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 introductory course on comparative government. The text 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, South Africa, Iran, and others, and it contained little sidebars or feature boxes on the history, geography, 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 to select 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. In the 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 two accounts of these philosophers’ state of nature teachings, I saw little difference between them. I decided, then, to write that. When we received our papers a week later or so, mine had a comment from the professor which said, in substance, “Interesting hypothesis, but Hobbes’ and Locke’s state-of-nature teachings are generally thought to 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 property.” I must say that, now having read some of Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings, I feel a bit vindicated 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 1

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 contemporary English Civil War—a bloody, anarchic time in England—when he developed his theory of human nature. In the beginning of Leviathan, he lays out his observations of man: For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth 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. 124) Human beings, then, are mere artifice; they are machines. Life is no more than the movement of these machines. Further, our senses are caused by “the external body, or object, which presseth the organ proper to each sense, either immediately, . . . or mediately,” and these pressures induce reactions in the inner organs, such as the brain or heart, which constitute the senses (p. 125). And as pressing, rubbing, or striking the eye, makes us fancy a light; and pressing the ear, produceth a din; so

do the bodies also we see, or hear, produce the same by their strong, though unobserved action. Imaginations, then, or dreams, and even memories, are echoes of these senses, decaying with time (p. 126). We see from this that Hobbes takes a very materialistic 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 he does it so often, as men need to fear such things, more than they fear the stay, or change, of the course of nature, 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, interested 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 one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. (p. 169) And seeing that the there are, in human nature, “three principal causes of quarrel,” viz. “first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory[-seeking]”, Hobbes deduces that, in the state of nature, i.e., the state that men would exist in without government, “[w]hatsoever. . . is

consequent to a state of war” would also be consequent 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 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. (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 “social contract” entered into by the natural man with other natural men; it is a contract founded in reason and self-interest, formed to escape the uncertain, 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 Leviathan must obey the will of the sovereign. Only in defense of the natural right to self-preservation does Hobbes justify disobedience to Leviathan. But in 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 relegation to the bonfires of academic disapproval; and personally, Hobbes found himself branded an atheist.1 But John Locke was, in some respects, 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, not apparently—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 war that only the collective formation of a sovereign can 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 the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man. 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 himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use that its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm one another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into 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 pleasure. And being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. (p. 313) There is, then, a law of nature, which is reason, which, when considering the divine origins of man, teaches the mind that all human beings are equal and, therefore, have no right to abuse any other human being. Locke continues the argument by saying that while man is “bound to preserve himself,” he ought “to preserve the rest of mankind,” as long as “his own preservation comes 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, which Locke views in some ways as an extension of the individual self2 ), he has, also within himself, the original powers of government. That is, in the state of nature, prior to any government, the rational law of nature evinces that the executive and legislative powers rest with the individual himself, founded on his right to preserve his life and property, and based on the notion that no man is to live at the pleasure of another. Thus, in the state of nature, whenever anyone declares himself “to quit the principles of nature” (p. 313) by intruding upon another’s life, liberty, or property, putting himself above another, such a person becomes 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, nearly useless in themselves, which, when imputed with the labor of the individual, become the property of that individual and 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¨tze der Volkswirtschaftslehre in a 1871.


separate and distinct from the state of nature. Whenever the state of war exists, then, the rational law of nature is violated, the offender stands outside of the protection of that law, and the offended party has the just right to exact retribution or take preventative measures. Once that matter is resolved, the state of war ceases, and the state of nature resumes. But in this state of nature, the protection of property and life is handled by every individual, and it may become too difficult to continually execute that protection. Therefore, Locke argues, men enter into a social contract, delegating that responsibility to a government from among themselves, while they retain every other right. This, to Locke, is the origin of legitimate government.3 It is principally because of this that Locke categorically opposed monarchy, since the monarch is someone against whom there is no secular power to appeal to. The monarch places himself outside of the rule of reason and nature by virtue of his very position. Contemporary monarchies, then, to Locke, were not civil societies at all, but various manifestations of the state of war. The law of reason, then, demanded that the state of war be rectified by resistance, separation or rebellion.

Nature and War
Though Hobbes and Locke begin with different premises about human nature, they do come to

rather similar conclusions, though it may not be readily apparent. Hobbes saw that pre-social or pre-governmental human beings would invariably lead to an anarchic state of war, with one against all, and that life would be fearful and short, and civilization would be nearly impossible. Locke, however, sees a law of reason and nature that pervades human existence, and sees human beings as aware, albeit perhaps dimly, of that law. Thus Locke’s state of nature is not anarchic. But it can, sometimes, yield the state of war, wherein the rights of one human being are endangered or actively violated by another. With Lockean man constantly securing his property and liberty against his neighbors, against the possibility of attack, one cannot help but wonder whether this would lead to an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” in which, with time, man becomes unable to trust his neighbors and comes to see them all as competitors and enemies. Perhaps, then, a Lockean state of nature will, with time, tend to degenerate into the Hobbesian state of war of each against all, unless that state of war is prevented by the institution of the social contract.4 In this respect, then, the state of nature teachings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke possess a consonance, which I attempted to explain in Political Science 150.

While David Hume could find no such example of this in history, or, at least, no significant example of it, and therefore claimed that the social contract theories of his predecessors were untenable, the creation of the United States is, in some ways, a modern example. Hume died in 1776; the Articles of Confederation were agreed to by the Continental Congress in 1777, and they were ratified in 1781. The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1787. Of course, since the founding of the United States was influenced heavily by John Locke, and therefore succeeded him in time, Hume might have argued that that event would not be a very good example of a natural, pre-Lockean social contract. 4 The difficulties between social contract theory and rational choice theory, with the contract seen as a public good, I have not undertaken to analyze here. For a treatment of these aspects of social contract theory, see Patrick Neal, “Hobbes and Rational Choice Theory,” The Western Political Quarterly, Volume 41, Issue 4 (December 1988), pp. 635–632.



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