The Advocate of Autocracy: Who is Thomas Hobbes?

Thomas Hobbes has been long considered the quintessential modern political philosopher. His 1651 book Leviathan pivoted political philosophy as we know it. Who was the man behind the pen?

Sep 11, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
thomas hobbes philosophy advocate autocracy
Center portrait of Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright, c. 1669-1670, via National Portrait Gallery


Aside from being the inspiration for the tigrine alter-ego in Bill Watterson’s comic strip series Calvin and Hobbes (alongside John Calvin), Thomas Hobbes has quite a reputation. He was the first to expound the philosophical principle of the social contract, or covenant, which is concerned with the legitimacy of governmental authority. Thomas Hobbes famously explored political and moral human nature through the lens of his term: the State of Nature. His work galvanized many thinkers during and after his time, who both expanded upon and refuted what has come to be known as Hobbesian philosophy.


Thomas Hobbes in His Early Years

English Ships and the Spanish Armada, artist unknown, c. 16th century, via Royal Museums Greenwich


Thomas Hobbes was born in Wiltshire, England, on April 5, 1588, the very year of the Spanish Armada. England was under the stewardship of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) who had consolidated the volatile English Reformation of her father King Henry VIII by solidifying Protestantism as the state religion.


Catholic Spain, controlled by the Habsburgs, was aiming to invade England. Elizabeth had allied herself with the Dutch – Protestant natives of a realm the Habsburgs had their eyes on. The two Germanic powers had also undermined Spanish interests in the Americas.


Though the Spanish invasion never came to fruition, news of the incoming armada terrified the English populace. As the legend goes, Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother heard the news of the incoming invasion. Thomas Hobbes would later quip, “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear,” a mark of the rather paranoid theory he would later expound.


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Hobbes’ father was a high-ranking member of the Anglican clergy. Hobbes himself proved at a young age to be an adept student with a proclivity for translation. Before attending and graduating from Oxford University, Hobbes translated the Greek tragedy Medea into Latin, which was then the language of intellectuals and of academia.


Post-Graduate Hobbes’ Training in Philosophy

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, where Galileo is said to have conducted his cannonball experiment, photo by Saffron Blaze, via Wikimedia Commons


The formative years of Thomas Hobbes’ career were spent as a private tutor to the English nobility, notably to the Cavendish family, who hold the title in English Peerage Duke of Devonshire. It was with the youngest of the Cavendish clan, William Cavendish, that Hobbes traveled to Europe with between 1610 and 1615. William Cavendish was the husband of Margaret Cavendish, one of Britain’s first female philosophers. Abroad, Hobbes familiarized himself with philosophical discourse that he wasn’t exposed to at Oxford.


Thomas Hobbes found work briefly as the scribe for contemporary Francis Bacon, copying down Bacon’s word into Latin. Academic law at the time held that all scholastic and philosophical discourse, blasphemy included, need be written in Latin to bar the common populace from reading it. The mark of this law on academia is visible to this day: the compulsory application of “elevated language” in scholastic and academic works.


Hobbes’ primary interests lay in physics, though in his journeys through Europe he experienced a philosophical awakening of sorts. In Florence, he met Galileo Galilei under house arrest for his proposal of heliocentrism. Hobbes went on to observe regular philosophical discourse during his time in Paris and even began to participate in debates.


Hobbes incorporated his understanding of physics into his own philosophical discourse. A staunch materialist, Hobbes claimed human nature was “matter in motion” propelled by an “Unmoved Mover,” thereby invoking a teleological structure to human nature and stripping humankind of free will.


Hobbes in the Civil War

Rupert’s Standard at Marston Moor, by Abraham Cooper, c. 1824, via Tate Museum


Thomas Hobbes was in Paris at the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. Based not only on his philosophy but also on his years in the employ of the nobility, one can deduce that Hobbes held royalist leanings and sympathies. As tensions in England rose exponentially, many royalists fled the island for continental Europe. A number of individuals of that community were well known to Hobbes, and those that fled to Paris were welcomed by him with open arms.


Hobbes remained in Paris from 1630 to 1651 – returning to England only temporarily between 1637 and 1641. His entourage there was composed of exiled or expatriated British royalists fleeing war and French intellectuals. Briefly, Hobbes was even employed by Prince Charles (the future Charles II of England, whose father Charles I had been executed in the Civil War) as a tutor.


It was this environment in which Thomas Hobbes would compose his monumental piece of political philosophy, Leviathan (1651). Surrounded by nobility and spurred by revolution, Leviathan lay down Hobbes’ theory on civil government and legitimacy of monarchic authority.


The Leviathan

Frontpiece of Leviathan, engraved by Abraham Bosse (with input from Thomas Hobbes), c. 1651, via Library of Congress


Hobbes’ Leviathan made an immediate and substantial impact, many details of which being easily visible even from the cover page. In his philosophy, Thomas Hobbes unironically and non-satirically advocates for an overarching political entity; a society dominated and controlled by an autocrat. This is depicted in the massive “Leviathan” humanoid on the cover of his work overseeing the countryside.


This “Leviathan” is equated to the monarch. His body is composed of many smaller individuals: symbolic of the Hobbesian notion that society makes the monarch. He wields both the sword and the bishop’s crozier: symbolic of the monarch being the very manifestation of both church and state.


Broadly speaking, Thomas Hobbes proposed the need for a quasi-Machiavellian, quasi-Orwellian political society in which one individual governs the many. Though this stance in his political philosophy requires lengthy explanation, Hobbes’ reasoning is that the monarch rules with a heavy hand in order to sustain and prolong the happiness and longevity of his people.


The Legacy of Thomas Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes, characters by cartoonist Bill Watterson, c. 1985-95, via Business Insider


Though Hobbes’ query was on the side of the royalists, it is important to note the inherent blasphemy therein. In his symbolic claim that the monarch or Leviathan represented both church and state, Hobbes was making a secular atheistic claim that reduced the role of God and inflated that of the monarch. This was the reason Hobbes fled back to England in 1651 – his blasphemous claims angered the French Catholics.


In 1666, the British House of Commons introduced a bill that outlawed the circulation of atheistic works, citing Hobbes’ work by name. The law applied due to the work being composed in the common tongue of English rather than the academic tongue of Latin. Hobbes was protected from the law, however, in the name of the king as his former tutor.


The controversial works of Thomas Hobbes sparked many thinkers beyond his time. Notably, those that opposed governmental authority and autocracy, such as John Locke and the American Revolutionaries.


Likely due to his fearful, cautious, and paranoid nature, Thomas Hobbes lived a long life. He passed away after suffering a stroke in his ninety-second year in 1679 in England. The political dichotomy of big government versus small government is one debated to this day. Over the last half-millennium, both ideologies have flipped sides many times, though the notion of a political spectrum is only an advent of the last few centuries. What would Hobbes say about today’s politics?

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.