The English Civil War and its Ongoing Legacy

I know the English Civil War started in 1642 and ended 9 years later so you’re probably thinking it can’t have much of a legacy now.
I just think it might.

In the 1580’s the cleric, Richard Hooker, often considered to have written Britain’s first philosophical treatise, ‘The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’ wrote  [Book 1 Chapter 10]:

Civil society doth more content the nature of man than any private kind of solitary living, because in society this good of mutual participation is so much larger than otherwise…. Which thing Socrates intending to signify professed himself a citizen not of this or that commonwealth but of the world.

In 1623 John Donne wrote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Yet by the 1640s Thomas Hobbes was writing in ‘Leviathan’ describing the lack of, and need for, government:

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 20 years the outlook seems to have changed radically: from we are all part of a greater whole to almost ‘there is no such thing as society’…

Hobbes sees society as a collection of individuals who need to come together in order to survive. This was in contrast to the classical concept of inclusive and Natural Law,  which is in effect what Hooker is suggesting and, in a rather more appealing way, John Donne. For Hobbes the individual had to be contained in society in return for surrendering his natural selfish inclinations that would otherwise thrive outside it. He thought that man’s motivation was fear of death and that politics must protect one individual from another. This is the basis of Hobbes’s famous contract between the government and the governed. Every individual trades in his rights not to kill in exchange for a government that orders things so he is not killed.

Why is this important?

Because Hobbes seems to suggest we are all individuals operating in our own interest who need strong government to rein us in.

When Hobbes wrote his famous lines in ‘Leviathan’ it was in the middle of the English Civil War, so it may well have then seemed that without government there was indeed just chaos and no society. Importantly, Adam Smith also took the Hobbes line because he too believed humans’ natural state is selfishness.

So as many of us decry the homo economicus of current classical economics and consider the departure of the selfish individualism of neoliberalism, that same unique selfishness has actually been presumed as a confirmed hypothesis for the last 500 years. Consequently the idea may well be harder to shift.

The earlier, Christian view of society, rather than selfishness, is, as a basis for human existence nowadays, unlikely to be embraced as a real catalyst for a change of narrative. But perhaps Darwinian ideas could?

If we are just a lot of ‘naked apes’ then there was society long before government or an economy. Going round in a troupe with a bit of mutual grooming is certainly some sort of society. Anthropologists suggest we should more correctly consider that individuals are naturally a part of society and that individuals do not naturally thrive outside it. Hunter gatherers are, after all, not acting alone. Nevertheless, when we are all talking about the decline of neoliberalsim and its overemphasis on the selfish individual, I suggest that we may have a bigger fight on our hands.

For the selfish idea is really from Hobbes. His ideas were honed during a brutal civil war. Unsurprisingly he concluded that human nature is not based on the fact that we are born into a society but rather that we are born outside it and that without a society strongly governed, we would all be killing each other.

We ought rather to consider that human nature is based on the fact that without society we wouldn’t be able to survive. (The world has civil wars but they are fortunately not in the majority.) So this rather more progressive concept together with the natural world shows us that whilst species do have punch-ups, they are not hardwired to kill each other. Indeed if they were it wouldn’t be long before they self destructed.

Put another way, it is not selfishness but co-operation that is essential for survival. Individual and, particularly, group selfishness would, in fact, seem to consist, at least partly, of an endeavour to create advantage by misleading that cooperative society. After all, Leo Strauss, a professsor at Chicago University in the 1950’s, (and possibly a father of American Conservatism), seems to have believed that the government has a duty to tell lies to the people that it governs provided that those untruths enhanced social cohesion. It is but a small step to the selfish and neoliberal story of trickle down economics.

So beware that Hobbes thinking of the English Civil War – this is the philosophy of a broken, derailed society.

We must surely hope that this realisation is key to getting our society back on track.


  1. Sean Danaher -


    Thanks, historical precedents are always interesting and there has been a ongoing debate for millennia between the individual and collective. This is sometimes framed in religious terms over the past 500 years between Catholic and Protestant, with Catholics going for a more collective approach and Protestants a more individual one.

    The truth is as always far more complex, but we seem to live in a broken society at present and despite May’s desire to return to as form of “One Nation Conservatism” as outlined when she became PM, we seem to be going backwards.

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    Your final point on Leo Strauss and lies provides the rationale for Trump’s approach to being President then, Peter? Mind you, he better make hay while the sun shines because before his four years are up he’s going to have a lovely, big, crisis on his hands one way or another and no amount of lying will get him out of that.

  3. Graham -

    An interesting topic in the Wiki reference on hunter-gatherers is their egalitarian structure, which contrasts with the hierarchical nature of ape societies and our own. Some have suggested that hierarchy developed along a U-shaped curve, diminishing as humans became hunter-gatherers and increasing as we became more settled and turned to agriculture – and war.

    To my mind it is one of the most pernicious features of our society, permeating all aspects of human relationships, and inimical to the rebirth of the sort of democracy that flourished briefly in ancient Athens (with all its faults).

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