What does Hobbes think that life is like in the state of nature

Published 27 Mar 2017

The phrase “state of nature” describes a situation in which unenlightened self-interest is the guiding principle of human conduct. In such a state, Hobbes famously declared in chapter 13 of Leviathan, life will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; and he proposes the State as a balancing force to ensure that the common good is served.

Hobbes’ view of the solitary nature of humankind underpins the rest of his thinking. According to Hobbes every person has the same desire to survive and every person has some rational capacity: so every human effort is aimed at bettering the lot of the individual, without thought for the good of the community – in essence there is no community. In the end, all men are equal, for, as the same chapter of Leviathan declares, “yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”

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Hobbes’ objection to living in such a state was not an objection to self-interest, but to unenlightened self-interest. Mansbridge (3) points out that self-interest as a motivator for political life predates Hobbes by a couple of thousand years; and that Hobbes was reacting in part to the situation current in his time, when social dislocation had seriously stressed the fabric of society.

Hobbes’ thinking was formed partly by his studies of ancient thinkers, particularly the work of Thucydides; partly by the disorder of English society in the period leading up to and during the English Civil War; and partly by ideas of an empirical approach to political science drawn from the new scientific thinking of the age. From Thucydides he drew lessons about power; the disorder in society led him to advocate a strong central authority; and from the new scientific approach he tried to marshal evidence drawn from experience that favored his theories.

One area that marked Hobbes’ thinking as very different from that of his contemporaries was his attitude to religious authority. For Hobbes, morality, liberty and justice are the result of social convention. They have no intrinsic value, but are constructs defined by the State. From here it is a very short step to the view that anything the State is able to enforce is legitimate simply because the State can enforce it.

To me, there seem to be inconsistencies in some of what Hobbes says. Undermining much of his position is that evidence from anthropology and related sciences, not available to Hobbes, does not seem to support a theory of chaotic disorder in a “state of nature.” Most primitive societies are reported, for example by Radcliffe-Brown (1952), to have a strong communal sense of order, often based on a hierarchic family structure. It is not at all a case, as Hobbes would have it in Leviathan, of “war of every man against every man.” It is not clear that a “state of nature”, in Hobbes’ sense, has ever existed. Modern psychological understandings suggest to me that it is unsafe to assert, as Hobbes does, that everyone is basically the same and that there is no possibility of altruism, no possibility of a sense of community, nor any possibility of justice unless an authority figure sets up some basically arbitrary system to impose a set of rules on everyone else. Strauss (10) demonstrates that Hobbes’ views on man’s constant reach for power “rests on already rational reflection and is for that very reason not natural, i.e. not innate, not in existence prior to all external motivations, to all experience and education.”

Hobbes considered the new science of his age could be used to construct a rational, empirical understanding of the foundations of political and social order. He believed the authority and power of the State could impose codes of morality, justice and order on humanity, and in doing so could raise humans from a state of murderous competition for resources and power. Not all the evidence he relied on to construct his theories was reliable; and at times his faith in his method obscured flaws in his reasoning.

Works Cited

  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651.
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. “The Rise and Fall of Self-Interest in the Explanation of Political Life.” Beyond Self Interest. Ed. Jane Mansbridge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 3–23.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen and West, 1952.
  • Strauss, L. The Political Philosophy of Hobbes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.
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