Hobbes & Darwin

April 5: 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 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.

Some commentators see the seeds of Social Darwinism in Hobbes. Darwin delivered the first three chapters of The Origin of Species to his publisher on this day in 1859. At the end of Chapter Three, "Struggle for Existence," Darwin observes that, except in "the extreme confines of life, in the Arctic regions or on the borders of an utter desert," the natural world is locked into a battle for survival and domination, and that any human tampering with the outcome will be done in ignorance:

It is good thus to try in imagination to give any one species an advantage over another. Probably in no single instance should we know what to do. This ought to convince us of our ignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction as necessary, as it is difficult to acquire. All that we can do is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; that each, at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.


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.

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