‘Nasty’ Outlook

On this day in 1588 the natural law philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born. His famous description of man’s “nasty, brutish and short” prospects comes in Chapter XIII of Leviathan (1651). The discussion turns upon Hobbes’s belief that good government (for Hobbes, one run by an absolute monarch) is the only safeguard against “the natural condition of man,” which brings war or a perpetual fear of it:

In such condition 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, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

In the Preface to his The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish and Short (2014), David Archibald argues that, though the Hobbesian darkness has not quite descended, it is getting very late:

In this book I contend that the path to the broad sunlit uplands of permanent prosperity still lies before us — but to get there we have to choose that path. Nature is kind, and we could seamlessly switch from rocks that burn in chemical furnaces to a metal that burns in nuclear furnaces and maintain civilization at a level much like the one we experience now. But for that to happen, civilization has to slough off the treasonous elites, the corrupted and corrupting scribblers. Our civilization is not suffering from exhaustion so much as a sugar high. This book describes the twilight of abundance, the end of our self-indulgence as a civilization. What lies beyond that is of our own choosing.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.