Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Among the figures who were conscious of developing a new science in the seventeenth century, the Englishman Hobbes stands out as an innovator in ethics, politics and psychology. He was active in a number of other fields, notably geometry, ballistics and optics, and seems to have shown considerable acumen as a theorist of light. His contemporaries, especially in Continental Europe, regarded him as a major intellectual figure. Yet he did not earn a living as a scientist or a writer on politics. In 1608 he entered the service of Henry Cavendish, First Earl of Devonshire, and maintained his connections with the family for more than seventy years, working as tutor, translator, travelling companion, business agent and political counsellor. The royalist sympathies of his employers and their circle determined Hobbes’ allegiances in the period preceding and during the English Civil War. Hobbes’ first political treatise, The Elements of Law (1640), was not intended for publication but was meant as a sort of long briefing paper that royalists in parliament could use to justify actions by the king. Even Leviathan (1651), which is often read as if it is concerned with the perennial questions of political philosophy, betrays its origins in the disputes of the pre-Civil War period in England.

For much of his life the aristocrats who employed Hobbes brought him into contact with the intellectual life of Continental Europe. He found not just the ideas but also the spokesmen congenial. Perhaps as early as 1630 he met Marin Mersenne, then at the centre of a Parisian network of scientists, mathematicians and theologians that included Descartes as a corresponding member. It was to this group that Hobbes attached himself in 1640 when political events in England seemed to him to threaten his safety, causing him to flee to France. He stayed for ten years and succeeded in making a name for himself, particularly as a figure who managed to bring geometrical demonstration into the field of ethics and politics. His De cive, a treatise that has much in common with the Elements of Law, had a very favourable reception in Paris in 1642.

By the time De cive appeared, Hobbes had taught himself enough natural philosophy and mathematics to be taken seriously as a savant in his own right. He had also conceived the plan of producing a large-scale exposition of the ‘elements’ of philosophy as a whole – from first philosophy, geometry and mechanics through to ethics and politics. De cive would be the third volume of a trilogy entitled The Elements of Philosophy. These books present Hobbes’ considered views in metaphysics, physics and psychology against the background of a preferred scheme of science.

Metaphysics, or first philosophy, is primarily a definitional enterprise for Hobbes. It selects the terms whose significations need to be grasped if the principles of the rest of the sciences are to be taught or demonstrated. Foremost among the terms that Hobbes regards as central are ‘body’ and ‘motion’. According to Hobbes, the whole array of natural sciences can be organized according to how each treats of motion. Geometry is the first of these sciences in the ‘order of demonstration’ – that is, the science whose truths are the most general and on which the truths of all the other natural sciences somehow depend. Mechanics is next in the preferred order of the sciences. It considers ‘what effects one body moved worketh upon another’. Physics is the science of sense and the effects of the parts of bodies on sense. Moral philosophy or ‘the science of the motions of the mind’ comes next, and is informed by physics. It studies such passions as anger, hope and fear, and in doing so informs civil philosophy. Starting from the human emotional make up, civil philosophy works out what agreements between individuals will form commonwealths, and what behaviour is required within commonwealths to make them last.

The behaviour required of the public in order to maintain a commonwealth is absolute submission to a sovereign power. In practice this means abiding by whatever a sovereign declares as law, even if those laws appear to be exacting. Law-abiding behaviour is required so long as, in return, subjects can reasonably expect effective action from the sovereign to secure their safety and wellbeing. With minor variations, this is the theme of all three of Hobbes’ political treatises – the Elements of Law, De cive and Leviathan. Government is created through a transfer of right by the many to the one or the few, in whom an unlimited power is vested. The laws of the sovereign power may seem intrusive and restrictive, but what is the alternative to compliance? Hobbes’ answer is famous: a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. This conception of life without government is not based on the assumption that human beings are selfish and aggressive but, rather, on the idea that if each is their own judge of what is best, there is no assurance that one’s safety and one’s possessions will not be at the mercy of other people – a selfish few, a vainglorious minority or even members of a moderate majority who think they have to take pre-emptive action against a vainglorious or selfish few. It is the general condition of uncertainty, in conditions where people can do anything they like to pursue their wellbeing and secure their safety, that Hobbes calls ‘war’.

    Citing this article:
    Sorell, Tom. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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