Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

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Thomas Hobbes, often called the father of modern analytic philosophy, was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England. Hobbes later enjoyed jesting about the significance of his manner of entry into the world. (He was born prematurely when his mother heard of the approach of the Spanish Armada.) "Fear and I were born twins," he would say, adding color to his conviction that the fear of death and the need for security are the psychological foundations both of worldly prudence and of civilization itself. He died at the age of ninety-one in Hardwick, Derbyshire, after a life of travel, study, polemical controversy, and philosophical and literary activity that in his later years had virtually established him as an English institution.

Early Years

Hobbes's father, Thomas Hobbes, was vicar of Westport, an adjunct of Malmesbury, but his conduct reflected little credit on his cloth. After being involved in a brawl outside his own church, he had to flee to London, leaving Thomas to be brought up by a wealthy uncle, who took the matter of his education very seriously. When he was only fourteen, Hobbes was sent to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, where he remained for five years before taking his bachelor's degree. He seems to have been bored by his Aristotelian tutors, although he acquired considerable proficiency in logic. The strong Puritan tradition of his college impressed Hobbes, but the drunkenness, gaming, and other vices that were prevalent equally impressed him. On leaving Oxford in 1608, Hobbes had the good fortune to become tutor to the young son of William Cavendish, earl of Devonshire. This circumstance introduced him to influential people, to a first-class library, and to foreign travel.

In 1610, on the first of Hobbes's visits to the Continent, he discovered the disrepute into which the Aristotelian system of thought was beginning to fall. Johannes Kepler had recently published his Astronomia Nova, and Galileo Galilei had just discovered the satellites of Jupiter through his telescope. Hobbes returned to England determined to devote himself to the pursuit of learning, a resolve that was probably strengthened by his meetings with Francis Bacon. Hobbes, however, thought little of Bacon's so-called method of induction, with its stress on observation and experiment, which was later to become the inspiration of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, he agreed with Bacon in his contempt for Aristotelianism, in his conviction that knowledge means power to be used for the improvement of man's estate, and in his advocacy of clear and concrete speech instead of the vague abstractions of the schools.

At this period of his life Hobbes had turned to the classics to gain an understanding of life and of philosophy, which, he thought, could not be found in the schools. After a period of reading and reflection, he decided to translate Thucydides into English, a significant choice. Like Thucydides, Hobbes believed that history was written for instruction, and he wished to instruct his countrymen on the dangers of democracy. In 1628, when Hobbes published his translation, Charles I had been on the throne for three years and was already at loggerheads with Sir John Eliot and John Pym. Hobbes's translation was the first of his many attempts to bring his countrymen to their senses and to make them aware of the tragedy that they courted: that of civil war, from which proceed "slaughter, solitude, and the want of all things."

Philosophical Awakening

It was not until the time of his second journey to the Continent that Hobbes's career as a philosopher began. His patron had died, and as a temporary economy, Catherine, the countess of Devonshire, had dispensed with Hobbes's services. Hobbes took similar employment with Sir Gervase Clinton and, in 1629, accompanied Clinton's son on a journey to the Continent. There Hobbes developed a passionate interest in geometry, which impressed him as a method for reaching indubitable conclusions. Could not his convictions about the dangers of democracy be demonstrated? Could not his opinions about man, gleaned from his observation of the contemporary scene, from his insight into his own nature, and from his perusal of the pages of Thucydides and Niccolò Machiavelli, be postulated as axioms from which theorems about the conditions of a commonwealth might be generated?

Hobbes's discovery of geometry gave him a method of analysis and a conception of scientific method, but he still lacked a conceptual scheme to give content to his demonstrations about man and society. In Paris, during his third journey to the Continent (16341637), again in the service of the Devonshires as tutor to William, the succeeding earl, he became a member of the intellectual circle of the Abbé Marin Mersenne, who patronized René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. (Gassendi later became one of Hobbes's firmest friends.) Hobbes also made a pilgrimage to Italy in 1636 to visit Galileo, the leading exponent of the new natural philosophy. By the time of his return to England in 1637, he had conceived, perhaps at Galileo's suggestion, the main outlines of his philosophical system, in which the method of geometry and the concepts of the new science of motion were to be applied to man in society.

It is a mistake to think of Hobbes's interests as purely political. Hobbes claimed originality for his optics as well as for his civil philosophy, and at some point between his discovery of geometry and his return from his third journey to the Continent, he wrote his first philosophical work, the Little Treatise, in geometrical form, in which he sketched an explanation of sensation in terms of the new science of motion. His interest in sensation, according to his prose autobiography, arose from an encounter with some learned men who were discussing the cause of sensation. One of them asked derisively what sensation was, and Hobbes was astonished to find that none of them could say. From then on, he was haunted by the problem of the nature and cause of sense. He began to think he was near an explanation after it struck him that if bodies were always at rest or always moved at a constant rate, the ability to make discriminations would vanish, and with it all sensation. He concluded that the cause of everything, including that of sensation itself, must be in variations of motion.

In his verse autobiography, Hobbes graphically related how, on his third journey, he was obsessed by the omnipresence of motion. He was acclimating himself to Galileo's audacious suggestion that motion is the natural state of bodies and that they continue in motion to infinity unless they are impeded. This went against the crude evidence of the senses as well as against the established Aristotelian worldview, in which rest was regarded as the natural state. But if Galileo's supposition could be entertained, Hobbes thought, even apparition itself could be explained as a meeting place of motions, and from Galileo's law of inertia the phenomena of sense and imagination could be deduced.

The state of turmoil in England on his return drove Hobbes to make his first systematic attempt to employ his geometrical approach and mechanistic psychology to present the realities beneath the appearances of the contemporary issues. His Elements of Law, circulated in 1640 in manuscript form during the session of Parliament, was the result. This work, which demonstrated the need for undivided sovereignty, was published in 1650 in two parts, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico. However, its arguments were taken from general principles of psychology and ethics, rather than from appeals to divine right. Many regard Hobbes's Human Nature as one of his best works. It consists largely of traditional psychology coordinated and underpinned by the conceptual scheme he had learned from Galileo.

Exile in France

Hobbes claimed later that his life would have been in danger because of the views expressed in Elements of Law, had not the king dissolved Parliament in May 1640. Six months later, when the Long Parliament impeached Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, Hobbes fled to the Continent in fear for his life, later priding himself on being "the first of all that fled." A warm welcome awaited him in Mersenne's circle, and he settled down in Paris to his most productive philosophical period.

His first work was the composition of some sixteen objections to Descartes's Meditations, which Mersenne submitted to Descartes in advance of its publication. This led to a rather acrimonious exchange between Descartes and Hobbes. In 1642 Hobbes published his De Cive, an expanded version in Latin of Part 2 of his Elements of Law (later to appear as De Corpore Politico ). The additional sections dealt largely with a more detailed treatment of the relationship between the church and the civil power. During the period from 1642 to 1646, Hobbes published his Minute or First Draught of the Optiques, which he considered one of his most important and original works. He also started work on his most ambitious schemethe construction of a trilogy on body, man, and citizen, in which everything in the world of nature and man was to be included in a conceptual scheme provided by the new science of mechanics. Hobbes made a beginning with De Corpore, which was to be the first work in the trilogy.

In 1646, however, political events again interfered with Hobbes's more abstract speculations. He was on the verge of accepting an invitation to retire in peace to a friend's house in Languedoc, in the south of France, when he was requested to act as tutor in mathematics to the future Charles II, who had just fled to Paris. Hobbes's tutorship, however, was interrupted, if not terminated, by a severe illness in 1647. He recovered after having consented to receive the sacrament on what he took to be his deathbed, and he was drawn again into political controversy by the presence of so many Royalist émigrés. A second edition of De Cive was published in 1647, but this was in Latin and had only a limited circulation. Hobbes therefore decided to blazon abroad his views on man and citizen for all to read, in English, with the arresting title of Leviathan. With Mersenne's unfortunate death in 1648, Hobbes began to feel increasingly isolated, for he was suspected of atheism and was an outspoken enemy of the Catholic Church.

Political events in England provided a fitting prelude to the publication of Leviathan. Charles I was executed in 1649 and, until 1653, when Oliver Cromwell was made Protector, there was constant discussion and experimentation to find an appropriate form of government. Leviathan, published in 1651, was therefore very topical. It came out strongly in favor of absolute and undivided sovereignty, without the usual arguments from divine right. Indeed, Hobbes conceded popular representation but, by an ingenious twisting of the social contract theory, showed that it logically implied the acceptance of undivided sovereignty.

Return to England

Hobbes returned to England in 1651 after a severe illness and soon became embroiled in a heated debate with John Bramhall, bishop of Derry, Ulster, on the subject of free will. In 1645, in Paris, Hobbes had discussed the problem of free will with the bishop, and they both wrote their views on the matter soon afterward. A young disciple of Hobbes published his contribution in 1654, without Hobbes's consent, under the title Of Liberty and Necessity. Bramhall was understandably indignant and, in 1655, he published the whole controversy under the title A Defence of True Liberty from Antecedent and Extrinsical Necessity. In 1656 Hobbes replied by printing Bramhall's book, together with his own observations on it, which he called The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance. Bramhall replied in 1658 with Castigations of Hobbes his Last Animadversions, which carried an appendix called "The Catching of Leviathan the Great Whale." Bramhall died in 1663, and Hobbes had the last word a few years later.

There was another controversy in which Hobbes was caught up for the major part of the twenty years that were left to him. This one involved John Wallis, professor of geometry at Oxford, who mercilessly exposed Hobbes's attempt in De Corpore (1665) to square the circlenot then such a ridiculous enterprise as it now seemsand Seth Ward, professor of astronomy, who launched a polemic against Hobbes's general philosophy. These two men were members of the "invisible college" that the king had recognized as the Royal Society in 1663. They were Puritans in religion and Baconians in their approach to science. Hobbes had annoyed them not simply by his attack on their religion and his contempt for the method of induction, but also by his diatribes on the universities as hotbeds of vice and sedition. Hobbes replied to their published criticisms with an emended English version of De Corpore with "Six Lessons" appended for Wallis. This was in turn attacked by Wallis, and the controversy dragged on for many years, often descending into personal vituperation on both sides.

Not all of Hobbes's remaining years, however, were spent on this abortive controversy. De Homine, the second part of his trilogy, was published in 1657. This dealt with optics and human nature, matters on which Hobbes's opinions were already well known; accordingly, it attracted little attention and was not translated.

After the Restoration, Hobbes was granted a pension and "free accesse to his Majesty, who was always much delighted in his witt and smart repartees" (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 152153). Only once again did he fear for his life. After the Great Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666), some reason was sought for God's displeasure, and a spasm of witch-hunting shook Parliament. A bill was passed by Parliament for the suppression of atheism, and a committee was set up to investigate Leviathan. The matter was eventually dropped, probably through the king's intervention, but Hobbes was forbidden to publish his opinions thereafter.

In 1668 Hobbes finished his Behemoth a history of the period from 1640 to 1660, interpreted in the light of his beliefs about man and society. He submitted it to King Charles, who advised against its publication (it was published posthumously in 1682).

Even at this advanced age Hobbes was still capable of exerting himself both physically (he played tennis until he was seventy-five) and philosophically. John Aubrey, later his biographer, sent him Bacon's Elements of Common Law for his comments; and Hobbes, after protesting his age, managed to produce his unfinished Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (published posthumously in 1681). This minor work was interesting in that Hobbes anticipated in it the analytical school of jurisprudence of the nineteenth century and came out unequivocally in favor of what has been called the command theory of law. At the age of eighty-four Hobbes wrote his autobiography in Latin verse after completing one in prose. At eighty-six, for want of something better to do, he published a verse translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Logic and Methodology

Hobbes lived during the emergence of men who challenged not only traditional tenets about political and religious authority but also the wisdom of the past, especially that of Aristotle. Men were exhorted to find out things for themselves, to consult their own consciences, and to communicate with God directly, instead of through the established religious hierarchy. It was widely believed that all men have the gift of reason but that they make poor use of it through lack of a proper method. Books such as Bacon's Novum Organum, Descartes's Regulae and Discourse on Method, and Benedict de Spinoza's Ethics were written to remedy this defect. Thus, Hobbes was not exceptional in believing that knowledge, which meant power, could be obtained only by adopting a certain kind of method.

According to Hobbes, the knowledge whereby most men live is the knowledge gleaned from experience, culminating in prudence and history"the register of knowledge of fact." Hobbes described experience as "nothing but remembrance of what antecedents have been followed by what consequents." Bacon had tried to set out this sort of knowledge explicitly in his Novum Organum, and it was taken by the Royal Society to be the paradigm of science.

doctrine of names

Hobbes, however, was very contemptuous of such grubbing around and peering at nature, not only in natural philosophy but also in civil philosophy. Had Galileo or William Harvey, the pioneers of the new philosophy, made a laborious summary of their experience? And in civil philosophy, what store is to be placed on the dreary saws of practical politicians or the ossified ignorance and superstitions of the common lawyers? Mere prudence, which is the product of experience, should not be mistaken for wisdom. Wisdom is the product of reason, which alone gives knowledge of "general, eternal, and immutable truths," as in geometry.

In geometry, definitions are of paramount importance. Therefore, claimed Hobbes: "The only way to know is by definition." Thus, science is "knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand." It gives knowledge not of the nature of things but of the names of things. We start with certain terms or names about whose definition we agree. We connect these into such statements as "A man is a rational, animated body," just as we add items in an account. We then find that if we follow certain methods of combining the statements so created, conclusions can be drawn that are contained in the premises but of which we were ignorant before we started reckoning. "For REASON, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting, of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts."

Obvious objections to such an account of scientific knowledge immediately come to mind. How, for instance, can we be sure that such a train of reasoning applies to anything? How are the meanings of Hobbes's names fixed, and how are the rules for their combinations determined?

Hobbes supposed that "names are signs not of things, but of our cogitations." Words are not the only things that can be signs; for instance, a heavy cloud can be a sign of rain. This means that from the cloud we can infer rain. This is an example of a natural sign; other examples are animal warnings of danger and summonses to food. These natural signs are to be distinguished from language proper, which consists of sounds, marks, and other such significations determinedas are the ruler of civil societyby decision. Animal noises come about by necessity, not by decision, as human speech does. That is why, on Hobbes's view, animals, though capable of imagery, cannot reason; for reasoning presupposes words with meanings fixed by decision.

Hobbes thought that every man has his own private world of phantasms or conceptions, for which words are signs that function for him like a private system of mnemonics. These words act as signs to others of what a man thinks and feels. Although some words signify conceptions, they are not names of conceptions; for Hobbes seemed to use the word name for the relation of reference between names and things, and words such as signify for the relationship between particular occurrences of a name and the idea in a person's mind. Some names are names of things themselves, such as "a man," "a tree," or "a stone," whereas others, such as "future," do not stand for or name things that as yet have any being. Such words signify the knitting together of things past and things present. In a similar way there are names, such as "impossible" and "nothing," that are not names of anything. Such names are signs of our conceptions, but they name or stand for "things" that do not exist.

Hobbes's doctrine was not altogether clear. He seemed to mean that all names serve as mnemonics to us of our conceptions and as signs to others of what we have in mind, but that only some names actually denote things in a strict sense. This leads to the distinctions that Hobbes introduced in relation to the logical function of names. Names can be either concrete or abstract. Concrete names can denote bodies, their accidents, or their names. Abstract names come into being only with propositions and denote "the cause of concrete names."


There are two classes of concrete names: proper names and universal names. A proper name, such as "Peter," is singular to one thing only; a universal name, such as "man," denotes each member of a class of things. A universal name, "though but one name, is nevertheless the name of diverse particular things; in respect of which together, it is called a universal; there being nothing in the world universal but names; for the things named are every one of them individual and singular."

Hobbes's doctrine of universal names was crucial to his attack on the scholastic belief in essences. The world, Hobbes maintained, contains no such essences for universal names to designate. "Universal" is the name of a class of names, not of a diaphanous type of entity designated by a name. The error of those who believe in essences derives from their tendency to treat a universal name as if it were a peculiar kind of proper name. It is the use of a name that makes it universal, not the status of the thing that the name designates.

Hobbes's doctrine of abstract names was more obscure but of cardinal importance in his account of scientific knowledge. Abstract names come into being when names are joined in propositions. A proposition is "a speech consisting of two names copulated, by which he that speaketh signifieth the latter name to be the name of the same thing whereof the former is the name." For instance, in saying "man is a living creature," the speaker conceives "living creature" and "man" to be names of the same thing, the name "man" being comprehended by the name "living creature." This relation of "comprehension" can be brought out in some languages by the order of words without employing the verb "to be." The copulation of the two names "makes us think of the cause for which these names were imposed on that thing," and this search for the causes of names gives rise to such abstract names as "corporeity," "motion," "figure," "quantity," and "likeness." But these denote only the causes of concrete names and not the things themselves. For instance, we see something that is extended and fills space, and we call it by the concrete name "body." The cause of the concrete name is that the thing is extended, "or the extension or corporeity of it." These causes are the same as the causes of our conceptions, "namely, some power of action, or affection of the thing conceived, which some call the manner by which anything works upon our senses, but by most men they are called accidents." Accidents are neither the things themselves nor parts of them, but "do nevertheless accompany the things in such manner, that (saving extension) they may all perish, and be destroyed, but can never be abstracted." Among such accidents some are of particular importance for science, those which Hobbes sometimes referred to as "universal things" or "such accidents as are common to all bodies." These are the abstract concepts by means of which a theory is developed about the underlying structure of nature. The endeavor of the scientist is to understand, by means of the resoluto-compositive method of Galilean mechanics, the universal causemotionwithout knowledge of which such fundamental theories could not be developed.

misuses of words

Hobbes has often been called the precursor of modern analytical philosophy because he was particularly sensitive to the manner in which ridiculous (and dangerous) doctrines can be generated through confusion about how words have meaning. One class of absurdities is generated by failure to understand the different ways in which the copula "is" can function. Such terms as essence, reality, and quiddity, beloved by the schools, "could never have been heard among such nations as do not copulate their names by the verb 'is,' but by adjective verbs as runneth, readeth." The word is in a proposition such as "Man is a living body" has the function of "comprehension" or class inclusion. Something of the form "If x is a man, then x is a living body" is being stated. There is no commitment to the existence of men that is implied when is occurs in such statements as "Here is Thomas Hobbes."

Absurdities also arise if names of accidents are assimilated to names of bodies. For instance, those who say that faith is "infused" or "inspired" into a person treat faith as if it were the name of a body, for only bodies can be poured or breathed into anything. An accident is not in a body in the same sort of way that a body can be in a body"as if, for example, redness were in blood, in the same manner, as blood is in a bloody cloth." Hobbes was also eloquent on the subject of names that name nothing.

scientific truth

Hobbes's theory of scientific truth was not altogether consistent. He started with the important insight that "true" and "false" are attributes of speech, not of things. Truth, then, "consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations." It characterizes propositions in which names of limited generality are "comprehended" by those of wider generality: For example, "Charity is a virtue." Hobbes held, it therefore seems, that all true propositions are analytically true, which is a plausible enough view if only geometrical truths are at issue. But Hobbes often spoke as if all truth must conform to this model. He saw that this raises the question of how the initial definitions are to be fixed, and about these definitions he often seemed to take a conventionist view by suggesting that "truth therefore depends upon the compacts and consents of men." He often linked the contract theory of the origin of civil society with a theory about agreement on definitions. When he was speaking about natural science, however, his position was not so clearly conventionist. The difference was caused by his assumption that men construct states just as they construct circles or triangles. But since they do not construct natural bodies in the same way, the problem therefore arises as to how Hobbes thought that propositions of natural science, which did not come into being through decisions of men, say what is true about the natural world.

Hobbes thought that all the propositions of natural science are deductions from the basic theory of motion, in which there are primary propositions containing such simple unanalyzable concepts as motion, extension, and straightness. These are "well enough defined, when, by speech as short as may be, we raise in the mind of the hearer perfect and clear ideas of the thing named" (De Corpore ). Such conceptions are featured in Hobbes's account of evidence, which is "the concomitance of a man's conception with the words that signify such conception in the act of ratiocination" (Human Nature ). A parrot could speak truth but could not know it, for it would lack the conceptions that accompany the speaking of truth by a man who knows truth. "Evidence is to truth, as the sap to the tree for this evidence, which is meaning with our words, is the life of truth. Knowledge thereof, which we call science, I define to be evidence of truth, from some beginning or principle of sense."

Conceptions, in Hobbes's view, are explained causally in terms of motions that arise in the head and persist after the stimulation of sense organs by external bodies. Names, which are joined together in true propositions, are signs of these conceptions in that they mark them for the individual and enable other people to make inferences about what he thinks. Thus, Hobbes must have thought that when a man knows (as distinct from when he merely speaks) what is true, his conceptions, as it were, keep pace with what he is saying. Some of these conceptions, those involved in understanding primary propositions, are clear and distinct ideas of things named. Thus, scientific systems are somehow anchored to the world of nature by means of names that refer to attributes of bodies of which we have a clear and distinct idea.

This theory resembles, in certain respects, the self-evidence theory of the Cartesians. However, it seems inconsistent with the conventionalism of Hobbes's other remarks about basic definitions and is a very confused account in itself, not very helpful in elucidating what makes scientific propositions true. In the empirical sciences the clarity of the ideas in the initial postulates is neither here nor there. What matters is whether statements deduced from them can be observationally confirmed.

scientific inquiry

The ambiguity in Hobbes's account of truth is paralleled by the ambiguity in his account of scientific method, which he equated with the search for causes. One of his most famous definitions of philosophy or scientific knowledge (he did not distinguish between the two) occurs at the start of De Corpore (Molesworth ed.): "philosophy is such knowledge of effects or appearances, as we acquire by true ratiocination from the knowledge we have first of their causes or generation: And again, of such causes or generations as may be from knowing first their effects." By "cause" Hobbes meant, of course, antecedent motion, and he was unusual in thinking that even geometrical figures are to be explained in terms of motion because of the movements involved in constructing them.

Hobbes's distinction between these two forms of philosophical knowledge is important. In the case of acquiring knowledge of effects from knowledge of causes or generation, his conventionist account of truth holds good. For instance, in the case of deciding that a figure must be a circle from our knowledge of the motions from which it was produced, "the truth of the first principles of our ratiocination, namely definitions, is made and constituted by ourselves, whilst we consent and agree upon the appellation of things." He used this method in De Corpore to explain parallel lines, refraction and reflection, circular and other forms of motion, angles, and similar concepts. It also seems that he had this model in mind when he thought about the generation of the artificial machine of the commonwealth.

When dealing with knowledge of causes from effects, however, Hobbes's account is far less clear-cut and conventionist. At the beginning of Part 4 of De Corpore, for instance, he said: "The principles, therefore, upon which the following discourse depends, are not such as we ourselves make and pronounce in general terms, as definitions: but such, as being placed in the things themselves by the Author of Nature, are by us observed in them." The explanations that we give in the natural sciences may be true, but it is impossible to demonstrate that they are necessarily true, for the phenomena are not generated by human contrivance, as are the phenomena of geometry and politics.

The method on which Hobbes was relying in both these types of scientific inquiry was, of course, the resoluto-compositive method of Galilean mechanics. In this method a typical phenomenon, such as the rolling of a stone down a slope, was taken. Such properties as color and smell, which were regarded as scientifically irrelevant, were disregarded, and the situation was resolved into simple elements that could be quantifiedthe length and angle of the slope, the weight of the stone, the time the stone takes to fall. The mathematical relations disclosed were then manipulated until functional relations between the variables were established. The situation was then synthesized or "composed" in a rational structure of mathematical relations. This is what Hobbes called analysisthe search for causes, given the effects. "Synthesis" consisted in starting from the known causes and deducing effects from them. In Galileo's hands this method was highly successful because he tested such deductions by observation. In Hobbes's hands the method was not so fruitful because it always remained an imaginary experiment.

Similar ambiguities in Hobbes's methodology complicate our effort to understand his conception of his trilogy on body, man, and citizen. He thought of geometry as the science of simple motions that could demonstrate how figures are generated by varieties of motion. Second came the philosophy of motion, as usually understood in the Galilean system, in which the effects of the palpable motions of one body on another were considered. Third came physics, the investigation of the internal and invisible motions that explain why "things when they are the same, yet seem not to be the same, but changed." Sensible qualities, such as light, color, heat, and sound, were to be explained, together with the nature of sensation itself. After physics came moral philosophy, the study of the motions of the mindappetites and aversions. Such motions of the mind had their causes in sense and imagination. Finally, there was civil philosophy, the study of how states are generated from the qualities of human nature.

It is probable that Hobbes did not view the hierarchy of sciences as a rigorous deductive system. To start with, he never worked out the deductions in any detailfor instance, in the transition from what he called physics to moral philosophy, or psychology. Furthermore, what he said about the possibility of a self-contained science of politics contradicts his suggestion that it must be deduced from the fundamental theory of motion and that it supports the conventionist account of truth in politics. Hobbes said that even those who are ignorant of the principles of physics and geometry might attain knowledge of the principles of politics by the analytical method. They could start, for instance, with the question of whether an action is just or unjust; "unjust" could be resolved into "fact against law," and "law" into "command of him or them that have coercive power"; "power" could in its turn be derived from the wills of men who established such power so that they might live in peace.

This line of argument, developed in De Corpore after admitting the possibility of using the synthetic method to start from the first principles of philosophy and deduce from them the causes and necessity of constituting commonwealths, is confirmed by Hobbes's injunction in the Introduction to Leviathan that a man who is to govern a whole nation must "read in himself, not this or that particular man; but mankind: which though it be hard to do, harder than to learn any language of science; yet when I shall have set down my own reading, orderly and perspicuously, the pains left another, will be only to consider, if he find not the same in himself. For this kind of doctrine admitteth no other demonstration." It appears that Hobbes envisaged a relatively self-contained doctrine of politics based on introspection. His trilogy was, therefore, probably not conceived as forming a strictly deductive system. Its various elements were to be more loosely bound together by the fact that all three were sciences of motion.

Philosophy of Nature

Hobbes's natural philosophy seems to have been stimulated largely by the problem of the nature and cause of sensation that had so long haunted him. His theory was that the cause of everything, including sensation itself, lies in the varieties of motion. His first sketches of such a theory were in his Little Treatise and his early optical treatises, and his De Corpore was an ambitious development of this fundamental idea. Geometry, physics, physiology, and animal psychology were all incorporated within the theory of motion. Sensation occupied a shadowy middle position between the gross motions of the external world and the minute motions of the bodily organs.

The strange thing about Hobbes's preoccupation with sensation is that he seems to have been little troubled by the problems that are almost the stock in trade of philosophersthe problems of epistemology. He assumed that things exist independently of our perceptions of them and was convinced that "conceptions and apparitions are nothing really but motions in some internal substance of the head." The "nothing but" is very hard to accept, for obviously when we speak of "thoughts" and "conceptions," we do not mean the same as when we talk of motions in the brain.

motion and qualities

On the status of the various sense qualities, Hobbes held, as did such natural philosophers as Kepler and Galileo, that secondary qualitiessuch as smells, colors, and soundsare only appearances of bodies, whose real properties are those of extension, figure, and motion. Such secondary qualities are phantasms in the head, caused by the primary properties of external objects interacting with the sense organs, but the secondary qualities represent nothing outside. Hobbes argued that images and colors are "inherent in the sentient" because of illusions and because of images produced in other waysfor example, by blows on the optic nerve. But this proved too much, for representations of primary qualities are equally liable to deceive. Hobbes also proved too little, for he argued that secondary qualities represent no qualities of external objects because tastes, smells, and sounds seem different to different sentients. But there are standard tests for establishing the fact, for example, that a man is colorblind; and, as George Berkeley later showed, the perception of primary qualities is infected with a similar relativity owing to the point of view and peculiarities of the percipient. Hobbes, in fact, gave but a halting philosophical patter to justify a distinction deeply embedded in the thought and practice of the new natural philosophers, for the basic tenet of these thinkers was that bodies in motion exist independently of our perception of them and that mathematical thinking about them discloses their real properties.

Hobbes regarded sensation and apparition as a meeting place of motions. Sense organs, he thought, are agitated by external movements without which there would be no discrimination and, hence, no sensation. Therefore, to give the entire cause of sense, an analysis is required of all movements in external bodies, which are transmitted to the sense through a medium. But sensation is not simply the end product of external motions; it also functions as an efficient cause of actions of sentient beings. Actions, in Hobbes's view, are really reactions to stimuli that are passed on by means of the sense organs. Sensation acts as a bridge between movements in the external world and the behavior of animals and men.

Hobbes's mechanical theory was distinctive in that he extended the Galilean system in two directions: into geometry at one end, and into psychology and politics at the other. He thought that no one could understand the definitions of geometry without grasping how motion is involved in the construction of lines, superficies, and circles. Geometry is the science of simple motions. It paves the way for mechanics, which explains the effects of the motions of one body on another, and for physics, which deals with the generation of sensible qualities from the insensible parts of a body in contact with other moving bodies.


All causation, in Hobbes's view, consists in motion. "There can be no cause of motion except in a body contiguous and moved." If bodies are not contiguous and yet influence one another, this influence has to be conveyed either by a medium or by emanations of minute bodies that impinge on others (the theory of effluxes). There can be no action at a distance. Hobbes combined this principle with his rendering of Galileo's law of inertia.

Hobbes extended this conception of causation to human actions: "A final cause has no place but in such things as have sense and will; and this also I shall prove hereafter to be an efficient cause." To bring about this transition from mechanics to physiology and psychology, Hobbes introduced the concept of "endeavour," which he defined as "motion made in less space and time than can be given that is, motion made through the length of a point, and in an instant or point of time." In other words, he used the term to postulate infinitely small motions, and by means of this notion he tried to bridge the gap between mechanics and psychology. He thought that external objects, working on the sense organs, produce not only phantasms but also minute motions that proceed to the heart and make some alteration in the vital motions of the circulation of the blood. When these vital motions are thereby helped, we experience pleasure; when they are hindered, we experience pain. The body will be regulated in such a way that it will preserve the motions that help the vital motions and get rid of or shun those that hinder. This brings about animal motion. Even habits are nothing but motions made more easy by repeated endeavors; they are comparable to the bend of a crossbow.

Hobbes has often been called a materialist, but it is more appropriate to regard him as a great metaphysician of motion. He took concepts that have an obvious application to one realm of phenomena (mechanics) and developed a conceptual scheme that, he thought, could be applied to all phenomena. The plausibility of such a scheme derives from stressing tenuous similarities and ignoring palpable differences. There is a sense in which social life is a matter of bodies moving toward and away from other bodies, just as there is a sense in which work is moving lumps of matter about. But such descriptions are either unilluminating truisms, or, if they carry the "nothing but" implication, they are misleading. Habits, for example, may be formed in part by a variety of movements, but to suggest that by "habit" we mean nothing but a buildup of movements is ridiculous. This either confuses a question of meaning with a question of genetic explanation or it demonstrates the length to which Hobbes was prepared to go in rigging appearances to suit his metaphysical redescription.

substance and accident

In his De Corpore Hobbes defined "body" as "that which having no dependence upon our thought, is coincident and coextended with some part of space." Bodies need not be visible. Indeed, "endeavours," which featured so widely in his system, are movements of minute unobservable bodies. Hobbes held that there is nothing else in the world but bodies, and he therefore did not flinch from the conclusion that "substance incorporeal" is a contradiction in terms. He argued that God cannot be such a substance. To Bishop Bramhall's question of what he took God to be, Hobbes replied, "I answer, I leave him to be a most pure, simple, invisible, spirit corporeal."

By "accident" Hobbes meant a property or characteristic that is not a part of a thing but "the manner by which any body is conceived." Most accidents, with the exception of figure and extension, can be absent without destruction of the body. But Hobbes was not altogether clear about the grounds for such an exception. If the grounds are the inconceivability of a body without figure and extension, why should not color be in the same category as figure? Hobbes regarded color as a subjective appearance brought about by the interaction of sense organs with the primary qualities of external objects; but if the criterion is one of conceivability, as Berkeley pointed out, it is as difficult to conceive of a body without color as it is to conceive of one without figure. Hobbes in fact defined "body" in terms of accidents that are mathematically tractable in mechanics and geometry. He tried to provide some kind of rationale for this basic assumption of the new natural philosophy by introducing the criterion of conceivability, which will not really do the work required of it.

Hobbes defined space as "the phantasm of a thing existing without the mind simply." By this he meant that what is called space is the appearance of externality. If the world were to be destroyed, and a man were left alone with his imagination and memories, some of these would appear external to him, or located in space, for the system of coordinates used to describe the relative position of bodies is a subjective framework. "Place is nothing out of the mind nor magnitude anything within it." A body always keeps the same magnitude, whether in motion or at rest, but it does not keep the same place when it moves. Place cannot, therefore, be an accident of bodies; place is feigned extensionan order of position constructed from experience of real extended things to provide a framework for their externality. Similarly, time is "the phantasm of before and after in motion." Time systems are constructed from the experience of succession.

Hobbes never made clear the relationship between any particular temporal or spatial system that an individual may devise and the system of coordinates adopted by the natural philosophers. Here again, Hobbes typically took for granted the system used by the scientists and tacked on a very brief philosophical story about its relation to the "phantasms" of the individual.


Hobbes's psychology was not behavioristic, as it has sometimes been said to be, except insofar as behaviorism has often been associated with a materialistic metaphysical theory or with mechanical modes of explanation. Hobbes stressed the indispensability of introspection in the analysis and explanation of human behavior.

When Hobbes looked into himself he found, of course, motions that were in conformity with Galilean principles. He boldly proclaimed in De Corpore that "we have discovered the nature of sense, namely, that it is some internal motion in the sentient." The external body, either directly or via a medium, presses on the organ of sense, "which pressure, by the mediation of the nerves, and other strings and membranes of the body, continues inwards to the brain and heart, causeth there a resistance, or counterpressure, or endeavour of the heart to deliver itself, which endeavour, because outward, seemeth to be some matter without." Sensations are thus nothing but motions. They have the character of externality because of the "outward endeavor" of the heart.


Having provided a mechanical starting point for his psychology, Hobbes then tried to describe what was known about psychological phenomena in terms compatible with a mechanical theory. One of the most obvious features of perception is that it involves seeing something as something, some sort of discrimination or recognition. Hobbes's way of saying this was that sense always has "some memory adhering to it." This was to be explained by the sense organs' property of acting as retainers of the movements of external bodies impinging on them. Without this retention of motions, what we call sense would be impossible, for "by sense we commonly understand the judgment we make of objects by their phantasms; namely, by comparing and distinguishing those phantasms; which we could never do, if that motion in the organ, by which the phantasm is made, did not remain there for some time, and make the same phantasm return."

The selectivity of perception raised a further problem. Why is it that men do not see many things at once? Hobbes again suggested a mechanical explanation: "For seeing the nature of sense consists in motion; as long as the organs are employed about one object, they cannot be so moved by another at the same time, as to make by both their motions one sincere phantasm of each of them at once." But this does nothing to explain why one object rather than another is selected. Hobbes's ideomotor theory made it hard to give a plausible account of the influence of interests, attitudes, and sets on what is selected in perception.

Hobbes also attempted a mechanical explanation of the phenomena of attention and concentration. When a strong motion impinges on the sense organ, the motion from the root of the sense organ's nerves to the heart persists contumaciously and makes the sense organ "stupid" to the registering of other motions.

imagination and memory

Hobbes's account of imagination was explicitly a deduction from the law of inertia. "When a body is once in motion, it moveth, unless something else hinder it, eternally so also it happeneth in that motion, which is made in the internal parts of a man when he sees, dreams, etc. For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it." Imagination, therefore, is "nothing but decaying sense." This decay is not a decay in motion, for that would be contrary to the law of inertia. Rather, it comes about because the sense organs are moved by other objects, and subsequent movements obscure previous ones "in such manner as the light of the sun obscureth the light of the stars."

Memory, Hobbes claimed, differs from imagination only in that the fading image is accompanied by a feeling of familiarity. "For he that perceives that he hath perceived remembers," and memory "supposeth the time past." Hobbes thus seems to have more or less equated what is past with what is familiar, which is most implausible even if familiarity is often a hallmark of what is past. It is also difficult to see how, in his view, remembering something could be distinguished from seeing it for a second time, if the second impression of the thing is not very vivid.

Hobbes's fundamental mistake in all such descriptions and explanations was to attempt to distinguish performances, such as perceiving and remembering, by reference to subjective hallmarks vaguely consistent with his mechanical theory, rather than by reference to the epistemological criteria written into them. The fundamental difference between perception and imagination, for instance, is not one of vividness or any other such accidental property; it is an epistemological difference. To say that a person imagines a tree rather than perceives it is to say something about the status of what is claimed. To perceive is to see something that really is before one's eyes; to imagine is to think one sees something that is not there. Similarly, to remember is to be right in a claim one makes about something in the past that one was in a position to witness, whereas to imagine is to be mistaken in what one claims. There are, of course, further questions about the mechanisms by means of which people perceive, imagine, and remember; and it could be that some such mechanical story as told by Hobbes might be true about such mechanisms. But in the language of such a story the basic epistemological differences between these mental performances could never be made, and although the mechanical story might give an account of some of the necessary conditions of such performances, it is difficult to see how it could ever serve as a sufficient explanation of them.


The same general critique concerning neglect of epistemological criteria must be made of Hobbes's treatment of thought, which he equated with movements of some substance in the head. There may be movements in the brain that are necessary conditions of thought, but no description of such conditions should be confused with what is meant by "thought." We do speak of "the movement of thought," but this is a description of transitions, as from premises to conclusions or from problems to solutions, not of movements explicable in terms of mechanical laws.

Even though Hobbes's general account of thought was rather hamstrung by his obsession with mechanics, he nevertheless had some quite illuminating things to say about trains of thought, an account that owed more to Aristotle than to Galileo. Hobbes distinguished "unguided" thought from that directed by a passionate thought or plan. Unguided thought followed principles that later came to be called principles of associationfor example, spatiotemporal contiguity and similarity. Hobbes, however, made no attempt to formulate principles of this kind. He was much more interested in, and attached much more importance to, guided thought, in which desire for an end holds the train of thought together and determines the relevance of its content.

Hobbes distinguished two main types of regulated thinking. The first was the classic Aristotelian case of deliberation, where desire provides the end, and the means to this end are traced back until something is reached that is in a person's power to do. This faculty of invention is shared by the animals, but they do not share the other sort of guided thinking that Hobbes called prudence. In prudence the starting place is an action that is in a person's power to perform, and the store of past experience is used to speculate on its probable effects. In this case, deliberation leads forward to an end that is either desired or feared. Hobbes seemed to think that people's prudence is in proportion to the amount of past experience on which they can draw. This sounds improbable, for although children cannot be prudent, many old people miss the relevance of their past experience.


Dreams fascinated Hobbes. He attempted to determine what distinguishes them from waking thoughts and to develop a mechanical theory to explain them. He claimed that they lack coherence because they lack the thought of an end to guide them. Dreams consist of compounded phantasms of past sensations, for "in the silence of sense there is no new motion from the objects, and therefore no new phantasm." Dreams are clearer than the imaginations of waking men because of the predominance of internal motion in the absence of external stimulation. There is no sense of time in dreams, and nothing appears surprising or absurd.

There is an intimate connection between dreams and bodily states. Lying cold, for instance, produces dreams of fear and raises the image of a fearful object. The motions pass both from the brain to the inner parts and from the inner parts to the brain. So, just as anger causes overheating in some parts of the body, overheating of the same parts can cause anger and, with it, the picture of an enemy. Dreams are thus the reverse of waking imaginations. Motion begins at one end during waking life and at the other end during sleep. This tendency to project images produced by bodily states gives rise to belief in apparitions and visions. Hobbes's treatment of dreams typified his approach to such matters. He seemed uninterested in the epistemological questions to which they give rise, as, for instance, in the thought of his contemporary, Descartes.


Hobbes's mechanical theory of human action hinged on his concept of "endeavour," by means of which he tried to show how the gross movements of the body in desire and aversion could be explained in terms of minute unobservable motions in the body. He postulated two sorts of motion in the body. The first is its vital motion, manifest in such functions as circulation of the blood, breathing, and nutrition, which proceeds without external stimulation or the help of the imagination. The second is animal motion, which is equivalent to such voluntary movements as walking and speaking. This is always "first fancied in our minds" and is produced by the impact of external stimuli on the sense organs, an impact that gives rise both to phantasms in the brain and to internal motions that impinge on the vital motions of the heart. If the motion of the blood is helped, this is felt as pleasure; if it is impeded, as pain. Pleasure, Hobbes said, is "nothing really but motion about the heart, as conception is nothing but motion in the head." In the case of pleasure, the spiritswhich were thought of as vaporous substances flowing through the tubes of the nervesare guided, by the help of the nerves, to preserve and augment the motion. When this endeavor tends toward things known by experience to be pleasant, it is called appetite; when it shuns what is painful, it is called aversion. Appetite and aversion are thus the first endeavors of animal motion. We talk about "will" when there is deliberation before acting, for will is "the last appetite in deliberating."

Hobbes's theory of the passions was an attempt to graft the traditional Aristotelian account of them onto his crude mechanical base. Love and hate are more or less the same as appetite and aversion, the only difference being that they require the actual presence of the object, whereas appetite and aversion presuppose its absence. These, together with joy and grief, which both involve foresight of an end rather than just an immediately perceived object, are the simple passions out of which others are compounded. Social life is a race for precedence that has no final termination save death. "So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless striving of power after power, that ceaseth only in death." To endure in the race requires foresight and scheming; to fail to compete is to die. A man who is convinced that his own power is greater than that of others is subject to what Hobbes called glory; its opposite is humility or dejection. Pity is grief for the calamity of another, arising from imagination that a like calamity may befall ourselves. Laughter is the expression of sudden glory caused by something new and unexpected in which we discover some superiority to others in ourselves.

Hobbes also introduced motion into his theory of individual differences. He thought that such differences are derivative from differences in passions and in the ends to which men are led by appetite, as well as to the sluggishness or agility of the animal spirits involved in the vital motions of their respective bodies.

The basic difficulty in understanding Hobbes's theory of motivation arises from his attempt to underpin a psychology derived from introspection, from the shrewd observation of others, and from the tradition going back to Aristotle with a mechanical theory whose outline was only very briefly sketched. Perhaps the essential criticism of any such theory is that actions cannot be analyzed into mere movements because, in any action properas distinct from a nervous tic or a reflexthe movements take place because of an end that the person has in mind. This end is what makes the action one of a certain sort, and, provided that the movements are directed toward this end, an almost indefinite range of movements can form part of the same action. Similarly, the movements involved in raising one's hand can form part of quite different actions, depending on the purpose for which the hand is raisedfor example, to signal, to test the direction of the wind, to stretch the muscles, and so on.

Having something in mindwhich is part of the concept of "action"is not a movement, still less a movement of some internal substance of the head, if this is what Hobbes really believed. But Hobbes was not at all clear on the relationship between movements, whether observable or unobservable, and the cognitive components of appetites, aversions, and the various passions. Indeed, he seems to have held an extremely paradoxical and overintellectualistic view about the cognitive component of the passions. For he saw that passions are to be distinguished by their objects and by the judgment of the possibility of attaining such objects, yet he injected into his account a bizarre kind of egocentricity. For Hobbes, in all cases of passions the notion of "self" was part of the content of cognition. He seemed to think that all such "phantasms" of objects, by reference to which the passions are to be distinguished, involve the thought of ourselves doing something or of our power to do something. Pity is thus seen as grief arising from our imagining ourselves in the same predicament as that of the one pitied. Hobbes's analysis of laughter palpably suffered from the same injection of egocentricity. Furthermore, how the highly sophisticated and narcissistic type of appraisal involved in the passions is to be reconciled with any attempt to represent them all as movements of the body and of some internal substance in the head is very difficult to determine.

For all its ambiguities, oversights, and obvious defects, Hobbes's psychology was remarkable, for he attempted to establish it as an objective study untrammeled by theological assumptions. To suggest that man is a machine was a great step forward in thought. Even though the hypothesis is probably untenable, it marked the beginning of the effort to use scientific methods and objective concepts in the sphere of human behavior. In the seventeenth century this was a novel undertaking, as well as a dangerous one.


Hobbes thought that, by employing the resolutive method, he could demonstrate the absolute necessity of leagues and covenants and the rudiments of moral and civil prudence from his two principles of human nature"the one arising from the concupiscible part, which desires to appropriate to itself the use of those things in which all others have a joint interest; the other proceeding from the rational which teaches every man to fly a contranatural dissolution, as the greatest mischief that can arrive to nature." These two principles underlie Hobbes's account of the personal good, as well as his account of civil duty.

Hobbes was scornful of the notion that "good" and "evil" name any metaphysical essence. These words 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." They name objects of our desires and aversions. We call a horse "good," for instance, because it is "gentle, strong, and carrieth a man easily." The desires of the individual determine what qualities are selected to furnish the ground for saying that an object is good.

Hobbes introduced a further refinement of this theory when he contrasted short-term goods with long-term goods. "Reason," he said, "declaring peace to be good, it follows by the same reason, that all the necessary means to peace be good also." This he contrasted with the sway of irrational appetite, whereby men "greedily prefer the present good." He thought that a man might not desire peace at a particular moment when influenced by some insistent desire; but when he sat down soberly in a cool hour, he would see that peace is a necessary condition of satisfying most of his desires in the long run. Thus, peace is something that he must desire both because of his fear of death and because of the other things he desires to do that a state of war would make impossible.

Hobbes was a nominalist, and he thought that all words have meaning, as if they were some kind of name. He did not see, as Berkeley seems to have seen a little later, that words such as good have a prescriptive function and cannot be treated merely as if they were names. To say that something is good is to say that it is what it ought to be; it is to commend it. But also it implies that there are grounds for such commendation. It is to guide a person by suggesting grounds for his choice; it is not to order him or goad him. Hobbes saw that "good" is always thus connected with reasons, but he gave a very circumscribed account of what such reasons must be like, that is, characteristics of things desired. This was modified somewhat by what he said a man desires insofar as he uses his reason, that is, insofar as his "rational" as well as his "concupiscible" nature is involved. Hobbes's account of what a man desires would not be implausible if his account of human nature were acceptable, for then what men must desire could be predicted. But, if his account of human nature is rejected as oversimple, there cannot be quite such a tight connection as Hobbes suggested between "good" and what is, or will be, desired.

The connection is probably looser; given that words such as good have the practical function of guiding people's choices, it would be impossible to explain their effectiveness in this function if it were not generally the case that what was held up as good was something that people in general wanted. But it does not follow from this that any particular individual desires, or must desire, what is held up to him as good. Indeed, half the business of moral education consists in drawing people's attention to characteristics of things that they ought to desire but do not in fact desire.

state of nature and laws of nature

Morality is not concerned simply with the pursuit of personal good; it is also concerned with the acceptance of rules that limit the pursuit of good when it affects that of others. A tradition going back to the Stoics held that there was a small corpus of such rules, called the law of nature; these rules, which were universal preconditions of social life, did not depend, as do custom and law, on local circumstances. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius regarded this law of nature as a self-evident set of principles binding on all men (on kings as well as on their subjects) that would provide a rational basis for a system of international law; it was, he claimed, fundamental in the sphere of social rules in the same sort of way that Galileo's postulates were fundamental in the realm of nature. Morals could be brought within the expanding empire of the mathematical sciences.

Hobbes, therefore, was not original in his claim that "the true doctrine of the laws of nature is the true moral philosophy," nor was he original in likening its precepts to axioms. What was original was his claim that its precepts were axioms of prudence, insofar as "prudence" implies considerations limited to those that affect only the agent. For Grotius, the maintenance of society was a major need of man as a social animal, irrespective of purely private benefits. Hobbes, however, maintained that more or less the same set of rules that Grotius regarded as binding (such as keeping faith and fair dealing) could be shown to be axioms that must be accepted by any man who is both rational and afraid of death. "All society, therefore, is either for gain or for glory; that is, not so much for love of our fellows as for love of ourselves."

Man, Hobbes argued, shuns death "by a certain impulsion of nature, no less than that whereby a stone moves downward." This is what saves man from anarchy and civilizes him, for if man were driven merely by his "concupiscible" part, there would be no society, and the life of man would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Men are equal enough in body and mind to render negligible any palpable claims to superior benefits, and even the weakest is able to kill the strongest. But man's fear of death brings him up short in his pursuit of power and leads him to reflect upon the predicament of a state of nature. His reason tells him that peace is necessary for survival and also "suggesteth certain articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they, which otherwise are called the Laws of Nature." One of these laws is that "men perform their covenants made." In this way Hobbes claimed to demonstrate "the absolute necessity of leagues and covenants, and thence the rudiments both of moral and of civil prudence."

Hobbes's demonstration gave only the semblance of validity because he isolated the concupiscible and rational aspects of man's nature from each other and, as in a Galilean imaginary experiment, explored the consequences of each independently. Given only man's self-assertion, then there must be a state of nature; given only his overwhelming aversion to death, then he must accept the conditions necessary for avoiding death. These axioms of prudence are hypothetical in relation to man's assumed fear of death. They are rules that a rational man must accept insofar as he wants to avoid death. But men are only partly rational and, although they have an overwhelming fear of death, they also want other things, such as power and glory. Presumably Hobbes, like Machiavelli, could also have laid down rules for obtaining power and glory that would have borne no resemblance to the laws of nature. Thus, Hobbes could not have been trying to show that virtue, as defined by adherence to the laws of nature, is natural to man or a deduction from his nature, as have many thinkers who have adopted a psychological starting point. Indeed, the general relationship between Hobbes's psychology and his ethics is too obscure for us to know quite what he was doing.

The key to Hobbes's "demonstration" really lies in what he did with it, for he went on to point out that the laws of nature are only theorems that any rational man would accept. Since these laws need the backing of the sword to ensure peace, men have need of a "common power to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit." The rationale of Hobbes's demonstration can now be seen, for at the time that Hobbes was writing, England was precariously poised between anarchy and civil disorder. Hobbes's analysis was a Galilean "resolution" of such a situation into the simple components of human nature that formed its basis. He pointed out that, insofar as men want peace and security (and all men do want this, although they want other things as well), then they must see that, human nature being what it is, there are certain means that they must accept if they are to have what they want. It is irrational to want something and yet to refuse to take the only means that will ensure that what is wanted is obtained. Since the acceptance of social rules is based only on the fear of death, it is only the fear of death that will ensure that these rules are obeyed. Men therefore cannot have the peace they all desire unless they accept the sword of the sovereign that will make death the consequence of breaking the rules that are a necessary condition of peace.

determinism and free will

The indeterminate position of Hobbes's psychology in relation to his ethics was encouraged by his belief in determinismor "necessitation," as he usually called itwhich he outlined in his controversy with Bishop Bramhall. Hobbes denied that there is any power in men to which the term will refers; what is commonly called will is but the last desire in deliberating. Furthermore, he argued, only a man is properly called free, not his desires, will, or inclinations. The liberty of a man "consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do." Liberty is "the absence of all the impediments to action that are not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent." To speak of liberty is not to make any suggestions about the determinants or absence of determinants of man's deliberations or decisions; it is to suggest that man is not externally constrained in his actions. There is, therefore, no contradiction in saying that a man acts freely and that his actions are also determined. Since all actions have causes and thus are necessitated, it is pointless to use "free" in the sense of "free from necessitation," as distinct from "free from compulsion." There are no such actions, although we may think that there are because we are ignorant of the causes of actions.

There is much to be said for Hobbes's recommendation on the use of the word free; many others, such as John Locke and David Hume, have followed him in confining it to the absence of constraint on a man's actions. But Hobbes's claim that all actions are necessitated is not so straightforward. Certainly he was right in suggesting that all actions are explicableif that is what is meant by saying that they have causesbut so many different things can count as causes, ranging from deliberation and understanding to a stab of pain or a crack on the skull. Since Hobbes thought of man as a natural machine, he therefore viewed all causes as mechanical pushes. His doctrine carried the suggestion that the behavior of men is not only explicable but also somehow unavoidable because men's decisions and choices are simply manifestations of internal pushes.

Significantly enough, Bramhall did not object to Hobbes's doctrine insofar as it related to actions shared with animals or to spontaneous actions. What he could not allow was that voluntary actions, which follow on election and deliberation, should also be "necessitated." Bramhall pointed out the difficulties of likening actions and the grasp of objects and of means of obtaining them, which are inseparable from the concept of "action," to processes in nature explicable in terms of antecedent motions. In this contention Bramhall was substantially right, for although actions may involve movements, they are not reducible to movements.

Hobbes also disagreed with Bramhall on the implications of his doctrine of "necessitation" for moral judgments and for the operation of the law. Bramhall argued that if human actions are necessitated, then praise and blame, reward and punishment, are both unjust and vain. To the charge that they are vain, Hobbes replied that they are to be viewed as further determinants of choice. Praise and blame, reward and punishment "do by example make and conform the will to good and evil." To the charge of injustice, Hobbes argued that "the law regardeth the will and no other precedent causes of action"; also that punishments annexed to breaches of the law function as deterrents and necessitate justice. He went out of his way to distinguish punishment from acts of revenge or hostility and to stress its deterrent purpose, which is a sound position. Hobbes saw clearly that retribution is part of the meaning of punishment, but that it is the connection with authority that distinguishes it from other sorts of retributive acts. He also saw that, although retribution may be written into the meaning of punishment, its justification is not therefore necessarily retributive. Rather, it is to be justified for its preventive and deterrent function.

Political Philosophy

In his political philosophy Hobbes tried to conceptualize the relationship between the new nation-state, which had been emerging under the Tudors, and the individual citizen, who could no longer be regarded simply as having a set place in a divinely instituted order. In the old medieval society a man was bound by ties attaching to his status and by duties prescribed for him by the church. Tradition was the main form of social control, and traditions stretching back into the distant past assigned to a man his relatively fixed place in society. Aristotle's doctrine of natural kinds and natural places and his account of man as a social animal provided a fitting naturalistic foundation for the theological worldview that was accepted by rulers and ruled alike. But with the rise of individualism and the social mobility that accompanied the rise of commerce and capitalism, this old conception of man in society no longer applied. Men had shaken off the ties of their guilds and local communities, and the new natural philosophy was beginning to render the naturalistic foundations of the former worldview untenable.

Hobbes's picture of life as a race, in which we "must suppose to have no other good, nor other garland, but being foremost," was a gruesome caricature of an age of individualism, restless competition, and social mobility. But if the fetters of tradition were being cast away, what other form of social control could take its place to prevent the anarchy of a state of nature? The answer was to be found, of course, in the increasing executive power of the state and in the growth of statute law, together with the development of the individual conscience, whereby regulation from within replaced the external authority of the Catholic Church. Hobbes distrusted the anarchic tendencies of the individual conscience as much as he loathed the extramundane authority of the Church of Rome. Both were to be banished, along with traditional ties; civil society could be reconstructed as a simple mechanical system.

social contract

Hobbes had a model ready at hand by means of which he might present his Galilean analysis of the rationale of civil societythe social contract theory. The social contract theory, despite its obvious flaws, was an attempt to rationalize political obligation, to substitute an intelligible bargain for mystifying appeals to tradition and divine right.

The contract theory was resorted to mainly by those who wanted to challenge the absolutist claims of monarchs, to uphold the claims of the common law, or to lay down some sort of moral limits on control and interference by the central executive. Hobbes's feat was to employ this model to demonstrate that absolutism is the only possible logical outcome of consistent concern for individual interests. Indeed, he prided himself on grounding the authority of sovereigns, as well as the liberty and duty of subjects, upon axioms of human nature rather than on tradition and supernatural authority. In his attitude toward tradition and divine right, he was at one with the defenders of government by consent. But because of his overriding concern for security, and because of his rather depressing estimate of human nature, he came to the somewhat gleeful conclusionhighly displeasing to those who believed in government by consentthat absolutism could be the only rationally defensible form of government.

Hobbes did not seriously consider the social contract, as some did, as a quasi-historical hypothesis on how civil society might have come into existence. In his account the contract was featured as a framework for a Galilean resolution of civil society into its simple elements. Hobbes imagined the individual in a state of nature as having an unlimited right to "protect his life and members" and "to use all the means, and do all the actions, without which he cannot preserve himself." But he also has a right to all things "to do what he would, and against whom he thought fit, and to possess, use, and enjoy all that he would, or could get." Hobbes here was employing a very strange concept of right, for usually, when we talk about a right, we are indicating a rule that protects or should protect a person from interference in the doing of something that he might want to do. Hobbes, however, used the term in this way to talk about both what a person is entitled to do (when it is correlative with duties of noninterference on the part of others) and what a person cannot be obliged to renounce. When Hobbes declared that men have a "right of self-preservation," he meant not that an individual is entitled by some rule (of law, tradition, or morals) to life but that he cannot be obliged to renounce it because it is psychologically impossible for him to do so. "Natural rights" therefore have a quite different meaning in Hobbes's writing than in the works of Locke, Samuel von Pufendorf, and other such defenders of natural rights. In these classical theories, natural rights are interests protected by natural law against the interference of others. Hobbes's natural-law theory is not connected in this way with his rather bizarre concept of natural rights.

Hobbes's "rights" of nature are derivative from man's tendency to assert himself and to seek power. But, as already shown, Hobbes held that man would also be driven by his fear of death to accept certain laws of nature, the second of which prescribed that every man should lay down his right to all things and "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself." This could be done either by not interfering with others' enjoyment of their rights or by transferring one's right to another, in which case the transferrer is obliged not to hinder the recipient. Injustice consists in hindering a person whom it is a duty not to hinder. The mutual transferring of such rights is called a contract, and the third law of nature is "that men perform their covenants made."


Hobbes deduced a mutual transfer of rights from his postulate of rational action under the impetus of fear. But men are not yet safe, for there may be danger in keeping covenants and it may be, on occasion, in people's interest to break them. "And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all." Matters must be arranged so that it will never be in anyone's interest to break covenants, which cannot exist where there is no "common power" to enforce them. Thus, a social contract must be presumed in which it is as if every man should say to every other man, "I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner." This contract unites the multitude into one people and marks the generation of "that great leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal God, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence." The definition of commonwealth is, therefore, "one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence." The person that results is called sovereign, and everyone else is his subject. The sovereign is created by the contract but is not party to it. Thus, the people rule even in monarchies; a multitude becomes a people by having some device, such as that of representation, by means of which decisions binding on all are made on behalf of all. Some such "covenant" is implicit in speaking of a commonwealth as a people, as distinct from a multitude of men.

Up to this point there is much to be said for the sort of analysis that Hobbes gave, although some of its details are peculiar. He had considerable insight into the sort of thing we mean when we speak of a civil society, as distinct from a mere multitude of men. He saw clearly that societies are not natural wholes like toads, turnips, or colonies of termites. They exist because individuals act in accordance with rules that can be rejected, broken, or altered; they are artificial wholes. Therefore, if we are to speak of the "will" or "decision" of such an entity, there must be some higher-order rules of procedure, such as that of representation, by reference to which what is to count as a corporate decision is constituted. Individuals or groups of individuals are put in authority for such a purpose.

When Hobbes proceeded to the more concrete details of what must constitute the duties of rulers and subjects, however, he was not equally convincing, for this next step depended on his questionable account of human nature. The basic principle of human nature revealed by his Galilean resolution was "that the dispositions of men are naturally such that, except they be restrained through fear of some coercive power, every man will dread and distrust each other." No motive in human nature, except the fear of death, is strong enough to counteract the disruptive force of man's self-assertion. The fear of death must, therefore, be the explanation of the existence of civil society (insofar as there is a social order and not anarchy), and security must be the sole reason for the institution of the social order; there is simply no other reason for which men could be induced to give up their natural right to self-assertion. Since this is the sole reason for having a commonwealth, it follows logically that a commonwealth must be devised that will accomplish the end for which it exists. Sovereignty must be perpetual, undivided, and absolute, for to divide or limit sovereignty would be to risk anarchy; and such limitation would be illogical because it would be inconsistent with the raison d'être of sovereignty. Salus populi suprema lex (The safety of the people is the supreme law). Moreover, complete safety entails complete submission to an absolute sovereign. Thus, absolutism is the logical consequence of government by consent, once the real interest of individuals, which is the presupposition of the institution of commonwealth, has been clearly understood.

There are two obvious flaws in this stage of Hobbes's argument. The first is the assumption that the desire for security, deriving from the fear of death, is the sole reason for the institution of commonwealth, a reason that Hobbes more or less wrote into the meaning of "commonwealth." It is obviously a very important reason, but that it should be the only reason is plausible only if Hobbes's psychology were to be accepted. Even so, Hobbes should not have written the reason for instituting a commonwealth into what is meant by "commonwealth." The second flaw was well brought out by Locke, who argued that, even if security were the sole reason for the institution of commonwealth, absolute authority is a dangerous expedient from the point of view of individual interest. For the hypothesis is that the timid individual would exchange the possible threat to life presented by 100,000 men, all of whom individually might attack him, for the threat to his life made possible by the arbitrary authority of one man who has 100,000 men under his command. "Are men so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay think it safety, to be devoured by lions?"

Hobbes was led to his advocacy of undivided sovereignty by his interest in constitutional and legal matters. When Hobbes was writing, there was a clash between the higher-order principles of common law and of statute law. The common-law principle that custom, as interpreted by the judges, is to be consulted in declaring what the law is, existed alongside the principle of statute law, that rules laid down by a determinate body or person (for example, Parliament or the king) determine what the courts must recognize as valid law. Statute law was on the increase during this period, and it was intolerable to any clearheaded man that these two principles should operate side by side. Hobbes advocated the unambiguous supremacy of the principle of statute law and the abolition of common law. The need to introduce clarity and coherence into the confused constitutional situation that prevailed in Hobbes's time was obvious enough. But for Hobbes to suggest that it was a logical truth that there must be an absolute sovereign in any commonwealth was to introduce dubious logical deductions into a field where a solution was more likely to be found by practical adjustments and compromises that reflected the strength of competing interests and were consonant with deep-seated traditions.

One of the traditions that Hobbes's geometric solution ignored was that of the liberty of the subject. In Hobbes's view, civil liberty lay "only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted." It is unlikely, Hobbes suggested, that laws would be necessary to regulate buying and selling, and choice of abode, diet, a wife, a trade, and education. But whether such laws are necessary is entirely up to the sovereign. The liberty of the subject also consists in the lack of proscription of such acts that it would be vain to forbid because they are psychologically impossible for the subject to refrain from committing. These acts involve the right of the subject to preserve himself and to resist imprisonment. Hobbes also suggested that "in the act of submission consisteth both our obligation, and our liberty." Both the obligation and the liberty are to derive from the words "I authorize all his actions," which the subject is imagined to have expressed in instituting a commonwealth. The subject is released from his obligation only if the sovereign fails to do what he is there to do, namely, to guarantee security. This marks the extent of the subject's much-lauded "right to resist." Presumably Hobbes meant to stress that subjects submit voluntarily to authority. This is true enough, but what it has to do with the liberty of the subject, in any straightforward sense of "liberty," is difficult to grasp.


Hobbes's concept of the role of natural law, once the law of the state had been established, was not altogether clear. He maintained that the laws of nature were "but conclusions, or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others. But yet, if we consider the same theorems, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then they are properly called laws." These "laws" always obligate in foro interno that is, in matters of private consciencein prescribing a general readiness of mind; but in foro externo, that is, in actions, the laws may not be obligatory if certain conditions, such as peace and security, are absent. Such conditions, when present, will in fact render it to the interest of the subject that he follow the laws of nature. A law properly so called always obligates in foro externo because of its source in the command of the sovereign, as well as because civil society, by definition, provides the conditions of security and the sanction that will make it always against a man's interest to disobey it. But do the laws of nature oblige in foro externo, if not incorporated in the civil law, when the security of civil society prevails? This depends on how seriously Hobbes meant his reference to theorems as authoritative edicts from God, for such derivation would give them a determinate source, as in the case of laws properly so called. Some take Hobbes seriously and claim that he really thought that the laws of nature oblige in foro externo as well as in foro interno whenever conditions of security prevail. Others hold that Hobbes never really thought that laws of nature oblige in a full sense in foro externo because his reference to their authoritative source is but a tactful concession to piety. He really thought of them merely as axioms of reason that oblige in a full sense only when they are issued by a temporal sovereign as commands and when conditions of security, together with sanctions, prevail in civil society.

Hobbes took this somewhat ambiguous view about the status of natural laws (or moral precepts) because of his extreme hardheadedness about laws properly so called. Law, he held, is the command of the sovereign, "the word of him that by right hath command over others." It is authority, not conformity with custom or reason, that makes a law. In this forthright view he was attacking the fiction of the common law that the law was there to be discovered, immanent in the customs of the people.

Whatever the merits of Hobbes's viewlater adopted by the analytic school of John Austinthat laws are commands, Hobbes made a valuable contribution in helping to distinguish questions about law that are often confused. The question "What is a law?" should be distinguished from such other questions as "Is the law equitable or reasonable?" and "What makes a law valid?" Hobbes argued that a law is simply a rule issued by someone in authority. Whether it is reasonable or equitable is a further question, as are the questions of its validity, of its conformity with custom, and of the grounds on which a man could be obliged to obey it.

To claim that laws are commands was an oversimple and misleading way to bring out the prescriptive force of laws. But it was useful insofar as it connected law with authority, for laws, like commands, are utterances issuing from people in authority. In stressing the necessary connection between law and authority, Hobbes made an important contribution to political philosophy, for there is no necessary connection between authority and moral precepts or "laws of nature."

On the question of the person or body of men by whose authority laws should be made, Hobbes was more open-minded than is often realized. He thought that this was not a matter that could be demonstrated; it was a matter of factual argument. He believed that the relative advantages of each form of government had to be considered in the light of the sole end of security. It was a factual matter which type of government was most likely to promote such an end. On the whole, he argued, monarchy is preferable because it is more likely to be undivided, strong, and wise.


At the time Hobbes wrote, ethics and politics were inseparable from religion. Even the Royal Society was founded by men who believed that science would reveal more of the details of God's creation and thus enhance his worship. Hobbes was one of the pioneers in the process of distinguishing religious questions from other sorts. He rigorously excluded theology from philosophy and tried to map the proper domains of faith and knowledge. He outlined a theory of the causes of religion and superstition and discussed the grounds of religious belief, and he conducted an elaborate inquiry into the use of various terms in the Scriptures. But all this analysis and theorizing was subordinate to his main interest in religion as a possible source of civil discord. It is seldom realized that more than half of Leviathan is concerned with religious matters, with Hobbes trying to defend the "true religion" from both Catholicism and the priesthood of all believers. He saw clearly that these doctrines were two of the main obstacles in the way of the absolutism that he advocated.

Hobbes made some interesting speculations about the natural causes of religion, which he said were "these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion toward what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics." These seeds of religion could be cultivated according to natural invention, which leads to superstition and nature worship, or according to God's commandments. "Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, religion; not allowed, superstition. And when the power imagined is truly such as we imagine, true religion."

notion of god

What, then, constituted true religion for Hobbes? To reasonable men, God's commands amounted to the laws of nature. God's nature, however, was a much more baffling matter, even for a rational man. Certainly God must have "existence," which Hobbes took to be an attribute of God, in spite of his remarks elsewhere about the ambiguities of the verb "to be." In Leviathan Hobbes held that God is the cause of the world, "that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God." In his later De Corpore, however, he indicated the difficulties in the notion of an unmoved mover. This was a difficult question for philosophers to determine and had better be handed over for decision to the lawful authorities. Hobbes also stressed God's irresistible power and maintained that the only solution to the problem of evil was to be found in this power. Did not God reply to Job: "Where wast thou, when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Job had not sinned; his suffering was an unfortunate consequence of God's manifestation of power.

The main function of reason, however, is to show what God cannot beat ease, finite, figured, having parts, occupying a place, moved or at rest, plural, and having passions, rational appetite, sight, knowledge, and understanding. If we rely on natural reason, we must either qualify God in a negative way by adjectives, such as "infinite" and "incomprehensible," or by a superlative, such as "most high," and an indefinite, such as "holy," which are not really descriptions of his nature but expressions of our admiration. Thus, rational disputations about the nature of God are pointless and a dishonor to him, "for in the attributes which we give to God, we are not to consider the signification of philosophical truth; but the signification of pious intention, to do him the greatest honour we are able." The sovereign, therefore, must decide on God's attributes; and public, uniform worship must be instituted.

reason and revelation

Reason, however, should not be "folded up in the napkin of an implicit faith, but employed in the purchase of justice, peace, and true religion." There is nothing in God's word contrary to reason. We must, however, be prepared in this world "to captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labour in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic, of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science." Reason should be kept very much to the fore when one is confronted with those who claim revelation, for if a man says that God spoke to him in a dream, this "is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him." There are psychological explanations of such phenomena that cast doubt on their reliability as valid communications with God.

Dreams, visions, and inspiration, however, should not be dismissed altogether, for it is by such means that prophets have been informed of the will of God. What is needed are criteria for detecting true prophets. Hobbes suggested two necessary criteria: the working of miracles and the teaching of doctrines not at variance with those already established. Since miracles had by then ceased, there was no sign left to single out true prophets. And, in any case, the Scriptures, since the time of Jesus, had taken the place of prophecy.

Reliance on the Scriptures, Hobbes realized, is not altogether straightforward. Even supposing that it could be decided which books are authentic, and that the sovereign, by his authority, could make their teaching law, there is still the problem of what many of the terms used in the Scriptures mean. Hobbes went through most of the key terms in the Scriptures, giving meaning to them in a way consistent with his mechanical theory. He argued, for instance, that God must have a body and that the proper signification of "spirit" in common speech is either a subtle, fluid, and invisible body or a ghost or other idol or phantasm of the imagination; it may also have a figurative use in such a phrase as "spirit of wisdom." "Angels" signify images raised in the mind to indicate the presence of God. Hobbes made acute remarks about the nature of miracles that mingled radical probing with subtle irony (indeed, one often wonders whether his whole treatment of "the true religion" is not a colossal piece of irony).

On the relationship between church and state, Hobbes of course adopted an uncompromising Erastian position. A church he defined as "a company of men professing Christian religion, united in the person of one sovereign, at whose command they ought to assemble, and without whose authority they ought not to assemble." There is, therefore, no universal church to which all Christians owe allegiance, for there is no supreme sovereign over all nations.

Hobbes concluded Leviathan with his famous section on the Kingdom of Darkness, in which he castigated superstition and Catholicism as enemies of the true religion. The papacy, he remarked "is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." The papacy ruthlessly exploits the fears of ignorant men to perpetuate the power of unscrupulous priests as a rival to the secular power.

Hobbes held that there is only one article of faith necessary for salvation: that Jesus is the Christ. On what authority did such a belief rest? Hobbes had some interesting things to say about the difference between knowledge and faith. The object of both is propositions, but in the case of knowledge we consider the proposition and call to mind what its terms signify. Truth here is a matter largely of following the consequences of our definitions. But when reasons for assent derive "not from the proposition itself but from the person propounding, whom we esteem so learned that he is not deceived, and we see no reason why he should deceive us; our assent, because it grows not from any confidence of our own, but from another man's knowledge, is called faith." Faith, therefore, depends on our trust in a man rather than on our grasp of truth. The faith that Jesus is the Christ must therefore come from the Scriptures and our trust in those who wrote them. But who is to interpret them? "Christian men do not know, but only believe the Scripture to be the word of God." St. Paul said, "Faith cometh by hearing," and that, according to Hobbes, means listening to our lawful pastors, who are appointed by the sovereign to interpret the Scriptures for us. Charles II and Cromwell must have been flattered by the magnitude of the problems on which they were required to issue authoritative edicts: the creation of the world, God's attributes, the authenticity of miracles, and the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Hobbes regarded religion more as a matter of law than of truth.

Hobbes's treatment of religion leaves obscure exactly what he himself thought about such matters. His technique was always to push radical probing to the limit, and when the basis for the traditional doctrines seemed about to be cut away, the sovereign was summoned as a sort of deus ex machina to put everything in its orthodox place. Hobbes was obviously extremely skeptical about what could be demonstrated in the sphere of religion, but it is difficult to say whether his suggestion that the sovereign should pronounce on such matters as the creation of the world and the attributes of God was a subtle piece of irony, a pious protestation to protect himself against the charge of atheism, or yet another manifestation of his overwhelming conviction that there must be nothing touching the peace of the realm that the sovereign should not decide.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Authority; Bacon, Francis; Definition; Descartes, René; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Determinism and Freedom; Dreams; Galileo Galilei; Gassendi, Pierre; Geometry; Grotius, Hugo; Harvey, William; Human Nature; Hume, David; Images; Kepler, Johannes; Laws of Nature; Locke, John; Logic, History of; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Mersenne, Marin; Motion, A Historical Survey; Peace, War, and Philosophy; Sensa; Social Contract; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Thucydides; Universals, A Historical Survey.


works by hobbes

English Works of Thomas Hobbes, 11 vols., and Opera Philosophica (Latin works), 5 vols, edited by Sir William Molesworth. London: John Bohn, 18391845; reprinted Oxford, 1961. All quotations in the text of this entry are from this edition of the English works.

The Elements of Law, Natural and Political, edited by Ferdinand Tönnies. London: Cambridge University Press, 1928. This also includes extracts from the Little Treatise, or A Short Tract on First Principles and Excerpta de Tractatu Optico.

Leviathan, edited by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford, 1947; New York, 1962. Latter is paperback with introduction by Richard S. Peters.

Body, Mind, and Citizen, edited by Richard S. Peters. New York, 1962. Paperback, with introduction by Peters, that contains selections from the Molesworth and Tönnies editions.

works on hobbes

Aubrey, John. Brief Lives, edited by E. O. Dick. London: Secker and Warburg, 1950. Contains biography of Hobbes.

Brandt, Frithiof. Thomas Hobbes' Mechanical Conception of Nature. Translated by Vaughan Maxwell and Annie I. Fausbøll. London: Hachette, 1928.

Laird, John. Hobbes. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Peters, Richard S. Hobbes. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1956. Paperback.

Robertson, G. C. Hobbes. London and Edinburgh, 1886.

Stephen, Leslie. Hobbes. London: Macmillan, 1904.

Strauss, Leo. The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. London: Clarendon Press, 1936; Chicago, 1963. The 1963 edition is paperback.

Warrender, J. H. The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Watkins, John W. N. Hobbes's System of Ideas. London, 1965.

R. S. Peters (1967)

Hobbes, Thomas

views updated May 29 2018

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

Hobbes, Thomas

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

views updated Jun 11 2018

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, orthe 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

Hobbes, Thomas

views updated Jun 08 2018


HOBBES, THOMAS (15881679) features in intellectual histories as a philosopher and a political theorist and his Leviathan as one of the most important political treatises ever written in English. During the last decades of the twentieth century, though, Hobbes came to be regarded as a writer significantly relevant to the history of religious ideas and his Leviathan as an early example of a vogue of rational criticism of the Bible that was to become current in the nineteenth century.


Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, England, on April 5, 1588. He recalls in his verse autobiography that his mother brought forth "twins at once, both me and fear" for she had given birth when the Spanish Armada was approaching the English coast. Hobbes entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford University, in 1603, and immediately after he earned his degree he was offered employment by William Cavendish as tutor of his son. Hobbes remained attached to the Cavendish family throughout his life. Scholars have stressed the classical-humanistic twist in Hobbes's intellectual upbringing as one of the clues that may explain his later standing as a prominent figure in a "European republic of letters" (Malcolm, 2002, p. 474). Although Noel Malcolm's remark refers to Hobbes's posthumous fortune, the roots of this late intellectual prestige are found in the dense network of personal contacts and acquaintances he managed to set up in the course of a number of trips to the Continent as a tutor, as a private man of letters, and later as a refugee from English religious strife. It is worth noting that Hobbes published his masterwork, Leviathan, in Paris in 1651. As to Hobbes's elderly years, what is striking is his constant preoccupation with withstanding the attacks of people as well as institutions whose sympathy he had managed to alienate (e.g., the universities, one of the major targets of his polemical concerns) and his interest in exposing the "lies" of his religious adversaries. Indeed the word Hobbism became a major current of discourse to label doctrines with a ring of atheism and immorality.

The State of Nature

Hobbes's early philosophical works include the Elements of Law and De Cive, where Hobbes addresses religious issues in ways that prelude the more thorough and lavish treatment of Christian religion in Leviathan as well as in such later works as the Historia Ecclesiastica and the Appendix to the Latin edition of Leviathan. That Hobbes, as A. P. Martinich has argued in The Two Gods of Leviathan (1992), did not mean to divorce theology from his general philosophical project becomes apparent if one takes a closer look into the subtitle (The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil) and the famous frontispiece of Leviathan. The subtitle yields insights on how to decipher the latter, which in fact is construed as a sort of emblem, featuring a giant visible from the waist up, wielding in his right hand a scepter, a symbol of the civil power, and in the left a crosier, a symbol of the ecclesiastical power. Across the foreground, before the vigilant gaze of the giant, stretches the image of a well-ordered community, probably reminiscent of the pages in which Hobbes contends that industry, culture of the earth, use of commodities, and so on only take place in times of peace. Hobbes alleges that peace is nothing but a quick and tentative lapse from what he calls the "natural condition of mankind," which is a condition of enduring war, where "war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary" (Leviathan, 13, p. 8). Thus the frontispiece's image of the well-ordered state is the image of an artifact, something that cannot be found in nature. Therefore Hobbes distances himself from Aristotle, who in his Politics had pointed out that the state "belongs to the class of things that exist by nature."

The Laws of Nature and the Sovereign

The natural disposition of humans to war ensues from Hobbes's radical nominalism, namely, from his belief that humans cannot agree upon what is good. By rejecting the existence of an agreed-upon natural good, Hobbes destroys the rational teleology steeped in the Aristotelian underpinnings of the major philosophical and theological currents of the time. Given that the words good and evil "are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so" (Leviathan, 6, p. 7), there is no way to detect a natural good by means of one's own private discernment. Thus agreement and accord are commodities hardly to be found in nature. Human intellect, though, provides the means by which human beings can anticipate the vantage of a social accord and so escape the state of nature: Hobbes calls these means "laws of nature." Thus Hobbesian individuals are bound to escape this natural predicament and reach a safer condition, whose distinctive feature is its artificiality. These natural individuals have forced themselves to abide by the laws of nature by giving up their natural right in omnia to a third party, which from now on will be entitled to establish what is right and what is wrong, namely, to transform the natural laws into commandments made effective by the third party's irresistible will.

What is striking here is that the laws of nature are coterminous with the laws of God. Hobbes was concerned throughout with how to prevent people from attaining a private apprehension of the laws of God and, in this way, bypassing the dictates of the lawful sovereign. Hobbes's crucial question in the third book of Leviathan was not the one that had traditionally puzzled the exegetes of the Scriptures, namely, "from whence the Scriptures derive their Authority," but rather "by what Authority they are made Law" (Leviathan, 42, p. 36). Hobbes was wary of the consequences that would fall upon the state if the sovereign were deprived of his authority. Hobbes was particularly wary of those "deceivers," namely, self-appointed interpreters of the word of God, who set about persuading people that a workable shortcut to the kingdom of God was already at hand in this world. One of the conditions Hobbes indicates for social stability is that citizens have "to be taught that they ought not be led with admiration of the virtue of any of their fellow subjects" (Leviathan, 30, p. 8). Any impulse to admire one's neighbor (modern moral philosophers would use the words partiality or attachment instead of admiration ) is potentially conducive to the eroding of the very basis of social stability.

Abuses of the Scripture

According to Hobbes, a typical "abuse of the Scripture" sustains a workable natural law that is said to convey the mystical installment of the kingdom before the end of time. This law, though natural insofar as it bypasses the will of the sovereign, could turn out to be at odds with "the doctrine established by him whom God hath set in the place of Moses" (Leviathan, 40, p. 8). Hobbes tracks down a time in which God had reigned directly over humans, and this image of a peaceful arché, in which God governs humans, can already be found in Plato (Statesman, 271 e). Yet during the time of "regeneration"as Hobbes calls the time frame "between the ascension and the general resurrection" (Leviathan, 42, p. 7)with God withdrawn from earth, humans cannot but obey the laws promulgated by their earthly sovereign. A difficulty that immediately arises concerns those individuals who "confound Lawes with Right," for they "continue still to doe what is permitted by divine Right, notwithstanding it be forbidden by the civill Law" (De Cive, 14, p. 3). The political problem individuals have to address as soon as they reject the direct domination of God consists in setting up enduring institutions in the absence of God's commandments and possibly avoiding the risk of taking "for His law whatsoever is propounded by every man in His name" (Leviathan, 42, p. 46).

Biblical History

Hobbes, as Paul in the synagogue of Antiochia (Acts 13:1641), expounds a narrative of biblical history, starting from the exile of the people of God in Egypt through the announcement of the second coming of Christ. Biblical history constitutes the meaning-making framework in which the birth of Leviathan takes place. The narrative of biblical history becomes a "politically authoritative history," and it is worth noting that the "tendency to disregard biblical history has been particularly evident, for example, in many contemporary discussions of Hobbes and Locke for whom, it is often argued, the nonhistorical social contract is their seminal contribution to the history of political thought" (Mitchell, 1993, p. 5).

This refusal to provide historical investigation of the intellectual roots of modernity with the backing of a specific authoritative history has somehow impaired the ability to make sense of those parts of Hobbes's work mostly concerned with religion. But taking biblical history as a politically authoritative history is not just a workable technique for highlighting those bits of texts that have not received much consideration by scholars: if one assumes that biblical history refers to both the narrative account of sacred events and the political history of the biblical text, namely, the history "of its establishment, in particular circumstances, as an authoritative text" (Malcolm, 2002, p. 427), then it is by restoring the authoritativeness of biblical history that one can see how, underlying the materialism and reductionism of modern exegesis, there might be a latent reception of the Hobbesian text. The Catholic theologian Peter Henrici pointed out that there would not be any reason to puzzle about the "reductionist techniques of interpretation performed by Hobbes, if these techniques had not become the exegetical canon of the theology of the kingdom of God over two centuriesfrom Spinoza to protestant theology in XIX century" (Henrici, 1986, p. 134).

Political Theology

Modern debates concerning the issue of political theology have contributed to opening up "a new historical horizon for the interpretation of Hobbes" (Schmitt, 1984, p. 108). The opening of such a new horizon enabled the overcoming of the standard account of Hobbes's philosophy as a brand of rational skepticism. Debates on political theology have raised significant questions concerning secularization and the meaning of technology in the modern age. Political theology does not just entail the mutually illuminating encounter between rationalist philosophy and a faith-ruled policy guided ultimately by the authority of the Bible. A crucial problem for political theology is that the possibility of creating a nonthreatening acquaintance among humans, though ultimately relying on the absence of theological foundations, seems hardly to be achieved on the sole plane of rational stipulations. Hobbes figures in these debates as the thinker who managed to envision a community in which God's effective withdrawal from human history (1 Sm. 8:7) is not ideologically concealed but, rather, taken to its extreme consequences. But political theology also entails that, having withdrawn God, people must establish their bearings without falling back upon the authority of God's perspicuous commands. Yet Hobbes's state supplies neither an ultimate end nor a workable direction on how people should regulate their conduct: by reducing politics to a technology of social bonding aimed at minimizing discord, Hobbes seems to indicate a pattern of political existence over which individuals cannot exercise effective control.

See Also

Morality and Religion; Sociology, article on Sociology of Religion; Violence.


Henrici, Peter. "Vernunftreich und Staat-Kirche: Das Reich Gottes im neuzeitlichen Denken." Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift 2 (1986): 131141.

Hobbes, Thomas. "De Cive": The English Version. Edited by Howard Warrender. Oxford, U.K., 1984.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, Ind., and Cambridge, U.K., 1994. A modern edition that follows the Head edition, taking note of several variations in the first Latin edition, published in 1668.

Malcolm, Noel. Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Martinich, A. P. The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics. Cambridge, U.K., 1992. Argues that Hobbes did not see any reason to divorce theology from his general philosophical project and aimed indeed at reconciling orthodox Christian doctrine with modern science.

Martinich, A. P. A Hobbes Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. A comprehensive lexicon of Hobbes's overall vocabulary, providing useful insights into Hobbes's political and religious thinking.

Martinich, A. P. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. An authoritative biography of Hobbes.

Mitchell, Joshua. Not by Reason Alone: Religion, History, and Identity in Early Modern Political Thought. Chicago, 1993. Draws attention to Hobbes's (as well as John Locke's) interest in biblical history.

Moltmann, Jürgen. "Covenant or Leviathan? Political Theology for Modern Times." Scottish Journal of Theology 47, no. 1 (1994): 1941.

Pocock, J. G. A. "Time, History, and Eschatology in the Thought of Thomas Hobbes." In The Diversity of History: Essays in Honour of Sir Herbert Butterfield, edited by J. H. Elliot and H. G. Koenigsberger. London, 1970. A pioneering work, in which Pocock investigates the second half of Leviathan by focusing on Hobbes's eschatological conception of the historical time.

Schmitt, Carl. Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie. Berlin, 1984.

Schmitt, Carl. The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol. Translated by George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein. Westport, Conn., and London, 1996. First published in 1938, this work was a blueprint for major speculations on Hobbes's political theology.

Skinner, Quentin. Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Inscribes Hobbes's Leviathan in the larger context of a philosophical "history of irony," turning Hobbes into the elective companion of such figures as Bertrand Russell and David Hume, all sharing the ability to deploy rhetorical strategies to mock and ridicule the arguments of their ecclesiastical rivals.

Strauss, Leo. The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis. Translated by Elsa M. Sinclair. Chicago, 1952. An immensely influential monograph, charging Hobbes's view of humans and society with being the fountainhead of modern (immoral and atheistic) liberalism.

Roberto Farneti (2005)

Hobbes, Thomas

views updated May 14 2018


Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was born in Westport, England, on April 5, the son of a clergyman; he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. Hobbes developed a moral and political philosophy that was influenced greatly by geometry and the new sciences of the Enlightenment. After studying at Oxford University Hobbes became a tutor for the Cavendish family and escorted his charges on tours of the European continent. During those travels Hobbes became acquainted with science as it was being developed by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), René Descartes (1596–1650), and Marin Mersenne (1548–1648), which he found more constructive than the political strife that characterized the English civil war (1639–1651).

Hobbes's political thought first was expounded at length in The Elements of Law (1640), which defended the monarchy, although on democratic grounds. He subsequently developed his arguments in De cive (1642), De corpore (1655), and De homine (1658), a trilogy on the state, physics, and anthropology in which Hobbes attempted to build a bridge between the new science and politics. His most widely read book both in his own day and up to the present has been Leviathan (1651). He also wrote a scientific dialogue, Dialogus physicus (1661), in response to the emerging experimental sciences and Robert Boyle's (1627–1691) work with air pumps. In 1666 Parliament nearly banned Leviathan as heretical, and Hobbes continually faced the threat of exile. He spent his later years composing a history of the English civil war and translating the Odyssey and Iliad. Hobbes died in Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield, England, on December 4.

Moral and Political Philosophy

The avoidance of civil strife was one of the main intentions of Hobbes's work. His solution made him unpopular with both royalists and parliamentarians. Royalists argued that the king rules on the basis of natural or divine right; parliamentarians advocated democratic rule. Hobbes argued that the king should rule not by nature or divine commandment but because the sovereign is an artificial social construction fashioned by popular human reason motivated by the shared fear of violent death. It was the high probability of that fate in the state of war (or nature) that in earlier times had made life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, vol. I, p. 13). For Hobbes civil society is radically conventional because humans are not naturally social. People are compelled to form civil society by the laws of nature, understood as rational instructions on how to cooperate.

Hobbes argued for a subjectivist morality based on psychological egoism (all human action is selfishly motivated), with good and evil as names that signify appetites and aversions, especially those pertaining to self-preservation and peace. Social peace is possible because all people agree that it is good and are rational enough to cooperate. However, the plurality of tastes and definitions of good and evil means that a state of war will emerge quickly whenever the absolute authority of the sovereign is challenged.

Obedience even to arbitrary government is preferable to the state of war. The commonwealth is formed through social contracts, and the network of those contracts creates the Leviathan (from the Book of Job, meaning "King of the Proud"), or sovereign, which is an artificial "person" responsible for public welfare and social order. The sovereign could be a monarch, as Hobbes preferred, but it also could be a legislature or an assembly of all citizens. Hobbes's notion of the sovereign led to later contractarian philosophies, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) ideal of the general will.

Fear of violent death thus brings humans to reason. In regard to the resulting self-regulating system of passions Hobbes constructed a political philosophy that foreshadowed liberal capitalism and its emphasis on individual rights and the primacy of material self-interest. However, his collectivist image of society comprising the body of the sovereign also has been interpreted as a forerunner of socialist thought. David Gauthier (1969, p. vi) sums up this duality: "Hobbes constructs a political theory which bases unlimited political authority on unlimited individualism." For Leo Strauss (1973) Hobbes marked the beginning of modern political philosophy (foreshadowed by Niccolò Machiavelli [1469–1527]) because he denounced aristocratic distinctions and virtues. He leveled all humans with his theory of natural equality and did not base morality on ideal virtues attainable, if at all, only by the few.

The Role of Science and Technology

A second basic intention in Hobbes's work was to put moral and political philosophy on a scientific basis. His civic science generally is regarded as being based on natural science in both method and material. Human thought and action are explained in mechanistic terms of matter in motion, and thus the laws governing political bodies can be derived from those governing physical bodies. Yet Hobbes held a compatibilist view that causal determination of human conduct is consistent with the freedom required for responsible moral agency.

Even though he worked briefly for the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Hobbes was a rationalist who believed that science primarily meant geometry and the methodology of reasoning both from first principles, or causes, to effects and from effects to causes. The purpose of proper philosophy is universal assent attained through absolute certainty, and the first step in arriving at that certainty is an agreement to settle the definitions of words and their precise uses to avoid absurdities and disorder. Science is knowledge of the consequences of words established in that manner. Scholastic and religious reasoning breed controversy because they fail to define terms precisely.

Hobbes's political and natural philosophies are inseparable in the project of establishing consent on what is and how it can be known, thus leading to social order. Human will is the primary force of geometric proofs because humans determine original definitions. Geometry is an instance in which a diverse, subjective, and arbitrary human will has fashioned universal laws and truths by which all people can abide. Just as humans "make" the definitions in geometry (for example, "circle"), so too are the principles of politics (such as authority and justice) fabricated.

Strauss (1973), however, argues that modern natural science distorts Hobbes's moral and civic philosophy. The differences between the modern science of nature and human affairs outweigh the similarities. Indeed, in many places Hobbes stated that physical and political bodies are quite different. Furthermore, he did not take up science until he was forty years old, and he portrayed human nature as mutable and speech, reason, and sociality as products of free will. Vanity (the striving for absolute power) is a peculiarly human trait. Thus, Hobbes has a dualist philosophy (humans can will themselves out of nature) that is hidden by his monist (materialist-deterministic) metaphysics. Hobbes may wish to base his political theory on science because it progresses and produces real power, but a consistent scientific naturalism would ruin his moral philosophy.

The real basis of his philosophy was Hobbes's personal experience of human life. That experience actually has much in common with premodern science in that it proposes to disclose a teleology of human nature, even if a more debased teleology than argued for by the ancients. For that reason, "it can never, in spite of all the temptations of natural science, fall completely into the danger of abstraction from moral life and neglect of moral difference" (Strauss 1973, p. 29). It retains its moral basis precisely because it is not founded on modern science but instead on firsthand experience of humanity. As evidence for his claim Strauss points to the introduction of Leviathan, which states that one need not be trained in the physical sciences to formulate the right theory of human nature.

In another account Strauss (1965) argues that Hobbes posited two determinants of human willing—fear of violent death and the pursuit of domination over things—and that this underpins the distinction between the aims of politics and those of natural science. For Hobbes science is the methodical search for causes; in contrast, religion is the unmethodical search for causes. The purpose of science is the conquest of nature to make life more comfortable. It arises from human striving for power and honor, but that inexhaustible urge ensures that what is at stake is not the enjoyment of the object that is desired. Instead, the attainment of objects is only a means to more power: "the end becomes a means, the means becomes an end" (Strauss 1965, p. 89). Even if it is not properly based on science, Hobbes's politics is the foundation of modern technology.

The Politics of Knowledge: Hobbes versus Boyle

Strauss argued that the content of Hobbes's natural science obfuscates his political philosophy. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (1985), however, argue that Hobbes's political theory holds true for the process of science. Both Strauss and Shapin and Schaffer see Hobbes as making constructivism and artifice superior to nature. Strauss uses this to purify Hobbes's politics of natural science; Shapin and Schaffer use it to justify Hobbes's insight that the two are inextricably connected in a single process: "Knowledge as much as the state, is the product of human actions" (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 344).

Contrasting the philosophies of Hobbes and Robert Boyle, Shapin and Schaffer highlight the dynamics of the period when the modern relationship between scientific knowledge and the polity was being formed. The dispute between Hobbes and Boyle can be cast as different notions of what counts as science and legitimate knowledge. Hobbes's science was based on geometry and the deduction of irrefutable (moral and epistemic) truths from distinct first principles. Boyle proposed an experimental science that would be based on empirical observations made by a group with special training. Hobbes attacked this on epistemic grounds, claiming that the "facts" derived from sensory experience are mere "seeming or fancy" because they are too private.

However, this objection to Boyle's science is also moral. Both Boyle and Hobbes offered solutions to the problem of order in terms of ways to produce agreement and consent. Boyle attempted to remove natural philosophy from the "contentious link with civic philosophy" (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 21). Hobbes attempted to erect a philosophy "that allowed no boundaries between the natural, the human, and the social, and which allowed for no dissent within it" (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 21). Boyle's knowledge is produced among a community of experts, and that creates differences in the larger body politic, destroying natural equality, universal assent, and social order. Moreover, Boyle's scientific community allows for dissent about causes within its borders, which Hobbes found to be both a threat to civic order and a sign that it was not a true philosophy. Hobbes saw in Boyle's science the same socially corrosive element that exists in traditional monarchism and religion. The laboratory is a divisive and dangerous form of elitism pretending to a nonartificial hierarchy.

Arguing that "solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order," Shapin and Schaffer use the notion of "intellectual space" to distinguish Hobbes from Boyle (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 332). For Hobbes philosophy is not the exclusive domain of professionals. He considered its intellectual space public because its purpose is the establishment of peace and order. In this regard natural science and civic science are the same. In Boyle's experimental science, however, there is a special place for doing natural philosophy—the laboratory—and access to it is quasi-open. In principle anyone could witness the goings-on in that space, but in practice it "was restricted to those who gave their assent to the legitimacy of the game being played within its confines" (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 336). Boyle separates the study of nature, or objects, from the study of human affairs, or subjects. The existence of a separate community producing and legitimating knowledge was anathema to Hobbes, who argued that the philosopher's task was to establish peace and that this separate group threatened civic order. Bruno Latour playfully summed up his interpretation of Hobbes's reaction to Boyle: "we are going to have to put up with this new clique of scholars who are going to start challenging everyone's authority in the name of Nature by invoking wholly fabricated laboratory events!" (Latour 1993, p. 20).

For Hobbes philosophical and political spaces need masters who determine right knowledge and right conduct for all, thus constraining opportunities for interpretation and controversy. A chain is fastened from the lips of the sovereign to the ears of the people. This alleviates the problem of "seeing double" that occurs when loyalties are divided between different professional groups or different personal interpretations of events. Shapin and Schaffer claim that "Hobbes's philosophical truth was to be generated and sustained by absolutism" (p. 339). This was strictly opposed to Boyle's notion of intellectual space because the foundation of knowledge was considered to be free will. Truth claims are verified by free acts of witnessing. Boyle saw the experimental community neither as tyranny nor as democracy but as a group regulated by conventions of selectively restricted access. The experimental community gained such wide support because it offered solutions to practical problems and because its members presented it as a model of the ideal polity. Nonetheless, this does not deny the fact "that there is a power-structure to truth and a truth-structure to power" (Wolin 1990, p. 12).

In the end Shapin and Schaffer conclude that "Hobbes was right" (p. 344) in the sense that Hobbes's instrumentalism or social constructivism better explains science, society, and their relationship than does Boyle's realism. Knowledge, like society, is conventional and artifactual, and scientists do not produce objective truth claims. Shapin and Schaffer probably exaggerated their instrumentalism to call attention to the increasingly problematic aspects of the "boundary-conventions" that distinguish science from politics. Their main point is that the solution to problems of knowledge is always political in that it requires the establishment of conventions of interaction and rules for determining legitimacy and because the knowledge this community produces becomes an integral part of political action.

Boyle and the experimentalism of the Royal Society "won" not because they reflected nature objectively but because their use of rhetoric garnered the most political power. Even though Hobbes was the first modern mediator between science and society, historians have purified Hobbes of science and Boyle of politics, reinforcing the idea that the two realms are naturally distinct. Shapin and Schaffer work to expose the intellectual and historical roots of that distinction, which increasingly is being questioned on the basis of expanding democracy rather than, as with Strauss, on the basis of a reaffirmation of nature.


SEE ALSO Human Nature;Science, Technology, and Society Studies;Scientific Revolution.


Gauthier, David P. (1969). The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes. London: Oxford University Press. Covers Hobbes's theories of human nature, morality, sovereignty, authorization, and God.

Latour, Bruno. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Uses the controversy between Hobbes and Boyle over the distribution of scientific and political power to illustrate the beginnings of the "modern constitution," which entails an elaborate separation of nature and society.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Includes a translation of Hobbes's Dialogus physicus.

Strauss, Leo. (1965). Spinoza's Critique of Religion. New York: Schocken. Contains a section on Hobbes titled "The Spirit of Physics (Technology) and Religion."

Strauss, Leo. (1973). The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First published in 1936.

Wolin, Sheldon S. (1990). "Hobbes and the Culture of Despotism." In Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory, ed. Mary G. Dietz. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Argues that Hobbes modernized despotism by founding it on scientific theorization but that he continues a chain of despotism from Plato, through medieval monarchs, to Popper's scientific social engineers.

Hobbes, Thomas

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

Thomas Hobbes

views updated May 18 2018

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). □

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

views updated May 29 2018

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), English philosopher and political theorist. Thomas Hobbes 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 out-lived 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 December 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.


Hobbes, Thomas

views updated May 23 2018

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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