Thomas Hobbes: Absolutism, Politics & Famous Works

Thomas Hobbes: Absolutism, Politics & Famous Works
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  • 0:02 Thomas Hobbes
  • 0:39 Bio
  • 1:09 Famous Works
  • 2:50 Political Philosophy
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discuss one the key political theorists of the 17th century, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes, whose theories concerning absolutism, the basis of government, and human nature still resonate to this day.

Thomas Hobbes

Absolute control of an organization or government is not something we are typically accustomed to today. There are notable exceptions of course; the Kim family has ruled North Korea for decades with an iron fist, and the New York Yankees have such control over their organization that they make their players shave every day! However, in previous centuries, absolute control of a government by a single man or family was the norm. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when philosophers and intellectuals were first starting to question this status quo, there was still one intellectual giant who defended the absolute control by kings and dynasties: Thomas Hobbes.

Bio

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 in Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, England. Early in the 17th century, Hobbes went to study at Oxford, graduating in 1608. After graduation, Hobbes began working as a tutor for the Cavendish family, tutoring the future Earl of Devonshire. Though he continued to work for the Cavendish family intermittently for the rest of his life, Hobbes also made several voyages to Europe to learn and work with his philosophical colleagues, including Galileo, Mersenne, and René Descartes.

Famous Works

Hobbes' intellectual pursuits were varied. He was known throughout England and Europe for being a scientist, translator, mathematician, and an expert on various fields, from jurisprudence to metaphysics. However, his most influential books were on political philosophy. His 1640 work On the Elements of Law and the follow-up, De Cive, argued for the rights and prerogative of the king against his growing list of enemies in Parliament.

Indeed, Hobbes was a staunch and outspoken Royalist; a keen defender of the English King Charles I in his struggles against Parliament. In 1640, for fear of his own safety, he fled to Paris as Parliament and King Charles I moved closer to civil war. During this time in self-imposed exile from England, Hobbes began publishing philosophical works on the nature of knowledge, language, and humanity.

He watched the political developments in his home country from afar, and soon after his return (in 1651), he published his most famous and most political work, Leviathan. He continued to publish polemical and philosophical works throughout the 1650s, often arguing with his republican contemporary John Bramall. He also published a history of the English Civil Wars, though it was not published until 1682.

Hobbes continued to write and publish throughout the 1660s, though his works became less political. Ironically, Hobbes was prohibited from publishing in 1666 after a parliamentary commission examined Leviathan and claimed that it encouraged atheism. He continued to work, regardless, and after the ban was lifted, he published a translation of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad in 1675. Hobbes died in 1679 at 91 years old.

Political Philosophy

Throughout his life, Hobbes believed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute monarchy. Hobbes believed firmly in a monarch's absolutism, or the belief in the king's right to wield supreme and unchecked power over his subjects. He argued this most forcefully in his landmark work, Leviathan.

This belief stemmed from the central tenet of Hobbes' natural philosophy that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. According to Hobbes, if man is placed in a state of nature (that is, without any form of government) humans would be in a state of constant warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes stated, the life of man was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

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