Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679) was a noted political philosopher, who was best remembered for his work ‘Leviathan’ which established some of the basic principles of English liberal thought. He termed the phrase social contract, which states that all legitimate political power must be representative and based on the consent of the people.
Thomas Hobbes was born in Melmesbury in 1588. He liked to recall that he was born prematurely because his mother heard the approaching Spanish Armada. His father was a wayward country vicar and he was mainly brought up by an uncle. He was able to go to Magdalen College, Oxford University to study between (1603-08).
Hobbes was employed by the Cavendish family, the Earls of Devonshire. He was able to travel widely and he benefited from their lifelong patronage. On his travels he was able to meet with some of the leading thinkers of the day, such as Bacon, Selden, Ben Jonson and Galileo.
At the age of about 40, he was introduced to Euclidean geometry which fascinated him. He became interested in trying to expand this same logic and deduction to other fields of society and life. He began writing political philosophy, such as Elements of Law Natural and politic (1650). This laid out a justification for Monarchy government. His theoretical support for the Royalist cause meant that during the civil war, he fled England to escape the Parliamentarians. In Paris, he served as tutor to the Prince of Wales (the future Charles II)
Despite being a Royalist, he was also often criticised for being an atheist. However, Hobbes, himself, didn’t see himself as an atheist, but he did write against Divine providence and against the political power of religion. He also wrote a critique of Descartes’ Meditations which tried to prove the existence of God.
In 1651, he wrote his most famous work (Leviathan) which constructed a materialistic and rational system for explaining metaphysics, psychology and political philosophy.
Science is the knowledge of Consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another…
- Leviathan Pt. I, Ch. 5.
He stated that man was essentially motivated by self-interest,
“The condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”
– Thomas Hobbes
and thus a sovereign state should seek to promote an enlightened self-interest in which we form a social contract to prevent the abuse of power.
The office of the sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly, consisteth in the end for which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature.
– Leviathan, The Second Part, Chapter 30: Of the Office of the Sovereign Representative.
In 1652, he returned to England, after making an agreement with Cromwell and his parliamentarians. He continued to write polemics for the rest of his life. However, he was helped by his old student Charles II – after his restoration to the monarchy.
He continued writing well into his 80s, on a wide range of subjects from the causes of the English civil war to translations of classic literature like Iliad and Odyssey.
He died in 1697 of a bladder disorder. He was buried at Ault Hucknell in Derbyshire, England. His last words were said to be:
Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.
– Thomas Hobbes
Leviathan Thomas Hobbes