“A Great Leap in the Dark”: Thomas Hobbes

By | 2nd March 2018

Nottingham has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature, mainly in respect of its 19th and 20th century associations with writers like Byron and Lawrence. This blog explores an earlier association with the world-famous political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes is just as worthy of recognition by the City of Literature. His life spanned the transition from Latin to English as the main language of scholarship and science. Some of his phrases – ‘the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – are still in circulation more than three hundred years after his death. More importantly, though, people are still trying to answer the questions that he asked about politics and society.

Hobbes’s most famous work, Leviathan, published in 1651, is a thought experiment. Let us suppose, he says, that humans are essentially selfish, devoted to pursuing their own interests regardless of the impact on anyone else. What would such a society look like? It would, he suggests, in another phrase we still encounter, be a war ‘of every man, against every man’. In such a situation, no-one would be able to trust another person or start any long-term projects. Why plant seeds if you could not be sure of the harvest? Why improve your home if you could be evicted by force at any moment? Why marry or raise children, when you could ravish anyone unable to resist and enslave their offspring? A world of wholly selfish people would truly offer a very poor life to all who lived in it. Indeed, it is questionable whether it could function at all.

Hobbes’s great contribution is to ask, in beautifully constructed prose, the fundamental question from which all the others flow: how is it possible for men and women to live together in societies that deliver both peace and prosperity?

Read the blog at Nottingham City of Literature

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