‘Nasty, brutish, and short’: the dangerous world of Thomas Hobbes

There are many phrases which have remained in popular use but whose original context, and sometimes author, has been forgotten. A good example is the stark depiction of life being “nasty, brutish and short”. Only recently this phrase was evoked to describe the likely career path of modern football managers. The man who coined it was correctly identified as the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but what was the historical context in which it was made? It was the English Civil War. Simon Court explains.

Thomas HobbesThomas Hobbes was writing during the turbulent years of the 1640s and early 1650s which saw a bloody military conflict between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and his Parliamentarian opponents; the defeat of the King and his trial and execution, and the imposition of a Commonwealth in which the monarchy and the House of Lords was abolished. Whilst not directly engaged in this political upheaval Hobbes was horrified by it, and he sought to show in his political theory how the catastrophe of the civil war could have been avoided, and how future conflicts could be averted.

A ‘state of nature’

Hobbes had been developing his political thought throughout the 1640s but it received its most famous (indeed notorious) articulation in 1651, two years after the execution of Charles I, in his work Leviathan. Hobbes’ central idea is wonderfully simple. He contemplates what life would be like for people if they were not organised under a sovereign political power. He looks at them in this ‘state of nature’ and sees that they are driven by a common passion: a desire to be superior to others for the dual purpose of self-gratification and self-protection. This is of course impossible to achieve: all men cannot dominate each other. So they find themselves in perpetual conflict with a restless anxiety about the future. It is a bleak world where there is:

“continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

How do men escape this predicament? Hobbes tells us that the only way is for them to “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men”. Entering into this contract forces people to keep their promises and act in a trustworthy manner because they know that to defect from it will be met with punishment from the sovereign power. It is only by vesting all political power in the hands of one political body that men can be assured a peaceful life.

Absolute sovereign

Hobbes’ theory stands out as a highly radical, and indeed unique, justification for the imposition of absolute government. In voluntarily conferring upon one body all power to rule over them, people recognise that the sovereign not only makes the law, but is itself above the law. Its powers are therefore unlimited, except in one respect: given that the absolute sovereign has been created to protect its people from each other or foreign dangers, it follows that if it fails in that task the people are entitled to resist it, and even replace it with another body who is capable protecting them.

Whilst in theory Hobbes’ absolutist view of government could apply to an assembly as much as to a single monarch, in practice he was an ardent supporter of the institution of the English monarchy, during the reigns of both Charles I and his son, Charles II. Hobbes saw no legitimacy in the Parliamentarian overthrow and execution of the king in 1649: for Hobbes the people were not in sufficient danger from either themselves or foreigners to justify such an act. The resulting instability during the 1650s while Parliament attempted to establish a form of republican government (ending as it did in abject failure when Oliver Cromwell felt compelled to dismiss Parliament and rule personally as Lord Protector), further convinced Hobbes of the necessity to restore Charles II as monarch in 1660.

Disorder coming

Given the radical nature of his political views, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hobbes felt on a number of occasions that his own life was in danger of being ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. In the spring of 1640 he had published his first work on politics called The Elements of Law, which was widely read and in which he forcefully defended regal power. Yet in November that year Charles I was forced to recall the ‘Long Parliament’ and was denounced by its leader John Pym. This was rapidly followed by the impeachment of one of Charles’ key allies, the Earl of Strafford, by the House of Commons (see my piece Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War). Hobbes, who later recalled that he feared a  “disorder coming”, immediately fled to France.

Yet even in self imposed exile Hobbes faced hostility. By 1646 Charles I had effectively lost the war and his son, Prince Charles, was forced to join his mother Henrietta-Maria in Paris. Hobbes was also in Paris and secured the appointment as a tutor in mathematics to the sixteen-year-old Prince. Tellingly, Hobbes was forbidden to teach the Prince politics and when, in 1647, his book De Cive was published with an inscription describing Hobbes, without his consent, as ‘Academic Tutor to His Serene Highness the Prince of Wales’, Hobbes realised the danger of the Prince’s name being associated with “a political theory which offends the opinions of almost everyone”.

Immutable decrees

For Hobbes’ theory was not only rejected by the Parliamentarians, it was also viewed suspiciously by the Royalists. This was because Hobbes rejected the “divine right of kings” theory which formed the basis of orthodox Royalist thinking. As expressed by Charles I himself, “a king must rule his people like a father and, like a father, his authority is founded on the immutable decrees of Almighty God…These are the Divine Right of Kings and are ordained by the Almighty”. For Charles the king was accountable only to God, not to his people, for “it is not the place of the subject to question the royal prerogative”.

But as we have seen, Hobbes does not base political authority on God; instead he argues that sovereign power is man-made, and as such it can be conferred upon an ‘assembly’ of as much as one monarch. Also the people can legitimately usurp the sovereign if it fails to protect them. Unsurprisingly, orthodox Royalists were unnerved by this view and when in 1651 Hobbes presented a copy of Leviathan to Prince Charles in Paris he was subsequently forbidden to come to Court.

Heresy

Partly motivated by this rejection, Hobbes returned to England in 1652 and led a relatively obscure life at Chatsworth House under the patronage of the Earl of Devonshire. Yet his political views continued to be widely denounced, and this was coupled with accusations that Hobbes was an atheist. Hobbes was critical of the established clergy throughout his life, and he criticised the notion that the church should be independent of the political sovereign, whether though allowing people to be ruled by Rome, a Presbyterian minister, or private conscience.

Thomas Hobbes LeviathanWhen in 1666 the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness and ordered a Parliamentary Committee to review the contents of Leviathan, Hobbes was fearful that he could be charged with heresy but Charles II protected him from any punishment. However, Hobbes would never again be allowed to publish in England on political or religious matters. Recognising the inflammatory content of Hobbes’ writing to the end, Charles II refused Hobbes permission to publish Behemoth, his work on the English Civil War, for fear of its reception.

Ironically, and despite a number of scary moments, Hobbes lived to the age of ninety one years, dying in 1679. Yet his description of a dangerous world where life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ remains with us, whether related to the perils of football management or otherwise.

Simon Court

See Simon’s other articles on the English Civil War.