Thomas Hobbes: The First Truly Modern Philosopher


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.University of Virginia

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 and died in 1679he spanned the entire century between Calvin and Sir Isaac Newton. His birth was prompted by reports of the Spanish Armada’s sighting off the coast of England, an event that many in England thought presaged their imminent invasion and subjugation by a foreign king, Philip II of Spain.

An image of a knight attacking a piece to win the game of chess.
The war of all against all was an idea of Thomas Hobbes. (Image: Anusorn Nakdee/Shutterstock)

Thomas Hobbes and His First Major Work

Thomas Hobbes was educated pretty well at Oxford University but was always more of a self-taught person than taught by others. He was very much a product of a Renaissance humanist training, and in 1629 his first major work came out, and it was the first translation into English from the original Greek of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War.

That translation was universally acclaimed, and it won Hobbes a great deal of fame and respect. In the coming decade, he continued to think philosophically and politically about the nature of the human community and the proper shape of human organizational structure, and he began to be more and more involved in English politics, as intellectuals of the time frequently were.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil ExistsWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Leviathan: A Masterpiece by Thomas Hobbes

Frontispiece of "Leviathan" engraved by Abraham Bosse.
Leviathan was Thomas Hobbes’s masterpiece. (Image: RTG/Public domain)

During the English Civil War, Hobbes fled from all sides, ending up in France. Eventually, after the war and his masterpiece Leviathan was completed, he fled back to England, for the royalists had determined that his work was inimical to faith in the king, and the king at this point was, of course, back in France.

Hobbes’s work in the Leviathan was relevant in two crucial ways. First, in his famous overall picture of the human in the state of nature and the basic human motivation set, which Hobbes insisted is quite savage, he seemed to suggest that evil is the human’s natural state. Second, in his discussion of the nature of good and evil itself, he insisted they are not metaphysically natural categories at all.

Facts about Humans

A few facts about humans would become prominent in how they interact with each other. First of all, humans are roughly equal in strength and intelligence, roughly equal; and what Hobbes means by “equal” is people all have equal hope of being able to get what they want or to kill somebody else in a conflict over what they want. In fact, Hobbes would add a third thing to that in some ways; he would say people all have equal fear of being killed by another person in a contest over what they want.

Furthermore, this immediate conflict over the scarcity of goods is “complexified” by the fact that, as Hobbes pointed out, humans are not only interested in certain things being given to them or being acquired by them, they’re also interested in certain things not happening to them: most basically, people don’t want to die. 

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The State of War of All Against All

In this state of nature, Hobbes said, a strange, permanent state of semi-conflict arises, a state of what he calls the “war of all against all”. In this “war of all against all”, no one can be trusted; no one can be relied upon. Furthermore, Hobbes thought the basic conditions for generating a stable human language would be lacking from this. 

A language requires a community of some political order to be in place, Hobbes thought; so not even really is there a real language in this condition; despite all this, Hobbes thought in an important way humans can imagine themselves into this state. Even though it is not fully human life, not one that people would recognize as a suitable place for people to live in, nonetheless, it’s the one people could imagine being their condition.

Psychology of Hobbes about Fear

Imprints of a human hand and a dog's paw on a sandy beach.
Thomas Hobbes believed that in their nature, humans are animals. (Image: lightman_pic/Shutterstock)

Thomas Hobbes is one of the greatest thinkers of fear in the world. He said something very important about how humans are taken on their own, taken outside of society, taken outside of civilization. Humans are originally animals; they’re originally beasts.

They seek ends, and if they see others, they will hurt and kill them if they can so that they can get the things they want without interference from those others, and they will hurt and kill them for fear that those other people would hurt and kill them before they hurt and kill the other people. 

In other words, there’s a spiraling paranoia built into the psychology of Hobbes, and in this paranoia—which will become very important later in his thinking and in people who descend from him intellectually—there is always a good reason to, in fact, harm another person, even if people have no evidence whatsoever that they’re about to harm them because they could harm them at some point in the future. Therefore, killing them now is removing a potential future enemy.

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Thomas Hobbes’s Views on Good and Evil

Hobbes was not saying that humans are naturally evil. Humans are not naturally evil, nor are they naturally good; nor are they, in some sense, as they should be “beyond good and evil”. Hobbes was not saying people need to get “beyond good and evil”; rather, Hobbes was saying that in a certain way, humans in a state of nature are beneath or before good and evil. 

For outside of some preset social order, there is no way to talk about good and evil at all; there is no such language of good and evil for Hobbes. The savagery of humans, when left to their individual devices outside of the social order, suggests, he thought, something very dark about the reality of morality as a metaphysical standard or a natural motivator in human beings’ natural constitution. It means, Hobbes thought, that morality had no reality in that sense.

Common Questions about Thomas Hobbes

Q: Who was Thomas Hobbes? 

Thomas Hobbes was one of the greatest thinkers on fear. He studied at the University of Oxford, and was a self-taught philosopher who rose to fame by translating the Greek book The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides into English.

Q: What did the royalists in England think about Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan? 

The royalists in England had determined that Thomas Hobbes‘s Leviathan was inimical to faith in the king.

Q: What Was Hobbes’s view on good and evil?

According to Thomas Hobbes, people are neither naturally bad nor naturally good; rather, they are beneath and before good and evil in a state of nature.

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