Early Modern Philosophy

Thomas Hobbes

What stories did Hobbes’ contemporaries tell about him?

According to the biography of Hobbes written by his contemporary John Aubrey, when Hobbes was at Oxford, he used to get up early in the morning and venture forth with lead weights, packthreads, and pairings of cheese. He would smear the threads with birdlime (an adhesive substance used to trap birds by sticking their feet to something) and bait them with the cheese. Jackdaws would spy them from far away and strike at the bait. Young Hobbes would then haul in the string and the weights would cling to the birds’ wings. (Aubrey does not furnish details about what happened after that.)

After the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, people sought reasons for God’s wrath. Parliament passed a bill to suppress atheism, and a committee was constituted to investigate Hobbes’ Leviathan. There was a report that Hobbes had been burned in effigy, and Hobbes was afraid that his papers would be searched, so he himself burned part of them. The king, who liked Hobbes, intervened, but from then on Hobbes was not permitted to publish his work. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor Oxford University permitted his books to be read, and they occasionally even burned them.


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