Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679), in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory.
Hobbes was a champion of absolutism for the sovereign but he also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.
He was one of the founders of modern political philosophy. His understanding of humans as being matter and motion, obeying the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a “social contract” remains one of the major topics of political philosophy.
In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments – originating social contract theory. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War; much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war.
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). The description contains what has been called one of the best known passages in English philosophy, which describes the natural state mankind would be in, were it not for political community:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes has been accused of atheism, or (in the case of Bramhall) of teachings which could lead to atheism. This was an important accusation, and Hobbes himself wrote, in his answer to Bramhall’s “the catching of the Leviathan” that “atheism, impiety, and the like are words of the greatest defamation possible”. Hobbes always defended himself from such accusations. In more recent times also, much has been made of his religious views by scholars such as Richard Tuck and J. G. A. Pocock, but there is still widespread disagreement about the exact significance of Hobbes’s unusual views on religion.
As Martinich (1995, p. 31) has pointed out, in Hobbes’s time, the term “atheist” was frequently applied to people who believed in God, but not divine providence, or to people who believed in God, but also maintained other beliefs which were inconsistent with such belief. He says that this “sort of discrepancy has led to many errors in determining who was an atheist in the early modern period“. In this extended early modern sense of atheism, Hobbes did indeed take positions which were in strong disagreement with church teachings of his time. For example, Hobbes argued repeatedly that there are no incorporeal substances, and that all things, including human thoughts, and even God, heaven, and hell are corporeal, matter in motion. He argued that “though Scripture acknowledge spirits, yet doth it nowhere say, that they are incorporeal, meaning thereby without dimensions and quantity”. (In this view, Hobbes claimed to be following Tertullian, whose views were not condemned in the Nicene creed.) He also, like Locke, stated that true revelation can never be in disagreement with human reason and experience, although he also argues that people should accept revelation and its interpretations also for the reason that they should accept the commands of their sovereign, in order to avoid war.
General works online
- Works by Thomas Hobbes at Project Gutenberg
- The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., (London: Bohn, 1839–45). 11 volumes. Can be found on the internet:-
- Volume 1. De Corpore translated from Latin to English.
- Volume 2. De Cive.
- Volume 3. The Leviathan
- Volume 4.
- TRIPOS ; in Three Discourses :
- I. Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policy
- II. De Corpore Politico, or the Elements of Law
- III. Of Liberty and Necessity
- An Answer to Bishop Bramhall’s Book, called ” The Catching of the Leviathan”
- An Historical Narration concerning Heresy, and the Punishment thereof Considerations upon the Reputation, Loyalty, Manners, and Religion of Thomas Hobbes
- Answer to Sir William Davenant’s Preface before ” Gondibert”
- Letter to the Right Honourable Edward Howard
- Volume 5. The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance, clearly stated and debated between Dr Bramhall Bishop of Derry and Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury.
- Volume 6.
- A Dialogue Between a Philosopher & a Student of the Common Laws of England
- A Dialogue of the Common Law
- Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, and of the Counsels and Artifices By Which They Were Carried On From the Year 1640 to the Year 1660
- The Art of Rhetoric Plainly Set Forth. With Pertinent Examples For the More Easy Understanding and Practice of the Same
- The Art of Sophistry
- Seven Philosophical Problems
- Decameron Physiologicum
- Proportion of a straight line to half the arc of a quadrant
- Six lessons to the Savilian Professors of the Mathematics
- ???????, or Marks of the absurd Geometry etc. of Dr Wallis
- Extract of a letter from Henry Stubbe
- Three letters presented to the Royal Society against Dr Wallis
- Considerations on the answer of Dr Wallis
- Letters and other pieces
- The Latin works can also be found