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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

THOMAS HOBBES, whose name in the history of English philosophy is a large one, was the son of a Wiltshire vicar, and was born April 5th, 1588. His mother, who was of yeoman stock, gave birth to him prematurely, upon hearing the news of the Spanish Armada. The father is represented as a man of violent temper and small education. Hobbes began his schooling at the age of four, and when six was engaged with Greek and Latin, translating Euripides into Latin iambics before he was fourteen, and showing himself to be a youth of unusual thoughtfulness. The schools at Malmesbury and Westport gave him his preliminary training, and in 1602 or 1603 he entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford. At this time the old scholastic methods obtained, and disputes between Churchmen and Puritans were rife. This state of things was distasteful to the young Hobbes, and he neglected his studies and read in a desultory fashion. He took his degree in 1607.

After his college days, Hobbes became tutor to the eldest son of William Cavendish, later Earl of Devonshire, and was attached to this family for many years, teaching the Cavendishes, father and son, traveling with them abroad, and being pensioned by them in his old age. This life brought him into contact with people of gifts and station, both in England and on the Continent; and gradually Hobbes, by study and conversation with leaders of thought, developed his theory of psychology and of the State. He lived for years at a time in Paris, when he feared to remain in his own land because of the hostility excited by his works on ‘Human Nature’ and ‘De Corpore Politico.’ In 1661, at the age of seventy-three, he returned to England and made his headquarters at the Cavendishes’ town and country houses, rounding out his philosophical system, and enjoying the friendship of such men as Selden of ‘Table Talk’ fame, and Harvey the scholar. Always a controversialist, seldom free from an intellectual quarrel with members of the Royal Society, his last days were no exception; and he no doubt wasted much time, better spent upon his main philosophical treatises, in bickerings about mathematics and other abstruse matters, keeping this up until his death at the rare old age of ninety-one. He died December 4th, 1679, at Hardwicke Hall.

Hobbes maintained his intellectual and physical powers to the very end. His health was poor in his youth, but improved in middle life. He wrote his autobiography at eighty-four, and when eighty-six translated Homer. In person he is described as over six feet in height, erect, keen-eyed, with black hair. He had a contempt for physicians, was regular in his dietary and other habits; used tobacco, and states gravely that during his long life he calculated he had been drunk one hundred times. After he was sixty he took no wine. At seventy-five he played tennis. Intellectually audacious, he had personal timidity; charges of time-serving made against him have not been substantiated, however, as even so harsh a critic as Cunningham confesses. That Hobbes was a man of marked social attraction can be inferred easily. His friendships with Descartes, Bacon, Lord Herbert, Ben Jonson, and many other typical great men of his day, indicate it, and there was much in his experience to develop that side of his character.

Hobbes’s fame as thinker and writer rests solidly on two great works: ‘Human Nature: or, The Fundamental Principles of Policy concerning the Faculties and Passions of the Human Soul’ (1650); and ‘Leviathan: or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil’ (1651). The former states his philosophical, the latter his political views. In the ‘Human Nature’ his materialistic conception of the origin of man’s faculties is developed: he regarded matter in motion as an ultimate fact, and upon it built up his psychology, deriving all the higher faculties from the senses. “There is no conception in a man’s mind,” said he, “which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organ of sense.” And he assumed selfishness as the motor power of human conduct, and made his explanation of right and wrong to rest upon purely utilitarian reasons. The modernness of this position may be seen at a glance. It anticipates nineteenth-century psychology and the tenets of a Spencer. In one passage where he speaks of the incomprehensibility of God to a human faculty, latter-day agnosticism is foreshadowed. In the ‘Leviathan’ we get his equally radical views of the State. He conceives that in a state of nature, men war upon each other without restraint. For mutual benefit and protection in the pursuit of their own interests, the social compact is made, and the powers of rule relegated to some one best fitted to exercise it. That some one, in Hobbes’s opinion, should be and is the king as an embodiment of the State; hence he preaches an absolute monarchy as the ideal form of government, the leviathan of the human deep. And he would have ecclesiastical as well as other authority subservient to the State. Very briefly stated, these are the cardinal points of his two great works.

Of course, Hobbes’s theories were bitterly assailed. Because of his ethics he was dubbed “atheist”; and his opponents included thinkers like Clarendon, Cudworth, Henry More, and Samuel Clarke. He was one of the best-hated men of his time. His teaching in the ‘Leviathan’ naturally brought the clergy about his ears, and the work was burned at Oxford after his death. But his principles made much stir, especially abroad; and looking back upon Hobbes from the present vantage-point, it is plain that he is part of the great movement for thought expansion in which Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Descartes are other parts. Locke probably was little influenced by Hobbes; but the Dutch Spinoza and the German Leibnitz were, and in France, Diderot, Rousseau, and De Maistre felt his thought.

Comparing his two main works, Hobbes is most satisfactory in his political philosophy. His psychology is deduced, rather than established by the Baconian method of induction, and his reading was not wide enough for such an inquiry. As an explanation of man, his philosophy is too fragmentary and too subjective, though brilliant, original, often logical. But the ‘Leviathan’ is a complete exposition from certain premises, and a wonderful example of philosophic thinking. Moreover, it is by far the most attractive of his writings as literature. Its style is terse, weighty, at times scintillating with sarcastic humor, again impressive with stately eloquence. Among works in its field it is remarkable for these qualities. Hobbes’s style, says Cunningham, who abhorred the other’s views, “is perhaps the finest model of philosophical composition;” and the praise hardly seems excessive.

Thomas Hobbes overthrew scholasticism, showed the error in the argument for innate ideas, prepared the way for Locke. He was a pioneer of thought in the seventeenth century; a liberalizing influence, however much it is necessary to modify his notions concerning human nature and the State. The standard edition of his works is that by Sir William Molesworth (1839–45), in sixteen volumes, five of them in Latin. The ‘Leviathan’ is included in the Cambridge English Classics, and there are modern studies of his philosophy by Leslie Stephen (1904) and E. A. Taylor (1909).