, or almost altogether, unhinged from the Mathematiques” and intent chiefly on the philosophy of politics (Aubrey [1898] 1957, p. 151). The result was the composition of three works that contain the substance of his political theory: The Elements of Law (1640), De cive (1642a), and Leviathan (1651). In addition, Hobbes included observations of great importance in philosophical method and the nature of political philosophy in Elementorum philosophiae sectio prima: De corpore (1655). He also wrote two minor works expressive of his political views, both published posthumously: Behemoth (1679), an account of the English Civil War, and A Dialogue …of the Common Lam of England (1681a).

Hobbes’s approach to political theory reflects the spirit of the contemporary scientific movement. In his view, the state forms one department in a tripartite division of philosophy, the whole of which centers on body. According to this classification, philosophy deals first with body under its simplest and most general aspects; next, with man as a natural body of a particular kind; finally, with the commonwealth as a type of artificial body contrived by reason.

Hobbes claimed to be the founder of politics as a science and boldly compared himself with such great inaugurators as Copernicus, Galileo, and Harvey. The meaning of this self-confident assertion is connected with his conception of method. The mode of proceeding in philosophy, he held, is exclusively by way of cause and effect; hence, to reason philosophically means either to demonstrate the effects of a phenomenon from its known causes or to demonstrate its causes from its known effects. He conceived of cause not as a necessary connection between occurrences verified experimentally but, in a purely intellectualistic-deductive sense, as a hypothetical explanation attained by correct reasoning and consistent with ordinary experience. In the study of natural phenomena, he believed man can attain only to a knowledge of possible causes; by contrast, in the study of the commonwealth, an artificial body contrived by human reason, man can establish causes with certainty. Indeed, he went so far as to compare civil philosophy with geometry in this respect. Just as geometry is demonstrable because men themselves define its figures, so “civil philosophy is demonstrable, because we make the commonwealth our selves” ([1656] 1962, p. 184). More specifically, the definitions of just and unjust, law, covenant, etc., on which the political order rests, derive from human invention and agreement. To found politics as a science would therefore mean to propound definitions from which the generation of the commonwealth and the rules necessary to its being are strictly deducible. This is what Hobbes thought he had accomplished.

Hobbes began his political theory with an analysis of human nature. He portrayed man as a creature of incessant activity who can find no rest in any final end. Within this stream of activity man pursues specific ends. What man desires, he calls good; what causes him fear or aversion, he calls evil. Thus, good and evil possess diverse meanings according to men’s purposes. In so describing how men form their notions of good and evil, Hobbes was not endorsing a relativistic conception of moral judgment; indeed, it was a cornerstone of his political theory that men must concur in certain common definitions if they are to achieve what they an evidently want, namely, self-preservation, the conditions of any activity whatsoever. Nor did Hobbes blame man for or accuse him of being the self-centered creature he is. He held that political philosophy must take human nature as its datum if it is to show how peace and community can become possible to creatures who necessarily refer all things to their own single selves. Hobbes’s politics are therefore linked to his psychology. The task he assigned reason is not to conquer or extinguish passion—an impossibility anyway—but to instruct it. Reason will teach passion what it must refrain from and what rules it must accept in order to attain its ends of self-preservation and, beyond that, of well-being and the commodities of civilized life.

It was when Hobbes shifted from man in general and in the abstract to the state of nature, where allowance must be made for the coexistence of many men, that he confronted the political problem proper, namely, how to secure peace and order among a multitude. Whether a state of nature ever existed historically was of little importance to Hobbes. For him it represented the hypothetical alternative to the commonwealth and sovereignty and was therefore a condition in which men in the pursuit of their diverse ends are subject to no power other than that which they can casually impose on one another. Hobbes intended to think away civil society in order to picture life in the absence of a coercive political order. What he displayed was a state of endless and oppressive insecurity, a war of all against all, where nothing is anyone’s with certainty, in which the notions of just and unjust can have no place, and where each literally has a right to everything.

Amid this very anarchy Hobbes discerned the basis of natural right in man’s desire to live. As all men seek their own good, they also naturally shun death, the chief of evils. Reason accordingly dictates, said Hobbes, that men should attempt by all means to preserve themselves. Whatever is done according to reason is “done justly, and with right” ([1642a] 1949, pp. 8-9). Natural right was considered by Hobbes as antecedent to the political order: it is a moral claim logically derived from the premise of all human activity and passion, the wish to live. Thus, when reason teaches that to secure themselves men must renounce the liberty of the state of nature, the route from anarchy to the commonwealth and civilization has been pointed out. Moreover, only reason can demonstrate which means do in fact conduce to that which all men want, and such means alone will be real goods. They will be the norms that men as rational beings must maintain to make their right effective.

The precepts of reason that lead to self-preservation Hobbes called the law of nature. He listed a number of these precepts, of which the most important is that men should seek peace, and as a further deduction from this, that they should relinquish their right to all things, each being content “…with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe” ([1651] 1958, p. 100).

Yet in what sense are these precepts laws? Hobbes answered that they are such only if considered as the commands of God. Otherwise they are not properly laws, since they are merely advisive and not externally obligatory. A correct definition would be “Conclusions or Theoremes concerning what conduceth to …conservation . . .” (ibid, pp. 122-123). Hence, to Hobbes the law of nature appears to signify little more than the means or conditions which the calculating intellect demonstrates to be necessary to preservation. This constituted a radical departure from the traditional view. In traditional political philosophy, the law of nature was held to be genuine law and to prescribe ethical rules originating in the divine order and binding upon earthly communities. Hobbes, however, was strongly skeptical of this conception and took a different line. He refused to derive the dicta of natural law from the supernatural realm, on the ground that neither God nor revelation can be a subject of knowledge and both are thus beyond the scope of philosophy. He held also that the dicta of natural law are vacuous until positive law defines their meaning. Accordingly, while natural law forbids theft, murder, and adultery, it remains for positive law to determine what actions are to be called by these names. Hobbes strove to remove the ambiguities in the concept of natural law in two ways: by denying that natural law is properly law at all and by deriving its precepts autonomously from the rationally in structed striving of men for self-preservation. In effect, therefore, he rejected the divine order as the basis of moral valuation. For him, values are neither divinely guaranteed nor cosmically under written; they are made by man.

The fundamental dictate of the law of nature, then, is that men should seek peace. This entails their renunciation of the right to all things, which is theirs in the state of nature. Yet while reason always obliges men to do this, the conditions have to be established in which they can do so with security. Agreement among themselves to lay down their right is insufficient unless there is also a power to ensure that they adhere to this rational resolution. Thence arises, as a further inference, the commonwealth in which a single will repre sents the wills of all and possesses the right to coerce those who violate the agreement to which reason compels them. Therefore the ultimate cause of the commonwealth, according to Hobbes, is the foresight of men who perceive that civil society is the sole means of self-preservation and a contented life. Proceeding from this view, Hobbes rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that man is a political animal. He did not deny that man is naturally sociable; but commonwealths, he insisted, are not mere meetings, but true unions to whose contrivance the making of compacts is necessary.

Hobbes explained with elaborate care how the consent of men to government is embodied in contracts or covenants. Like the state of nature, covenant for Hobbes is a necessary hypothesis: it is required to show that the commonwealth is unthinkable except as something to which men consent for the sake of life and civility. It also has the further function of justifying the coercion and punishment imposed by the state. If these are to be more than mere acts of power, they must be traced to a covenant whereby man himself, as a rational being, becomes the author of the punishment his transgressions incur in civil society.

In every commonwealth, Hobbes said, there must be a sovereign power to enforce the covenant to peace that men have made: “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” ([1651] 1958, p. 128). So sovereignty is necessitated by the same sequence of deductions that accounts for civil society. The attributes of the sovereign are the same in any form of government—democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy—and are very comprehensive. The sovereign power is not removable or punishable by its subjects; it is the only judge of what conduces to peace and therefore of what doctrines and opinions may be taught; its will alone makes law and determines the rules of property, of good and evil, of lawful and unlawful actions; it rewards and punishes, commands the armed forces, decides on war and peace. (Hobbes, of course, recognized that in actual fact sovereigns neither exercise all these powers nor do subjects allow that they have the right to do so. This to him, however, was mere illogic: if the sovereign is to keep peace and order, subjects ought to acknowledge all its attributes as inescapable.)

With this rigorous reasoning Hobbes brought the modern doctrine of sovereignty into the world. That doctrine already had a long history when Hobbes wrote: an approach to it appeared both in the work of the sixteenth-century French thinker Jean Bodin and, much earlier, in the writings of the medieval canonists and publicists who upheld the most extreme claims of the papal monarchy. But Hobbes’s conception was novel in that he allowed no legal limitation on the sovereign power. This was the consequence of his view of law, which was denned for him not by any moral content but solely by its character as the sovereign’s command. The sovereign cannot be limited by positive law, because the origin of positive law is the sovereign’s will; nor can it be limited by the law of nature, because the law of nature is, properly speaking, not a law.

Yet, since the right of nature—man’s claim to self-preservation—is the root from which Hobbes’s political doctrine grew, this right results in substantial qualifications upon the absolutist character of his thought. Although, for instance, obedience is a duty in civil society, Hobbes pointed out that the subject retains his liberty to do whatever he cannot be conceived to have renounced or transferred by any covenant. This liberty is, in fact, considerable. The subject is not obliged to obey a command to kill or wound himself and may also refuse to endanger his life by service in war; again, while rebellion is not justifiable, subjects have the right, once it is begun, to continue in their resistance in order to preserve themselves. Most important of all, Hobbes exempted the subject from the obligation to obey a command that “…frustrates the End for which the Soveraignty [sic] was or dained . . .” ([1651] 1958, p. 167). He thus left to subjects both a vital right of private judgment and a moral vantage point vis-a-vis the sovereign.

Hobbes also stressed that the sovereign has duties toward its subjects. It is obliged, he stated, to make the safety and well-being of the people the rule of its actions. While this is a moral rather than a legal obligation, it is nonetheless real, founded as it is on men’s basic purpose in consenting to submit to the commonwealth and sovereignty. A sovereign which acts otherwise “will act against the reasons of peace, that is to say, against the law of nature” ([1642a] 1962, p. 167). And safety, Hobbes added, means not only bare preservation but happiness and living delightfully, so far as these are possible. His advice to sovereigns respecting taxation, equal justice, and other matters of government is unexceptionable in its care for the subject’s interests. Nor did he fail to point out that the sovereign’s disregard of its duty will lead to rebellion as a natural consequence.

It is evident, then, that alongside the absolutist element in Hobbes’s thought is a strong tendency toward liberalism. This appeared not only in his account of the subject’s rights and the sovereign’s duties but also in his progressive theory of punishment, which anticipated Beccaria and Bentham, and in his dislike of religious intolerance and clerical pretensions. Hobbes’s liberalism is intrinsic to his conception of natural right, the dominant theme of his politics. Hence there results the paradoxical fact that he established his absolutism on liberal presuppositions. For him the state is not an object of awe and reverence. No sacred mys tique veils Leviathan, the “mortal God,” created by human association, to which men owe their peace and defense. The commonwealth is the work of men; its utility is its sole justification. It makes men moral and educates them for civility, but does so by their own consent and to advance their own purposes. If Hobbes defended absolutism, it was because he assumed absolutism to be in the general interest. Without this premise, there would be no great difficulty in constructing a liberal system out of the materials provided by his own political philosophy.

Hobbes was one of the most famous thinkers of his time. His writings were widely read, and although he formed no school, he probably exer cised a greater and more varied influence upon English political theory than did any contemporary. Of Continental philosophers, Pufendorf and Spinoza, to mention only the foremost, were strongly affected by his ideas. A royalist in sympathy, he emigrated in 1640 and spent the next 11 years in France. He returned to England after the defeat and execution of Charles I, justifying his return with the argument that a subject’s obligation ceases when the sovereign can no longer protect him ([1651] 1958, see “Review and Conclusion”). Despite this conduct, Hobbes retained the favor and friendship of Charles n after the Stuart restoration of 1660.

Hobbes’s materialism, determinism, and skeptical temper brought upon him a host of attackers. Clerical opponents accused him of heresy and atheism, and in 1683 the University of Oxford condemned a number of his works to the flames. Some of the controversies he waged, such as that with Bishop Bramhall over free will, belong to the great intellectual debates of the age. Even upon his critics Hobbes exerted a powerful influence. He obliged them to lay aside theological and moral conceptions, to meet him on his own ground of strict and severe reasoning, and to deal with issues on their intellectual merits. His remarkable prose style, perfectly expressive of the hard, confident, and probing character of his mind, also contributed not a little to the effect he had upon friend and foe alike. By virtue both of his positive doctrines and of the scope and rigor of his philosophical inquiries, Hobbes was one of the foremost agents in the dissemination of the rationalism that altered the moral and mental climate of Europe in the course of the seventeenth century.

Perez Zagorin

[See alsoConsensus; Constitutions and Constitutionalism; Natural Law; Power; Social Contract; Sovereignty; Utilitarianism; and the biographies ofAustin; Bacon; Bodin; Descartes; Durkheim; Harrington; Hegel; Machiavelli; Mandeville; Vico.]


(1640) 1928 The Elements of Law, Natural & Political. Edited, with a preface and critical notes, by Ferdinand Tonnies, to which are subjoined selected extracts from unprinted mss. of Thomas Hobbes. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Written in 1640; first published in 1650.

(1642a) 1949 De cive or The Citizen. Edited and abridged by Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton. → First published as Elementa philosophica de cive.

(1642b) 1962 Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society. Volume 2 of Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmes-bury. Aalen (Germany): Scientia. → First published as Elementorum philosophiae sectio tertia: De cive.

(1651) 1958 Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil. With an essay by W. G. Pogson Smith. Oxford: Claren don. → See also the introduction by Michael Oakeshott in the 1946 edition published by Clarendon, and the introduction by A. D. Lindsay in the 1950 edition published by Dutton.

(1655) 1951 Elementorum philosophiae sectio prima: De corpore. Volume 1, pages 1-431 in Thomas Hobbes, …Opera philosophica quae Latine scripsit omnia. Aalen (Germany): Scientia.

(1656) 1962 Six Lessons to the Professors of the Mathematics. Volume 7, pages 181-356 in Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Aalen (Germany): Scientia.

(1679) 1962 Behemoth. Volume 6, pages 161-418 in Thomas Hobbes, The English Worfes of Thomas Hob bes of Malmesbury. Aalen (Germany): Scientia.

(1681a) 1962 A Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Volume 6, pages 1-160 in Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Aalen (Germany): Scientia. → First published posthumously.

(1681b) 1951 Vita. Volume 1, pages xiii-xxi in Thomas Hobbes, …Opera philosophica quae Latine scripsit omnia. Aalen (Germany): Scientia. → First published posthumously.

The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Edited by Sir William Molesworth. 11 vols. Aalen (Germany): Scientia, 1962. → A reprint of an 1839-1845 edition.

A Short Tract on First Principles. Appendix 1 in Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of the Law, Natural & Political. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1928. → Previously unpublished.

Thomae Hobbes Malmesburiensis opera philosophica quae Latine scripsit omnia. Edited by Sir William Moles-worth. 5 vols. Aalen (Germany): Scientia, 1951. → A reprint of an 1839-1845 edition.


Aubrey, John (1898) 1957 Thomas Hobbes. Pages 147-159 in John Aubrey, Brief Lives. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → Written between 1669 and 1696.

Boring, Edwin G. 1942 Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton.

Bowle, John 1951 Hobbes and His Critics: A Study in Seventeenth Century Constitutionalism. London: Cape.

Brandt, Frithiof (1921) 1928 Thomas Hobbes’ Me chanical Conception of Nature. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard. → First published in Danish.

Brown, J. M. 1953 A Note on Professor Oakeshott’s Introduction to the Leviathan. Political Studies 1:53–64.

Brown, Keith C. (editor) 1965 Hobbes Studies. Ox ford: Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Brown, Stuart M. (1959) 1965 The Taylor Thesis: Some Objections. Pages 57-71 in Keith C. Brown (editor), Hobbes Studies. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 68 of the Philosophical Review.

Goldsmith, M. M. 1966 The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: The Rationale of the Sovereign State. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Hood, Francis C. 1964 The Divine Politics of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford Univ. Press.

Krook, Dorothea 1953 Mr. Brown’s Note Annotated. Political Studies 1:216–227.

Laird, John 1934 Hobbes. London: Benn.

Levi, Adolfo 1929 La filosofia di Tommaso Hobbes. Milan: Societa Editrice Dante Alighieri.

Lubienski, Zbigniew 1932 Die Grundlagen des ethisch-politischen Systems von Hobbes. Munich: Reinhardt.

Macdonald, Hugh; and hargreaves, mary 1952 Thomas Hobbes: A Bibliography. London: Bibliograph ical Society.

Macpherson, Crawford B. 1962 The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Ox ford: Clarendon.

Mintz, Samuel I. 1962 The Hunting of the Leviathan: Seventeenth-century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Also available from University Microfilms.

Nagel, Thomas 1959 Hobbes’s Concept of Obligation. Philosophical Review 68:68–83.

Peters, Richard S. 1956 Hobbes. Harmondsworth (Eng land): Penguin.

Plamenatz, John P. (1957) 1965 Mr. Warrender’s Hobbes. Pages 73-87 in Keith C. Brown (editor), Hobbes Studies. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 5 of Political Studies.

Polin, Raymond 1952 Politique et philosophie chez Thomas Hobbes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Robertson, George C. (1886) 1901 Hobbes. Edin burgh: Blackwood.

Skinner, Quentin 1966 Thomas Hobbes and His Disciples in France and England. Comparative Studies in Society and History 8:153–167.

Stephen, Leslie (1904) 1928 Hobbes. London: Mac-millan.

Strauss, Leo (1936) 1961 The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis. Translated by E. M. Sinclair. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Written in German but first published in English.

Taylor, A. E. (1938) 1965 The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes. Pages 35-55 in Keith C. Brown (editor), Hobbes Studies. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 13 of Philosophy.

Tonnies, Ferdinand (1896) 1925 Hobbes Leben und Lehre. 3d ed. Stuttgart: Fromman.

Warrender, Howard (1960) 1965 A Reply to Mr. Pla-menatz. Pages 89-100 in Keith C. Brown (editor), Hobbes Studies. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in Volume 8 of Political Studies.

Watkins, J. W. N. 1965 Hobbes’s System of Ideas: A Study in the Political Significance of Philosophical Theories. London: Hutchinson.

Zagorin, Perez 1954 A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution. London: Routledge.

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Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

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 favored 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.

Further Reading

The standard edition is The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by Sir William Molesworth (11 vols. 1839-1845). In addition see The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, edited by Ferdinand Tönnies (1928); Body, Mind and Citizen, edited by Richard S. Peters (1962); and Leviathan, edited by Michael Oakeshott (1962).

There is a wealth of good secondary literature available. John Aubrey included a biography of his friend Hobbes in Brief Lives, edited by Oliver Lawson Dick (1950). Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Genesis (trans. 1936); Leslie Stephen, Hobbes (1904); and Richard Peters, Hobbes (1956), are excellent studies.

Consult also John Larid, Hobbes (1934); Clarence DeWitt Thorpe, The Aesthetic Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1940); John Bowle, Hobbes and His Critics: A Study in Seventeenth Century Constitutionalism (1952); Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1962); C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes of Locke (1962); J. W. N. Watkins, Hobbes's System of Ideas: A Study in the Political Significance of PhilosophicalTheories (1965); and F. S. McNeilly, The Anatomy of Leviathan (1968). □

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Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

HOBBES, THOMAS (15881679)

HOBBES, THOMAS (15881679), English philosopher. Thomas Hobbes, perhaps the greatest of the English philosophers, was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, in 1588. The son of the disreputable vicar of Westport, he was raised by a wealthy uncle who saw to his education and his admission to Magdalen Hall, Oxford (B.A., 1608). After Oxford, Hobbes became tutor to the son of William Cavendish, the earl of Derbyshire, and remained attached to the Cavendish family throughout his life.

Hobbes's early association with Francis Bacon (15611626) strengthened what would become a lifelong dislike of Aristotelian philosophy that he had acquired at Oxford in opposition to his tutors. But he retained an interest in classical literature and published a translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in 1629 and a translation of Homer in quatrains in 16741675. Hobbes's discovery of geometry, his association with Marin Mersenne (15881648), and the friendship of Pierre Gassendi (15921655) and Galileo Galilei (15641642) provided him with the analytic scheme and scientific method for which he had been searching to undergird a complete philosophy of nature and society. An association with the Great Tew circle (a group of men of letters who met at Great Tew, Lord Falkland's house north of Oxford) seems to have helped to move him from a humanistic and classical view of the world to one that wasin contrast to the appeals to the Bible that charged the outlooks of so many of his contemporariesdecidedly juridical and modern and drawn from the political crises that led to the English Civil War. His Elements of the Law, circulated in manuscript in 1640 and published in two parts in 1650, was the first statement of the darkly pessimistic view of human nature and call for undivided, absolute sovereignty for which he is known.

In late 1640fearing for his life, he claimed, when the Long Parliament began its workHobbes fled to France, where he was welcomed by Mersenne's circle and where he served briefly as tutor to the Prince of Wales (the exiled and future King Charles II). In France, he enjoyed his most productive philosophic period, culminating in the publication of his masterpiece, Leviathan; or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, in 1651 shortly before he returned to England.

The aim of Leviathan, as announced in the Preface and in the Review and Conclusion, was to demonstrate, in the context of the recently concluded Civil War, the necessity of strong, overarching, unchallengeable government. The work was a distillation and an extension of Hobbes's quest for a comprehensive philosophy that moved from accounts of ultimate reality and human nature, through logic and reason, to a radically new understanding of politics that was also an attack on virtually all religious beliefs and practices. The political genius of Leviathan was its use of the emerging natural law, natural rights, and social contract theories and a radically individualistic conception of human nature in conjunction with the new science rather than the more conventional divine right doctrines to defend political absolutism. In one of the most memorable phrases in the history of political thought, Hobbes described life in the pre-political state of nature as "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, ch. 13), the only remedy for which was the agreement to form a civil society with an absolute ruler at its head. For his efforts Hobbes was rewarded with the scorn of his contemporaries, especially for his apparent atheism, although the earliest critic of political theory, the divine right patriarchal royalist Sir Robert Filmer praised his conclusions while objecting to their foundations.

After the publication of Leviathan, Hobbes continued to work on his systematic philosophy and to attract critics. He enjoyed the patronage and probably the protection of the restored King Charles II, but he was attacked by Parliament after the Great Fire of 1666 and ultimately forbidden the right to publish. Nonetheless, he wrote Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, an account of English history during the period of the Civil War and Interregnum viewed from the perspective of his conceptions of human nature and politics, and an uncompleted Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Law, which offered a conception of law and sovereignty that is suggestive of the theories of J. L. Austin (19111960). Both works were published posthumously, in 1681 and 1682 respectively.

Hobbes's philosophic system, pointedly anti-Scholastic and anti-Aristotelian, was naturalistic and mechanistic; knowledge and understanding were rooted in experience. His metaphysics is often summarized as "matter in motion," and he was untroubled by some of the pressing problems of his dayand of subsequent philosophyincluding accounting for the non-perceptual existence of phenomena and causation. Human beings, while capable of reason, are driven by their passions and motivated by fear, especially of one another. They are irreducibly self-interested and will cooperate only when they believe that it is to their advantage. All this was demonstrated by Hobbes's theory of the state of nature as altogether without institutions and relationships and as a condition in which everyone enjoyed an equal, natural freedom and had the natural right to all things and no corresponding obligations or duties, leading to the famous "war of every man against every man" (Leviathan, ch. 13)hence, the description of life in that situation that was quoted above.

Although he believed that there was a law of nature, Hobbes's conception was altogether unlike the traditional view. His law of nature did not bind human actions in the absence of sufficient security, did not contain a body of moral and ethical principles, and was not truly the product of divine will. It was, however, discernable through reason, and its first principle was self-preservation. According to Hobbes, natural law commanded that people seek peace but only when others were willing to do so as well. It dictated that they agree to a social compact instituting an absolute sovereign who would maintain this conventionally established peace and to whom everyone was politically obligated because they had agreed to his rule because he "personated" them and their institutes, and because he had the legitimate power to punish their disobedience with death, which was their greatest fear. Although Hobbes believed that the establishment of a strong ruler would eventually lead to a less brutal and anxious life for the members of civil society, the psychology of the state of nature remained just beneath the surface of all human endeavors, kept in check by habits of forbearance maintained by fear of the sovereign.

Hobbes died in 1679 in the Cavendish home, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and was buried nearby. Witty to the end, he composed epitaphs for himself, his favorite of which was, "This is the true Philosopher's Stone." It was not used.

See also Aristotelianism ; Atheism ; Bacon, Francis ; Divine Right Kingship ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Galileo Galilei ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Mathematics ; Mersenne, Marin ; Natural Law ; Philosophy ; Political Philosophy ; Scientific Method .


Johnston, David. The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation. Princeton, 1986.

Malcolm, Noel. Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford and New York, 2002.

Martinich, A. P. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Rogers, G. A. J., and Alan Ryan, eds. Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes. Oxford and New York, 1988.

Skinner, Quentin. Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Gordon Schochet

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Hobbes, Thomas

Thomas Hobbes

Born: April 5, 1588
Westport, England
Died: December 4, 1679
Hardwick Hall, England

English philosopher and political theorist

The English philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes was one of the central figures of political thought behind the British Empire. His major work, "Leviathan," published in 1651, expressed his idea that basic human motives are selfish.


Born prematurely on April 5, 1588, when his mother heard of the coming invasion of the Spanish Armada (a fleet of Spanish warships), Thomas Hobbes later reported that "my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear." His father, also named Thomas Hobbes, was the vicar (a clergyman in charge of a church) of Westport near Malmesbury in Gloucestershire, England. After being involved in a fight with another clergyman outside his own church, the elder Thomas Hobbes was forced to flee to London, England, leaving his wife, two boys and a girl behind.

Thomas was then raised and educated by an uncle and studied at the local schools. By the age of six he was studying Latin and Greek. Also at this time, Hobbes became absorbed in the classic literature of ancient Greece. From 1603 to 1608 he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was bored by the philosophy of Aristotelianism (studying the works of Aristotle, a fourth-century b.c.e. Greek philosopher).

Scholarly work

The twenty-year-old future philosopher became a tutor to the Cavendish family, a well-known English family. This association provided him with a private library, foreign travel, and introductions to influential people. Hobbes learned to speak Italian and German and soon decided to devote his life to scholarly pursuits.

Hobbes, however, was slow in developing his thoughthis first work, a translation of Greek historian Thucydides's (died c. 401 b.c.e.) 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 (rule by the people) to be the least effective form of government.

In Hobbes's own estimation the most important intellectual event of his life occurred when he was forty. While waiting for a friend he wandered into a library and came across a copy of Euclid's (third century b.c.e.) geometry. 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 (16301685).

For the rest of his long life Hobbes travelled and published many works. In France he met mathematicians René Descartes (15961650) and the Pierre Gassendi (15921655). In 1640 he wrote one of the sets of arguments to Descartes's Meditations.

Although born into the Elizabethan Age (c. 15501600; a time of great change in England), Hobbes outlived all of the major seventeenth-century thinkers. He became a sort of English icon and continued writing, offering new translations of Homer (an eighth-century b.c.e. Greek poet) in his eighties because he had "nothing else to do." When he was past ninety, he became involved in controversies with the Royal Society, an organization of scientists. He invited friends to suggest appropriate epitaphs (an inscription on a tombstone) and favored one that read "this is the true philosopher's stone." He died on December 4, 1679, at the age of ninety-one.

His philosophy

The questions Hobbes posed to the world in the seventeenth century are still relevant today, and Hobbes still maintains a strong influence in the world of philosophy. He challenged the relationship between science and religion, and the natural limitations of political power.

The diverse intellectual paths of the seventeenth century, which are generically called modern classical philosophy, began by rejecting authorities of the pastespecially Aristotle and his peers. Descartes, who founded the rationalist tradition, and Sir Francis Bacon (15611626), who is considered the originator of modern empiricism (political theory regarding the British Empire), both sought new methods for achieving scientific knowledge and a clear conception of reality.

Hobbes was fascinated by the problem of sense perception, and he extended Galileo's (15641642) mechanical physics into an explanation of human cognition (process of learning). He believed the origin of all thought is sensation, which consists of mental images produced by the pressure of motion of external objects. Thus Hobbes anticipated later thought by explaining differences 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, are a product of our ability to use speech.

Political thought

Hobbes explains the connection between nature, man, and society through the law of inertia ("bodies at rest tend to stay at rest; bodies in motion tend to stay in motion"). Thus man's desire to do what he wants is checked only by an equal and opposite need for security. Society "is but an artificial man" invented by man, so to understand politics one should merely consider himself as part of nature.

Such a reading is cold comfort as life before society 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 gaining power is the only guarantee of living well. Such men live in a state of constant war, driven by competition and desire for the same goods. The important result of this view is man's natural right to seek self-preservation (protection of one's self) by any means. In this state of nature there is no value above self-interest because the absence of common power results in the absence of law and justice. But there is a second law of nature that men may surrender their individual will to the state. This "social contract" binds the individual to treat others as he expects to be treated by them.

In Hobbes's view the sovereign power of a commonwealth (England's power over its colonies) is absolute and not subject to the laws of its citizens. Obedience will remain as long as the sovereign (England) fulfills the social contract by protecting the rights of the individual. According to these laws Hobbes believed that rebellion is, by definition, unjust. However, should a revolution prove victorious, a new absolute sovereignty would rise up to take the place of the old one.

For More Information

Condren, Conal. Thomas Hobbes. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

Green, Arnold W. Hobbes and Human Nature. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993.

Martinich, Aloysius. Hobbes: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Taylor, A. E. Thomas Hobbes. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970

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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas 1588-1679


Thomas Hobbes was the first influential philosopher to apply the methods of Enlightenment science to politics. At the age of twenty, he was hired as a tutor for the son of William Cavendish (16401707), the first Earl of Devonshire, and he received support and employment from the Cavendish family throughout his life. In 1628 Hobbes published a translation of Thucydides (c. 460c. 401 BCE) History of the Peloponnesian War, and in various visits to the Continent he befriended and engaged in discussions about mathematics and science with the luminaries of the day, including Galileo Galilei (15641642), Pierre Gassendi (15921655), and Marin Mersenne (15881648).

He authored his first book, Elements of Law (1640), at age fifty-two. Sounding themes that would become familiar throughout his work, he declares that humanitys natural state is a state of war and that only by divesting themselves of their natural rights and transferring those rights to a sovereign can people ensure their physical safety. Shortly thereafter, in anticipation of the English Civil War (16421648), Hobbes fled to France, fearing that a treatise that justified the kings prerogatives would bring retribution from the parliamentarians.

While in France he tutored the future Charles II (16301685), critiqued René Descartes (15961650), wrote De Cive (an expanded version of the second part of The Elements of Law ), and authored and published his most important work: Leviathan (1651).

In Leviathan, Hobbes asserts that humanitys natural condition is characterized by two kinds of equality. First, everyone has the ability to kill. Second, everyone is equally prone to believe that they are more wise than everyone else. This leads to competition, mistrust, and a desire for glory, which in turn makes peoples natural condition a state of war. The state of war for Hobbes is as much a milieu as it is actual fighting and it is the background condition of all human relations.

The difficulties that attend peoples natural condition, in combination with their natural desire for self-preservation, means that they have a natural right to anything and everything. However, reason (and experience) leads one to the conclusion that retaining this right can only lead to a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes 1994, p. 76).

The solution to the war of all against all is a social contract. By giving up their natural right to anything and everything, people create a sovereign who commands precisely that right: an absolute sovereign. Creating this sort of sovereign is the most effective way to ward off the state of nature because an absolute sovereign overawes those who might be tempted to reclaim their natural right. Indeed, the leviathan is, citing Job, King of the Proud. In addition, a single decision maker eliminates the potential for internal disputes and undivided power prevents one sector of society or government from withholding resources from another.

The sovereign power is not itself party to the social contract because a covenant is only valid if it has the power of the public sword behind it. In effect, no subject can bring redress against the sovereign, because the sovereign itself is the only party to which redress can be brought. The sovereign is therefore not obligated to act in a way that is beneficial to the individuals who created it. Instead, having contracted their will to the sovereign, the decisions and punishments of the sovereign amount to decisions and punishments that a subject inflicts on himor herself. However, the sovereign is obligated to protect the common wealth from internal and external enemies (by making law and making war) and there are incentives for the sovereign to act in ways that are beneficial to subjects. Hobbes also suggests that the sovereign cannot expect individuals to literally kill themselves on command. The crucial point to keep in mind is that even a bad government is preferable to the state of war or a government prone to dissolution.

In Leviathan and in his other works, Hobbes uses the principles of science and mathematics to ascertain the fundamental basis of politics. This approach understands the world as composed of bodies in motion and requires developing and working from careful definitions of key concepts. The result is a mechanistic rendering of human relationships that imagines human bodies and desires in geometric relation to one another. This is not to say his works are gauged only for the scientific reader. Instead, Hobbes combines science and rhetoric in an attempt to affect the politics of his time.

In 1652 he returned to England, having offended Parisian royalists who took exception to his attack on Roman Catholicism. Hobbes envisioned a three-part description of political existence consisting of body, man, and government. The Elements of Law and Leviathan describe most of the salient features of the second and third parts of this scheme and De Cive is devoted exclusively to the third, but he set out to fully develop the first two parts, writing De Corpore (Of Body, 1655) and then De Homine (Of Man, 1658). He also wrote a history of the English Civil War, Behemoth (1668). His work was widely read and debated during his lifetime. Some of his mathematical assertions were successfully rebutted and his stated commitment to Christianity and God was and is a matter of dispute.

By grounding government in a contract between equals, as opposed to divine sanction, Hobbes initiates a discussion about the purposes and character of government that defines much of modern political thought. His most notable and direct influence was on John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his influence on certain forms of conservatism endures.

SEE ALSO Locke, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Contract; State of Nature


Dietz, Mary G., ed. 1990. Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1994. Leviathan, with Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Johnston, David. 1986. The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dustin Ells Howes

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Hobbes, Thomas


Sixteenth-century political theorist, philosopher, and scientist thomas hobbes left a stark warning to succeeding generations: strong central authority is the necessary basis for government. In several influential works of legal, political, psychological, and philosophical theory, Hobbes's view of society and its leaders was founded on pessimism. He saw people as weak and selfish, and thus in constant need of the governance that could save them from destruction. These ideas profoundly affected the Federalists during the early formation of U.S. law. The Federalists turned to Hobbes's work for justification for passage of the U.S. Constitution as well as for intellectual support for their own movement in the years following that passage. Today, Hobbes is read not only for his lasting contributions to political-legal theory in general but for the ideas that helped shape U.S. history.

Born on April 5, 1588, in Westport, Wiltshire, England, the son of an Anglican clergyman, Hobbes was a prodigy. By the age of fifteen, he had entered Oxford University; by twenty, he was appointed tutor to a prominent family, a post he would later hold with the Prince of Wales. His considerable output of work began with English translations of francis bacon and Thucydides while he was in his late thirties. Soon, mathematics interested him, and his travels brought him into contact with some of the greatest minds of his age: Galileo and René Descartes. His writing canvassed many subjects, such as language and science, to arrive at a general theory of people and their leaders. The most influential works of this polymath came in the 1650s: Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), De Corpore (1655), and Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance (1656). Hobbes died December 4, 1679, at age 91.

Hobbes was a supreme pessimist. To him, people were inherently selfish; they struggled constantly against one another for survival. "[T]he life of a man," he wrote in his master-work, Leviathan, "is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Thus, people could not survive on their own in the state of nature. This foundation led him to a theory of the law: only by submitting to the protection of a sovereign power could individuals avoid constant anarchy and war. The sovereign's authority would have to be absolute. Law derived from this authority rather than from objective truth, which he argued did not exist. All citizens of the state were morally bound to follow the sovereign's authority; otherwise, law could not function. Hobbes chose the leviathan (a large sea animal) to represent the state, and he maintained that like a whale, the state could only be guided by one intelligence: its sovereign's.

The influence of Hobbes's ideas varied dramatically over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English politicians and clerics derided him as a heretic. But his theories eventually lent support to loyalists who wanted to preserve the Crown's control over the American colonies: Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, viewed the upstart challengers to royal authority in a Hobbesian light. Later, Hobbes proved useful to the other side: after the American Revolution, his ideas influenced the Federalists in their arguments for adoption of the federal Constitution in 1787. Embracing Hobbes's pessimism, the Federalists saw the American people as unable to survive as a nation without a strong central government that would protect them from foreign powers.

Hobbes is still taught, and scholars continue to discuss contemporary legal issues in the light of his critique. Particularly relevant are his insights into the form of law and the interrelationship of law and politics, and his subtle explorations of language and meaning.

"The condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone."
—Thomas Hobbes

further readings

Dyzenhaus, David. 2001. "Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law." Law and Philosophy 20 (September): 461–8.

——. 1994. "Now the Machine Runs Itself: Carl Schmitt on Hobbes and Kelsen." Cardozo Law Review 16 (August).

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Reprint, New York: Viking Press, 1982.

Malcolm, Noel. 2002. Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Martinich, A.P. 1999. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge Univ. Press

Robinson, Reginald Leamon. 1993. "The Impact of Hobbes's Empirical Natural Law on Title VII's Effectiveness: A Hegellian Critique." Connecticut Law Review 25 (spring).

Rutten, Andrew. 1997. "Anarchy, Order, and the Law: A Post-Hobbesian View." Cornell Law Review 82 (July): 1150–64.

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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679) An English philosopher and social theorist of the Enlightenment. Hobbes's most influential writings in political philosophy span the period of the English Civil War, and are widely interpreted as an intellectual response to the experience of political instability and personal insecurity. His major work Leviathan (1651) offered a justification for absolute political authority which purported to be a deduction from human nature. Hobbes's account of human nature was an extraordinarily thoroughgoing and ingenious extension of the science of mechanics (as learned from Galileo). According to Hobbes, the whole range of human psychological attributes—sense-perception, memory, imagination, thought, speech, and the passions—were effects of the motions of the minute particles of matter of which we, like other material bodies, are composed. On this view of our nature, action is governed by the passions, which are in turn classified as ‘aversions’ and ‘appetites’. These passions are the basis of moral judgement, and issue in actions whose tendency is self-preservation.

In Hobbes's view, then, human action is governed by the twin passions of fear of death and desire for power. If we imagine humans living in a ‘state of nature’ prior to the establishment of any law or political power to keep them ‘in awe’, each individual, lacking any reason for expecting goodwill from the others, will be caught up in a restless pursuit of ever more power. In such a situation, the desire for security on the part of each individual must issue in perpetual antagonism and instability, a state in which (to use Hobbes's famous phrase) life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. But humans are possessed of rationality and foresight (capacities which Hobbes characteristically accounts for in mechanical terms). They are thus able to recognize that their security would be better guaranteed by a voluntary act of giving over their individual powers to an individual or group who would thereby be established as a sovereign power over all of them. On Hobbes's bleak view of human nature, the sole function of government is to guarantee the security of the national citizen.

In his own day, Hobbes was able to make himself acceptable to Royalists and Parliamentarians alike. Subsequently, his materialistic view of human nature and political power has been praised by Marxists, whilst his view of humans as essentially self-interested and his authoritarian view of the minimal state have been popular with the political right. He was one of the earliest and most brilliant exponents of a naturalistic approach to social science. Hobbes's political philosophy remains influential in the study of international relations. See also SOCIAL CONTRACT.

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Hobbes, Thomas

Thomas Hobbes (hŏbz), 1588–1679, English philosopher, grad. Magdalen College, Oxford, 1608. For many years a tutor in the Cavendish family, Hobbes took great interest in mathematics, physics, and the contemporary rationalism. On journeys to the Continent he established friendly relations with many learned men, including Galileo and Gassendi. In 1640, after his political writings had brought him into disfavor with the parliamentarians, he went to France (where he was tutor to the exiled Prince Charles). His work, however, aroused the antagonism of the English group in France, and his thorough materialism offended the churchmen, so that in 1651 he felt impelled to return to England, where he was able to live peacefully. Among his important works, which appeared in several revisions under different titles (see Sir W. Molesworth's edition of the complete works, 11 vol., 1839–45, and Noel Malcom et al., ed., the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, 1983–), are De Cive (1642), Leviathan (1651), De Corpore Politico (1650), De Homine (1658), and Behemoth (1680).

In the Leviathan, Hobbes developed his political philosophy. He argued from a mechanistic view that life is simply the motions of the organism and that man is by nature a selfishly individualistic animal at constant war with all other men. In a state of nature, men are equal in their self-seeking and live out lives which are "nasty, brutish, and short." Fear of violent death is the principal motive which causes men to create a state by contracting to surrender their natural rights and to submit to the absolute authority of a sovereign. Although the power of the sovereign derived originally from the people—a challenge to the doctrine of the divine right of kings—the sovereign's power is absolute and not subject to the law. Temporal power is also always superior to ecclesiastical power. Though Hobbes favored a monarchy as the most efficient form of sovereignty, his theory could apply equally well to king or parliament. His political philosophy led to investigations by other political theorists, e.g., Locke, Spinoza, and Rousseau, who formulated their own radically different theories of the social contract.

See biographies by J. L. Stephen (1934, repr. 1968), C. H. Hinnant (1977), and T. Surrell (1986); studies by T. A. Sprague, Jr. (1973), J. W. N. Watkins (rev. ed. 1973), W. Von Leyden (1982), J. Hampton (1988), and Q. Skinner (1996, 2002, and 2008).

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"Hobbes, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679). Philosopher. Hobbes is without doubt the greatest political philosopher to have written in the English language. After graduating from Oxford, he devoted his very long life to private tutoring and study. He fled to France in 1640, fearful for his life under the Long Parliament because of his perceived endorsement of royal absolutism. In 1651 he published in English Leviathan, his masterpiece of political philosophy, in which he set out systematically an ingenious social contractarian case for an authoritarian government. Hobbes argued that the state of nature (i.e. the pre-political condition) was a condition of ‘war of all against all’, since humans are by nature moved by competitiveness, fear, and pride to coerce others. They would contract together to establish an absolute ruler, since that was the only way in which their security could be guaranteed. Hobbes was thought by many to be an atheist, and there was an attempt in Parliament to investigate Leviathan as a possible cause of God's wrath in visiting London with the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666. But the attempt failed, and Hobbes breathed a sigh of relief. He is remembered today for his brilliant defence of political absolutism from individualistic premisses.

Tim S. Gray

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"Hobbes, Thomas." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Hobbes, Thomas

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679) English philosopher. In De Corpore (1655), De Homine (1658) and De Cive (1642), he maintained that matter and its motion comprise the only valid subjects for philosophy. His greatest work, Leviathan (1651), argued that man is inherently selfish but obeys a social contract in order to maintain civilized society.

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"Hobbes, Thomas." World Encyclopedia. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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