The State of Nature According to Thomas Hobbes: Life Without Society

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Imagine living in a world where life was based on killing or being killed. Where there was no form of government, police for protection, or any social institutions such as schools or hospitals. Thomas Hobbes referred to this barbaric idea as “The State of Nature.” Everyone has the right to everything as long as it is graspable. There is no such thing as the golden rule or the ethic of reciprocity, where people treat others the way they want to be treated. Hobbes famously defined it the best by referring to life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes came up with this concept after stating that “human beings always act in such a way as to advance what they perceive as their self-interest.” He believes that whenever we do something, we have to first see how it benefits us, and he uses the state of nature to define why humans need to band together to form any kind of state or nation. People in the state of nature don’t want a particular thing but just to complete and satisfy new desires as they emerge.

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Which will lead to conflict because humans will go to any lengths to satisfy their needs, especially when there is no one to stop them. “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place.” Hobbes clarifies that an absolute sovereign would be the answer, but as Locke said it best “an absolute sovereign with absolute power would be even more of a hazard to us than life in a state of nature”. Hobbes state of nature is showing us what life would be like without a society. Since there would be no production and no meaning to life because everything would be up for grabs, any type of government is better than the state of nature.

Thomas Hobbes was a British philosopher, born in 1588 during the battle with the Spanish Armada. His mother gave birth prematurely and was frightened by the sounds of the battle, which caused Hobbes to be born “Twin with Fear.” Hobbes states that the only authority that naturally exists is that of a mother and her child, and this authority exists because when the child is born, he is much weaker than the mother and everyone around him and depends on her to survive. Other than that, all human beings are equal, regardless of strength. “Even the strongest must sleep; even the weakest might persuade others to help him kill another”. (Leviathan) Since all life is equal, capable of achieving anything, and threatens each other’s lives, Hobbes claims that in the state of nature there is no authority that will keep their lives together and in order.

Hobbes believes that any type of government, regardless of how good or bad, is better than the state of nature. Since there is no government in the state of nature, self-interest would continue to rule over us, and there would be a “war of all against all.” Hobbes believes that any type of government is better than the state of nature because there would be no production of any sort, which would lead to limited resources and motivate people to take possessions by using violence to acquire what isn’t theirs. That is the primary reason why there would be no production, because of the fear of being attacked for having something that others don’t have. Imagine you have a garden full of berries. As soon as the berries get ripe, you have a constant fear of being attacked for them. Also, any type of government body is better than the state of nature because people would take advantage and attack first as a way of defending themselves.

Not only that, people would attack for no reason just to gain a reputation of being strong and becoming the supreme power, just to put fear in other people’s minds. Basically, “people in the state of government will perform in their self-interest, but the state of nature itself would not be conducive to anyone’s self-interest.” (pg.94) Hobbies believes that in order to get out of a self-defeating cycle, we need to establish enlightened self-interest. Which is the ability for humans to be able to reach long-term goals. The solution to this problem is to give up their natural freedom that comes with the state of nature and form a bond called a social contract.

A social contract is an agreement between two or more people where one person completes his part of the agreement and the other person keeps his end. Hobbies believes that in order for this social contract to work, the people must come together and hire someone to act as a sovereign. A sovereign would create and enforce the laws and be the ultimate judge of whether someone broke the law. A sovereign is above the law and must find a way to make it work in people’s self-interest to obey the law rather than disobey it, and he could do it through fear. He is not elected by the people and will serve as one until their death.

Hobbes believes that with the social contract, people have made a contract between themselves to give up all their rights to all things that the sovereign is not a part of. The sovereign can’t make a covenant with any individual or with the population as a whole because as this is taking place, people are still in the state of nature and do not trust each other. The only time the people, including the sovereign, have a say is when they pick one; after that, the sovereign could do as he pleases. Hobbes “ideal state” that he puts forward with his social contract does not include any type of democracy. His main focus is security, and he says that people are always at war and we need a government whose main focus is safety.

John Locke had his own response to this idea of a “state of nature and had very different views and solutions than Hobbes. Locke agrees with Hobbes that everyone in the state of nature is free but includes that their actions are based on the law of nature. ‘The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it’, and that law is reason. Locke lists things that we all have reason to teach us that ‘no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or property.” He uses the American frontier as an example, saying that they once lived in a so-called nature of state where peace existed and people had property rights. Unlike Hobbes, Locke thinks that humans don’t need a higher power to rule over them and that peace could exist without one. He goes on to say that a sovereign limits our natural rights and is worse than not having a government at all. He refers to the state of nature in which everyone is equal and no one has more than the other.

Locke was more religious than Hobbes and bases his logic off that. He believes that people will do good because they know that God is the real sovereign, we are his property, and we will only do harm in self-defense. Jean-Jacques Rousseau also went against Hobbes idea and solution to the state of nature by saying that Hobbes was simply taking people who lived in a society and who are used to living in a society and placing them in a place where society does not exist with the mindset of having lived in a society. Rousseau believes that people are born with a blank mind, where they are neither good nor bad, and that society and the environment they live in influence them to have their own views. He also believes that they have normal values and that everyone wouldn’t just jump to the conclusions that Hobbes claimed.

Hobbes lived and wrote this at the time of a civil war, which is why his ideas of a state of nature are so extreme. Life expectancy was only 35 in England at that time. Hobbes based the state of nature on the time and environment he lived in, where there was constant war over religion and other issues. Hobbes was born with fear, and his biggest fears were society and political chaos. Hobbes was wrong with his social contract because he combined morality and law into one, and laws could be immoral. Also, if you can’t live up to the contract, you can’t join it, which means that you are not part of the society that will work in Hobbes eyes. Hobbes justified the whole human race based on the world he lived in. Not all humans are bad or selfish; we have morals, and when someone does good for another, that person repays the favor by doing the same. We have seen it throughout history when we had just one leader with all the power and control over everyone and he was a total failure. If Hobbes had lived in a different type of house like Locke, he would have had similar views as him.

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The State of Nature According to Thomas Hobbes: Life Without Society. (2023, Mar 10). Retrieved March 30, 2023 , from
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