Thomas Hobbes was born in Westport - 300 metres outside the 'West Gate' of Malmesbury - in Wiltshire on 5th April 1588 and died at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire on 4th December 1679. Although his last recorded visit to Malmesbury was in 1634, he was immensely proud of his native town, reflected in the fact that the Latin inscription on his tombstone in the church at Ault Hucknall (today described as the smallest village in England), reads
Condita hic sunt ossa Thomae Hobbes Malmesburiensis
Qui per multos annos servivit
Duqubus Devoniae comitibus
Patri et Filio.
He attended school in Malmesbury and at the age of 15 went to study at Magdalen Hall, Oxford University. On graduation he became tutor to the first Earl of Devonshire at Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth and remained closely connected to the Cavendish family for the rest of his life.
His most important work, Leviathan, was published in its English edition in 1651 at the end of the English Civil War when he returned to England from France, It is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of political theory and the greatest work of political philosophy in the English language. This book taken together with his overall corpus places him among the first of the ‘Modern Philosophers’. Before him political thought was construed as the deduction of general rules from observations of past behaviour. In contrast he believed that the study of geometry should serve as a model for the search for the principles of politics.
Hobbes firmly rejected a fundamental premise of the commonly held opinion in political theory that a ‘body of people’ is able to live in peace and harmony. For him, as for later political writers and politicians, that belief amounted to a reification since there is no such thing as a ‘body’, just individuals.
His aphorisms that life is solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short and that in ‘a state of nature’ human beings live in constant fear and in an environment of war of all against all (bellum omnes contra omnium) continue to resonate. His fundamental and constant claim was that civil life is only possible under an absolute sovereign who has the power and authority to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of everybody. Although this prescription that individuals should covenant all their rights (except one) to an absolute sovereign (Leviathan) is unacceptable today in our European political universe, there are political elites in the twenty-first century who find no quarrel with his vision.
Hobbes summarises his life in verse
(click here to read in full online):
IN Fifteen hundred eighty eight, Old Style,
When that Armada did invade our Isle,
Call'd the Invincible; whose Freight was then,
Nothing but Murd'ring Steel, and Murd'ring Men;
Most of which Navy was disperst, or lost,
And had the Fate to Perish on our Coast:
April the fifth (though now with Age outworn)
I'th' early Spring, I, a poor worm, was born.
In Malmesbury Baptiz'd, and Named there
By my own Father, then a Minister.
Many things worth relating had this Town;
And first, a Monastery of Renown,
And Castle, or two rather it may seem,
On a Hill seated, with a double Stream