Thomas Hobbes – Life isn’t just nasty, brutish and short

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher whose work emphasized society and politics. He is often described as the founder of modern political philosophy, although some attribute that honor to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) who outlined in ruthless detail how to be an autocratic leader.

Thomas Hobbes. Line engraving by William Faithorne, 1668
Thomas Hobbes. Line engraving by William Faithorne, 1668

Concerning religion, Hobbes makes a distinction between knowing that God is and knowing what God is. From this, the Catholic scholar Fr. Frederic Coppleston believes it’s misleading to suggest that Hobbes was an atheist, even though many still do.

Hobbes was, in fact, embroiled in controversy from ongoing accusations of being an atheist and, by implication, a heretic. His fear of being found guilty of the latter charge compelled him to burn some of his writings and study, very carefully, the existing laws of his day.

Fortunately, King Charles II took a shine to Hobbes. Hobbes had tutored the future King, and the adult monarch Charles played a role in maintaining Hobbes’ safety.

The king was important in protecting Hobbes when, in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness. That same year, on 17 October 1666, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred “should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness… in particular… the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan“¹

The debate continues to this day and nobody can say with certainty how Hobbes stood on the point of God’s existence.

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse
The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse

In his seminal work, Leviathan (1651), Hobbes’ study of the commonwealth deals mostly with civil philosophy, which itself has two branches—ethics (relating to the individual) and politics (relating to society).

Hobbes imagines what society would be like without a governing body and distinguishes two types of bodies, the natural body and the commonwealth.

The natural body, as Hobbes envisions, is what life would be like without a political system.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.²

It's tempting to wonder how Hobbes' would see today's anarchists.
It’s tempting to wonder how Hobbes would see today’s anarchists.

Leviathan spells out Hobbes’ belief that human beings are rational and, above all, seeking self-preservation. If left to our natural impulses, however, we would become ruthless power seekers, each seeking to gratify his or her own interests, culminating in countless wars. Because this kind of existence would be intolerable, human beings agree to submit their individual wills to a Sovereign.

Not a few writers say Hobbes claims life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” but as noted, Hobbes describes life this way when speculating on the human experience in the absence of government. Left to its natural state, mankind would be beastly but politics apparently saves us.

Hobbes also maintains that knowledge gained from philosophizing brings personal power. This could be seen as foreshadowing the 20th-century thinker Michel Foucault’s idea that “knowledge is power.” Both Hobbes and Foucault believe power should be expressed through social action.

But unlike Hobbes, Foucault also says “power is knowledge,” meaning those with more social power have a greater ability to impose their particular norms and values on the rest of society. And society is composed of agents who, in many instances, would rather abide by different norms and values than those being disseminated through the media, legislation, or through more direct forms of military and policing power.

By way of contrast, Hobbes says power gained from knowledge should be applied to the common good, a perspective that 21st-century thinkers might see as simplistic or idealistic.


² Leviathan, Chapter XIII.: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery.

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