A black and white portrait of Thomas Hobbes

The Materialism of Thomas Hobbes

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Welcome to this week’s philosophy post. Today, I’ll be offering a snapshot of the life and thought of the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived between 1588 – 1679 and is known for his materialist perspective, as well as for being one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

Who Was He?

Thomas Hobbes grew up in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was educated at Oxford, and after securing a role as tutor to the son of a prominent Earl, he obtained access to a first-class library, and went on to travel extensively, mingling with many of the leading intellectuals of his time, including the likes of the French philosopher Descartes (with whom he corresponded about philosophy), and the Italian scientist Galileo.

Hobbes wrote on a range of subjects, from the physics of gases to theology, but is best known for his political theory. His most famous work is Leviathan (1651), in which he presented his views on metaphysics, psychology, and political philosophy.

What’s the Big Idea?

Hobbes is often regarded as the first modern materialist, and here’s a quote from Leviathan which gives us a helpful insight into his worldview:

“The universe, that is the whole mass of things that are, is corporeal, that is to say body; and hath the dimensions of magnitude, namely, length, breadth, and depth. Also every part of body is likewise body, and hath the like dimensions. And consequently, every part of the universe is body, and that which is not body is no part of the universe. And because the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and, consequently nowhere.”

My Reflections

Materialism is a philosophical perspective that endures to the present day, and if anything, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as we have seen the rise of science and a decline in the popularity of religion in many Western societies (certainly here in England). In contemporary scientific thinking, the human being is often viewed as a machine (the body) run by a machine (the brain), which accords perfectly with the phrase from Hobbes quoted above, that “every part of body is likewise body”.

One of the problems with materialism is that is clashes with the widely held idea that human beings have free will, and contemporary moral philosophers, such as Sam Harris, have found it very difficult to reconcile the two. Harris, who doesn’t believe in free will, can only explain our present-moment activity in terms of a chain of physical events that goes all the way back to the origin of creation and a ‘Big Bang’ event.

In terms of my own worldview, however, there is a different and I believe better way to resolve the seeming conflict between materialism and the feeling that we have free will. If an all-powerful and omnipresent God exists, we are able to explain both why scientific experiments work (because God is making causes and effects happen on every occasion that they do happen), and also why we feel we act freely (because God is animating all human activity freely in the present moment).

When Hobbes was challenged about his conception of God, he tended to dodge the question by stating that it is simply beyond our abilities as humans to comprehend God’s attributes. However, I believe we are able to understand many things about the the nature of God (if God is willing to give us such insights), and this is why I believe philosophy is still an important discipline, and why, as a deep thinker myself, I have devoted my life to studying it.


In the next Friday Philosophy post I’ll be offering a snapshot of the life and thought of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, who famously explored whether it’s possible for anyone to know anything with certainty. If you’d like to follow this series, please consider subscribing to this blog. Thank you for reading!

12 comments

  1. Good article. Materialism is a leftover from Enlightenment thinking that still pervades science and philosophy in the West, as you said here. But I agree with Kastrop (and Aristotle and Aquinas, for that matter) that materialism as an ontology is untenable. Materialism as a scientific methodology has served us well because of its inherent limitations. The early philosophers and scientists seemed to understand this delineation. Somehow we crossed the line into scientism in our day today and turned it into a worldview.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice article! Short and sweat as they say. Don’t know much about Thomas Hobbes. Interesting supposition though, that is ‘the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and, consequently nowhere.’ Being ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’ opens up another realm of thought. There are lots of non-things that exist on some level that we can’t necessarily pin point in space & time. Now in regards of the body acting as a machine of sorts, your catchy song about machines taking over the world might compliment this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Or appear to have material existence, like words, for instance. As we are reminded again and again: “The word is not the thing! The word is not the thing!” Indeed, the logos seems to evade the most crafty and philosophic of individuals.

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    1. A particular area of interest to me philosophically is the study of why and how we understand things. The process of interpretation. There’s a lot about this (well, my own views in any case) in my soon-to-be-completed book 🙂 Thanks for you comment, Jason!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think interpretations are so important. Even revealed truths are followed imo by interpretation. As for the matter/spirit problem, I think some quantum physics people confuse matter/energy on the one hand with spirit on the other hand. God knows about all of it. That’s how I resolve it.
        The free will issue you mention is interesting and I guess related. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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