Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Thomas Hobbes; His life and character
  Selden Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 7. Thomas Hobbes; His life and character.

Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, adjoining Malmesbury in Wiltshire, on 5 April, 1588. His father, the vicar of the parish, says Aubrey,
was one of the ignorant Sir Johns of Queen Elizabeth’s time, could only read the prayers of the church and the homilies, and valued not learning, as not knowing the sweetness of it.
His mother came of yeoman stock. Of her, we know nothing beyond the story of her dread of the Spanish Armads; the air was full of rumours of its approach; and her terror led to the premature birth of her second son. As he put it long afterwards, “she brought forth twins—myself and fear.” The expression is significant, used, as it was, when he could look back on more than eighty years of life, begun amidst the terror of invasion and afterwards harassed by civil war and unstable government. To seek peace and follow it became, in his view, the fundamental law of nature; and the philosopher was himself (to use his own phrase) a “man of feminine courage.” “The first of all that fled” at the threat of civil war, he was afterwards quick to return when the French government seemed likely to offer less protection than the commonwealth. But the importance of these events for his life and doctrine has sometimes been exaggerated. He had passed his fiftieth year before the threat of danger touched him, and, by that time, he had already completed a work which contains, in outline, the essential features of his philosophy. Throughout the long years of preparation which fitted him to take his place among the greatest of modern philosophers, Hobbes led a sheltered and leisured life, and it is not to be supposed that dreams of the Armada disturbed his quiet. His education was provided for by an uncle, a solid tradesman and alderman of Malmesbury. He was already a good Latin and Greek scholar when, not yet fifteen, he was sent to Magdalen hall, Oxford. The studies of the university were then at a low ebb; and no subsequent reforms affected his low opinion of them. Yet he seems to have learned the logic and physics of Aristotle, as they were then taught, though he preferred to “lie gaping on maps” at the stationers’ shops. On leaving Oxford, in 1608, he became companion to the eldest son of lord Cavendish of Hardwick (afterwards created earl of Devonshire), and his connection with the Cavendish family lasted (although not without interruptions) till his death. Through this connection, he gained security and leisure for his own work, opportunities of travel and ready admission to the society of statesmen and scholars.
  Three times in his life, Hobbes travelled on the continent with a pupil. His first journey was begun in 1610, and in it he visited France, Germany and Italy, learning the French and Italian languages, and gaining experience, but not yet conscious of his life’s work. On his return (the date is uncertain), he settled down with his young lord at Hardwick and in London. His secretarial duties were light, and he set himself to become a scholar; with the society and books at his command, he did not “need the university” (he said); he read the historians and piets both Greek and Latin, and taught himself a clear and accurate Latin style. To these studies, his first published work bears witness—an English translation of Thucydides, sent to press in 1628, but completed some years earlier. To this period, also, belongs his acquaintance with Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, Ben Jonson and other leading men of the time. Of his association with Bacon (probably sometime in the years between 1621 and 1626), we know little beyond what Aubrey tells us—that he translated some of Bacon’s essays into Latin, that, on occasion, he would attend with ink and paper and set down Bacon’s thoughts when he contemplated and dictated “in his delicious walks at Gorhambury” and that “his lordship would often say that he better liked Mr. Hobbes’s taking his thoughts, than any of the others, because he understood what he wrote.” There is no evidence, however, that their discourse turned on strictly philosophical questions; nor does it appear that philosophical interest had, as yet, become dominant in Hobbes’s mind; certainly, he was never a pupil of Bacon; and it is an error to attempt, as has sometimes been done, to affiliate his philosophy to the Baconian. They agreed in their opposition to medievalism, and both attempted to elaborate a comprehensive scheme; the vague term “empirical” may, also, be applied to both; but Hobbes set small store by experiment,  2  and his system differed fundamentally from Bacon’s in method, temper and scope. One important point only was common to both—their acceptance of the mechanical theory; and, for this theory, there is ample evidence, external as well as internal, that Hobbes was directly indebted not to Bacon but to Galileo.   10
  Hobbes’s master and friend died in 1628, two years after the death of the first earl; his son and successor was a boy of eleven; his widow did not need the services of a secretary; and, for a time, there was no place in the household for Hobbes. In 1629, he left for the continent again with a new pupil, returning from this second journey in 1631 to take charge of the young earl’s education. Little is known of his travels, but this period of his life is remarkable for two things—his introduction to the study of geometry, and his first effort towards a philosophy. As regards the former, there is no reason for doubting Aubrey’s story, which throws light both on his early education and on the controversies of his later years.
He was forty years old before he looked on geometry, which happened accidentally; being in a gentleman’s library in … Euclid’s Elements lay open, and it was the 47 prop. lib. 1. So he reads the proposition, “By G—,” says he, “this is impossible!” So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to another, which also he read, et sic deinceps, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that truth. This made him in love with geometry.

Note 2English Works, ed. Molesworth, vol. IV., pp. 436–7; vol. VII., p. 117. [ back ]

  Selden Fundamental conception, system of philosophy and controversies  
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