Life is Nasty, Brutish, and Short

February 11th, 2011 by Michael Tabor

The actual full Quotation is “Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” By Thomas Hobbes – 1651 from perhaps the most profound philosophical book ever written – ‘Leviathan’. 

I have thousands of great books in my library, one of which is the aforementioned – ‘Leviathan’. I remember reading this in my 20’s and being astonished at how penetrating, profound and insightful and apropos the themes regarding the human condition were stated regardless of the fact that the book was written 325 years ago. There are eternal truths and there is an old adage that proclaims that Plato has written everything there is to know about life and the human condition and any other thing written or said is merely a footnote. So if you believe in this then even this masterpiece, ‘Leviathan’, is just another footnote to the great works of Plato. 

One can argue that ‘Leviathan’ is a treatise on political theory and Hobbes was writing about the state of affairs in England, circa 1588-1679 during the English Civil War. Hobbes believed in a powerful monarch and an absolute authority and therefore he supported King Charles I and was against the forces led by Oliver Cromwell.

 To put Hobbes’ convictions and conclusions into a neat nutshell it goes as follows: He believed that life was a constant struggle and there would always be war inasmuch as man was continually at odds with each other because we are all pursuing the same things – food, shelter, wealth, safety and security. (It’s the old argument that there are too many people and not enough natural resources; I personally think this is not in fact the case, I believe there is enough to go around for everyone and it’s really just an issue of greed. People think that they are special and therefore are entitled to more than their share. Go ahead call me a Socialist.) So not unlike Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ (Darwin actually stated it was not so much the strongest who survived but one who was the best at adapting to one’s environment) and of course Karl Marx, Hobbes believed in the Common wealth.   

So if you accept the premise that man is a greedy, primal species, Hobbes viewed Commonwealth as a social contract analogous to a giant social organism. He concluded that if we didn’t have this contract and if we didn’t have an absolute authority and a powerful monarch we would have total chaos and individuals would not attain the shared goals of safety and security. The human species would be no different from any other animal. 

I’ve attempted to give a synopsis of this very complex concept of Thomas Hobbes and it’s impossible to not to sound somewhat facile but I strongly recommend everyone to read ‘Leviathan’ and just read the classics period. I love current events and I read the newspaper, magazines, surf the net, read other blogs (btw – if you’re not familiar with  Arts and Letters Daily you should check it out, it is probably one the best sites on the Web   but don’t forget to come back here) However I do read the classics as well and I go back to the original source. So read Plato and instead of reading a book about Charles Darwin, why not just read Darwin – read ‘The Origin of Species’. There is nothing wrong with criticism and I love Harold Bloom and Clifton Fadiman but there is nothing like reading the real thing; it’s like going back in time and getting into the mind of the greatest thinkers who ever lived. 

So WHADAWETHINK ? Have you read Leviathan ? Do you read the classics? Have you read Plato ? What are your favorite books of all time? Do you prefer modern literature? This blog could be 1000 pages long.

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2 Responses to “Life is Nasty, Brutish, and Short”

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