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Thomas Hobbes 1588–1679

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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...

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Principal Works