State of War: The Nightmare of Thomas Hobbes

Posted on 17/04/2011 by


State of War: The Nightmare of Thomas Hobbes

Although he never used the term, Thomas Hobbes is credited with describing the concept now called the State of War, in his immortal Leviathan of 1651. In the original spellings, the source paragraphs are as follows:

“There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. 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, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” source: Gutenberg Press.

This is also the source of the famous and misunderstood phrase “life is nasty, brutish, and short”; however, the implications of the phrase are not absolute, but conditional. When there is not a power to “keep them all in awe”, people will be at each others throats jockeying for power, resources, or simply survival. When there is nothing — namely, the Sovereign — to protect the weak from the strong by overawing power, the strong will prey upon the weak. In these circumstances, life for the weak is indeed “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes makes it very clear that there needn’t be continual war to create the condition of the war of each against all. There only need be the possibility of such a war; the constant and pervasive threat of open warfare breaking out between multiple belligerants, the indentities of which might or might not be known until blood is shed. Coupled with the absense of some impartial and powerful system to keep and enforce order, the ability of people to live in a civilised manner is brought to near zero.

What is critical to understand is that Hobbes expected such an atmosphere to be a condition; that is, a period of time which will be superseded by the rise of some structured order, either by choice of the people or via imposition by foreign power. As Hobbes might have said, it is better to be conquered by one’s neighbours than to live in a war of each against all.

The other side of this condition of war can be gently teased out of the above two paragraphs. When life is sufficently shortened by the strife and toil, the war of each against all will subsume entire generations who know nothing else. In this manner, one can consider this a permanent condition of a war of each against all; people are born, live, and die locked in conflict with everyone around them. In this manner, I would say that the war of each against all has ceased to be a condition, and is best considered the famous state of war.

“State”, here, indicates permanence: there is no sight, or even understanding, of anything outside of the war of each against all. However, there is another reading of the word ‘state’, which gives the concept a much more gruesome turn. Once again returning to The Leviathan:

“There be other names of Government, in the Histories, and books of Policy; as Tyranny, and Oligarchy: But they are not the names of other Formes of Government, but of the same Formes misliked. For they that are discontented under Monarchy, call it Tyranny; and they that are displeased with Aristocracy, called it Oligarchy: so also, they which find themselves grieved under a Democracy, call it Anarchy, (which signifies want of Government;) and yet I think no man believes, that want of Government, is any new kind of Government: nor by the same reason ought they to believe, that the Government is of one kind, when they like it, and another, when they mislike it, or are oppressed by the Governours.” source: Gutenberg Press.

With apologies to Hobbes, sometimes Monarchy is indeed Tyranny; Aristocracy is Oligarchy; and Democracy is Anarchy. Tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy are the debauched forms, when people are “oppressed by the Governours”. The implications of this oppression, is that the rule of law has broken down, and those governors — whatever their titles — are ruling by whim rather than reigning by rules.

In such a situation, we see a new source of the war of each against all arise: when the governors have abdicated their responsibility to reign with impartiality and for the good of the country, and instead seek only their personal gain, the population of the country will do the same. People will cease to respect laws which governors themselves brazenly ignore, and begin to use any and all means to ensure their success, or at least survival.

This should sound very familiar: it is the war of each against all, but in a form which Hobbes could only allude to. Having lived through the revolt of Oliver Cromwel and his fellow usurpers, Hobbes was well aware of what could be created by governors which only sought gains, not order. Such antagonism from the top of society, imposed all the way to the bottom, gives rise to the form of war which I alluded to earlier.

In this form, “State” means “the body politic”: the State of war is the State which is War. The State has become the war of each against all, institutionalised and turned into what is presently call public policy. Instead of, for example, the “State of Law”, implying the State which seeks to create and defend Law as its highest aim — the form which Hobbes held up as the form to which a body politic should aspire — the State of War seeks to create and defend War. The State is not a friend and defender of the law-abiding members of society, but instead the defender of itself and sower of paranoia, distrust, and antagonism across all of society.

It is here, where Orwell steps into the picture with his iconic Nineteen Eighty-Four: for all its literary flaws, the novel shows a facet of the State of War. All of society has been converted to war production, and every person is arrayed against all others. Law is not what supports people, but rather constant, seething competition, and paranoaic fear of crossing over some line which only came into existence five minutes ago.

Taking the concept back into the abstract, the apparatus of the State of War is aligned with the notion that anyone and everyone could be a threat. Indeed, even if some person isn’t apparently a threat now, there is assumed to be an unknown, but not insignificant possibility they will become a threat some time in the future. As I’ve often said in the past, everyone is guilty until proven merely suspicious. This is the State of War personified: there isn’t constant police action against people, but there is the constant threat of such action. That pervasive atmosphere is not because of an absense of any governance, but because that is the method of governance.

To be very clear, the State of War is not just the fears of Hobbes or the fancy of Orwell. It is the method of governance under which much of the world presently suffers: the ‘War on Terror’, for example, is one such facet of the globalisation of the State of War. Indeed, this ‘War on Terror’ is the logical extension of this method of governance. If everyone within a country’s borders are suspicious, then obviously everyone outside those borders are just as troublesome, if not more so. When everyone within the country are at war with each other, then for the State of War to survive, the rest of the world must be turned against itself, as well.

This is why cooperative organisations and movements are considered so threatening by a State of War, such as the USA. When fear-driven, isolating competition and strife are held up as the norm, non-combative cooperative actions are subversive, regardless of the ends. Similar situations are very true in other countries, especially those which are involved in the ‘War on Terror’; all are part of a globalising war of each against all. This growing war is not despite of the existence of governance, but because the war is the basis of said governance.

Returning to Oliver Cromwel, and indeed Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, consider the motto of the agreeably short-lived Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is eeriely a root, from which all things followed; I can only wonder of Hobbes heard of it whilst writing The Leviathan:


Translated: Peace is sought through War.

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