POLITICAL THINKERS are always products of their times. This is especially true with Thomas Hobbes, whose long life spanned the upheavals of the English Civil War (1642–51) and its aftermath, as well as the discoveries in science and math by contemporaries such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Johann Kepler, and Marin Mersenne. Historians of political thought have long appreciated the importance of that context to the formation and nature of Hobbes's political philosophy, although they often disagree, considerably, about how exactly it played out.

Born in Malmesbury, England, in April 1588, Hobbes's earliest formal education was with Robert Latimer, who taught him Latin and Greek. In 1603, he attended Magdalen Hall in Oxford, an experience he wrote of disparagingly. Upon taking his B.A. in ...

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