Thomas Hobbes: A New Philosophical System

Thomas Hobbes was born on April 5, 1588, in Malmesbury, England. Though his father disappeared when he was young, Hobbes’s uncle paid for his education, and by the time he was fourteen years old, Hobbes studied at Magdalen Hall in Oxford. In 1608, Hobbes left Oxford and became a tutor for the oldest son of Lord Cavendish of Hardwick. In 1631, while tutoring another family member of the Cavendish family, Hobbes began to focus on his philosophical ideas and wrote his first published piece, Short Tract on First Principles.

Hobbes’s association with the Cavendish family proved to be quite beneficial. He was able to sit in on parliamentary debates; contribute to discussions about the king, landowners, and Parliament members; and get a firsthand look at how government was structured and influenced. During an incredibly tumultuous time between the monarchy and Parliament, Hobbes was a staunch monarchist and even wrote his first political philosophy, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, in defense of King Charles I. In the early 1640s, as the conflict escalated into what would become the English Civil Wars (1642–1651), Hobbes fled the country and moved to France, where he would remain for eleven years. It was while he lived in France that Hobbes produced his most important work (including his most famous book, Leviathan, published two years after the execution of King Charles I).

Thomas Hobbes was an incredibly individualistic thinker. During the English Civil Wars, while most in favor of the monarchy began to soften their arguments by expressing support for the Church of England, Hobbes, who was the most prominent royalist, proclaimed his distaste for the church, which led him to become banned by the king’s court. Even as a staunch supporter of the monarchy, Hobbes did not believe the king’s right to rule was from God; rather, it was a social contract agreed upon by the people.

Hobbes was convinced that there needed to be an overhaul of philosophy, and set out to make a totalizing philosophical system that could provide an agreed-upon basis for absolutely all knowledge. The root of his philosophical system was his belief that all phenomena in the universe could be traced back to matter and motion. However, he rejected that the experimental method and observation of nature could act as a base for knowledge. Instead, his philosophy was deductive and based everything on universally accepted “first principles.”