Thomas Hobbes



Early Life

Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, adjoining Malmesbury in Wiltshire, on April 5, 1588. His father, the vicar of the parish (so John Aubery tells us), "was one of the ignorant Sir Johns of Queen Elizabeth's time, could only read the prayers of the church and the homilies, and valued not learning, as not knowing the sweetness of it" (Letters written by eminent persons. . .and Lives of eminent men, 1813). Hobbes led a sheltered and leisured life. His education was provided for by an uncle, a solid tradesman and alderman of Malmesbury. He was already a good Latin and Greek scholar when, not yet fifteen, he was sent to Magdalen Hall, Oxford. On leaving Oxford, in 1608, he became companion to the eldest son of Lord Cavendish of Hardwicke (afterwards created Earl of Devonshire), and his connection with the Cavendish family lasted (although not without interruptions) till his death.

Three times in his life, Hobbes traveled on the continent with a pupil. His first journey was begun in 1610, and in it he visited France, Germany, and Italy, learning the French and Italian languages, and gaining experience, but not yet conscious of his life's work. On his return (the date is uncertain), he settled down with his young lord at Hardwick an din London. His secretarial duties were light, and he set himself to become a scholar. To this period, belongs his acquaintance with Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, Ben Johnson, and other leading men of the time.

Hobbes's pupil and friend died in 1628, two years after the death of the first earl; his son and successor was a boy of eleven; his widow did not need the services of a secretary; and, for a time, there was no place in the household for Hobbes. In 1629, he left for the continent again with a new pupil, returning from this second journey in 1631 to take charge of the young earl's education. "He was forty years old before he looked on geometry, which happened accidentally; being in a gentleman's library in. . . Euclid's Elements lay open. About this time also, or soon afterwards, his philosophical views began to take shape. Among his manuscripts there is a Short Tract on First Principles (Elements Of Law, ed. Toonies, 1889, pp. 193-210), which has been conjectured to belong to the year 1630. It shows the author so much impressed by his reading of Euclid as to adopt the geometrical form (soon afterwards used by Descartes) for the expression of his argument.

When Hobbes made his third visit to the continent, which lasted from 1634 to 1637 and on which he was accompanied by the young Earl of Devonshire, he is found taking his place among philosophers. At Paris, he was an intimate of Mersenne, who was the center of a scientific circle that included Descartes and Gassendi; and at Florence he held discourse with Galileo. After his return to England he wrote, with a view to publication, a sketch of his new theory, to which he gave the title Elements of Law natural and politic. The treatise was never published by Hobbes, nor did it appear as a connected whole until 1889, although in 1650, probably with his consent, its first thirteen chapters were issued with the title Human Nature, and the remainder of the volume as a separate work De Corpore Politico. In November 1640, when the Long Parliament began to show signs of activity threatening civil war, Hobbes was "the first of all that fled" to France; he thus describes himself as a "man of feminine courage". He remained in France for the next 11 years. By his influence, Hobbes was appointed to teach mathematics to Charles, Prince of Wales, who arrived in Paris in 1646. Of greater interest is another literary correspondence which followed close upon his arrival in Paris. Mersenne was then collecting the opinions of scholars on the forthcoming treatise by Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, and in January 1641, Hobbes's objections were ready and forwarded to his great contemporary in Holland. These, with the replies of Descartes, afterwards appeared as the third set of Objectiones when the treatise was published. Further communications followed on the Dioptrique which had appeared along with the famous Discours de la methode in 1637. Descartes did not discover the identity of his two critics; but he did not approve of either. To Descartes, mend was the primal certainty and independent of material reality. Hobbes, on the other hand, had already fixed on motion as the fundamental fact, and his originality consisted in his attempt to use it for the explanation not of nature only, but also of mind and society. Two or three years after his correspondence with Descartes, Hobbes contributed a summary of his views on physics and a Tractatus Opticus to works published by Mersenne.

Later Life and Writings

At least by the beginning of his residence in Paris in 1640, Hobbes had matured the plan for his own philosophical work. It was to consist of three treatises, dealing respectively with matter or body, with human nature, and with society. It was his intention, he says, to have dealt with these subjects in this order, but his country "was boiling hot with questions concerning the rights of dominion, and the obedience due from subjects, the true forerunners of an approaching war," and this cause, as he said, "ripened and plucked from me this third part" of the system--the book De Cive, published at Paris in 1642. When stable government seemed to have been re-established by the Commonwealth, he had it published in London, in an English version from his own hand, as Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. The same year, 1651, saw the publication, also in London, of his greatest work, Leviathan, and his own return to England, which now promised a sager shelter to the philosopher than France, where he feared the clergy and was no longer in favor with the remnant of the exiled English court.

The last twenty-eight years of Hobbes's long life were spent in England; and there he soon returned to the house of his old pupil the Earl of Devonshire, who had preceded him in submitting to the Commonwealth and like him welcomed the king on his return. For a year or two after his home-coming, Hobbes resided in London, busied with the completion of his philosophical system, the long-delayed first part of which, De Corpore, appeared in 1655, and the second part, De Homine, in 1656. The latter work contains little or nothing of importance that Hobbes had not said already; but the former deals with the logical, mathematical, and physical principles which were to serve as foundation for the imposing structure he had built. In 1654, the tract Of Liberty and Necessity, which he had written eight years before in reply to the bishop Bramhall's arguments, was published by some person unnamed into whose hands it had fallen. Not suspecting Hobbes's innocence in the matter of the publication, Bramhall replied with some heat on the personal question and much fullness on the matter in hand in the following year; and this led to Hobbes's elaborate defense is The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, published in 1656.

A bill aimed at blasphemous literature passed the Commons in January 1667, and Leviathan was one of two books mentioned in it. The bill never passed both houses; but Hobbes was seriously frightened. He is said to have become more regular at church and communion. He also studied the law of heresy, and wrote a short treatise on the subject, proving that there was no court by which he could be judged. But he was not permitted to excite the public conscience by further publications on matters of religion. A Latin translation of Leviathan (containing a new appendix bringing its theology into line with the Nicene creed) was issued at Amsterdam in 1668. Other works, however, dating from the same year, were kept back--the tract on Heresy, the answer to Bramhall's attack on Leviathan, and Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England. About the same time was written his Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. His Historia Ecclesiastica, in elegiac verse, dates from about his eightieth year. When he was eighty-four, he wrote his autobiography in Latin verse. In 1673, he published a translation in rhymed quatrains of four books of the Odyssey; and he had completed both Iliad and Odyssey when, in 1675, he left London for the last time. Thereafter he lived with the Cavendish family at one of their seats in Derbyshire. He died at Hardwick on December 4, 1679.

The State of Nature

In his brief introduction to the Leviathan, Hobbes describes the state as an organism analogous to a large person. He shows how each part of the state parallels the function of the parts of the human body. He notes that the first part of his project is to describe human nature, insofar as humans are the creators of the state. To this end, he advises that we look into ourselves to see the nature of humanity in general. Hobbes argues that, in the absence of social condition, every action we perform, no matter how charitable or benevolent, is done for reasons which are ultimately self-serving. For example, when I donate to charity, I am actually taking delight in demonstrating my powers. In its most extreme form, this view of human nature has since been termed psychological egoism. Hobbes believes that any account of human action, including morality, must be consistent with the fact that we are all self-serving. In this chapter. Hobbes speculates how selfish people would behave in a state of nature, prior to the formation of any government He begins noting that humans are essentially equal, both mentally and physically, insofar as even the weakest person has the strength to kill the strongest. Given our equal standing, Hobbes continues noting how we are situations in nature make us naturally prone to quarrel. There are three natural causes of quarrel among people: competition for limited supplies of material possessions, distrust of one another, and glory insofar as people remain hostile to preserve their powerful reputation. Given the natural causes of quarrel, Hobbes concludes that the natural condition of humans is a state of perpetual war of all against all, where no morality exists, and everyone lives in constant fear:

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 people, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes continues offering proofs that the state of nature would be as brutal as he describes. We see signs of this in the mistrust we show of others in our daily lives. In countries which have yet to be civilized people treat are barbaric to each other. Finally, in the absence of international law, strong countries prey on the weakness of weak countries. Humans have three motivations for ending this state of war: the fear of death, the desire to have an adequate living, and the hope to attain this through one's labor. Nevertheless, until the state of war ends, each person has a right to everything, including another person's life.

Laws of Nature

In articulating the peace-securing process, Hobbes draws on the language of the natural law tradition of morality, which was then championed by Dutch politician Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). According to Grotius, all particular moral principles derive from immutable principles of reason. Since these moral mandates are fixed in nature, they are thus called "laws of nature." By using the jargon of natural law theory, Hobbes is suggesting that, from human self-interest and social agreement alone, one can derive the same kinds of laws which Grotius believes are immutably fixed in nature. Throughout his discussion of morality, Hobbes continually re-defines traditional moral terms (such as right, liberty, contract, and justice) in ways which reflects his account of self-interest and social agreement. For Grotius and other natural law theorists, a law of nature is an unchangeable truth which establishes proper conduct. Hobbes defines a law of nature as follows:

A Law of Nature (lex naturalis) is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a person is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved. Hobbes continues by listing specific laws of nature all of which aim at preserving a person's life. Hobbes's first three Laws of Nature are the most important since they establish the overall framework for putting an end to the state of nature. Given our desire to get out of the state of nature, and thereby preserve our lives, Hobbes concludes that we should seek peace. This becomes his first law of nature: " That every person ought to endeavor peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war; the first branch of which rule contains the first and fundamental Law of Nature, which is, To seek peace and follow it; the second, the sum of the right of nature, which is, By all means we can, to defend ourselves. The reasonableness of seeking peace, indicated by the first law, immediately suggests a second law of nature, which is that we mutually divest ourselves of certain rights (such as the right to take another person's life) so to achieve peace: That a person be willing, when others are so too (as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary), to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other people, as he would allow other people against himself. The mutual transferring of these rights is called a contract and is the basis of the notion of moral obligation and duty. For example, I agree to give up my right to steal from you, if you give up your right to steal from me. We have then transferred these rights to each other and thereby become obligated to not steal from each other. From selfish reasons alone, we are both motivated to mutually transfer these and other rights, since this will end the dreaded state of war between us. Hobbes continues by discussing the validity of certain contracts. For example, contracts made in the state of nature are not generally binding, for, if I fear that you will violate your part of the bargain, then no true agreement can be reached. No contracts can be made with animals since animals cannot understand an agreement. Most significantly, I cannot contract to give up my right to self-defense since self-defense (or self-preservation) is my sole motive for entering into any contract.

Other Laws of Nature

Hobbes derives his laws of nature deductively, modeled after the type reasoning used in geometry. That is, from a set of general principles, more specific principles are logically derived. Hobbes's general principles are (1) that people pursue only their own self-interest, (2) the equality of people, (3) the causes of quarrel, (4) the natural condition of war, and (5) the motivations for peace. From these he derives the above two laws, along with at least 13 others. Simply making contracts will not in and of itself secure peace. We also need to keep the contracts we make, and this is Hobbes's third law of nature. Hobbes notes a fundamental problem underlying all contracts: as selfish people, each of us will have an incentive to violate a contract when it serves our best interests. For example, it is in the mutual best interests of Jones and myself to agree to not steal from each other. However, it is also in my best interests to break this contract and steal from Jones if I can get away with it. And, what complicates matters more, Jones is also aware of this fact. Thus, it seems that no contract can ever get off the ground. This is accomplished by giving unlimited power to a political sovereign who will punish us if we violate our contracts. Again, it is for purely selfish reasons (i.e. ending the state of nature) that I agree to set up a policing power which will punish me.

As noted, Hobbes's first three Laws of Nature establish the overall framework for putting an end to the state of nature. The remaining laws give content to the earlier ones by describing more precisely the kinds of contracts which will preserve peace. For example, the fourth law is to show Gratitude toward those who comply with contracts. Otherwise people will regret that they complied when someone is ungrateful. Similarly, the fifth law is that we should be accommodating to the interests of society. For, if we quarrel over every minor issue, then this will interrupt the peace process. Briefly, here are the remaining laws: (6) cautious pardoning of those who commit past offenses; (7) the purpose of punishment is to correct the offender, not "an eye for an eye" retribution; (8) avoid direct or indirect signs of hatred or contempt of another; (9) avoid pride; (10) retain only those rights which you would acknowledge in others; (11) be equitable (impartial); (12) share in common that which cannot be divided, such as rivers; (13) items which cannot be divided or enjoyed in common should be assigned by lot; (14) mediators of peace should have safe conduct; (15) Resolve disputes through an arbitrator. Hobbes explains that there are other possible laws which are less important, such as those against drunkenness, which tends to the destruction of particular people. At the close of Chapter 15 Hobbes states that morality consists entirely of these Laws of Nature which are arrived at though social contract. Contrary to Aristotle's account of virtue ethics, Hobbes adds that moral virtues are relevant to ethical theory only insofar as they promote peace. Outside of this function, virtues have no moral significance.


Hobbes continues in Chapter 17 that to ensure contracts (and peace) power must be given to one person, or one assembly. We do this by saying, implicitly or explicitly, "I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this person, or to this assembly of people, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner." His definition of a commonwealth, then, is this: "One person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants on with another, have mad themselves every on the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense" This person is called a "sovereign." He continues that there are two ways of establishing a commonwealth: through acquisition (force), or through institution (agreement). In Chapter 18 Hobbes lists the rights of rights of sovereigns. They are, (1) Subjects owe him sole loyalty; (2) Subjects cannot be freed from their obligation; (3) Dissenters must consent with the majority in declaring a sovereign; (4) Sovereign cannot be unjust or injure any subject; (5) The sovereign cannot be put to death; (6) The right to censor doctrines repugnant to peace; (7) Legislative power of prescribing rules; (8) Judicial power of deciding all controversies; (9) Make war and peace with other nations; (10) Choose counselors; (11) Power of reward and punishment; (12) Power of all civil appointments, including the militia. In Chapter 19 he discusses the kinds of governments that can be instituted. The three main forms are monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He argues that monarchy is best for several reasons. Monarch's interests are the same as the people's. He will receive better counsel since he can select experts and get advice in private. His policies will be more consistent. Finally, there is less chance of a civil war since the monarch cannot disagree with himself.