Thomas Hobbes Essay - Critical Essays

Hobbes, Thomas


Thomas Hobbes 1588–1679

English philosopher, political theorist, essayist, critic, scientist, and autobiographer.

Considered one of England's most important philosophers, Hobbes was the author of Leviathan, Or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (1651), a work Michael Oakeshott calls "the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English languange." Although Hobbes wrote many of his works in Latin, the language of choice for such intellectual matters in his time, it was his decision to write Leviathan in English that deemed the language suitable for any area of inquiry. It was in Leviathan that Hobbes wrote the famous description of man's life in nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." To free themselves from this natural state of warfare, men join in a compact with one another, make a social contract, and set up a sovereign. The sovereign, called the Leviathan by Hobbes, exercises absolute power over his subjects and maintains the peace. Succinct and contentious, Hobbes enraged many readers with such statements as "The universe is corporeal; all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real." Hobbes also asserted that the Church must be subject to the State. Such ideas, expressed so confidently and in an uncommonly accessible style, created an instant uproar, especially in ecclesiastical circles. Contemptuously dismissing Aristotle and his followers, Hobbes declared himself the creator of civil philosophy, what would today be called political science. Heavily influenced by his friend Galileo Galilei, Hobbes was a mechanist who viewed the world as matter in motion and man as movement of limbs. His Machiavellian insistence on looking at things as they are, not as they should be, his contention that expediency rather than morality motivated political obedience, and his unshakable secularism fueled countless attacks by his critics. As contradictory as they were original, Hobbes's ideas are debated to this day.

Biographical Information

Hobbes was born April 5, 1588, in Malmesbury, England. He claimed that his mother gave birth to him upon hearing the rumor that the Spanish Armada was set to destroy the nation. She gave birth to twins, Hobbes wrote,—himself and fear. His father, also named Thomas, was an uneducated clergyman prone

to quarrel. Biographers have posited that both timidity and argumentativeness were notable traits of Hobbes throughout his lifetime. After Hobbes's father abandoned his parish and family, young Thomas and his brother and sister were raised by their uncle Francis Hobbes, who was successful enough to see that Thomas received a fine education. At the age of six, Hobbes was learning Greek and Latin. At fourteen he translated Euripides's Medea and was sent to Oxford. Although an adequate student, Hobbes disliked the university, rejected much of what he read there, and went on to criticize universities in much of his later writing. According to his first biographer, John Aubrey, Hobbes took delight in saying that if he had read as much as other men, he would know as little as other men. Upon receiving a degree in 1608, Hobbes became tutor to William Cavendish, the son of the first Earl of Devonshire. Through this association Hobbes made his first trip to the continent and became inspired to study the classics. He was employed as Roger Bacon's secretary in 1623-24. In 1628 Hobbes published his translation of Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War, an important improvement to what had previously circulated, and intended by Hobbes to serve as a warning to the English of the dangers inherent in Democracy. Hobbes worked for and tutored many men, including three Cavendishes, until 1640. During his teaching career he enjoyed much leisure time and three three-year stays on the continent. It was there that he met and became friends with Galileo. He met other great minds as well, including Ben Jonson, Abbe Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi, and became fascinated with the study of motion. Profoundly stirred by his chance discovery of Euclid, Hobbes considered applying the science of geometry to politics. He wrote a treatise in 1640 on citizenship and absolutism, The Elements of Law Natural and Politique, which circulated widely in manuscript form. Fearing for his safety at the hands of Parliament, Hobbes fled to Paris, where he promptly composed numerous objections to René Descartes's Meditations, which he saw before publication. He began work on a proposed trilogy on the body, the man, and the citizen. After the publication of Leviathan in 1651, Hobbes returned to England, notorious but respected at the same time, and carried on years of controversies, notably with Bishop John Bramhall on free will and on mathematics with John Wallis, the inventor of algebra. Hobbes, considered an atheist by many in Parliament, was saved from a charge of Christian heresy by the intercession of the King, who ordered Hobbes to refrain from further publishing any inflammatory works. In 1672 Hobbes wrote a brief, compelling autobiography and in 1675, at age 86, translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hobbes died December 4, 1679.

Major Works

Critics have always characterized Hobbes as a mature writer, with his first original book, Elementorum Philosophiae Sectio Tertia De Cive (1642), being published when he was fifty-four. The case has recently been made that three of the Discourses are the product of a young Hobbes, the work originally having been included in an anonymous volume of 1620, Horae Subsecivae. These discourses demonstrate the strong influence of Bacon and Nicollò Machiavelli. The execution of the King in 1649 spurred Hobbes's desire to provide guidance for his country, and he published Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (1650), which included much of The Elements of Law, a work that would not be published in its entirety until 1889. England, Hobbes felt, had gone wrong, and war had been the result. Leviathan, the strongest and boldest statement of his political thought, was offered to show that there was an alternative. According to Hobbes, people are more or less equals in strength and intelligence. Mankind are driven by the desire to fulfill their wants and needs. In satisfying themselves, however, they will inevitably encroach on others attempting to fulfill their own wants and needs. Therefore, people will constantly be at odds, and the essentially matched strengths of the opponents will ensure a constant state of warfare, which to Hobbes included the tendency to war and the lack of assurance to the contrary. Hobbes proposed that there is an even more powerful drive, the fear of death, and that to assuage this fear, people join in a compact with one another, make a social contract, and set up a sovereign. The sovereign will have absolute power; virtually all say is surrendered by the citizens. This sovereign, called the Leviathan by Hobbes, will keep his subjects in check and protect them from their enemies. Where once good and bad were relative values decided by individuals, there would now be a common rule since all were under the sovereign and his total control, which would allow no review. In De Corpore (1655, The Body) Hobbes turned to the philosophy of motion and to the idea that life as well as thought were merely motion. His utterly mechanistic view of life in these works was the source of great contention. In 1668 Hobbes finished a history of the Long Parliament and submitted it to the King, who denied it publication because of Hobbes's dangerous political suggestions; Behemoth, the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, from 1640. to 1660. did not reach the public until 1682, buried in a composite edition of his treatises.

Critical Reception

Hobbes's influence on Western political thought was profound. His successors could and did disagree with him, but they could not escape being compared to and measured against him. In his writing, Hobbes was not timid: many readers were provoked to opposition upon first exposure. Hobbes met the criticism either directly, responding vigorously, as he did to John Bramhall's Catching of Leviathan, or indirectly, with disdainful, silent superiority. Hobbes's emphasis on the secular over the theological was particularly infuriating to his detractors. Any relation to God, even if by way of an intermediary, as in the Catholic Church, was denied. He wrote, "If a man consider the original of the great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the Papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." The title of one response exemplifies some of the reaction to Hobbes: "The Brief View of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors to Church and State in Mr. Hobbes's book." Hobbes was called an atheist, and for years "Hobbism" was the term applied when attempting to denigrate any example of scepticism or free thought. In 1683 De Cive and Leviathan were condemned as heretical books and burned at Oxford; Hobbes's enemies also prevented him from becoming a fellow of the Royal Society. Despite his tempestuous life, Hobbes's works were respected and admired by many of his contemporaries. However, his ideas were still considered radical for half a century after his death, and it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that Hobbes's works could be written about dispassionately. Since then, he has held his place among the most important political philosophers of the western tradition, and his works continue to spark interest and debate.

Principal Works

Discourses [In Horae Subsecivae; published anonymously] (philosophy) 1620

Eight Books of the Peloponnesian Warre Written by Thvcidides the sonne of Olorvs. Interpreted with Faith and Diligence Immediately out of the Greeke [translator] (history) 1629

The Elements of Law Natural and Politique (treatise) 1640

"Objectiones tertiæ" ["Objections Made against the Foregoing Meditations"] in René Descartes, Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qva Dei Existentia, & animæ immortalitas demonstratur (criticism) 1641

Elementorum Philosophiae Sectio Tertia De Cive [Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning...

(The entire section is 313 words.)


Sir Leslie Stephen (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "The State," in Hobbes, 1904. Reprint by The University of Michigan Press, 1961, pp. 173-236.

[In the following excerpt, Stephen examines Hobbes's conception of both the law of nature and the social contract.]


1. Contemporary Controversies

We come now to the third part of Hobbes's philosophy. He is to base a science of politics upon the doctrines already expounded. We become aware that there is a certain breach of continuity. To understand his line of thought, it is necessary to take note both of the problems in which he was specially interested, and the form into which the arguments...

(The entire section is 13772 words.)

A. E. Taylor (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: "Empirical Psychology—The Nature of Man," in Thomas Hobbes, Archibald Constable & Co Ltd, 1908, pp. 76-101.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor explores Hobbes's views regarding humankind's transition from a "state of anarchy into a state of settled order."]

We have seen, in the last chapter, what is Hobbes's conception of the 'state of nature,' the condition in which man found himself at the dawn of civilisation, and into which he tends to degenerate when the bonds of political allegiance are gravely relaxed. It is a condition in which the machinery provided by government for the restraint of men's fundamentally anti-social impulses is entirely absent, and...

(The entire section is 5737 words.)

G. P. Gooch (essay date 1914-15)

SOURCE: "Hobbes," in Political Though in England: From Bacon to Halifax, Thorton Butterworth Limited, 1914, pp. 35-57.

[In the following excerpt, Gooch offers an overview of Hobbes's political philosophy and suggests that he was instrumental in the "atmospheric change which substituted the secular for the theological standpoint."]

While James proclaimed the divinity of lawful kings and Bacon preached the ideals of the Tudor monarchy, Hobbes, the author of the first comprehensive political system produced in England, derived his theory of the State neither from theology nor from tradition, but from the study of human nature. The most interesting as well as the most...

(The entire section is 5305 words.)

Bertrand Russell (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Hobbes's Leviathan," in A History Western Philosophy, and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Simon & Schuster, 1945, pp. 546-57.

[In the following essay, Russell examines the doctrines of Leviathan, noting that Hobbes's main limitations are his fear of anarchy, overemphasis on the national interest, and misunderstanding of relations between states.]

Hobbes (1588–1679) is a philosopher whom it is difficult to classify. He was an empiricist, like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, but unlike them, he was an admirer of mathematical method, not only in pure mathematics, but in its...

(The entire section is 4809 words.)

John Dewey (essay date 1954?)

SOURCE: "The Motivation of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," in Thomas Hobbes in His Time, Ralph Ross, Herbert W. Schneider, Theodore Waldman, eds., University of Minnesota Press, 1974, pp. 8-30.

[In the following excerpt, Dewey examines Hobbes's political philosophy in historical context. Because the editors were unable to determine the exact date of this essay, Dewey's death date has been used.]

It is the object of this essay to place the political philosophy of Hobbes in its own historic context. The history of thought is peculiarly exposed to an illusion of perspective. Earlier doctrines are always getting shoved, as it were, nearer our own day. We are familiar with...

(The entire section is 9825 words.)

Quentin Skinner (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought," in The Historical Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3, 1966, pp. 286-317.

[In the following excerpt, Skinner explores Hobbes's contemporary reputation and rejects the claim that he was isolated ideologically.]

The modern reputation of Hobbes's Leviathan as a work 'incredibly overtopping all its successors in political theory'1 has concentrated so much attention on Hobbes's own text that it has tended at the same time to divert attention away from any attempt to study the relations between his thought and its age, or to trace his affinities with the other political writers of his time. It has by now...

(The entire section is 6230 words.)

Michael Oakeshott (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: An introduction to Hobbes on Civil Association, Basil Blackwell, 1975, pp. 1-74.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to Leviathan, Oakeshott discusses what philosophy meant to Hobbes, and how to approach reading him.]


Leviathan is the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language. And the history of our civilization can provide only a few works of similar scope and achievement to set beside it. Consequently, it must be judged by none but the highest standards and must be considered only in the widest context. The masterpiece...

(The entire section is 9749 words.)

David Johnston (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Theory and Transformation: The Politics of Enlightment," in The Rhetoric of "Leviathan": Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 114-33.

[In the following excerpt, Johnston considers Hobbes's purpose in presenting the theological arguments in the second half of Leviathan.]

Apart from the vigor and vividness of its language, the feature of Leviathan that distinguishes it most clearly from Hobbes's earlier political works is the great extent and detail of the attention it devotes to Scriptural exegesis and theological argumentation. In The Elements of Law, a work of twenty-nine chapters,...

(The entire section is 6417 words.)

Arlene W. Saxonhouse (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Arlene W. Saxonhouse, "Hobbes and the Beginnings of Modern Political Thought," in Thomas Hobbes, Three Discourses: A Critical Modern Edition of Newly Identified Work of the Young Hobbes, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Arlene W. Saxonhouse, The University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 123-54.

[In the following excerpt, Saxonhouse discusses three newly-attributed, pre-scientific writings of the young Hobbes.]


There are many ways to read the three Discourses: for what they tell us about the social and religious life of the English aristocrat in the early decades of the seventeenth century, for what they tell us about...

(The entire section is 12162 words.)

Further Reading


Hinnant, Charles H. Thomas Hobbes: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980, 275 p.

Lists editions of Hobbes's writings and annotates works about Hobbes published in English, Latin, French, and German between 1679 and 1976.


Hobbes, Thomas. "The Life of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury." Translation of "Thomæ Hobbessii Malmesburiensis Vita. Authore Seipso" (1679) by J. E. Parsons, Jr., and Whitney Blair. Interpretation 10, No. 1 (January 1982): 1-7.

Account of Hobbes's life, originally written and published in Latin...

(The entire section is 801 words.)