Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is the greatest English political philosopher, who gave classic expression to the idea that morality and politics arise out of a social contract. He was born on Good Friday, April 5, 1588, in Westbury, England, the son of an eccentric vicar. On the day of his birth the Spanish Armada, the greatest naval fleet the world had seen up to that time, was spotted off the coast of southern England. The chronicler John Aubrey reports that Hobbes's mother, only seven months pregnant, startled by the news, fell into labor with Hobbes and delivered him. Hobbes wrote of this experience, “Unbeknownst to my mother at that time she gave birth to twins, myself and fear. And fear has been my constant companion throughout life.” Hobbes's lifetime was filled with the dangers of war, the invading Spanish Armada, the religious wars of Europe, the Civil War in England. His political philosophy may be read as a cure against the fear and insecurity of people desperately in need of peace and tranquility.
Hobbes was educated at Oxford University, and lived through an era of political revolutions as a scholar and tutor (he was tutor to Charles II of England). He was widely traveled and was in communication with most of the intellectual luminaries of his day, both on the Continent (Galileo, Gassendi, and Descartes) and in England (Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, and William Harvey), and was regarded as a brilliant, if somewhat unorthodox and controversial, intellectual.
Hobbes is known today primarily for his masterpiece in political theory, Leviathan (1651), a book written during the English civil wars (1642–1646), sometimes referred to as “The Great Rebellion,” which pitted the forces of monarchy (the Royalists) under Charles I against those of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. Hobbes's work was intended to support the Royalists, as he believed that the monarchy was the best guarantee for orderly and stable government. Yet the Royalists misconstrued his interpretation as supporting the rebels, no doubt because Hobbes rejected the usual grounds for the monarchy, the divine right of kings. For this reason, and because the book conveyed a materialist view of human nature, thought to be dangerous to religion, it was suppressed or violently attacked throughout Hobbes's lifetime.
What are the doctrines which his contemporaries found so controversial? First of all, Hobbes breaks from the medieval notion that the State is a natural organism, based on natural devotion and interdependence. He develops a moral and political theory based not on natural affection but on psychological egoism. Hobbes argues that people are all egoists who always act in their own self-interest, to obtain gratification and avoid harm. However, we cannot obtain any of the basic goods because of the inherent fear of harm and death, the insecurity in an unregulated “state of nature,” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We cannot relax our guard, for everyone is constantly in fear of everyone else. In this state of anarchy the prudent person concludes that it really is in all our