Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan

I am working on a book about the religious beliefs of Thomas Hobbes as expressed in his masterpiece Leviathan. The following is a short biography of Hobbes, along with some information on Leviathan.

Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. He was the son of a minor clergyman who acquired a reputation for alcoholism and aggressive behaviour. Despite his tumultuous family environment Hobbes’s uncle, Francis, saw the academic potential in Thomas. In 1603, Uncle Francis paid for his nephew to be educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. In later years, Hobbes registered negative memories concerning the decadence of university life and the pernicious influence (as he saw it) of Aristotle and the general tenor of late Scholasticism, complaints which may have been exaggerated although not wholly unfounded.[1] 

Graduating in 1608, Hobbes went to work for William Cavendish (1552–1626), aka Baron Cavendish of Hardwick, to tutor his eldest son (1590–1628) of the same name. Both Hobbes and the younger Cavendish were close in age, with the choice of Hobbes by the elder Williamdeliberately designed to kill two birds with one stone, i.e. to simultaneously educate young William and provide companionship for the boy. The appointment of the freshly graduated tutor sparked a life–long association between Hobbes and the Cavendishes. Hobbes went on the Grand Tour with the family, shared in business ventures, and had his later academic pursuits bankrolled by the the Cavendishes.[2] 

                                          Paolo Sarpi

Hobbes moved in scholarly circles both in England and on the Continent, encountering the great minds of the age. He met the Venetian ‘reason of state’ philosopher Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), discussed natural philosophy with great scientists like Galileo (1564–1642), and did secretarial work for arguably the outstanding British mind of the age, Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Despite his exposure to the cutting edge natural philosophy of the time, Hobbes would refuse to completely join in with the spirit of experimental science if it conflicted with his broader metaphysical and religious outlook. This tendency would see him all but excluded from the Royal Society in his later years. However, he did produce an atomic theory which seems to have been arrived at independently of both Descartes (1596–1650) and Galileo. His first major work was a translation of the works of the ancient historian Thucydides (ca. 460–400 B.C.) from the original Greek, a book published in 1629. Hobbes was dismissed from employment with the Cavendishes around this time following the death of the younger William. He went to work for a friend of another Cavendish, renewing his employment with the late William’s widow, the Countess of Devonshire, in 1631.[3] 

Hobbes developed his scientific, philosophical, religious, legal, and political ideas during the 1630s. In 1640 and 1642, respectively, he published the first editions of The Elements of Law and De Cive (On the Citizen), works which were precursors to his political masterpiece, Leviathan, which was first published in English in 1651. His preoccupation with politics was related to the concrete situation in England where the reign of King Charles I (1600–1649) generated resistance and then civil war. For his part, Hobbes was a Royalist although the circumstances which eventually brought Cromwell (1599–1658) to act as the last English dictator would later cause him to modify his support for monarchy. Such was his immersion in politics at this time that Hobbes even stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Derby in 1640.[4] 

                                   Depiction of English Civil War
Civil war forced Hobbes to stay on the Continent for much of the conflict and interregnum, a full eleven years from 1640 to 1651. Fittingly, he witnessed the beginning of the reign of the young Louis XIV (1638–1715), an absolute monarch whose long rule could be seen as a metaphor for Hobbesian autocracy. Hobbes tutored the future Charles II (1630–1685) while in Paris. He also found more support for his ideas amongst European philosophers than British ones, and this was a trend that would continue both in his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Nonetheless, certain critics like Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) recognized that the genius of Hobbes was coupled with an more than an element of autocracy, a brutal anthropology and unorthodoxy. Long before Leviathan was published, Grotius said in a letter to his brother regarding De Cive that 

I like what he says in favour of kings, but I cannot approve the foundation on which he builds his opinions. He thinks that all men are naturally at war with one another, and has some other principles which differ from my own. For example, he thinks it is the duty of each private individual to follow the official religion of his country – if not with internal assent, then at least with outward observance.[5]

Despite general admiration for his ideas in Europe, attacks on the Catholic Church in Leviathan in the religiously charged atmosphere of the time meant Hobbes had to leave the Continent in 1651 and return to England. Back in his native land, it was not the excessive criticism of Rome which would land him in trouble but the atheism and heresy he seemed to promote. There were even charges of secretly spreading Islamic ideas. Yet, in his writings and in his personal life, Hobbes avoided neat categorization as either a Protestant or Catholic. That is not to say either that his beliefs were fluid or constantly shifting and the best appraisal of Hobbes is that he was a devout, if independently minded, theist. He subscribed to a scholarly interpretation of Christianity based on Scripture, justification by faith, as well as Divine election, all staples of 17th century Protestantism. What distinguished him from other Protestants was the radically different political perspective Hobbes drew from such beliefs, the culmination of which meant investing the sovereign with total power while, at the same time, never deprecating the freedom of the Christian believer to pursue his own faith. It was the more controversial aspects of his philosophy that come to the fore, however, and for most of the last quarter century of his life, Hobbes lived under a cloud of suspicion, with his books burnt by opponents, mild forms of censorship being imposed at times, and the threat of death for heresy a real, if perhaps not a near–certain, possibility. A long–running intellectual struggle with John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry (1594–1663), over Hobbes’s espousal of predestination was a particularly intense feud. 

                                          Bishop Bramhall

The hostility directed towards Hobbes meant that events like the Fire of London were even laid at his door by some opponents. Hobbes excited hatred and individuals accused of ‘Hobbism’ could suffer institutional humiliation in the form of having to recant their Hobbist views. Generally, the defenders of clerical independence were his greatest enemies while Hobbes’s espousal of absolute sovereignty provided useful material to those in power. By the time of his death in 1679, he had a reputation as an intelligent but dangerously immoral thinker and his apologists were on the back foot in the face of powerful and well–connected critics. He suffered the same lampooning in popular culture by the end of the 17th century as Machiavelli (1469–1527) had a century before.[6] A modern author, Parkin, summarized Hobbes’s journey from inoffensively respectable scholar to reviled outcast in the following terms:

In 1640 Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, the 52-year-old secretary to the Earl of Devonshire, had a minor reputation as a respected translator and pastoral poet. To a small number of his friends he was also known as a promising mathematician and natural philosopher, perhaps even England’s answer to Descartes. By 1700 all of this had changed. Hobbes had an international reputation, but not as an acclaimed scientist. Indeed, that reputation lay largely in ruins. He was widely known as the most notorious philosopher that England had ever produced. His name had become a byword for atheism, immorality and a whole range of unacceptable political views. To his English readers, he was the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’, the ‘Devil’s Secretary’, an ‘Agent of Hell’ and as one writer put it ‘Nature’s Pest’ and ‘unhappy England’s Shame’ … By the end of the century Hobbes had managed to acquire an extraordinary and perhaps even unique place in the English imagination as the bête noire of his age.[7]

                             Frontispiece of Leviathan

As for Leviathan itself, it’s unclear when exactly Hobbes began work on his masterpiece, but it’s safe to say 1649 was the latest date. At this stage, Hobbes had moved from becoming a respected academic to a famous writer, a perception largely because of his 1647 edition of De Cive, a version which defined the philosophy of Hobbes on the continent for several centuries hence. Leviathan completed his political writings which started with Elements. A large part of his project was to refute Cardinal Bellarmine’s (1542–1621) Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei Adversus Hujus Temporis Haereticos (Disputations Concerning the Controversies of the Christian Faith Against the Heretics of this Time). A revised Latin edition was published in 1668. Most of the revisions and clarifications related to aspects of religious doctrine. While his earlier political works were unashamedly royalist,Leviathan adopted a more ambiguous tone towards other forms of government, a policy motivated by a mixture of concerns for his own personal safety, a desire to see an end to conflict in England, and an acknowledgement of the reality that the days of absolute monarchy in England were numbered. A measure of his slightly modified royalism is that the future King Charles refused to grant an audience to Hobbes shortly after Leviathan’s publication. What disturbed many royalist readers of Leviathan, such as Robert Filmer (1588–1653), was that the foundation of Hobbes’s political theory was decidedly democratic – resting as it did on a social contract – and this seemed to justify rebellion against the king. At the same time, Hobbes felt compelled to square his new turn with his previous opinions. Leviathan still gave the sovereign – be it a monarch or popular assembly – control over religion and he still portrayed authority in personal terms, something conducive to monarchy more than other government forms. Leviathan focused more on promoting heterodox religious positions, such as denying the incorporeality of the soul, relative to previous works and he also attacked the Catholic church with added gusto in the book. Hobbes showed himself particularly astute at both justifying total power while at the same time arguing that Christians sacrifice none of their fundamental beliefs in being pliant subjects. In other parts of Leviathan, Hobbes seemed to condone statue–worship and he made significant contributions to theories of representative government. Upon the release of Leviathan, enemies were stirred to action and there were petitions as early as 1652 to parliament to ban Hobbes’s maguum opus. Amongst Presbyterian book–sellers Leviathan was effectively banned. For many critics of Hobbes, the book would be their first serious proof that they were dealing with a truly rebellious intellectual. Apart from justifying arbitrary sovereignty and a diminution of clerical authority, Leviathan seemed to critics like Bramhall to be a ‘rebel’s catechism’ because monarchy had no Divine basis. Like the author himself, Leviathan stirred a vast panoply of mostly negative commentary but a not insignificant number of admirers. Curiously, even those who refuted this classic of early modern literature couldn’t help but be influenced to a degree by its systematic and logical–deductive arguments.[8] 


[1] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 1–2; Malcolm. Reason of state; 1–2.

[2] Malcolm. Reason of state; 3–8, 14–15. [3] Biletzki. Talking wolves; 5–7; Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 2–7, 12–13; Malcolm. Reason of state; 8–15; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 215–222; Shapin & Schaffer. Leviathan and the air-pump.

[4] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 8–9; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 18–32; Tuck. The Utopianism of Leviathan. In Leviathan after 350 years; 126–127. 

[5] Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 34–35.

[6] Bunce. Thomas Hobbes; 9–14, 68–83; Hobbes et al. Hobbes and Bramhall on liberty and necessity; Lessay. Hobbes’s Protestantism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 265–294; Martinich. The two gods of Leviathan; 1–7; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 1–11, 35–71, 112–357; Thornton. State of nature or Eden?; 6–11; Wright. Religion, politics and Thomas Hobbes; 251–259.

[7] Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 1.

[8] Glover. God and Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes et al. Hobbes: “On the Citizen”; xxxiii; Lessay. Hobbes’s Protestantism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 270–287; Malcolm. Leviathan, the Pentateuch, and the Origins of Modern Biblical Criticism. In Leviathan after 350 years; 15–30; 256–260; Parkin. Taming the Leviathan; 85–193; Schumann. Leviathan and De Cive. In Leviathan after 350 years; 15–30.


Biletzki, A., & Biletzki, A. (1997). Talking wolves: Thomas Hobbes on the language of politics and the politics of language. Dordrecht: Springer.

Bunce, R. E. (2009). Thomas Hobbes (Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers). Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Foisneau, L., & Sorell, T. (2005). Leviathan after 350 years. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Glover, W. B. (1960). God and Thomas Hobbes. Church History, 29(03), 275.

Hobbes, T., Bramhall, J., & Chappell, V. C. (2003). Hobbes and Bramhall on liberty and necessity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, T., Tuck, R., Silverthorne, M., Geuss, R., & Skinner, Q. (1998). Hobbes: “On the Citizen”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malcolm, N. (2010). Reason of state, propaganda, and the Thirty Years War: an unknown translation by Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Martinich, A. (2002). The two gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on religion and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parkin, J. (2010). Taming the Leviathan: the reception of the political and religious ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England 1640-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Shapin, S., & Schaffer, S. (2018). Leviathan and the air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thornton, H. (2005). State of nature or Eden?: Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries on the natural condition of human beings. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Wright, G. H. (2006). Religion, politics and Thomas Hobbes. Dordrecht: Springer.

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