Hobbes, Thomas

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(1588-1679), English philosopher and political theorist, whose mechanistic and naturalistic theories led to suspicion and controversy in political and ecclesiastical circles.

Born in Malmesbury, April 5, 1588, Hobbes was educated at Magdalen Hall, University of Oxford. In 1608 he became the tutor of William Cavendish (before 1557-1626), later earl of Devonshire; in the following years he made several tours through France and Italy with his pupil and, later, with the son of the latter. During his travels Hobbes met and talked with several advanced thinkers of the time, including Galileo and the French philosophers René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. In 1637, while in England, Hobbes became interested in the constitutional struggle between King Charles I and Parliament. He set to work on “a little treatise in English“ in defense of the royal prerogative. This work was privately circulated in 1640 under the title The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (pub. 1650). Hobbes feared that Parliament might have him arrested because of his book, and he fled to Paris, where he remained in voluntary exile for 11 years.

In 1642 Hobbes finished De Cive, a statement of his theory of government. From 1646 to 1648 he was mathematics tutor to the prince of Wales, later King Charles II, who was living in exile in Paris. Hobbes's best-known work, Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), is a forceful exposition of his doctrine of sovereignty. The work was interpreted by the followers of the exiled prince as a justification of the Commonwealth and aroused the suspicions of the French authorities by its attack on the papacy. Again fearful of arrest, Hobbes returned to England.

In 1660, when the Commonwealth ended and his former pupil acceded to the throne, Hobbes again came into favor. In 1666, however, the House of Commons passed a bill including the Leviathan among books to be investigated on charges of atheistic tendencies. The measure caused Hobbes to burn many of his papers and to delay publication of three of his works: Behemoth: The History of the Causes of Civil Wars of England; Dialogues Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England; and a metrical Historia Ecclesiastica. At the age of 84, Hobbes wrote an autobiography in Latin verse; within the next three years he translated into English verse the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. He died Dec. 4, 1679.

Hobbes's philosophy represents a reaction against the liberty of conscience of the Reformation, which, he contended, brought anarchy. He effected the breach of English philosophy with Scholasticism, and he laid the foundations of modern scientific sociology by attempting to apply to human beings, as both makers and matter of society, the principles of physical science that govern the material world. Hobbes developed his politics and ethics from a naturalistic basis; he held that all people fear each other and for this reason must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state in both secular and religious matters.