Thomas Hobbes - Biography
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, adjoining Malmesbury in Wiltshire, on April 5, 1588. His father was the vicar of a parish. His uncle, who was a tradesman and alderman of Malmesbury, provided for Hobbes' education. When he was 14 years old he went to Magdalen Hall in Oxford to study, already an excellent student of Latin and Greek. He left Oxford in 1608, and became the private tutor for the eldest son of Lord Cavendish of Hardwick (later known as the Earl of Devonshire). He traveled with his pupil in 1610 to France, Italy, and Germany. He then went to London to continue his studies, where he met other leading scholars like Francis Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, and Ben Johnson.
Hobbes maintained his connection to the Cavendish family, however, in 1628 the Cavendish son died, and Hobbes had to find another pupil. In 1629 he left for the continent again for a two year journey with his new student. When he returned in 1631 he began to tutor the younger Cavendish son. It was around this time that Hobbes' philosophy began to take form. His manuscript Short Tract on First Principles was most likely written in 1630. In this piece he uses the geometrical form, inspired by Euclid, to shape his argument.
From 1634 to 1637 Hobbes returned to the continent with the young Earl of Devonshire. In Paris he spent time with Mersenne and the scientific community that included Descartes and Gassendi. In Florence, he conversed with Galileo. When he returned to England he wrote Elements of law Natural and Politic, which outlined his new theory. The first thirteen chapters of this work was published in 1650 under the title Human Nature, and the rest of the work as a separate volume entitled De Corpore Politico. In 1640 he went to France to escape the civil war brewing in England. He would stay in France for the next eleven years, taking an appointment to teach mathematics to Charles, Prince of Wales, who came to Paris in 1646.
At this time Hobbes friend Mersenne was encouraging scholars to respond to Descates' forthcoming treatise Meditationes de prima philosophia. In 1641 Hobbes sent his critique to Descartes in Holland, and they were published in Objectiones with the publication of the treatise. The two men continued their discourse, exchanging letters on the Dioptrique, which had been published in 1637. Hobbes disagreed with Descartes' theory that the mind, independent from material reality, was the primal certainty. Hobbes instead used motion as the basis for his philosophy of nature, mind and society. His correspondence with Descartes led to a paper on his views on physics and a Tractatus Opticus to works published by Mersenne.
By 1640 Hobbes had plans for his future philosophical work, expecting it to take shape in the form of three treatises. He planned to begin with matter, or body, then look at human nature, and then society. However, inspired by the political unrest in his home country, he began instead with the third treatise on society. De Cive was published in Paris in 1642. When the Commonwealth had reestablished a stable government in England, Hobbes published the same text in English under the title Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. The book was highly controversial, and criticized by both sides of the English civil war. He supported the king over parliament, but also denied the king his divine right. Oxford University dismissed faculty under the premise of being "Hobbits". Hobbes also ventured controversial views on God and religion, and the Roman Catholic Church put his books on the Index. In England ther
In 1651 Hobbes returned to England, fearing that France was no longer a safe haven for the exiled English court. This same year saw the publication of Leviathan, Hobbes' most influential work. In the introduction to the book Hobbes describes the state as an organism, showing how each part of the state functions similarly to parts of a human body. As the state is created by human beings, he first sets out to describe human nature. He advises that we may look into ourselves to see a picture of general humanity. He believes that all acts are ultimately self-serving, even when they seem benevolent, and that in a state of nature, prior to any formation of government, humans would behave completely selfishly. He remarks that all humans are essentially mentally and physically equal, and because of this, we are naturally prone to fight each other. He cites three natural reasons that humans fight: competition over material good, general distrust, and the glory of powerful positions. Hobbes comes to the conclusion that humanity's natural condition is a state of perpetual war, constant fear, and lack of morality.
In the Leviathan, Hobbes writes that morality consists of Laws of Nature. These Laws, arrived at through social contract, are found out by reason and are aimed to preserve human life. Hobbes comes to his laws of nature deductively, still using a model of reasoning derived from geometry. From a set of five general principles, he derives 15 laws. The five general principles are (1) that human beings pursue only their own self-interest, (2) that all people are equal (3) the three natural causes of quarrel, (4) the natural condition of perpetual war, and (5) the motivation for peace. The first three Laws of Nature he derives from these principles describe the basic foundation for putting an end to the state of nature. The other twelve laws develop the first three further, and are more precise about what kind of contracts are necessary to establish and preserve peace.
Hobbes saw the responsibility of governments to be the protection of people from their own selfishness, and he thought the best government would have the power of a sea monster, or leviathan. He saw the king as a necessary figure of leadership and authority. He felt that democracy would never work because people are only motivated by self-interest. He saw humanity as being motivated by a constant desire for power, and to give power to the individual would result in a war of every one against the other that would make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
After returning to England in 1651, Hobbes had spent a couple of years in London, before retreating to the home of his former pupil the Earl of Devonshire. In 1654 Hobbes was surprised by an unauthorized publication of a tract entitled Of Liberty and Necessity, which he had written in response to an attack by the bishop Bramhall on Leviathan. Bramhall was enraged by Hobbes response, and Hobbes was prompted to write a further and more elaborate defense in The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, which was published in 1656. In 1655 Hobbes published De Corpore, the first part of his philosophical system. This work looks at the logical, mathematical and physical principles that create the foundation of his philosophy. The second part of his system, De Homine, was published in 1656.
In 1667 Leviathan was mentioned in a bill passed in the Commons against blasphemous literature. Although the bill did not pass both houses, Hobbes was scared into studying the law of heresy, and wrote a short treatise arguing that there was no court that might judge him. He was forbidden to publish on the topic of religion. Many of his works were kept from publication, however a Latin translation of Leviathan was published in Amsterdam in 1668. Around this time he also wrote Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Among the titles that remained unpublished during his lifetime are the tract on Heresy, and Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England. He continued to write, and he wrote his autobiography, in Latin verse, when he was eighty-four years old. In his final years he completed Latin translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in 1675 he left London for the last time to live with the Cavendish family in Derbyshire. Hobbes died at Hardwick on December 4, 1679.