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Whose state of nature do you agree with most –

Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau?

Teoría Política Clásica II

César Landín

Any analysis of human politics and society must begin by answering the question how did we
get here? In order to reflect on the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, one must also
ask why people originally decided to join together – whether by consciously entering a social
contract or by other means – in order to create something that could transcend the state of
nature of man. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau all had unique
answers to these questions, and all built their theories around their individual conception of
human nature. For Hobbes, men entered the social contract and submitted themselves to
the Leviathan in order to escape their "nasty, brutish and short" life, a consequence of the
perpetual state of war of humankind. His conception differs strongly from that of Locke
and Rousseau. Locke believed that although the state of nature was also a state of freedom,
a law of nature governed all men, ensuring peaceful coexistence. Rousseau goes to even
further lengths to explain man's innate innocence: in his Discourse on Inequality, he writes
that "nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state". For all three authors, hypothesising
on human nature was more philosophy than science, as they had limited resources to base
their theories on. Comparing the three hundreds of years later with historical evidence and
anthropological findings allows us to come to a conclusion: it is Hobbes' understanding of
human nature that most closely resembles reality, yet his explanation is limited to a state of
nature that has ceased to exist even in the most primitive societies today.

Thomas Hobbes was born in England in 1588, and tried to base political philosophy on a
scientific conception of human nature. He begins by writing how mankind was born equal,
as the weakest has enough strength to kill the strongest, and experience bestows equal
faculties of mind to everyone. From this state of equality, there arises "equality of hope in the
attaining of our ends". And since there is a desire for glory, and lacking "a common power to keep
them all in awe", men live in a perpetual state of war. This state of war is not necessarily
fighting, but knowing and fearing that war may come at any time. The continuous
preoccupation with fighting – and the many possibilities of quarrel detailed (competition,
diffidence and glory) – makes it impossible for society to progress; hence life is "solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish and short".

However, at the time Hobbes was writing there was little if any evidence on how early
societies behaved. The best examples Hobbes could use for his political theory were the
colonies the major powers had at the time and the "uncivilised" societies with which they
came in contact with: he preemptively answers sceptics' doubts that the state of war he
writes about may have never existed by explaining how "savage people in many places of
America" live in a brutish way. Since most people lived by then in organised societies or

states, there was no way of knowing whether Hobbes was right or not. The evidence would
come much later on.

John Locke, writing almost forty years later, came to a very different conclusion about
human nature. Like Hobbes, he believed men were born into a state of equality, born "to all
the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties". As men had the same relative
advantages, there was no innate subordination or subjection. However, for Locke the state
of liberty is not a state of license, as Hobbes' state of nature clearly is - for people are free to
destroy, kill and plunder freely as they please. It isn't a state of license because of two
reasons: firstly, man has "no liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession".
More importantly, there is a law of nature that governs all men: "no one ought to harm another in
his life, health, liberty or possessions". This law of nature is god-given, however, Locke does not
explain how men innately know the law.

The execution of the law of nature is to be done by every man, punitively punishing
transgressors of the law. Locke assumes that there is a superior motivation for men to both
follow and enforce the law of nature, for the law would "be in vain if there were nobody that in
the state of Nature had a power to execute that law". Yet he does not explain what is that drives
men to enforce this law - even if people have the power to execute the law, it might be in
their best interests not do do so. Hobbes seems to be correct when asked if humans are
innately selfish or altruistic, as it appears more likely that men would rather look after their
self-interest than obey a law that no one is forced to enforce.

Rousseau draws his views on the state of nature in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Here,
he creates the idea of the noble savage, who is guided by his immediate needs but also by
compassion: "an innate repugnance a fellow creature suffer". Though this single description of
man in a state of nature seems to be compatible both with Hobbes and Locke – for
Rousseau's noble savage is self-interest like Hobbes uncivilised men, but follows social rules
like Locke's men following the law of nature – it becomes clear later on that his view of men
as innately innocent is thoroughly incompatible with Hobbes' theory. Rousseau's
conception of primitive men is even more extreme than that of Locke's, for Locke does not
explain what drives men to follow the law of nature, but Rousseau attributes man's behaviour
in absolute freedom to his natural compassion and gentleness. His most famous quote
condenses his political philosophy: "man is born pure, it is society that corrupts". For Rousseau,
the state of war arises with property and society, and is not the natural state of men – nature

is a state of peace. Men are in natural disagreement not because of their nature, but because
of the existence of private property, which is unnatural to man.

Answering the essay question – whose state of nature do I agree with the most – can be
done partly by asking the question Was man more violent before the advent of society and states, or
has society corrupted men and made them more violent than they were in their state of nature? Steven
Pinker tries to answer this in his book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has
Declined. His findings: even if it appears that modern states are more violent than ever
before, it is clear that violence has been declining since the beginning of human history, and
present societies are much more peaceful than primitive ones were. Pinker lists five forces
that have contributed to the reduction of violence. The first one is the Leviathan, or
organised states with monopolies on the legitimate use of force. Although the reasons for
this decline in violence are not the centre of this essay, but rather how violent societies were
in primitive times, it is important to highlight how Hobbes' theory of the formation of the
state explains the first wave of reduction of violence in history. According to Pinker, before
the advent of civilisation humans lived in a state of complete anarchy. He writes: "Modern
Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around quarter of the
average death rate of non state societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one" (Pinker,
2011). Locke's state of nature – of peoples not harming each other in his life, health, liberty or
possessions is clearly at odds with Hobbes' state of nature and present evidence; Rousseau's
conception of human nature, of man being innately compassionate and innocent, is utterly
incompatible with reality.

Proving that Hobbes' state of nature is the most approximate to reality does not imply that
war is inevitable nowadays, for people are never in a state of nature. Even when institutions
break down and conflicts arise people are not in a state of nature, for they have been in
society for their whole lives, and society has existed for millennia. War nowadays occurs for
reasons completely different than those Hobbes gave – competition, diffidence and glory
seem no more to be valid excuses for spending valuable resources on warfare. In the case of
present day "savage" tribes, it is clear that they aren't in a state of nature either, for they are
always under the dominion of a leviathan. Hobbes' state of nature may even be compatible
with Rousseau's assertion that man is innately motivated by compassion, since compassion
could act as a limitation to an all out state of war (and Hobbes himself stated that the state
of war did not necessarily consist in actual fighting). It becomes clear, however, that Locke's
theory of the state of nature does not stand up to available evidence.

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote about human nature far
before there was any way of knowing how ancient humans behaved in the absence of
society. Their theories, even when trying to be scientific, were products of their reflections
of the society of their time and of the conflicts that affected them – the English Civil War,
the Glorious Revolution, and religious persecution. When compared to anthropological
evidence hundreds of years laters, some parts of their theories seem to have been accurate in
describing early humans. Hobbes' anarchical and violent state of nature is clearly what
reigned in ancient times, and as Pinker has shown, the creation of states is what led to a
reduction of violence; man wasn't corrupted by society nor behaved morally because of a
god-given natural law. Rousseau's conception of a compassionate savage is not necessarily
disproven by these findings, as evolutionary biologists have shown these kinds of traits to
have evolved naturally: it is advantageous for man to be naturally compassionate. Even
though Hobbes seemed to describe the most precisely human nature, his ideas for a
successful state have not been adopted by modern societies, as absolute monarchy has been
left aside in favour of more democratic forms of government. His most important legacy is
the Leviathan, by showing how violence declines when the state has the monopoly on the
legitimate use of force. This idea has shaped later political thought, and explains why when
institutions fail, it is not human nature that leads to war, but the absence of a "common power
to keep them all in awe".


Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan: the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and
Civill. London.

Locke, J. (1823). Two Treatises of Government. London.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York:

Rousseau, J. J. (1755). Discourse on Inequality.

Rousseau, J. J. (1762). The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right.