Thomas Hobbes: England’s Most Bothersome Pessimist

Thomas Hobbes, Opera philosophica quae Latine scripsit omnia.

Printed in Amsterdam in 1668 by Joan Blaeu.

What’s truth worth when everyone has their own truth and people kill each other in the name of their truth? When ideologies flood a country in blood, shouldn’t peace be what society and every single individual strives for? But how can there be peace for everyone? Questions like these were what Thomas Hobbes was concerned about in the 17th century. One thing’s for sure: the man was born into one of the bloodiest periods of English history and his intellect focused entirely on the issues revolving around it. In 1668, he published the essence of his life’s work, a collection of his philosophical treatises written in Latin. It says a lot that he published them in Amsterdam since it wasn’t possible to do so in his own country. Let’s take a closer look at the first edition by one of the great European thinkers.

Joan Blaeu had a perfect right to be self-confident. He headed his family’s extremely successful cartography business in Amsterdam. And he also printed books such as Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical work. Joan Blaeu in a painting by J. van Rossum, 1654/72.

Even the motto reveals what Blaeu expected from himself: to work his fingers to the bone just like Heracles and to achieve new records, ‘indefessus agendo’.

Joan Blaeu – More Than the Man with the Maps

This work was printed by a master of his craft, by the Dutchman Joan Blaeu. Blaeu, you might ask, wasn’t that the man with the maps? Exactly. The Blaeu family had been pioneers in the production of atlases and globes for generations, and they confidently saw themselves as leaders in this industry. This also becomes apparent in this book – just look at Joan Blaeu’s illustrated motto: an armillary sphere (which obviously refers to his achievements as a cartographer) and, next to it, two mythological figures, a depiction of Death as the personification of time to the left, and to the right Heracles, who can be identified by the lion skin and the club. In his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid had put the motto ‘indefessus agendo’ into Heracles’ mouth: he said, Heracles ‘worked tirelessly’ throughout his entire life. Thus – in a way that one probably wouldn’t call modest – Blaeu saw himself as the successor of the demigod.

In fact, the Blaeu family ran a normal printing house alongside their atlas and globe business, for which they were famous throughout Europe. Their printing house had an excellent reputation, too. If this hadn’t been the case, England’s greatest thinker of the time would hardly have let them print his life’s work. Hobbes entrusted Joan Blaeu with his eight philosophical books, which were published in a single volume in 1668.

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, ca. 1650.

Thomas Hobbes – From a Child Prodigy to a Nuisance

At the time, Thomas Hobbes had reached the ripe old age of 80 years – and he was to live eleven more years. He was considered one of the most important thinkers of his time – and was one of the most controversial ones. In 1588, Hobbes was born in poor conditions in the south of England; a child prodigy who could read, write and do arithmetic at the age of four, was proficient in Latin and Greek at the age of eight and, a little later, he began to study at the university. Later, Having a reliable job as a private tutor working for the family of the Baron of Cavendish, Hobbes travelled throughout Europe. Encounters with great minds like René Descartes and Galileo Galilei had a lasting influence on him – and his opinion diverged more and more from the conventional, conformist positions he previously held. In 1642 civil war broke out in England due to conflicts over the manner of England’s governance between the king and the parliament, which were disguised by a religious cloak. These conflicts became the ground on which Hobbes built his set of ideas. Since he managed to get on the wrong side of any important figure of the time, especially of the king and the church, it almost seems incredible that the free-thinking philosopher wasn’t executed on the spot.

A contemporary Dutch caricature depicts Oliver Cromwell wearing royal insignia. This is how the dethroned Charles II may have seen him in the work of Thomas Hobbes, his mathematics teacher. He never quite forgave his teacher for understanding from his work that there was constitutional legitimation to Cromwell’s rule.

Between the Enlightenment and Absolutism

Actually, Hobbes had to flee from England as early as in 1640. He wouldn’t have survived for long in the highly religiously-charged conflict because his opponents believed him to be an atheist. Actually, he was not, but as an Enlightened philosopher he strictly separated religion and faith on the one hand from precise scientific results on the other. Such an attitude was severely frowned upon at that time! However, Hobbes benefitted from his exile in Paris as he taught mathematics to Charles II there, who was to become the ruler of England and also had to spend some time in exile back then.

To modern readers, there seems to be an odd dualism in Hobbes’ concepts. On the one hand he advocated enlightened opinions. On the other hand he was in favour of an absolutist ruler. He was convinced that the only way to achieve what he believed to be the ultimate goal – peace – was to concentrate all power in one sovereign.

In 1650, Hobbes had reached an agreement with the revolutionary regime of Oliver Cromwell and returned to his motherland, where he published his ‘Leviathan’ on political philosophy (in English). The translation of this work is the last text in our complete edition. His former blue-blooded pupil resented him for publishing the book. To Charles II it sounded as if, in Hobbes’ opinion, a sovereign didn’t need to be king by the grace of God. He interpreted the work as the legitimation of a strong potentate such as Cromwell. His Majesty was not amused.

Explaining Everything in Three Steps

Hobbes may have seen this differently. In his works, he dealt with nothing less than with developing an epistemological method for grasping and understanding everything, so to speak, the whole world. He had already drafted this three-step approach of ‘Elementa Philosophiae’ much earlier, and also applied it in this case. Regarding his mechanical approach, he was a student of René Descartes. He was convinced that the world worked just like the body of a human being, which was sort of a machine whose individual parts could be understood. Bodies are the only things that exist. This school of thought was quite avant-garde and extremely unpopular, especially with the Church.

The work ‘On the Body’ deals with the materialistic essence of a being and with basic mathematical and scientific research. In the next two steps, or books, Hobbes transfers this approach to the human being (‘De Homine’) and society (‘De Cive’). Finally, in the ‘Leviathan’ he goes into more detail regarding political philosophy and concludes with the famous phrase according to which man is a wolf to man. Nothing but war and disputes, that’s his pessimistic view on human nature. The only universal right Hobbes recognises is the natural right to survive. The English Civil War, whose true motives had been disguised by religious and ideological arguments, taught him: there must be more than one truth if everyone has their own. In Hobbes’ opinion, the objective of medieval scholasticism, finding the truth, was therefore outdated. He had the pragmatic aim of establishing peace, i.e. of preventing society from starting a war. Many of his ideas take Hobbes from the religious world of the 17th century into the modern age of individualism: the sovereign is supposed to rule because individuals transfer their power to him by consensus of all. Hobbes laid the foundation of today’s world, a world of lone fighters, of individualists who no longer see themselves as part of a family or community. According to Hobbes’ theory, people unite their powers out of sheer fear for their existence and sacrifice their unlimited freedom to create a stable community.

We sense in all his texts that Hobbes didn’t accept the idea of an absolute truth in the chaotic circumstances of his life just like he had to navigate between Cromwell and the King, between the Church and his intellect his whole life. After Charles II returned, Hobbes could continue to work as a widely respected thinker. However, publishing his work remained difficult. His sovereign forbade him to publish his English analysis of the civil war, so he sent his Latin treatises to Amsterdam, from where Joan Blaeu duly exported them into the whole world.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can find the digital copy of Hobbes’ Opera Omnia of 1668 on the website of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

For an overview of the life and work of Thomas Hobbes, have a look at the Encyclopædia Britannica.

If you are interested in Hobbes’ political philosophy, you should watch this video explaining his concepts and the ‘Leviathan’.