A Man for Our Season

The Life and Times of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury

Almost every serious book on Thomas Hobbes begins with a brief biography of the man. Several of these are truly excellent: Noel Malcolm’s “A summary biography of Hobbes” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (Edited by Tom Sorrel, Cambridge University Press, 1996) is my favorite; A. P. Martinich has written the definitive biography of Hobbes, and his 23 page summary of that book in “Chapter 1, Life,” of his book  Hobbes in the Routledge Philosophers series, is also first rate; and finally there is the classic summary of Hobbes’s life by his young friend John Aubrey in his wonderful [old book] Brief Lives (Penguin Classics, 2000)I relate this bibliographic detail for two reasons:  First, I am not going to attempt here what others have already done far more adequately than I might.  Further, Hobbes’s life is so important to any real understanding or application of his work that I hope to encourage the reader to look at one or more of these succinct, thoughtful perspectives on his life.  Hobbes is important for our own times for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the manner of his life itself. 

I have a short view of time.  Perhaps this is because my grandfather, whom I knew well, was born during the American Civil War and one of his sons, my dear friend and uncle, is still alive at 96 and making daily contributions to the civic life and arts of Denver, Colorado.  Two lives, three different centuries, two-thirds of the history of my country since our social contract was ratified in 1787!  Hobbes did not live that long ago in terms of human political, social and cultural evolution.  He was born on the hinge of the times in which we still live, and he made a lasting contribution to the substance of what we are: our politics, our economics, our ethical frameworks, i.e. our understanding of ourselves.

I wish to make three biographical points about Hobbes before turning to his writings and their application to our own times: (1) the turmoil of his origins; (2) the courage of his public scholarship, (3) the grace and gentle humanity of the man.

Hobbes was born of very poor parents in a nothing of a place, Westport Parish, just outside of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England on April 15, 1588.  Most fascinating of all the unlikely aspects of Hobbes’s ominous origins is the actual year of his birth, 1588.  Garrett Mattingly in his book, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, (Garrett Mattingly © 1959, printed by Butler & Tanner, LTD, London, p. 159) in a Chapter titled “The Ominous Year,” frames the historical moment this way:

Another cloud lay over the coming year more mysterious and terrifying than that of war.  It had been discerned over a century before, perhaps many centuries before, and as 1588 approached the awful rumour of impending disaster spread throughout western Europe. . . .To those who had sufficiently studied the question there seemed to be no doubt that all history (would end) with awful finality in 1588.

The German theologian Philip Melanchthon (1497 – 1560), an associate of Martin Luther, had computed the coming of the Apocalypse predicted by The Book of Revelation to be 1588 AD (This date being 70 years after Luther, in 1517 defied the Pope, nailed up his Ninety-five Theses and thus launched the Reformation.) The period of 70 years is the penultimate time in Revelation between the appearance of the “Anti-Christ” – presumably the Pope — and the advent of the Apocalypse. Enter baby Thomas Hobbes!

 With the Spanish Armada on the verge of invading England in 1588, the potential agency of the end of the world was real enough for the religiously superstitious.  No wonder Hobbes would write that his mother (we don’t even know her name), the uneducated daughter of a yeoman, “gave birth to twins that year — myself and Fear!”  How his mother’s anxious state actually affected the young Hobbes is, of course, subject to conjecture.  But the correspondence between her fear, to which Hobbes attributes his premature birth, and the grounding of his public philosophy in fear itself is at least not idle speculation.  Very simply, the quaking earth of the emerging new epoch rocked Thomas Hobbes’s cradle.

Hobbes’s father, also named Thomas, clearly contributed nothing to the emotional, financial or physical stability of his family, and if anything, made desperate matters worse.  The elder Thomas Hobbes was an Anglican clergyman who was fired from his job at the parish church for being derelict in his duties, for drinking too much, for hitting a fellow clergyman and for failing to appear before the court in a libel suit brought against him by the fellow he had assaulted and defamed!

We know that Hobbes had an older brother, Edmond, and a younger sister, Anne, but nothing about their relationships.  Save for the generosity of his uncle, Francis Hobbes, a successful merchant and glove maker, Thomas would have received no education beyond grammar school. His accomplishments suggest that his early teacher Robert Latimer must have done a marvelous job prior to Hobbes going off to Oxford.  The senior Hobbes vanished into obscurity about the time Hobbes at 15 entered Magdalen Hall in 1603. At the time of his study at Oxford, Magdalen Hall was a part of Magdalen College. Its buildings, including Magdalen Hall, would become the physical home of Hertford College by act of Parliament in 1874. 


Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

 This portrait of Thomas Hobbes hangs in Hertford College, Oxford.

(There is a persistent rumor in Oxford that the picture was put in the dining hall of the College as a deterrent to rodents, and has thus far, lo these many years, succeeded in its purpose.  There is no truth to this tale. But handsome he was not.)

The year of his matriculation at Oxford was the year Queen Elizabeth I died.  The time of the Tudors was over, and the turmoil of the 17th Century Stuart reign looming, the historic and often violent movement from Monarchy to Democracy had begun. Elizabeth’s unlikely replacement was the Scottish King, James VI, crowned James I of England.  Unlikely at least in the sense that James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had conspired to depose her cousin Elizabeth two or three times in attempts to reinstate a Catholic presence on the throne of England, for which treachery she was arrested, tried, convicted and finally after a long stay in The Tower of London, beheaded.  Fortunate it was for her young son, James, however, that he had been taken as a baby from his mother; baptized by John Knox, and raised as a Presbyterian!

While Hobbes was clearly talented intellectually (he knew both Latin and Greek before entering upon his university studies), he truly disliked much of his experience at the University and would become a severe critic of the academic sterility and rigidity of early 17th Century Oxford. Much of Hobbes’s education was acquired on his own initiative while a tutor and traveling companion for various sons of the Cavendish family, with whom he was associated for almost three decades. Among the distinguished persons Hobbes tutored was the young Prince Charles, the future Charles II of England, to whom he taught math during his self imposed exile in France (in the 1640s).

Having taken responsibility for his own education, Hobbes was not intellectually beholden to any one person or any tradition, and this alone made him fit for the task of fundamentally reframing the political discourse of his time. Academics of his day would sometimes complain that Hobbes had not read enough books, actually meaning I suspect, that Hobbes was not a prisoner of prevailing academic research, for clearly he was a voracious reader. Today Hobbes is thought of as a foundationalist, meaning simply that he sought to ground his moral and political philosophy in the most basic or self-evident principles.  As we shall discuss, he abhorred presumption, and one can imagine that the presumptuousness of the tradition-laden academics of his time, locked [as most were] in Aristotelian models of science and political theory, drove him to distraction. 

Yet it was not a time for challenging the established order openly.  There were consequences for confronting the state, the academy and the church; heresy and treason were still capital offenses. In the course of his public scholarship Hobbs was never  a member of any university faculty and had no protection by right of tenure.  But Hobbes was a radical in the best and most glorious sense of the word; he went for the radial center, the jugular of all intellectual pretense.  He was what tenured faculty both then and now should aspire to be – challengers of the system! [Yet, sadly, how seldom is that exalted office ever used for such.  It causes one to wonder if academic tenure is merely about job security.]  Thomas Hobbes, derisive of the secure pretention of academia, did not intend, nor did he live, a life removed from public controversy.

If the old political cliché is correct, i.e. that a person’s character can be judged best not by his friends but by his enemies, Hobbes’s resume of contemporaneous opponents is quite impressive:  Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650, in an exchange of letters that became increasingly dismissive on both sides, Descartes dismissing Hobbes’s excessive materialism, and Hobbes, Descartes’ dualism); Spinoza (1632 – 1677, who agreed with much of Hobbes’s radical political thought, but significantly disagreed on the role of rationality in human nature, and was also far more democratic in his politics than Hobbes); Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691, a gentleman scientist whom many consider the father of modern chemistry and formulator of Boyle’s Law, argued with Hobbes about the reality of vacuums); Professor John Wallis (Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, with whom Hobbes had a most acrimonious set of exchanges about both Hobbes’s flawed attempts to “square the circle” as well as  who was more loyal than whom during the English Civil War) John Bramhall (1594 – 1662, an Anglican theologian and archbishop with whom Hobbes debated free will and determinism in public as well as in letters and scholarly essays for over a decade); and prominent churchmen of the time, a number of whom after the Restoration sought by act of  Parliament (1666) to have Hobbes tried for heresy and put to death.  A sad aside to this amazing life of public disputation is that The Royal Society (“The Independent Scientific Academy of the United Kingdom”) never invited Hobbes to become a member, though he was a far more accomplished thinker and scientist than ninety-nine percent of the Society’s membership.  [So much for the academy’s commitment to fairness and objectivity!]

John Aubrey, who chronicled Hobbes’s life, said of his friend, “He was flumen ingenii (a river of genius) never dry.”  Aubrey’s apt metaphor can be expanded, for Hobbes like a river relentlessly maintained his course.  If there is a single word to describe Hobbes’s approach to his life of public scholarship it would have to be persistent.  Hobbes persisted in developing his ideas of human nature, sovereignty, governance, law, ethics, theology, science, against the prevailing currents of political, academic and religious conformity literally to the day he died.  His style of communication was always explicit, clear, blunt, focused on his readers, applied rather than theoretical and intensely conscious of the consequences of every word.  He aimed his shots. For example,  “The Elements of Law,” a precursor essay to De Cive circulated to key political friends in 1640 ), focused squarely on the public debate raging between Royalists and Parliamentarians and “occasioned much talk of the author; and had not his Majesty dissolved the Parliament, it had brought him in danger of his life.”  (Aubrey, Brief Lives)

In 1640 politics got too intense for Hobbes in England.  A certain Bishop Manwaring of St. David’s had been thrown into the Tower of London for preaching a doctrine much like Hobbes own theories, apparently expounding on the relationship between religion and political governance.  His Arrogance, Charles I, was beginning a struggle to the death (literally) with Parliament, and Hobbes was being attacked by both sides of the conflict — by the Monarchists and clergy for his writings questioning the notion of “divine right” as the foundation of sovereignty, and by the democratic voices in the Parliament for supporting a strong and singular concept of sovereignty.  We will return to this central issue in Hobbes’s political theory, but for now suffice it to comment that while it is always easy to offend one side or another in a political squabble, it takes real skill to offend everybody.  Hobbes, however, was up to the challenge.  He also realized that it was time to get out of town.  “Then thought Mr. Hobbes, ’tis time now for me to shift for myself; so withdrew into France.”  (Aubrey, p. 429)

For more than 11 years Hobbes would live in self-imposed exile in Paris.  He finished De Cive (On the Citizen) in 1642 and had this published in Europe where it established his reputation as a first rate political philosopher.  His work on The Leviathan was begun and finished during this decade abroad as well.  His presence on the Continent would bring him into contact and conflict with the likes of Descartes and Bramhall, among others.  And it was in Paris that he wrote and designed the frontispiece for The Leviathan, targeted as nothing less than a broadside to the political debate and civil turmoil of his native England.  Sending The Leviathan home ahead of himself, Hobbes headed back to London in 1652. 

A few significant things had happened in England since Hobbes’s hasty exit more than a decade earlier.  The union of Scotland, Wales and England achieved by James I, had come unglued.  The tensions between Charles I and Parliament had become untenable.  Fueled by the volatile combination of religion and politics, the nation sank into civil war.  Royalists and Antimonarchists; Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics; Scots, Brits and Welsh (with the Irish seething on the side burner) descended into historic chaos. Even serious students of this period of British history need an annotated program to keep up with the actors and the action.  Charles is defeated by a Scottish force in 1646, surrenders and is turned over to the Parliament in London.  From thence he escapes, makes alliance with dissidents in Scotland, invades England, and is defeated, imprisoned, tried and beheaded (1649) by a Parliament which lacked the legal authority to perform any of those acts, including its decision to abolish the monarchy itself.  Oliver Cromwell took control of the government — the Parliament, the military and all — as Lord Protector, declaring the mess a Commonwealth, and instituted the first and only period of British rule without a regent.  

And thus came home in January, 1652, Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan touching the quick of almost every sensitive issue the nation had just been up in arms about.  Amazingly, however, Hobbes frames his theory of government to encompass all that has transpired in his absence — regicide, revolution and all – and enters into one of the most stable and socially satisfying periods of his life.  Perhaps, for a while at least, the venom which had so often poisoned his public life was drained by the lances of the recent war and the continuing political chaos under the Cromwells.  Hobbes, at any rate, was to enjoy this unique period of his life, as Martinich notes: “The 1650s were probably the single best decade of Hobbes’s life.  He was safe and famous in England.  He associated with some of the best people in London, like John Selden, William Harvey, and Charles Scarborough, and attending social gatherings where he would teach his philosophy to anyone who was interested.”  (Hobbes, Routledge Philosophers Series, p. 17)

In even the politically more stable years of the 1660s Hobbes would again became embroiled in conflict.  The Leviathan had been controversial with both politicians and churchmen since the day of its publication in England.  And in his usual confrontational style, Hobbes had a beautiful edition of the book done for Charles II upon the latter’s restoration to the throne in 1660. It is unclear whether Charles II ever read the almost 400 page treatise, which had been printed in beautiful calligraphy, but more than once after the Restoration the King had to intervene to prevent the Parliament and Hobbes’s enemies from having the his old teacher put to the stake.  Nothing, of course, prevented his magnum opus from being burned in public.  In a partisan era, it could be fatal to be labeled a “Hobbesist.”

Late into the 1660s Church leaders were lobbying the Parliament to have Hobbes, now an old man of over seventy, tried for heresy.  Aubrey, again, notes that when the Parliament was considering trying Hobbes for heresy “which he hearing feared that his papers might be search’t by their order, and he told me that he had burnt part of them.”  Apparently the papers he burned were writings against the “encroachment of the clergy.”  It is little wonder that Hobbes wanted to exorcize the Church form the political process, and not surprising either that he saw fear and anxiety as such a fundamental aspect of the human condition.

And yet withal, Hobbes was a gentle man. Like anyone, he could be provoked, yet his anger seems always reserved for the pretentious and the argumentative rather than for critics who took his work seriously.  Hobbes loved public discourse but disdained acrimonious public debate.  “I do not indulge in controversy, I simply reason,” he wrote in De Cive. He was a public philosopher, and a controversial one at that, who believed in thoughtful deliberation and civil discourse, long before those concepts would make it into the lexicon of good citizenship.  And he was a person of courage.  From the day of his birth until his final words, Hobbes dealt with fear and death philosophically as the fundamental realities of human motivation and palpably as realities of his life itself.  But courage is not the lack of fear, of course, it is rather the grace with which fear is addressed.  Hobbes died on December 4, 1679.  His autobiography written in Latin verse, composed during his final years ends thus, “And Death, standing close to me, says, ‘Do not be afraid’.”  (Hobbes, A. P. Martinich, p. 23, Routledge, 2005) 

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