Books by Thomas Hobbes
Books about Thomas Hobbes

Biography: Thomas Hobbes

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.



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