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Thomas Hobbes' Parkinsonism

By September 4, 2009

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), is best known for his political philosophy, although during his day he was more widely known as a scientist, a mathematician, a translator of the Greek classics (such as Thucydides’ History), and a fierce and passionate writer on religious questions. He developed the ‘shaking palsy’ sometime in his 50s or early 60s…sometime in the mid-1640s. By the 1650s or 1660s, we know he was using secretaries to do his writing as he had lost that ability. He would dictate his works to his secretaries. It is fascinating that Hobbes wrote his most influential works right before the estimated onset of his Parkinson’s disease (PD) and right after onset of the disease. For example, he wrote the De Cive [On the Citizen] (1642) right before the onset of his PD and he wrote his most famous work, Leviathan, in 1650-1651 right after onset of the disease. His disease onset and progression also coincided with some of the most momentous events in English history: The terrible Civil Wars of 1642-1646 and 1648-1651 occurred coincidently with the onset and early progression of his disease. Those civil wars involved the most fearsome forms of religious fanaticism and ended in the execution of the King. Through all of this and with his disease progressing, Hobbes was forced to leave the country for his personal safety and lived in France from 1640 to 1651. It is difficult to travel with PD now in the modern era. Imagine what it was like for Hobbes to travel with the disease in the 1650s – all while seeing his home country engulfed in religious fanaticism of the most extreme and deadliest kind. Did his PD influence his political philosophy? It is impossible to say. The disease, however, clearly did not slow him down intellectually. On the contrary, he produced his best most creative work just when the disease was trying to claim his body.

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