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The State-of-Nature Teachings of Hobbes and Locke

Jeffrey Pratt

Introduction the surface, they are, in fact, not so different in

their implications.
In the Winter 2002 semester at Brigham Young
University, I took Political Science 150, the intro- “Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish,
ductory course on comparative government. The
text that we used was Countries and Concepts, by and Short”
Michael Roskin. This text covered the domestic
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a monarchist;
politics of several key nation-states, such as Great
he had no qualms with strong sovereigns as such.
Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, South
He was undoubtedly influenced by the contem-
Africa, Iran, and others, and it contained little
porary English Civil War—a bloody, anarchic
sidebars or feature boxes on the history, geogra-
time in England—when he developed his theory
phy, political culture, and political philosophies
of human nature. In the beginning of Leviathan,
associated with each state.
he lays out his observations of man:
During a particular class period, our professor
gave us an in-class activity in which we were to For seeing life is but a motion of limbs,
select two of these feature boxes from the text the beginning whereof is in some prin-
and comment on them in a quick, one-page essay. cipal part within; why may we not say,
I chose one on the political philosophy of Thomas that all automata (engines that move
Hobbes and another on that of John Locke. In themselves by springs and wheels as
the box on Locke, as I recall, great care was doth a watch) have an artificial life?
taken to differentiate the Lockean state of nature For what is the heart, but a spring;
from the Hobbesian. But when I read the two and the nerves, but so many strings;
accounts of these philosophers’ state of nature and the joints, but so many wheels,
teachings, I saw little difference between them. I giving motion to the whole body, such
decided, then, to write that. When we received as was intended by the artificer? (p.
our papers a week later or so, mine had a com- 124)
ment from the professor which said, in substance,
Human beings, then, are mere artifice; they
“Interesting hypothesis, but Hobbes’ and Locke’s
are machines. Life is no more than the move-
state-of-nature teachings are generally thought
ment of these machines. Further, our senses are
to be different because of Hobbes’ account of it
caused by “the external body, or object, which
as being nasty and short, and Locke’s account of
presseth the organ proper to each sense, either im-
it as generally nice, except for the protection of
mediately, . . . or mediately,” and these pressures
induce reactions in the inner organs, such as the
I must say that, now having read some of brain or heart, which constitute the senses (p.
Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings, I feel a bit vin- 125).
dicated in the assertion that I made that day.
For when we look closely at the state-of-nature And as pressing, rubbing, or striking
teachings of Hobbes and Locke, we will find that, the eye, makes us fancy a light; and
while they appear to be considerably different on pressing the ear, produceth a din; so

do the bodies also we see, or hear, pro- consequent to a state of war” would also be conse-
duce the same by their strong, though quent to the state of nature. The state of nature
unobserved action. would be a state of war between men:

Imaginations, then, or dreams, and even mem- In such condition, there is no place
ories, are echoes of these senses, decaying with for industry; because the fruit thereof
time (p. 126). is uncertain: and consequently no
We see from this that Hobbes takes a very culture of the earth; no navigation,
materialistic view of man and of nature. It is nor use of the commodities that may
true that he claims that be imported by sea; no commodious
building; no instruments of moving,
there is no doubt, but God can make and removing such things as require
unnatural apparitions: But that he much force; no knowledge of the face
does it so often, as men need to fear of the earth; no account of time; no
such things, more than they fear the arts; no letters; no society; and which
stay, or change, of the course of na- is worst of all, continual fear, and
ture, which he also can stay, and danger of violent death; and the life
change; is no point of Christian faith. of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,
(pp. 128–9) and short. (p. 171)

Nominally, then, he might believe in God, but Hobbes finds this state to be so abominable
Hobbes unmistakably claims a very limited, rare, as to justify nearly anything to prevent it. Thus,
extraordinary God—a God who largely (or even his Leviathan is born out of a theoretical “so-
entirely) stays out of nature. cial contract” entered into by the natural man
Hobbes, then, sees that men are calculating with other natural men; it is a contract founded
(Ch. 5; pp. 136–140), sensuous automatons, in- in reason and self-interest, formed to escape the
terested only in their own good. He also finds: uncertain, terrible state of nature. Leviathan is,
and must be, the absolute authority on Earth,
[n]ature hath made men so equal, from which there can be absolutely no appeal to
in the faculties of body, and mind; any other authority. The subjects of Leviathan
as that though there be found one must obey the will of the sovereign. Only in de-
man sometimes manifestly stronger fense of the natural right to self-preservation does
in body, or of quicker mind than an- Hobbes justify disobedience to Leviathan. But
other; yet when all is reckoned to- in all other aspects, Leviathan is ultimate and
gether, the difference between man, absolute, and must be, because living in the state
and man, is not so considerable, as of nature would be much worse.
that one man can thereupon claim to
himself any benefit, to which another
may not pretend, as well as he. (p. The Lockean Social Contract
The immediate fate of Hobbes’ work was rele-
And seeing that the there are, in human gation to the bonfires of academic disapproval;
nature, “three principal causes of quarrel,” viz. and personally, Hobbes found himself branded
“first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, an atheist.1 But John Locke was, in some re-
glory[-seeking]”, Hobbes deduces that, in the spects, even more radical than Hobbes. For while
state of nature, i.e., the state that men would Hobbes’ theory of the social contract supports
exist in without government, “[w]hatsoever. . . is 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 to last during his, not another’s plea-
all monarchy. sure. And being furnished with like
Locke’s natural man is not—at least, not faculties, sharing all in one commu-
apparently—the wildly competitive, diffident, nity of nature, there cannot be sup-
glory-seeking automaton that Hobbesian man posed any such subordination among
is, which, when brought into being among other us, that may authorize us to destroy
Hobbesian men, produce the nasty state of war another, as if we were made for one
that only the collective formation of a sovereign another’s uses, as the inferior ranks
can avert. The state of nature, for Locke, is “a of creatures are for ours. (p. 313)
state of perfect freedom” for men
There is, then, a law of nature, which is rea-
to order their actions, and dispose of son, which, when considering the divine origins
their possessions and persons, as they of man, teaches the mind that all human beings
think fit, within the bounds of the are equal and, therefore, have no right to abuse
law of nature; without asking leave, any other human being. Locke continues the ar-
or depending on the will of any other gument by saying that while man is “bound to
man. preserve himself,” he ought “to preserve the rest
of mankind,” as long as “his own preservation
It is also, somewhat like Hobbes’ state of nature, comes not into competition,” and that this, too,
“[a] state. . . of equality, wherein all the power and is evident in reason (p. 313).
jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more And since man has, inherent in himself, the
than another.” (p. 312) right to preserve himself (and his property, which
But though this state is one of liberty, is not Locke views in some ways as an extension of the
unboundedly free: individual self2 ), he has, also within himself, the
original powers of government. That is, in the
[Man] has not liberty to destroy him- state of nature, prior to any government, the ra-
self, or so much as any creature in tional law of nature evinces that the executive
his possession, but where some nobler and legislative powers rest with the individual
use that its bare preservation calls for himself, founded on his right to preserve his life
it. The state of nature has a law of and property, and based on the notion that no
nature to govern it, which obliges ev- man is to live at the pleasure of another. Thus,
ery one: And reason, which is that in the state of nature, whenever anyone declares
law, teaches all mankind, who will himself “to quit the principles of nature” (p. 313)
but consult it, that being equal and by intruding upon another’s life, liberty, or prop-
independent, no one ought to harm erty, putting himself above another, such a person
one another in his life, health, lib- becomes no longer subject to such principles and
erty, or possessions. For men being loses their protection. The offended party then,
all the workmanship of one omnipo- by reason of the law of nature, possesses the right
tent and infinitely wise Maker; all the to execute justice against the offender. This is
servants of one sovereign master, sent not justice in any institutional sense; it is justice
into the world by his order, and about in the sense of self-defense or self-preservation.
his business; they are his property, Now, such an offense Locke calls the state of
whose workmanship they are, made 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 Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre in

separate and distinct from the state of nature. rather similar conclusions, though it may not be
Whenever the state of war exists, then, the ratio- readily apparent. Hobbes saw that pre-social or
nal law of nature is violated, the offender stands pre-governmental human beings would invariably
outside of the protection of that law, and the lead to an anarchic state of war, with one against
offended party has the just right to exact retri- all, and that life would be fearful and short, and
bution or take preventative measures. Once that civilization would be nearly impossible. Locke,
matter is resolved, the state of war ceases, and however, sees a law of reason and nature that
the state of nature resumes. pervades human existence, and sees human be-
But in this state of nature, the protection of ings as aware, albeit perhaps dimly, of that law.
property and life is handled by every individual, Thus Locke’s state of nature is not anarchic. But
and it may become too difficult to continually it can, sometimes, yield the state of war, wherein
execute that protection. Therefore, Locke argues, the rights of one human being are endangered or
men enter into a social contract, delegating that actively violated by another.
responsibility to a government from among them- With Lockean man constantly securing his
selves, while they retain every other right. This, property and liberty against his neighbors,
to Locke, is the origin of legitimate government.3 against the possibility of attack, one cannot help
It is principally because of this that Locke cat- but wonder whether this would lead to an exis-
egorically opposed monarchy, since the monarch tence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and
is someone against whom there is no secular power short,” in which, with time, man becomes unable
to appeal to. The monarch places himself outside to trust his neighbors and comes to see them all
of the rule of reason and nature by virtue of his as competitors and enemies. Perhaps, then, a
very position. Contemporary monarchies, then, Lockean state of nature will, with time, tend to
to Locke, were not civil societies at all, but vari- degenerate into the Hobbesian state of war of
ous manifestations of the state of war. The law each against all, unless that state of war is pre-
of reason, then, demanded that the state of war vented by the institution of the social contract.4
be rectified by resistance, separation or rebellion. In this respect, then, the state of nature teach-
ings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke possess
a consonance, which I attempted to explain in
Nature and War Political Science 150.
Though Hobbes and Locke begin with different
premises about human nature, they do come to

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.
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.

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