This page contains a list of the six best books on or by Thomas Hobbes. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Hobbes” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Hobbes. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Hobbes. Here are the best books on Hobbes in no particular order:
Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
Publisher description: Written during the turmoil of the English Civil War, Leviathan is an ambitious and highly original work of political philosophy. Claiming that man’s essential nature is competitive and selfish, Hobbes formulates the case for a powerful sovereign—or “Leviathan”—to enforce peace and the law, substituting security for the anarchic freedom he believed human beings would otherwise experience. This worldview shocked many of Hobbes’s contemporaries, and his work was publicly burnt for sedition and blasphemy when it was first published. But in his rejection of Aristotle’s view of man as a naturally social being, and in his painstaking analysis of the ways in which society can and should function, Hobbes opened up a whole new world of political science.
Based on the original 1651 text, this edition incorporates Hobbes’s own corrections, while also retaining the original spelling and punctuation, to read with vividness and clarity. C. B. Macpherson’s introduction elucidates one of the most fascinating works of modern philosophy for the general reader.
The Elements of Law – Thomas Hobbes
Publisher description: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher, remembered today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory. He also contributed to a diverse array of fields, including history, geometry, physics of gases, theology, ethics, general philosophy, and political science. He was one of the main philosophers who founded materialism. He visited Florence in 1636 and later was a regular debater in philosophic groups in Paris, held together by Marin Mersenne. Hobbes’s first area of study was an interest in the physical doctrine of motion and physical momentum. Despite his interest in this phenomenon, he disdained experimental work as in physics. He built a good reputation in philosophic circles and in 1645, he was chosen with Descartes, Gilles de Roberval and others, to referee the controversy between John Pell and Longomontanus over the problem of squaring the circle. His other works include: The Elements of Law Natural and Politic (1640) and De Cive (The Citizen): Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society (1651).
Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction – Richard Tuck
Publisher description: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was the first great English political philosopher, and his book Leviathan was one of the first truly modern works of philosophy. Richard Tuck shows that while Hobbes may indeed have been an atheist, he was far from pessimistic about human nature, nor did he advocate totalitarianism. By locating him against the context of his age, we learn that Hobbes developed a theory of knowledge which rivaled that of Descartes in its importance for the formation of modern philosophy.
Hobbes – A. P. Martinich
Publisher description: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was the first great English philosopher and one of the most important theorists of human nature and politics in the history of Western thought.
This superlative introduction presents Hobbes’ main doctrines and arguments, covering all of Hobbes’ philosophy. A.P. Martinich begins with a helpful overview of Hobbes’ life and work, setting his ideas against the political and scientific background of seventeenth-century England. He then introduces and assesses, in clear chapters, Hobbes’ contributions to fundamental areas of philosophy:
- epistemology and metaphysics, in particular Hobbes’ materialism and determinism and his relation to Descartes
- ethics and political philosophy, concentrating on Hobbes’ most famous work, Leviathan, and the theory of the social contract it advances
- philosophy of science, logic and language, considering Hobbes’ theory of nominalism and his writing on rhetoric and the uses of language;
- religion, examining Hobbes’ analyses of revelation, prophets and miracles.
The final chapter considers the legacy of Hobbes’ thought and his influence on contemporary philosophy.
Hobbes: A Biography – A. P. Martinich
Publisher description: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is now recognized as one of the fathers of modern philosophy and political theory. In his own time he was as famous for his work in physics, geometry, and religion. He associated with some of the greatest writers, scientists, and politicians of his age including Ben Jonson, Galileo and King Charles II. A. P. Martinich has written the most complete and accessible biography of Hobbes available. The book takes full account of the historical and cultural context in which Hobbes lived, drawing on both published and unpublished sources. It will be a great resource for philosophers, political theorists, and historians of ideas. The clear, crisp prose style will also ensure that the book appeals to general readers with an interest in the history of philosophy, the rise of modern science, and the English Civil War. A. P. Martinich is a Professor of Philosophy and the author or editor of nine books, including The Philosophy of Language (1996), Philosophical Writing (1997), and The Two Gods of Leviathan (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes – Tom Sorell
Publisher description: Hobbes had distinctive views in metaphysics and epistemology, and wrote about such subjects as history, law, and religion. He also produced full-scale treatises in physics, optics, and geometry. All of these areas are covered in this Companion, most in considerable detail. The volume also reflects the multidisciplinary nature of current Hobbes scholarship by drawing together perspectives on Hobbes that are now being developed in parallel by philosophers, historians of science and mathematics, intellectual historians, political scientists, and literary theorists.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Thomas Hobbes
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Hobbes: Methodology
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