Article abstract: A pioneer of modern political principles, Hobbes wrote the English language’s first great work of political philosophy.
There is a self-generated folklore regarding Thomas Hobbes’s birth and the relation of that birth to his political ideas. According to Hobbes’s autobiography, his mother was much alarmed by the approaching Spanish Armada. This led to his premature birth on April 5, 1588. Thus, Hobbes claimed to have been born with an especially keen aversion to violence; he and fear were born twins, according to Hobbes. If his mother’s timidity explains his reverence for peace, however, what explains the ardor and stubbornness with which Hobbes later developed and presented his political theory? The personality of Hobbes’s father may present the answer. A “choleric man,” Hobbes’s father was a vicar who abandoned his family after taking part in a brawl in the doorway of his church.
Along with an older brother and sister, Thomas was reared in the household of an uncle, Francis Hobbes. At the age of four, Thomas was sent to school at the Westport church, where he proved to be an able student. Subsequently, his education was put into the hands of Robert Latimer, a classicist with an extraordinary knack for teaching. Latimer took special pains to develop Hobbes’s natural abilities. In 1603, Hobbes set off for Magdalen Hall, Oxford. He was put off by Oxford’s archaic curriculum. As a result, he did not always attend lectures, choosing instead to haunt bookshops in search of materials that would better stimulate and satisfy his curiosity.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1608, Hobbes took a position as tutor in the household of William Cavendish, who later became the second Earl of Devonshire. This arrangement was an extraordinarily happy one and an important one for Hobbes’s further intellectual development: The Devonshire house was far more stimulating an environment than Oxford, and Hobbes thrived there, deepening his study of various subjects within the liberal arts. In 1610, Hobbes accompanied his pupil on a tour of Europe. There Hobbes studied French and Italian. Back in England, Hobbes continued his explorations of the life of the mind, making the acquaintance of Francis Bacon in the early 1620’s. A significant figure in the history of science, Bacon championed the inductive method. Hobbes’s irreverence for Scholasticism was probably reinforced by Bacon’s.
In 1629, Hobbes completed an English translation of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Some Hobbes scholars have concluded that this work was selected because of the suspicion it casts on democracy. While there is little evidence to support this, the translation does point out that Hobbes was primarily a classicist at this point in his life. His intellectual focus, however, was about to undergo the first of two important changes.
Also in 1629 (having left the Cavendish household upon the second earl’s death in 1628), Hobbes again traveled to Europe, this time as a companion to the son of Sir Gervase Clifton. It was on this trip, according to the Brief Lives (1898) of John Aubrey, that Hobbes fell “in love with geometry.” This not only altered the course of Hobbes’s intellectual efforts but also was to have substantial effect on the form in which he later chose to express his political ideas. In 1630, Hobbes was called back into the service of Devonshire, this time as tutor to the third earl. In 1633, Hobbes again was able to visit Europe, where he renewed his interest in geometry and science and where he reportedly met briefly with Galileo.
In 1637, Hobbes returned to an England that was on the eve of a bitter and bloody civil war, its government and guiding political beliefs about to undergo more than a half-century of ferment. This historical context again shifted the focus of Hobbes’s work, combining with his background and personality to make him both a notorious and a respected political theorist.
The political strife in England led Hobbes to proceed with what was to be the third part of an all-embracing work of natural philosophy and ethics. The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic was circulated in manuscript form by Hobbes in 1640. Written in Latin, the work begins with a theory of “man,” moving on to a discussion of the “citizen.” Given the unruliness of human nature, Hobbes concluded, men could live together in peace only if they submitted to an absolute sovereign. In the context of the time, this seems to make Hobbes a clear monarchist, but Hobbes based his defense of absolutism not on divine right but rather on expediency and consent. Expediency causes men to enter into a contract with the sovereign in which they exchange most of their natural freedom for the security of stable (that is to say, absolute) government. Thus Hobbes is a “social contract” theorist.
This did not please the Royalists any more than it did Parliamentarians. The latter rejected Hobbes because his theory supported absolute monarchy. The former understood all too well the dangerous implications of social contract theory, for consent, unlike divine right, can be withdrawn. Thus, when the Civil War began to gain full steam in 1640, Hobbes quickly exiled himself to the safety of Paris, “the first of all that fled,” as he himself put it. In Paris, Hobbes took up the relatively safe project of writing “objections” to the work of René Descartes—but his political pen had been far from quieted. In 1642, Hobbes published De Cive, in which he argued that, rightly understood, a Christian state and a Christian church were united under the leadership of the sovereign. Hobbes was faced with a world in which religious radicalism had become a source of acute political strife. To Hobbes, the stewardship of religion by the secular ruler was a safeguard against religious fanaticism, holy wars, and even intolerance. In 1647, an expanded version of De Cive was published, and in 1650 the manuscript of The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic was published in two parts, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (of the body politic).
In 1651, Hobbes published the centerpiece of his political philosophy, Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Wonderfully written in the brash, colorful English of the day, Leviathan is remarkably consistent with Hobbes’s earlier political treatises. Like them, it seeks to establish his political theory on a scientific basis, proceeding from point to point nearly in the manner of a geometric proof. Nor had Hobbes’s substantive position changed. He still argued that absolute rule was needed in order to ensure civil peace, but also that the sovereign’s power was based on consent. Where Leviathan broke new ground was in its unforgettably graphic portrayal of the “state of nature” (that is, the situation which precedes and leads to the social contract) and the addition of two lengthy sections in which Hobbes complements his secular arguments with an examination of the political principles suggested by Scripture and by true Christianity.
Life in the state of nature,...