Thomas Hobbes: Life, Philosophy and Legacy

Biography | Influences | Core Philosophy | Essential Works | Reception | Criticisms | Legacy

Thomas Hobbes, the prominent English philosopher of the 17th century, made profound contributions to political theory and social contract thinking which continue to inspire discussions on human nature, political systems and the pursuit of social order.

Hobbes’ state of nature underscores the destructiveness of self-interest, which, he argued, necessitates the establishment of a social contract with a strong sovereign authority, affirming the fundamental role of government in maintaining peace, stability and social harmony.

His significance is evident in the subsequent development of political philosophy and the exploration of concepts such as natural rights, limited government and individual responsibility.

The Leviathan, Hobbes’ magnum opus, stimulates a deeper understanding of humanity and political systems, prompting individuals to critically evaluate the relationship between the state and its citizens, as well as the delicate balance between individual liberties and social stability.

Early Life, Education and Career

Thomas Hobbes was born in England in 1588. As a young boy, he showed exceptional intellectual abilities, and his avid curiosity became evident early on. His father, a clergyman, provided him with a solid education and instilled in him a deep interest in classical literature and philosophy. This early exposure to the works of ancient thinkers would prove influential Hobbes’ philosophical framework.

Hobbes received a quality education at the prestigious Magdalen Hall, at the University of Oxford. He studied a broad range of subjects, including classics, mathematics and the emerging fields of science, becoming acquainted with the works of great thinkers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, whose empirical and rationalist philosophy, respectively, was characterized by a most rigorous approach.

Following his education, Hobbes embarked on a career as a tutor, providing guidance to several aristocratic families. He served as a tutor to the Cavendish family, where he had the opportunity to engage in intellectual discussions with prominent figures, such as the future Earl of Devonshire, William Cavendish. The exposure to the political and intellectual elite further deepened Hobbes’ understanding of power dynamics and political theory.

He also had a successful career as a translator, and he worked on translating classical texts such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. This endeavor allowed him to further refine his understanding of ancient political thought and draw parallels to contemporary political issues.

Throughout his career, Hobbes engaged in intellectual exchanges with leading thinkers of his time, including those associated with the Royal Society. The Royal Society was a scientific organization founded in 1660 that fostered an environment of exchange and collaboration. Although not a member himself, he participated in discussions, which enriched his understanding of natural philosophy and the scientific advancements of the time.

Thomas Hobbes passed away on December 4, 1679, at the age of 91. He died in Derbyshire, England, at the home of the Cavendish family, where he had spent the later years of his life. Despite his controversial philosophical views and the criticism they garnered, he received a burial in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist Church in Ault Hucknall, close to the Cavendish estate. His tombstone bears the Latin inscription Philosophus (Philosopher) and serves as a testament to his enduring intellectual influence and contribution to the field of philosophy.

Historical and Intellectual Context

Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy was inspired by the political turmoil of 17th century England, which culminated with the execution of the ruling monarch, as well as the intellectual climate of the time, characterized by the advancement of science, empiricism and rationality.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) played a pivotal role in shaping Hobbes’ philosophical framework. The conflict between the monarchy and Parliament, along with the subsequent execution of King Charles I, exposed the fragility of political institutions and highlighted the need for a stable and effective system of governance. These turbulent events deeply influenced Hobbes’ thinking, as he witnessed firsthand the collapse of traditional political institutions, and led him to explore questions of effective political authority.

The 17th century witnessed remarkable advancements in both scientific and philosophical thought. The works of thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, who challenged traditional notions of the natural world through empirical observation, and Rene Descartes, who championed rationalism and the search for foundational truths, had a profound impact on the intellectual landscape.

Hobbes sought to develop a systematic and objective understanding of politics, employing principles and methods that were inspired by the scientific advancements of his time. His materialistic worldview and emphasis on determinism were influenced by the spirit of the era, which sought to explain phenomena through observable and measurable processes.

Hobbes believed in the power of reason and observation to uncover truths about human behavior and society, and sought to apply a scientific approach to the study of politics, drawing upon empirical evidence and logical analysis to develop his theories. In approaching human nature and social interaction with a scientific lens, he aimed to establish a rational and comprehensive understanding of political order, social dynamics and the motivations that drive human behavior.

The challenges and discoveries of his time influenced his exploration of political authority, human nature and the need for social order, ultimately leading to the formulation of the social contract theory and his seminal works on political philosophy.

Core Philosophical Framework

Thomas Hobbes’ core philosophical framework is rooted in a materialistic worldview that embraces determinism, which includes human nature and behavior, and advocates for a social contract with a sovereign authority to maintain peace and stability.

Materialism and Determinism

Hobbes adopted a materialistic worldview, grounded in his understanding of human nature and the natural world. He viewed human beings as purely physical entities, devoid of any immaterial or spiritual essence, and believed that actions and behaviors can be explained through the laws of nature, similar to the mechanical principles that govern the physical world.

He embraced determinism, positing that human behavior is predetermined and governed by mechanical laws, and believed that individuals are driven by their desires and passions, seeking to maximize their own self-interest. This deterministic perspective rejects the idea of free will, asserting that all human actions are the result of causal chains and external influences.

State of Nature and the Social Contract

Hobbes believed that in the absence of a governing authority, humans exist in a state of perpetual conflict, driven by self-interest and desire for power. In this state of nature, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, as individuals compete for resources and security.

To escape the inherent perils of the state of nature, Hobbes argued for the establishment of a social contract whereby individuals voluntarily relinquish their natural rights and transfer power to a sovereign authority. He advocated for a strong central authority with the power to enforce the social contract and maintain order, which would guarantee security and protect individuals from the chaos of the state of nature.

Sovereignty and Absolutism

Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty aligns with his advocacy for absolute monarchy as the most effective form of government. He believed that a sovereign ruler, possessing unlimited power, is necessary to prevent the disintegration of the social contract. The sovereign’s authority is absolute and indivisible, with no limitations imposed by the governed.

A powerful sovereign is essential to maintain peace and stability, he argued. The sovereign acts as the ultimate authority, making and enforcing laws, resolving conflicts and ensuring the protection of individual’s rights. This concentrated power, he argued, is indispensable to prevent the outbreak of conflict and preserve social order.

Thomas Hobbes’ Essential Works

Thomas Hobbes’ essential works are Leviathan and The Elements of Law. Leviathan stands as his most significant contribution, presenting his political philosophy, arguments for social contract theory and the necessity of a strong sovereign. The Elements of Law provides additional insights, exploring legal and political theory. These texts serve as foundational pillars for understanding Hobbes’ philosophy and its implications for social order and political governance.


Thomas Hobbes’ most significant work is Leviathan, published in 1651, which serves as the cornerstone of his philosophical framework and presents his comprehensive political philosophy.

In Leviathan, he explores the nature of society, the origins of political authority and the role of the sovereign in maintaining social order. He argues for the necessity of a social contract to establish a stable political order, asserting that individuals willingly transfer their rights to a sovereign authority who is responsible for ensuring peace and security. He advocates for a strong central authority, preferably in the form of absolute monarchy, to prevent the chaos of the state of nature and maintain social harmony.

Leviathan delves into various aspects of political theory, including the division of powers, the relationship between the sovereign and subjects, the nature of laws and the foundations of political legitimacy. Through the vivid imagery of the Leviathan, a metaphorical representation of the all-powerful sovereign, Hobbes illustrates his theory of governance and the importance of absolute authority.

The Elements of Law

Hobbes’ earlier work, The Elements of Law, published in 1640, provides additional insights into his philosophical ideas. In this text, he explores various aspects of legal and political theory, focusing on the principles of government, justice and the relationship between individuals and the state.

The Elements of Law delves into the concept of natural law, discussing how it underpins social order and the formation of political institutions, as he argues that the basis of law lies in the preservation of peace and security, advocating for a system of government that effectively upholds these principles.

Furthermore, this work also delves into topics such as property rights, contracts and the role of punishment in maintaining social order. Through these discussions, Hobbes expands upon his core principles, paving the way for his later and more comprehensive work, Leviathan.

Influence on Philosophy

Thomas Hobbes established the principles of contractarianism, and would prove instrumental, by opposition, in the advocacy of liberalism and individual rights.

The Social Contract Theory

Thomas Hobbes made an instrumental contribution to the development of contractarianism and social contract theory, as his seminal work, Leviathan, laid the foundation for these notions.

This idea of a mutually agreed-upon contract between individuals and the state resonated with subsequent philosophers, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. They drew inspiration from the former’s ideas on the social contract and built upon them to develop their own theories of political philosophy.

Hobbes’ influence can be seen in Locke’s emphasis on individuals giving their consent to a political authority which recognizes their natural rights – to life, liberty and property – Rousseau’s notion of the general will – the collective interest – and Kant’s focus on the moral basis of political authority – the ethical foundations and principles that underpin political authority.

Liberalism and Individual Rights

Through critique and by opposition, Hobbes’ ideas also had a significant impact on the development of liberalism and the concept of individual rights. John Locke, in particular, expanded upon Hobbes’ theories and developed a more optimistic view of human nature, asserting the inherent rights of individuals to life, liberty and property, which ought to be protected by the government. These notions, found in Locke’s works, can be traced back to the former’s original notions of social contract and the need for a sovereign authority to secure peace and order.

Hobbes’ influence on liberalism, developed by John Locke as a reactionary philosophy to the former’s absolutism, particularly the belief in limited government and the protection of individual freedoms, became the foundation of modern liberal thought.

Reception and Criticisms

Hobbes’ most renowned work, Leviathan, which presents the social contract theory and his views on the nature of political authority, generated considerable controversy. While some appreciated the rational approach and the emphasis on social order and stability, others criticized his materialistic perspective and skeptical attitude towards religion.

Critics questioned the extent of his absolutist views and raised concerns about the potential abuse of power by a sovereign ruler, arguing that his ideology concentrated too much authority in the hands of one individual, leaving little room for checks and balances or protection of individual rights.

Furthermore, the establishment of political legitimacy based on a social contract, rather than religious authority, challenged the traditional role of religion in society, which garnered criticism from religious figures who viewed the institution as essential for moral and political order.

Long-Standing Criticisms

Hobbes’s ideas have faced criticism for their pessimistic view of human nature and the potential for authoritarianism, as critics contend that the emphasis on self-interest overlooks the capacity for cooperation and the pursuit of the common good.

John Locke debated the notion of absolute monarchy and presented the idea of natural rights, asserting that individuals have inherent rights to life, liberty and property.

David Hume questioned the possibility of individuals willingly surrendering their rights to a sovereign authority, and postulated that political authority arises from a more complex process of social cooperation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau contended that humans are fundamentally good and that social contracts should be based on the general will of the people.

Immanuel Kant disagreed with Hobbes’s conception of human nature and his reductionist approach to ethics, affirming that moral principles are grounded in rationality and the inherent dignity of individuals.

Critics accused Hobbes of reducing human behavior to purely mechanical and self-interested actions, neglecting other dimensions of human experience, such as moral reasoning, compassion and cooperation, asserting that his deterministic perspective undermines the agency and moral responsibility of individuals.


Hobbes’ significance and enduring legacy lies in his pioneering approach to understanding political power through the social contract and the state of nature.

His exploration of the state of nature and the advocacy for a strong sovereign authority provided a framework for analyzing the relationship between individuals and the state, laying the groundwork for subsequent discussions on legitimacy and the preservation of social order.

Hobbes’ ideas had a profound impact on philosophers and political theorists who followed. Figures such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant engaged with Hobbes’ concepts, building upon them or offering counterarguments that shaped the development of political thought.

In contemporary discussions on power, authority and the role of the state, his ideas remain relevant – the delicate balance between individual rights and social stability resonates in debates surrounding the extent of governmental power, the rule of law and the protection of individual liberties, and contributes to contemporary discussions on the responsibilities of both citizens and rulers.

Furthermore, Hobbes’ materialistic worldview and his deterministic understanding of human behavior continue to influence psychological and philosophical inquiries into the complexities of human existence, the nature of morality, ethics and the interplay between individual interests and the collective well-being.

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