Birth of Thomas Hobbes

The great political philosopher was born on April 5th, 1588.

Thomas Hobbes. Line engraving by W. Humphrys, 1839. Wellcome Collection.

The philosopher who said that human life outside organised society is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ and that mankind’s fundamental driving force is selfishness was born at the village of Westport on the outskirts of Malmesbury in Wiltshire. His family had prospered in the cloth trade, but he himself was the younger son of the impoverished curate of a neighbouring parish. Later he enjoyed saying that he was born prematurely, when his mother panicked at news that the Spanish Armada had sailed, so that ‘fear and I were born twins together’.

Hobbes’ father, in constant trouble for failing to carry out his clerical duties,  eventually abandoned his parish and his family and ran away. Meanwhile, sent to school when he was four, young Thomas was exceptionally bright and at 13 or 14 his uncle, Francis Hobbes, a well-to-do Malmesbury glover, paid for him to go up to Magdalen Hall at Oxford to study logic and physics. He much preferred astronomy and geography and later regretted that he had not been taught mathematics and geometry, which he thought far the best introduction to logic. He took his bachelor of arts degree and was recommended by the principal of Magdalen Hall to the Cavendish family, whose head was the Earl of Devonshire. He was taken on as a tutor to the future second earl in 1608. For much of the rest of his life he would be the employee, tutor, counsellor and friend of the Cavendishes, with whom he made trips to Europe.

Hobbes was a royalist and in 1640, as England moved towards civil war, he retreated to Paris, where he later briefly taught mathematics to the exiled future Charles II. His Leviathan, the masterpiece for which he is remembered, came out in 1651. He believed that a powerful central government was essential to preserve ordered society and to prevent anarchy and ‘the war of every man against every man’, but that a government that lost its grip on its country lost its claim to its subjects’ obedience. This justified the Cavendishes and other wealthy royalists who had made an accommodation with the Parliamentary regime (and appealed to Oliver Cromwell), but upset many others. Royalists were also shocked by Hobbes’ attack on the Church of England, while his denunciation of the papacy offended the French as well. He returned to England late that year to find himself labelled the atheistic ‘Beast of Malmesbury’ and after Charles II was restored to the throne Hobbes was in serious danger of prosecution. The king protected him and he lived his last years at Hardwick Hall, the Cavendish seat in Derbyshire, where he died after a stroke in 1679 at the age of 91.