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Leviathan | Context

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English Civil War

Hobbes wrote Leviathan at the end of his self-imposed 11-year exile in France, while his country was embroiled in civil war. The war's conflict focused primarily on the governing of England. Many objected to King Charles I's indiscriminate levying of taxes and wanted limits imposed on his royal prerogative. Charles's refusal to seek Parliament's consent when enacting policies, and his belief in the divine right of kings, branded him a tyrant by many. Furthermore, his alliances with Catholics, among them his wife, Henrietta Maria, turned many prominent Puritans against him, while the Scots objected to his imposition of Anglican liturgy in their churches.

Charles enlisted an army to fight the militias called up by the Scottish and British Parliaments. The conflict endured from 1642 to 1651, ending with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, the exile of his son Charles II in 1651, and the replacement of the monarchy with the Commonwealth of England. When the monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660, it was with Parliament's consent, establishing parliamentary monarchy as England's form of government. Hobbes's Leviathan speaks to the ideological struggle at the heart of this war and tries to offer a solution for peace through its vision of a commonwealth with a sovereign at its head.

Philosophical Debate

Hobbes sought to redefine philosophy and engaged directly with other well-known philosophers of his day to challenge their theories.

Descartes

One of the most publicized of these debates was between Hobbes and French philosopher René Descartes, in which Hobbes refuted Descartes's claim that the human mind and body are separate entities. Hobbes rejected this dualism in favor of mechanistic materialism, insisting that the workings of the human brain were affected by matter in motion just as in any other organ of the body. In response to Descartes's famous statement, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), Hobbes argued the ability to reason was not innate but needed to be developed through discipline. Another of Descartes's philosophical questions Hobbes dismissed as ridiculous was his skepticism that anyone could know absolutely whether he was awake or dreaming. Hobbes considered the critical difference between waking and dreaming to be the element of absurdity present in dreams. He claimed a person who was awake would be able to discern immediately the absence of such absurdity and therefore know he was awake.

Galileo

In Leviathan, Hobbes alludes to Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei's notion that an object will keep moving unless acted upon by another force. Hobbes applied this theory to the political sphere, claiming one reason democracies were unreliable was because they lacked restraining forces to keep them in check and thus ran the risk of anarchy. Hobbes did not trust the common people to reason well enough for true democracy to be a viable governmental system.

Aristotle and Euclid

Hobbes was dissatisfied with the loose ends and indefinite conclusions of the thinkers who preceded him, especially Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE). He sought to change the way philosophy worked so as to prevent disagreements about human nature, society, and government because he believed such disagreements led to war. His new philosophy was modeled on Greek mathematician Euclid's geometric proof, which reaches its conclusion by applying deductive reasoning to existing definitions and previously accepted truths in a logical explanation that expands the set of accepted facts.

Impact on Political Theory

Hobbes's political philosophy as expressed in Leviathan stimulated the thinking of the next generation of Enlightenment philosophers who valued reason and individualism above tradition, most notably English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76). Each of these men was also fascinated by the study of human nature and social contract theory. They built on, refined, and sometimes argued against Hobbes's ideas.

They also had an impact on the Founding Fathers of the United States, and both the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the U.S. Constitution (1788) contain elements that echo their writing. For example, some of the first principles of American government that appear in this passage from the Declaration of Independence are particularly Hobbesian: "All men are created equal, that they are endowed ... with certain unalienable rights ... to secure these rights, governments are instituted ... deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

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