J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

Thomas Hobbes
1588-1679

367 - 9

 

The Context of Thomas Hobbes thought

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The English Civil War saw an explosion of religious and political radicalism, but many people were far from happy with this. They did not welcome illiterate women preaching or red-coated troopers proclaiming the Rule of the Saints.

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Many gentlemen also had little taste for the growth in the power of the clergy - whether of Laudian Bishops or of Scottish Presbyterians.

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Amongst the upper classes, education, science, reason, Erastianism and political order took on a new attraction.

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The philosopher who best expressed these ideas was Thomas Hobbes.

 


The Market Cross, Malmesbury

Hobbes’ life

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Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire in 1588. (His mother was frightened into premature labor by the news of the Spanish Armada's impending arrival). His father was a minor clergyman, who apparently lacked religious fervor.

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Hobbes was a bright young scholar and fortunately had a wealthy uncle, in the glove trade, willing to pay for his education.



The library of Magdalen College, Oxford
 

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Hobbes was sent to Magdalen College Oxford, and on his graduation in 1608 became tutor to the son of William Cavendish (1552-1626) 1st Earl of Devonshire. William Cavendish was the second son of Sir William Cavendish and Bess of Hardwick; in Hobbes' words "There was not any who more really and less for glory's sake favoured those that studied the liberal arts liberally, than My Lord …nor in whose house a man should less need the university than in his."
Hobbes spent most of the rest of his life in the employment of the Cavendish family.

"A prince is never surrounded by as much majesty on his throne as he is on a beautiful horse"
William Cavendish (1592-1676) Earl - and later (1665) Duke of Newcastle - was a close advisor of Charles I. He became an important Royalist military Commander during the English Civil Wars.
He patronized many of the greatest writers of his age, including Ben Jonson, James Shirley and John Dryden.
William was in every sense a Cavalier - he wrote an influential book on the breeding and training horses

"Our Gracious and most Excellent King is not only the handsomest and most comely horseman in the world, but as knowing and understanding in the art as any man; and no man makes a horse go better than I have seen some go under His Majesty the first time that ever he came upon their backs - which is the height and quintessence of the art. … The Duke of York is also a very good horseman. And both take it for an honour and no disgrace, and think it a most noble and useful quality for princes."

(Cavendish on Charles II and his brother James)


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Hobbes traveled abroad with the Cavendish family, and through them he met Francis Bacon whom he helped in writing his Essays.

 

Hobbes thought that "the faculty of writing history" was "at its highest" in Thucydides. "For the principal and proper work of history being to instruct, and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future, there is not extent any other (merely human) that doth more fully and naturally perform it" than Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars. In 1629, Thomas Hobbes published a translation of Thucydides' great History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Thucydides had argued that democracy produced disorder and instability. Democratic orators, he complained, appealed to their audiences' lowest instincts, and were indifferent to truth and reason.

 

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Hobbes supported strong royal power and helped collect the Forced Loan in Derbyshire in 1627.

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In 1640, Hobbes (at the request of the Earl of Newcastle) wrote a work on politics called The Elements of Law, natural and politic. The book was directly aimed against the views of the parliamentary opposition to Charles I. Hobbes (and Newcastle) wanted to toughen Charles I's attitudes:  then and later, Hobbes believed that it was Charles I's vacillation and concessions that caused the Civil War; an immediate crackdown would have blasted opposition in the bud.
 

"These things indeed you have articulate,
Proclaim'd at market-crosses, read in churches,
To face the garment of rebellion
With some fine colour that may please the eye
Of fickle changelings and poor discontents,
Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
Of hurly-burly innovation:
And never yet did insurrection want
Such water-colours to impaint his cause"

(Henry IV i 5.1)

 

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In 1640, after eleven years of ruling alone, Charles I was forced to called Parliament. In the Spring of 1640, Hobbes stood as a candidate for election to the Short Parliament, but lost. In November, the Long Parliament began to investigate those who had written in support of absolutism. Fearful that he might be arrested, Hobbes fled to Paris, where he stayed until 1651. There he revised the Elements and in 1642 published De Cive, a Latin version of his political theory.

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In Paris, Hobbes associated with the circle of thinkers surrounding Marin Mersenne, and along with others wrote some criticisms of the philosophical ideas of René Descartes.

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The defeats of the Royalist party in the Civil War led many other Royalists to flee to Paris, including Newcastle and Queen Henrietta Maria. One of Henrietta Maria's main advisers was Henry Jermyn who was also a close friend of Hobbes.

 


Charles II

Jermyn obtained for Hobbes the post of tutor in mathematics to Charles, Prince of Wales.

 

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The execution of Charles I was deeply resented in Scotland; and the Presbyterian leaders agreed to offer the throne  to the young Charles II if he would accept Presbyterianism. A group of Royalists led by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon warned against accepting the Scottish offer as it would infringe the traditional English constitution as well as breaking the promises made to the Bishops and their supporters.

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However, Newcastle and Jermyn both advised Charles to agree. (He could always renege on the agreement, they implied, when back in power). Charles took their advice, swore the Covenant accepting Presbyterianism, and went to Scotland.  At just this time Hobbes was writing Leviathan in which he rejected the idea that the Church must be ruled by Bishops.
The Royalist cause collapsed when the Scots were completely defeated by Cromwell and the Battles of Dunbar (September 1650) and Worcester (September 1651).
 


Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (1609-74)

Charles escaped and fled back to the Continent. He promoted Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon to chief advisor and sacked Newcastle. The Bishops began attacking Hobbes for the views he had expressed in Leviathan.

 

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Hobbes believed that endless trouble and civil strife was caused by clerical pretensions - whether those of puritan fundamentalists, papal supremacists or divine right episcopalians. Hobbes wanted the clergy deprived of all independent power and kept on a short leash, strictly subordinate to the state.

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Hobbes' views did not prevail at Charles' court and once banished from it, Hobbes decided to make his peace with Cromwell and return to England, where he lived quietly.

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At the Restoration, Charles II granted Hobbes a small pension, despite the continued hostility of Clarendon and the clergy. Until his death Hobbes was protected by Charles and by Clarendon's rival, Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington (to whom Hobbes dedicated his history of the Civil War, Behemoth).
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Scientific thought

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Hard-line royalism was not all that Hobbes and Newcastle had in common. Newcastle was also deeply interested in the new scientific ideas becoming current in Europe.

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Hobbes had possibly met Galileo when he traveled to Padua in 1635 and he was impressed by the certainty of scientific demonstration - especially geometry:
 

"He was forty years old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman's library Euclid's Elements lay open, and 'twas the forty-seventh proposition* in the first book. He read the proposition. "By God" said he, "this is impossible!" So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proof; which referred him back to another, which he also read. ... at last he was demonstratively convinced of that truth. This made him in love with geometry."

(Aubrey Brief lives)
*
In right-angled triangles the square on the side opposite the right angle equals the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle.

 

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Hobbes believed that the same sort of systematic, deductive thought should be applied to political theory. (At the same period, Descartes also wanted to base philosophy on systematic development from first principles:  the two men disliked one another but in many ways their enterprises were similar).

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Hobbes adopted the Galilean methodology of analyzing complex phenomena by reducing them to their simplest elements. Hobbes planned and eventually completed a series of works relating physics, psychology and politics. De Cive was published earlier than planned, but it too was based on the principles fundamental to all of Hobbes thought: nominalism, materialism, voluntarism and determinism.
 

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