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Hobbes Concept of the State of Nature Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2183 words Published: 6th Oct 2017

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Explain and assess Hobbes’ claim that the ‘state of nature’ would be a war in which ‘every man is enemy to every man’.

Hobbes concept of the state of nature that he proposed in the Leviathan was defined merely as a condition of war, without the creation of a civil society he suggested that there would be a war where ‘every man is enemy to every man’. Hobbes assumption of human nature is based around the absence of a political society such as government; where no laws or rules are present. This condition creates a society filled with individuals living in constant fear and leads to perpetual war. In the first section of this essay I will explain the foundations that characterized Hobbes idea of the state of nature around and whether there is any escape from it. I will then go onto to evaluate whether this state of nature is only defined by savage behaviour and war and how other philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau researched the state of nature to come up with conclusions that contradict Hobbes original theory.

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Hobbes stated that an individual’s natural condition is seen ultimately as egoist, with no concerns of morality each are driven by a powerful desire to amass great power. This instinctual drive cannot be restrained due to the lack of an overarching authority in society. Thus each human is continuously seeking to destroy the other in pursuit of reputation and self-preservation. This ultimately leads to life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes, 1982). Hobbes believed that morality could not exist in such a state and that judgments centred around good and evil cannot exist until they are dictated by a higher authority present in society. Individual’s naturally attempt to increase their power sources as a means of future protection, this combined with their need to acquire what they like leads to this continual competition between each other. However we need to question whether this competition in the state of nature would eventually lead to war?

Another assumption Hobbes puts forward is that all men are equal by nature, meaning that each of them possess equal abilities to accumulate powers and to gain what their appetites desire. However he recognises that there are limited resources available which encourages competition leading to each becoming enemies and supporting his quote of every man is enemy to every man. You would think that by regarding equality Hobbes would consider that we should respect each other and act with compassion but Hobbes definition of equality relates to the idea that we all retain the same level of skill and strength therefore we all hold the same capacity to kill one and another. It is a condition in which ‘every man has right to everything; even to another’s body’ (Hobbes, 1982) This concept was supported by Doyle who identified that men were equal as they had similar passions and potentialities, they were mostly dominated by lusts and inner passions which were out of their control (Doyle 1927, pg. 353) He went further to state that the condition of life was one of never ending war as ‘justice and injustice have no place’.

Hobbes main idea of self-preservation in the state of nature can be exemplified by Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges. Those in possession of this ring acquire the power of invisibility. With this ring, the individual either decides to act morally or immorally (Plato, 2007) Individuals in the state of nature would use this ring to satisfy their own personal desire. Whilst in possession of this ring they would be able to obtain everything they want, it would be very beneficial in terms of survival. Hobbes suggestion is that if individuals were presented with the ring they would not hesitate using it as it would provide protection and self-preservation which is their main focus due their egoistic makeup, this supports his idea of the condition of mankind.

There are therefore 3 key main elements which characterise the state of nature; glory competition, and diffidence. These are known as the causes of quarrel. We are primarily concerned with our own safety and Hill (2006 pg. 134) reinforced Hobbes idea that uncertainty about the character and behaviour of others in society leads to mistrust due to the lack of confidence in the motive of others which turns them against each other. This consequently leads to the establishment of a sovereign to enforce authority over society. Hobbes definition of the state of war is not characterized by violence but as an individual’s constant readiness to fight. This state becomes too harsh that human beings naturally seek peace due to reason, and the best way to this goal is to create the Leviathan through what is called the ‘social contract’ which is entails having an ultimate sovereign as a legitimate source of power. The state will function due an element of fear being present which will ultimately protect and ensure that the contract is followed, people would have given up their rights and overall power to the government. As Alexandra (2001) stated that to escape from a state of nature it is necessary that the fundamental laws of nature are accepted as “public standards of behaviour” (pg.3), and according to Hobbes this can only be achieved if all people agree to limit their rights and to act to in accordance.

Even though Hobbes viewed this nature as a battle and struggle between men for the ultimate goal of survival, there are arguments against this idea that the state of nature is characterized by a chaotic world of continual fear between individuals. Locke interpretation of the state of nature was one of perfect freedom were men inherently have a sense of morality which discourages them from engaging in acts of evil. We can thus resolve any conflicts. He depicted the idea of men not having any incentives to “destroy himself, or any creature in his possession”. It is reason that leads the way in preserving a peaceful life, and teaches us that harming one another is not a moral action (Locke, 2005) From Locke’s analysis on the state, we can see that it contradicts Hobbes views on human nature. One on hand the individual is represented as good with an innate moral instinct while the other is a self-driven creature, we need to regard whether it is possible to live an acceptable life in the absence of government or sovereign rule?

Thomas.J (2009) researched to conclude that men have always been under the influence of some degree of authority, and even when there has been no control exercised by the state it has been god that has inspired them to act in a kindly manner with generosity. Men have the natural habitual ability of living with other members of their society without becoming a “social animal”. He developed his ideas further and stated that even before the state emerged, fathers were seen as the dominant figure in households and ruled over their wife and children; families were seen as ‘a unit of social organisation’.

Doyle backed up the idea presented by Thomas by stating that human beings were predestined to perform acts of evil through god, so we needed to question whether they could really be held responsible for their actions.(1927, Pg. 340). He however went onto support Hobbes claim that men were dominated by their natural instinct and were free to act as they wished, which meant they only had the power to evil. Nevertheless we also needed to consider that the action of good deeds by man is seen as automatic (1927 pg. 342)

The main concept Hobbes failed to examine and take into consideration when coming up with his theory of the state of nature is that humans have a social inclinations which include affection, building relationships and friendship which leads us to being rational human beings. This social nature embed into humans is one that drives them to cooperate. Merriam (1906) examined Hobbes literature and notice how he failed to recognize the existence of social qualities in human nature. The fundamental laws of nature commands all men to be peaceable but to also be compliant with each other, even if they entered a state of war nature would command them to be socially minded and love one another which would minimalize any effects of war between man. This statement was contradicted by Haji (1991) who argued that individuals fail to realise the benefits that cooperation with others would bring in the long term and would rather just opt for the short term benefits of them choosing to not cooperate and act solely, this leads to a course of action where everyone in society decides to not cooperate than achieve any effects through cooperation which ultimately leads to a continual fight for self-preservation.

It is clear that both researchers have examined the notion that cooperation is an important aspect of human beings day to day life, however there will always be different circumstances where individuals choose whether to cooperate or not. We can focus on the prisoner’s dilemma to look into this further, the prisoner’s dilemma is a game theory which gives the individual an overall outcome and a path of choice, and we can relate this to everyday life where certain choices give us greater benefits. We may desire to choose one that gives us greatest satisfaction or an equal option which benefits both parties. There are different people in society, some are more aggressive and self-motivated while others are inclined towards social relations.

Nevertheless it is important to realise that social behaviour that involves cooperation can be adopted and learned in such a way that restrictions enforced by society are not necessary to control the behaviour of certain individuals. Human behaviour thus can be controlled by education (Kavka,1983). Kavka also goes onto say that Hobbes theory on the state of nature is narrow minded due to his interpretation of what establishes a civil society and of what constitutes the state of nature. Hobbes predominant view is that only an absolute sovereign can be an authoritative common power. Otherwise, he stated that in the absence of a common power, people are in a state of war which is not necessarily true.

We can therefore conclude that Hobbes claim that the state of nature is one of war is not entirely true, and at no time has this state of nature existed, it was a hypothetical scenario formed by Hobbes based around the presumption of a state in anarchy. The state of nature was represented as a state of war upon the assumption that society is suffering due to a shortage of resources and competition over food supplies, however this is not the case in real life and there is ‘room for all man’. Thomas (2009) states that a state of war will only arise when individuals are severely hindered in preserving their lives.

If we look at current political situation however there is anarchy present among the states. There is no overall world government which regulates power over all states. If we consider states separately we can justify what Hobbes stated about the state of nature. It is evident that there is current inter-state and intra state war still present today, and certain crimes which are committed which go unpunished. The fear of war is always existent and states go to extreme lengths to dominate others, as well as this there is still a certain degree of mistrust between people even when there is a common power, thus Hobbes idea of a state of nature being one of war is supported to some extent as there will always be some form of competition amongst people but it does not necessarily have to be as brutish and vulgar as Hobbes described.


Alexandra, A.(1992). ‘Should Hobbes state of nature be represented as a prisoner’s dilemma?’ .The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Vol 2. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.

Alexander, J. (2001). ‘Group Dynamics in the State of Nature’ Erkenntnis. 55(2): pp.169-182

Doyle, P. (1927). “The contemporary background of Hobbes ‘state of nature’”. Economica. Vol 21. pp 336-355.

Haji, I. (1991). ‘Hampton on Hobbes on state of nature cooperation’. Philosophy and phenomenal research. 51(3): pp 589-601.

Hobbes, T (1982). Leviathan (Penguin Classics)

Hill, G. (2006). Rousseau’s Theory of Human Association: Transparent and Opaque Communities.

Kavka, G. (1983) ‘Hobbes War of All Against All’. Ethics. 93 (2):pp. 291-310

Locke, J. (2005). Two Treatises of Government. London.

Merriam, C. (1906). ‘Hobbes Doctrine of the State of Nature’. Proceedings of the American Political Science Association. Vol 3. pp. 151-157

Plato. (2007). The Republic (Penguin Classic) Oxford University Press.

Schochet, G. (1967). ‘Thomas Hobbes on the family and the state of nature’. Political science quarterly. 82(3): pp 427-445.

Thomas, J. (1929) ‘Some Contemporary Critics of Thomas Hobbes’. Economica. Vol 26. pp.185-191


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