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Thomas Hobbes | Biography

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Early Life

Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely in Wiltshire, England, on April 5, 1588, as the Spanish Armada was en route to invade England. Hobbes's premature birth may have come about due to his mother's terror at the thought of the invasion, and he writes in his autobiography: "Fear and I were born twins together." His mother's fears were unrealized, however, as the British navy under admiral Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada off the coast of France just a few months later. Hobbes's father, a vicar in Wiltshire, disappeared almost immediately from his son's life after being disgraced for brawling with another clergyman in front of his church. Young Hobbes was left in the financial care of an uncle who supported Hobbes's mother and two siblings and who saw to it that young Thomas received an education in the local schools.

Education and Political Awakening

At age six, Hobbes began studying Latin and Greek. The reading and translation of classical literature became one of his favorite pursuits, to which he devoted himself through the 1620s. His first written work, completed at age 12, was a translation of Euripides's Medea (431 BCE). His uncle enrolled him at Magdalen Hall in Oxford at age 15, and from 1603–08 he studied logic and physics there, earning a bachelor of arts degree. Upon graduation, Hobbes's tutor at Magdalen recommended Hobbes as a private tutor to William Cavendish, the son of a prominent British family who later became the second Earl of Devonshire. Working for the Cavendish family gave Hobbes access to a vast library, opportunities for travel, and the chance to meet influential people of the day.

In 1610 Hobbes and Cavendish took a trip together to Europe. During subsequent travels with Cavendish, Hobbes met Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, English philosopher Francis Bacon, English playwright Ben Jonson, and French mathematician Marin Mersenne, all leading thinkers of the time. When Cavendish became a member of parliament, Hobbes gained a front seat to English politics, learning much about the way the government was structured and how power was distributed. In the 1630s Hobbes's interests and writing shifted to the study of law, rhetoric, and optical science. In 1640 a pamphlet Hobbes wrote in defense of Charles I's authority as king was used by royalists in debates at the time and was circulated as "The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic." This was Hobbes's first publication in the field of political philosophy, and it placed him in the middle of brewing political tensions in England.

Exile in France

Once his controversial treatise was made public, it became clear to Hobbes that his royalist leanings could possibly get him imprisoned—or even killed—as tensions between the Crown and parliament were escalating. Thus, with England headed for civil war, Hobbes fled to Paris, where he remained for 11 years. In France, Hobbes reconnected with Marin Mersenne and joined the numerous scientists and philosophers regularly gathered around him. In this intellectual hub, Hobbes had the fortune to meet and debate with French philosopher René Descartes. Hobbes also continued to conduct optical experiments and wrote prolifically about his findings and developing ideas in political philosophy. From 1646 to 1648 Hobbes served as a mathematics tutor to Charles, the Prince of Wales, who had also come to France for safety when his father, King Charles I, began losing the war to parliamentary forces. Hobbes wrote Leviathan toward the end of his exile in France and published it upon his return to England in 1651.

Leviathan

Leviathan's great length and varied focus made it less of a "best seller" than some of Hobbes's more concise writing. However, the book elicited impassioned responses from numerous 17th-century critics, opposing what they perceived as Leviathan's "atheism" and calling for it to be burned. Given the fact the book tackled such a wide range of new ideas in both secular and religious areas of thought, quotations from Leviathan found their way into the rhetoric of a long sequence of political controversies. In 1668 Hobbes published a revised edition of Leviathan in Latin.

Later Life

When the Prince of Wales was restored to the English throne in 1660 and became King Charles II, Hobbes received a pension that provided ample income for him to live comfortably and pursue his writing. Hobbes continued to publish works on physics, philosophy, and religion but retired from the public arena of political and philosophical debate in 1666 when Leviathan was investigated under a proposed bill in the House of Commons, "Against Atheism, Profaneness, and Swearing." Hobbes was irrationally afraid of being hunted down and burned at the stake as a heretic, even though no one in the country had met that end since 1612, and the Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660 would have protected Leviathan from any pre-Restoration score settling. To keep himself occupied in his last years, Hobbes wrote and published his autobiography in Latin (1672) and then published new translations of Greek poet Homer's Iliad (c. 750–650 BCE) and Odyssey (c. 725–675 BCE). Having outlived many other 17th-century thinkers, Hobbes died on December 4, 1679, at one of the Cavendish family homes in Derbyshire. Hobbes's legacy endures and his masterpiece, Leviathan, is considered a preeminent example of 17th-century political philosophy.

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