What did Thomas Hobbes mean when he said that life is "nasty, brutish and short"?

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Answered by: Elizabeth, An Expert in the Quotes By Person Category
It's a common misconception that Thomas Hobbes said that life is "nasty, brutish and short." In fact, what he said was:

"In such condition [of war], 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, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

Phew! That's a lot of words with a lot of Olde Tyme Spellings. Let's break it down, starting with the background of the quote.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) was an English philosopher who most famously wrote about political and moral philosophy. In his 1651 book "Leviathan," he set out to answer a question: what is the best type of government? But to do that, he first had to ask whether we need government at all. He tried to imagine a world without government, where there were no laws, courts or police telling anyone what to do. This would be the "natural condition of mankind," or what we refer to today as the "state of nature." What would it be like? Would we be better off?

Unlike thinkers before him, who explained humans and society in spiritual terms, Hobbes wanted to develop a scientific account of human nature. He was one of the first people to think that human minds could be studied scientifically just like our bodies. Like the body, he believed, the mind has the same basic functions and rules in everyone, with only small individual variations. These similarities between people can be a good thing, since they let us cooperate and communicate. But Hobbes pointed out that the basic similarity of human beings can be dangerous.

With most people on an equal plane of intelligence and strength, we're all competing against each other in a game that no one ever really wins. We all want the same things, and we're all capable of hurting somebody who has what we want. By the same token, anything you have could be taken away by someone who's willing to hurt you. And we all have the same desire for power and material gain that could lead us to commit these crimes. In fact, if there was no one to protect you from criminals, the only way to make sure you're safe would be to attack others before they attack you. So, Hobbes argued, unless there's a force stronger than everybody who can keep people from hurting each other, we can't trust each other or live together peacefully. Without a government to keep us in check, mankind is always at war.

That brings us back to the quote. In this warlike state of nature, Hobbes warns, there would be no production of goods (industry), because whatever you produced could be stolen at any time. For the same reason, there would be no farming ("culture of the Earth"), navigation, trade, buildings or even calendars ("account of time"). Since everyone would be so poor, there would be no science, art or writing. Everyone would be too afraid of each other work together in a society, because without laws to stop them, violent thugs would try to steal from or enslave you. So without a government, things would be really bad: life would be, to sum it up, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Hobbes believed these were very good reasons to have a powerful state that could prevent criminals and ensure a peaceful society. Because humans have higher reason and know that peace is better for everyone, we entered into what Hobbbes called a "social contract": a mutual agreement to ban violence and live under the power of a government, so we could all be better off than we were in the state of nature. He went on to argue that the best form of government is absolute monarchy, because unless there's one person who gets to have the final say, we might argue forever about what to do.

Hobbes wrote almost 400 years ago during the English Civil War, when unstable and changing governments caused tragedy and destruction in England. It's not surprising that he came to believe that without a strong government, human beings will destroy each other: he saw it happen with his own eyes. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, Hobbes remains an important and innovative thinker, one of the founders of political science, whose original concepts like the state of nature and the social contract are still used and discussed today.

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