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Brief Lives

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Hilarius Bogbinder looks at a man who wanted to make Peace from Warre.

“One of the greatest geniuses of the 17th Century” was how Pierre Bayle (1646-1707), a French lexicographer, described Thomas Hobbes in his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (p.467). It is hard to argue with this assessment, even for a man who was a contemporary of Newton, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Descartes. Hobbes was born under Elizabeth I (1537-1603), and his life overlapped with Shakespeare’s (1564-1616), though the Bard was not mentioned in the philosopher’s works.

We know a lot about Hobbes, not least because he presented his story well: he wrote several autobiographies to defend himself from charges of atheism. We are fortunate that John Aubrey (1626-1697), a fellow Wiltshireman, and a friend of the philosopher, also wrote a very readable and, at times, refreshingly candid, biography of Hobbes, which recounted the thinker’s achievements as well as his many quirks. Except for Aubrey, few would be aware that Thomas Hobbes was a health fanatic, and that he was prone to singing for the sake of longevity, not to the delight of others: “He sang aloud (not that he had a very good voice, but for his health’s sake); he did believe it did his lungs good and conduced much to prolong his life” (The Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, p.352). Notwithstanding that Hobbes cared about his health, his friend reported that, “when he did drinke, he would drinke to excesse” (Ibid, p.350). His biographer also reported that the philosopher was six foot tall – at a time when the average was 5’5. He also lived to his 92nd year, at a time when life expectancy was a mere 43.

Perhaps Hobbes lived so long because he was a keen tennis player. Certainly, this sport was so central to him that he even mentioned it in his most famous book, though with a caveat: “The skill of making, and maintaining commonwealths, consisteth in certain rules, as doth arithmetic and geometry, not as tennis-play, on practice only” (Leviathan, p.136). But it is fair to say that the sporty singing drinker wanted to be known for his contributions to philosophy rather than to personal fitness. And this is, of course, how he appeals to readers half a millennium after his birth.


Hobbes is known for using the methods of geometry and the insights of the then-new physical sciences to expound a rounded system of philosophy based on a purely materialist view of the world. He may not be entirely liked: Bishop Henry Hammond wrote with horror about “Mr Hobbes’ Leviathan”, which the reverend cleric called “a farrago of Christian Atheism.” But Hobbes was always respected. Even his opponent, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), called him ‘the sharp-witted Englishman’ (Political Writings, p.118).

To writers of a more recent vintage, Hobbes is above all known as the author of Leviathan. It was famously in this volume that its author described life in the state of nature (that is, before civilisation) as “solidary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and “a time of Warre, where every man is the enemy of every man” (p.70). The simple plot of this justly famous treatise was that people should, “confer all their power and strength upon one man” – to give one man sovereign power – so that this “mortal god” is “enabled to perform the wills of them all, to [make] peace at home, and to [provide] mutual aid against their enemies abroad” (p.134).

This justification for the rule of ‘that great Leviathan’ would have been enough to secure its author a place among the great writers of Western philosophy. But Hobbes’ work goes deeper than providing an apology for rule by a strong state.

No understanding of Hobbes is complete without a bit of context. Described by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) as “the second son of an otherwise undistinguished vicar near Westport in Wiltshire” (Hobbes on Civil Association, p.15), Hobbes was fond of saying that his mother went into labour for fear of the invasion by the Spanish Armada, because she feared that “a fleet at sea/would cause our nation’s catastrophy” (Latin Verse Autobiography, lines 25-26).

Born on 5 April 1588, Thomas Hobbes went to school in the nearby town of Malmesbury, and then later to a private school run by Robert Latimer, a graduate of Oxford. The education must have been good, because before going up to Oxford himself, Hobbes translated Euripides’ play Medea from Greek into Latin.

This son of a preacher man was sent to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, to read Classics (Latin and Greek). On the recommendation of the Master of the college, he was subsequently employed as a tutor to the Earl of Devonshire. He stayed off-and-on in the employ of this nobleman and his descendants for the rest of his long life. This provided Hobbes with plenty of leisure time, and a rare opportunity for travelling abroad. It was on one of these trips that, aged about forty, he discovered Euclid’s Elements, and so, the principles of geometry. He later wrote how, he “delighted with this method, not so much because of its theorems as because of the way of reasoning.” (Prose Autobiography, p.3)

Although he was trained as a classical scholar, Hobbes preferred the company of scientists. Indeed, for a short period in the early 1620s, he was a research assistant to the early scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626). At this time, Hobbes was mainly interested in modern science and ancient texts. But he was also an accomplished writer, and a respected one among his contemporaries. His friends included the likes of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Hobbes also met and corresponded with René Descartes (1596-1650), though the two men disliked each other, and disagreed on many things.

Hobbes gradually developed a wide-ranging system of philosophy. He believed that “philosophy consists in three elements, body, man, and citizen” (Verse Autobiography, 137-138). Consequently, he had a plan for a trilogy of three books, on the body, on man, and on the citizen. This ambition was duly executed, with the publication of De Corpore (1655), De Homine (1658), and De Cive (1642), respectively.

As the attentive reader will have noticed, the last of this trio was published first. There’s a reason for this. The civil wars in the 1630s and 1640s in England and Scotland, which made “both these kingdoms… miserable” (Leviathan, p.154), prompted him to focus on political theory.

However, these books were written in Latin, and so not accessible to most of his compatriots. While living in Paris between 1629-1637 as a tutor to Gervase Clifton, Hobbes had written a short book with the unmistakable Euclidean title The Elements of Politics. In this unpublished book he wrote with a radicalism that would have shocked contemporaries steeped in Christian ethics. Rather than being the command of God, goodness was subjective: “every man… calleth that which pleaseth GOOD; and EVIL, which displeaseth him” (Elements, p.173). But the book remained unpublished. Instead Hobbes rewrote it completely into what became his masterpiece.



Hobbes had exceptional attention to detail. He actively collaborated with the prominent French artist Abraham Bosse (1604-1676) over the cover to Leviathan, a famous engraving showing a king whose body comprised of many individuals. The cover itself was meant as a kind of summary of parts of the book. A gigantic sea monster in the Old Testament (Psalms 74:14), the Leviathan would have been well known to Hobbes’ Bible-reading contemporaries. Hobbes used the term to mean a sort of personalised body politic, united through the will of the sovereign.

Leviathan, while written in an accessible English style, is littered with references to Hobbes’ ambition to be to political science what Euclid had been for geometry. This can be seen in his choice of words: “These dictates of Reason, men use to call by the names of Lawes; but improperly: for they are but Conclusions or Theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves” (p.81). (For non-mathematicians, a theorem is a statement logically deduced from other formulas or propositions.)

Some were surprised that Hobbes wanted – and even dared – to return home from France. As a former tutor to the Prince of Wales – the future King Charles II, and son of the executed king, Charles I – Hobbes was not a natural ally of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, who ruled England in the 1650s after winning the English Civil War and ordering Charles I’s beheading. But, in Leviathan, Hobbes argued that peace was preferable even if the ruler had secured power under less than just or legitimate circumstances. As he wrote in the concluding chapter of the book: “there is scarce a Commonwealth in the world whose beginnings can in conscience be justified” (p.529).

Leviathan was not so much an apology for the monarchy as a justification for rule by a strong central government. Modern readers may be shocked to read his unashamed defence of authoritarian government: so outraged, perhaps, that they overlook that this is a nuanced book with many subtleties. For starters, the transfer of power to the sovereign is not unconditional. For example, Hobbes is adamant that “the obligation of the subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished” (p.171). So if the dictator can no longer secure peace, the deal’s off.

Perhaps Hobbes was not an anti-democrat after all, then? Indeed, some have noted that the Leviathan (the governing state body) can be “an assembly of men” (p.134) rather than an individual.

Not so fast. In theory, perhaps, the Leviathan can mean a rule by an assembly; but Hobbes was never a great fan of democracy. Indeed, in the 1620s he translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War because the 5th Century BCE Greek historian “says democracy’s a foolish thing” (Verse Autobiography, 85-86). Indeed, Leviathan goes much deeper than just pertaining to the pros and cons of democracy. It straddles economics, theology, and of course, philosophy. But much as Leviathan brims with ideas and insights, it is above all a book on the complexities of politics and a reflection on the science of government. As such, it speaks through the ages.

Thomas Hobbes portrait by J.M. Wright c.1669

Hobbes’ Philosophical Positions

Hobbes has been seen by some as a proto-capitalist. That, at least, was the view of C.B. MacPherson in his famous book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962). An individualist Hobbes might have been, but not a defender of neoliberalism. Indeed, some of his views make him a precursor of the welfare state: “Whereas many men, by accident, inevitably become unable to maintain themselves by their labour, they ought not to be left to the charity of private persons, but to be provided for… by laws of the Commonwealth” (Leviathan, p.263).

Leviathan didn’t merely foreshadow public policies of the twentieth century; it was also a harbinger of other ideas that took root then. For instance, in the past hundred years or so it has become commonplace to talk about the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy. Reading Hobbes, one realises that this preoccupation with language is not a novel idea. Indeed in Chapter IV of Leviathan, Hobbes arguably presages the idea of ‘speech acts’ later developed by J.L. Austin after the Second World War, when he observes that words are not merely descriptive, but that we can use words “to grieve one another with the tongue” (p.28).

Writers and practitioners have always seen a juxtaposition between reason and rhetoric, but in Hobbes’ view, they live side-by-side. He admits that, “in all deliberations and in all pleadings, the faculty of solid reasoning is necessary, for without it, the resolutions of men are rash and their sentiments are unjust.” Yet he goes on, “if there be not powerful eloquence which procureth attention and consent, the affect of reason will be little” (p.527)

Most readers in the twenty-first century (and arguably, before) only read the first two parts of the four-part Leviathan: ‘On Man’ and ‘On Commonwealth’. The other parts, ‘On Christian Commonwealth’ and ‘On the Kingdom of Darkness’ – both of which deal with theology – are almost always overlooked. This is regrettable. No other work is cited as often in Leviathan as the Bible. And whatever you may believe, it is fascinating to read Hobbes’ detailed reflections on theological concepts such as salvation, grace, and sin. For example, he writes, “to be saved is to be secured either, respectively, against special evils, comprehending want, sickness, and death itself” and hence, to be “saved from sin, is to be saved from the calamities that sin has brought upon us” (p.347).

Hobbes was not a utopian idealist. He was a pragmatist. His goal was to create, through scientific method, what he called ‘the Arts of Peace’ (p.71). He did not grant democracy a role in securing this.

In some ways, Hobbes was simply too rash by temperament to accept government by the people. His posthumously-published dialogue Behemoth (another mysterious mighty animal described in the Old Testament, in Job 40:15–24) was neither as detailed, nor as carefully argued, as his earlier books. Its throwaway remark that “People have been and always will be ignorant” (Behemoth, p.39) probably reflects the aging Hobbes’ prejudices rather than his considered judgement. No wonder that his one-time pupil King Charles II forbade the eighty-year-old Hobbes from publishing it. Yet neither Hobbes nor any other great thinker should be judged by their lesser, posthumously-published works, but by the masterpieces they themselves deemed worth to be read by subsequent generations.

Leviathan has been described as “the greatest, perhaps, the sole masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language” (Introduction to Leviathan, Oakeshott, p.viii). It is a book that provokes, but also one that forces us to deal with one of the biggest issues of all times, namely civil peace. For Hobbes it was self-evident that peace was the goal “for which end [governments] were instituted” (Leviathan, p.131). And whether we agree or disagree with his prescriptions, we should all accept his axiom that it is “a fundamental Law of Nature, which commandeth to seek peace” (Leviathan, p.106).

Hobbes suffered a paralytic stroke from which he died on 4 December 1679, aged ninety-one, at Hardwick Hall. His last words were said to have been “A great leap in the dark!”

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2024

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born translator and writer who studied theology at Oxford University.

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