(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Aloysius P. Martinich, who holds an endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, is an internationally recognized authority on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His previous works include The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics(1992) and A Hobbes Dictionary (1995). Martinich is best known for having pointed out the importance of religion in the thinking of Hobbes, who has sometimes been seen as a purely secular or even antireligious theorist. In Hobbes: A Biography, Martinich provides a complete and most readable biography of Thomas Hobbes. The author’s painstaking research, based on both published and unpublished sources, makes the book an outstanding source for political scientists, professional philosophers, and historians. The clear, nonacademic writing style makes it an excellent introduction to Hobbes for students or general readers. Martinich even displays a wry wit that one does not normally expect in works on early modern philosophy. For example, responding to Hobbes’s portrayal of Oxford University as a decadent place characterized by “drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices,” Martinich observes:

Drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices were part of my undergraduate experience and those of my friends at various universities, and nothing has changed over the past forty years, judging from the experiences of my students and my children. Of course there are degrees of drunkenness and wantonness, but without better evidence, I am reluctant to judge that Oxford in 1605 was worse than Oxford (or the University of Texas) in 1998.

Martinich begins the story of Thomas Hobbes’s life with his birth in the village of Westport, Wiltshire, England, just outside Malmesbury. The circumstances of his birth and early life were modest, considering the lasting renown Hobbes would later attain. His father, an apparently bad-tempered, semiliterate clergyman also named Thomas, deserted the family when Hobbes was still a child. His mother, whose name was probably either Alice or Anne, is said to have given birth to the future philosopher prematurely. Fear of the invading Spanish Armada, according to Hobbes’s own account, caused this premature birth. Fear, which Hobbes called his “twin,” would be present in his thinking throughout his life.

After his father’s death, Hobbes and his family were supported by Hobbes’s uncle, Francis, a maker of gloves. Hobbes, apparently a good student, went on to study at Oxford at about the age of fourteen, somewhat earlier than other students. After graduating, he became a tutor and companion to the young William Cavendish of the wealthy and powerful Cavendish family. Ties with the Cavendish family helped connect Hobbes to England’s political and intellectual elite. Throughout the philosopher’s life, he would defend power and social order.

Hobbes was no child prodigy. He was a late bloomer, and had he died young instead of surviving into his nineties, the familiar adjective “Hobbesian,” which describes a universal state of conflict, would not exist. Martinich discusses the possibility that Hobbes was the author of some anonymous essays published in the 1620’s, but if Hobbes did write these, they were little more than preparation for his mature works. Martinich dismisses claims that Hobbes wrote some of the essays of Sir Francis Bacon, for whom Hobbes served as secretary in the early 1620’s. Hobbes became a member of intellectual discussion groups, most notably the Great Tew Circle in the 1630’s, but he was already much older than the other participants. His first major published work, the Latin De Cive (1642; Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, 1651), was published when Hobbes was already fifty-four years of age.

De Cive was intended to be the third part of a philosophical trilogy entitled Elementa Philosophia(elements of philosophy). Logically, the first volume of the trilogy would be De Corpore (1655; on the body), and the second part De Homine (1658; on humankind). According to the usual scholarly view, Hobbes put the third political volume of the work first because conflict between England’s Parliament and the English king Charles I, in addition to the outbreak of the English Civil War (usually dated 1642-1651), lent a special urgency to political questions. Martinich also suggests that Hobbes had difficulty working out some parts of his philosophy, and that this delayed his finishing the...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)