Thomas Hobbes and the Political Philosophy of Glory

By Gabriella Slomp | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Fatal Equality

Introduction

Aubrey relates that Hobbes was 'but of plebeian descent': his father 'was one of the ignorant "SirJohns" of Queen Elizabeth's time; could only read the prayers of the church and the homelies; and disesteemed learning' ( Brief Lives,148). His uncle, a rich glover '[h]aving no child ... contributed much to or rather maintained his nephew Thomas at Magdalen Hall in Oxford'(ibid., 149).

This humble background must have had an impact on Thomas Hobbes at least as strong as that attributed by some scholars (e.g., Strauss) to the aristocracy for whom he worked first as a 'page' ( Brief Lives,151), and then as a tutor and companion for most of his life.

In Anti-White Hobbes shows some understanding of the predicament of people with 'poor parentage':

some persons are born to riches and great place ... others are of poor parentage and obscure origins. Hence the latter must toil for the greatest part of their life to acquire possessions; and in the remainder of it, oppressed by the inconveniences of old age, they cannot use what they have secured ( Anti‐ White,481-2).

In Anti-White Hobbes lists poverty as one of the 'causes imparing happiness' ( Anti-White, 481) and imputes this condition not to lack of merit or virtue, but to bad luck ( Anti-White, 482). In De Homine, too, Hobbes imputes to fortune whether we have the advantage to be born in a rich or noble family.

In his daily frequentation of the aristocracy, Hobbes must have realised that their superiority was merely a human artefact. Indeed in his three main political works, Hobbes repeats almost verbatim the claim that equality is natural and that '[t]he inequallity that now is, has bin introduced by the Lawes civill' ( Leviathan, 107).

As it is well known, Hobbes's main claim on natural equality is that despite the differences in intelligence and strength, individuals' chances of survival in the state of nature are the same in so far as even the weakest man has enough strength to kill the strongest.

-22-

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