Thomas Hobbes (b. 1588–d. 1679) is one of the most influential political theorists in the Western canon. Arguably, many of our contemporary political structures are based on his thinking and reasoning. Hobbes lived in a time when traditional sources of political authority were being deeply challenged. In works such as The Elements of Law, De Cive, and Leviathan, Hobbes retells the story of the foundation of political order so as to create a new rationale and model for state and society. Key among his insights are his description of the chaotic state of nature, his view of natural law, and the nature of political sovereignty. In particular, he is noted for his understanding of the relationship between the sovereign and the people that it represents. By anchoring that relationship in social contract theory, Hobbes produces a tale of consent and authorization. Calling the people the true “authors” of the covenant that they make with the sovereign, Hobbes indicates, at least indirectly, a role for the larger community in their own political structures (although the degree of that involvement is an ongoing controversy among Hobbes scholars to this day). In the latter parts of Leviathan, and also in De Cive, among other texts, Hobbes also considers an alternative genesis to contemporary political authority, stemming from God’s authority over ancient Israel.
Hobbes’s work is of such breadth and complexity that many works treat him at an unfairly broad and general level. These books tend to be dominated by some basic questions about Hobbes: the question of his relationship to humanism and classical Antiquity, the degree to which he can be read as a “proto-liberal” (or not), and the question of his politics and how they relate to his notions of morality and philosophy. Overviews that deal specifically with Hobbes’s politics include Baumgold 1988 and Malcolm 2003. Those that focus on his metaphysics and philosophy include Finn 2007 and Reik 1977. Books that focus on Hobbes’s ethics and morality include Gert 2010. More general overviews with a lot of biographical details include Martinich 1999, Rogow 1986, Sorell 2008, and Tuck 1989.
Baumgold, Deborah. Hobbes’s Political Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
For Baumgold, Hobbes’s concerns are chiefly about elite ambition, civil unrest, and the dangers of factional strife. In this way she changes the conversation about Hobbes from one primarily concerned with morality and philosophy to one concerned with politics.
Finn, Stephen. Thomas Hobbes: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2007.
Explores Hobbes’s philosophical methodology, detailing Hobbes’s theories of metaphysics, epistemology, and political and theological principles. Finn encourages the reader to consider their own moral positions in terms of Hobbes’s consideration of these questions.
Gert, Bernard. Hobbes: Prince of Peace. New York: Polity, 2010.
Gert seeks to show that Hobbes is not a psychological egoist and that he offers a much richer and more nuanced approach to political and moral questions than such a view would allow. For Gert, Hobbes demonstrates a moral system based on the possibility of human virtue. In this way, Gert makes an argument similar to thinkers such as the author of Deigh 1996 (cited under Ethics, Egoism, and Moral Science).
Malcolm, Noel. Aspects of Hobbes. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Malcolm covers a gamut of issues related to Hobbes including his relationship to the Virginia Company, his understanding of science, the nature of international relations in Hobbes’ system, the meaning and history of the frontispiece of Leviathan, and his relation to several contemporaries.
Martinich, A. P. Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Martinich situates Hobbes in the political, cultural, social, religious, and philosophical contexts of his time, considering questions of the rise of modern science and the events of the English Civil War, among other issues, as major influences on Hobbes’s work.
Reik, Miriam. The Golden Lands of Thomas Hobbes. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1977.
Reik deals with questions of Hobbes’s philosophy of science as well as his relationship to classical and Renaissance humanism. She also deals with the many controversies that swirled around Hobbes in his own lifetime and the way that Hobbes dealt with (and generally outlived) his critics.
Rogow, Arnold. Thomas Hobbes: Radical in the Service of Reaction. London: Norton, 1986.
Rogow attempts to write an intellectual biography of Hobbes, while acknowledging the many gaps that exist in our knowledge of his life.
Sorell, Tom. Hobbes. London: Routledge, 2008.
Sorell emphasizes Hobbes’s metaphysics and philosophy of science as well as his psychology. He denies that Hobbes is a psychological egoist even as he grapples with the fact that he considers Hobbes not to be a fully moral thinker.
Tuck, Richard. Hobbes. London: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Provides an overview of Hobbes’s life and writings. Among Tuck’s claims about Hobbes is that he probably was an atheist even though he was not as pessimistic about human nature as many often assume. Tuck also defends Hobbes from the claim that he was a totalitarian.
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