When Thomas Hobbes published his magnum opus, Leviathan, he had just turned 63. His famous quote from this work, that life was “nasty, brutish and short”, was not entirely true for him. Hobbes lived until the grand age of 91, a feat most impressive even in our era of modern healthcare, let alone during the 17th century. Regardless, what Hobbes was trying to articulate wasn’t necessarily that life had to be dire, just that if we didn’t get our act together it almost certainly would be.
As with all great theorists, Hobbes is best read when viewed in his context. His age allowed him to not only see the beginning of the English Civil War, but also its end, and this provided him an opportunity to study both the success of politics and its failures. At the time, people were desperate for political philosophers to provide an answer to the ‘problem’ of politics and bring an end to the bloodshed. The conflict gave Hobbes a context through which he could communicate a creative and unique argument.
Others tried and failed as Hobbes meticulously compiled his work. When Leviathan was released at the end of the war, it was a revelation. What Hobbes identified wasn’t the standard ‘problem’ other theorists had long debated. To him, the choice was not one form of politics over another, it was that everyone had to join together in a social contract and pick politics over anarchy. Hobbes argued that the revolutionary English shouldn’t be concerned about different forms of governance, just that there was a government at all. Order was needed, regardless of whether it came in the form of a monarchy or a parliamentary democracy.
Now, clearly Hobbes’s argument is far more detailed than I have made it out to be in the short paragraphs above, but what I hope is obvious is that in Leviathan Hobbes communicated an idea that was fundamentally different to all the others that had come before it. He came from a different place and he saw the context of the English Civil War in an entirely novel way from the rest of his contemporaries. In doing so, Hobbes laid the foundations within which we have made life, at least to a greater degree, ‘kind, convivial and long’.
At Charlotte Street Partners, we follow this approach. As the world moves quickly forward and contexts change, we must find and offer an alternative to the established view. As Hobbes did, we must provide a different choice -- this effort is just as important in 2016 as it was in 1651.