Leviathan | Study Guide

Thomas Hobbes

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Leviathan | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Thomas Hobbes is renowned as one of the greatest English thinkers of the 17th century and as an architect of modern political philosophy. In his book Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes asserts that absolute monarchy is the most reliable, stable, and effective form of government. Proposing an ideology that would be dismissed as old-fashioned by the time of the founding of the United States, Hobbes's Leviathan argues in favor of a country being ruled by one individual with total power—and the unquestioning obedience of the state's subjects.

To justify his stance, Hobbes relied on the notion that a divided government leads to violent rebellion and civil war, causing more suffering than a corrupt tyrant ever could. The only way to combat this type of unrest, Hobbes believed, was the full control of a ruler as well as the fewest possible people able to question the ruler's decisions. Over the next two centuries, Hobbes's views would become increasingly unpopular as nation after nation turned to forms of democratic government with elections and separations of power. However, Leviathan remains an important philosophical treatise on politics and a fundamental text of political thought.

1. Hobbes wrote Leviathan in response to the English Civil War.

Hobbes was inspired to write Leviathan during a bloody civil war in England, during which supporters of the monarchy clashed with supporters of parliamentary rule from 1642–51. A staunch royalist, or supporter of the king, Hobbes fled England in 1640, anticipating the war to come. Hobbes wrote Leviathan in defense of the English monarchy, claiming that absolute rule under a monarch was the most stable form of government and could prevent military-political catastrophes such as civil war and rebellion. Hobbes later wrote a historical account of the English Civil War, entitled Behemoth, published posthumously in 1681.

2. Hobbes wrote Leviathan during a period of "self-imposed exile" in Paris.

After seeing the necessity of leaving England at a time when the monarchy was facing great challenges—and the king's supporters were increasingly unpopular—Hobbes fled to Paris. Starting in 1640, Hobbes remained in France for an 11-year period of "self-imposed exile." It was here, among other royalists who'd fled Britain, that Hobbes could safely write Leviathan in defense of the monarchy without fear of imprisonment or persecution. However, Hobbes's views against the Catholic Church eventually angered the French Catholics to the point where he returned to England in 1651—and found himself to be considered a notorious and controversial figure in his homeland.

3. There's been much debate about who is depicted in Leviathan's famous cover art.

Leviathan is famous for its frontispiece, or cover artwork, depicting a crowned figure rising from a pastoral landscape, dominating the scene with his sword and scepter in hand. The artwork, drawn by French artist Abraham Bosse, has led to much speculation regarding who the regal figure is modeled on. Many scholars believe that the figure was meant to represent King Charles I—whose imprisonment led to the onset of the English Civil War—while others believe it represents Oliver Cromwell, who led the opposition to the monarchy and ruled Britain as a dictator. Some believe that Hobbes, who had extensive input on the artwork, specifically designed the figure to incorporate features of both men.

4. Hobbes claimed the Spanish invasion of English prompted his birth.

In 1588, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, England was attacked by the infamous Spanish armada. While the Spanish were successfully repelled, the near invasion was a tense moment in British history. At the time of the attack, Hobbes's mother was about to give birth, eventually leading Hobbes to suggest that the invasion "prompted" his coming into the world. Hobbes famously claimed, "mother dear, did bring forth twins at once, both me and fear," as many in England feared for their lives as the Spanish fleet approached the British coast. Scholars note that the circumstances of his birth also instilled Hobbes with a great hatred of any and all enemies of England, both foreign and domestic.

5. While in Paris, Hobbes tutored and exiled a prince who had also fled the conflict in England.

As Hobbes was living in Paris, he received an unlikely visitor: Prince Charles II, exiled from England because of the English Civil War. The young prince had fled his country because of the insurrection from parliamentary supporters. As a staunch royalist, Hobbes was pleased that the prince had escaped unharmed, and Hobbes served as the prince's personal tutor for several years. In 1660 Charles II was named king once more and returned to England in what is referred to as "the Resurrection." Charles II and Hobbes did not agree on everything—including Hobbes's rumored atheism—but the grateful king made a place for the philosopher in his court and treated him as a friend upon his return to power.

6. Back in England, Leviathan was labeled atheistic, and Hobbes burned many papers in fear.

Although Leviathan certainly earned the disdain of dissenters against the monarchy, the book also earned Hobbes many enemies once the civil war had concluded. In 1666 the British parliament started an investigation of Leviathan for promoting atheism. At the time, many innocent people were being accused of blasphemy, atheism, or other religious crimes in England, so Hobbes was quite frightened by the investigation. In response, Hobbes wrote several papers on the nature of heresy, defending his works as non-heretical. However, he also burned stacks of his previous writings to avoid potential charges, and he ceased to write on religious or political subjects for the rest of his life.

7. Hobbes was involved in a heated, infamous mathematical dispute.

Aside from his political writings such as Leviathan, Hobbes was also a practicing mathematician. Upon the publication of Hobbes's 1655 book De Corpore, which offered philosophical theories on math and physics, Hobbes became involved in a lengthy and scandalous dispute known as the Hobbes-Wallis controversy. Hobbes's rival, mathematician John Wallis, refuted Hobbes's claim that it was possible to "square a circle," or create a square with the same area as a specific circle using a mathematical compass and straightedge.

For years, Wallis and Hobbes proceeded to attack each other in a series of writings. The culmination of the controversy came with Hobbes's 1657 publication of a study with the subtitle, "Markes of the Absurd Geometry, Rural Language, Scottish Church-Politicks, and Barbarismes of John Wallis Professor of Geometry and Doctor of Divinity." This publication went far beyond the square-circle debate and attacked Wallis for his religious and political ideas, as well.

8. Hobbes's enemies blamed him for the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Hobbes was quite unpopular in England by 1666, and his political enemies took any possible opportunity to condemn him. That year, the famous and tragic Great Fire burned huge swaths of the city of London, causing chaos and irreparable damage. As Hobbes was currently being investigated for atheism and heresy, many of his critics took this opportunity to blame him for the fire, claiming that it was a product of "God's wrath" against Hobbes's writings. Others blamed Hobbes for an outbreak of the plague that occurred shortly thereafter.

9. Hobbes thought he was safe in Paris—until his anti-Catholicism made him a target.

Although Hobbes initially felt secure in Paris during his years of exile, eventually he became unwelcome in France. Part of Hobbes's royalist doctrine included the notion that a sovereign king should also be in charge of the nation's religion. This was in direct opposition to Catholic thought, which considered the pope a higher religious authority than any king or ruler. As a result, Hobbes quickly fell out of political favor in Catholic France. Simultaneously, the publication of Leviathan actually made Hobbes ostracized from fellow British royalists, as they rejected his methodical and logic-based approach to political thought. In 1651 Hobbes actually made peace with Oliver Cromwell, leader of the anti-monarchist opposition in England, and returned from Paris.

10. Leviathan argued against a theory that would later become the hallmark of American democracy.

As a book supporting absolute monarchy, it should be no surprise that Leviathan contradicts many of the founding principles of American democracy, which would arise more than a century later. American government was built around the idea of "separation of powers"—several branches of government crafted to ensure that no single individual or group has too much control over legislation. Hobbes, however, detested this idea, believing that the most stable form of governance required a ruler to have complete control. Arguing that citizens needed to obey their leader regardless of external input, Hobbes fundamentally rejected any type of separation of powers, writing that it would lead to "perpetual war of every man against his neighbor." The very idea of checks and balances in government arose in response to 17th-century treatises on absolute rule, including Hobbes's Leviathan.

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