Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

The son of a parson, Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport in Wiltshire. He graduated from Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1608 and became tutor to William Cavendish (later 1st Earl of Devonshire). He stayed with Cavendish as secretary and companion, spending much time at Welbeck Abbey and Chatsworth, where he made the acquaintance of Ben Jonson and Lord Herbert. The connection with the Cavendish family was longstanding and proved of inestimable value to Hobbes - he enjoyed opportunities to travel (during which he met Galileo, Descartes, and Pere Mersenne), had access to fine libraries, and was able to spend five years (1621-26) working with Francis Bacon. He left England in 1640 with the first group of Royalist émigrés and lived in Paris for the next 11 years. He was appointed tutor to the Prince of Wales, later Charles II.

He had meanwhile discovered geometry and this, with the influence of Galileo, had helped to clarify his ideas of philosophy as something that could be demonstrated in positive terms: 'the rules and infallibility of reason.' He wrote Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, which was circulating in 1640, although it was not published until the nineteenth century. While in France he worked on a plan for an extensive treatise, beginning with matter as the first part, and going on to deal with human nature, society, and government.

The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short

However, events in England (the Civil War had begun in earnest in 1642) persuaded him to embark at once on the proposed third part, Elementorum Philosophiae Sectio Tertia De Cive (1642). The English text appeared in 1651 as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society. The year 1651 also saw the publication in London of Hobbes's most famous work, Leviathan Or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil. It offended everyone - Royalists, churchmen, and Parliamentarians alike. Charles, the Prince of Wales, dismissed him with some regret (he enjoyed his company) and Hobbes decided to return to England. He completed the first part of his projected treatise, De Corpore, in 1655 and published Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance (1656). The second part of his treatise, De Homine, came in 1658.

Frontispiece of Leviathan

Hobbes had returned to the Cavendish family in 1653 and spent the rest of his life with them. His enthusiasm for mathematics misled him, however, and his papers on the subject to the Royal Society were coldly received. But this remarkable man embarked in his old age on a translation of Homer, publishing his Odyssey at the age of 85 and his Iliad in the following year. (He was not, incidentally, a stranger to that scholarly exercise, having translated Thucydides in 1629.) He died at the age of 92 and posthumous works include Behemoth: the History of the Civil Wars of England (1679 and 1681) and A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (1681).

The substance of Leviathan is Hobbes's theory of society and it is expounded in English that admits no ornament or flourish. He was both a formidable thinker and a writer on the highest level and it is pleasant to remember that Charles II, in possession of his kingdom, granted his old tutor an annual pension, though he could do nothing to stop the Commons' bill against blasphemous books, among which Leviathan was listed. Hobbes was forbidden to publish any political and religious books and his published works were publicly burned.

Hobbes was a materialist who argued from first principles: he refused to assume, because it was the habit of his time to proceed too easily from assumption, and he always questioned that first. His dismissal of Christian terminology in his religious comments not only provoked a storm of abuse but obliged his contemporaries to argue with him in print: consequently they widened the whole range of discussion to a remarkable degree and in so doing were forced to express themselves in something akin to the lucid, trenchant prose of the greatest name in seventeenth-century philosophy.