Thomas Hobbes (April 5, 1588–December 4, 1679) was an English philosopher and is widely considered to be the founding father of modern political philosophy. His most famous works include Leviathan (English version 1651, Latin version 1668), De Corpore (1655), De Homine (1658) and De Cive (1642). In addition to forever altering political philosophy, he is well known for his scholarly work in metaphysics, optics, mathematics, history, and the English translations of Thucydides and Homer.
Although there are many diverse and plausible interpretations of the central elements of Hobbesian thought, certain themes tend to resonate loudly. He was heavily concerned with social stability, the avoidance of civil war and the justification for political authority. Such concern ultimately blossomed into an endorsement for absolute sovereignty. Hobbes was also a metaphysical materialist, which informed his mechanistic understanding of the mind/body relationship, the “freedom” of the will, and his work regarding physical science.
Hobbes’s views, though widely influential, remained highly contentious throughout his lifetime. He had to flee twice for his views. Hobbes fled England in 1640 because of the purported pro-royalist interpretations of his work. Then, he fled France in 1652 because of the perceived anti-Catholic elements of Leviathan. Even when not fleeing, his views were subject to much controversy. His religious views were considered, by many, to be heretical. In fact, in 1666, they were heretical enough to call for an official parliamentary investigation. Hobbes’s views on mathematics and science also met with famous opposition (from, for instance, Rene Descartes and the Royal Society). Even royalists criticized Hobbes because of Leviathan’s apparent support for submitting to de facto authority.
Despite these controversies, or perhaps because of them, many of his contemporaries viewed Hobbes as a thinker whose theories would transcend his lifetime. And indeed they have transcended. His philosophical works are fertile ground for today’s philosophers and political scientists. The study of Hobbesian thought continues to be more than just a mere historical curiosity. Hobbes’s views speak to the perennial problems associated with these fields. Consequently, his wide-ranging theories stimulate ongoing dialogue across philosophy. Thomas Hobbes, though long dead, is very much alive.
Center for Free Enterprise
West Virginia University