Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes, Thomas (1588-1679)   Although he was skilled at both Latin and Greek at age 15, as a philosopher Hobbes was a late bloomer. He was 40 when he read Euclid’s Elements and turned his attention to philosophy. Hobbes was 63 when he published his greatest work (Leviathan), and 88 when he translated the Iliad into English. 

He was born in Malmesburg, England, where his father was a vicar. Malmesburg, built in 640, is in western England, along the Avon river. It’s closer to Bristol than to London, and the surrounding region of Wiltshire is best known for the Stonehenge megalith. When Hobbes was quite young, his father deserted the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. Fortunately, Hobbes was supported by his uncle, a wealthy glover, who paid for the boy’s education in private school and at Oxford. After graduation, a wealthy family hired Hobbes as a private tutor and he traveled widely with them.

In 1636, at the age of 47, Hobbes visits Galileo in Florence and comes away convinced that the universe is composed only of matter and motion. For him, man is a machine whose mental activity was reducible to the motion of atoms in the brain, and free will, spirit and mind are illusions.

Although Hobbes was friends with Francis Bacon (and served as his secretary for a short time), he rejected Bacon’s inductive reasoning in favor of the deductive methods of his other friends (Galileo and Descartes). He builds his case as a chain of deductive proofs.

Thomas Hobbes is best known for his “trains of thought,” his Laws of Nature, and his emphasis on social contracts. According to Hobbes, ideas tend to follow each other, like cars of a train. These “trains of thought” are often unguided and rambling but they become orderly when two ideas are similar. One association leads to another, like train cars all coupled end to end, forming trains of thought. Although the metaphor was new, the concept of association dates back to ancient Athens. Hobbes reintroduced Plato’s and Aristotle’s explanation of learning by wrapping it in an undated package.

Hobbes proposed that there are Laws of Nature that govern human interaction. These laws are society’s way of countering the essential selfishness of people. Although these laws coincide with God’s commands, they can be discovered by reason alone and should be obeyed for purely secular reasons. For Hobbes, people are motivated by selfishness. Even good behavior is the result of personal selfishness. Good behavior leads to good internal feeling. Consequently, we do good things because we derive some internal benefit. Nature’s laws, which include the laws of peace, duty, and gratitude, are to be followed because it is in our best interest to be at peace. Moral laws are social contracts we make with other people for our mutual benefit.

For Hobbes, one thing leads to another. Just as one idea is linked to another to form a train of associations, one principle leads to another, like proofs of mathematics. Laws of Nature are connected to social contracts. Hobbes maintains that because people are basically selfish, they enter into social contracts with others out of self-preservation. Morality is a matter of convenience and survival. Nature is in a constant state of war and quarrelsomeness, so people form contracts (I won’t steal from you if you don’t steal from me) in order to survive. It is these social contracts that form the basis of civilization. 

Hobbes’ ideas were quite radical. He combined the British empiricism of Bacon and the continental rationalism of Descartes. He emphasized the importance of sensory perception and experience but used the deductive reasoning and mathematical forms of geometry more characteristic of the continental thinkers. Because of his ideas, Hobbes was often at odds with those in power. From 1640-1651, he fled to France, fearful for his life. In 1667, the British House of Commons was readying a bill outlawing blasphemous literature. Hobbes had the dubious distinction of having his work Levianthan cited as an example of what should be banned.

For more on this topic, here’s a video on the Mind-Body Problem.


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