Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English Philosopher. He was born at Malmesbury and educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. For a great part of his life he was in the service of the Cavendish family, and in 1647 was appointed mathematical tutor to the Prince of Wales (later Charles II). In the 1620s he translated some of Francis Bacon’s essays into Latin and took down his thoughts from his dictation. Then he travelled on the Continent with pupils, met Galileo, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), Descartes, and the French mathematician Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), and became the first English intellectual to gain a European presence and reputation. On his return to England, he submitted to the Council of State in 1652 and was pensioned after the Restoration. He was intimate with William Harvey, Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, John Aubrey, Edmund Waller, and Sidney Godolphin.
As a philosopher, Hobbes resembles Bacon in the utilitarian importance that he attaches to knowledge. Nature and man are the objects of his enquiry. But unlike Bacon, he regards science as essentially deductive and takes geometry as the model of the scientific method. He attached great importance to the definition of words and used rigorous definition to show that many popular ideas are nonsense (the idea of a ‘free subject’, for example). He was a materialist, regarding sensation as the basis of all knowledge and the motion of material particles as the cause of all sensation. Our appetites are our reactions to external motions and are directed by self-preservation. Man is essentially selfish. What seems unselfish actions are motivated by the selfish wish to alleviate the pain of compassion. Being selfish, man, left to himself, would engage in perpetual conflict, and life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. To prevent this, Hobbes’s political philosophy, expounded in De Corpore Politico (1650, originally Elements of Law), De Cive (Latin 1642, English 1651), and Leviathan (English 1651, definitive Latin text 1668), is in effect a defence of totalitarianism, asserting that the state must have absolute power, taking precedence over conscience and matters of faith and doctrine. This brought him into general disfavour on both political and religious grounds.
Hobbes’s philosophical works include Human Nature (1650), De Corpore (Latin 1655, English 1656), and De Homine (1658). He published the first English translation of Thucydides in 1629, a translation of Homer in quatrains (1674-5), and a sketch of the Civil Wars, Behemoth, or The Long Parliament (1680), which was suppressed. His reply to Sir William D’Avenant’s dedication of Gondibert, published in 1650, expresses his literary theory.
He believes poetry ‘should avert men from vice and incline them to virtuous and honourable actions’, holds that imagination is decayed memory and ridicules the notion of inspiration and the poetic invocation of the Muse. His prose, seemingly plain and direct, exhibits a masterly understanding of rhetoric, a weighted use of metaphor, and sustained irony, as in Leviathan, chapter 47, which comes close to equating religion with a belief in fairies. On this and other grounds he was often branded an atheist.
Sir William Molesworth (1839–45) edited Hobbes’ complete works.