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Hobbes, Thomas

1. Dates
Born: Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 5 April 1588
Died: Hardwick, Derbyshire, 4 Dec. 1679
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 91
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric, Merchant
His father, also Thomas Hobbes, was Vicar of Westport (a part of Malmesbury). As a result of a quarrel and fight the father was forced to flee when Hobbes was seven, and he was really reared by an uncle who was a glover, i.e., a merchant.
The father was clearly poor. The uncle was prosperous; since the uncle reared him, I list this.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English, French
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford
A school at the house of Richard Latimer.
Oxford University, Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College), 1603-8; B.A., 1608.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican, Heterodox
Hobbes advanced a secular philosophy which insisted, inter alia, on the subjection of church to state. He was vigorously anti-clerical, and he was skeptical about the plenary truth of Scripture. Nevertheless, Hobbes remained within the Anglican Church and took its sacraments. Despite the label of atheist, which was freely applied to him, the exact extent of his heterodoxy is impossible to determine.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Mathematics, Optics
Hobbes composed De corpore, one of the early mechanistic natural philosophies, in the late 30s; it was ultimately published in 1655. His famous Leviathan put his political philosophy, which he saw as all of one piece with his natural philosophy, into English.
At the very beginning of his philosophic career (which commenced rather late) Hobbes became fascinated with geometry. He made no contribution to mathematics, but he did gain notoriety for his claims to have squared the circle and duplicated the cube. The last twenty-five years of his life were filled with controversies, mostly with Wallis, over these claims.
Optics was his deepest scientific interest. He early adopted a corpuscular theory of light, which he then changed to one that treated light as motion transmitted through a medium. He composed three treatises on optics, one of which Mersenne published in his Tractatus opticus. Much of De homine, 1658, was devoted to optics.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage
Secondary: Personal Means
Hobbes' uncle left him a property worth £16-18 per annum.
Immediately after his B.A., he became a member of the household of the Cavendish family, as tutor and then secretary to the son of William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, 1608-26, and then to his charge, the second Earl, 1626-8. With the death of the second Earl in 1628 there was a brief break, but he became tutor to the heir, the third Earl of Devonshire, grandson of William Cavendish, 1631-42. In 1653 he rejoined the household and remained a part of it, first in London and then in Derbyshire, until his death.
Secretary to Bacon at his estate in St. Albans, exact dates uncertain, but undoubtedly in the 20s, probably for a brief time.
Tutor and cicerone to the son of Sir Gervase Clinton of Nottinghamshire, 1628-31. This relation ended when the Cavendish family summoned him again.
Lived in Paris, supported by Cavendish family and Godolphin, 1640-6. Hobbes' support in Paris is not wholly clear; he remained there until 1651, when he returned to England.
Mathematics tutor to the Prince of Wales (Charles II), 1646- 8.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat, Gentry, Government Official
He was the tutor of the Prince of Wales between 1646 and 1648. Charles was delighted with Hobbes' company, and after the Restoration he protected him and bestowed on him a pension of £100 (which was not always paid). Hobbes dedicated Problematica physica, 1662, to Charles.
In 1669 the Grand Duke of Tuscany visited Hobbes when he was in England; Hobbes dedicated Quadratura circuli to him.
The family of Cavendish, Earls of Devonshire, were the main patrons of Hobbes. There is a story illustrative of patronage from his relations with the second Earl. Hobbes wrote a poem as a New Year's gift to him, and received £5 in return. He dedicated his translation of Thucydides to the young heir in 1628, and later dedicated De cive, 1642, and De corpore, 1655, (and I suspect other works) to the same man, how his patron. In his old age Hobbes was receiving (in addition to his full keep) £50 per annum from Cavendish, plus special gifts on such occasions as dedications.
Sidney Godolphin bequeathed £200 to Hobbes in 1643, and Hobbes dedicated Leviathan to his brother, Francis Godolphin.
Sir Gervase Clinton (see above).
Sir Henry Bennet (Lord Arlington after 1665), the Secretary of State, stood as Hobbes' protector against the numerous attacks on him during the Restoration.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: None
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Mixed scientific circles in Paris and London: in his third journey to France and Italy in 1630s he met Galileo, Mersenne, Gassendi and Roberval and began his correspondence with them. In 1640-1 he frequented the circle presided over by Mersenne and through Mersenne he proposed his objections (the 6th) to Descartes' Meditations.
Friendship with Harvey, Digby, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Ben Jonson, Lord Falkland, Gassendi, Sorbière, Waller, Edward Hyde (Clarendon), Selden, Petty, Sir Jonas Moore, Aubrey, Cowley, Scarborough, et al.
Several sources indicate that Hobbes wanted very much to be part of the Royal Society, but he was excluded, undoubtedly for religious reasons.
  1. G. Croom Robertson, Hobbes, (Edinburgh, 1886).
  2. Ralph Ross, Herbert Schneider, and Theodore Waldman, eds., Thomas Hobbes in his Time, (Minneapolis, 1974).
  3. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 9, 931-9. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 4, 2599-2622.
  4. Leslie Stephen, Hobbes, reprint ed. (Bristol, 1991).
  5. Anthony à Wood, Athenae oxonienses (Fasti oxonienses is attached, with separate pagination, to the Athenae), 4 vols. (London, 1813-20), 1, cxxxvi; 3, 44-5, 1206-18.
  6. John Aubrey, Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O.L. Dick, (London, 1949), pp. 147-59.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Keith C. Brown, ed., Hobbes Studies, (Cambridge, MA, 1965).
  2. William Sacksteder, Hobbes Studies (1879-1979): a Bibliography, (Bowling Green, OH, 1982).
  3. The extensive literature on Hobbes is devoted almost entirely to his thought; there is not all that much about his biography.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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