Island of Freedom
To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher. -- Blaise Pascal
The Tao
Confucius Corner
Bhagavad Gita

Thomas Hobbes



Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes



Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher, scientist, and political theorist. His philosophy marked a departure in English philosophy from the religious emphasis of Scholasticism. His ideas represented a reaction against the decentralizing ideas of the Reformation which, Hobbes contended, brought anarchy, and are regarded as an important early influence on the philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism. Hobbes entered Oxford University when he was only 15 years old, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1608. He then became a tutor to the Cavendish family and spent most of his life in similar employment, including tutor to Charles II during his exile in Paris in 1646.

Hobbes made three visits to the continent in his life, the first in 1610 which included discussions with Francis Bacon, under whose influence Hobbes became dissatisfied with Aristotelianism. In 1628 he published an English version of Thucydides' works, partly to warn his countrymen about the dangers of democracy. His second trip was to France from 1629 to 1631, where he developed an interest in mathematics and thought he could apply mathematical methods to cure the ills of a society on the verge of civil war. On his third trip he met and was influenced by Galileo, Marin Mersenne, and Rene Descartes, and conceived the idea which permeates his philosophy--the geometrical deduction of the behavior of men from abstract scientific principles.

Hobbes earned his fame for two main parts of his philosophy, optics and civil philosophy. The Little Treatise, published in 1637, was an attack on the Aristotelian theory of sense and a sketch for a new theory of mechanics. In 1640 he published Elements of Law, and in 1642 wrote De Cive, in which he described the purpose of civil power and the relationship between church and state. He published his masterpiece in 1651, Leviathan, a philosophical study on Man and Citizen. Four years later he published De Corpore, in which he restricted philosophy to a study of bodies in motion, and in 1656 wrote Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, in which he elaborated a theory of psychological determinism. In 1668 he wrote Behemoth, a history of the English Civil War, which was published posthumously.

Like Bacon and Descartes, Hobbes believed natural reason was in decay for want of a proper method. Hobbes saw philosophy as a necessary preliminary to rational government and the avoidance of civil war. He believed reality was geometrical in character once one gets past the deception of the senses. The actions of men were particular cases of bodies of motion explicable by mechanical laws. Imagination and dreams were appearances of minute bodies conforming to the law of inertia, and motivation was explained as reactions to external and internal stimulation. He thought that all human motivation is based on two bodily movements,--appetite, or movements toward objects, and aversion, or movements away from objects.

To Hobbes politics was based on the desire of power and the fear of death. The social contract was a multitude of men that gave up their rights to an authorized sovereign authority to act on their behalf. The sovereign must be absolute to overcome the haunting fear of death that man has in a state of nature, and a government's sole reason for existence is for the safety of the people.

In moral philosophy he thought that civilization was based on fear, not on natural sociability. Good is the object of desire, evil the object of aversion. He was a determinist in the sense that although one's actions are free, one's will is not. One is free if there is no constraint on one's actions, but one's actions are necessitated since they have causes. On the subject of punishment he held that justification of punishment must be utilitarian, and punishment is by nature retributive.

Hobbes maintained that the sovereign was the best interpreter of God's will. Religion was a system of law, not truth, since we really don't know any attributes of God--the adjectives we use to describe Him are not products of reason. He defended his "true religion" against Catholicism which had extra-mundane authority and Puritanism which took seriously the priesthood of all believers. He maintained that the only way to deal with evil is to stress God's power.

Hobbes anticipated modern techniques of the analysis of language. He tried to combine mechanical views on the causes of speech with a nominalist account of the meaning of general terms. He believed "names" could be names of bodies, of properties, or names, and each class of names had to remain in its own class. "Universal" was a name for a class of names, not for essences designated by names--such names are "universal" because of their use, not in reference to a type of entity. Speech was essential to reasoning and it was reasoning that distinguished men from animals.

Some of his contemporaries were alarmed at some of his doctrines, such as his denial of extra-human authority, his doctrine of human selfishness, and his suggestion that we cannot know any of God's attributes. Locke criticized him for his willingness to substitute the terror of an arbitrary sovereign in place of the state of nature. Leibniz disliked his determinism and his agnosticism about God's attributes. Many modern philosophers have criticized his mechanical account of man but have praised his analytic techniques. Admirers have called him one of the first systematic social scientists.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.