Thomas Hobbes 1588 – 1679 was and is internationally renowned as a philosopher. Much of his reputation was built on his masterpiece Leviathan.
He was born in Malmesbury on 5th April 1588, son of the Vicar of Charlton and Westport. His father fled after a brawl with a parishioner and Thomas and two brothers were brought up by his uncle Francis.
He went to school in Malmesbury at the age of four, learnt to speak four languages and left Malmesbury for Oxford University aged fourteen.
Let him tell you in his own words:
In Fifteen hundred eighty eight, old style,
When the Armada did invade our isle,
Call’d the Invincible; whose Freight was then,
Nothing but Murd’ring Steel and Murd’ring Men;
Most of which Navy was disperst, or lost,
And had the Fate to Perish on our Coast:
April the fifth (though now with Age outworn)
I’th’early Spring, I, a poor worm, was born.
In Malmesbury Baptiz’d, and Named there
By my own Father, then a Minister.
Many things worth relating had this Town;
And first, a Monastery of Renown,
And Castle, or two rather it may seem,
On a Hill seated, with a double stream
Almost environ’d, from when still are sent
Two Burgesses to sit in Parliament.
Here lie the bones of Noble Athelstane
Whose Stone-Effigies does there remain;
Who for reward gave them the Neighbouring Plains,
Which he had moistened with the Blood of Danes;
Here was the Roman Muse by Adelm brought,
Here also the first Latine Schole was taught.
My Native place I’m not asham’d to own;
For fame had rumour’d, that a Fleet at Sea,
Wou’d cause our nation Catastrophe;
And hereupon it was my Mother Dear
Did bring forth Twins at once, both me and Fear.
For this my Countries Foes I e’r did hate’
With calm Peace and my Muse associate.
Did learn to speak Four Languages, to write
And read them too, which was my sole delight
Six years i’th’Greek and Latin Tongues I spent,
And at Fourteen I was to Oxford sent.
After graduating at nineteen he became tutor to the future Earl of Devonshire, William Cavendish; he maintained an association with the family through out his life. In 1610 he went with William Cavendish on the ‘grand tour’.
His first major publication was a translation, the first into English from the Greek of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponesean War. Hobbes wrote in Latin as well as English, about many topics and issues of the day. He produced more translations and treatises on optics and mechanics.
He is most famous for his works on philosophy. Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth written in Paris in 1651, was his magnus opus. Hobbes had fled to Paris as a result of the Civil War where he associated with royalist exiles from Cromwell’s Protectorate, and where he was tutor to Charles, Prince of Wales. The book argues that peace and order require a sovereign, established by a social contract; otherwise society collapses into the ‘state of nature’, in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. The book became instantly famous, and at the Restoration Hobbes’s former pupil, now King Charles II, rewarded him with a pension of £100.
Parliament did investigate Hobbes for his writings but by burning some of the more extreme tracts and with the protection of Charles II he escaped serious consequences.
In his later years he produced an autobiography in Latin verse and translated the Odyssey and Iliad into English.
Following a stroke he died on 1st December 1679 aged 91.