Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

1. Life

Hobbes was born in Westport, a parish of the town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England. His mother came from a yeoman family; his father was a poorly educated vicar who seems to have left his parish in disgrace, deserting his family after having come to blows with another clergyman early in Hobbes’ childhood. Hobbes’ uncle subsequently supported the family, and it was he who paid for Hobbes’ university education. Hobbes was lucky to receive good schooling locally, and he showed an early talent for the classical languages.

In 1602 or 1603, Hobbes began study towards an arts degree at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. From his criticisms of the universities in his published writings, it is sometimes inferred that he disliked his college days, or at least that he disliked the scholasticism of Oxford at that time. (Scholasticism – the fusion of Christian with ancient Greek thought, especially the thought of Aristotle – dominated the curricula of the schools and universities of Europe in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – see Medieval philosophy.) Certainly he disliked the university curriculum in retrospect, as chapter 46 of Leviathan (1651) makes clear.

Hobbes completed his degree in 1608, and entered the service of William Cavendish, First Earl of Devonshire, as companion and tutor to his son. Although Hobbes was about the same age as the young Cavendish, he was put in charge of his purse as well as his education. He was the earl’s representative at meetings of the Virginia Company, in which the Devonshire family had a considerable financial stake. He also accompanied the earl’s son on a grand tour of the Continent in 1610, which allowed Hobbes to improve his command of French and Italian. According to some accounts, he also became acquainted then with criticisms of scholasticism current among Continental intellectuals.

It is unclear how long this grand tour lasted, but Hobbes had returned to England by 1615. At some point during these travels Hobbes seems to have met Fulgenzio Micanzio, the friend and personal assistant of the Venetian writer and politician Paolo Sarpi. He must also have met Marc Antonio de Dominis, who was involved in the translation of Bacon’s writings into Italian and who also had connections with Sarpi. Hobbes’ own contact with Bacon may have had its stimulus in the requests of the newly befriended Venetians for more details of the Baconian philosophy. The young Cavendish began a correspondence with Micanzio after returning to England in 1615. Hobbes translated this correspondence and through it would have been exposed to Sarpi’s theory of the supremacy of temporal rulers rather than spiritual authorities. The theory went against the Papal interdict of 1606, which asserted Rome’s right to overrule the decisions of local monarchs and which had encountered much criticism in England. There are apparently strong echoes of this anti-Papal line in Hobbes’ own writings.

During his first twenty years of service to the Devonshires, Hobbes seems to have spent his free time immersed in classical poetry and history. His employers had a good library, and Hobbes made use of it. The first fruit of this regrounding in the classics was a translation into English of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, published in 1628. Hobbes believed that Thucydides had lessons for those who overvalued democracy and did not see the strengths of monarchy, and it may have been the Petition of Right of 1628 that led to the publication of the translation. The Petition called on Charles I not to levy taxes without the consent of Parliament, not to imprison subjects without due cause, not to billet soldiers in private homes and not to put civilians under martial law.

In 1628 Hobbes chose history as the medium for a political message. Later, in writings like Leviathan, he thought science or philosophy was the better vehicle. In writing history it is possible for the conventions of the genre to interfere with the communication of wisdom; in writing science, he came to believe, the communication of wisdom is assured, if the audience is prepared to pay attention and able to follow a demonstration. He struggled throughout his intellectual life with the problem of combining political rhetoric with political science, and some of his best writings are experimental solutions to this problem. The translation of Thucydides is important as the first of many such experiments.

The year 1628 was a kind of turning-point in Hobbes’ career. Apart from publishing the translation of Thucydides, he had to contend with the death of the second earl at the age of 43, resulting in his loss of employment with the Devonshires. Hobbes took up a new post in the house of Sir Gervase Clifton, not far from Hardwick Hall, the home of the Devonshires. Once again he was engaged as a companion on a grand tour, this one lasting from 1629 to 1631. During this journey Hobbes looked for the first time at Euclid’s Elements, and fell in love with geometry. There is plenty of evidence in Hobbes’ writings that he regarded Euclid’s book as one of the supreme examples of a scientific presentation of a subject. Perhaps also during this second journey to the Continent Hobbes was present at a discussion among some well-educated gentlemen about the nature of sense-perception, in which it emerged that none of the participants could say what sense-perception was. Both episodes are significant, because they seem to mark the beginning of Hobbes’ transformation from man of letters to man of science.

Perhaps the stimulus for the change was not the second grand tour alone. After his return, Hobbes went back into the service of the Devonshires and became tutor to the young third earl. At about the same time, he came into contact with a branch of his master’s family who lived at Welbeck, near Hardwick Hall. The Welbeck Cavendishes were interested in science. The Earl of Newcastle is known to have sent Hobbes on an errand to London to find a book of Galileo’s in the early 1630s. The earl’s younger brother, Charles, had an even greater interest in science: he acted as something of a patron and distributor of scientific writings. Hobbes was one of those who looked at and gave his opinion of these writings. Charles Cavendish also had contacts among Continental scientists, including Marin Mersenne, a friar in Paris who was at the centre of a circle of scientists and philosophers that included Descartes.

Hobbes’ scientific development continued when he embarked with the third earl on yet another grand tour from 1634 to 1636. During this journey he is supposed to have met Galileo in Italy, as well as Mersenne and some members of his circle in Paris in 1636. Hobbes had probably become acquainted with Mersenne five years earlier on the second tour. It is said that on the third grand tour Hobbes was much preoccupied with the nature and effects of motion, and that he started to see for the first time how many natural phenomena depended upon it.

On his return to England, Hobbes kept up with some of the scientific work being produced in Mersenne’s circle. Descartes’ Discourse and Essays were published in 1637. Hobbes was sent a copy and seems to have made a careful study of the first of the Essays – on optics – perhaps taking time to write something of his own on the same subject. He was not keeping abreast solely of scientific ideas. Through his association with a circle of clergy, lawyers and aristocrats at Great Tew, near Oxford, he was able to follow the continuing debates surrounding the troubles of Charles I. In 1634 the king started to raise funds for a navy by a ship-money tax levied county by county. This tax-raising met opposition, particularly in non-coastal counties. Besides the ship-money dispute, Charles I had to reckon with the consequences of trying, in 1637, to bring the Scottish Presbyterian prayer book into line with its Anglican counterpart. This provoked a National Covenant in Scotland expressing wholesale opposition to ecclesiastical innovations from England. In 1639 and 1640 the Scots raised armies to back up their opposition, and Charles was forced to recall a parliament he was used to ruling without, and which was extremely hostile to him. When Parliament acted against Stafford, a minister of the King associated with the Earl of Newcastle, Hobbes worked on arguments that could support the royalist position in parliamentary debates. The arguments were produced in a treatise, The Elements of Law (1640), not intended for publication but which, in fact, contains much of the doctrine of Hobbes’ political philosophy. Fearing that he would be prosecuted for giving the royalists their arguments, he fled to Paris and joined the circle of philosophers and scientists around Mersenne.

Some years after 1640 Hobbes wrote that he had recently conceived a plan for expounding, in three parts, the elements of philosophy or science in general. His exposition would begin with the nature of body and the elements of what we now call physics. It would go on to discuss human nature, in particular perception and motivation, and the third part would be a discussion of moral and civic duty. Perhaps he had already drawn up this plan, and even executed some of it, by the time he reached Paris. What is certain, however, is that the first part of the exposition to be published was the last of the three in his outline – the part on morals and politics. Hobbes called this part of his exposition De cive and published a very limited edition of it in Latin in 1642.

Hobbes seems to have enjoyed good relations with most of Mersenne’s circle. He was at odds with Descartes, however, whose Meditations he criticized in a set of ‘Objections’ – the anonymous ‘Third Set’ (see Descartes, R. §§4, 6). From 1641 until Mersenne’s death in 1648, Hobbes applied himself to the composition of the rest of his three-part exposition of the elements of science. He produced some of the material for the first part of the exposition – on body, the part published in 1655 as De corpore – and took up topics that would later occupy the middle part of the exposition. In 1643 he wrote a critical commentary on De Mundo, a treatise written by Thomas White (another Englishman in Paris at that time) which was sympathetic to scholasticism. In 1646 Hobbes composed some arguments about the respects in which freedom is compatible with causal necessitation in nature, arguing once more on this occasion against scholastic positions. He suffered a serious illness in 1647 and almost died. While on his sickbed he rebuffed an attempt by Mersenne to convert him to Roman Catholicism.

In 1648 Mersenne died and the philosophical and scientific activity that had gone on around him ceased to have a focal point. Hobbes now had a place among the royalists in exile, but he was on poor terms with churchmen around the exiled Charles II in Paris and was receiving his pay rather irregularly. By the autumn of 1649 he seems to have formed the intention of going home.

Leviathan, in which Hobbes attempted to derive from his now well-worked-out political principles the right relation of Church to state, was written at the end of the 1640s, when church government in England began to run on lines of which he approved and at a time when the influence of bishops in the English royal court-in-exile in Paris was, in Hobbes’ eyes, too great. In any case, the fact that the theory in the book vindicated Cromwell’s policy on church government does not mean that it was a partisan work in favour of Cromwell, calculated to ease Hobbes’ return to England. If that had been so, Hobbes would not have made a special presentation copy for the future Charles II. Instead, it seems that the doctrine in Leviathan favoured the concentration of all authority in any de facto sovereign power, whether republican or royal. To the Paris royalists, mostly strong Anglicans in favour of political powers for bishops, the new book was highly offensive.

By the end of 1651 Hobbes was back in London and all three statements of his political philosophy were available in some form in English. These political works were widely known before his exposition of the elements of science was complete. Even though De cive had been planned to complete a sequence of three treatises on these elements, it did not depend on the other treatises in order to be understood, and it has always had a readership of its own. When the other two works in the sequence appeared in the 1650s, they did not match De cive in quality. The treatise on which Hobbes had been working longest was the opening work of the sequence, De corpore, published in 1655. In it Hobbes tried to show how the mature sciences of geometry, mechanics and physics were concerned with the effects of different kinds of motion in matter. Politically motivated critics soon exposed the weaknesses in the mathematical sections of the book, and Hobbes’ attempt to vindicate his work involved him in years of fruitless polemic. De homine, the second volume of his Elements and undoubtedly the least well-integrated of the three, was published in 1658. It was never widely read, and a modern English translation of it has only recently appeared.

In 1660 the monarchy was re-established in England, and on the coat-tails of Charles II there returned to political power many who regarded Hobbes as a traitor to the royalist cause. Charles himself was not hostile, however, and other influential people were also well-disposed towards him. Nevertheless, in 1666 and 1667, Parliament came close to passing a bill outlawing Christian heresy and atheism, and Leviathan was specifically investigated as a source of heretical and atheistic views. The danger of imprisonment and exile did not dissipate until the end of the decade. The threats to Hobbes were reflected in additions that he made to a Latin edition of his works published in Holland in 1668. He argued that punishment for heresy was illegal under English law and that his materialism was compatible with Christian faith. Two significant works from the 1660s were applications of his political philosophy. There was a history of the English Civil War, Behemoth (1668), and the Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. By the time these works were composed, Hobbes was not permitted to publish, and though he busied himself with some translations of the classics and a few other minor writings of his own in the 1670s, he had come almost to the end of his working life.

In his ninetieth year, Hobbes returned to physics. His Decameron Physiologicum (1678) restates some of the methodology and principal results of the physical sections of De corpore. For the preceding three years Hobbes had divided his time between the two Devonshire houses of Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall In December 1679 he died of a urinary complaint. His remains are buried in a small parish church near Hardwick Hall.

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