Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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Hobbes, Thomas
(1588-1679), English philosopher and political theorist (see Political Theory), one of the first modern Western thinkers to provide a secular justification for the political state. The philosophy of Hobbes marked a departure in English philosophy from the religious emphasis of Scholasticism. His ideas represented a reaction against the decentralizing ideas of the Reformation (1517-1648), which, Hobbes contended, brought anarchy (see Anarchism). Regarded as an important early influence on the philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism, Hobbes also contributed to modern psychology and laid the foundations of modern sociology by applying mechanistic principles (see Mechanism) in an attempt to explain human motivation and social organization.

Born in Malmesbury, Hobbes was educated at Magdalen Hall, University of Oxford. In 1608 he became the tutor of William Cavendish, later earl of Devonshire. In the following years Hobbes made several tours through France and Italy with his pupil and, later, with Cavendish's son. During his travels Hobbes met and discussed the physical sciences with several leading thinkers of the time, including Italian astronomer Galileo and French philosophers René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. In 1637 Hobbes returned to England and published his Little Treatise, which outlined his new theory of motion. Interrupted by the constitutional struggle between King Charles I and Parliament, Hobbes set to work on defense of the royal prerogative. This work was privately circulated in 1640 under the title The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic and was published in 1650. Hobbes, fearing that Parliament might have him arrested because of his book, fled to Paris, where he remained in voluntary exile for 11 years.

In 1642 Hobbes finished De Cive, (On Citizenship; translated in 1651), a statement of his theory of government. From 1646 to 1648 he was mathematics tutor to the prince of Wales, later King Charles II, who was living in exile in Paris. Hobbes's best-known work, Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), is a forceful exposition of his doctrine of sovereignty. The work was interpreted by the followers of the exiled prince as a justification of the Commonwealth and aroused the suspicions of the French authorities by its attack on the papacy. Again fearful of arrest, Hobbes returned to England.

In 1660, when the Commonwealth ended and his former pupil acceded to the throne, Hobbes again came into favor. In 1666, however, the House of Commons passed a bill including Leviathan among the books to be investigated on charges of atheistic tendencies (Hobbes argued for a distinction between knowledge and faith and suggested that one could not gain a knowledge of God—see Atheism; Agnosticism). The measure caused Hobbes to burn many of his papers and to delay publication of three of his works: Behemoth: The History of the Causes of Civil Wars of England; Dialogues Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England; and a metrical Historia Ecclesiastica. At the age of 84, Hobbes wrote an autobiography in Latin verse. Within the next three years he translated into English verse the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. He died at the age of 91. In 1995 three previously unattributed essays of Hobbes were published. These writings suggest the influence of Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli on Hobbes's ethics and politics.

Developing his politics and ethics from a naturalistic basis of self-interest (see Naturalism; Egoism), Hobbes held that since people are fearful and predatory they must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state, in both secular and religious matters, in order to live by reason and gain lasting preservation. Within psychology, he proposed that all human actions are caused by material phenomena (see Materialism), with people motivated by what he termed appetite (movement toward an object; similar to pleasure) or aversion (movement away from an object; similar to pain).

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