‘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”.

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Key Battles of the English Civil War

 

Battle Date Victor
Edgehill, Warwickshire 23rd October 1642 Indecisive
Newbury, Berkshire 20th September 1643 Parliamentarians
Cropredy Bridge, Oxfordshire 29th June 1644 Royalists
Marston Moor, Yorkshire 2nd July 1644 Parliamentarians
Newbury, Berkshire 27th October 1644 Indecisive
Naseby, Northamptonshire 14th June 1645 Parliamentarians
Langport, Somerset 10th July 1645 Parliamentarians

See also our articles on the English Civil War, all written by Simon Court:

Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I;
Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War; and
The New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War.

 

The New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War

When King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham Castle on 22 August 1642 and declared war on his own people he did so with his customary appeal to regal pomp and circumstance. Yet the ceremony degenerated into farce as Charles made last minute corrections to the Proclamation which the Herald then had difficulty reading out, and when the Standard was blown down in a storm on the same night it was interpreted by many as a bad omen. This fiasco symbolised the incompetence which hampered the Royalist campaign, and compared unfavourably with the organisation displayed by the Parliamentarian military forces during the years of conflict. For after raising the armies and an indecisive period of hostilities, what proved to be the determining factor in the war was the command, discipline and conviction of the New Model Army. Simon Court explains.

Raising the armies

Charles IThe Royalists (or ‘Cavaliers’) found it initially more difficult to raise funds and troops because it was harder to persuade men away from their harvest and towards a political cause which was purely reactionary and sought to defend the King’s absolute right to govern unfettered by Parliament. (Pictured: Charles I). By contrast, the Parliamentarians (or ‘Roundheads’) could appeal to the need to make the King more accountable to his people through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and were also able to draw on the support of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians whose religious conviction was that God was on their side. Both politically and religiously, the Roundheads were more highly motivated.

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Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War

The English are admired for the stability of their political constitution and their healthy scepticism towards any radical ideas which threaten it. Yet when King Charles I raised his Royal Standard at Nottingham and declared war on Parliament in 1642 he plunged his country into a chaos which saw families divided in mortal combat, a frenzied explosion of religious zealotry, the trial and execution of a king, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the imposition of a military dictatorship.

Charles ISuch violent upheaval of the nation-state, its institutions and society was a fully-blown revolution on English soil. But what is striking is that this revolution was not inevitable: for although it was rooted in deep conflicts in political ideology and religion, the extraordinary course of events could have taken a different direction at several crucial points if key people in the drama, especially the King, had made other decisions. Simon Court explains.

Politics

Charles succeeded the throne from James I in 1625 and his early years of reign were hampered by numerous conflicts with Parliament over the raising of taxation. He was uncommunicative, uncompromising and, as we saw in my piece Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I, he was also devious and untrustworthy. When in 1629 Parliament objected to Charles’ collection of ‘tonnage and poundage’ taxes without their authorisation he took the arrogant step of dissolving Parliament and decided to rule without it. He did this because he believed that he was God’s representative on earth and demanded that his word simply be taken as law. For him the authority of a king was ordained by God and he was accountable only to God, not to his people, for “it is not the place of the subject to question the royal prerogative”. Unsurprisingly this absolutist approach to government met with increasing opposition from those who sought to limit Charles’ powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of Parliament as the elected representatives of the people.

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Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I

On the afternoon of 20 January 1649 a slightly-built 48-year-old man with long greying hair stood before a court in London, charged with treason. But this was no ordinary court of law; it was the High Court of Justice sitting in Westminster Hall. And this was no ordinary charge of treason against the Sovereign; it was treason against the people by the Sovereign. For the man who stood trial was the King himself.

The trial and execution of Charles I was a microcosm of the English Civil War which had preceded it, in that both trial and war hinged on whether the King should be accountable for his actions to his people. The war had been bitterly fought since 1642 between the Royalist supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell and had claimed an estimated 185,000 lives.

The Royalists defended the ‘divine right’ of the King to rule unfettered by Parliament, and to account for his actions ‘but to God alone’. By contrast, the Parliamentarians sought to limit the King’s powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of the House of Commons: what we now recognise to be a constitutional monarchy. Many of them, including Cromwell, were devout Protestants who believed that God was on their side.

The Immovable Object

By 1647 the Parliamentarians had won the military battle, scattering the Royalist armies and holding Charles in custody at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Their leaders, Cromwell and General Henry Ireton, made a number of attempts to negotiate a new constitutional settlement with Charles but he refused to co-operate with any of them. Indeed Charles, who was by turns awkward, aloof and devious, had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements.

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