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Thomas Hobbes

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edit index Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes (5 Apr 1588 - 4 Dec 1679) was an English political philosopher, most famous for his book Leviathan (1651), and his view of a "state of nature" to avoid, a life "brutish, nasty and short". His view of the necessity of a powerful central Government, where some may be stronger or more intelligent than others, but none are beyond fear of another doing harm to them. Thus, society enters into a "social contract". This view was very influential on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others in the Enlightenment.

For Hobbes, society needs an authority to whom all members surrender enough of their natural liberty to be able to ensure internal peace and a common defense. This benevolent sovereign, whether monarch or administrative state, should be the "Leviathan" of unquestionable authority. Hobbes provided an account of human nature as self-interested co-operation, and was a contemporary of Descartes, anticipating the Cartesian, "clockwork" Universe with his works on the physical body and replies to Descartes' Meditations.

Life and Works

Born in Westport Wiltshire on 5 April 1588, Hobbes' Father was the Vicar of Charlton and Westport, who was forced to abandon the three children to the care of an elder brother Francis. Hobbes was educated at church from the age of four, passed to Malmesbury, then into a private study with Robert Latimer, a graduate from Oxford University. Hobbes was reportedly a good pupil, and in 1603 was sent on to Magdalen Hall at Oxford. The principal, an aggressive Puritan, John Wilkinson, influenced Hobbes, where he followed his own curriculum, "little attracted by the scholastic learning" of his day. He later tutored William Cavendish the junior, baron of Hardwick. Hobbes was exposed to European scientific and critical methods, a careful study of classic Greek and Latin authors, and offered a translation of Thucydides - believing that account of the Peloponnesian War showed that democratic government could not survive war and was undesirable.

Although he associated with figures like Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon, Hobbes did not immediately work in Philosophy. Over some seven years he tutored and expanded his knowledge, awakening in him a curiosity over key philosophical debates, participating in them at home and abroad. Hobbes conceived of a system of thought based on a systematic doctrine of the body, and would devote his life to working on it. Physical phenomena, he reasoned, were universally explicable in terms of Mechanical Motion. He singled out Man from the realm of Nature, and showed what specific bodily motions were involved in the production of Sensation, Knowledge, Affection and Passion. He saw how mankind was compelled to enter into "society", and argued it prevented "brutishness and misery". Thus he proposed to unite Body, Man and the State.

Before the English Civil War, Hobbes felt he was a "marked man", due to the circulation of his treatises, and fled to Paris for eleven years. There he corresponded with Descartes, extended his works, and was chosen to referee the controversy between John Pell and Longomontanus over the squaring of the circle. The breakout of war revitalized Hobbes' political interests, and De Cive was widely distributed. The State, it now seemed to Hobbes, might be regarded as a great artificial man or monster, a "leviathan", composed of men but with a life under pressure from human needs, pushing for dissolution through civil strife from human passions. In 1651, under the title of Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, and with a prominent frontspiece of a large man overlooking a landscape but made of individual men, Hobbes published his now famous work. The work had immediate impact, and soon Hobbes was more infamous than any other thinker of his time. Hobbes fled back to London, and the Council of State allowed him to live a private life in Fetter Lane, reworking De Corpore, and turning out further works. Hobbes died in October of 1679 of natural causes at 92 years of age, and buried in the churchyard of Ault Hucknall.

Further Reading

  • 1629. Translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War
  • 1640. The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic
  • 1651–8. Elementa Philosophica
    • 1642. De Cive (Latin)
    • 1651. Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (English translation of De Cive)
    • 1651. Pirated Edition of The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, repackaged to include two parts:
    • Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policie
    • De Corpore Politico
    • 1655. De Corpore (Latin)
    • 1656. De Corpore (English translation)
    • 1658. De Homine (Latin)
  • 1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Online.
  • 1656. The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance
  • 1668. Latin translation of the Leviathan
  • 1675. English translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
  • 1681. Posthumously 'Behemoth, or The Long Parliament'' (written in 1668, unpublished at the request of the King)


  • Macpherson, C. B. (1962). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • Strauss, Leo (1936). The Political Philosophy of Hobbes; Its Basis and Its Genesis. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Strauss, Leo (1959). "On the Basis of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," in What Is Political Philosophy?, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, chap. 7.
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand (1925). Hobbes. Leben und Lehre, Stuttgart: Frommann, 3rd ed.
  • Shapin, Steven and Shaffer, Simon (1995). Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Malcolm, Noel. 2002. Aspects of Hobbes. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Skinner, Quentin. 1996. Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes's. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • World History: The Living Legend. (2004) Changes Throughout Modern Philosophy. Pearson & Hall.
  • Malcolm, Noel. 2007. Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes. Oxford University Press.


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