State of Nature

Definition

Mark Cartwright
by
published on 01 February 2024
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Available in other languages: French
The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole (by Thomas Cole, Public Domain)
The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole (Public Domain)

The State of Nature is an idea which became especially popular with certain philosophers during the Enlightenment, notably Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). It refers to a state of existence before humans joined together to make formal societies when they gave up certain individual rights in favour of collective government by forming a social contract.

Although philosophers across different cultures from antiquity to the present have pondered on how humans might have interacted before societies were formed, plenty of other thinkers, notably David Hume (1711-1776), have maintained that a state of nature has never existed and is merely an artificial construct to facilitate the discussion of which rights citizens should maintain in contemporary political society. The idea of the state of nature, nevertheless, can be useful to contrast the benefits of particular political systems and demonstrate why citizens should comply with the demands of citizenship since the alternative could be chaos or, at least, a less desirable society than that in the present. In short, what rights people may or may not have enjoyed in a state of nature – for example, property – has coloured how those rights should be dealt with by political authorities, notably in the formation of the Constitution of the United States. The state of nature features in the systems of many different philosophers, but three in particular. These three systems are considered below.

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Hobbes' State of Nature

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes can lay claim to creating some of the most distinctive and memorable statements about the state of nature. For Hobbes, humans in the state of nature are concerned with one thing only, their self-preservation. They have essential needs such as food and shelter but also secondary needs such as the desire for wealth and honour, and they will do anything to attain these things, even if other people must suffer in the process. There is, as a consequence, a constant competition in the state of nature, which eventually leads to continuous war (or what Hobbes more specifically defined as the perpetual threat of violence). His pessimistic view of humans in the state of nature is summarised in the famous phrase: "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (Leviathan, ch. 13). In regards to Hobbes' pessimism, it is perhaps worth noting that Hobbes' life experience included growing up during the turmoil of the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).

To escape the state of nature humans formed a social contract or 'covenant', that is, a collective promise to abide by certain rules.

Hobbes believed that humanity's ruthless self-interest necessitated a very strong political authority, which he called Leviathan (after the sea monster in the Bible's Book of Job) and which was the title of his most famous work, published in 1651. This supreme authority, which Hobbes envisions as an absolute monarch, would act in the best interests of all and ensure everyone follows the rules of society. There is, then, even for Hobbes, hope that humanity can live together in relative peace, especially since the alternative is the rampant warfare of the state of nature. To escape the state of nature, humans formed a social contract or 'covenant', that is, a collective promise to abide by certain rules of behaviour; they gave up certain individual freedoms so that they might enjoy other freedoms and personal safety. It is perhaps important to note that, for Hobbes, the social contract is not between citizens and the ruling authority but between the citizens themselves (other thinkers would extend the idea of a social contract to a binding agreement between ruler and ruled).

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Thomas Hobbes by Faithone
Thomas Hobbes by Faithone
Wellcome Images (CC BY)

Critics of Hobbes' views on the state of nature point out that his pessimism of human nature is rather extreme and perhaps incorrect (René Descartes was one such critic). Hobbes also rejects religion as a moral guide to good behaviour and good citizenship. His view of human nature, therefore, upset many Christians since it removed an important role of the Church and suggested that God was an incompetent creator. Another criticism is that if the state of nature is not as bad as Hobbes claims, then political institutions are under a much greater obligation to provide a fairer and safer society in which to live, a greater obligation than perhaps Hobbes allows for. Otherwise, citizens, or at least some of them, might be better off back in the state of nature. One thinker who provided a more positive view of human nature was John Locke.

As everyone has equal rights in the state of nature, so everyone should have equal rights in a political society.

Locke's State of Nature

The English philosopher John Locke published Two Treatises on Government in 1689. Locke here presented the idea that in the state of nature humans were capable of working together by following the universal law that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions" (quoted in Popkin, 77). Locke concedes that humans are inherently self-interested in their actions but, unlike Hobbes, he believes a natural self-restraint comes into operation, as does the use of reason, both of which ensure that everyone pursues a common good. In short, human nature is predisposed to good.

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Again, as with Hobbes, people gather together and leave the state of nature to form a social contract and establish a government that can best protect their rights. Locke believed that only democracies can fully protect citizens' rights. Certain rights were enjoyed in the state of nature – the right of property being the most important of all – and so no government should interfere with them or remove these natural rights if they do not compromise the common good. Further, because everyone has equal rights in the state of nature, so everyone should have equal rights in a political society.

John Locke
John Locke
Godfrey Kneller (Public Domain)

Locke's views on human nature and the state of nature directly influence his thoughts on the function of government. For Locke, the function of government is to serve the people and not itself. Any government that does not fulfil its function can be overthrown. To avoid the real danger of governments becoming despotic, there should be a separation of power between the executive (monarch), legislative (upper and lower houses of parliament), and federative (which deals with foreign policy). A fourth branch, the judiciary, is there to punish anyone who breaks the law. A government should foster good behaviour in its citizens through education, bringing out people's natural tendency to do good.

Other thinkers tinkered with the idea of the state of nature, particularly in their search for a fairer society. Perhaps the most effective of these philosophers was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested a more subtle model where political society itself creates certain motivations and rights.

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Rousseau's State of Nature

Rousseau published his Second Discourse in 1755. Here, Rousseau investigated the origin of society's obvious inequalities. He saw the state of nature as entirely primitive, a place where there were no such things as property ownership, pride, and envy since these only arrived in humanity when they began to form societies. Rousseau goes right back to humanoid apes (and so indirectly suggests a theory of evolution) in order to see what went wrong, Rousseau suggests that humans in a state of nature are free, equal, and have two basic instincts: a sense of self-preservation and a pity for others. As humans gathered together in more sophisticated societies, so their morality declined. The pursuit of self-interest and wealth takes over. Rousseau said: "The man who first had the idea of enclosing a field and saying this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society" (Hampson, 210).

For Rousseau, society has become so corrupt, unequal, and morally bankrupt that he even suggests many individuals would be better off back in the state of nature. Civilized humans are unhappy, selfish, and unfree, he said. This negative view may stem from Rousseau's own life experiences and taste for solitude. He once said: "I have never really been suited to civil society, where there is nothing but irritation, obligation, and duty, and…my independent nature always made me incapable of the constraints required of anyone who wants to live with men" (Gottlieb, 232). Even the philosopher's house was called Ermitage, a place for a hermit.

Rousseau does offer hope. His plans for a fairer society are laid out in his Social Contract, published in 1762. Rousseau's ideal government is concerned with limiting the excesses of inequality (he recognises absolute equality is impossible). People must gather in a community based on consent and form a social contract between themselves with the ultimate objective of that society being the common good. Laws and strong government are required to guide the general will of the people when it might inadvertently err, to educate them to reduce their tendency to act with self-interest, and to protect property, a creation of society. For Rousseau, the general will is a compromise, where individuals sacrifice complete liberty to achieve the next best option: a restriction on liberty in order to avoid a situation of no liberty at all. Whatever the general will turns out to be, that is the right one. The consequence of this, as some critics have pointed out, is that Rousseau's government has tremendous power since the state is, in effect, allowed to force people to be free.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau Portrait
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Portrait
Maurice Quentin de La Tour  (Public Domain)

Legacy

The philosophical discussion of which rights people possessed in the state of nature influenced ideas on which of those rights should be protected by governments, as we have seen. This was not just in theory but also in practice. The clearest example is in the United States when the 13 British colonies declared independence and drew up their own and entirely new constitution in 1789. Many of the ideas in this constitution, as well as in the Bill of Rights, were inspired by the ideas on liberty and happiness presented by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

The idea of the state of nature has continued to fracture philosophy. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) both thought the state of nature a useless construct because they viewed human nature as a product of society, more so even than Rousseau. Nevertheless, the state of nature did appeal to some 20th-century philosophers, either as an idea in itself or as a hypothetical situation which brings more clarity to exactly which rights citizens should and should not have in a political society. A thinker who famously took the latter approach is John Rawls (1921-2002).

In his Theory of Justice, published in 1971, Rawls attempts to build a model of a fairer society by examining what the principles of justice are and how these principles would appeal to people fresh out of the state of nature (although he denied such a thing has ever existed). In other words, if the present model of society were suddenly withdrawn and if all rights were suddenly absent, how would we decide which rights should be reinstated in order to build a new and fairer society? Rawls, then, is using the idea of a state of nature, what he calls the "veil of ignorance", as a hypothetical mirror which he can use to reflect on just what rights should be established in a fair society.

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As neither Rawls nor any previous philosopher has been able to witness their ideas fully put into practice, and as we are, alas, all fully aware that our societies continue to evidence great unfairness, and as new rights issues develop (the right to own weapons, gender rights, or the right to euthanasia to name a few) it seems likely that future thinkers will return to the idea of the state of nature to help clarify the conundrum of what exactly are a citizens rights.

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Editorial Review This article has been reviewed by our editorial team before publication to ensure accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards in accordance with our editorial policy.
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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time author, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.

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Questions & Answers

What is meant by the state of nature?

The state of nature is a real or imagined state of human existence before people got together and formed a social contract to live in a political society. It is often used as a philosophical device to examine which rights people should have or not have in society.

What is the difference between Hobbes' state of nature and Locke's state of nature?

The difference between the states of nature proposed by Hobbes and Locke is the former had a very pessimistic view based on a belief in people's solely self-interested actions, while the latter had a more positive view that humans are naturally capable of using their self-restraint and reason to pursue a common good.

Do all philosophers believe in a state of nature?

Not all philosophers believe in a state of nature, notable critics of the idea include David Hume, Hegel, and Marx. Further, even those philosophers who do propose a state of nature are typically only doing so as a hypothetical examination of pre-societal rights and motivations.

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APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2024, February 01). State of Nature. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/State_of_Nature/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "State of Nature." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 01, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/State_of_Nature/.

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Cartwright, Mark. "State of Nature." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 01 Feb 2024. Web. 29 Feb 2024.

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