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Compare and contrast how Hobbes, Locke, & Rousseau describe the state of nature, and
how their description influences their understanding of political society.
In this paper I am going to examine three of the most influential political philosophers of
the modern era with regards to the concepts of social contract theory. In order to understand
modern contract theory it becomes necessary to focus on Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John
Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Something that is important to
note is that the period in which all three of these men lived was the Enlightenment. A period
that stretched from the first half of the 17th Century until the end of the 18th Century. During this
time the great thinkers championed ideas that stemmed out of reason and logic rather than basing
thought and decision making on authoritative command. In this context the three philosophers
desires were to explain the existence of man, how he came to be, and why he desires to develop a
society and live within it. In order to compare and contrast these individuals I must first examine
each man individually and attempt to understand the origin of their arguments.
Thomas Hobbes was an English political thinker (among many other specialties) that
established modern social contract theory. This was best accomplished by his work Leviathan,
which examines the creation of man in a state of nature and how that relates to the formation of
government and society. Hobbes asserts that man in a state of nature is constantly at war, and
the only way to develop a secure and lasting peace is through the governance of a strong
sovereign. Essentially, the work is created to demonstrate that the only reasonable form of
government was a strong sovereign. It is interesting to note this was his conclusion because it
was actually produced while Hobbes was in France during the English Civil War in 1651, and
Leviathan was written to justify the necessity for a strong monarchy.
In Leviathan Hobbes examines the thoughts that make up man. These thoughts include
the senses, religion, reason and science, imagination, etc. Hobbes says, Concerning the

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thoughts of man, I will consider them first singly and afterwards in train or dependence upon one
another. Singly, they are every one a representation or appearance of some quality or other
accident of the body without us, which is commonly called an object.1 He describes each of his
thoughts individually leading to what he calls the state of nature. Beginning in Chapter 13 of
Part I he describes this state, and mans place in it; titled Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind,
as concerning their Felicity and Misery.2 Now that we understood what constitutes man and his
proclivities Hobbes wants us to understand what could make the state of nature an undesirable
place. He describes man in the state of nature as a creature that has liberty to whatever he or
she pleases, however due to the finite resources of nature man will inevitably be at constant
conflict. Hobbes says this conflict is developed from one of three reasons: the desire for more
resources, the need to defend those resources, or simply greed or glory. In the state of nature
man is at a constant state of struggle or a war of all against all. He continues to describe this
condition as being hostile to the development of man because there can be no industry; man is
solely concerned with his self-preservation. Because there can be no industry; there can be no
arts, sciences, or knowledge Hobbes creates a hellish existence (seeded in the end of one of
Leviathans more famous passages), the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
He does describe later that this state does not exist in his or the modern world (it is a theoretical
place that he rests his thesis on). In this state man exists in a realm void of moral turpitude. He
postulates that it can only exist, among people too primitive to have a government, during civil
wars, and between sovereign nations.3 The latter being one of the most important pillars in
1 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. A.P. Martinich (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview
Press, 2005) 13.
2 Ibid, 93.
3 Ibid, x.

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International Relations Realism Theory. These thoughts are used by Hobbes to help us
understand what would motivate man to act in such away, and after he establishes his hellish
existence he defines the laws of nature that are developed through reason by man for selfpreservation.
Before examining these laws of nature Hobbes revisits the right of nature that every man
is equal, and if this is the case then every man has every right to everything. Including that of
another man. In the state of nature liberty is absolute because everything occurs in a natural
absence of external impediments4 However, because every man has a right to everything
there is a natural progression towards the first rule of nature. Hobbes says to seek peace and
follow it5. Reason tells man that he should seek peace, because in its absence you dont truly
have security. Sometimes it takes means that are opposite of the ends to achieve these goals (war
is necessary to maintain peaceful relationships). He also says that this consequently leads to the
second law of nature: in order to achieve this peace we must sacrifice some liberty, because in a
world of absolute liberty man exists in a world of chaos. What develops is the rule of contract
because man should strive for peace by forsaking that which he has right to, and his equal shall
do the same.
Hobbes goes on to describe these retractions of rights as covenants that man must adhere
to in order to preserve a stable peace. These consist of covenants developed by renunciation, or
transference to another. It is mans duty to abide by these covenants, and not doing so is
unjustified and causes injury. He even says that covenants entered by fear or extortion are valid
and must be obeyed. Not doing so is an injustice. Which develops his third law: the non-

4 Ibid, 98.
5 Ibid, 99.

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performance of any covenant (regardless of its conception) is injurious. Moreover, Hobbes
asserts that without performing the duty of covenants man is still in a world of unfettered liberty
and has right to all things (the conditions necessary for war). Hobbes continues to define 16
more laws of nature; all of them defined as moral good, and anything contrary to them as evil.
The end of Part I begins to describe the nature of man formed as a group of men through
covenants, and asserts that this entity must be represented by a being of some sort. This is
obviously the point that he is going to make in Part II in which he describes the Commonwealth
and the Leviathan.
John Locke (1632-1704) was a political philosopher from England who wrote The
Second Treatise of Government during a time of political and military strife in England.
However, he was a member of opposition to the authoritarianism. He was among some of the
most outspoken political elites during the Glorious Revolution (1688). At the same time as the
crises and revolution in England Locke wrote this work to develop the idea that government need
not be a result of force and subjugation. Much like Hobbes, however, he would develop his
theory out of that state of nature, the laws that define it, and the social contract that is derived
from it.
In Chapter 2 of The Second Treatise of Government John Locke talks about how he sees
the state of nature. In this state Locke would agree with Hobbes that all men are equal and
have equal rights to land and that which it provides. However, he says that even though man has
these equal rights; that liberty must be regulated. Locke talks about the ability to curtail another
persons liberty in the act of justice, but it is clear that Hobbes would not be in favor of this as
every person has a right to their own liberty and that liberty equal among all is in a sense
inalienable. In the State of Nature-everyone is an enforcer because of every individuals

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obligation to God. Man must operate within Gods prerogative. Every man has jurisdiction for
enforcement of perceived injustices. Because of this ability man must develop rules with which
to operate reasonably. Locke describes this as the inconvenient state of nature, because although
man has all the liberty to act as he pleases that does not mean he should lest man descends into
chaos. This chaos creates a world where every man has right to justice against anyone who has
transgressed against him. This moral law is created by God, and he that acts outside of this
moral law deserves justice be done upon him. As Locke states, And in this case, and upon this
ground, every man has a right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law.6
He finishes out the chapter by asserting that a sovereign monarchical ruler may not be
able to judge fairly because as a singular individual he is inherently biased. This bias is applied
to the concepts of punishment. Punishments cannot be arbitrarily doled out on a case by case
basis, and must be complete rules enforceable justly amongst all. He completes the chapter by
saying that all men are naturally in the state of nature until they decide to become members of,
or form a political society. Which is contrary to what Hobbes would say, because his natural
laws explain that naturally occurring logic and reason keep man out of the violent state of
nature. Locke also makes the explanation that there can be agreements or covenants that do not
bring men together in community.
In Lockes premise it is this political commune that ceases the state of nature. Again, this
is contrary to Hobbes explanation that covenants exist cannot be broken (should not be broken),
and again work to oppose the state of nature. Locke also takes the time in Sec. 14 to postulate
that leaders or legislatives of political communities are themselves in a state of nature. This is
easy to explain because there will always be leadership who represent their political commune,
6 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, ed. Thomas P. Peardon (New York,
NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986) 7.

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but are not a part of a larger commune. This inability of the respresenter of a commonwealth to
join in global community is contrary to what Locke says is necessary to leave the state of
nature. In my opinion Lockes view here is similar to that of Hobbes with regards to
International Relations Theory Realists; because Hobbes postulates that one of the only places
the state of nature could exist is between sovereigns.
Finally, I will take a look at Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and his notion of the
state of nature and how it effects his view of the formation of political society. As he
compounds on his writings, culminating with The Social Contract, Rousseau champions the idea
that man is inherently good. He is capable of self-governance in exchange for freedom and
liberty. Influenced by Montesquieu, Rousseaus views were not only present in arbitrary essays,
but contributed to republican views during the French Revolution which began shortly after his
death. It is important to note that he was not simply a political philosopher, but also a writer and
composer. In the context of his political essays this is significant because his knowledge
developed his thesis for Discourse on the Arts and Sciences; an essay he wrote in response to a
contest by the Academy of Dijon asking whether or not they had a negative impact on morality.7
Discourse on the Arts and Sciences is a relatively short work divided into two parts. Part
I is comprised of historical inductions used to develop the notion that virtue, common place in
the happy ignorance of barbarism, has been usurped by the desire to cultivate virtue.8
Rousseau argues that this desire to cultivate virtue among man destroys what actually is.
Moreover, these aspirations are manifested in what he calls the arts and the sciences. Virtue is a
quality that makes you a good person. It is a quality that allows you to succeed. Virtue is a
7 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, Discourse on the Sciences
and the Arts, ed. Peter Gay (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987) 1.
8 Ibid, 10.

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quality that allows an animal to flourish.9 Part I explains the history while Part II analyzes the
arts and sciences to explain this history, and why man has lost his virtue. He begins Part II by
explicitly saying that the arts and sciences are products of our vices. Man pursues them to better
his own ends for nothing else other than personal gain, they are vain in nature. Rousseau
continues to say, If our sciences are vain in the objects they have in view, they are even more
dangerous in the effects they produce.10 The devotion to the pursuit of knowledge creates vain
characters who have lost their virtue they are no longer citizens.11 Rousseau uses a reference
to people who are generally less educated and see no need to pursue such ends, because they are
farmers or the like. He uses farmers that produce bread and milk for those everyone. They may
be the most virtuous of the population, but they are simply disregarded and discarded by those
who seek to attain that which the farmer already possesses.12 In this discourse he is describing
that in a state of nature man is virtuous. An interesting contrast from the views of Hobbes and
Locke. With Hobbes one would not assume a brutish man to be at constant conflict for resources
to be acting out of any sort of virtue. Although he may argue that the virtue is acting within the
parameters that Gods will have set. Locke said that man in nature possesses the logic and
reason to develop a system to draw him out of the violent state of nature. Which is intriguing
in contrast to Rousseau, because one could easily surmise that it is this reason and logic that
develops the urge to pursue the arts and sciences causing man to lose his virtue; replacing it
instead with a vain and immoral character.
9 Kenneth Ward, In-Class Lecture, July 29, 2015.
10 Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, 11.
11 Ibid, 17.
12 Ibid, 17.

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In yet another response to the Dijon Academy Rousseau produced his even more popular
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in 1754. In this discourse it is Rousseaus goal to attempt
to answer a question of the origin of equality among men and its authorization by natural
law.13 This work further develops his views on the creation of political society out of the state
of nature. Again, in this state of nature humans are inherently good, and possess the freedom
to do what they need to for survival. However, these humans possess the characteristics
necessary to move forward to a more disorganized society. It is a natural progression, similar to
Lockes man in nature. Naturally man will organize himself in to political organizations
(sometimes reluctantly), and it is this organization that provides for the framework to devolve
from a virtuous species. This virtuous man in nature is focused on self-reliance and selfpreservation as well as possessing pity over other beings that also assist in making man a
virtuous being. Man in the state of nature is a healthy being. The men are not the men that he
will continue to describe. As he moves forward farther out of his historical beginning point,
Rousseau begins to examine more and more modern societies. There are important
characteristics that he points out that man possesses outside of being an animal in the state of
nature: man has will, man can change himself (and animals cannot), man can change his
environment in a fundamental way. He also asserts that it was necessity that created language,
and it was this language and necessity in its initial form that bonded man to man. Rousseau
thinks that civil life is much more insufferable than nature. In civil society man wants for more
and more. Modernity leads man to become dependent and to desire more stuff. It is this
yearning that leads to suffering of one man against another, self-loathing, and depression. In Part
I he explicitly says that Hobbes is wrong about man in the state of nature and the qualities he
possesses and uses to satisfy passions occurs outside the state of nature (in civilized society).
13 Ibid, 37.

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Most of the goods we want are socially created (outside of nature), and nature already possesses
in plenty that which we need. Part I speaks to the state of nature without inequality, and about
these concepts in physical beings. Inequality cannot exist in a state of nature; seemingly falling
in line with the views of Hobbes and Locke in its purest form. Part II will show how inequality
comes to be within moral (or immoral beings).
The first sentence of Part II perfectly introduces and describes Rousseaus objective. He
says, The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine
and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.14 It is at
this point that the state of nature ceases to exist. Through revolutions, such as agriculture and
metallurgy man progresses towards a state outside nature. Some of the first developments of
inequality among the men were as simple as the area s of the world that they settled; a
difference of soils.15 The first manifestation of inequality was between man and wife when
woman became sedentary and focused more on the hut and their children.16 Rousseau says
that body politic and nations are formed when stronger men convince weaker men to bond
together. In doing this man removes himself from the state of nature. It is at this point that
man must establish contract and develop rules to collaborate including the rule that will promote
a sovereign ruler. If the sovereign disobeys rules or asserts power capriciously then it must be
destroyed. Upon its destruction man once again reverts to the state of nature because there is
no sovereign and power belongs to man among men. Locke says that the executive behaves in a
manner that is designed to protect the commonwealth, however Rousseau would disagree that
14 Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, 60.
15 Ibid, 61.
16 Ibid, 63.

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that is not always the case because certain political forms have the ability to exert power and
adjudicate rules arbitrarily. This is a concern for both, but it is more important to Rousseau who
towards the end of Part II starts to define contemporary government (for his time), and the
weaknesses in their structure.
With regards to their views on the state of nature I will first examine Hobbes. He would
argue against Rousseau that the state of nature is a simple place that is best for man to exist; a
place where man is virtuous. Hobbes explicitly says that the state of nature is a nasty place to
live and it is mans desire and objective to remove himself from it. Locke, however, postulates
that mans rise from the state of nature is an inevitable development derived from reason; the
same logic and reason that allows man to be able to exist peacefully within this state. This is
also contrary to Rousseau, because Rousseau would assert that it is the objective of some men to
join in cooperation or coerce cooperation out of need or want of vices. These contracts that are
sought by man are that which pulls him out of the state of nature and begins to destroy his
On the formation of political society Hobbes describes the Leviathan. It is a being that
exists beyond the contracts of men; developed inherently by the contracts of men. It is the duty
of the Leviathan to act on behalf of those with whom it serves to protect. Because of mans lack
of morality in the state of nature and the inherent ability to act as a magistrate in matters of
perceived injustices done against him; it is necessary to have an executive sovereign, a
Leviathan. His premise is based on the notion that men are biased and cannot execute justice
reasonably. This in ability to exact ubiquitous justice leaves man in a constant state of conflict.
Although it may not be possible due to bias, the Leviathan must be the truest form of a sovereign
executive; a monarchy. Under the Leviathan man must cooperate and abide by rules developed

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through contracts. These contracts, regardless of volition, are required to be upheld. In not
doing so contracts are empty, and as such dont exist. If contracts dont exist there cannot be a
Leviathan and man descends into the brutish and nasty state of nature.
Locke wouldnt agree that it is not necessary for a monarchy to act as a legislative. He
explicitly denies this to be the truth. He argues that man has made the choice to enter into
contract that creates a political society. He does this out of desire for self-preservation or
preservation of property. Locke bases much of his premise on the notion of property. Without it
man is in the state of nature. Every man has equal access to the land and the gift of labor
bestowed by God to develop the land. It is this development of the land that creates property.
This property has been developed by the most industrious of primitive man, and he must form a
political society in order to defend this property. In this case it is the sovereigns duty to ensure
safety of life and property, and if the sovereign cannot act in such a case it is implicitly in breach
of the contract and man has the right to leave the commune. The reason being that the law
should be enforced ubiquitously amongst all men existing in the community (this includes those
that create and enforce it). If the legislative, executive, or magistrate is acting external of the
equal rules created then they are endangering at least someones property, and it is necessary to
usurp their power and institute or join a new political society.
Rousseau would likely disagree with both Locke and Hobbes, and even blatantly points
out a flawed argument by Locke on the state of nature and its subsequent effect on the
formation of political society. Rousseau does not see the state of nature as some hellish
existence, or a place that simply cannot exist based on inevitability. Society is formed through
contracts that are created out of a vain desire for things. This vanity (and subsequent societal
formation) is responsible for mans moral degradation. Another key distinction is Rousseaus

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fundamental view man in the state of nature. He is a being that is animal in every way. He is
devoid of reason, logic, speech, and property. Rousseau seeks to take historical approach to
his development of man and society. Hobbes assertion would seek to view man in contemporary
form inserted (Rousseau would say incorrectly) into the state of nature. Locke would even fall
into this same construct because Rousseau would argue that man is a blank slate. The evolution
of man progressed man in such a way that inequality naturally developed. Rousseau identifies
the creation of agriculture and metallurgy as the tipping point, because it created the division
of labor in which those better suited for their jobs had the potential to gain more property and
power. Those intelligent enough to convince the weaker masses to support them would develop
what we would identify as modern society. The leaders would base this notion on security for
their subordinates. Coincidentally this need for support is also developed from a want for
security to protect the accumulation of things that developed their political inequality to begin
with. Both parties now became subservient for one another to secure that which they valued
most. This dependence is a necessary convention in the development of political society,
however, it does not have to be this way. Man could instead choose to preserve his natural
right (within the society), and in doing so govern himself accordingly. Creating the most equal
governance possible. A government developed out of rules create through the will of the people.
This idea is a foundation for the extermination of the absolute monarchy in France at the time
and the examination of other forms of government in their failures and successes. He would also
create an idea for a government that did not yet exist that attempts to be fair to all the people by
being created through submission from the masses of the society therein.