Who was he: Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury was a 17th century English philosopher and one of the founders of modern political philosophy. His innate sense of understanding played a pivotal role in his theory that humans are beings of matter and energy, and obey the physical laws of all matter and energy. Those facts are the foundation for establishing a social and political system that promotes peace and avoids the dangers of civil conflict.
Hobbes describes the dilemma that creates unrest as a system where all human beings are supposed to have rights – moral claims that protect their basic needs and interests. But who or what determines what those rights are? And who enforces them? Who exercises the most important political powers, when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements? Hobbes answered those questions.
Background: Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, the year the Spanish Armada made an attempt to invade England. Thoroughly trained in Greek and Latin, his exceptional intellectual abilities brought him to the University of Oxford. He had a great deal of common sense at an early age and that along with his astute learning capabilities won him a place tutoring the son of an important noble family. Hobbes entered a circle where the activities and achievements of members of parliament, wealthy land owners and others were frequently discussed.
Hobbes found himself close to political power and at one point became the math tutor to future King Charles II. When civil war broke out in 1642 and again in 1648 Hobbes was forced to leave the country because his association with royalty became a liability. He lived in France until 1651 and when he returned he was still uncertain about his safety because powerful religious figures were very critical of his writings. He finally had to burn some of his work because he felt threatened. Hobbes lived in a time of tremendous political, religious and social upheaval in England. The country was divided against itself in several different ways.
The rich supported the King and the general society was divided religiously and economically as well as by region. The civil war divided the country militarily, and all these divisions had a negative impact on the social and political structure of the country.
Although all the social and political turmoil affected Hobbes's lifestyle in several ways, it also shaped his thoughts; the turmoil never impacted his intellectual development. His experience as a tutor gave him the ability to read, write and be published so he was able to meet notable English intellectuals like Francis Bacon.
His emerging reputation as a scientist and thinker, as well as his self-imposed exile in France, gave him the opportunity to meet with major European intellectual figures and exchange ideas with people like Gassendi, Descartes and Mersenne. Hobbes embroiled himself in prolonged arguments with mathematicians, scientists, clerics and philosophers and those debates changed his intellectual reputation at times. He liked to say that it is possible to "square the circle." It is no coincidence that his phrase is now used as an idiom meaning 'a problem that cannot be solved.'
Hobbes was a scientist, mathematician, writer of law, translator of the classics and became famous for writing and arguing about religion. But his writings about morality and politics made him bigger than life then and now. His most famous works are Leviathan, a classic of English prose, and De Cive, which gives a straightforward account of Hobbes's beliefs and ideas. His books reveal the nature of the man and his brilliant talent.