Philosopher John Gray predicts we’re headed for an age of all-consuming moral warfare.
Even the most casual student of political philosophy knows the quote: In the prehistoric state of nature, wrote philosopher Thomas Hobbes, humans existed in a “war of all against all.” Our life without Leviathan—the state, empowered by the social contract to hold a monopoly on legitimate use of force—was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
British philosopher John Gray begins his latest book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts after Liberalism, with a fuller version of Hobbes’s passage, and so we, too, should begin here.
The longer excerpt reveals two things: first, that Hobbes didn’t want a powerful, unchallenged state for its own sake. Though often taught in contrast with Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Hobbes had the usual liberal interest in a state that makes space for a benevolent, creative, and well-ordered society to flourish.
Leviathan is needed, Hobbes wrote, because in war “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”—here’s the famous part—“the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The second revelation is darker. Hobbes’s talk of complex navigation, arts, and letters is awfully anachronistic for prehistory, isn’t it? Perhaps it is not only prehistory Hobbes had in mind. Perhaps, as Gray argues, his concern …