Thomas Hobbes: ‘Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’

Yale’s Little History books take a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer. Today, our focus is on Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who wrote the influential work, Leviathan.

Hobbes

If you’ve ever heard that phrase, ‘nasty, brutish and short’, you probably know about the rather pessimistic thinker who came up with it, Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes was born on April 5, 1588 to a clergyman and his wife in Wiltshire, and later went to Oxford for his education. In 1651, he wrote a famous book titled Leviathan, in which he expressed his views about the nature of human beings and the necessity of governments and societies. Many people reacted strongly to the publication of Leviathan, as they disagreed with his ideas about human nature. Nigel Warburton, in A Little History of Philosophy, introduces Hobbes’ main ideas:

‘[…] Hobbes, like Machiavelli, had a low view of human beings. We are all basically selfish, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain, he believed. All of us seek power over others, whether we realize this or not. If you don’t accept Hobbes’ picture of humanity, why do you lock the door when you leave your house? Surely it’s because you know that there are many people out there who would happily steal everything you own? But, you might argue, only some people are that selfish. Hobbes disagreed. He thought that at heart we all are, and that it is only the rule of law and the threat of punishment that keep us in check.

The consequence of this, he argued, was that if society broke down and you had to live in what he called ‘a state of nature’, without laws or anyone with the power to back them up, you, like everyone else, would steal and murder when necessary. At least, you’d have to do that if you wanted to carry on living. In a world of scarce resources, particularly if you were struggling to find food and water to survive, it could actually be rational to kill other people before they killed you. In Hobbes’ memorable description, life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’

But Hobbes’ theory did not end there: he wanted to find a way out of such an undesirable situation.

‘The solution, Hobbes argued, was to put some powerful individual or parliament in charge. The individuals in the state of nature would have to enter into a ‘social contract’, an agreement to give up some of their dangerous freedoms for the sake of safety. Without what he called a ‘sovereign’, life would be a kind of hell. This sovereign would be given the right to inflict severe punishment on anyone who stepped out of line. […] Laws are no good if there isn’t someone or something strong enough to make everyone follow them.’

Whether you agree with Hobbes’ views or think that they’re a bit extreme, he was nonetheless an important political philosopher whose ideas continue to make a big impact today. To that end, he is definitely a thinker worth commemorating, particularly on this day, 425 years after he was born!

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4 Comments

  • April 7, 2013

    Peter Faletrs

    Nice article…my guess is Hobbes had a difficult childhood…

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