His long life was full of momentous events and synchronised with great scientific discoveries and philosophical systematisation characteristic “of the century of genius”. Hobbes was a witness to the great political and constitutional turmoil caused by the English Civil War and his life and writings bear clear imprint of it, though the philosophical import of his work went far beyond the controversies of his time.
After his education at Oxford where he was rather bored by the teaching of Aristotle and the scholastic philosophy, Hobbes joined as tutor to the son of William Cavendish, first Earl of Devonshire in 1608. He remained closely connected with the Cavendish family for a long period of his life. He accompanied his charge to France and Italy in 1610 and came under the influence of Kepler and Galileo.
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After his return from the continent he remained with the Cavendish family for the next eighteen years dividing his time between London and Chatsworth, the country home of the Cavendish. Hobbes’ next visit to France was in 1929, when he accepted tutorship to the son of Sir Gervase Clinton after the death of his first patron, the second Earl of Devonshire in 1628.
In the year 1628 Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides’ History of the Grecian War was published. During his second visit to the continent Hobbes came under the spell of geometrical method which started from self-evident premises and proceeded to derive complicated theorems by way of logical deduction. During the third journey to France and Italy which he undertook with the third Earl of Devonshire whose service he had rejoined in 1631, Hobbes met Descartes, Gassendi and Galileo.
He became convinced that everything including man and society, morals and politics could be explained on the basis of laws of motion. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s laws of falling bodies made a deep impact in his mind. He returned to England and completed in 1640 his first important philosophical work called the Element of Law, which was published in 1650 in two parts, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico.
In this work Hobbes demonstrated the need for undivided sovereignty, but the arguments for this were not derived from the theory of Divine Right of Kings. In 1640 Hobbes fled to the Continent in fear for his life after the dissolution of Parliament in May 1640 and the impeachment of Earl of Strafford by the Long Parliament. For the next eleven years he remained in Paris in the circle of Mersenne. During this period he accepted to act as tutor in mathematics to the future Charles II.
The exile in France was the most fruitful period of Hobbes’ intellectual life. In 1642, he published his De Cive in Latin (later to appear as De Corpore Politico) He also planned to write his ambitious trilogy on body, man and citizen in which everything in the world of nature and man could be explained on the pattern of the science of mechanics.
He made a beginning with De Corpore. Leviathan, Hobbes’ magnum opus, was written during this period and was published in 1651. ‘Clarendon thought that the book was written to flatter Cromwell.
Hobbes himself is reported to have said,
“I have a mind to return home.”
But the philosophical sweep of Leviathan was much above the immediate political controversies of the day and had far-reaching consequences for the future development of European thought.
Hobbes returned to England in 1951 and was soon embroiled in a controversy with John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, on the question of free will and determinism. Another controversy was with the mathematician John Wallis about Hobbes’ attempt to square the circle.
In 1957 De Homine, the second part of his trilogy, was published. The last years of Hobbes’ life were devoted to the writing of his autobiography in Latin, both in prose and verse, and a verse translation of the Iliad and Odyssey. Hobbes died at Chatsworth in 1679 at the age of ninety-one. The Leviathan is Hobbes’ most famous work.
It is, however, not the only important source for a complete understanding of Hobbes’ ideas. Many competent scholars believe that although “as literature De Cive does not rival Leviathan which is a masterpiece of English prose style, it is superior to it as philosophy. A. E. Taylor in his interpretation of Hobbes relies mostly on De Cive.
This is not to say that there is any fundamental discrepancy between Leviathan and other works of Hobbes. There is only a difference in emphasis and style of presentation. The argument is substantially the same; different books are devoted to illuminating the basic theme in different ways.