Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1588, was born Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes was a philosopher and political theorist, recognized for his masterpiece, The Leviathan, which defined the structure of society, and laid down the basis for a nation state.

Hobbes was born on 5th April 1588, the son of the rector of Westport, Wiltshire, an eccentric and belligerent individual, who after becoming involved in a fracas at his own church door, disappeared abruptly and was never seen again. The Hobbes children were given over to the care of their uncle, a respectable and reasonably prosperous glover. The young Hobbes received sufficient education to matriculate at Magdalen Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, where he was more interested in cartography, the study of maps, than the tedious study of Classics. In the early Seventeenth Century, cartography was a relatively new science. Explorers were recording sufficient information to enable scribes to execute fairly accurate maps of new realms in the Americas, and also cartographers were producing maps of European states. Hobbes, looking at a map of Western Europe, saw that Britain was an island, and although this fact was generally known to most educated people of the time, the map before his eyes brought home the reality of Britain as an entity and its separation from Europe. Viewing maps of Europe, showing the geographical features, together with political boundaries, gave him an insight into the reality of a nation.

After graduating in 1608, Hobbes took a position as private tutor to William Cavendish, later earl of Devonshire. His interpretation of his tutorial duties was that the young man needed to be taken off to France and Italy, and there pick up whatever intellectual learning that was available. Hobbes and his pupil undertook a grand tour, where they were influenced by new scientific theories of Galileo and Keplar, who had formulated the laws of planetary motion. In Hobbes mind, the laws of the universe appeared symmetrical, orderly and uniform, an ideal state of being, and one which should be applied to the workings of the state apparatus.

On returning home, Hobbes's resigned himself to classical studies, in order to make a living. He translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, where he saw in the fate of ancient Athens, a salutary warning against democracy. He also wrote papers on philosophy, with particular reference to human knowledge and understanding, and the proper organization of men in society, before returning once again on another grand tour with a younger member of the Cavendish family.

In 1637, Hobbes returned to England to find the nation in the throes of the turmoil that would later develop into civil war. Alarmed by the state of society, he proceeded to write his thoughts on the matter, with the intention of publishing an authoritative guideline on the proper order of society. He was interrupted in this task by the execution of Charles I, in 1649, and felt it necessary, for his own personal safety, to leave the country to seek shelter in France.

In 1651, he found himself in Paris, where he was accepted at the English court in exile, and even offered a position as tutor to the young Prince Charles, later Charles II. In 1651, he published his magnum opus, Leviathan, a work which provided a definitive directive for the workings of the state. He compared the nation to a giant; Leviathan means monster or giant, composed of individual members, in the way a human body is made up of body parts, each having its own function and responsibility. The state was divided into classes, the aristocracy, gentry, merchant class, and the lower orders, each having its part to play and bearing individual duties and responsibilities. The head of the organised state was the king, who personally directed the affairs of not only the nation but the church. In his use of the analogy of body parts, Hobbes was indebted to St Paul, who created the image of body parts. 'For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.' [1 Corinthians 13:12]

Hobbes’ work found favour in the royal court, particularly the piece which insisted that a king was the true head of the state. Nevertheless, there were some of the Royalist cause, who took exception to a paragraph which mentioned exceptional circumstances in which a sovereign might be deposed. These individuals thought that Hobbes was alluding directly to the usurper Cromwell, who was ruling England in the absence of the true king. His enemies made his life uncomfortable and Hobbes was dismissed from the court. He made his way back to England, where he endured life under Cromwell’s tyrannical regime.

In 1660, came the Restoration and Hobbes found himself in favour of the newly restored king, Charles II. He was granted a small pension and had the honour of having his portrait hung, amongst a great many others, in the Royal galleries. He lived to be 91, and died on 4th December 1679, at his home Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, and is buried in the local parish church. [St John the Baptist Church, Ault Hucknall, Derbyshire, S44 5QH. Ault Hucknall is the smallest village in England. St John’s Church is a Grade 1 listed building, a Saxon church, with some fine tombs and exquisite stained glass.]

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