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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce


Updated: May 15, 2022

"This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence."

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 17, 1651

It was a bitter, cold morning at the end of January 1649. A large crowd had gathered in front of Whitehall in London. There was somber anticipation for what was about to happen. That morning, an English king was scheduled to be executed. Three days earlier, King Charles I was declared "a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy to the good people of this Nation" after a contentious trial by Parliament. Those who opposed the trial either stayed away or were turned away, leading to Parliament to be derisively known as a "rump." Charles did not participate in his trial as he did not wish to grant it legitimacy. Fifty-nine men signed his death warrant as the Rump Parliament pushed through an act to prevent his son, Charles, from succeeding to the throne. At about two o'clock, soldiers marched the king from his house arrest at St. James Palace to Whitehall. He donned two shirts to prevent shivering in the cold, concerned that observers might believe he was afraid. He was brought to the Banqueting House, where the Reubens painting he commissioned stared down upon him. The painting glorified his father and the monarchy, and it expressed Charles's firm belief in the divine right of his authority as king. Brought out through an upper window onto a scaffold, Charles was met by his executioners.

Execution of Charles I

The king briefly addressed the crowd. Being kept at a distance from the platform, those gathered barely heard him. "Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs." As he knelt to put his head upon the block, Charles instructed the executioners to wait for his signal as he wished to say a short prayer. Upon completion, he stretched out his hand to gesture he was ready. The executioner swung the ax and delivered the blow. In one clean stroke, the king's head was separated from his body.

Charles I

The execution of Charles I brought a short end to nearly a decade of civil strife and war in England. When Charles I succeeded to the throne in 1625 upon his father's death, England was already straining from political, religious, and economic tensions. The English Civil Wars arose from these complex and multilayered reasons. Three main sources of discontent can be generalized. By the end of Elizabeth I's reign, the Church of England - the Anglican Church- had established itself as the religious head of the kingdom. A century of hostility between Protestants and Catholics still simmered, and the persecutions conducted on both sides remained fresh. Even though the Anglicans were recognized as the official state religion, English Protestantism was splintering into several non-conforming sects during this period. The most notable of these were the Puritans. Many did not like Charles' apparent favoring of the Papists in the realm. His marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Marie of France only heightened their fears that the king planned to restore Catholicism to England.

The religious tensions only exacerbated the political and economic conflicts between the king and Parliament. Charles I maintained his belief in his divine authority, whereas Parliament had gained a more significant role in government. It could raise taxes, make laws, and budget money for the king. Charles, facing the need for more money after a disastrous war with Spain, needed Parliament to raise taxes. At first, they refused, and the king found other, more unpopular, ways of raising the money. In 1628, Parliament submitted a list of demands for the king in exchange for the new taxation. Charles acquiesced but then dismissed Parliament. He would not call it into session for another eleven years. This contest of wills would devolve into warfare between royalists, the Cavaliers, and the supporters of Parliament, known as the Roundheads for their close-shaven heads.

The ensuing civil war was costly, and it would become the bloodiest conflict on English soil. Families and communities were divided between the two camps. Nearly 5% of the population would lose their lives along with the extensive economic loss. It was against the background of the English Civil War that Thomas Hobbes wrote his seminal work Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. The Leviathan was published in 1651, just two years after the unprecedented beheading of King Charles I. The work presents Hobbes' views on the nature of man and the creation of societies via the social contract.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was born near Malmesbury, England, in 1588. His father was a vicar of the local parish. After a brawl in front of his church and the associated scandal, Hobbes' father abandoned his children and left them in the care of his brother. Another uncle, a tradesman, contributed to Hobbes' education. Already fluent in classical languages, Hobbes entered Oxford to study at the age of fourteen. In 1608, upon leaving the university, he was hired as a private tutor for the son of Lord Cavendish, later the Earl of Devonshire. In this capacity, he traveled with the family to France, Italy, and Germany, where he met other notable scholars such as Francis Bacon. When his pupil died in 1628, he was left to move from one wealthy family to another. He finally gained stable employment with a cousin of the Cavendish's, William Cavendish. His connections with the Cavendish family allowed Hobbes to circulate where politics and the affairs of the state were discussed. Though he never held an influential government post himself, he observed the structures of power and government. His pupil, the young William Cavendish, was a member of Parliament, and this afforded Hobbes to sit in on debates. By the end of the 1630s, Hobbes would become linked to the royalists as the crisis between the king and Parliament intensified. In 1640, he wrote a treatise defending the king against his detractors. The work was popular with the king's supporters in Parliament and often quoted during debates. When civil war broke out, Hobbes fled to France.

Hobbes remained in France until 1651. From his self-imposed exile, he witnessed his country sink into chaos, the brutality of war, and the horrifying spectacle of the king being executed. During this time, he began to pull together various threads of his political philosophy. He had not been trained in the sciences while at Oxford, but as a member of the Cavendish family household, he developed an interest in mathematics, particularly Euclid's geometry, and fascination with the physical properties of matter. He incorporated the ideas of Galileo and Kepler, among others, into his work, and he attempted to apply the principles of science to politics and governance. Hobbes also carried on a correspondence with the French philosopher Rene Descartes. The two men disliked each other personally but conducted a respectful debate over both political and scientific topics. It was in France that Hobbes began work on the Leviathan.

The Leviathan is divided into four sections or books. In the first book, "Of Man," Hobbes lays out the framework for the rest of the book. It is here that he expresses his philosophy on the nature of humankind. He proceeds through his argument much like one would a geometry theorem. He argues that human nature can be deduced from the same principles of matter as in physics. From this, Hobbes portrays human's natural condition as being violent and fearful. He depicts this state of nature as being a "war of every man against every man." People act out of their self-interest and greed, and they continually seek to harm one another. Life is brutish and short. True liberty, according to Hobbes, can only be achieved when humans are free from the chaos, disorder, and uncertainty inherent in this natural state. People will seek out peace and security. Political societies - the Commonwealth - are created when individuals enter into the social contract. The social contract is the agreement to abide by common rules, duties, and constraints in order to protect themselves and others within the society. Hobbes advocates for a strong central government, one with an absolute sovereign, as the only way to avert a return to the "state of nature." The people freely hand over power to the state. He equates this all-powerful state with the biblical Leviathan. The front piece of the book, which Hobbes helped design, shows people gathered into the body of the Leviathan (the body politic) and the sovereign as the head.

There is no doubt that the upheavals in English society, politics, and religion influenced Hobbes' political philosophy. Contrast this to three decades later when the British would again rebel and remove from the throne James II. The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 was nearly bloodless. From this, a stronger Parliament emerged whose authority vis a vis the monarchy would continue to strengthen and grow. It is in this environment that the other great English political philosopher, John Locke, would thrive. Locke served as a physician to Anthony Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftsbury. Shaftsbury was a minister of Charles II at the time of the Restoration, but he would become one of the founding members of the Whig Party and believed in limiting the power of the monarchy. In 1690, Locke would publish his most influential work - Two Treatises of Government. He stands in stark contrast to Hobbes' grim assessment of human nature. Locke proposed that governments exist through the consent of the governed, and if the people so chose, they can replace the government. This publication would not have much impact on his contemporaries, but the treatise would be influential a half-century later. The founders would use it as justification for American independence.


Further Reading

Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes


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