Thomas Hobbes Biography

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, and was the son of an English vicar who fathered three children with his wife. When Thomas was still a young boy, his father was involved in a confrontation with another parson and was forced to leave his home, wife, and children. Thomas Hobbes’ paternal uncle took charge of the care of the children, and he took a keen interest in young Thomas. Thomas was reading and writing at age four, acquired functional knowledge of Latin and Greek at age six, and went off to study at Oxford at the age of fifteen (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991).

Hobbes studied at Oxford for five years, and it is said that he was nonchalant about the course of study which he thought was “arid and old-fashioned” (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991: 398). After graduating from Oxford, Hobbes worked as tutor and companion for the son of Lord Cavendish. Lord Cavendisn later became the first Earl of Devonshire, and the son whom Hobbes tutored was the same age as Hobbes. Through his association with this aristocratic family, Hobbes became personally acquainted with influential men in business and politics, and got to know the great scientists of the period.

His acquaintances included such men as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Harvey. According to Ebenstein & Ebenstein (1991), Hobbes traveled extensively and spent about twenty years on the European continent, with much of this time spent in Paris. While in France, he came to recognize the new developments in philosophy and science. Paris would become his home for a decade when he fled England during the conflict between Parliament and the Crown in the 1640s. The historic struggle between the English king and Parliament is a well-chronicled story.

To understand the context in which Hobbes was writing, one has to understand the political climate and reality of the period. The battles between the English executive and legislature goes back to the 1200s when the kingdom was ruled by King John, a descendant of William the Conqueror. Under the monarchy of King John, England lost its continental portion of the kingdom, which included Normandy. The taxing power of the king had become a major factor in the ongoing confrontations between the Crown (the executive) and the Parliament (the legislature).

The king was engaged in a civil war with the English aristocracy, which consisted of barons and other nobles; and to gain peace, he agreed to sign the Magna Carta. Since the parliament and the power brokers of the time were dissatisfied with the taxing power of the king, one article of the Magna Carta stipulated that “no taxes could be imposed ‘unless by the common council of the realm’” which became the parliament (Lynch, 1998: 35). Lynch (1998) concurs that the Reformation period saw the power of the king (executive) being tested by Parliament (legislature) to the greatest degree.

By 1649, the parliamentary faction had prevailed over the Crown, and King Charles I was already executed. Oliver Cromwell who led the Parliamentary forces became military leader and dictator of England, Scotland, and Ireland. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, his son led England for a short time before key elements of the army rebelled against him, and restored the monarchy with King Charles II as ruler in 1660. Tension between the executive and legislature persisted as Charles II and subsequent “Stuart kings favored a divine-right-of-kings interpretation of power and seemed to consider adopting Catholicism as the state religion” (36).

The conflict would continue after the death of Thomas Hobbes in 1679. When King James II was forced from the throne in 1688, his sister Queen Mary and King William were asked to share the throne. The 1688 English Bill of Rights was a product of this era, and the document established that no man could be force to pay taxes, grant loans, or give gifts without a consenting act of parliament. Prior to the political turmoil of the 1640s, the writings of Thomas Hobbes were anti-democratic and anti-parliamentary. His major work up to this time was the De Cive in 1642, but it was written in Latin. As it as been pointed out (Ramon M.

Lemos, 1978), the De Cive is similar in fundamental principles to his later great work, the Liviathan published in 1651. The battle between the king and parliament would cause Hobbes to fear for his life, and in the 1640s he fled England for France. During his stay in France he instructed Charles II, son of King Charles I, in mathematics from 1646 to 1648. Despite his concerns regarding the rule of parliament in England, Hobbes returned home in 1651 because he feared the French clergy more than the English parliament. In England he declared that he would submit to the republican regime, and remained in his homeland until his death in 1679.

The Liviathan is widely considered to be “the first general theory of politics in the English language” (Ebenstien & Ebenstien, 1991). Early philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who defend absolute government, believed in the principle of human inequality. Those early philosophers posited the tenet that some men are naturally predisposed to rule, and are endowed with different attributes than the people over whom they rule. Hobbes argues from the opposite perspective, and proposes “that men are naturally equal in mind and body” ( Ebenstien & Ebenstien, 1991).

He makes the point that, as for physical strength, the weakest possess enough strength to kill the strongest by destroying him secretly, or with the help of allies who are in the same danger. He reasons that mental strength and wisdom among men is naturally equal, though some people think that their wisdom is greater than others. Believing that one is wiser than others makes one contented with ones share of wisdom, and contentment with ones share of anything is a sign of equal distribution. That, in itself, he believes is enough proof that all men are equal rather than unequal.

The basic equality of men poses a threat to peace among men. Men with equal faculties will share like hopes and desires, and if two men desire the same thing, which they cannot both have, they will be at odds with each other. In explaining the theoretical state of nature, which is his explanation of “every man against every man” (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 1991: 559), Hobbes uses this brutish characteristic as a take-off point for discussion of the condition of war among men. Before the organization of society, humans did not abide by reason and morals, but by an animalistic and ruthless instinct to survive within the state of nature.

According to Hobbes, the nature of war is not defined by the actual fighting, “but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace” (559). As long as men live in a state of nature in which their security lies only in their personal strength or secret machinations, then there is no culture, industry, and no knowledge of the earth. It is a condition of “continual fear, and anger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (559). In Hobbes’ view, the fear of death is the force that leads men to aspire for peace.

The individual desires for things like power and glory yield to the desire to secure life at the minimum, and, if possible, the means of a comfortable and fulfilling existence. As Aristotle believed that it is man’s ability to differentiate between just and unjust, or good and evil that makes him different from other animals, so did Hobbes believe that man’s ability to reason is the defining element of man over other animals. It is this power of reason which lead man to realize that his fear of death was due to the ‘every man for himself’ attitude which results in the state of perpetual war of ‘every man against all’.

This power of reason also leads man to realize that he needs not do that to another “which thou thinkest unreasonable to be done by another to yourself”(Ebenstien & Ebenstien, 1991: 400). In the same manner in which Socrates and Plato see the State being formed for the creation of a collective good, so does Hobbes see the creation of a sovereign to secure the collective good for man, which is his security. Hobbes argues that the essential faculty of reasoning guided man to the acceptance of the fact that to save themselves from destroying each other, they had to contract to form a commonwealth, which he called the great Leviathan.

This commonwealth would concede its collective power to the hands of a sovereign authority. Hobbes prefers a single ruler serving as executor, legislature, and judge. Also like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Hobbes accepted the possibility of an assembly of men being the sovereign authority. Like the early philosophers who believed in the unchallenged authority of the king, Hobbes believed that the absolute ruler possessed unlimited power, and that subjects should be suppressed if they try to rebel. If the ruler should fail to exercise his power in an effective manner, then he should relinquish sovereignty.

The subjects should then transfer their loyalty to another ruler so that their peace would be secure (Spielvogel, 1991). A sovereign authority is a necessity in keeping the covenant between men, since mans desire for power and glory may lead him to break any covenant made with words only. This means that the proverbial sword must enforce the word in any agreement between men. Hobbes was careful to explain that the covenant, which gives sovereign power to a single ruler or assembly of men, is a covenant of everyone with everyone, including those who voted against it.

This hints at Hobbes’ democratic mechanism at deciding on the single ruler or assembly of men. However, once that covenant has been made there is no withdrawing from it; and “they that have already instituted a commonwealth, being thereby bound by covenant to own the actions and judgements of one, cannot lawfully make a new covenant, among themselves, to be obedient to any other, in any thing whatsoever, without his permission” (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991: 413). This means that once a king or assembly has been elected, the power cannot be taken from the ruler or assembly of men and given to another.

If this is done, then the covenant would have been broken, and according to Hobbes, breaking a covenant is injustice. In making the covenant to give authority to the sovereign, “they have also every man given the sovereignty to him that bears their person, and therefore if they depose him, they take from him that which is his own, and so again it is injustice” (413). Hobbes agrees that the sovereign can commit iniquity, but not “injustice or injury in the proper signification” (400).

This is because the covenant, or social contract as he calls it, is made between subjects and subjects, and not between the subjects and the sovereign. The sovereign cannot break the covenant because the sovereign was not author of the contract, but was given the authority by the subjects. “Consequently, he that complains of injury from his sovereign, complains of that whereof he himself is author, and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself” (414). Hobbes’ preference of a single ruler or monarchy is based on practical grounds.

He believed that an aristocratic form of government has less unity of focus and consensus building than can be realized with a monarchy. This is because aristocracy suffers from a competition for office and influence, and he believed that a monarch can more easily act in a resolute and consistent manner than the assembly. Hobbes opposed the separation of power or mixed government, and Ebenstein and Ebenstein (1991) state that he blamed the civil war in England on “the widespread opinion that sovereignty was divided between King, Lords, and Commons” (401).

Although it seems that Hobbes speaks mostly of two forms of government, monarchy (government by one) and aristocracy (government by a few), he identifies the third form of government as a democracy (government by the people). This is consistent with the political classifications discussed by the early philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato; but he disagrees with them on the idea that governments can be despotic – tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. To Hobbes, these terms are only used when a particular person dislikes a monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic form of government.

This argument displays his belief and support for authority, regardless of much of the negativity that may be attributed to the ruler or rulers. To him, as long as the subjects are protected from danger from outside or within, then the price that they pay is justifiable. His main drive was to strengthen the idea of an absolute state, but he did this without subscribing to the concept of the divine-rights-of-kings, or to the idea that monarchy was a moral institution.

He did not agree with the early philosophers that the monarchs are naturally predisposed for the job. Leo Strauss (1961) sees Hobbes’ political philosophy as being characterized by “the movement away from the idea of monarchy as the most natural form of State to the idea of monarchy as the most perfect artificial State” (129). Hobbes was less concerned about the legitimacy of government, and more concerned with the pragmatic and utilitarian effectiveness of government.

The monarch or aristocratic government cannot hide its ineffectiveness behind the shield of divine, natural, or traditional authority, but had to be productive to retain the right to be respected. Hobbes advocacy of absolute power for the sovereign does not mean that all the rights of the subjects are eliminated. He gives instances in which subjects can disobey the ruler or rulers. A man cannot be compelled to kill, wound, or maim himself; and he cannot be commanded not to defend himself from attack, or to abstain from food and other elements necessary for his survival.

A subject is not obligated to incriminate himself, unless with the assurance of a pardon. He should not be compelled to undertake any dishonorable duties, unless the end thereof justifies the means, and is an end to which the sovereign was ordained. This means that one should only be compelled to undertake a dishonorable act if it contributes to liberty, security, and peace for all; and does not conflict with the other individual rights that are outside the covenant.

Hobbes was of the opinion that “the obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasts by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished” (419). Here he seems to give his endorsement of revolutions carried out against a ruler or rulers who lose the ability or will to protect the citizens from outside attack, or from lawlessness within, that threatens the life and livelihood of the subjects.

He believed that if another usurps the power of a ruler, then the subjects are obligated to accept the authority of the one who seized power. As Lemos (1978) writes, “regardless of whether the revolutionary party overthrows a good or a bad sovereign, they have the power and the right to institute a new sovereign once the old is overthrown” (68). This acceptance of revolution as a means to gain power is probably what allowed Hobbes to accept the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliamentarians after the assassination of King Charles I in the 1640s.

Upon returning to England in 1951, he declared his recognition of the authority of the Republican regime led by Cromwell as the sovereign power of England. His argument in support of the usurpation of power also reveals Hobbes’ colonialist views. Lamos (1978) explains that in Hobbes’ opinion, “if a sovereign who is vanquished by a foreign conqueror submits to the conqueror and accepts him as sovereign, his subjects are thereby obligated also to accept the conqueror as sovereign” (68).

This means that the citizens of a country that is conquered by another country are obligated to accept the colonizer as sovereign. These views were expressed during a period of colonization around the world by the European countries like England, France, and Spain. Hobbes’ explanation of the origins of the State is predicated on “his fundamental opinion that fear, or more accurately fear of death, is the force which makes men clear-sighted, and vanity the force which makes men blind” (Strauss, 1961: 132).

It is this fear which forces man to seek the organization of a State with a sovereign ruler or rulers to whom every man will relinquish most of their natural rights in order to secure the most important rights. These include the right to a life free from the fear of death by another, and the freedom to live in peace with everyone. Once the State has been formed and power given to its ruler or rulers, that power resides there as long as the ruler can protect those being ruled. If another dominant force defeats the ruler, then that new ruler is given the sovereign authority over all those who are ruled.

The ruler of a State is not endowed with any natural or God given advantage over those he rule, but gets his authority through the will of the people. Unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who believe in the superior attributes of rulers/guardians, Hobbes posits that every man is born equal. This would imply that a ruler’s right to rule would depend on his ability to amass the necessary resources, and to broker the kind of influence that would enable him to maintain his position of dominance.

This seems to contradict the fundamental arguments about equality among men, since the fact that such a person who is be able to commit such resources to governance, and to command such alliances with the influential entities could not be seen as average in the community of equals. However, the argument can be made that to gain an advantage during life does not mean that you were born superior to others, but indicates that you have developed useful knowledge, skills, and abilities over time. The Hobbesian model does not provide a democratic way of removing a ruler from power.

In Hobbes’ view, once something has been given to someone, it becomes a possession of that person to keep and use for the intended purpose, until that person sees it fit to relinquish ownership. This is what, in his opinion, should be the case with political power as long as he who holds power can use it to protect his subjects. This means that the only way to remove a ruler is through revolution, and a revolution is ‘just’ since it means that there is someone more capable of protecting the lives of the subjects by virtue of the fact that he is more powerful than the existing ruler.

The people cannot criticize a ruler for unjust laws, since it is the people who gave him the authority to make laws in the first place, and therefore are as guilty as the ruler for any unjust laws. Hobbes makes the point that the only bad form of government is one that cannot provide security for its people. Governments are called despotic by those who do not like the rule of that government, but all governments are legitimate. The government cannot take some of the rights of individuals, and these include the right to protect oneself from harm.

A person cannot be compelled to incriminate himself, carry out dishonorable duties, or refuse food and medicine. The point is also made that while a man is obligated to abide by the law, he cannot be compelled to believe in it (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 1991). Hobbes’ philosophy is therefore one of power, but a power that is bestowed on a person by the people over which it is to be exercised, or taken by an outside or inside force to whom the people would owe their subservience.


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