Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies
  Thomas Hobbes; His life and character Literary style and method of work  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 8. Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies.

About this time also, or soon afterwards, his philosophical views began to take shape. Among his manuscripts, there is a Short Tract on First Principles,  3  which has been conjectured to belong to the year 1630 and cannot have been much later. It shows the author so much impressed by his reading of Euclid as to adopt the geometrical form (soon afterwards used by Descartes) for the expression of his argument. It shows, further, that he had already fixed on the conception of motion as fundamental for the explanation of things, but, also, that he had not yet relinquished the scholastic doctrine of species in explaining action and perception.   12
  When Hobbes made his third visit to the continent, which lasted from 1634 to 1637 and on which he was accompanied by the young earl of Devonshire, he is found taking his place among philosophers. At Paris, he was an intimate of Mersenne, who was the centre of a scientific circle that included Descartes and Gassendi; and, at Florence, he held discourse with Galileo. There is an earlier record, in January, 1633, of Hobbes searching the shops in London for a copy of Galileo’s Dialogue, and searching vainly, as the small supply had been sold out. And now he seems to have arrived at the view that not only is motion the fundamental conception for explaining the physical world, but that man and society also can be explained on the same mechanical theory. After his return to England, he wrote, with a view to publication, a sketch of his new theory, to which he gave the title Elements of Law natural and politic. The physical doctrine of which he had taken firm hold lies at the basis of this work, but it deals in detail only with the mind of man and the principles of social order. The introduction to his Thucydides had already shown his interest in the latter subject, and the side of politics to which he leaned himself, by the emphasis he laid on the historian’s preference for the monarchical form of government. In his dedication of The Elements (dated 9 May, 1640), Hobbes says that his object is to reduce the doctrine of justice and policy in general to “the rules and infallibility of reason” after the fashion of mathematics. This volume is the “little treatise in English” to which he afterwards referred as written in the days of the Short Parliament.
Of this treatise, though not printed, many gentlemen had copies, which occasioned much talk of the author: and had not his majesty dissolved the parliament, it had brought him into danger of his life.
  The treatise was never published by Hobbes, nor did it appear as a connected whole until 1889, although, in 1650, probably with his consent, its first thirteen chapters were issued with the title Human Nature, and the remainder of the volume as a separate work De Corpore Politico. In November, 1640, when the Long parliament began to show its activity, Hobbes fled to France, where he remained for the next eleven years.   14
  These years were fruitful in many ways. From the beginning, he was in constant intercourse with Mersenne and the brilliant group of men of science who frequented his monastery. Soon, too, he was followed to Paris by other English emigrants of the royalist party, among whom was the marquis of Newcastle, a member of the Cavendish family, to whom the unpublished Elements of Law had been dedicated. By his influence, Hobbes was appointed to teach mathematics to Charles, prince of Wales, who arrived in Paris in 1646. His position in the exiled court was ultimately rendered impossible by the suspicions of its clerical members; but Charles’s friendship was of importance to him in later years, after the restoration of the monarchy. It was Newcastle’s desire to hear both sides of a question that led, during his residence in France, to discussion, and, afterwards, to a somewhat acrimonious controversy on the problem of freewill, with John Bramhall, bishop of Derry. Of greater interest is another literary correspondence which followed close upon his arrival in Paris. Mersenne was then collecting the opinions of scholars on the forthcoming treatise by Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, and, in January, 1641, Hobbes’s objections were ready and forwarded to his great contemporary in Holland. These, with the replies of Descartes, afterwards appeared as the third set of Objectiones when the treatise was published. Further communications followed on the Dioptrique which had appeared along with the famous Discours de la méthode in 1637. Descartes did not discover the identity of his two critics; but he did not approve of either; and, indeed, as regards the subject-matter of Meditationes, the thinking of the two philosophers moved in such different worlds that mutual understanding was almost impossible. To Descartes, mind was the primal certainty and independent of material reality. Hobbes, on the other hand, had already fixed on motion as the fundamental fact, and his originality consisted in his attempt to use it for the explanation not of nature only but, also, of mind and society. Two or three years after his correspondence with Descartes, Hobbes contributed a summary of his views on physics and a Tractatus Opticus to works published by Mersenne.   15
  At latest, by the beginning of his residence in Paris in 1640, Hobbes had matured the plan for his own philosophical work. It was to consist of three treatises, dealing, respectively, with matter or body, with human nature and with society. It was his intention, he says, to have dealt with these subjects in this order, but his country “was boiling hot with questions concerning the rights of dominion, and the obedience due from subjects, the true forerunners of an approaching war,” and this cause, as he said, “ripened and plucked from me this third part” of the system—the book De Cive, published at Paris in 1642. Hobbes’s first political publication was thus directly occasioned by the troubles of the time. Only a small edition seems to have been printed. Gassendi spoke of the difficulty of procuring a copy, and expressed his satisfaction when the author allowed a new and enlarged edition to be printed at the Elzevir press in Amsterdam in 1647. In this edition, the description of the book as the third part of a philosophical system was removed, at the publisher’s request, from the title-page, and a new preface was added in which the author explained his plan. The book was a tract for the times as well as a philosophical treatise; but it was not till four years later, when stable government seemed to have been re-established by the commonwealth, that he had it published in London, in an English version from his own hand, as Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. The same year, 1651, saw the publication, also in London, of his greatest work, Leviathan, and his own return to England, which now promised a safer shelter to the philosopher than France, where he feared the clergy and was no longer in favour with the remnant of the exiled English court. In the case of De Cive and, still more, in that of Leviathan, the political situation led to greater fulness of detail and, also, to a more fervid manner of utterance than had been shown in his earliest treatise. In particular, the danger arising from the claim to independence or to direction on the part of the ecclesiastical power gave occasion for a much more comprehensive treatment of the subject of religion. As early as 1641, he had expressed the opinion that the dispute “between the spiritual and civil power has of late more than any other thing in the world, been the cause of civil wars in all places of Christendom,” and had urged that “all church government depend on the state and authority of the kingdom, without which there can be no unity in the church.” This was not palatable doctrine to any of the sects, and there was much more to cause them alarm in the theological discussions contained in his Leviathan. But, after the restoration, in a dedication to the king, he was able to claim that all had been “propounded with submission to those that have the power ecclesiastical,” holding that he had not given any ground of offence “unless it be for making the authority of the church wholly upon the regal power; which I hope your majesty will think is neither atheism nor heresy.”   16
  The last twenty-eight years of Hobbes’s long life were spent in England; and there he soon returned to the house of his old pupil the earl of Devonshire, who had preceded him in submitting to the commonwealth, and, like him, welcomed the king on his return. For a year or two after his home-coming, Hobbes resided in London, busied with the completion of his philosophical system, the long-delayed first part of which, De Corpore, appeared in 1655, and the second part, De Homine, in 1656. The latter work contains little or nothing of importance that Hobbes had not said already; but the former deals with the logical, mathematical and physical principles which were to serve as foundation for the imposing structure he had built. A new world had been revealed to him, many years ago, when, at the age of forty, he had first chanced upon Euclid’s Elements. He had designed that his own philosophy should imitate the certainty of mathematics. In the dedication to his first treatise, he had called mathematics the one branch of learning that is “free from controversies and dispute.” Yet, strangely enough, when we remember how provocative of controversy were all his leading views, it was disputes about the most certain of all subjects that filled and harassed the last five and twenty years of his life.   17
  The author of Leviathan could hardly have expected to escape controversy, and he did not do anything to avoid it. The views of human nature set forth in the book became, for generations, the favourite battle-ground for contending philosophies; its political theory was not fitted to please either party; and on its religious doctrine, the clergy would have something to say when they came to their own again. His dispute with Bramhall on the question of free-will began in his Paris days and has been already recorded. But it was not allowed to be forgotten. In 1654, the tract Of Liberty and Necessity, which he had written eight years before in reply to the bishop’s arguments, was published by some person unnamed, into whose hands it had fallen. Not suspecting Hobbes’s innocence in the matter of the publication, Bramhall replied with some heat on the personal question and much fulness on the matter in hand in the following year; and this led to Hobbes’s elaborate defence in The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, published in 1656. By this time, however, the storm of controversy had already broken out in another quarter. Hobbes remembered Oxford as it was in his student days, and made little allowance for altered manners and the reform of studies. In the fourth part of Leviathan, which is devoted to “the kingdom of darkness,” he had taken occasion to pronounce judgment on the universities; they are a bulwark of papal power; their philosophy is but “Aristotelity”; for them, “till very late times,” geometry was but an “art diabolical.” But Oxford had undergone a change since the days when Hobbes could afford to despise its learning. In particular, the Savilian professorships, founded in the interval, were held by two men of eminence, Seth Ward and John Wallis—the latter, a mathematician of the first rank. They were acknowledged masters of a science in which Hobbes seems to have been only a brilliant and capricious amateur—the greatest of circle-squarers. The dispute began, mildly enough, in a vindication of the university by Ward against another critic, Hobbes being dealt with in an appendix. This was in 1654; but, next year, Hobbes’s own mathematical discoveries were published with much parade in De Corpore. The opportunity was then seized by Wallis, who, in a few months, was ready with a reply in which the pretended demonstrations were torn to shreds. From this time onwards, the war of pamphlets waged unremittingly. Hobbes maintained his opinions with a tenacity which would have been wholly admirable if they had been better grounded; and he was bold enough to carry the war into the enemy’s camp, though with unfortunate results, and to engage other adversaries, such as Robert Boyle, with no better success. It is unnecessary to follow the controversy in detail,  4  but, incidentally, it produced one document of great personal interest—a defence of his own reputation in the form of a letter to Wallis, written in 1662.   18
  In addition to these and connected controversies, more serious trouble threatened the philosopher’s later years. After the restoration he was well received by the king, who took pleasure in his conversation. But he had an enemy in the clergy; his opinions were notorious; it was easy to connect them with the moral licence shown in high places; and, after the great Plague and the great Fire, at a time when recent disaster made men’s consciences sensitive and their desires welcome a scape-goat, Hobbes was in no little danger. A bill aimed at blasphemous literature actually passed the Commons in January, 1667, and Leviathan was one of two books mentioned in it. The bill never got through both houses; but Hobbes was seriously frightened; he is said to have become more regular at church and communion; he studied the law of heresy, also, and wrote a short treatise on the subject, proving that there was no court by which he could be judged. But he was not permitted to excite the public conscience by further publications on matters of religion. A Latin translation of Leviathan(containing a new appendix bringing its theology into line with the Nicene creed) was issued at Amsterdam in 1668. Other works, how-ever, dating from the same year, were kept back—the tract on Heresy, the answer to Bramhall’s attack on Leviathan and Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England. About the same time was written his Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. His Historia Ecclesiastica, in elegiac verse, dates from about his eightieth year. When he was eighty-four, he wrote his autobiography in Latin verse. Neither age nor controversy seemed to tire him. Although controversy had the last word—he published Decameron Physiologicum at the age of ninety—he turned in old age for solace and employment to the literature which had been his first inspiration. In 1673, he published a translation in rimed quatrains of four books of the Odyssey; and he had completed both Iliad and Odyssey when, in 1675, he left London for the last time. Thereafter, he lived with the Cavendish family at one of their seats in Derbyshire. He died at Hardwick on 4 December, 1679.   19

Note 3. Printed as an appendix to Hobbes’s Elements of Law, edited by Tönnies, F., 1889. [ back ]
Note 4. A lucid and admirable sketch of its successive stages is given in Croom Robertson’s monograph on Hobbes (1886). It should be added, however, that Tönies (Hobbes, 1896, p.65) is of opinion that Robertson has dealt too hardly with Hobbes in his account of the controversy. [ back ]

  Thomas Hobbes; His life and character Literary style and method of work  

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