Thomas Hobbes


Thomas Hobbes, born on April 5, 1588 in Westport (Wiltshire) and died on December 4, 1679 in Hardwick Hall (Derbyshire), was an English philosopher.

His major work, Leviathan, has a considerable influence on modern political philosophy, through its conceptualization of the state of nature and the social contract, a conceptualization that lays the foundations of sovereignty. Although often accused of excessive conservatism, by Arendt and Foucault in particular, having inspired authors such as Maistre and Schmitt, Leviathan also has a considerable influence on the emergence of liberalism and liberal economic thought in the twentieth century, as well as on the study of international relations and its dominant rationalist current: realism.

The first years

Thomas Hobbes tells us that his mother gave birth prematurely under the shock of the news of the Invincible Armada”s departure. His father was the vicar of Charlton (he was forced to leave the city, leaving his three children in the care of an older brother, Francis.

Hobbes was educated at Westport Church from the age of four, and then entered Malmesbury School, and later a private school run by a young man named Robert Latimer. Hobbes showed remarkable intellectual precocity: at the age of six he learned Latin and Greek, and at about fourteen he translated Euripides” Medea into Latin.

He entered Oxford University in 1603, at Magdalen Hall (now Hertford College), where he took a dislike to university life. The principal of Magdalen was then John Wilkinson, a Puritan who would have some influence on Hobbes.

The years of training

At the university, Hobbes seems to have followed his own curriculum; he “was little attracted to scholastic study. After a brief engagement in the English navy, he completed his studies and received the B.A. in 1608. He then became tutor to the eldest son of William Cavendish, Baron of Hardwick and future Earl of Devonshire. He was asked to travel on the continent with his pupil; he visited France, Italy and Germany in 1610, the year of the assassination of King Henry IV of France. Back in England, he began to study literature, reading and translating Thucydides, his favorite historian. His translation was published in 1629, the year in which his student and friend died.

In 1628, he again became travelling tutor to the son of the Earl of Clifton and returned to the continent for two years (1629-1631). He spent eighteen months in Paris, and went to Venice. Back in England in 1631, he was entrusted with the young Earl of Cavendish. It was around this time (1629 – 1631) that he discovered Euclid and developed a passion for geometry.

Hobbes then returned to the continent with his pupil, for his third stay (1634-1637). He visited Florence, where he met Galileo, and spent eight months in Paris. During this stay, he met Gassendi and came into contact with Father Mersenne, who opened the doors of the learned society of Paris to him and encouraged him to publish his works of psychology and physics. He describes in an autobiography his state of incessant meditation, “in boat, in carriage, on horseback”, and it is indeed at this moment of his life that he conceives the principle of his physics, the movement, only generating reality of the natural things. This principle soon seemed to him capable of founding psychology, morality and politics.

Troubles and fall of Charles I

From 1640 onwards, England experienced increasingly violent opposition between the King and Parliament. Hobbes sided with the king and left London in 1640 for Paris, where he remained in exile for eleven years. Around 1642, he wrote a small treatise, Elements of Natural and Political Law, in reaction to the events that were disturbing political life, a treatise written in English in which he wrote that there was an “inseparable connection… between sovereign power and the power to make laws. The book was not published, but copies circulated and made Hobbes known.

Around this time, René Descartes, then in Holland, asked Marin Mersenne to communicate the Meditations on the First Philosophy in order to gather comments from the best minds. Mersenne, having made the acquaintance of Hobbes, approached him, and Hobbes wrote the Third Objections, which are a precious testimony for the study of his first philosophy. His objections were sent anonymously to Descartes in January 1641. After further objections from Hobbes, this time against Dioptric, transmitted by signed letters, Descartes finally refused to deal with “this Englishman” again. He wrote a letter to Marin Mersenne on March 4, 1641, in which he stated:

“I think it best that I have no business with him at all, and to that end, that I abstain from answering him; for, if he is in the mood I judge him to be in, we could hardly confer together without becoming enemies.”

For his part, Hobbes, in the words of John Aubrey, said of Descartes:

“If he had stuck to geometry, he would have been the best geometer in the world…his head is not made for philosophy.”

After this episode, Hobbes resumed his work and published De Cive (“Of the Citizen”) in 1642, in which he explained that the solution to the civil wars in England lay in making clerical power a function of government. He published an expanded edition of this work in 1647, just as he was finishing his treatise On Necessity and Liberty.

In 1643, Hobbes wrote a critique of De mundo dialogi tres published the previous year by Thomas White. The manuscript, which circulated in the circles led by Mersenne, was not published until 1973.

In 1647, while planning to retire to the South of France, he was appointed professor of mathematics to the young Prince of Wales (the future Charles II) who was a refugee in France. He carried out these functions until the prince”s departure for Holland in 1648.

In 1650, the two parts of the Elements of law natural and politic are published against his will and separately: the Human Nature or the Fundamental Elements of Politics, and the De corpore politico. The following year, he finally returned to England and published his great work in London: Leviathan, which caused a scandal. He was accused of atheism and disloyalty and met many opponents (theologians and Oxford academics, all members of the Royal Society) who ganged up on him. He thus had several disputes, for example with Bishop John Bramhall, or with the Oxford academics (who were unjustly accused of ignorance by Hobbes), from which the Questions on Freedom, Necessity and Chance (1666) emerged. For more than a quarter of a century, there were thus attacks and retorts, in physics with Robert Boyle on the vacuum, in mathematics with John Wallis on arithmetic and infinity, where it appears that Hobbes greatly overestimated his discoveries. His mathematical enormities are thus judged laughable or pitiful.

Nevertheless, he did not give up, and published in 1655 the De Corpore (en), first part of the “Elements of Philosophy” which contain his first philosophy, his logic, his physics and the very controversial demonstration of the squaring of the circle. In 1658 he published De homine, the third part of his trilogy, in which optics plays a certain role, and he persisted in publishing his mathematical discoveries (Quadrature of the circle, cubature of the sphere, duplication of the cube, 1669) which were refuted by his opponents, in particular by John Wallis. He also had to defend himself against the latter who accused him, in his Hobbius Heautontimoroumenos (1662), of having written his Leviathan in order to give legitimacy to Oliver Cromwell”s coup de force.

The Restoration

After the return, at the end of May 1660, of Charles II, Hobbes is welcomed at the court and becomes the familiar of the king. He received a pension of one hundred pounds, with the condition of not publishing anything in English about politics or religion. In the king”s entourage, Hobbes had many enemies, among them bishops who undertook to refute the corrupter of morality. Above all, the dramatic events of the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666) fueled the superstitious fears of the population, which saw in them a punishment from Heaven. This led the House of Commons to introduce a bill on October 17, 1666, allowing measures to be taken against atheists and sacrilege. The bill was referred to a committee charged with examining books that propagated atheism, including Leviathan. The slowness of the procedures saved Hobbes, who prepared a plea, with the Latin translation of Leviathan that he published in Amsterdam in 1668. But above all, he had powerful protectors, and the king supported him (always on the condition that he did not publish any more books on politics or religion).

He composed Behemoth in 1670, then a dialogue and an ecclesiastical history, and, in 1672, an autobiography in Latin distichs. From 1675 onwards, he spent his last days outside of London, at the home of his Devonshire family friends. In August 1679 he was still preparing a work for printing, but in October paralysis prevented him from doing so, and on December 4 he died at Hardwick Hall.

On a black marble plaque, one can read: “vir probus et fama eruditionis domi forisque bene cognitus.”

According to one anecdote, Hobbes himself proposed to carve on his tombstone: “This is the true philosopher”s stone.”

According to the article in the Encyclopedia dedicated to him, Hobbes “was born with a weak temperament, which he strengthened by exercise and sobriety; he lived in celibacy, without however being an enemy of women”s trade.

The controversy with Descartes takes place in two stages; it concerns first Descartes” Dioptric and then Hobbes” Objections to the Metaphysical Meditations. The first is a scientific controversy. The second opens, at the time of the publication of the Meditations, on the nature of the corporeal or material substance, the nature of the subject and the faculties of God.

Hobbes became aware of the Discourse of Method as early as 1637. It was transmitted to him by Kenelm Digby, then in Paris. Influenced by Walter Warner, he already had his own theory of light. The dioptric controversy started in 1640, when Thomas Hobbes had been thinking about the question for ten years. He sent his objections to Mersenne, in the form of two letters, which the minor father sent to Descartes. The polemic extends until April 1641. Hobbes is convinced of the corporeal nature of substance, and rejects the Cartesian idea of spiritual or immaterial substance. Moreover, for him, sensation (by which we perceive light for example) is not a pure reception, but also an organization of data. His theory of representation thus leads him to oppose the spiritualism of Descartes.

The philosophical dispute over the Meditations became more and more heated as the two philosophers accused each other of seeking undeserved glory and suspected each other of plagiarism. This competition pushed Hobbes to radicalize his positions and to set them up as a system. The quarrel is probably coupled with a semantic difficulty, since the terms “spirit” and “mind” do not cover the same semantic field in French and English. Hobbes, like Pierre Gassendi, placed imagination among the faculties of the mind; Descartes excluded it, but above all, for Hobbes, “thought is only the movement of the body”. Mersenne, who transmitted the Meditations to Hobbes, refers his comments to Descartes, and for the sake of prudence preserves his anonymity; he merely mentions him as an “English philosopher”. In his Objections, Hobbes reproaches Descartes for a semantic shift from “I am thinking” to “I am thought”. According to the same reasoning, “I am walking” (sum ambulans) would become “I am a walk” (sum ambulatio), he asserts. This objection annoyed Descartes, who explicitly asked Mersenne to have no more contact with his “anglois”:

“Besides, having read at leisure the last writing of the Englishman, I am very much mistaken, if it is not a man who seeks to acquire reputation at my expense, and by bad practices.”

After that, the philosopher from The Hague does not have words hard enough for his opponent:

“I don”t think I should ever reply to anything you might send me about this man, whom I think I should despise in the extreme. And I do not allow myself to be flattered by the praise you tell me he gives me; for I know that he uses it only to make it seem better that he is right, in that he rebukes and slanders me.”

The quarrel of the animals-machines also opposes the two philosophers. For Hobbes, the animal itself is endowed with sensibility, affectivity, imagination and prudence. On this point, he also shares Gassendi”s contestations, to whom he was very close and who would have said of him: “that he hardly knew a soul more intrepid, a mind more free of prejudices, a man who penetrated more deeply into things”. But beyond the animals, this dispute refers in fact to the very conception of Hobbes” philosophy. It can be found in Leviathan: the mechanical state monster is also endowed with sovereignty, and therefore with an artificial soul, which Descartes does not admit, wanting to reserve this concept for men alone.

More fundamentally, the idea of representation of the world is central to Hobbes”s conception, which sees the questions of the cogito as first involving a linguistic or semantic inquiry, whereas Descartes conceives of truth as being its own sign. When Descartes claims to get rid of the prejudices of education and the errors of ancient philosophers, Hobbes criticizes him for not criticizing the very language he uses and for claiming to know the truth without questioning the words. Thus, by dispensing with a historical critique of language, Descartes would in turn create a “fiction” with his idea of the immaterial soul, thus replacing one error with another.

In the second section of De corpore, Hobbes starts from the fiction that the universe is annihilated, but that man remains; on what can this man philosophize? In the second section of De corpore, Hobbes starts from the fiction that the universe is annihilated but that man remains; on what will this man be able to philosophize?: “I say that to this man there will remain of the world and of all the bodies that his eyes had previously considered or that his other senses had perceived, the ideas, that is to say, the memory and the imagination of their sizes, movements, sounds, colors, etc., all things that, although being only ideas and phantoms, internal accidents in the one who imagines, will not appear any less as external and as independent of the power of the mind”.

Thus, all the qualities of things that are offered to our senses are affective states inherent to the subject. There would be nothing absurd, according to Hobbes, for a man to experience these affections once the world has disappeared, after its annihilation. In this fiction, the mind acts only on images, and it is to them that it gives names. But, Hobbes notes, this is also what happens when the world exists:

These images, which form the exclusive object of our thoughts, can be considered from two points of view: they are internal accidents of the mind or they are the species of external things in so far as they appear to exist. The first point of view concerns psychology and the faculties of the soul; the second is objective, since these images of our imagination compose the world. If both points of view remain relevant, it is because the fiction of the annihilation of all things does not imply to conceive that the world could not exist: not only does the economy of this fiction presuppose the existence of the world, but moreover if the phantasms that remain, after this fictitious annihilation, continue to appear as external, this means that it is impossible even to conceive the absence of exteriority in order to hypothesize that the world does not exist. This is why such a fiction can open a first philosophy that rests on a strong ontological thesis: only bodies exist, since there are indeed external things, and their exteriority attests their materiality. Hence the fact that most of De Corpore consists of a geometry at the service of a mechanics, and of a physics.

Author of Elements of Natural and Political Law in 1640, The Citizen (De Cive) in 1641 and Leviathan in 1651, Thomas Hobbes was one of the first contractualist philosophers who tried to rebuild the legitimacy of the power of rulers on something other than religion or tradition. His project is to base the political order on a pact between individuals, in order to make man a decisive actor in the construction of his own social and political world. His political reflection is based on his anthropology, which makes man a being moved mainly by fear and desire. He must thus leave the primitive state and found an artificial state on the basis of reason: it is the passage from the state of nature to the civil state.

The great thinker of sovereignty, Hobbes made a Copernican revolution in relation to Aristotelianism, which was dominant in scholastic thought, by making the civil state an artificial state, resulting from the social contract, and not a natural state. To do this, he appropriated the language of “natural law”, in the scholastic sense, to defend a thesis that synthesized the two main positions that opposed it (the theory of natural rights, stemming from Grotius and Pufendorf, and humanist conventionalism). Thus, although he thought about the natural rights of the individual, Hobbes is more akin to legal positivism than to jusnaturalism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would inherit this position, as well as several others concerning sovereignty, refusing, on the other hand, the theory of representation (exposed in particular in chapter XVI on the “person”, which immediately precedes the chapter on the institution of the State).

Moral psychology

For Hobbes, psychology is the study of the propagation of material movements that act on nervous physiological devices and produce reactions and attitudes. He thus defends a materialist position, comparing, in his introduction to Leviathan, the human body to a machine. Concerning the origin of knowledge, he defends an empiricist position: all knowledge comes from the senses and from experience (chapter I of Leviathan).

He opposes the traditional conception of happiness, which makes it a stationary state, by envisaging it in a dynamic way (chap. XI). Happiness, for him, is not opposed to a “restless desire to acquire power after power” (chap. XI), because only this race for power makes it possible to make sure that one will preserve one”s being and one”s goods. Thus, the conatus, the desire for self-preservation, is immediately dynamic. This conservation is not to be understood as the simple desire not to die, but as a desire for “power”: conscious of the future and of the fact that we will always have new desires, we do not desire goods so much as powers to satisfy us now and always. It is precisely this form of desire that explains why we are social beings: we know that we increase our power by our own competences (“natural powers”) but also by our relations to others (“instrumental powers”). Society is not, as Hobbes is often made to say, a reality extorted from man by the fear of death, but a natural consequence of the development of our desire.

According to Hobbes, there is no good and evil in the state of nature, but only in the civil state.

The state of nature

Hobbes is one of the first to imagine a state of nature pre-existing human society, in order to detect how men would act there without a common power to keep them in line. This idea is already old and was taken up and used as early as the 13th century by the opponents who were then the emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and several successive popes, to justify their own power. However, this state of nature is a mythical state, not a real one. Hobbes clearly distances himself from the political tradition that was based both on Aristotle, for whom man is a naturally political being, and on Thomas Aquinas or Cicero, for whom there would be an immutable “natural law”. He considers man as sociable, not by nature, but by accident: it is by fear of violent death that he makes society with his fellow men. The state of nature is a state of “war of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes). However, we should not attribute to Hobbes the idea that is commonly attributed to him: Hobbes never wrote that “man is a wolf to man” in the state of nature (homo homini lupus), according to Plautus” formula. On the other hand, he did write that, in the civil state, man is both a god and a wolf to man. By the contract, the man guarantees what is not in the state of nature: freedom, safety and the hope to live well. Indeed:

“And certainly it is equally true, and that a man is a god to another man, and that a man is also a wolf to another man. The one in the comparison of Citizens with each other; and the other in the consideration of Republics; there, by means of Justice and Charity, which are the virtues of peace, one approaches the likeness of God; and here, the disorders of the wicked compel the very best to resort, by the right of self-defense, to force and deceit, which are the virtues of war, that is to say, to the rapacity of wild beasts.”

As this quotation shows, it is indeed in the relationship between republics that man is a wolf to man: to be a god to his fellow citizen, man must be a wolf to his enemies. Hobbes understood well the ambivalence of this human invention, the State.

The state of nature should not be understood as the description of a historical reality, but as a theoretical fiction. It has never existed (imagine men born without a family, for example), but it is a fruitful philosophical hypothesis, a construction of the mind that aims at understanding what social existence brings us and at founding the natural right of each one to the means of a satisfying life. It represents what man would be, abstracted from all political power and consequently from all law. In this state, men are governed by the sole concern of their own preservation. And yet, even in such a fiction, self-defense is distinct from pure and simple aggression: natural law is irreducible. Moreover, in the state of nature, men are equal, which means that they have the same passions, the same rights over all things, and the same means (by trickery or alliance) of achieving them. Each one legitimately desires what is good for him, tries to do himself good, and is the sole judge of the means necessary to achieve it. Since men also tend to seek glory and to harm others without concern, they cannot but enter into conflict with each other to obtain what they deem good for them.

The anarchic power of the multitude dominates in the state of nature. Gifted with reason, i.e. the faculty to calculate and anticipate, man foresees danger, and attacks before being attacked. Each one is thus persuaded to be able to prevail on others and does not hesitate to attack them to take their goods. Ephemeral alliances are formed to win over an individual. But as soon as the victory is achieved, the winners join forces against each other to benefit alone from the spoils.

This war is so atrocious that humanity may even disappear. This is a properly human situation and is not devoid of social relations, but it would result in a “solitary, bestial, and short life”. To those who would think that this vision of humanity is pessimistic, Hobbes retorts that even in the social state, where laws, police and judges exist, we nevertheless lock our safes and houses for fear of being robbed. But the state of nature is without law, without judge and without police… It is the fear of death (violent death) which, resulting from natural equality, is responsible for the state of war and poses a permanent threat to the lives of all. This state, fundamentally bad, does not allow prosperity, trade, science, arts, society. If this is not a conception of the human situation as such, it is precisely because it is a fiction: it disregards the political relations that have always accompanied human societies, in order to better highlight a tendency of human social life, as Galileo disregards the air and any surrounding environment in order to bring out the proper tendency of gravity, in the fall of bodies. The state of nature is not the foundation of anthropology and Hobbesian theory of society, and this is why in all the works that expose Hobbes” anthropological and political thought, the chapter on the state of nature is always preceded by chapters on anthropology, which it does not found.

Civil status and sovereign power

A humanity left to itself, without a coercive social order, would have ended up disappearing. What saves man from such a state is none other than his fear of dying and his instinct for self-preservation. Man understands that in order to subsist, there is no other solution than to leave the state of nature. It is the passions on the one hand, and reason on the other hand, that push him to leave the state of nature. On the side of the passions, the fear of death, the desire for the necessities of life and the hope of obtaining them by one”s own labor motivate this exit from the state of nature; on the side of reason, the latter “suggests the proper articles of peace, on which they will agree,” which Hobbes calls “laws of nature” (not to be confused with natural law). However, for Hobbes, this does not mean that there is no natural right: “the natural right is the liberty which each one has to use his own power, as he himself wills for the preservation of his own nature, in other words, of his own life, it is that of preserving his own life”, this by all the means he deems good.

The “laws of nature” are dictated by reason and lead to the limitation of the natural right of each person over all things. The first and fundamental law of nature is that one should seek peace and only seek the help of war if the former is impossible to obtain. These natural laws are eternal and unchangeable, because they are based on rationality. But they must be applied by all. To achieve this, says Hobbes, it is necessary to give up all one”s rights, because nothing can guarantee the application of natural law by all. This is where the theory of the social contract comes in (Hobbes himself does not use this precise expression).

The a priori foundation of civil status is a contract between individuals, which makes it possible to found sovereignty. By this contract, each individual transfers all his natural rights, except for inalienable rights, to a “person” who is called the Sovereign, the depositary of the State, or “Leviathan”. Each person then becomes a “subject” of this Sovereign, becoming also the “author” of all the acts of the Sovereign. Through this contract, the multitude of individuals is reduced to the unity of the sovereign:

“The only way to establish such a common power, capable of defending human beings against the invasions of strangers and the prejudices committed to one another, is to gather all their power and all their strength on a man or an assembly of men who can, by a majority of votes, bring all their wills into one will; which amounts to saying: to appoint a man, or an assembly of men, to bear their person; and each one makes his own and acknowledges himself to be the author of every action done or caused by him who bears their person, and falling under those things which concern the common peace and safety; by which all and each of them submit their wills to his will, and their judgments to his judgment. This is more than consent or concord: it is a real unity of all in one person, made by agreement of each with each, in such a way that it is as if each individual were to say to every individual: I authorize this man or this assembly of men, and I surrender to him my right to govern myself, on this condition that you surrender to him your right and authorize all his actions in the same manner.”

The contract is more than a simple consent, because it aims at establishing a “common power” capable of holding each one in respect, by imposing the respect of the conventions by the fear of the punishment and the penal sanction. Everyone contracts with everyone else in order to transfer their rights to a Sovereign who will hold them all. The only inalienable rights are those that aim to protect one”s life: one cannot alienate “the right to resist those who attack you to take your life”, nor to resist those who want to imprison you or put you in irons.

Laws of nature and civil laws

By means of his power, the sovereign is thus the guarantee that men will not fall back into the anarchy of the state of nature; and he will apply what he was made for by promulgating civil laws to which all must submit: “Just as in order to achieve peace, and thanks to it to their own preservation, humans have made an artificial man, which we call a State, so they have made artificial chains called civil laws”. The Sovereign thus has for end the conservation of the individuals.

Now, “the law of nature and the civil law contain each other and are of equal extent”: it is indeed the sovereign power which, by constraint, makes it possible to make the laws of nature true laws; before, they are only “qualities which dispose humans to peace and obedience”. Thus, it is positive law that, bringing together laws of nature and civil laws, dictates what is just and unjust, good and evil, which do not exist in the state of nature. For this reason, Hobbes is considered the founder of legal positivism, in contrast to the proponents of jusnaturalism. He also shares what might be called, in John Austin”s terms, a theory of law as a command supported by the threat of punishment; the law is the expression of the sovereign”s will with respect to right and wrong.

Finally, although Hobbes has often been presented as a thinker legitimizing absolute monarchy, and indeed praises monarchy over aristocracy or democracy, he also theorized limits to power. First, he states that “the difference between these three types of state is not a difference in power, but a difference in the capacity or ability to provide peace and security for the people. Whatever the political regime, sovereignty has the same power.

On the other hand, there are two kinds of limits to power: those that come from inalienable natural rights, and those that come from natural laws. Hobbes distinguishes law, which consists of “freedom to do or not to do” (freedom which he defines as “the absence of external fetters”), from law, which “determines and constrains in one way or the other, so that law and right differ as much as obligation and freedom, and contradict each other if they are applied to the same object. He then distinguishes between natural liberty, which is not opposed to necessity (nor to fear) and which consists in not preventing one from doing what one wants to do, and “freedom of subjects” or civil liberty.

Civil liberty resides only in the “silence of the law”: it is the freedom to do whatever the law does not forbid. But the laws themselves are limited by “natural law”, that is to say by the freedom or power of each individual (a conception close to that of Spinoza). Thus, no one is obliged to submit to imprisonment or the death penalty: in this case, everyone has the “freedom to disobey” and the right to resist by force. “No one is compelled”, either, “to accuse himself”. The natural laws (which are contained in the civil laws and have the same extension) not only prevent self-incrimination, but also prohibit the use of testimony obtained under torture. Finally, in the chapter on crimes and punishments, Hobbes leaves room for some principles that are today part of the so-called “rule of law”:

Generally speaking, any punishment that does not aim at promoting the obedience of subjects is not a punishment, but an act of hostility (revenge, for example, cannot be a penal sanction). And any act of hostility leads to the legitimization of the resistance of subjects, who become de facto enemies of the State.

Causes of dissolution of the state

The sovereign power, which decides on laws, rewards or punishments, with a view to the preservation of each individual and to allow each individual to keep his private property and to contract with other individuals, to which all individuals are subject, remains however fragile: Leviathan is a “mortal god”. The causes of dissolution are the following:


Hobbes is fully aware of the theological-political problem, i.e. of the problems and the often harmful interference between the religious (Christian) sphere and the political sphere. Not least because he himself experienced the wars of religion in England. Thus, he devoted almost half of his political work to the religious question.

Ecclesiastical power is only the power to teach. It cannot therefore afford to impose rules of its own on individuals. It is the Catholic religion that is clearly targeted by Hobbes, because it is a sphere of autonomous power and creates a duality between civil sovereign power and ecclesiastical power, between temporal power and spiritual power. Hobbes solves the problem by subordinating religious power to political power, so that the sovereign decides on religious matters and all must obey him: “God speaks through his vices-gods or lieutenants here on earth, that is, through sovereign kings. Moreover, since the ruler is instituted by the will of all, and must enforce the laws of nature, which are of God, there is no obvious opposition.

Hobbes is still one of the pioneers of historical-critical exegesis. In particular, he was the first to say openly, against tradition, that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch.

Political posterity

Hobbes is still very present today. He is sometimes contrasted with Rousseau in political conflicts related to the application of democratic sovereignty. He is recognized as the thinker of an enlightened bourgeoisie, which believes that it can do good to civil society in spite of itself. If man, caught up in the constraints of common destinies, protests against those who command them, one must judge the admissibility of his grievances in view of the imperatives that must lead to the development of society.

Hobbes can be seen as the true founder of the “modern doctrine of the social contract”. He took over from Jean Bodin the innovative concept of sovereignty while articulating it with that of natural law developed by Hugo Grotius and that of the social contract, in order to truly propose a coherent synthesis: “he thinks of natural law from an anthropology that is independent of any morality. He also makes the body politic a person and breaks any link between his theory of the contract and history by conceiving the contract as an artifice or a fiction”.

According to Hannah Arendt, the error of Hobbes – and of the political theorists of the seventeenth century – was to believe that authority and religion could maintain themselves independently of tradition.

According to Julian Korab-Karpowicz, Hobbes is usually considered one of the founders of the realist doctrine in international relations, along with Thucydides and Machiavelli.

Texts and translations

Two new critical editions are in progress:

Main works:


Since 1988, a Hobbes Bulletin (an international critical bibliography of Hobbesian studies) has appeared annually in the journal Archives de philosophie.

External links


  1. Thomas Hobbes
  2. Thomas Hobbes