Hobbes Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hobbes published Leviathan, marking a pivotal moment not only in the ongoing debates about the most reasonable form of government and the proper relationship between church and state but also in the evolution of European philosophy.

Summary of Event

The seventeenth century was a turbulent period in the evolution of scientific, political, and philosophical thought and of governmental models and political alliances in Europe. The legacy of the Reformation and the Renaissance was quite evident in the almost universal questioning of traditional authorities and truths. Continental Europe was disrupted and Germany decimated by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a struggle between the Protestant princes of Germany, Denmark, England, Sweden, and France and the Catholic princes of the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. The role of the church in the political arena and the institution of monarchy were the focus of considerable debate and controversy. Hobbes, Thomas Hobbes Publishes Leviathan (1651) [kw]Leviathan, Hobbes Publishes (1651) [kw]Publishes Leviathan, Hobbes (1651) Philosophy;1651: Hobbes Publishes Leviathan[1710] Literature;1651: Hobbes Publishes Leviathan[1710] England;1651: Hobbes Publishes Leviathan[1710] Leviathan (Hobbes) Charles I (1600-1649) Charles II (1630-1685) Cromwell, Oliver (1753-1853) Galileo Hobbes, Thomas

In the universities, the long-established authority of Aristotle was under attack, and modern science was taking shape as thinkers such as Galileo struggled to free themselves from the repressive grip of Scholasticism. In England, the debate about political authority was particularly animated and acrimonious. The fundamental questions concerned the nature and limits of power. On the one hand, there were the Royalists Royalists , who asserted the divine right of a king to rule with, if not absolute, at least essentially unencumbered power. On the other hand were the Parliamentarians Parliamentarians , who advocated limitation of the rights of a king by law and argued for a system under which power would be shared between the king and Parliament.

Thomas Hobbes was educated at Oxford University. Upon his graduation in 1607, he was recommended to William Cavendish, Cavendish, William who later became the first earl of Devonshire, as a tutor for his son. Thus began Hobbes’s lifelong association with the Cavendish family, a connection that provided Hobbes not only with access to influential people and to a fine library but also with the opportunity to travel in Europe as a guide and tutor. On his travels, Hobbes became acquainted with René Descartes and Galileo and, by his own account, fell in love with geometry and the axiomatic (deductive) method.

Hobbes seems to have developed his political views early in his life. In 1628, the year Parliament drew up the Petition of Right Petition of Right (1628) —a document that ranks with the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights in placing constitutional limits on absolute monarchy—Hobbes published a translation of Thucydides with the expressed intention of showing the evils of democracy. King Charles I Charles I (king of England);Parliament and was forced to agree to the Petition of Right, because he was in dire need of funds to support English involvement in the religious wars on the Continent. Nevertheless, Charles continued to struggle with Parliament over his right to rule as he pleased and his control of religious policy. In 1629, the king dissolved Parliament and governed for eleven years without calling another session.

During these years, known as the period of Personal Rule Personal Rule (1629-1640) , the people became increasingly restive, and the religious climate became steadily more bitter as William Laud, Laud, William who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, persecuted English Puritans. Hobbes supported the king throughout the Personal Rule, because he firmly believed that only a strong monarchy could save England from the chaos of civil war.

Upon his return from a tour of Europe in 1637, as the tutor to the third earl of Devonshire, Hobbes found his country drifting inexorably toward civil war. In April of 1640, King Charles called Parliament into session to ask for money to fight the rebellious Scots, but Parliament was in no mood to grant funds. Instead, it wanted to debate the grievances of the past eleven years. Charles dissolved the so-called Short Parliament after only three weeks but was forced to recall Parliament in the fall “to buy the Scots out of England.” On November 3, 1640, the famous Long Parliament assembled, and rebellion was in the air. Hobbes chose this year to publish The Elements of Law Natural and Politic Elements of Law Natural and Politic, The (Hobbes) (1640), in which he demonstrated the need for absolute sovereignty. When Parliament arrested the earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud and charged Strafford with high treason, Hobbes fled to France.

Thomas Hobbes.

(Library of Congress)

In Paris, Hobbes associated with other Royalists and with the intellectual circle of the friar Marin Mersenne, Mersenne, Marin which included Descartes. For a brief period, Hobbes served as a tutor of mathematics to Prince Charles (the future King Charles II Charles II (king of England);Hobbes and ). These years of exile were Hobbes’s most productive as a political philosopher. During the eleven years he spent in Paris, civil war did break out in England. The bitter and divisive struggle began in August of 1642 and went on intermittently until Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649, and Prince Charles’s supporters in Ireland and Scotland were crushed by Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver in 1650 and 1651. Even after the victory of the Parliamentary forces, the political situation in England was chaotic and unstable. There was continuous debate and experimentation in the struggle to find an appropriate form of government. The situation did not become stable until Cromwell was made lord protector in 1653.

Because of the deteriorating situation in England, Hobbes abandoned his scientific studies and his work on optics and devoted himself instead to an empirical analysis of human nature and society. His masterwork was Leviathan Leviathan (Hobbes) (1651), which became highly controversial as soon as it was published. Hobbes offended the Royalists by failing to acknowledge the divine right of kings and offended the Parliamentarians by dismissing both democracy and a constitutional monarchy as impractical and unrealistic. Moreover, he offended both Catholics and Protestants by asserting that religious choice should be the prerogative of the ruler. His French patron, Mersenne, had died in 1648, and Hobbes became increasingly isolated and ill at ease in France for alleged atheism and for holding views antithetical to Catholicism. Shortly after the publication of Leviathan, Hobbes made his peace with Parliament and returned to England, where he lived until his death. He remained active in intellectual circles throughout his long life. Philosophy;England

In the first part of Leviathan, Hobbes deals with people as individuals and with such general philosophical issues as he deems necessary. Hobbes is scientific in his approach to the individual and society. He postulates a state of nature in which all people are equal and are primarily motivated by a desire to preserve their liberty and to dominate others and by a fear of death. In this state of nature, there is no property, no justice or injustice, no good or evil; there is only a war of all against all. Human life in such a state, Hobbes asserts, would be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the second part of Leviathan, Hobbes explains how humanity can escape these evils. Prompted by their fear of death and chaos, people come together and give up their “right” of unlimited self-assertion in choosing a sovereign or sovereign body that shall exercise authority over them, thus putting an end to universal war. Hobbes deduced that the chosen sovereign must have absolute power; otherwise, people would always be in danger of falling back into the anarchy of the state of nature.

In Hobbes’s vision, once people have chosen their sovereign, their political power is at an end. Citizens lose all rights, except those that the government may find it expedient to grant and the right of self-defense in extreme circumstances. The powers of the sovereign are unlimited. He defines law, property, and justice and has the unquestionable right to censor or punish as he sees fit. Hobbes prefers monarchy, but his abstract arguments are equally applicable to all forms of government in which there is one supreme authority not limited by the legal rights of other bodies. According to Hobbes, the English Civil Wars occurred because power was divided among the king, the Lords, and the Commons.

In the third part of Leviathan, Hobbes explains that there is no universal church. In each country, the king or chosen power must be the head of the church. Hobbes regarded religion as a system of law, not a system of truth. The fourth part of the work is concerned with criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and of“vain philosophy,” by which Hobbes generally refers to the philosophy of Aristotle.

Hobbes did not believe humans to be either innately moral or innately rational creatures. Instead, he believed that rationality was learned, and he was convinced that humanity’s basic qualities were pride, avarice, ambition, and fear of death. Hobbes believed that individuals would inevitably differ in their visions of good and evil, for he was convinced that each individual called“good” that which pleased him or her at the moment. Life itself was the only objective good Hobbes recognized. Since human beings were antisocial by nature and since their individual interests must differ, Hobbes concluded that there was no stable alternative to anarchy except yielding all power to a single authority.


Scholars have made a case that Leviathan is the most influential work in political science to have been written between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. Its only rival is Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640), which is narrower in scope. Leviathan is important not only because of its incisive vision of humankind and society but also because of its philosophical methods and assumptions.

The work secured Hobbes’s position as one of the foremost thinkers of his time. Since then, he has proved to be an extremely influential philosopher who made three significant contributions to Western thought. Hobbes’s conviction that the axiomatic method applies to all thought helped make mathematics and mathematicians foremost in European philosophy. He popularized the idea that the world was fundamentally mathematical by expressing that idea in nonmathematical language and by using the axiomatic method in his philosophical constructions. Hobbes also emphatically and convincingly established a case for a materialist view of the universe. Perhaps most important, he saw the world as an endless chain of cause and effect and established the doctrine of causality. Hobbes translated the methods of the new science of the seventeenth century into a general explanation of humanity and the universe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kraynak, Robert P. History and Modernity in the Thought of Thomas Hobbes. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Insightful and original examination of Hobbes’s philosophy, which Kraynak maintains, initiated the Enlightenment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogow, Arnold A. Thomas Hobbes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. A stimulating biographical account of Hobbes. Rogow’s analysis of Hobbes’s intellectual influences is particularly useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shelton, George. Morality and Sovereignty in the Philosophy of Hobbes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A thoughtful interpretation of Hobbes’s doctrine of the laws of nature and a defense of a Hobbesian approach to moral theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sorell, Tom, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A useful guide to Hobbes’s life, work, and scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sorell, Tom, and Luc Foisneau, eds. Leviathan After 350 Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Collection of essays analyzing Leviathan’s place among Hobbes’s other works of political philosophy, the connection between Hobbes’s politics and psychology, and Hobbes’s views on the Bible and the church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, Helen. State of Nature or Eden? Thomas Hobbes and His Contemporaries on the Natural Condition of Human Beings. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Examines the reaction of Hobbes’s contemporaries to Leviathan, including the book’s ideas about religion, natural law, and the fall of man.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; René Descartes; Galileo; Thomas Hobbes; William Laud; Marin Mersenne. Leviathan (Hobbes) Hobbes, Thomas

Categories: History Content