The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes “Puts the Century on Edge”

René Descartes had written: “I think, therefore I am.” Thomas Hobbes responded: “I think, therefore matter thinks.”
By his dates alone, Thomas Hobbes, born in Wiltshire, England, in 1588, in the town of Malmesbury, does not belong in this series on Age of Enlightenment figures. His birth even preceded the Age of Science (roughly the seventeenth century), although he died toward the end of it, in 1679. But he is one of four towering pre-Enlightenment figures in intellectual history—along with Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), and John Locke (1662–1704)—who set the stage for both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment by challenging the Scholasticism that utterly dominated the sixteenth century, monopolizing the world of higher education across Western Europe.
The Christianized Aristotelianism of Scholasticism had given the Western mind a sense of coherence, especially of the nature of causality. In nature, as designed by God, all things strove for His order. Governing all substantial forms in this world was a hierarchy of souls, while God is incorporeal and pure actuality. It was a doctrine that had emerged in triumph from the intellectual battles of the Renaissance and, by the sixteenth century, dominated education in Europe. 
The four great pre-Enlightenment philosophers challenged this vast entrenched monopoly in different ways:

  • Bacon, in England, articulated the case for observation and experimentation—as contrasted with Scholasticism’s deductions from historical authorities—in books that caught the attention of Europe.
  • Descartes, in France, created a philosophical system that eschewed all authority and all assumptions, beginning with radical doubt of everything, including God, and with what he claimed was a self-evident certainty (“I think, therefore I am”) and erected upon it a logical case for existence of the external world and for a benevolent God as first cause of the universe.
  • Locke, in England, countered the rationalism of Descartes with a philosophy of empiricism—observation and experiment—a consistent reference to our experience—and transformed epistemology, the psychology of the mind, man’s nature (including man’s rights), and the philosophy of government as emphasizing the exercise of powers delegated to it by the people. 
  • Hobbes, in works presented in terms that were blunt, articulate, utterly frank, and uncompromising, with a devastating consistency, challenged all spiritualism, the very notion of an immaterial entity, and the reality of human “free will.”

All four men, in contrast to the contemplative spiritual goals of Scholasticism, advanced the view that philosophy’s goal is to make life safer, more successful, and happier for all human beings. Hobbes, in addition, made the case in his greatest work, Leviathan (1651), that the goal of philosophy logically dictated the role of the state and government. He was largely responsible for introducing the prime Enlightenment concepts of a “state of nature” and a “social contract.” He did so in an age dominated by monarchy, the divine right of kings, and absolutism.
And, furthermore, he did so with arguments and in language that brought him few followers, few adherents—and considerable legal peril (instead, “Cartesianism” became the prime philosophical alternative to Scholasticism in the university world and among scientists and intellectuals). Indeed, the Scholastics took to attacking their rivals, the followers of Descartes, as “Hobbesian” (anything but answering Hobbes’s arguments directly).
And yet, Hobbes became one of the most influential philosophers of his age in the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment because he stated his positions with utter internal consistency, without hedging or euphemism. Alan Kors, University of Pennsylvania scholar of the Enlightenment, writes that Hobbes “became the philosopher everyone must answer, must deal with before feeling free to assert their own views.” Still more succinctly, he says, “You had to answer Hobbes” and, thereby, “Hobbes put the century on edge.”

Born prematurely when his mother heard of the approach of the Spanish Armada against England and Holland (summer 1588), Hobbes would comment later, in typically blunt fashion, “My mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” His father was a reportedly disreputable vicar in Charlton and Westport, so the family (Hobbes had a brother and sister) at one point, when Thomas Hobbes senior decked another vicar in the churchyard, was forced to flee town. 

Like many young men of his time, Hobbes went to Oxford University (Magdalen Hall, now Hertford College) but not before he had translated Euripides’s Medea from the Greek into Latin verse. The curriculum was Scholastic logic and mathematics. Hobbes reacted like so many later Enlightenment intellectuals (for example, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Isaac Newton) with boredom and, also like them, followed his own curriculum. He soon left Oxford for Cambridge University, where he completed his B.A. degree in 1608 at St. John’s College.

It was at Cambridge that he formed an association that became lifelong with the William Cavendishes, a family of nobility high in British politics that came to produce the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Newcastle. First as tutor for the family, then secretary, Hobbes forged ties that won him enduring patronage for his work as well as political protection. (He also briefly associated with Ben Jonson and worked for Francis Bacon.)

Around this time, Hobbes completed his pioneering translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War (1628), the work’s first translation into English. Hobbes now supported himself as a tutor, amanuensis, or secretary, at times traveling abroad with employers—once visiting Galileo in Italy while the latter was under house arrest after his conviction for heresy. At the same time, he became a regular in what later would be a typical Age of Enlightenment intellectual venue, the famous Paris salon gathered and run by Marin Mersenne, a Catholic priest and leading mathematician. It was during this time that Hobbes concluded that he must devote his life to developing a new system of thought.

What, then, were the philosophical positions that “put the century on edge”? Readers of Hobbes today will probably view the chief points that defined his thinking as largely uncontroversial:

  • A systematic doctrine of bodies, demonstrating that all physical phenomena can be explained without exception by reference to motion and or mechanical action. No souls, no striving for some order created by God’s design.
  • Singling out man from the realm of nature, Hobbes sought to show the specific bodily motions that led to and explained sensations, knowledge, “affections,” and passions. And by means of these, man can relate to man. No reference to any immaterial element, such as a soul.
  • These beliefs led to the thesis that earned Hobbes the title “father of political science”: How and why are men, being in an original “state of nature,” drawn into society where their actions are regulated by government in order to prevent them from slipping back into the “brutishness and misery” of the natural state?

And so, we see the integration of body, man, and state (Hobbes capitalized them).

Back in England in 1637, Hobbes faced working on his philosophic plan in a nation embroiled in politics and its roiling discontents. Under the influence of these events, he wrote The Elements of Law, which circulated at the time but was published only years later in a pirated version. As the treatise continued to circulate, Hobbes began to sense a growing, ominous political disfavor. He fled to Paris and remained there for eleven years, rejoining the Mersenne salon and undertaking such projects as a critique of Descartes, who by this time was seen as the alternative to Scholasticism. (Hobbes and Descartes met and corresponded, but not always amicably.)

By 1642, his homeland had staggered into the English Civil War, a term applied to the series of wars fought by Royalists and Parliamentarians in both England and Wales during the decade 1642–1652. The tumult drove many English Royalists to escape to Paris. They became known to Hobbes, and their obvious opposition to his political philosophy was one motivation for writing Leviathan, advancing his thesis about society and its government. (In fact, however, his essential views had not changed greatly since The Elements of Law. The driving thesis behind both was social contractarianism and advocacy of civil—neither religious nor royal—government.)

The state is a kind of monster (“leviathan”) composed of men. It is created under pressure of human needs for survival, but, left to itself, without government regulation, it falls apart because of human passions. Hobbes completed the work, interrupted once by a near-fatal illness, in 1650.

In briefest form, Hobbes erected this argument based on “ego-psychology.” The cause of all human action is the perceived achievement of our pleasure or the perceived avoidance of our pain. Free will has nothing to do with it. What we perceive as free will is merely our automatic psychological deliberations among perceived options for attaining pleasure and avoiding pain. In a state of nature, this fuels an inevitable state of “the war of all against all” and that, in one of philosophy’s most famous phrases, renders life “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Seeking to escape this state, men enter into an implicit social contract to the effect that government will exert the force needed to make our attempts to attain our ends by means of harming our fellow man more painful than pleasurable—thus, law enforcement, criminal justice, imprisonment, and other punishments. The goal, always, is to weigh in against those who would seek their pleasure by hurting others. Government must act to ensure that they achieve not that pleasure but pain (of legal punishment). In view of the universal pleasure-pain motivation, the sole benefit of philosophy is in teaching us how to discern real causes of the pleasures we seek and the pains we hope to avoid. There is no “good” or “evil” except as names for what enhances or reduces a man’s pleasure or pain.

We have said little, here, about language, but Hobbes’s works display a characteristic pattern, beginning with an extensive discussion of language and the nature of the mind, then moving on to political philosophy: “Thus even in Leviathan, with its focus on political and religious matters, Hobbes starts with a story about the workings of the mind. The first six chapters work through issues about the senses, imagination, language, reason, knowledge, and the passions.” 

This suggests commitment to an essential of philosophical system building: recognition of the hierarchical structure of knowledge in which foundational propositions logically undergird less-fundamental propositions. Thus, conclusions about society and government rest upon premises about human-survival needs, motivation, reason, and life in the state of nature.

Professor Kors says, in summary, “He brought together sensationalistic empiricism, deterministic mechanism, and ethical relativism into one powerful alternative to Scholasticism and Cartesianism.” And in doing so, he cleared away much tangled undergrowth of the cultural-intellectual “authority” of Aristotelian and Biblical wisdom and other entrenched doctrines during the unfolding Scientific Revolution—and the run-up to the Enlightenment.

Leviathan appeared in mid-1651. Its full title, typical of the times, was Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Its famous title page shows a crowned giant towering over the landscape, sword and crozier (the hooked staff of pastoral office) in his hands, his body on close inspection composed of tiny figures of people.

Publication of Leviathan, as we might say today, “tore it” with the Royalists. The book’s resolutely secular perspective infuriated Anglicans and French Catholics alike. It is not too much to say that assassination loomed over Hobbes in Paris. He fled back to England, where he appealed to the revolutionary government for sanctuary. It was granted—if he returned to private life and foreswore political writing. So, Hobbes rounded out his twenty-year timetable for philosophical works with the publication of De Homine, devoted largely to his theory of vision. He did continue to turn out works of philosophy, but not to publish them in England.

Restoration of the British monarchy brought Hobbes unwelcome prominence. “Hobbism” became a convenient catchall term for all that reputable society must abominate. The House of Commons began work on a bill to stem atheism and profanity. The committee demanded, in particular, to see “the book by Mr. Hobbes called Leviathan.” Panicked, Hobbes began to burn his papers. At the same time, however, he examined the matter from a legal perspective and concluded that no court had the jurisdiction required to try heresy, and, anyway, nothing was heresy except opposing the Nicene Creed (a Catholic profession of faith), and Leviathan did no such thing. He wrote a series of “dialogues” explaining himself.

Hobbes had going for him the patronage of King Charles II (during his second reign, 1660–1685), his erstwhile pupil, who remembered him, called him to court, and granted him an annual pension of 100 pounds—and protection.

At any rate, the proposed bill came to nothing, except that in his homeland Hobbes never again could publish on any subject related to human conduct. As did so many others later, Hobbes turned to the liberality of Amsterdam, where he did publish; however, publication of his work Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England awaited his death. 

Hobbes spent his last four years with the family of his old patron William Cavendish, at his estate in Devon. His final works were a brief autobiography written in Latin verse (1672) and a translation in full of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. He died in Derbyshire in 1679, at age ninety-one, of a bladder disorder followed by a paralytic stroke.

Hobbes had denied that he was an atheist, making several arguments to that effect, and writing that we could argue that God is “an incomprehensible being whom I worship and adore.” Religionists were unimpressed. As with many atheists, rumors circulated about what Hobbes did and said on his deathbed. But his last words fortunately were recorded, and all he said was “a great leap in the dark." He was buried in St. John the Baptist Church, Ault Hall, Derbyshire.

Hobbes occasionally had amused himself by writing epitaphs, his favorite one a joking reference to his gravestone and the dream of the alchemists that the philosopher’s stone could extend life: “This is the true Philosopher’s Stone.” It was not used. His actual epitaph, which he composed in Latin, borders on the innocuous: “He was a virtuous man, and for his reputation for learning, he was well known at home and abroad.”