[Thomas Hobbes]A brief Introduction

Reply Sat 26 Apr, 2008 07:49 am
Thomas Hobbes


Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 - 4 December 1679) lived a large part of his life in England, but also parts of his life in Paris, France due to the English civil war and political difficulties afterwards. Hobbes, in his life the teacher of three generations of kings, fled to Paris like many royalists did. Hobbes sometimes boasted that he was the first of all to flee. Hobbes is remembered for his work in many fields, such as theology, ethics, politcal philosophy and philosophical anthropology. When Hobbes was in Paris he was a regular debater in philosophy groups held together by Marin Mersenne. Through these groups Hobbes was given access to a number of philosophical texts, among which the unpublished Ethica of Baruch de Spinoza (Later Benedictus de Spinoza). Spinoza had his work published after his death out of fear of the inquisition.

First Philosophy

Hobbes defined philosophy as such knowledge of effect or appearances, as we acquire by true ratiocination from the knowledge we have first of their causes or generation: And again, of such causes or generations as may be from knowing first their effects.
That is to say, he makes philosophy to be reasoned knowledge of nature. It thus includes, or indeed is the same as, science as we think of it. It excludes theology because God has no cause, and also because in Hobbes' opinion we know God only by revelation, which is not "ratiocination".


To the question "What there is to philosophize about?" Hobbes' answer is: Bodies. He follows William of Ockham in his philosophy on universals. Ockham takes a nominalist view on universals, as can be read in his Summa Lugicae. Like Ockham Hobbes thinks that everything exists in particular individuals and that everything is a particular individual.

The first part of philosophy is the study of bodies, the second part the study of the motions of bodies, the third part the causes for our sensations and the fourth part our sensible qualities. Lastly, civil philosophy is is the stufy of the motions of men in commonwealths.


Hobbes held, as Galileo did, that only the extension, mass, and motion - what later came to be called the primary qualities - of bodies are in the objects percieved. Color, sound, taste and smell - what later came to be called the secondary qualities - are really in the eye of the beholder. In some passages Hobbes argues that these secondary qualities are motions in the brain of the beholder, but he often neglects to do so in favor of the difference between the tings in themselves and their appearances.


Hobbes held that man was merely a machine, albeit a machine with a soul like Descares and Leonardo da Vinci. As such he saw emotions much like Spinoza did. Emotions were the combination of internal and external sources formed by our position towards it. Mankind has named many (but not all!) emotions with fitting names. Freedom exists in the determination of causes for appetites or fears. Hobbes held that desires are the good for ourselves: the continuation of ourselves, much like Spinoza's reason (Amor Intellectualis Dei). Spinoza's God was nature (Deus Sive Natura), which was eternal, and man's reason was the way to extend onself towards eternity; just as a commonwealth of man could extend itself even further towards eternity. Hobbes however, makes no mention of such pantheistic thoughts. On all accounts he never criticises the anglican church not even in the paragraph in the Leviathan on absurd relious practices. Although opinions on that have shifted from time to time.

The social contract and the Leviathan

Hobbes begins his thoughts on ethics by going back in thought to a time before society existed; when there was only, according to Hobbes, a war of all against all (Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes). In this "state of nature" no laws or "right" existed because none was defined yet. Hobbes holds that no system can evolve from such a situation if not for a force which governs all. Ratio would dictate men to choose unfair treatment of others. An example used by John Christman is a trade where both parties hand the other party a sealed bag with the objects supposedly traded. John Chistman suggests that Hobbes is of the opinion that reason will lead men to conclude that putting nothing of worth in the bag (in spite of the deal made) will lead to the most profitable situationand therefore men would betray eachother constantly. Hobbes writes in his most famous work, the Leviathan, of a social contract formed in which men are protected from eachother by a sovereign. The sovereign is not governed by the rules inflicted upon all others and therefore remains in the state of nature. The sovereign forms the head of this body of men, this Leviathan, made by the union of all men, working together and under the same rules for the benefit of all; a commonwealth. In Hobbes' philosophy the fact that in a commonwealth the survival in the long term is much more certain then in the state of nature mens reatio will lead to the choice of joining the commonwealth.

Hobbes makes no difference between a social contract and laws. They are one and the same to him. The laws are the rules of the social contract. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau


1629. Translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War
1650. The Elements of Law, Natural and Political, written in 1640 and comprising
- Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policie
- De Corpore Politico
1651-8. Elementa philosophica
- 1642. De Cive
- 1651. Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (English translation of De Cive)
- 1655. De Corpore
- 1656. De Corpore (English translation)
- 1658. De Homine (Latin)
1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil.
1656. The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance
1668. Latin translation of the Leviathan
1675. English translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
1681. Posthumously Behemoth, or The Long Parliament (written in 1668, unpublished at the request of the King)
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Reply Sun 16 May, 2010 06:26 pm
Thanks for the great summary.Smile Hobbes was an interesting thinker and his ideas influnced many philosophers after him.
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