The state of nature is a concept used in political philosophy by most Enlightenment philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The state of nature is a representation of human existence prior to the existence of society understood in a more contemporary sense. Locke and Hobbes have tried, each influenced by their socio-political background, to expose man as he was before the advent of social existence. In this sense, these authors also attempted to trace how this transition occurred or, in other words, how man has been socialized while leaving behind him the animal state.
The state of nature in Hobbes and Locke’s philosophy
Thomas Hobbes holds a negative conception of the state of nature. In his view, it represents a state of permanent war, a permanent threat to the continued existence of the individual. First, Hobbes stipulates that all human beings are equal. That is that any man can dominate others, regardless of the means used – be it strength or cunning. Strength and cunning are two essential qualities in the state of nature. In essence, “there is no better sign of an even distribution […] the fact that everyone is satisfied with his hand.” Finally, all human beings want the same things. Given this state of desire is prescribed by greed of what others have and by the need to fill a craving, men are in competition to satisfy their needs. Each being tries to dominate the other, hence the maxim “man is a wolf to man.” Competition for profit, fear for security, and pride in regard to reputation all fuel this state of permanent conflict.
Three consequences are connected to the state of nature: the absence of any concept of law, justice, and property. Without laws, so in absolute freedom, the law of the jungle governs human relations. All have a natural right, which is to protect their own existence, at the risk of their death. Where there is no law that determines the individual, there is no injustice, because each is in its natural right to devise the means to ensure his own safety, and no common power or authority is in place to administer the justice. Finally, property is absent, as is industry, as the state of nature does not allow ownership. In short, this state of nature is war, which can be stopped only by the natural law derived from reason, the premise that Hobbes makes to explain the transition to the “civilized” state.
According to John Locke, the state of nature does not necessarily mean a state of war as it does in Hobbes. Although for Locke there remains a certain skepticism about the natural state because it is full of impartial justice. The state of nature as described by Locke is therefore one of equality, because everyone has the same powers as his/her neighbor, which implies a state of non-subjection. It is also a state of perfect freedom, because the individual cannot depend on anyone. But this freedom is not absolute, since it is bounded by two precepts of the law of nature, which arises from the nature and human reason, and which stipulates that there can be no wrong inflicted to oneself or to others. But, “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, his blood will also be spread by a man.” Man can kill, but only for one purpose: to punish an offender who violated the principle of “peace and preservation of mankind.” There are two rights, the right to punish the crime by a person authorized to do so and the right to require repairs to ensure its preservation. It requires power to judge of the judge and punish: the exemption of passion and the sentence must be proportionate to the crime, while deterring others from committing a similar crime. Each is both judge and defendant, wherein lies the problem because – for Locke – man’s ego makes him inherently biased and unfair. In contrast to Hobbes, the natural laws exposed by Locke exist in the state of nature. And, because they go against the freedom of individuals, they are considered fundamental traits of human nature.
However, for both authors, human reason is the result of a thinking – and prudent – being. The state of nature is not the equivalent of a state of war. The violation of freedom of man by man which depicts the state of war is not the same as the state of nature where independence is shared by all parties. Not being two similar states, they aren’t two absolute opposites either. “The denial of a common judge, invested with authority, puts all men in the state of nature: injustice and violence […] produces a state of war.” Visions of Hobbes and Locke are conflicted when it comes to the meaning of state of nature. Ultimately, the transition to the state is characterized by the pursuit of impartial justice and the disappearance of the state of war.
The transition to state according to Locke and Hobbes
For Thomas Hobbes, the first step to the state derives from reason. It turns into two laws of nature which prevent men from being destroyed by agreeing to divest themselves from their natural right and strive for peace. The laws of nature restrict the freedom of the individual as they impose not to follow their natural passions such as pride, revenge, etc.. These laws prevent men from claiming their right to do what they please, and thereby threaten to return to a state of war. The transition to the State seeks to uproot the state of war arising from the state of nature. So there is an unavoidable necessity of the State, which grounds the protection of men. This is a partial transfer of man’s inherent right to the state with absolute power, which it provides protection to men in their lives in return. The power wielded by the state quells conflict and institutes peace among men. Power must be in the hands of one man or assembly “which can reduce all wills, by majority rule in a single will.” This majority, however, implies the subjection of individuals channelled into a common will. In short, for Hobbes, the transition to the state is a necessity to get out of a state of destruction and anarchy. In order to ensure a peaceful life within the State, man must therefore forego his natural right.
The transition to the state for John Locke, occurs when justice is impartial. Before establishing consent between people, there is transmission in a state of their natural rights in return for justice. It relies, as in Hobbes, on the rule of the majority. This rule implies that the consent of everyone is necessary to make sure they submit to the will of the people. If they act against this, they are in a state of nature. The man, relegating his rights on the basis of a shared agreement, gives rise to a legitimate civil government, which imposes its rule to the individuals under it. The man relegates his rights because in the state of nature, “the enjoyment of property […] is uncertain, and can hardly be alone.” For the gaps in the state of nature are: the absence of established laws, impartial judges and power to carry out the sentences given. These three gaps lead men to leave the state of nature to protect and maintain their property. The establishment of power is necessary, as with Hobbes. But unlike the latter, it is not to end a state of war, but of a state of injustice. From this perspective, the new government is impartial justice that was missing from the natural state. Therefore, the state is not ultimately absolute, since it was established to address the three shortcomings of the state of nature, and doesn’t extend beyond the public sphere.
Rousseau tells us that it is private property that ends the state of nature. But the transition to a state is not an immediate benefit. It is when man has learned to overcome the obstacles of nature, becoming a high animal, that he first became human, assuming a first sign of pride. It is the spirit that lit up the drive to improve. For example, men have settled, losing “something of their ferocity and vigor, becoming less able to individually fight the beasts, but making it easier to assemble together to resist them.” From this irreversible assembly of men, the community was born. They strove to use new developments and “deprivation became much more cruel than the possession was sweet.” Inequalities begin on the possession of property: comparisons are born and jealousy ensues, creating discord.
For Rousseau, two major developments are the source of the loss of the fundamental traits of man: agriculture and metallurgy. This is the culture of the land and sharing, of which was born property and the notion of justice. The right to property has forced individuals to move from a state of autarky to a state of mutual dependence. Thus, the natural inequalities, and minor change into institutional inequalities, are fatal to mankind. Understood as such, property “inspires in all men a penchant to undermine each other, a secret jealousy [… which] often takes the mask of benevolence in a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, the other opposition of interest, and always the hidden desire to profit at the expense of others, all these evils are the first effect of property and are indistinguishable from rising inequality. ” Of this inequality are born domination and servitude, the immediate consequence of property arising from the emerging society. The transition to the state is the idea of the wealthy. Faced with the disorder as a result of their dominance, the rich offer to themselves and to the poor, the institutions that govern them by wise laws. And, by the same token, successfully manage to “turn his opponents into his supporters.” In short, property law simultaneously creates inequalities and crushes opposition to these inequalities.
Conclusion : The political philosophy of Locke and Hobbes
Ultimately, each author has his own conception of the state of nature and the transition to the state. None of them agrees at any point on a common definition. Although several concepts resurface in both of their philosophies over and over, there is no shared definition of these concepts. Recalling the essential facts of this comparative analysis, the state of nature is criticized by Hobbes and Locke as firstly, it is synonymous with war, and secondly, this state of nature is characterized by impartial justice. Thus, the transition to the state is perceived favorably by these two authors, because it is the lesser of two evils for man who suffers from disorder or bias in the state of nature. Rousseau takes a singular stance that stands out from every point of view, it is therefore in opposition to the works of Hobbes and Locke, because according to Rousseau, they transpose civil rights in the state of nature. In short, it enhances the state of nature rather than civil society. Man is free and good in the state of nature and servile and poor in civil society. The transition to the state, born of the advent of property and its corollary, inequality, it is strongly criticized.
Related articles on the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke:
- John Rawls – Theory of Justice (the-philosophy.com)