Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679)

Introducing the 17th century English thinker and political theorist, Thomas Hobbes:

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 30th August 2006
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Philosophy, Thinkers
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A version of Hobbes' Leviathan Copyrighted image Copyright: Controlled

Born in Wiltshire, England, Hobbes started his formal education at the age of four and completed it in 1608 when he graduated from Magdalen Hall, Oxford. After working as a private tutor he went to Europe, returning to England in 1637. In that year the country was in political upheaval - the preamble to the Civil War.

By 1640 Hobbes decided his safety was at risk due to the worsening political situation and retreated to France, where he produced a number of significant works, including his most famous, Leviathan (published in 1651). Hobbes reasons in Leviathan that in order to secure society’s peace the members of the society must submit to a sovereign authority. This sovereign must act in order to protect its subjects and preserve the peace. Hobbes was one of the first philosophers to use the notion of a ‘social contract’ to justify our obligation to obey the authority of the state.

Leviathan put Hobbes in a difficult political position. He had proposed a system in which the sovereign’s position was not justified as being given by divine right, and had said that the sovereign authority need not be an individual, but could be a group of people. As a result he was barred from the exiled English court. Added to this, he had argued that the Church should be subject to the sovereign’s rule rather than being an independent body, which aroused the suspicious interest of the Roman Catholic French authorities. By the end of 1651 Hobbes came to the conclusion that Paris was best left behind, so he returned to England, now under Cromwell’s Protectorate.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Hobbes returned to favour, primarily because he had taught the Prince of Wales mathematics whilst in France. However, Charles II never permitted Hobbes to publish on the subject of human behaviour again.

Read more on Hobbes' relevance to Trust in our article 'Trust and the State of Nature'.

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