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The State of Nature

As Depicted by Locke and Hobbes


The period of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was perhaps the greatest turning point in the course of human progress. The flame of reason and human endeavor, which had all but burnt out over the previous one thousand years, was rekindled, and a great many people became inspired with a renewed passion for the pursuit of knowledge. As a result of this, great strides were made in many fields such as the study of science, art, literature, and philosophy. There was one aspect of this new age which was characteristic of all fields of study however, and that was the idea that the human being is a creature of immense faculties, great ability and endless potential in both constructive and destructive endeavors.

As a result of this humanistic movement of the 16th and 17th centuries, many thinkers tried to understand humans more thoroughly by determining what basic characteristics are inherent in all men and women. More specifically, they tried to determine how and why humans evolved to form civilized societies, and what motivated them to do so. In addition, as a continuation of the work done by pre-enlightenment thinkers such as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, scholars debated as to whether or not humans were naturally endowed with the faculty of reason, morality, and whether humans had any natural rights. Determining how humans exist in a state of nature became an important factor in determining why man evolved to form civilized society. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were two great thinkers of this time who formed radically contrasting theories about the state of nature and mankind s emergence from it. This paper will look at Hobbes Leviathan and Locke s Second Treatise of Government to determine what each author conceived the state of nature to be.

The Concept of the State of Nature

When confronted with the idea of humans in a state of nature, many will automatically associate the idea with a Robinson Crusoe or even a Tarzan-like scenario, where man is constantly grappling with the elements in a desperate plight for survival. For the purposes of this paper however, the concept of the state of nature will hold a much more reverent and philosophical meaning. The state of nature describes human nature and human interaction with all effects of political institutions and civilized society stripped away. Theoretically, human beings in a state of nature will only exhibit those behaviors and characteristics that are basic to our species. By determining what these characteristics and behaviors are, we can better understand how and why we evolved to where we are now, and consequently, gain a better understanding of humanity in general.

Freedom in the State of Nature

Freedom in the state of nature is a very important concept to consider. Without the limitless potential for complete personal liberty, true human nature would not be allowed to surface in individuals. Firstly, freedom exists in a state of nature because of the lack of anything to hinder it. There are no institutions to make and enforce law, nor are there any institutions in place to punish those who harm others. As Locke writes, those who exist in a state of nature exist in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. 1 Hobbes thought on the subject is along the same line: a freeman, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to. 2 For some, this definition of freedom in a state of nature might not be that easy to conceive because it is so drastically different from what we refer to as freedom in western civilized society. Freedom to do what one wants, to whom one wants, without any fear of legal repercussion, although instantly appealing to some dark part of our psyches, would lead to the degeneration of civilized society. Although we like to think of ourselves as free , certain limits to our freedom protect us from being completely free.

Locke on the Law of Nature

Locke realized that freedom in a state of nature could potentially be very counter-productive to survival if humans, generally speaking, were not endowed with two important characteristics: reason and conscience. According to Locke, just as a human is bound to preserve his or her own life, when not fighting for one s survival, it is important to preserve the lives of others3. This was the foundation of what Locke considered the law of nature to be. According to this conception of the law of nature, in order to preserve mankind, a person may not, unless it be to do justice to an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another. 4 To ensure that humans do not transgress this law, our faculty of reason and conscience largely dictates and restrains our actions. Reason and conscience, according to Locke, also direct us as to what action should be taken to ensure that others do not transgress the law of nature: so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as many serve for reparation and restraint. 5 Because of the benefits of reason and conscience, it seems that people have a natural sense of what is right and wrong, and have the ability to enforce these views. So according to Locke, in the state of nature, where human have potentially unlimited freedom, natural law limits this freedom and punishes wrong doing just as a fully functional legal system would do civilized society.

Hobbes Conception of the State of Nature

Although Locke maintained that humans in a natural state, or a state of perfect freedom 6, would act with some restraint and morality, Hobbes offered a far less optimistic view. According to the famous line in Leviathan, life in the state of nature would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. 7 Unlike Locke, Hobbes did not believe that humans have the natural capacity to handle complete freedom with reason and constraint. The state of nature to Hobbes would be the equivalent to a state of war: Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man. 8 According to Hobbes, without some sort of political system of authority to keep people in line, individuals would automatically quarrel with one another. This belief was based upon three factors which Hobbes maintained were the principle causes of quarrel in a natural state: competition, diffidence, and glory.9 In order to understand these three causes of conflict it is important to first understand the concept of equality in the state of nature.

Equality and Conflict in the State of Nature

It has been our tradition in modern society to blame inequality as a contributing factor in the cause of conflict. Through out our civilized history, political inequality, economic inequality, ideological difference, and even class differences have been major causes of strife around the world. This is why it may be hard at first to understand why, in a state of nature, Hobbes blames equality and not inequality as the cause of conflict. Firstly, like Hobbes, Locke also believed that all humans in a state of nature are equal. The difference between the two men s thought being how people are affected by equality. According to Locke, the state of nature is: A state also of equity, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, that that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst the other. 10 In Locke s conception of the state of nature, human beings would have a more or less equal capacity to demonstrate morality, restraint, and punish those who don t. It is important, however, to remember that Hobbes did not believe that humans had such capacities in the state of nature, or the chance to use these capacities to any productive end. Hobbes maintained that generally, humans share the same basic ability, though the ability would be divided into a varying proportion of attributes. He concluded that this meant that all humans in a natural state would have an equal chance of obtaining the same desirable end: From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, endeavor to destroy, or subdue oneanother. 11 Furthermore, since one person s chances of obtaining something are equal to another s, his right to it is equal to the other person s as well: And because the condition of man, is a condition of war of every one against everyone; in which case every one is governed by his own reason [and] it followeth , that in such a condition, every man has the right to every thing. 12 Thus, in such a state, humans would always quarrel because they would always be seeking things not yet in their possession, and would do so without regard for the life and property of others.

To better illustrate this, consider the following scenario: Picture a single man in the state of nature. After walking for many days through a vast, barren and arid wasteland, this man comes across an oasis complete with fresh water, fruit trees, and animals to hunt. The man then claims the oasis as his own, and proceeds to hunt, gather, and then erects a shelter. After a few weeks another man discovers the oasis, but finds it is inhabited by the first man who is not willing to share his resources. The second man then, motivated by the desire to have what the first man has, attempts to subdue the first man. At this point, Hobbes first and second cause for quarrel, (competition and diffidence), are introduced. For example, the second man is competing for control of the oasis, while the first man is quarreling out of diffidence or, in other words, a reluctance to give up what he believes belongs to him. Let s say that the second man, unable to subdue the first, leaves the oasis. After walking a few miles he meets another man. The second man tells the third man about the oasis, and the third man thinking himself up to the task, decides he wants the distinction and reputation of being the man to take over the oasis. Thus, glory, the third cause of conflict, is introduced into the scenario. Now, regardless of whether the third man kills the first, there will eventually be others that try to take over the oasis, and this cycle of conflict will continue as long as humans exist in this state of nature.

Hobbes on Natural Law

As one can see, the principle difference between Hobbes conception of the state of nature, and Locke s model, is the lack of any inherent morality and rationality. While Locke believed that our actions are dictated by the law of nature, Hobbes did not believe such a force exists. This does not mean that Hobbes did not believe there was some sort of natural law however. Hobbes viewed natural law as a set of obligations that humans have to follow to avoid the state of war and achieve peace. Firstly, Hobbes maintained that humans should seek peace whenever the opportunity presents itself. When it does not however, fighting for one s existence remains the priority.13 In order to achieve to peace, humans would have to be willing to sacrifice their right to all things and act towards others in a manner in which they would like others to act towards themselves. This idea comes directly from Hobbes second law of nature: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. 14 The third law of nature, according to Hobbes, is a very uncomplicated one, it simply states that men perform their covenants made. 15 Hobbes believed that if people could keep their words, either by fear of consequence, pride, or others reasons, then peace could become a reality. If these people did not honor their covenants however, then how could these people be expected to follow the first two laws of nature? Although Hobbes constructed eighteen laws in total, these first three remain the most significant in the sense of lifting mankind from the state of war.


In conclusion, although this paper did not cover all the aspects of the state of nature, it provided enough information to promote a general understanding of what Locke and Hobbes were trying to convey. By looking at the ideas of equality, freedom, conflict, and natural law in the state of nature, we can gain better understanding how these concepts contrast and compare to those in modern society. In Leviathan and the Second Treatise of Government, Locke and Hobbes begin what would become a legacy for post-enlightenment thinkers. Defining the true state of nature would become an important concept in work of other prominent thinkers such as Rousseau, and even Karl Marx. In the end, it must be understood that any theory about the state of nature, is, just a theory. As long as one view can be rationally supported, who is to say that it is not as valid as any other supported view, so long as neither view can be proven? Maybe, as Locke maintains, we would act morally and rationally towards one another in a state of nature. Or as Hobbes states, we would essentially be in a state of war until some sort of authority would put an end to it. The only way we could know for certain what the state of nature is like would be to experience it first hand. Only then would we know for sure. But nevertheless, theorization is not futile. By contemplating, and debating such things, we can achieve a greater understanding of humanity in general, and with this knowledge, we will hopefully never have to exist in a state of nature.


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