What Hobbes Really Said

Life in the state of nature may be "nasty, brutish and short," but states are not people, and Hobbes is not the ultra-realist he is made out to be.

Issue: Fall 2005

Thomas Hobbes had the ability to shock. The most famous statement in his Leviathan (1651) was that human life in the natural state would or could become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"; this was a deeply disturbing claim to make at a time when most people believed in a God-given natural order of things. According to Hobbes, there was a natural disorder of things, and the only way to keep disorder at bay was to set up an artificial institution, the state, endowed with enough power to deter violence and promise-breaking among its subjects. As for the relationship between one state and another, this was similar in some ways to the relationship between individuals in the "state of nature": Order could not be guaranteed, because there was no overarching authority to maintain it.

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