Hobbes: A Biography, by A.P. Martinich

BY CARL L. BANKSTON III

Thomas Hobbes

Aloysisus P. Martinich, who holds an endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, is an internationally recognized authority on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His previous works include The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics (1992) and A Hobbes Dictionary (1995). Martinich is best known for having pointed out the importance of religion in the thinking of Hobbes, who has sometimes been seen as a purely secular or even anti-religious theorist. In Hobbes: A Biography, Martinich has provided the most complete and readable biography of Thomas Hobbes currently available. The author’s painstaking research, based on both published and unpublished sources, makes the book an outstanding source for political scientists, professional philosophers, and historians. The clear, non-academic writing style makes it an excellent introduction to Hobbes for students or general readers.  Martinich even displays a wry wit that one does not normally expect to find in works on early modern philosophy. For example, in responding to Hobbes’ portrayal of Oxford University as a decadent place characterized by “drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices,” Martinich observes: “Drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices were certainly part of my undergraduate experiences and those of my friends at various universities, and nothing has changed much over the past forty years, judging from the experiences of my students and my children. Of course, there are degrees of drunkenness and wantonness, but without better evidence, I am reluctant to judge that Oxford in 1605 was worse than Oxford (or the University of Texas) in 1998.”

Martinich takes up the story of the philosopher’s life with the birth of Thomas Hobbes in the village of Westport, just outside of Malmesbury. The circumstances of his birth and early life were modest, considering the lasting renown Hobbes would later attain. His father, an apparently bad-tempered, semi-literate clergyman also named “Thomas”, deserted the family when Hobbes was still a child. His mother, whose name was probably either “Alice” or  “Anne”, is said to have given birth to the future philosopher prematurely. Fear of the invading Spanish Armada, according the account of Hobbes himself, caused this premature birth. Fear, which Hobbes called his “twin,” would be present in his thinking throughout his life.

After his father’s death, Hobbes and his family were supported by Hobbes’ uncle Francis, a maker of gloves. Hobbes, apparently, a good student, went on to study at Oxford, at about the age of fourteen, somewhat younger than other students. After his graduation, he became a tutor and companion for the young William Cavendish, of the wealthy and powerful Cavendish family. Ties with the Cavendish family helped connect Hobbes to England’s political and intellectual elite.  Throughout the philosopher’s life, he would defend power and social order.

De Cive

Hobbes was no child prodigy. He was a late bloomer and had he died young, instead of surviving into his nineties, the now familiar adjective “Hobbesian,” which describes a universal state of conflict, would not exist. Martinich discusses the possibility that Hobbes was the author of some anonymous essays published in the 1620’s, but if Hobbes did write these, they were little more than preparation for his mature works. Martinich dismisses claims that Hobbes wrote some of the essays of Sir Francis Bacon, for whom Hobbes served as secretary in the early 1620’s. Hobbes became a member of intellectual discussion groups, most notably the Great Tew Circle in the 1630’s, but he was already much older than the other participants. His first major published work,   the Latin De Cive (“On the City” or “On the Polity,” published in English translation as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society in 1650) when Hobbes was already 54 years of age.

King Charles I

De Cive was intended to be the third part of a philosophical trilogy, entitled Elementa Philosophia (Elements of Philosophy). Logically, the first volume of the trilogy was De Corpore (“On the Body,” published in 1655) and the second part was De Homine (“On Humankind”, published in 1658.  According to the usual scholarly view, Hobbes put the third, political volume of the work first because conflict between England’s Parliament and the English King Charles I and the outbreak of the English Civil War (usually dated 1642-1651) lent a special urgency to political questions. However, Martinich also suggests that Hobbes had difficulty working out some parts of his philosophy and that this delayed his finishing the first two volumes.

Even before the publication of De Cive, another volume, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, began circulating in manuscript form in 1640, although it was not actually published until 1650. The Elements of Law presented a thoroughly materialistic view of the world and of humanity. It was divided into two parts: the first part concerned human psychology and the natural laws governing it and the second part concerned government. Hobbes rejected the idea of immaterial spirits. Even God, from his point of view, is a body. Martinich shows that Hobbes’ psychology is in many ways a precursor to modern neurological views, because for Hobbes mental activities were physical motions in the brain brought about by motions outside the body. Hobbes also laid out the basics of his political theory in The Elements of Law, and he would continue to adhere to this political theory throughout his life.

The idea of a “Hobbesian state of nature,” usually associated with the philosopher’s most famous work, Leviathan (1651), makes its appearance in The Elements of Law and in De Cive. This “state of nature” is often thought of as an actual state of human affairs at some historical period before human government and society emerged. Hobbes has been criticized because there are no known groups of humans who do not have some sort of political and social organization. Martinich argues that the “state of nature” was actually what we would today call a thought experiment, and not a claim about how social order really came into existence. “Hobbes does not intend his description to capture the historically earliest or most primitive condition of human beings,” Martinich writes. “Rather, by beginning with the way human beings live in any society, he asks the reader to consider what life would be like if all laws were abolished. He is taking his readers through an intellectual exercise, a thought experiment, in order to get them to see the desirability of setting up a government.”  Presented in this way, Hobbes’ thought on the nature of political and social order takes on a renewed relevance for modern readers.

The English Civil War affected Hobbes personally, as well as intellectually. His writings made it clear that he favored the established social order under the king, and his royalism may have put him in danger from those on the side of Parliament. From 1641 to 1651, Hobbes lived in exile in Paris. There, he made contacts with other exiled intellectual figures, worked slowly on his philosophical trilogy, and wrote a book that continues to be read in political science classes today, Leviathan; or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651). Martinich identifies some subtle, but important differences between the political philosophy expressed in Leviathan and that of De Cive. In De Cive, he had argued that the church hierarchy must obey the sovereign in secular matters, but that the church hierarchy was independent in religious matters. Leviathan presented the king or other sovereign as supreme in all matters, religious or secular. Any independence threatened the social order. This position led Hobbes to present the Catholic faith in a strongly negative fashion. This was dangerous in Catholic France. Hobbes had fled England for France because of his royalism, and he was now forced to flee back to England because of his anti-Catholicism.

Leviathan was also accused of being less royalist than the earlier works.  The apparent acceptance in this book of any sovereign who can impose order, whether descended from royal blood or not, led some of Hobbes’ critics to accuse the philosopher of trying to curry favor with the Commonwealth government that had executed Charles I in 1649. Martinich convincingly argues that this was not the case. Hobbes had presented Charles II with a handwritten copy of Leviathan, which he surely would not have done if he had been trying to ingratiate himself with those who executed the father of Charles II. Nevertheless, Martinich does point out that there is an ironic twist to Hobbes’ absolutism. Hobbes does not favor absolute sovereignty on the basis of the divine right of kings, the conventional perspective of supporters of royal power. Instead, absolute sovereignty is rooted in a kind of democracy for Hobbes. Fearing the war of all against all that results from a society of equals each seeking self-interest, members of a society give up their own rights to the sovereign in order to be protected against one another. Thus, Martinich maintains, one of the most interesting aspects of the philosophy of Hobbes is the way he reached conventional conclusions from radical premises.

Martinich does identify some of the weaknesses in Hobbesian political philosophy.  In the theoretical state of nature, Martinich observes, every individual has a right to everything, including the lives and property of other people. Political and civic rights, including property rights, only come into existence with the establishment of a concrete political order. However, it is not clear what Hobbes means when the philosopher says that people give up their rights to all things when they accept a sovereign. Does he mean that they give up some of their rights, so that they no longer have a right to everything? Does he mean that they give up all of their rights, so that they no longer have any rights at all, even the right to self-preservation? The biographer suggests that the writings of Hobbes tend to shift from one position to another. Hobbes generally seems to favor the view that people give up all of their rights, since only this would support the concept of absolute sovereignty. If this is true, though, then people do not have the right to self-preservation, and self-preservation is the justification for having a sovereign.

Martinich follows the life of Hobbes to its long end, following the controversies and contentions that seemed to continually accompany the philosopher. In his own day, Hobbes was sometimes accused of being a anti-religious thinker, or even an atheist. Even today, the theorist’s religious beliefs are sometimes called into question. Martinich counters these accusations by demonstrating that Hobbes was a genuinely and sincerely religious thinker. Still, the biographer may overlook the fact that religion can be important for a philosopher in two quite different ways. For some, religious beliefs offer fundamental premises that lead to philosophical conclusions. For others, however, sincerely held religious beliefs may be in conflict with their own philosophical views, leading to efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Hobbes, with his materialist view of human psychology and nature, was probably the second type of religious philosopher.

Many of the questions that Thomas Hobbes raised continue to be important for people in our own society. How does social order emerge from individual pursuit of self-interest? What establishes the legitimacy of governments? How are the rights and obligations of individuals related to the existence of political institutions? A.P. Martinich’s fine biography is an outstanding introduction to these questions, as well as an excellent and approachable study of one of the founders of modern social and political thought.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Amazon.com Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?


Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.