Thomas Hobbes

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Thomas Hobbes (detail from a painting by John Michael Wright , circa 1669–1670)

Thomas Hobbes [ hɔbz ] ( April 5, 1588 in Westport , Wiltshire - December 4, 1679 in Hardwick Hall , Derbyshire ) was an English mathematician , political theorist and philosopher . He became known through his main work Leviathan , in which he developed a theory of " absolutism ". He is considered the founder of " enlightened absolutism ". He is also one of the most important theorists of the so-called social contract, alongside John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau .

Live and act

Hobbes was in 1588 as the son of a country parson in Malmesbury in the county born Wiltshire. His mother came from a farming family. The frightening situation before the Spanish Armada attacked England in the same year is said to have caused his premature birth. Thomas Hobbes writes in his autobiography : "(She) did bring forth Twins at once, both Me and Fear." The fear of violence as a result of political conflicts - in 17th century England primarily as a civil war between king and parliament, between different people socially and religiously differentiated groups - has remained a determining element in life as in Thomas Hobbes' political philosophy.

Since he could already read at age four, writing and arithmetic, he was considered a child prodigy (child prodigy) referred. When he was eight, Hobbes was taught the classical languages in a private school . Six years later, at the age of fourteen, he began his studies at the traditional scholastic University of Oxford , where he mainly studied logic and physics from 1603 to 1607 . The results of his classical training were Hobbes' precise knowledge of Greek and Latin, but also his vehement rejection of university philosophy, medieval Aristotelian logic and the theory of the state.

After completing his bachelor's degree at Oxford in 1608, he became a tutor to the noble Cavendish family . He held this post with interruptions until the end of his life. He taught here a. a. little William Cavendish , who later became the Earl of Devonshire . His educational activity in one of the leading noble families in England, which was to support him for life, gave him the opportunity to travel extensively and to make contact with leading politicians and thinkers of his time.

For a short time Hobbes was secretary to the philosopher Francis Bacon , for whom he translated some of his writings into Latin . Some influence on the mechanical-materialistic conception of his philosophy is ascribed to the work for Bacon, the founder of the English empiricism . On the trips abroad, the classic Grand Tour , which he undertook with his students from the Cavendish family, he met Galileo Galilei in Pisa . He also made the acquaintance of René Descartes , Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi on his travels .

During his third trip to Europe as an educator, Hobbes developed the plan to construct his philosophy from three systematically building up parts: the doctrine of physical substance (de corpore) , the doctrine of man in the natural state (de homine) and finally the doctrine of man in of society (de cive) .

Political developments in England, however, shattered Hobbes' plans to systematically build up his social philosophy . In the years 1603 to 1629 tensions intensified: The absolutist ideas of kings James I and Charles I brought them into opposition to the landed nobility, who had developed into an agrarian capitalist class, and to the bourgeoisie of the trading cities, whose importance was in the 17th Century in England grew steadily. In addition, there were disputes between the Anglican state church and the Puritans , who demanded a stronger demarcation from Catholicism, an ascetic lifestyle and a system of free, Bible-oriented communities, as well as the Scottish Calvinists and Irish Catholics.

From 1629 to 1640 Charles I ruled without a parliament. His attempt to impose the Anglican church order on Calvinist Scotland led to an uprising by the Scots and the king's first military defeat. In 1640 Charles I was forced to convene parliament to approve taxes for the war. The majority of MPs made the aid dependent on reforms that were supposed to prevent the king from disempowering parliament again.

Hobbes had campaigned anonymously for the king and against the lower house in the dispute between the crown and parliament and therefore had to flee into exile in France in 1640 .

When the king tried illegally in 1642 to arrest the leaders of the opposition personally in the lower house, this sparked a civil war between the crown and parliament. With his work De cive Hobbes tried again to influence the development in England in favor of an absolutist monarchy. As later in Leviathan (1651), he argued in favor of the transfer of all power to a sovereign ruler, since in the “state of nature” there is an egoistic “war of all against all” ( bellum omnium contra omnes ) for property and reputation, which only through fear could be prevented from being punished by an overpowering force. In a treaty , therefore, individuals should transfer their natural rights to a central power that is most perfectly represented in one person, the absolute ruler.

Hobbes's reasoning made little friends, however. Charles II , who as Crown Prince had taken mathematics lessons from him in Paris in 1646, later resented him for standing up for any de facto sovereign government. And this after the defeat and execution of Charles I, when England had been declared a republic and was ruled by Oliver Cromwell as lord protector. Hobbes' materialism and his criticism of the Catholic Church, which he called the "empire of darkness", made him fearful of persecution in France. He therefore returned to England in 1651 and came to terms with the Cromwell government.

After the publication of his main work, the Leviathan , Hobbes was attacked in England because of the allegedly atheistic and heretical character of his work on the part of the church , the nobility and private individuals. Numerous friends broke with him, but the state authorities left him largely unmolested. This may have to do with the fact that he - against Anglicans and Presbyterians - stood up for the church constitution favored by Cromwell and the Puritans, independentism . In 1655 and 1658 De corpore and De homine , the two missing parts of his system, appeared.

The situation was to worsen for him, however, after the restoration of the Stuart kingdom in 1660. In particular after the Great Plague and the fire of London , he was persecuted by Anglican and Presbyterian circles, in particular by the new minister Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and Gilbert Sheldon . In order to be able to prosecute him for alleged heresy , several attempts have even been made to create a legal basis specifically for this. Thanks to influential friends, such as the Earl of Arlington, who held a ministerial office in the so-called Cabal government , Hobbes managed to survive the intrigues directed against him unscathed. He was also protected by the sympathy of King Charles II, who had secretly converted to Catholicism anyway .

The History of the Civil War Era Behemoth or The Long Parliament , written in 1668, received no printing permission, and Hobbes had to have his Latin writings published in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, he lived in secure and comfortable conditions on a country estate of the befriended Cavendish family until his death. In 1679, the year he died, a strong parliament enforced his ideas in the Habeas Corpus Act against Charles II. Hobbes died in Hardwick Hall / Derbyshire.

As a philosopher Hobbes is more likely to be attributed to the Enlightenment , but as a state theorist to absolutism.

to teach

natural Science

In his work De Corpore , the first part of the Elementa Philosophiae trilogy , from 1655, Hobbes developed central theses on scientific questions. Based on a materialistic attitude and the mechanistic thinking of his time - exemplified by René Descartes - he ascribes reality to the bodies and their movement . No movement arises out of itself, but is the result of another movement. Only bodies are subject to movement; they can only be moved by other bodies.

On the basis of these teachings on the body, Hobbes sometimes developed surprisingly modern theories, for example on the phenomenon of light , which he believed to move in material-like impulses, and he also published a work on optics . Against this background, he also dealt with the nature of the vacuum .

There are also some works on mathematics ; in one of them he proposes a method for squaring the circle . Hobbes was particularly enthusiastic about Euclidean geometry , which he regarded as a model for any exact science and whose principles he wanted to transfer to his philosophy in accordance with the mos geometricus . Nevertheless Hobbes could not assert himself in this area; to discredit him as a philosopher as well, the Church used mathematicians to ridicule his efforts.


In the second and third parts of the trilogy mentioned, De Homine published in 1658 , but also in his main work Leviathan from 1651, Hobbes transfers his body theory to the human cognitive apparatus and develops his own mechanistic epistemology .

According to Hobbes, the processes in consciousness are merely the result of the movement of bodies. By applying pressure to the respective sensory organs , they trigger sensory perceptions , which in turn lead to “imaginations”. Ultimately, these set various psychological processes in motion such as thinking, understanding, remembering and the like. In addition to the ordered trains of thought, such as those aimed at finding causal relationships, there are also disordered ones, such as those inherent in the process of dreaming .

Using the notion of a solipsist "floating freely in space" separated from all sensory perception , Hobbes shows that the psychic processes continue even when sensory impressions are absent. The ultimate cause for this is still the impulse from the outside through the movement of bodies. Only the movements themselves have reality, not the effects they cause in consciousness. From this it follows u. a. that the properties that humans assume to be present on the basis of their sensory perception are in truth not present, but only appear as appearances .

Hobbes justifies his thesis that human perception has no reliable knowledge of an outside world. Because of the widespread doctrine of skepticism , this view was widely shared by his contemporaries, such as René Descartes . Hobbes does not accept his objection that, as a result of God's intervening goodness, the perception largely corresponds to reality.

Since the contents of human consciousness are ultimately only the result of external movement, Hobbes also consistently denies freedom of will and is thus an advocate of determinism .


While philosophers in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle had adopted moral ideals , for example in the form of an idea of the good or a summum bonum , in Hobbes's lifetime a skepticism , more indebted to the ideas of the sophists and cynics , which rejected the existence of universally binding moral standards , prevailed . Justus Lipsius , René Descartes and Michel de Montaigne were typical representatives of this view .

Hobbes also advocates this moral relativism and transfers his epistemological thesis that no reliable knowledge of the world is possible through human perception to the field of ethics. For example, in the Elements of Law (Chapter 7) it is said that everyone calls "what pleases and pleasures him good, and what he displeases bad". According to their different physical characteristics, people also differ in their conception of good and bad. A ἀγαθὸν ἁπλῶς , an absolutely good one, therefore does not exist.

Drawing on the thoughts of his contemporary, the early Enlightenment expert Hugo Grotius , Hobbes accepts a minimum moral consensus, at least insofar as, according to the general opinion, every individual has a natural right to self-preservation and is allowed to defend himself against attacks on himself. From this follows the obligation not to hurt anyone (doctrine of natural law in Leviathan). Unlike Grotius, Hobbes believes that - during the natural state - everyone could and should act as their own judge, i.e. H. regardless of the right to life of the fellow human being. This view has been contradicted many times.

Beyond the minimum consensus on the right to self-preservation, according to Hobbes, moral conflicts must be resolved in a binding manner by a higher authority, the absolute ruler, with which Hobbes lays the foundation for his political philosophy and, in particular, the absolutist state model of Leviathan .

Political science

From today's point of view, Hobbes' theory of the state form the central part of his work. It is they who secure it a prominent place in the history of philosophy. On the one hand, he explains them in Elements of Law from 1640 and in De Cive from 1642, the third part of the Elementa Philosophiae trilogy .

Above all, however, they are the subject of his main work, the Leviathan of 1651. There he deals with overcoming the natural state of society characterized by fear, lust for fame and insecurity through the establishment of the state , i.e. the transfer of power to a sovereign . This happens through a social contract in which all people irrevocably and voluntarily transfer their right of self-determination and self-defense to the sovereign, who in turn protects them from each other. From a legal point of view, the social contract is concluded in favor of the coming sovereign. Because the latter is not a contracting party himself, the contract does not give those who enter into it a right of termination or a right of resistance to the sovereign . If one wants to overthrow the sovereign, this is always high treason . If he is overthrown and replaced, the coming subjects conclude a new " contract in favor of third parties ".

Hobbes is often cited for his Leviathan , but his theory has also been criticized as a justification for absolutist rule.

Hobbes finally dealt with the state of nature in the counterpart to Leviathan , the Behemoth from 1668, which could only be published posthumously in 1682.


Hobbes's epistemological postulate that human perception is not able to cognize the world also extends to God ; so he takes an agnostic position. Based on his conception of the world as a closed causal relationship , in which every change in state can be traced back to the influence of moving bodies, he consequently assumes a first, not itself moving cause that sets these causal processes in motion, but which does not necessarily turn into something God must act.

Hobbes also doubted the (sole) authorship of Moses in the Pentateuch ( Torah ), so he put together numerous statements from the Pentateuch, but he not only collected the facts, but also drew the conclusion that Moses was not the sole author can.

Hobbes was therefore, although this was often held against him, not an atheist , but rather represented deist positions. He made a strict distinction between belief and knowledge. He did not reject religion in general and Christianity in particular, but declared it to be a matter of faith , which for him in a strictly rationalist tradition of thought specifically means trust in the error-free transmission of religious and historical facts. From the biblical tradition he regarded only a minimum as binding content of faith, namely that Jesus was the Messiah who redeemed humanity through his death on the cross . Moreover, Hobbes does not really focus on the emphatic reference to Jewish and Christian faith. Using the Leviathan as an example, Hobbes can assume an instrumental relationship to religion and its tradition: "For Hobbes, the mythical biblical 'unions' become the basis of a rational and legalized union of the community". In this state-theoretical productive way, Hobbes' reference to religion is not left to the religious zealots in a time and an environment of “nervous speculation”, “but effectively occupied according to one's own rationality, in order to provide a constructive future perspective with regard to a future organization of the community, not apocalyptic unfold ".

Against the background of the strong position of the state in his political philosophy, Hobbes, as an ahazite, assigns it the authority to make decisions in religious matters and in particular calls for a unified state church . Accordingly, he was critical of both the papacy as an institution outside the nation-state and the various English sects . Originally he had at least assigned the responsibility for the binding interpretation of questions of faith to the church itself, but in the Leviathan he for the first time also approved this to the state with its sole ruler, which is regarded as absolute. In the third and fourth books of Leviathan he deals in detail with the institutional design of the Anglican Church ( church constitution ).


  • Eight Books of the Peloponnesian Warre Written by Thucydides… Interpreted (translation and interpretation of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides , 1629)
  • A Letters of the Art of Rhetorique (1637)
  • The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1640)
  • Objectiones tertiae ad Cartesii Meditationes , in Descartes: Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641)
  • De Motu, Loco et Tempore (first edition in 1973 under the title Thomas White's De Mundo Examined )
  • Of Libertie and Necessitie (1654)
  • Elementa Philosophiae (trilogy)
    • De Corpore (1655)
    • De homine (1658)
    • De Cive (1642)
  • Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651 English version, 1670 edited Latin version)
    • German: Leviathan. Or the material, form and violence of a civil and ecclesiastical state.
  • Quadratura circuli, cubatio spherae, duplicatio cubi (1669)
  • Decameron Physiologicum . Or, Ten Dialogues of Natural Philosophy. London 1678 (English, Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership [accessed December 4, 2019]).
  • A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (1681)
  • Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England and of the Counsels and Artifices by which they were carried on from the year 1640 to the year 1662 (completed in 1668, butnot publishedat the request of Charles II ; published posthumously in 1681 )
  • Le corps politique ou Les éléments de la loy morale et civile. Avec des reflexions sur la loy de nature, sur les serments, les pacts, & les diverses sortes de gouvernements; leurs changemens, & leurs révolutions . Traduit d'anglais en français par un de s nO (1652)
  • The Moral and Political Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury . Never before collected together. To which is prefixed, The Author's Life, Extracted from That said to be written by Himself, as also from The Supplement to the said Life by Dr. Blackbourne; and farther illustrated by the Editor, with Historical and Critical Remarks on his Writings and Opinions. 1750 (English, [accessed December 4, 2019]).


  • From people. - From the citizen. Edited by Günter Gawlick , 3rd ed. Meiner, Hamburg 1994, ISBN 978-3-7873-1166-8 .
    • Thomas Hobbes: De cive / From the citizen. Latin / German. Edited with the collaboration of Isabella Zühlke by Andree Hahmann and Dieter Hüning. Translated by Andree Hahmann. Ditzingen 2017 [Reclams Universal Library No. 18601]. [The printing of the Latin text follows the edition Thomas Hobbes: De Cive. The Latin Version. Critical Edition by Howard Warrender, Oxford 1983].
  • Leviathan, or the substance, form and power of an ecclesiastical and civil state. Part I and II. From the English by Walter Euchner , ed. with a comment by Lothar R. Waas, Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-518-27018-9 .
  • Leviathan. Trans. V. Jutta Schlösser, ed. v. Hermann Klenner. Meiner, Hamburg 1996, ISBN 978-3-7873-1303-7 .
  • Elements of philosophy. First division: the body. Trans. U. ed. v. Karl Schuhmann. Meiner, Hamburg 1997, ISBN 978-3-7873-1459-1 .
  • Leviathan. A selection English / German, transl. Holger Hanowell, ed. v. Jürgen Klein. Reclam, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-15-018595-7 .
  • Behemoth or the Long Parliament , translated and edited with an introduction and comments by Peter Schröder. Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-7873-2807-9 .


  • Megan Clive: Hobbes parmi les mouvements religieux de son temps , in: Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 62 (Jan. 1978) 1, pp. 41–59 (available online at: 44407105? Read- now = 1 & seq = 7 # page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on April 30, 2020).
  • David Dyzenhaus, Thomas Poole (Eds.): Hobbes and the Law. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012.
  • Daniel Eggers: The natural state theory of Thomas Hobbes. A comparative analysis of The Elements of Law, De Cive, and the Latin versions of Leviathan . De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2008.
  • Winfried Förster: Thomas Hobbes and Puritanism. Basics and basic questions of his political science (contributions to political science, 8). Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1969.
  • Georg Geismann , Karlfriedrich Herb (Hrsg.): Hobbes on freedom. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1988, ISBN 3-88479-337-3 .
  • Jean Hampton: Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, ISBN 0-521-36827-8 .
  • Michael Hanst:  Hobbes, Thomas. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 2, Bautz, Hamm 1990, ISBN 3-88309-032-8 , Sp. 907-911.
  • Helmut Hein: subjectivity and sovereignty. Studies on the beginning of modern politics with Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes . Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main a. a. 1986.
  • Alfred Hirsch : Right to Violence? Traces of the philosophical justification of violence according to Hobbes. Fink, Munich 2004, ISBN 978-3-7705-3869-0 .
  • Otfried Höffe : Thomas Hobbes (= Beck's series of thinkers. Volume 580). Beck, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-406-60021-0 .
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  • Talcott Parsons : The Structure of Social Action. A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. McGraw Hill, New York 1937.
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  • Peter Schröder: Hobbes ( basic knowledge of philosophy ). Reclam, Stuttgart 2012, ISBN 978-3-15-020271-5 .
  • Quentin Skinner : Freedom and Duty. Thomas Hobbes' political theory. Frankfurt Adorno Lectures 2005 (original title: Hobbes and Republican Liberty , translated by Karin Wördemann). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-58498-9 ( table of contents ).
  • Tom Sorell: The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge u. a. 1996.
  • Leo Strauss : The Political Philosophy of Hobbes. Its Basis and Its Genesis. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1936.
  • Dieter Thomä : Puer robustus. A troublemaker's philosophy. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-518-58690-7 .
  • Ferdinand Tönnies : Thomas Hobbes, the man and the thinker. 3. Edition. 2nd Edition. Frommann, Stuttgart [1896, 1910] (ext.) 1924, facsimile 1971.
  • Richard Tuck: Hobbes. (= Herder Spectrum. Master Thinker. Volume 4742). Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2004, ISBN 3-926642-41-6 .

Web links

Commons : Thomas Hobbes  - collection of images, videos and audio files


Wikisource: Thomas Hobbes  - Sources and full texts
Wikisource: Thomas Hobbes  - Sources and full texts (English)

Secondary literature

Individual evidence

  1. cf. Paul Noack: What is politics? Droemer Knaur, Munich 1973, p. 41: "With this goal in mind, Hobbes became the founder of enlightened absolutism."
  2. quoted from: Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan or material, form and violence of a civil and ecclesiastical state. Edited and introduced by Iring Fetscher , Luchterhand, Berlin 1966, introduction p. XI.
  3. Humane Nature; or the Fundamental Elements of Policie and De Corpore Politico, or the Elements of Law
  4. ^ Richard Elliott Friedman: Who wrote the Bible. This is how the Old Testament came about. Anaconda Verlag, Cologne 2007, ISBN 978-3-86647-144-3 , p. 21.
  5. Christoph Kammertöns : Pseudo-historical narrative patterns in Thomas Hobbes? - The "remarkable amount of history" in the Leviathan between real history and legitimation-creating myths . deposit_hagen University Library Hagen, Hagen 2020 (doi: ), p. 71.
  6. Christoph Kammertöns: Pseudo-historical narrative patterns in Thomas Hobbes? - The "remarkable amount of history" in the Leviathan between real history and legitimation-creating myths. deposit_hagen University Library Hagen, Hagen 2020 (doi: ), p. 76.