The State of Nature

The State of Nature

One of the most fundamental concepts in the history of political thought is the concept of “state of nature.” For the most part, the state of nature in the history of political thought has been a key ingredient in the social contract theory of various social thinkers - The State of Nature introduction. The state of nature is usually the formative stage in the creation of a social contract as it provides the foundation where conceptions on the nature of the pre-society and of human beings are explored. Two of the most prominent thinkers who have touched on the concept are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

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            Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are only two of the prominent figures during their time and even today in political thought, yet their seminal works and their influential thoughts have laid down the foundations for succeeding social and political theorists.

Thomas Hobbes

            Thomas Hobbes gives a full account of his social contract theory in his seminal work Leviathan where he explored the formation of the society which includes various key elements. A significant part of these key elements includes the concept of the state of nature. In order to have a definitive understanding of what Hobbes’ treatment of the state of nature is, it is equally important to first have an understanding of why “individuals prior to the formation of the state have engaged into a social contract” (Mill, p. 289).

            According to Hobbes, human beings are selfish and hungry for power by nature. In a world where human beings come in large numbers and where resources are not available at all times in all places, competition is inevitable. Human beings only intend to obtain what they deem as necessary for their survival, and in order to survive human beings are prompted to remain above everybody else. In short, people had to overpower others, hence the hunger for power. On a large scale, what then becomes of the life of man? Hobbes tells us that the life of man is solitary, nasty, brutish, poor and short. Those are the living conditions of human beings in Hobbes’ state of nature.

            Yet, men for Hobbes fear a violent death and, as such, are inclined to preserve their lives especially when faced with a harsh, solitary, nasty, brutish and short life. This means that even though man’s life is filled with harshness, man is still acquainted with the inclination to preserve his welfare. That is, the beginning of man’s efforts to form the state is the very presumption that man has a fear of violent death. In summary, Hobbes’ state of nature revolves around the perception that “the life of man is harsh, that man seeks power in order to survive and remain on top the competition, and that man’s fear of a violent death” pre-empts him from further endangering his life (Missner, p. 409).

John Locke

            Locke’s treatment of the state of nature is reminiscent of the views held by Thomas Hobbes. For the most part, Locke espouses the belief that all men are created equal, are born free and share equal rights. Conversely, none is to be treated as an individual with more rights than others and that no one can essentially restrict one’s freedom. The state of nature, then, reflects a society where all men are placed on equal footing. Yet Locke tells us that the state of nature gives no room for government. This inevitably points us to the presumption that, since all men are created free and equal, no one can be deemed as rightfully above the other in terms of power, much less political power.

            In his treatment of the state of nature, Locke further suggests that moral or divine law subjects man and his corresponding actions. As such, all people have the equal right to punish those who transgress against them. But the state of nature for Locke also allowed men to become selfish in deed. Since resources are limited and are never always abundant, Locke espouses the belief that the growth of the population of humanity will most likely degrade their very lives. As “labour applied to objects entail the ownership of that object”, the general result of it in a large group of people would result to chaos (Schwoerer, p. 531).

            Yet Locke’s treatment of the state of nature greatly differs to Hobbes’ treatment in the sense that the former suggests that human beings in the state of nature are also rational. That is, even if men were dominated by their impulse to struggle and survive the harshest conditions in the state of nature, they are reasonable enough to “delegate some of their rights to chosen officers in order to have a better administration of the law” (Tuckness, p. 290). In this case, the law of man becomes an addition to the moral law. It is at this point that the state of nature ends for Locke as man enters the formative stage of the state.

A comparison of Hobbes and Locke

            One central point of comparison for Hobbes and Locke stands on the perception of the qualities of man in the state of nature. Hobbes suggests that man is selfish, seeks power and fears a violent death. Locke, on the other hand, suggests that although man is selfish, man is nevertheless guided by reason and tolerance. If these are the cases, then one can begin to scrutinize the partition of the crucial elements that identifies one belief from the other and arrive at a careful comparison of the two.

            If indeed man is selfish and is hungry for power, then Hobbes offers us the interesting observation that the state of nature has little room for peace. This is because man is so inclined to engage others into conflict in order to obtain power and acquire resources. Although man has the fear of a violent death, it does not pre-empt the possibility of man attempting to engage others in order to gain advantage. At the least, man can begin to try to compete with other individuals and claim for himself the things needed in order to usurp power and resources from others.

            On the other hand, if man is indeed rational, then Locke suggests that there is much hope for man in the state of nature to expect a harmonious society in the end. In fact, Locke clearly emphasizes that all men in the state of nature are born free and have equal rights. It roughly amounts to saying that all men in the state of nature are not only on equal footing; more importantly, all men in the state of nature are neither given the right to take away one’s rights nor given the privilege to trample upon the rights of others.

            Further, Locke suggests the idea that there is a moral law in the state of nature. The existence of a moral law in the state of nature, along with the rest of the natural or physical laws of nature, establishes the idea that the foundations for the pursuit of a more orderly state are already laid down and that the creation of a government is not a task as difficult as what the theory of Hobbes may indicate.

            More importantly, Locke argues that human beings are essentially rational beings. The rationality of men provides the avenue for adopting choices which are beneficial for the self. Whether or not individuals in Locke’s state of nature will adopt the beneficial choices because these choices secure the welfare of the self or of others depends on the inclination of the individuals to delegate their right to punish transgressors to other individuals who will then act as officers. Such a thought is crucial to the formation of the government in the case of Locke precisely because the state of nature is still a state wherein humans are deemed as selfish beings.

            We are eventually led to the issue as to whether Hobbes gives regard to human rationality. Apparently, Hobbes does not take into account rationality as central to his social contract theory. Locke’s theory, however, gives a fair amount of detail to human reason not only in the state of nature but to his other philosophical works as well. Yet even though Hobbes’ conception of the state of nature does not resort to reason and moral laws in guiding the actions of the pre-state man, Hobbes nevertheless takes into account the belief that each man is entitled to his own judgments. The result of it in the state of nature then draws a rather compelling claim: since there is no authority in the state of nature and since there are no moral laws, there can be no right or wrong. In Hobbes’ state of nature, every man can create judgments for himself which can help him for his survival.

Choosing Locke over Hobbes

            Choosing Locke’s theory over the theory of Hobbes can be grounded on several significant reasons. One is that Locke strongly espouses the rationality of man. Two is that Locke gives importance to a moral law in the state of nature. Third, Hobbes appears to lean towards pessimism: he doubts in a negative way the very existence or even shades of a moral impulse for human beings in the state of nature. Finally, Locke makes it clear that human beings are born free and equal in rights in the state of nature.

            By forming much of his social contract theory on the rationality of man, one is led to believe that, at the least, man can not only decide for himself the reasonable thing to do in the state of nature but can also juxtapose his rationality with the moral laws or his moral impulse. By taking away man’s rationality or at least by not giving due importance to rationality, the man in the state of nature will most likely go astray in cases where crucial decisions with seemingly equivalent or useful choices are to be made. Since survival is paramount in the state of nature, the role of reason is indeed of sheer importance. Thus, the transition of Locke’s theory from the state of nature to a society ruled by a government follows in a rational manner.

            Another important thing to note is that Locke gives importance to a moral law in the state of nature. Given the fact that Locke also submits to the argument that men in the state of nature face the instance of being selfish precisely because of the introduction of ‘ownership’ due to the application of human labour, moral law nevertheless assumes the role of guiding the actions of man. That is, human beings are presumed to have the natural inclination to adhere to their moral impulses, rationally knowing among themselves what is right and what is wrong. Thus, Locke is prone to proposing the thought that to transgress against another person is wrong. But even though transgression is wrong in Locke’s theory, he still admits that in the state of nature where moral impulses may be present, the eventuality of human beings crossing the border between right and wrong for the sake of survival is not a farfetched possibility.

            Indeed, Locke appears to offer a perspective closer to reality than Hobbes. Hobbes primarily treats man as bereft of moral impulses in the state of nature and that judgments can neither be right or wrong while keeping the thought that the only accepted authority is that of the mother over the child. But is it not the case that the mother instils into the mind of the child certain values right at the time when the child is born? It is indeed an interesting thought that Hobbes relieves human beings of moral impulses while keeping in-line with the argument that the sole authority in the state of nature is that which exists between the mother and the child.

            Locke, on the other hand, does not remove moral law and moral impulses from the state of nature. Rather, Locke makes it a formative element in the state of nature. As such, the state of nature becomes a state where individuals have a rough idea of what is right and wrong despite the risks of transgression. It appears that Locke reaffirms the idea that what is needed is a concrete form of the law which is readily enforceable. Locke resolves this problem by suggesting that individuals will delegate their right to punish to and choose the authorities, hence the beginning of the government. Locke’s account of the state of nature is perhaps the closest one can get to reality in contrast to Hobbes although we are nowhere prompted to argue that Hobbes’ theory also shares certain hints of the real world.

            Moreover, Locke makes it clear that human beings are born free and equal in rights in the state of nature.   On the other hand, Hobbes’ amoral perceptions seem to trigger the idea that, since nothing is right or wrong, men can inevitably lead to a judgment that they have a right to others, even the body of other individuals in order to claim their continued survival. This does not hold true for Locke since no individual has an essential over another in terms of rights. The fact that Locke espouses the idea that man is free by nature corresponds to the presumption that man is not and should not be suppressed in any way by his fellowmen. Otherwise, transgression would amount to punishment.

            Locke’s theory that men are born free and have equal rights in the state of nature is not without responsibilities attached. Although individuals in the state of nature have absolute liberty, they nevertheless have the responsibility to punish the few who irrationally acted. This goes to show that even in the absence of a government or of a ruler, the people in the state of nature can still abide by the natural and moral laws and maintain for their selves continued existence.

On the contrary, the state of nature for Hobbes is evidently a state of war. The need for an authority who will maintain order and security is relatively higher as compared to Locke’s conception of the state of nature. In practical terms, one may be more inclined to choose Locke’s state f nature than that of Hobbes precisely because Hobbes espouses a dangerous condition for the people in the pre-state. It is the point where Locke reaffirms some of the positive conditions in the state of nature. More likely than not, the state of nature of Locke will be preferred.

Locke’s state of nature and modern politics

            The contemporary world is very far from the previous decades and even centuries at least in terms of the political aspect. The evolution of the society is essentially attributed to a large sum of factors. Perhaps Hobbes and Locke would argue that the modern society is the concrete proof of the effect of the fulfilment of the need for an authority and government. One may find it difficult and exhausting to search for traces of Locke’s state of nature. However, one should also be reminded that the very purpose of Locke’s appraisal and exploration of man’s state of nature is to provide the theoretical foundations for the formation of the political society, especially the political societies we have today.

            Numerous countries across the globe governed by a ruling body provide the perfect embodiment of Locke’s deep affiliation with the rights and liberties of mankind. For instance, the United Nations is currently solidifying its efforts to uphold the rights of individuals across various nations. In this instance, differences in nationalities do not serve as a strict hindrance to the preservation of the rights and liberties of people. Rather, maintaining the rights and liberties of individuals across geographical and state borders is a solid reminder of how mankind treats with utmost veneration one’s rights and liberties.

            Further, Locke’s affirmation of the moral law also stretches even to this day. Though debates surrounding moral controversies still remain, there are strong reasons to believe that various societies continue to give a great amount of room for upholding certain moral edicts. Most of these moral edicts are deeply rooted in or have a firm connection with religious dogma. One crucial criticism, however, is that while it may be true that Locke’s moral law in his social contract theory may be reminiscent to this day, one can hardly deny that the very propagation of morality has spawned debates surrounding the essence of it. For the most part, there are arguments which raise the question of whether there is one, universal morality and, conversely, arguments which seek to prove that there can only be one morality.

            Another equivalent of Locke’s conception of the state of nature in modern politics can be observed in contemporary tribal communities where there is no observable authority, where individuals in the tribes are treated as equals in terms of rights and liberties, and where there is a deep regard for the preservation of certain types of moral edicts. Some of these communities are evolving especially those which are on the verge of being absorbed into the globalized society. The concept of a state of nature is observable close enough to these tribal communities as the establishment of a formal government remains to be seen.

            The modern world is indeed filled to the brim with political elements which continuously shape the evolution of the society. One interesting thought to ponder on is this: what becomes of the contemporary society if we are to take it exactly as Locke’s state of nature? The answer is not as easy as it may seem.

            Taking modern politics back to the state of nature means that societies would have to alter its sense of ownership. In Locke’s state of nature, one can only acquire ownership of certain things through labour. Hence, the modern man who is to inherit, say, a huge farm land without even sweating a muscle or toiling a day in the fields will most likely absorb the bitter taste of the political regress. Since the inheritor has not applied any concrete form of labour to any of the things he is about to inherit, it is certainly the case that the things to be inherited do not necessarily belong to him. This is because of Locke’s treatment of the concept of ownership: to own something means to labour on that something.

            The political regress from modern society to Locke’ state of nature would also entail a shift in the hierarchy of the society. Since ownership depends on the application of labour to objects in the state of nature, it implies that the lower masses who toil hardly in factories and plantations, for instance, will most likely acquire a larger amount of property than those who simply ‘manage’ the factories and plantations from an office desk. The effects to the modern world will revolutionize the very structure of the society as the social hierarchy based on property will proportionally adjust. The heart of the economy for the society in the state of nature is transferred to the diligent worker labouring in more physical terms away from what one may call as the ‘corporate’ employees and owners.

            Further, Locke’s state of nature can be related to modern politics’ treatment of a nation about to be ‘born’. One fitting illustration to such an instance is the case of the nations created after the Soviet Union was dissolved. After the once-large nation was broken down into several fragments of states, it appeared that there was no concrete form of government for these nations. Yet, even though there was an absence of a concrete and functioning government, the people in these countries are presumed to still have a sense of morality and rationality. And although transgressions are deemed punishable, there were still numerous instances of transgressions during those times. Those crucial times can be treated as reminiscent of Locke’s state of nature.

            As for Hobbes’ treatment of the state of nature when viewed from the perspective of modern politics, the short period prior to the establishment of the dictatorial rule of former President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines can be compared to that of Hobbes’ state of nature. The people of the Philippines were, for that short timeframe, lacking of a government. The political environment was a disaster and that the sense of right and wrong were almost unintelligible. In the end, Ferdinand Marcos assumed the role of President under a dictatorial type of government where the rule resides largely on his part in terms of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

            Hobbes’ suggestion that the state of nature is a state of war embodies the current global wars occurring in numerous parts of the globe. If indeed Hobbes is correct, then modern politics, especially the contemporary wars motivated for reasons close to the acquisition of power and global dominance, the state of nature or the state of war can never be far behind. The unceasing trends in modern warfare stretching back since the First World War relates to Hobbes’ perception that the state of war which defines his state of nature is incessant. That is, there are no assurances that at a given time the wars will come to a halt. The same can also be said to modern politics, especially the inextinguishable efforts of US President Bush to pursue the terrorists and engage them into war until their groups have been finally wiped out if indeed they can be wiped out.

            Both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are key figures in our understanding no only of political thought during their times but also of our modern world as it revolves around the politics set forth by humanity.


Mill, David van. “Rationality, Action, and Autonomy in Hobbes’s “Leviathan”.” Polity 27.2 (1994): 289.

Missner, Marshall. “Skepticism and Hobbes’s Political Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Ideas 44.3 (1983): 409.

Schwoerer, Lois G. “Locke, Lockean Ideas, and the Glorious Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 51.4 (1990): 531.

Tuckness, Alex. “Rethinking the Intolerant Locke.” American Journal of Political Science 46.2 (2002): 290.


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