Thomas Hobbes

Political philosophy has a long and rich history filled to the brim with powerful intellectuals whose thoughts have played critical roles in developing the world we inhabit. Through that long line of thinkers, some drastically changed the direction of human thought and acquired a permanent seat at the table of political thought through the sheer power of their ideas. One such thinker of this magnitude is Thomas Hobbes, whose political insights are still intensely debated and whose impact is so significant that one cannot study modern political theory without coming into contact with him.

Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes

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Contents
Table of contents

    Thomas Hobbes biography

    Thomas Hobbes was born on 5 April 1588 in Westport, England and died at the astounding age (for the time) of 91 on 9 December 9 1679. Though his mother's name remains unknown, his father, also named Thomas Hobbes, was a rather abysmal vicar at a local Parish. Unfortunately for the young Hobbes, his father, a gambler and drinker, got into a fight with another local clergy member and abandoned Thomas and his siblings after the incident, likely fleeing to London.

    Thomas Hobbes's uncle, Francis Hobbes, took Thomas in and paid for him to attend school at Oxford University after recognising how intelligent Thomas was. This would be a life-changing event for the young Hobbes as the principal of the school referred him to Lord Cavendish to tutor his son. This chance arrangement resulted in Hobbes having a lifelong relationship with the family, providing him with the income and connections to help him along in life.

    Throughout his life, Hobbes published many essays and books, with his first major work being a translation of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Hobbes was fluent in both Latin and Greek, which allowed him to work as a translator while developing his theories and opinions. While his early work was undoubtedly impressive, it was nothing compared to what he would start producing in his later life. After the English Civil War ended in 1651, he released his greatest work, Leviathan, at the age of 61 (talk about a late start). His last book Behemoth was published after his death in 1668 and focused on the causes of the English Civil War, an event that drastically altered the life of Thomas Hobbes.

    Thomas Hobbes Portrait of Thomas Hobbes StudySmarterPortrait of Thomas Hobbes, John Michael Wright, Wikimedia Commons.

    Thomas Hobbes' primary work

    Hobbes has a large library of works, but here are some of his primary works.

    • De Corpore, 1655

    • De Homine, 1658

    • De Cive, 1642

    • Elements of Philosophy trilogy, which was composed of De Corpore, De Homine, and De Cive

    • A translation of Homer's The Odyssey and The Illiad

    • A Translation of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War

    • Leviathan, 1651

    • Behemoth, 1668 (posthumously published)

    Now that you and Hobbes have officially met, the rest of this article will focus on the theories he has created, allowing you to know more about his genius and the immense legacy he has left behind.

    Thomas Hobbes theory

    Thomas Hobbes focuses on two areas throughout his writings, political and moral theory. While both are important, the focus of this article will be on his political thought.

    Hobbes, at first glance, is tough to wrap our modern heads around because of his approach to governance and politics in general. For Hobbes, protection by the state comes at the cost of obedience to the sovereign, and this obedience of the subject to the sovereign is absolute; there is no wiggle room for civil disobedience in Hobbesian thought. Ideas of free speech or the right to protest against the government are opening the door to political suicide as far as Hobbes is concerned, as these create a path to sedition.

    Hobbes's theory directly reflects his experiences during the English Civil War, which took place from 1642 to 1651 and resulted in the beheading of Charles I and the deaths of over 200,000 English citizens. Hobbes' magnum opus (greatest work) was Leviathan, and it was in many ways a direct response to the war and a manual on how to ensure civil war would never happen again. The English Civil War is key to understanding why Hobbes's theory is so incredibly authoritarian in nature; he saw the cause of the war as a disagreement around political and religious concerns and thought the best way to avoid future civil war would be to eliminate the space for disagreement with the sovereign all together.

    Thomas Hobbes King Charles StudySmarterPortrait of King Charles I, Gerard von Honthorst, Wikimedia Commons

    So what exactly is the political theory of Thomas Hobbes? In short, and in a simplified manner, it is an argument for political absolutism that places the sovereign and politics above everything else in the state, including religion and individual rights. The will of the sovereign was the law for Hobbes. There are no constitutions or courts of law to restrain the sovereign. Unless the sovereign begins aimlessly killing the citizenry, there is no justification for rebelling against it. For Hobbes, a social contract exists that strikes an agreement between the sovereign and the citizens. It goes something like this; I as the sovereign protect you from the state of nature, and you as the citizen obey me.

    Sovereign

    The sovereign is the individual who wields absolute power within a given system. Usually, this refers to a king or queen, but the sovereign can be anyone who exercises absolute power over a state and the citizenry for Hobbes.

    Sedition

    Conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch

    The state of nature

    You may have heard the term 'state of nature' before, but did you know that the idea come from Thomas Hobbes?

    'No arts; no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'—Leviathan

    This is perhaps the most famous quote from Hobbes; in it, he is describing what he refers to as 'the state of nature'. To understand the state of nature, try to imagine what humanity was like before there was ever civilisation, before laws and cities, books and governments, Netflix and TikTok. While there are competing ideas about what this time was like, Hobbes provides the first theoretical account of what life looked like back then, and as you can tell from the quote, it was not a pleasant place. For Hobbes, the state of nature was a war of all against all, an area of no greater power than the individual, which caused a condition of constant fear.

    Thomas Hobbes State of Nature StudySmarterDante Gabriel Rossetti, Wikimedia Commons

    In the Hobbesian state of nature, a walk to get apples from a nearby tree could easily result in being seen by another individual and killed with a rock so they can horde the apples. It is a place where you steal from others and they steal from you, you kill and they kill, you suffer and they suffer. To escape this awful condition, Hobbes theorises that a social contract formed, where multiple individuals sacrificed their right to commit violence to a single person (the sovereign) and allowed the sovereign to be violent in their place.

    Instead of constant fear of violence amongst each other, they only had to fear violence from the sovereign. This mutual fear of a greater power lifted them from the state of nature and allowed them to focus their attention on other places (like beginning to create civilisations). Because the sovereign alone is allowed to authorise and use violence, the sovereign also agreed to protect people from others not inside of the group. Since the sovereign cannot do this alone, they authorise certain people to use violence when instructed to do so, which would be the origin of military from a Hobbesian perspective.

    The state of nature and how Hobbes describes it is crucial to understanding the political ideas he puts forward. Hobbes was not concerned with happiness and rights nearly as much as he was concerned with escaping extreme violence by any means necessary. Theorists such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau would develop different, more pleasant views of the state of nature, but Hobbes is the one who laid out the first full theory of it and forever placed it in the halls of political thought.

    Thomas Hobbes contributions

    As mentioned in the introduction to this article, Hobbes' thought is still an integral part of today's political discussions and a requirement for anyone who wishes to begin a study of political theory. It is almost unanimously accepted that Leviathan is the greatest piece of political theory written in the English language. So how does a theorist rise to this level of importance? Simply put, they provide insights that remain relevant far into the future, and Thomas Hobbes has done that in a manner that puts him on par with other thinkers such as Aristotle and Nicolo Machiavelli.

    Hobbesian thought was instrumental in providing the very language we use to discuss politics in the modern world, words such as sovereign, realism, social contract, and state of nature all arise with Hobbes. These ideas provided a springboard for later theorists looking to push political theory in new directions. Beyond simply vocabulary and concepts, Hobbes' thought acts as an impassible bridge for theories that drift too far towards utopianism or overly hopeful concepts of human nature; his work shows humanity in a light we don't like to acknowledge exists.

    Thomas Hobbes government

    While it is true that Thomas Hobbes thought absolute monarchy to be the most effective form of governance, more critical for him was that there was a clear sovereign whose will was law and whose law was enforced. Absolute monarchy best aligns with this idea, but theoretically, Hobbes would be perfectly fine with democracy so long as once the election was over, everybody obeyed the president/prime minister and never spoke out against them or subjected them to the law.

    Remember, for Hobbes, the name of the game is obedience to the sovereign and nothing being above the sovereign. Even in the state of nature, it could have been a democratic process where 20 people voted to surrender their rights to one particular person in exchange for protection. Any system that places absolute authority on one person and forces obedience of the citizenry is good enough for Hobbes. Everything else is secondary to this point.

    Thomas Hobbes quotes about government

    Hobbes is famous for his views on the government and so there are many interesting quotes which illustrate these views.

    'During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.'—Thomas Hobbes

    This quote refers back to the Hobbesian state of nature and the creation of a sovereign to end the cycle of perpetual violence and fear that Hobbes believes existed in the state of nature. A 'common power to keep them all in awe is achieved by having an entity more capable of violence than any one individual.

    'Not believing in force is the same as not believing in gravitation.'—Thomas Hobbes

    For Hobbes, force was at the centre of political authority and human existence. He says that denying the role of force in political life and existence is nothing more than naive.

    'The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.'

    As mentioned in the section on the state of nature, the sovereign has one responsibility according to the social contract, to protect everyone under them from returning to the state of nature. For Hobbes, if the sovereign fails, then the social contract is void, and the population can revolt to replace the sovereign.

    Thomas Hobbes - Key Takeaways

    • Thomas Hobbes was born in Westport, England, in 1588.
    • As a young boy, his father abandoned him to his uncle, who sent him to Oxford.
    • Thomas Hobbes was fluent in both Latin and Greek, allowing him to work as a translator.
    • His magnum opus was Leviathan, which is considered the greatest political theory work in English.
    • The sovereign is that which holds the ultimate power.
    • For Hobbes, the state of nature was a brutal solitary place which should be avoided at all costs.
    • Hobbes thought that the only acceptable political structure was one with a clear sovereign who was always obeyed.
    • The brutality of the English Civil War greatly impacted Hobbes's political thought.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Thomas Hobbes

    Who was Thomas Hobbes? 

    Thomas Hobbes was one of the most influential political philosophers, writing the famous Leviathan and developing theories around the role of the state that are still used today. 

    What is the state of nature in Hobbes' theory?

    The state of nature is the state that humanity was in before civilisation. The state, and civilisation, bring order and protection from the chaos that is the state of nature. 

    What is the social contract in Hobbes' theory?

    The social contract is an unspoken agreement that Hobbes believes every individual agrees to. They give up their freedom by saying that they will obey the state so long as the state protects them from the chaotic disarray that is the state of nature. 

    According to Hobbes what is the role of the sovereign?

    The role of the sovereign is to protect individuals from the state of nature. They set the laws and demand complete obedience from the citizens. 

    What are the primary works of Hobbes'?

    Leviathan is his most famous piece. Others include De Corpore, De Homine, De Cive, and Behemoth.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What event heavily influenced Hobbes' philosophy?

    What governmental system does Hobbes' theory favour?

    Which work did Hobbes famously publish that drastically changed the direction of political thought?

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