Skip navigation

Search

The Core Curriculum

Hobbes

1558 CE – 1679 CE

Biography
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.

Sources:
John Aubrey, Brief Lives
Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes


Jon Rick, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

Leviathan

John Rawls said in his lectures on Hobbes that, “in [his] own view and that of many others, Hobbes’s Leviathan is the greatest single work of political thought in the English language.”  Central to his justification for this acclaim is the extraordinary scope of the Leviathan.  This short introduction to the Leviathan will focus on following three core topics of Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory, as presented in the Leviathan: the Contractual Agreement, the State of Nature, and Absolute Sovereignty.  

Hobbes is generally recognized as the modern father of Social Contract Theory, which was also central to the political and moral theories of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and more recently John Rawls.  At its basis in political theory, Social  among the individuals of a political state confers legitimacy on the authority of the state to promulgate, to interpret, and to execute the civil laws to which these individual bind and obligate themselves.  According to Hobbes, “A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree, and covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all (that is to say, to be their representative;) every one, as well he that voted for it, as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgments, of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men” (Leviathan 2.XVIII.1).  Hobbes argues that it is rational for individuals existing outside of a political state to divest themselves of their natural right to pursue their rational interests without limit and to bind themselves to the will of a sovereign political authority.  For Hobbes, it is the rationality of living within a political state that ultimately justifies both the legitimacy of sovereign authority and the legitimacy of the contractual agreement itself.  As Part I of the Leviathan argues, the inevitable dreadfulness of the state of nature (more on which below) renders it rational for individuals to relinquish most of their basic freedoms in order to obtain the valuable security provided by a political state, even one with absolute power.  On this point, Hobbes parts ways with later social contract theorists, like Locke and Rousseau, who aim to ensure that a state instituted by a social contract preserves the freedom of individuals while also providing for their security and the conditions for cooperative living.  Importantly, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all concur that the social contract is a sort of hypothetical justificatory device.  For a political authority to have legitimacy, it need not be the case that there ever was an actual, historical contractual agreement.  The social contract serves as a sort of thought experiment: given the threat of political society falling into war and dissolution (salient in Hobbes’s mind given the English Civil War), all individuals should reflect that they have a rational interest in supporting an effective sovereign authority, and thus that they would consensually agree to support such an authority when faced with the alternative of devolving into a State of Nature.

Within Social Contract Theory, the State of Nature is understood as the condition of human life outside of any sovereign authority or political state.  Often, it is illustrated by an imaginative reconstruction of what life and human interactions would have been like before the institution of political states.  Crucially, for Hobbes, the state of nature is tantamount to a State of War, wherein he famously describes human life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan 1.XIII.9).  While this state of nature need not consist of a constant, violent struggle, it is marked by the ever-present threat of violence.  It is important to understand that Hobbes’s state of nature is not a state of war because human beings are naturally bloodthirsty, evil, or even dispositionally aggressive towards each other.  Rather, the state of nature is a state of perpetual unrest simply as a result of individuals—relatively equal in strength of body and mind—rationally pursuing their fundamental interest in obtaining a secure and commodious life.  By rationally pursuing the means to subsisting with moderate comfort, individuals enter into competition with each other over scarce and indivisible resources.  Such competition results in a world of mutual distrust and enmity, which may be augmented by the disposition for glory—the desire to be recognized as having preeminent standing over others.  Hobbes’s argument that the state of nature is tantamount to a state of war sets him somewhat apart from Locke and Rousseau.  Although these latter two social contract theorists both admit that a state of nature may eventually devolve into a state of conflict and war, their distinct conceptions of human nature allow them to argue that the state of nature may also provide for a much more peaceable state of human coexistence than does Hobbes.


Because the state of nature is tantamount to a state of war, Hobbes argues that it is rational for individuals to exit or avoid the state of nature by relinquishing their natural rights to pursue their fundamental interests without limit and to transfer these rights to a effective Sovereign Political Authority.  This transfer of rights is rational insofar as a sovereign authority is more effective at satisfying all individuals’ fundamental interests (e.g. subsistence, security, and comfort) than were these individuals to attempt to satisfy these interests on their own, without the binding legal framework of a state.  According to Hobbes, the only such effective sovereign is one with absolute authority, where the absoluteness entails that this authority has total and unchecked powers of legislation, enforcement, and adjudication.  Hobbes argues that were there to exist a division of sovereign authority (as we find in many contemporary democratic states, such as the US), this itself would provide the conditions for a state of war.  For were these different sovereign factions to disagree and to conflict with each other (such as was the case with the Royalists and Parliamentarian factions of the English Civil War), there would be no further authority to resolve effectively the dispute so as to avoid conflict and war between the disagreeing factions.  Thus for Hobbes, and in contrast to Locke and Rousseau who support versions of divided and popular sovereignty, the only legitimate form of sovereignty is one with absolute power.  While Hobbes is inclined to argue that monarchy is the most effective form of absolute sovereignty, he does allow for the legitimacy of absolute sovereign rule by assembly.

Sources:
John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy
Fred D’Agostino & Gerald Gaus, “Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Jon Rick, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University