Biography of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes lived in a time of uncertainty; a time when social, political, and philosophical orders were crumbling before his eyes. He was born in 1588 in Wiltshire, England, to a father with a penchant for the drink. His father worked as a fairly unaccomplished vicar. When Hobbes was only four his father was engaged in a fight outside of his own church, and eventually fled in fear, abandoning his three children and leaving them to be raised by his brother.

When Hobbes was fifteen he began his study at Oxford, where he focused mainly on travel and cartography. Five years after graduating from Oxford he gained a job tutoring the son of the Earl of Devonshire and began an intense study of the Greek and Roman Classics, particularly poetry, history, and philosophy. During his time as a tutor the world of upper class society was opened to him, and he was able to travel abroad with his pupil and his family. It was probably during his first trip to France and Italy in 1610 that Hobbes was exposed to the radical new ideas of Galileo and Kepler, the first of many signs that the old philosophical order was changing.

While the seeds of Hobbes' philosophy were laid during this first trip abroad, upon his return he directed his energies to Classical studies. In 1629 he published his first work, a translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Hobbes revealed much later in his autobiography that Thucydides appealed to him because of the historian's exposure of the crumblings of democracy.

During this same year Hobbes traveled abroad again to Paris, becomming enamored with Euclid's Elements. In this geometry Hobbes saw a methodology that he would later apply to his philosophy, whereby one could go through arguments step-by-step, and arrive at logically sound conclusions. After being recalled to England one year later to teach the son of his late pupil, he published his first philosophical work, A Short Tract on First Principles, in which he applied this geometric methodology to the question, "What is sense?"

In a third trip abroad he met Galileo and became inspired by the idea that motion was the underlying force in all of reality. He then planned an ambitious three part project of explaining nature, man, and citizenship based around this idea of motion. Yet when he came back to England in 1637 unrest gripped the country as the parliament and monarchists struggled for power. Rather than publish the part on nature first in 1640 he published The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, which dealt first with man and second with citizenship. In this work he argued in favor of the royalists, and when the situation became particularly unruly, he fled to Paris.

In Paris Hobbes worked on and expanded his work on man and citizenship (De Cive, 1647), and eventually became a mathematics instructor to prince of Wales (later Charles II). Then in 1651 he published his seminal work, Leviathan, which drew upon his previous political philosophy and added his additional philosophy concerning religion. Hobbes' argument that the subjects of a commonwealth could choose a new form of government when theirs no longer protected them offended royalists in exile following the death of Charles I. They believed Hobbes was trying to curry favor with the new government. Yet Hobbes found little favor in France: his lengthy and at times virulent attack on the papacy made him powerful enemies in Catholic France, and Hobbes eventually returned to England at the end of that year.

His return to England did not mark the end of controversy for Hobbes. In Leviathan and elsewhere Hobbes attacked the philosophy of Aristotle and the university system that perpetuated what he believed were false (and dangerous) doctrines. He became involved in a series of spats with professors concerning the place of motion in natural and political philosophy, as well as problems of geometry and physiology.

Following the Restoration of 1660, Charles II, Hobbes' former employer, invited Hobbes into the King's court and even paid him a monthly stipend. While Hobbes was still a controversial figure amongst members of the court, the King enjoyed Hobbes' intellect and sense of humor, and even had a portrait of Hobbes hung in the royal closet.

The last major controversy of his life came in 1666 when the parliament introduced a bill criminalizing atheism. While Hobbes explicitly distanced himself from atheism in Leviathan, many parts of it were contrary to established religious doctrine (Catholic or not). The bill was never passed, but Hobbes was no longer allowed to publish anything concerning man or religion. Hobbes then lived out his last days writing his autobiography and returning to his Classical studies. In 1675 he published an English translation of Homer's Odyssey, and a year later one of the Iliad. He worked until his last days, promising his publisher another work in English shortly before he died in 1679.

Study Guides on Works by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan takes place in a time of historical and philosophical change. Historically, it was written just before England plunged into civil war - the result of a bitter power struggle between the British Parliament and the monarchy. Hobbes'...