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Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

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Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmsbury, England, in 1588. As he noted in his autobiography, he was “born a twin of fear” because his mother went into premature labor out of fear that the Spanish Armada was about to attack England. Although the theme of fear and its overwhelming power would recur in his later work, Hobbes’s early years were largely free of anxiety. He was educated in England’s finest schools under the tutelage and patronage of some of its most prominent noblemen and intellectuals.

Hobbes lived through a tumultuous period in English history, and his most productive years as a philosopher coincided with a time of political turmoil and civil war. Early in the 1640s, when it became clear that Parliament was going to turn on King Charles I, Hobbes fled to France. As a devoted monarchist, Hobbes feared persecution if he stayed in an England run by Parliamentarians. He stayed in France for eleven years, during which he produced much of his most important writing. Hobbes’s most famous work, Leviathan, was published in 1651, two years after Charles I had been executed by the administrators of the Long Parliament, the leaders of the first nonmonarchial government in English history. Although Leviathan won him a new notoriety, at the time of its publication Hobbes’s political philosophy was already well known in Parliamentary circles, where he was generally vilified.

Throughout his professional life, Hobbes was more often derided than celebrated by his contemporaries. In England, his works were banned repeatedly, and “anti-Hobbism” reached such a peak in 1666 that his books were burned at his alma mater, Oxford. Because of his materialist philosophy and his opposition to the established church, Hobbes was often labeled an atheist, though he never professed to be one.

Hobbes was a supremely individual thinker. He attempted through his writing to influence the political conflicts of his day, but he managed to alienate himself even from those who might have been inclined to side with him. During the civil war, he chose not to tone down his rhetoric favoring absolutist monarchy as did many other royalists. At a moment when everyone on the king’s side was at pains to proclaim their support for the Church of England, he trumpeted his distaste for the clergy. These indiscretions caused Hobbes to be banned from the court of King Charles when he was perhaps the most prominent royalist intellectual of the day. He also differentiated himself from his royalist cohorts by claiming that the king’s right to rule came not from a divine right granted by God but from a social contract granted by the people. This iconoclastic position has led many to consider Hobbes to be among the first “liberal” political thinkers in Europe—despite the disdain for his ideas held by liberal philosophers, due to Hobbes’s authoritarian views.

Hobbes’s political philosophy was rooted in his fundamental conviction that all of philosophy needed to be overhauled. Hobbes believed that traditional philosophy had never been able to reach irrefutable conclusions or secure universal truth and that this failure was the cause not only of philosophical controversy but also of civil discord and even civil war. Hobbes set out to create a philosophical system that provided a secure and agreed-upon basis for all knowledge in the universe. This totalizing philosophy, which Hobbes developed over many years, was based in the materialist outlook that all phenomena in the universe are traceable to the physical properties of matter and motion. Hobbes, however, rejected the observation of nature and the experimental method as legitimate bases for philosophical knowledge. In this respect he diverged from his near-contemporary Francis Bacon, who also proposed a total reform of philosophy, but one based on the experimental method. Instead, Hobbes proposed a purely deductive philosophy that bases its findings on previously stated, universally agreed-upon “first principals.” Hobbes sought to create a philosophy capable of explaining absolutely everything that happens in the universe, and he produced original work that cut across virtually every academic discipline. He engaged in lengthy intellectual feuds (which he often lost) with figures as wide ranging as the mathematician John Wallis, the philosopher René Descartes, and the scientist Robert Boyle.

Hobbes is primarily remembered today as a political theorist, and he has been enormously influential in political theory. The most durable components of his philosophy have been his appraisal of the role that power and fear play in human relations and his arresting portrait of humans in the state of nature. Political and ethical philosophers of all kinds have had to confront his theories.

Hobbes remained an incredibly prolific writer into old age, undeterred by widespread opposition to his work. He lived to the age of eighty-nine during an era when the average life expectancy was not much older than forty. Keeping busy to the end, in his eighties Hobbes produced new English translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and penned an autobiography in Latin verse. Despite the controversy he caused, he was something of an institution in England by the end of his life. As abhorrent or attractive as his views may be to readers, his brilliantly articulated theories are read by people across the political spectrum. Hobbes’s ideas may be embraced or rejected, but they are never ignored.

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