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Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)


Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire; his birth, apparently, was premature because his mother went into shock when she heard about the threat from the Spanish Armada. His father was a quarrelsome vicar, and Thomas was handed over to the care of an uncle when the father was involved in a fight with another clergyman. He proved to be an excellent scholar and was educated at the University of Oxford.

At Oxford, Hobbes was not greatly attracted by the official curriculum’s concentration on the classical texts, which, in his lifelong view, contributed nothing to original learning. However, he was brought to the attention of the rich landed Cavendish family, and became tutor to a boy who later inherited the title of Duke of Devonshire. In 1629 he showed his mastery of Greek by publishing the first English translation of Thucydides’ History of the Pelopennesian War. But his real interests still lay in mathematics and science; he was closely associated with the politician, scientist and writer Francis Bacon (1561–1626). From his study of mathematics, he became convinced that he could provide a comprehensive explanation of human nature (and, by extension, politics). After publishing his initial findings on these subjects he felt that he was likely to fall victim to the impending struggles between the monarchy and parliament, and in 1640 he fled to mainland Europe. Later he took pride in this action, which implied that he had foreseen the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Living in Paris, Hobbes was welcomed by other European philosophers, but in time he managed to quarrel with almost all of them (one of the exceptions was Gallileo, whom he visited in Florence). His fortunes took an unexpected turn in 1647, when he was appointed mathematics tutor to the heir to the English throne, Prince Charles. Whether or not Hobbes’s instruction had much effect on the young prince, the relationship proved useful to Hobbes in future years.

The fall of the English monarchy in 1649 persuaded Hobbes to incorporate his early work on human nature into a full-scale political treatise. The resulting book, Leviathan, was published in 1651. Its hostile reception among royalist exiles in France made it difficult for Hobbes to continue living in exile. He returned to Britain, where he was allowed to live unmolested by the new parliamentary regime. But he continued to engage in controversies, particularly with religious writers who were enraged by his apparent atheism. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 it looked as if Hobbes would finally fall victim to his numerous enemies; but his former pupil King Charles II protected him, and even granted him a pension. In later years, Hobbes became obsessed with the fruitless attempt to “square the circle” through abstruse mathematical formulae. He was able to spend his old age in relative comfort, thanks not just to the king but also to the Cavendish family. When he died in 1679 he was buried in their local church.


One thing can be stated with confidence about Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’s most notable contribution to political philosophy. Along with Edmund Burke, Hobbes is one of the greatest prose-stylists in the English language, and the argument of Leviathan is presented with commendable (occasionally brutal) clarity.

The theory is built on Hobbes’s conception of human nature (for discussion, see pages 11–12 of the Introduction). Strong government, he believed, is essential if society is not to collapse into a state of nature in which life can only be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (see page 35, Chapter 1). Human beings are driven entirely by self-interest; even their sociable behaviour, Hobbes thought, can be explained in terms of naked self-interest. Above all, humans have an instinct for self-preservation, and an overriding fear of death. This persuades them to take the risk of laying down the natural rights they enjoyed in the state of nature—which amounted to the right to take everything they had the power or cunning to take—and agree to set up a sovereign government that would protect them against others. This government would have untrammelled power; and if it proved unequal to its tasks, society would return to the fear-plagued state of nature.

In its time (and subsequently) this was a controversial analysis. First, it left little place for religion. As far as the average subject was concerned, the earthly sovereign might as well be God. Well aware that religious disputes had played a key part in inspiring the English Civil War, Hobbes wanted to leave such matters under the control of the sovereign. Religious dissenters who cited their personal consciences as the reason for disobedience could expect little mercy. Second, Hobbes ran the risk of alienating both factions in the Civil War by making no distinction between forms of government. The sovereign could rule by hereditary right; but if a weak monarch took the throne, the result was likely to be an unpleasant return to the state of nature. Equally, a despot like Oliver Cromwell could exercise sovereignty according to Hobbes’s theory; but many of Cromwell’s supporters wanted to read a treatise that provided a moral justification for his rule, not a lengthy book arguing that sovereignty depended on little more than force. In any case, most of Hobbes’s connections were Royalists rather than Parliamentarians.

These considerations make it rather ironic that Hobbes saw “fear” as a prevailing human emotion. Although he might have shrunk from physical dangers, Hobbes was a courageous intellectual who sought to publish the truth as he saw it. He was also extremely eccentric; his early biographer John Aubrey reported that although Hobbes did not get drunk very often, when he did over-indulge he made sure that he had “the benefit of vomiting, which he did easily; by which benefit neither his wit was disturbed (longer than he was spewing) nor his stomach oppressed.” Apparently he also played tennis until his mid-70s. For someone who thought that only strong government stood between humans and a life that was “nasty, brutish and short,” Thomas Hobbes must have thought on his deathbed that his own lot had been extremely fortunate.

Hobbes’s posthumous influence has been considerable, and his legacy is still potent. His view of human nature has much in common with that of some representatives of the “New Right” (see pages 32–33, Chapter 1). His idea of life without government as a highly insecure “state of nature” has also been utilized by “realist” theorists of International Relations, who see the interaction between states in the same light (for analysis see page 305, Chapter 15).

Further Reading

See http://www.thomas-hobbes.com

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