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Hobbes Vs Locke State Of Nature Essayists

Discuss the Characteristics of Locke’s Man in the State of Nature and Thereafter Compare or Contrast them with the Characteristics Described by any other Republican Theorist

The State of Nature is a useful philosophical model which allows social contract theorists to present their understanding of human nature and offer a justification for the erection of government. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes have both submitted competing versions of such a state in Two Treatises of Government and Leviathan respectively, and they arrive at very different conclusions. An evaluation of their conception of pre-societal man accounts in large part for the divergence in their views on what form a Commonwealth should assume and what powers it should be endowed with. This essay will analyze Locke’s man in the state of nature and subsequently juxtapose it with Hobbes’ in an effort to shed light on the differences between two of the great 17th century thinkers.

Locke uses the state of nature as the starting point for his second, and most salient, Treatise. This is a condition where there is for men “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.” From this very first sentence, it is evident that Locke follows in the Natural Law tradition which states that men inherently have a moral sense which restricts them from engaging in certain acts. By virtue of being children of God, we know what is right and wrong and by extension what is lawful, and we can therefore resolve conflicts fairly consistently. As a result, for Locke, the state of nature is not a state of License because man “has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it.” Reason teaches us that we ought not to harm one another in life, health, liberty or possessions, and that in fact we have an active obligation to others, much as Cicero had earlier contended. At the same time, we all have “a right to punish the transgressors of [the Law of Nature]” and as such we are all executioners of natural law. However, man is disposed to be partial in his own case and therefore act as a biased judge. This is indeed one of the great shortcomings in Locke’s state of nature. The other two failings are the absence of protection of property rights and the inclusion of irrationals. Nevertheless, it is crucial that man has united even in the absence of government. In all, such a state is inconvenient for man, but not altogether corrupt, and it is characterized by tolerance, reason and equality.

By contrast, Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature is far grimmer. He rejects that man has an innate and inviolable moral compass directing his actions, and suggests instead that man is but a bundle of passions and that he behaves on the basis of desires and aversions. This quintessentially materialistic and prudential reading of the human condition is radical in the history of political thought and is certainly in disagreement with Cicero and Locke. Self-interest is the dominant theme in Hobbes’ man, as his ultimate objective is to secure as many pleasures as possible (the ultimate one being self-preservation) and to avoid pain and aversions (most importantly a violent death) with no regard for others. We have no conception of right and wrong – we need a namer of terms to dictate this to us. The state of nature is therefore not immoral, but rather amoral. There is no justice or property, only rational egoism. We use scientific reasoning, the deduction through ‘if/then’ experience, to achieve the greatest utility, yet we can never be safe to enjoy it. In this lawless, pre-societal condition, there is license and absolute positive liberty. Here, “every man has a Right to every thing; even one anothers body. And therefore, as long as this naturall Right of every man endureth, there can be no security to any man.” Men quarrel mainly as a result of Competition, Diffidence and Glory and force and fraud are the two cardinal ‘virtues’. In fact, such a condition rapidly degenerates into a “warre of every man against every man” where one’s life is ultimately “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” While Hobbes employs Laws of Nature in his argumentation, they are not ubiquitously binding, but apply only when one’s life is secure. In principle, we are all inclined to abide by them, but in practice the need for self-preservation takes precedence. Hobbes must therefore not be confused for a Natural Law theorist. Man, because of his natural equality, is not secure in the state of nature and he is in fact not achieving his potential. Unlike in Locke, we are unable to form a civil society and we remain a collection of individual, irreconcilable, wills. We require a third party to unite our wills. The state of nature is thus a dangerous, uncooperative place and we are eager to escape it.

These divergent representations of the state of nature naturally produce different justifications for the erection of government and accord different functions and powers to the state. Locke believes that man escapes the state of nature in search of an impartial umpire to apply the law of nature and to protect one’s estate. In entering Political Society, therefore, man forfeits only his Executive Power of the Law of Nature, not his life, liberty or property. We agree with other men to join and unite into a community for comfortable, safe and peaceable living. Seeing as we are already capable of uniting our wills, we do not require an omnipotent Sovereign to be our representer. Instead, we simply need someone who can maintain, not create, the law. The law is merely the enforcement of the law of nature and we, as members of the society, must approve them. Locke argues that rights come from laws, while obligations come from nature. This creates a fiduciary power, accountable to the people, that rests on majoritarian popular consent. Law, rather than force, is the basis for government, and peace is not desirable at any and all costs. Locke clarifies that rebellion is permissible when the government subverts the ends for which it is established, and indicates that is it possible that someone is better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the state of nature before electing a new government. As a further safeguard to protect the people, Locke implements a separation of powers. For Locke, an absolute monarch that can violate the law of nature is not able to elevate the people above the state of nature. It appears that he is advancing a minimalist form of government with most of the activity occurring in the market place. Locke’s pre-societal man, endowed with an understanding of the law of nature, does not need a powerful government to educate him and keep him in check. Instead, he needs a reliable bureaucratic mechanism to responsibly apply the law in accordance with popular will.

Conversely, the Hobbesian man could never survive in such an institutional setup. Hobbes’ reading of human nature would not allow anything but a coercive government, because without it, we would simply disregard the laws of nature and apply our right of nature. For Hobbes, like Machiavelli, persuasion alone is insufficient to oblige men to perform their obligations. We consequently transfer the securing of our right of nature and the capacity of self-government to a Sovereign and voluntarily subject ourselves to positive legislation. “The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Commonwealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” We essentially say to each other “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner,” and in this fashion, a multitude of men are made one person by co-authoring the acts of their Representer. The state creates civil society. By virtue of authoring the actions of the Sovereign, we adopt them as our own and can therefore offer no resistance, since that we would be going against our own will and would be irrational. Any abuse of power is simple the price of peace. A Sovereign can now enact legislation that forbids acting upon one’s Passions (which in themselves do not constitute a sin) insofar as they injure or disadvantage someone else. This will allow subjects to follow the Laws of Nature, which they are inclined to do even in the State of Warre. Unlike with Locke, the Sovereign makes the laws with the intention of enforcing the contracts we made with one another and punishing non-performance. Force, not law, is the basis for government. This is a paternalistic system geared at protecting the state and ensuring peace and stability. There is no separation of powers: the Sovereign controls civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Our freedom lies only where the law has nothing to say (ie, negative liberty). Unlike with Locke, we have no obligations, and law only limits our rights. Cooperation would lead to chaos – what we have instead is a negative Golden Rule. Because of our passions, our lack of a moral sense and our self-interest, we cannot ensure our survival with anything short of an all-powerful Sovereign who will lay down the law and (hopefully) work for the Common Good as he interprets it.

From the above analysis, it is manifest that Locke and Hobbes disagree on very core questions on human nature. One sees man as fundamentally good with an innate morality while the other sees man as a self-interested and unrestrained creature. These initial assessments have ponderable implications on the form of government each theorist recommends and lead to further disputes. Locke believes that the arrangement should protect the people and be subservient to it, Hobbes believes the state deserves protection. Locke wants its functions limited to the essentials, Hobbes wants as far-reaching powers as possible for his Leviathan. Locke views the law as a means of enforcing the dictates of nature, Hobbes views it as a means of enforcing contracts. Locke considers government as a vehicle for maintaining human nature, Hobbes regards it as a means for counteracting it. These positions are entirely irreconcilable. However, each thinker is internally consistent, and the form of government proposed is the logical conclusion of his pre-societal man. In classifying today’s world, it appears that we have adopted a more Hobbesian attitude, with the state being more of a master and less of a judge.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

The state of nature is a concept used in political philosophy by most Enlightenment philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The state of nature is a representation of human existence prior to the existence of society understood in a more contemporary sense. Locke and Hobbes have tried, each influenced by their socio-political background, to expose man as he was before the advent of social existence. In this sense, these authors also attempted to trace how this transition occurred or, in other words, how man has been socialized while leaving behind him the animal state.


The state of nature in Hobbes and Locke’s philosophy

Thomas Hobbes holds a negative conception of the state of nature. In his view, it represents a state of permanent war, a permanent threat to the continued existence of the individual. First, Hobbes stipulates that all human beings are equal. That is that any man can dominate others, regardless of the means used – be it strength or cunning. Strength and cunning are two essential qualities in the state of nature. In essence, “there is no better sign of an even distribution […] the fact that everyone is satisfied with his hand.” Finally, all human beings want the same things. Given this state of desire is prescribed by greed of what others have and by the need to fill a craving, men are in competition to satisfy their needs. Each being tries to dominate the other, hence the maxim “man is a wolf to man.” Competition for profit, fear for security, and pride in regard to reputation all fuel this state of permanent conflict.

Three consequences are connected to the state of nature: the absence of any concept of law, justice, and property. Without laws, so in absolute freedom, the law of the jungle governs human relations. All have a natural right, which is to protect their own existence, at the risk of their death. Where there is no law that determines the individual, there is no injustice, because each is in its natural right to devise the means to ensure his own safety, and no common power or authority is in place to administer the justice. Finally, property is absent, as is industry, as the state of nature does not allow ownership. In short, this state of nature is war, which can be stopped only by the natural law derived from reason, the premise that Hobbes makes to explain the transition to the “civilized” state.

According to John Locke, the state of nature does not necessarily mean a state of war as it does in Hobbes. Although for Locke there remains a certain skepticism about the natural state because it is full of impartial justice. The state of nature as described by Locke is therefore one of equality, because everyone has the same powers as his/her neighbor, which implies a state of non-subjection. It is also a state of perfect freedom, because the individual cannot depend on anyone. But this freedom is not absolute, since it is bounded by two precepts of the law of nature, which arises from the nature and human reason, and which stipulates that there can be no wrong inflicted to oneself or to others. But, “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, his blood will also be spread by a man.” Man can kill, but only for one purpose: to punish an offender who violated the principle of “peace and preservation of mankind.” There are two rights, the right to punish the crime by a person authorized to do so and the right to require repairs to ensure its preservation. It requires power to judge of the judge and punish: the exemption of passion and the sentence must be proportionate to the crime, while deterring others from committing a similar crime. Each is both judge and defendant, wherein lies the problem because – for Locke – man’s ego makes him inherently biased and unfair. In contrast to Hobbes, the natural laws exposed by Locke exist in the state of nature. And, because they go against the freedom of individuals, they are considered fundamental traits of human nature.

However, for both authors, human reason is the result of a thinking – and prudent – being. The state of nature is not the equivalent of a state of war. The violation of freedom of man by man which depicts the state of war is not the same as the state of nature where independence is shared by all parties. Not being two similar states, they aren’t two absolute opposites either. “The denial of a common judge, invested with authority, puts all men in the state of nature: injustice and violence […] produces a state of war.” Visions of Hobbes and Locke are conflicted when it comes to the meaning of state of nature. Ultimately, the transition to the state is characterized by the pursuit of impartial justice and the disappearance of the state of war.

The transition to state according to Locke and Hobbes

For Thomas Hobbes, the first step to the state derives from reason. It turns into two laws of nature which prevent men from being destroyed by agreeing to divest themselves from their natural right and strive for peace. The laws of nature restrict the freedom of the individual as they impose not to follow their natural passions such as pride, revenge, etc.. These laws prevent men from claiming their right to do what they please, and thereby threaten to return to a state of war. The transition to the State seeks to uproot the state of war arising from the state of nature. So there is an unavoidable necessity of the State, which grounds the protection of men. This is a partial transfer of man’s inherent right to the state with absolute power, which it provides protection to men in their lives in return. The power wielded by the state quells conflict and institutes peace among men. Power must be in the hands of one man or assembly “which can reduce all wills, by majority rule in a single will.” This majority, however, implies the subjection of individuals channelled into a common will. In short, for Hobbes, the transition to the state is a necessity to get out of a state of destruction and anarchy. In order to ensure a peaceful life within the State, man must therefore forego his natural right.

The transition to the state for John Locke, occurs when justice is impartial. Before establishing consent between people, there is transmission in a state of their natural rights in return for justice. It relies, as in Hobbes, on the rule of the majority. This rule implies that the consent of everyone is necessary to make sure they submit to the will of the people. If they act against this, they are in a state of nature. The man, relegating his rights on the basis of a shared agreement, gives rise to a legitimate civil government, which imposes its rule to the individuals under it. The man relegates his rights because in the state of nature, “the enjoyment of   property […] is uncertain, and can hardly be alone.” For the gaps in the state of nature are: the absence of established laws, impartial judges and power to carry out the sentences given. These three gaps lead men to leave the state of nature to protect and maintain their property. The establishment of power is necessary, as with Hobbes. But unlike the latter, it is not to end a state of war, but of a state of injustice. From this perspective, the new government is impartial justice that was missing from the natural state. Therefore, the state is not ultimately absolute, since it was established to address the three shortcomings of the state of nature, and doesn’t extend beyond the public sphere.

Rousseau tells us that it is private property that ends the state of nature. But the transition to a state is not an immediate benefit. It is when man has learned to overcome the obstacles of nature, becoming a high animal, that he first became human, assuming a first sign of pride. It is the spirit that lit up the drive to improve. For example, men have settled, losing “something of their ferocity and vigor, becoming less able to individually fight the beasts, but making it easier to assemble together to resist them.” From this irreversible assembly of men, the community was born. They strove to use new developments and “deprivation became much more cruel than the possession was sweet.” Inequalities begin on the possession of property: comparisons are born and jealousy ensues, creating discord.

For Rousseau, two major developments are the source of the loss of the fundamental traits of man: agriculture and metallurgy. This is the culture of the land and sharing, of which was born property and the notion of justice. The right to property has forced individuals to move from a state of autarky to a state of mutual dependence. Thus, the natural inequalities, and minor change into institutional inequalities, are fatal to mankind. Understood as such, property “inspires in all men a penchant to undermine each other, a secret jealousy [… which] often takes the mask of benevolence in a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, the other opposition of interest, and always the hidden desire to profit at the expense of others, all these evils are the first effect of property and are indistinguishable from rising inequality. ” Of this inequality are born domination and servitude, the immediate consequence of property arising from the emerging society. The transition to the state is the idea of ​​the wealthy. Faced with the disorder as a result of their dominance, the rich offer to themselves and to the poor, the institutions that govern them by wise laws. And, by the same token, successfully manage to “turn his opponents into his supporters.” In short, property law simultaneously creates inequalities and crushes opposition to these inequalities.

Conclusion : The political philosophy of Locke and Hobbes

Ultimately, each author has his own conception of the state of nature and the transition to the state. Neither one nor the other agree at any point on a common definition. Although several concepts resurface in both of their philosophies over and over, there is no shared definition of these concepts. Recalling the essential facts of this comparative analysis, the state of nature is criticized by Hobbes and Locke as firstly, it is synonymous with war, and secondly, this state of nature is characterized by impartial justice. Thus, the transition to the state is perceived favorably by these two authors, because it is the lesser of two evils for man who suffers from disorder or bias in the state of nature. Rousseau takes a singular stance that stands out from every point of view, it is therefore in opposition to the works of Hobbes and Locke, because according to Rousseau, they transpose civil rights in the state of nature. In short, it enhances the state of nature rather than civil society. Man is free and good in the state of nature and servile and poor in civil society. The transition to the state, born of the advent of property and its corollary, inequality, it is strongly criticized.

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