Born in the midst of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes’ ideas revolutionized the way we think about politics, power, and human nature
The brilliant and controversial philosopher Thomas Hobbes had a profound and lasting impact on the world of political philosophy. Despite being born into chaos and conflict during the English Civil War, Hobbes went on to craft a whole new understanding of human nature and the foundation of our societies. In this comprehensive portrait, we’ll delve into the life and work of this extraordinary man and explore the significance of his ideas that still influence political thought today.
Early Years: The Unlikely Rise of a Political Thinker
Born in 1588 in Westport, England, Thomas Hobbes was the son of a vicar who abandoned his family when Thomas was still young. Raised by his uncle and exposed to the world of academics, Hobbes was fortunate to receive an excellent education, studying at Oxford University’s prestigious Magdalen Hall. This early immersion in the world of learning set the stage for Hobbes’ later intellectual pursuits.
However, the political turmoil of the time would play an equally important role in shaping Hobbes’ developing worldview. The English Civil War (1642-1651) pitted the forces of the monarchy against the proponents of Parliament, resulting in a violent and uncertain period in England’s history. It was during these turbulent times that Hobbes began to reflect on the nature of power, authority, and the foundations of government.
Hobbes’ Magnum Opus: Leviathan
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his most famous work, Leviathan. Written in response to the chaos and violence of the English Civil War, this groundbreaking treatise sought to redefine the principles of political thought. At the heart of Hobbes’ philosophy was a startlingly bleak view of human nature: Hobbes believed that, in their natural state, human beings were guided solely by selfish desires and fears, leading to a constant state of conflict.
To overcome this “state of nature” and ensure the survival and prosperity of society, Hobbes argued that individuals must submit themselves to a strong and undivided central authority—a sovereign, or “Leviathan.” By ceding their individual power and autonomy to this ruler, citizens would be protected from each other’s destructive tendencies and enjoy lasting security and stability. To dive deeper into the Leviathan, check out our analysis of Hobbes’ philosophical work.
Controversial Ideas: The Backlash Against Hobbes
As one might expect, Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature and his advocacy for absolute power were met with considerable controversy. Critics accused him of promoting tyranny and undermining the moral foundations of society. Despite the furor, his ideas found favor with the authoritarian regimes of his time, including that of Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England after the execution of Charles I.
Hobbes’ ideas on the social contract and the nature of power would ultimately lay the groundwork for the later works of philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, who would take these ideas in new and transformative directions. For a comparative analysis of Hobbes and Rousseau’s views on the state of nature, read our Rousseau vs. Hobbes article.
The Enduring Legacy of Thomas Hobbes
Today, over three centuries after his death, Hobbes’ ideas continue to resonate and influence political thought. The Leviathan remains a classic text in political philosophy, studied by scholars and students alike. His analysis of the relationship between the individual and the state, as well as the foundations of political authority, has contributed to our understanding of the dynamics of power, leadership, and legitimacy. To better understand the social contract and its implications, explore our Hobbes’ Leviathan explainer.
In an age where political conflict and social unrest are all too common, the insights and ideas of Thomas Hobbes serve as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of unchecked power and the importance of establishing a stable and just society.
So, as you reflect on the life and work of this extraordinary thinker, consider how his revolutionary ideas have shaped our modern world and continue to inform our understanding of the essential questions of human nature and political power. For more on the life and work of other influential philosophers, read our John Locke biography.