Political And Economic Theory

The State of Nature in Thomas Hobbes Political Philosophy

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Thomas Hobbes' idea of the State of Nature'.

This essay argues that Hobbes' idea of the State of Nature' is a logical outgrowth of his perspective of human nature and the concept of power. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1651) writes: "During the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre." The condition of war led Hobbes to assert famously that life without strong central government would be "solitary, poore, brutish and short". Such is the Hobessian state of nature. While claiming man's essential nature as selfish and competitive, Hobbes propounds the case for a powerful sovereign, or Leviathan, to enforce peace and the law, substituting security for the anarchic freedom he believed human beings would otherwise experience. Hobbes prefers an absolute monarchical sovereignty, not because he believes in any inherent right of kings to rule, but because he believed that a monarch could be invested in something approaching popular consent (Fukuyama, 1992).

Hobbes' state of nature must be understood within the chain of reasoning that brought it into existence in the first place. For instance, Hobbes advances, firstly, a Theory of Human Nature in Society; he then moves on to introduce, progressively, the famous concepts of State of Nature, Right of Nature, Law of Nature, and the Social Contract (MacPherson, 1968). The last three concepts do not pertain for current purposes. Also, I will provide a critique on Hobbes' idea of the state of nature to indicate the possible limitations of his assertions.

Hobbes' "Theory of Human Nature in Society" and "The State of Nature"

It is important to mention that the foundation of Hobbes' political philosophy was a mechanistic naturalism in that the universe, including human beings, is a vast machine, running according to natural laws. Society is to be explained in the same way that physics explains the rest of the world, in terms of the regular interaction of its constituent parts; human beings take the place of particles, which in their natural state would simply bounce around and off each other, with no thought of cooperation (King, 2002). Accordingly, the portrayal of man in Hobbes' Leviathan as a highly complicated machine, where human "nature" consists of a series of basic passions like joy, pain, fear, hope, indignation, and ambition, that in different combinations he believes are sufficient to determine and explain the whole of human nature (Fukuyama, 1998). For Hobbes, man is unfree in that he is incapable of making moral choices. Man can be more or less rational in his behavior; however, that rationality simply serves as ends (like self preservation that are given by "nature"). In part, this sets out the central argument of Hobbes's analysis of the behavior of men (i.e. their human motivations) towards each other (MacPherson, 1968).

As detailed by MacPherson (1968: 32-33), Hobbes' first proposition about human motivation is such that men are moved by appetites and aversions. At this juncture, four claims are made; (1) some appetites are innate as appetite for food; (2) appetites also change continually and are different in different men; (3) appetites are incessant and must operate as long as a man is alive; (4) appetites are of different strengths in different men.
Hobbes argues that all men must seek incessantly to attain satisfaction of their desires but that, since the strength of appetite differs from one man to another, different men will be satisfied with different levels of power, riches, honor, etc (MacPherson, 1968). Having got this far, Hobbes turns to a definition of a man's power: "The POWER of a Man (to take it universally,) is his present means, to obtain some future apparent Good"; it follows, from this and propositions (3) and (4), that "Every man must always seek to have some power, although not every man is self impelled to seek as much power as others have, or to seek more than he now has" (MacPherson, 1968: 33).

Hobbes postulates that men have two kinds of power, that is, natural or original and instrumental or acquired power. In The Elements of Law, Hobbes defines a man's power as the faculties of body and mind plus what further powers he acquires by using them: "And because the power of one man resisth and hindereth the effects of the power of another: power is simply no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another" (Elements of Law, Part 1, Chapter 8, Section 4, p. 26, as cited in MacPherson, 1968: 35). Thus, a new postulate; (4) that every man's power resists and hinders the effects of other men's power. This is asserted to be so universally the case that one's power may simply redefined as the excess of his over others' (MacPherson, 1986). This means that, since all powers are opposed, "the only way you can acquire power is to master the powers opposed to yours" (MacPherson, 1968: 35). This leads to another generalization of Hobbes that (5) all acquired power consists of command over some of the powers of other men (MacPherson, 1968).

Hobbes' reasoning does not stop there. He makes a further assumption that (6) some men's desires are without limit. This means that if all men have a limit to their desires, then some accommodation might be possible between their satisfying their desires and the rest of the people making do with their more moderate level of gratification. MacPherson (1968; 36-37) explains that it is only if some men's desires are without limit that "other men are necessarily moved to resist having some of their power transferred" (and the only way men with moderate desires can resist men with immoderate desires is to get into the struggle for power).

With proposition (6), Hobbes reached to the grand conclusion of his analysis of human nature: (7) "So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceases only in Death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he has present, without the acquisition of more" (Leviathan, Chapter 2, pg. 47, my emphasis).

Upon establishing Hobbes' perspectives of human nature and concept of power, we shall now turn to his idea of the state of nature. It has been indicated that man's innate desires and his natural aversion of death are the primary motivations for him to seek power so that such desires can be satisfied and aversions avoided. However, some men have immoderate desires compared to other men; the former will seek more power to satisfy their desires. The latter will also seek power to protect themselves from these men with immoderate desires, thus a kind of power play emerges. Hobbes argues that in this hypothetical state of nature, the competitive nature of men for "a perpetual and restless desire for Power after power" means that it is a "war of all against all". Life in this hypothetical state of nature, a situation of anarchy and disorder, would be nothing but "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" given the essentially power seeking and self interested nature of man (as detailed in the paragraphs above). It is to this understanding of human nature that led Hobbes to propound a rationalist defense of absolutism. However, Hobbes is NOT advocating despotism; he believes that authority should be vested in a perpetual sovereign power so that commodious living between men of all degrees of desires possible. Hobbes' model is one in which there are "legal, peaceful ways by which men can transfer some of the powers of others to themselves, and in which everyone is constantly peacefully engaged in seeking to get or resist this transfer" (MacPherson, 1968: 38-39; Fukuyama, 1998).

Critique of Hobbes' idea of the State of Nature

Hobbes' ideas about human nature and the state of nature remains relevant even till today. Heywood (2004: 123) mentions that Hobbes' "individualist methodology and the use he made of social contract theory prefigured early liberalism". Hobbes' ideas also features, alongside contemporaries like Hedley Bull, as key thinking in International Relations (particularly, liberal realism). Liberal realism propounds that "the international anarchy can be cushioned by states who have the capacity to deter other states from aggression, and who are able to construct elementary rules for their coexistence" (see Dunne and Schmidt, 2001: 149). Hobbes' ideas, then, has been applied not only on the societal level but the international as well.

The weakness of Hobbes' argument was "the tendency of legitimate monarchs to quietly slide over into being despots"; with no institutional mechanism like elections for registering popular consent, it would be difficult to know whether a particular monarch had the kind of consent Hobbes himself had in mind (Fukuyama, 1998: 157-158). Fukuyama (1998: 157-158) elucidates that it was "relatively easy" then for John Locke to "modify Hobbes' doctrine of monarchical sovereignty into one of parliamentary or legislative sovereignty based on majority rule." Locke's alternative to the "Hobessian dilemma" is not absolute monarchy but limited government; a constitutional regime providing safeguards for the citizen's fundamental rights and whose authority is derived from the consent of the people (Fukuyama, 1998). Indeed, Locke sees Hobbes' natural right to self preservation as implying "a right to revolution against a tyrant who used his power unjustly against the interests of the people" (Fukuyama, 1998: 158). Locke's alternative provided a perfect solution to the classic question: "Who would guard the guardians?"

Others, such as Rousseau (1712-78) and Dawkins (1989), have also been singled out as challenging Hobbes' (as well as Locke's) assertions. Rousseau believed that the state of nature is more benign than Hobbes'/Locke's conception. Rousseau believes in the goodness of "natural man" and the corruption of "social man". This optimistic view of human nature is derived from Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" and believes that the roots of injustice lay not in the human individual but rather in society itself (Heywood, 2004).

Dawkins, on the other hand, agreed somewhat with Hobbes in that human nature is selfish. In The Selfish Gene (1989), Dawkins argues that every gene, including those unique to the separate individual, has a selfish streak and competition among individuals is essentially a form of biologically programmed behavior. However, Dawkins detracts from Hobbes in that the former argues that it is more rational for self seeking genes (if not people) to come together for mutual benefit rather than to remain "atomized". Thus, Dawkins agree on the aspect of human nature being selfish; however, Dawkins is more inclined to accept Aristotle's view of man as a naturally social being, not vice versa.


Hobbes' idea of the state of nature has been analyzed according to his perspective of human nature and concept of power. Hobbes believes man to be selfish and self seeking due to their natural appetites and aversions. Given that man needs to satisfy his appetites as well as avoid his aversions, he would seek power to ensure this possibility. However, to do so man needs to acquire power. The problem is that some men have more immoderate desires than other men; the former would seek more power to satisfy their wants. Less immoderate men, having the need to counter men of immoderate desires, also get involve in acquiring power as an act of self preservation. A power play thus emerges, a "war of all against all". Hobbes argues accordingly that the only remedy for this state of affairs is to have an absolute sovereign to oversee this hypothetical state of nature.

Criticisms have been drawn from all camps regarding Hobbes' conception of the state of nature. Locke argues that limit government is needed, not an absolute monarchy. Rousseau attacks Hobbes' theoretical foundations by stating that man is naturally a social being and not necessarily selfish and power seeking. Dawkins agrees with Hobbes that human nature is selfish; however, Dawkins argues that, although human nature is selfish, it is more rational to cooperate for mutual benefit rather than remain atomized. In conclusion, this essay has sought to illuminate on all aspects of the subject matter and the issues raised in the introduction.

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