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The State-of-Nature Teachings of Hobbes and Locke

The State-of-Nature Teachings of Hobbes and Locke



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Published by Jeff Pratt
An exposition of the "state of nature" political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and an argument that the Lockean state of nature naturally leads to the Hobbesian. Written in 2004 for coursework in Political Science 202 at Brigham Young University.
An exposition of the "state of nature" political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and an argument that the Lockean state of nature naturally leads to the Hobbesian. Written in 2004 for coursework in Political Science 202 at Brigham Young University.

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Published by: Jeff Pratt on Apr 11, 2007
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The State-of-Nature Teachings of Hobbes and Locke
Jeffrey Pratt
In the Winter 2002 semester at Brigham Young
University, I took Political Science 150, the intro-ductory course on comparative government. Thetext that we used was
Countries and Concepts
, by
Michael Roskin. This text covered the domestic
politics of several key nation-states, such as Great
Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, SouthAfrica, Iran, and others, and it contained littlesidebars or feature boxes on the history, geogra-phy, political culture, and political philosophies
associated with each state.
During a particular class period, our professor
gave us an in-class activity in which we were toselect two of these feature boxes from the text
and comment on them in a quick, one-page essay.I chose one on the political philosophy of Thomas
Hobbes and another on that of John Locke. Inthe box on Locke, as I recall, great care was
taken to differentiate the Lockean state of nature
from the Hobbesian. But when I read the twoaccounts of these philosophers’ state of nature
teachings, I saw little difference between them. I
decided, then, to write that. When we receivedour papers a week later or so, mine had a com-
ment from the professor which said, in substance,“Interesting hypothesis, but Hobbes’ and Locke’s
state-of-nature teachings are generally thoughtto be different because of Hobbes’ account of it
as being nasty and short, and Locke’s account of 
it as generally nice, except for the protection of 
I must say that, now having read some of Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings, I feel a bit vin-dicated in the assertion that I made that day.For when we look closely at the state-of-nature
teachings of Hobbes and Locke, we will find that,while they appear to be considerably different on
the surface, they are, in fact, not so different in
their implications.
“Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish,and Short”
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a monarchist;
he had no qualms with strong sovereigns as such.
He was undoubtedly influenced by the contem-porary English Civil War—a bloody, anarchic
time in England—when he developed his theory
of human nature. In the beginning of 
he lays out his observations of man:
For seeing life is but a motion of limbs,the beginning whereof is in some prin-cipal part within; why may we not say,that all automata (engines that move
themselves by springs and wheels asdoth a watch) have an artificial life?For what is the heart, but a spring;and the nerves, but so many strings;and the joints, but so many wheels,
giving motion to the whole body, such
as was intended by the artificer? (p.
Human beings, then, are mere artifice; theyare machines. Life is no more than the move-ment of these machines. Further, our senses arecaused by “the external body, or object, which
presseth the organ proper to each sense, either im-
mediately,...or mediately,” and these pressures
induce reactions in the inner organs, such as the
brain or heart, which constitute the senses (p.
And as pressing, rubbing, or striking
the eye, makes us fancy a light; and
pressing the ear, produceth a din; so1
do the bodies also we see, or hear, pro-duce the same by their strong, though
unobserved action.
Imaginations, then, or dreams, and even mem-ories, are echoes of these senses, decaying with
time (p. 126).
We see from this that Hobbes takes a verymaterialistic view of man and of nature. It is
true that he claims that
there is no doubt, but God can make
unnatural apparitions: But that hedoes it so often, as men need to fear
such things, more than they fear the
stay, or change, of the course of na-ture, which he also can stay, and
change; is no point of Christian faith.
(pp. 128–9)
Nominally, then, he might believe in God, but
Hobbes unmistakably claims a very limited, rare,
extraordinary God—a God who largely (or even
entirely) stays out of nature.
Hobbes, then, sees that men are calculating(Ch. 5; pp. 136–140), sensuous automatons, in-
terested only in their own good. He also finds:
[n]ature hath made men so equal,in the faculties of body, and mind;as that though there be found oneman sometimes manifestly strongerin body, or of quicker mind than an-other; yet when all is reckoned to-gether, the difference between man,and man, is not so considerable, as
that one man can thereupon claim tohimself any benefit, to which another
may not pretend, as well as he. (p.
And seeing that the there are, in humannature, “three principal causes of quarrel,” viz.“first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly,glory[-seeking]”, Hobbes deduces that, in thestate of nature, i.e., the state that men wouldexist in without government, “[w]hatsoever...is
consequent to a state of war” would also be conse-quent to the state of nature. The state of nature
would be a state of war between men:
In such condition, there is no place
for industry; because the fruit thereof 
is uncertain: and consequently noculture of the earth; no navigation,
nor use of the commodities that may
be imported by sea; no commodiousbuilding; 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, anddanger of violent death; and the life
of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,
and short. (p. 171)
Hobbes finds this state to be so abominable
as to justify nearly anything to prevent it. Thus,
his Leviathan is born out of a theoretical “so-cial contract” entered into by the natural man
with other natural men; it is a contract founded
in reason and self-interest, formed to escape theuncertain, terrible state of nature. Leviathan is,and must be, the absolute authority on Earth,
from which there can be absolutely no appeal to
any other authority. The subjects of Leviathanmust obey the will of the sovereign. Only in de-
fense of the natural right to self-preservation does
Hobbes justify disobedience to Leviathan. Butin all other aspects, Leviathan is ultimate and
absolute, and must be, because living in the state
of nature would be much worse.
The Lockean Social Contract
The immediate fate of Hobbes’ work was rele-gation to the bonfires of academic disapproval;and personally, Hobbes found himself brandedan atheist.
But John Locke was, in some re-
spects, even more radical than Hobbes. For while
Hobbes’ theory of the social contract supports
the idea of absolute monarchy (without using the
We have already seen some of the somewhat ambivalent statements made by Hobbes with regard to God and
religion. Judgment of his religious views shall be left to the reader.
theory of divine right), Locke categorically rejects
all monarchy.
Locke’s natural man is not—at least, notapparently—the wildly competitive, diffident,glory-seeking automaton that Hobbesian man
is, which, when brought into being among other
Hobbesian men, produce the nasty state of warthat only the collective formation of a sovereigncan avert. The state of nature, for Locke, is “a
state of perfect freedom” for men
to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they
think fit, within the bounds of thelaw of nature; without asking leave,
or depending on the will of any other
It is also, somewhat like Hobbes’ state of nature,“[a] state...of equality, wherein all the power and
 jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more
than another.” (p. 312)
But though this state is one of liberty, is not
unboundedly free:
[Man] has not liberty to destroy him-
self, or so much as any creature in
his possession, but where some nobleruse that its bare preservation calls for
it. The state of nature has a law of 
nature to govern it, which obliges ev-
ery one: And reason, which is thatlaw, teaches all mankind, who willbut consult it, that being equal andindependent, no one ought to harmone another in his life, health, lib-erty, or possessions. For men beingall the workmanship of one omnipo-
tent and infinitely wise Maker; all theservants of one sovereign master, sentinto the world by his order, and about
his business; they are his property,whose workmanship they are, made
to last during his, not another’s plea-
sure. And being furnished with likefaculties, sharing all in one commu-nity of nature, there cannot be sup-
posed any such subordination among
us, that may authorize us to destroyanother, as if we were made for oneanother’s uses, as the inferior ranks
of creatures are for ours. (p. 313)
There is, then, a law of nature, which is rea-son, which, when considering the divine origins
of man, teaches the mind that all human beings
are equal and, therefore, have no right to abuseany other human being. Locke continues the ar-gument by saying that while man is “bound to
preserve himself,” he ought “to preserve the rest
of mankind,” as long as “his own preservationcomes not into competition,” and that this, too,
is evident in reason (p. 313).
And since man has, inherent in himself, the
right to preserve himself (and his property, whichLocke views in some ways as an extension of theindividual self 
), he has, also within himself, the
original powers of government. That is, in the
state of nature, prior to any government, the ra-
tional law of nature evinces that the executiveand legislative powers rest with the individualhimself, founded on his right to preserve his lifeand property, and based on the notion that noman is to live at the pleasure of another. Thus,
in the state of nature, whenever anyone declareshimself “to quit the principles of nature” (p. 313)by intruding upon another’s life, liberty, or prop-erty, putting himself above another, such a personbecomes no longer subject to such principles and
loses their protection. The offended party then,
by reason of the law of nature, possesses the right
to execute justice against the offender. This is
not justice in any institutional sense; it is justice
in the sense of self-defense or self-preservation.
Now, such an offense Locke calls the state of 
war. It is, to him, an unnatural state, i.e., it is
The Lockean account of private property is essentially a labor theory of value: nature provides raw materials, nearlyuseless in themselves, which, when imputed with the labor of the individual, become the property of that individualand hence have value. This labor theory would be supported later by Adam Smith and, still later, it would be used to
attack capitalism by Karl Marx. There are, however, other theories of value, such as the marginal utility theory of 
value, articulated by the Austrian economist Carl Menger (1840–1921) in his
Grunds¨ atze der Volkswirtschaftslehre

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