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Thomas Hobbes was born in the parish of Westport, near the town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England on April 5th, 1588. His birth took place three months prior to the feverish high point of the Anglo-Spanish War, when the Spanish Armada launched towards England with aims of conquest and of gaining control over maritime trade routes. Regarding the tumultuous and warring circumstances of his birth, Hobbes remarked, in his lyric autobiography, that, “My mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” Indeed, fear would remain Hobbes’s enduring partner, factoring as an efficacious motive both in his life and in his political and moral theory. Beyond the frightening circumstances of her labor, little seems known about Hobbes’s mother. His father (also Thomas) was a clergyman of meager education, who was forced, in 1604, to flee Wiltshire for London after a verbal and physical altercation with a vicar from a nearby parish. Long before his father’s ignominious departure, the young Hobbes’s education had been accounted for by his more prosperous uncle, Francis, who had earned success in the clothier business.
Hobbes’s education began in Westport at the age of 4, and from the ages 8-13/14, Hobbes learned both Greek and Latin under the evidently excellent tutelage of the classicist, Robert Latimer. Latimer had received his education at Magdelen Hall, Oxford, which is where he sent his bright pupil at the age of 14, in early 1603. Lacking any interest in pursuing a career in the Church, Hobbes left Oxford after completing his B.A., whereupon he was recommended by the Principal of Magdalen Hall to the well-off William Cavendish, later the first Earl of Devonshire, to serve as the tutor to Cavendish’s son (also William), who later succeeded his father as the second Earl of Devonshire. Hobbes and the young Cavendish were nearly the same age, and Hobbes served as much as a tutor to Cavendish as a valet and friend. He traveled with Cavendish to Cambridge as well as on a tour of France and Italy, which began in 1610. By the time of the second Earl of Devonshire’s early death in 1628, Hobbes had completed a translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, the first translation of the work directly from the Greek into English.
The Cavendish family served as a significant patron to Hobbes for much of his life, allowing him access to dearly acquired books as well as to opportunities for further education, travel, and the formation of formative scholarly connections. Hobbes returned for what would be his third trip to the continent in 1634 as the tutor of the third Earl of Cavendish, during which time he made the acquaintance of the French philosopher, Marin Marsenne. And, it is through the Cavendish family’s connections that Hobbes became acquainted with Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon and Galileo, both central figures in the Scientific Revolution and influences on Hobbes’s intellectual development.
The 1630s marked a period of great intellectual growth for Hobbes. During this time, he extended his scholarly pursuits to included studies in science (especially optics), mathematics (especially geometry), and politics. By 1640, Hobbes had completed his first political work, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, which circulated in manuscript form and published a decade later in two volumes, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico. In this work, Hobbes first articulated his theory of absolute sovereignty, which argued that the same reasons that made sovereignty rational and necessary for peaceful human coexistence also required that sovereign authority be held absolutely. According to Hobbes, for sovereign authority to succeed and to even exist, it was necessary that the sovereign powers of legislation, execution, and judicial determination be held without check in one body. Although Hobbes expanded and developed his political theory in further works, including De Cive (1642) and his monumental Leviathan (written from 1647-50 and published in 1651), his basic defense of sovereign absolutism remained intact in its essentials from his seminal articulation of this theory in The Elements of Law.
The pro-royalist implications of Hobbes’s defense of absolutism were lost neither on his readers nor himself. In late 1640, Hobbes fled England for Paris, where he remained until 1651, weathering the English Civil War; the armed struggles of which were largely based upon conflicts between English Royalists and Parliamentarians. During his sojourn in Paris, Hobbes rekindled his friendship with Mersenne, who introduced Hobbes to both Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes. His relationship with Mersenne ultimately resulted in Hobbes’s publishing, in 1641, a series of Objections to Descartes’s famous Meditations on First Philosophy, to which Gassendi also offered Objections. In 1646, just prior to the writing of the Leviathan, Hobbes was appointed as tutor of the future King Charles II of England, whose father, Charles I, was executed in 1649 during the English Civil War. As a result of the purported anti-Catholic aspects of the Leviathan, Hobbes was forced to flee Paris in December of 1651, at which point he returned to England and settled in London.
The 1650s and 1660s found Hobbes writing and engaging in often-heated debates with other leading English thinkers on such topics as liberty and necessity, physics, optics, mathematics, natural philosophy, and scientific method (this latter debate on method famously taking place with Robert Boyle). Although the manifest content of these exchanges generally focused on the particular subject in question (e.g. mathematics), the latent and more pressing content of these controversies was not infrequently waged over the theological arguments of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in particular, his supposed atheism. These theological controversies may have led, in 1660, to Hobbes not receiving election into the group of Fellows that would eventually become the Royal Society. Despite his friendship with his former pupil, Charles II, who was restored to the English throne in 1660, Hobbes continued to endure an augmenting series of attacks for his purported endorsement of atheism, moral subjectivism, and moral licentiousness. In 1666, the House of Commons convened a committee to seek information regarding blasphemous and profane writings, which explicitly implicated Hobbes’s Leviathan. Referring to this committee, Hobbes’s friend and biographer, John Aubrey, noted that, “some of the bishops made a motion to have the good old gentlemen burnt for a heretic.” At Aubrey’s prompting, Hobbes wrote a self-defensive inquiry into the law of heresy entitled, A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England, which was publish posthumously. In his final years Hobbes completed a number of further self-defensive writings including a lyric autobiography, as well as a history of the English Civil War entitled, Behemoth. His final major works, incredibly completed at the age of 86, included Latin translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He continued writing until his death at the age of 91, on December 4, 1679.
Written by Jon Rick, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University
John Aubrey, Brief Lives
Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes