Born April 5, 1588, in Westport, England, Thomas Hobbes claimed that his birth was premature due to his mother’s fear of the Spanish Armada. Son of a minister of the Church of England, he was able to receive an education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, from which he graduated in February 1608. Hobbes was then recommended to William Cavendish as a tutor for Cavendish’s son William. Hobbes remained close to the family right up until his death at the family’s home at Hardwick on December 4, 1679. Much of Hobbes’s life was mired by political unrest in England; during the span of his life, the country saw the fall of the monarchy, a civil war that lead to the rise of the Commonwealth, the fall of the Commonwealth, and the restoration of the monarchy. Fearing for his life, Hobbes fled to the continent in 1640, and there, he honed his philosophical skills through exchanges with Descartes and on tours of the warring principalities of Italy. He remained there until the winter of 1651 to 1652, returning only months after the publication of Leviathan. He used the principles of Leviathan to justify his taking an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth, asserting that while he was a supporter of the monarch, he could also support any other form of government that was sufficiently powerful enough to protect his rights. Hobbes was full of contradictions: He was a royal sympathizer who supported democratic philosophies and a Christian whose naturalistic and materialistic philosophies could be interpreted as having atheist tones.
An influential philosopher and mediocre mathematician and physicist, Thomas Hobbes laid down the philosophical framework for the philosophers of the Enlightenment. His most widely recognized piece would be Leviathan, which was published in England in May of 1651 while he was in exile in France. Hobbes’s political theory is centered around psychological egoism, which states that each person will always act upon what he or she thinks is best for himself or herself. The fundamental axiom on which Hobbes based his theory of politics rested upon what he considered to be the natural state of man. Previously, it had been thought that governmental institutions, such as monarchies, were natural entities, but Hobbes concluded that any government was not consistent with the natural state of man. The natural state of man, according to Hobbes, was a war of all against all. Hobbes felt that this war was generated by the relative equality of each individual, in that every person more or less would be capable of destroying another. In man’s natural state, Hobbes said that each person has unlimited rights; for example, they have the right to kill anyone. However, this poses a contradiction: If A has the right to kill B and B has the right to live, then it must be concluded that no one has the right to anything. Thus, according to Hobbes, people willingly invests their sovereignty (rights) into a absolute sovereign whose responsibility is to keep law and order in hopes of reducing general pain, suffering, and death, for it would be in the best interest of each individual to reduce these conditions. This investment is known as the “social contract,” an idea that bases the power of government in the will of the people and was instrumental to the development of writers during the Enlightenment.
- Kinney, A. (2000). Thomas Hobbes. New York: Twayne.
- Martinich, A. P. (1997). Thomas Hobbes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Rogers, G. A. J., & Ryan, A. (1988). Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes. New York: Oxford University Press.