Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as thinkers about a pre-political state of nature

From the seventeen and eighteen century, the concept of a state of nature became popular and controversial between political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke because in most cases it raised freedom and equality as a natural right to all man.  Even this, there is the debate around those thinkers and the ways their conceptions changed the overcoming political theories. This essay will Compare and contrast Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as thinkers about a pre-political state of nature

Thomas Hobbes political philosophy, which comes to full fruitition in Leviathan it simply change the way of political reasoning. Because he rejected as inadequate the fundamental assumption of ancient classical theorizing that in the polis or republic man found his natural fulfillment, and that civil freedom was to be defined as the privilege of the citizen who participated in rule.[1]  ‘With extraordinary boldness he claimed that in his writings he was not merely reforming or correcting the political philosophy of the past, but founding political philosophy itself.  In this scenario, it can be argued that Leviathan, like Plato’s Republic, is a work of inauguration. It inaugurates the modern theory of the state.’ [2] Hobbes’s Leviathan is commonly described as one of the greatest masterpieces of political theory in English language and the first of the great social contract treatises. In this book according to Hobbes the state can only be conceived as overcoming something anterior to it; something that empirically can only be glimpsed here and there, but which it is the task of the political theorist to draw out and present in its unadulterated form.  In addition, the lineaments of the Hobbesian state of nature are well known. It is a ‘condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.  The state of nature here becomes a generalized picture of a world in which men are guided solely by their own ideas of what is “good” and ‘evil” and refuse to make any acknowledgement of a “common good” or “common evil”.[3]

The general outlines of his view are quite simple: Imagine says Hobbes, a world in which people live without being governed and indeed without even being in a society with one another. Such a ‘state of nature’ according to him, would be a state of war, in which people would inevitably come into conflict and wage of war on one another so that their lives would be “solitary, poore, brutish and short. “ [4]

He also maintains, the only viable form of political society can achieve these ends is one ruled by a sovereign absolute in power over the people. In simple outline the main step of Hobbes’s logic are clear and widely known: because a state of nature would be a state of war, individuals in such a condition would choose to enter into a social contract creating absolute government, preferably taking the form of a monarchy. In this case is known that his interests lies in his effort to show how cooperative civil society can develop and exist among human beings if we are assumed to be antisocial by nature.

Many readers have taken that Hobbes hold us to be naturally self-interested. Others argue, however, that he is an egoist only in the formal sense that he makes it true by definition that whatever an individual wants is in his interest.[5]  In my opinion, being naturally self-interest is reason enough for people going further in life as we cannot stop desiring and wanting things; it is human nature. Moreover it could be argued that these facts contribute to natural human evolution. Hence, Hobbes has a clear point about interests in society and why they are attached to all man and society itself. As a matter of fact, Hobbes introduces another concept of property.  In the first state of nature is imperfect in the absence of a judge. In the second state of nature there are already third-party judges. Reason and even God playing a role.[6]

John Locke in The second treatise of government[7] presents two states of nature. The first state of nature is showed as a sort of living picture. ‘The curtain rises, on darkened stage two allegorical figures are revealed; Freedom and Equality. As our eyes becomes accustomed, we see two huge characters God and Nature were already present in the background’. However, in some ways Locke goes too far in personifying abstract qualities, nature, reason, where it is not appropriate, and barely further in personifying God, where it belongs.[8] In this text he gives the idea of using the Old Testament as one source among others of anthropological information about early society.  In the second state of nature equality is freedom; but it is also an organizing idea because society is the living together of men who see each other as equals. We can see the whole moral law as included in equality. Freedom involves political equality in that it is negative by inequality, but in this aspect; it is not defined entirely negatively. To a deeper level, the text is constructed on the basis that the second treatise is built up on a theory of successive stages of society. It is ‘generative’ in method; the nature of a thing is how it comes about. There is, first, natural society, that is to say, half a dozen stages of natural society. [9]To Locke, the laws of nature come from the earliest into the latest stages of nature and society. These laws as between God and Adam continue to apply, modified and fulfilled, in later stages of nature, in family life, in modern economic life, and in the state properly speaking. In a sense, history also confirms that the early freedom of nature is enhanced by political liberty. Consequently is to believe that the second treatise is a revelation of wisdom, not a demonstration of geometrical logic. Furthermore, as far as one can tell, he believes that the social contract story offers the most accurate and illuminating account of how government was actually invented. He does acknowledge that, to a superficial eye, he says, seem to have grown out of the family, and ‘the natural fathers of families, by an insensible change, became the politic monarchs of them too’. (Second Treatise, para.76.) In this case, the image of social contract makes it particularly apparent that we are looking for the functionality of government in the benefits it confers on individuals: it is an individualized functionalism, not a functionalism of irreducible social value, for example.

Now, theoretically speaking; different approaches arise about a pre-political state of nature. For utilitarians, each person is motivated by their desires and passions, is the best judge of their own interests and uses reason to calculate the means to satisfy them. Since the individuals is the best judge of their own interest, the individual alone and no other social group or collective can determine what is morally right. The good of society is the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Consequently, equal moral value of the individual is the value of each individual’s desires.[10]

In liberal theories, the most important point about human beings is the fact that they are individuals. In liberal thought the individual is viewed as morally prior to society. In traditional contractarian liberalism, individuals actually exist temporarily before society exists and are bearers of fundamental natural rights which they possess by virtue of being human. Humans have equal natural rights which are prior to any social organization and which take moral priority over any collective good or group. For Locke, there were three such rights; right to life, liberty and property. [11]  In this scenario the liberal view that human beings are motivated by self-interest, in that each seeks to maximize their own happiness, pleasure or satisfaction, comes from seeing human beings as isolated individuals rather than social beings. Hobbes agreed that ‘of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself. Similarly, Locke assumed that in the state of nature, the preservation and protection of ‘life, liberty and property’ were primarily motivations.  On the contrary, Hobbes states explicitly that human beings are motivated by the desire for gain.

And for reductionists; explanations about social phenomena are reduced to explanations in terms of facts about individuals. Hobbes held that ‘it is necessary that we know the things that are to be compounded before we can know the whole compound’ for ‘everything is best understood by it’s constitute causes’. [12]

In contrast about their pre-political state of nature, Thomas Hobbes comes with different views regarding religion, conception of man and right of nature. In a way, He always thought religious factors were primarily responsible for civil wars. As he wrote in Leviathan: ‘The most frequent pretext of sedition, and civil war, in Christian commonwealths, hath a long time proceeded from a difficulty, not yet sufficiently resolved, of obeying at once both God and man, then when their commandments are one contrary to the other’. [13] Moreover, the concept of Man is approached as one physical being amongst others. He is seen as a kind of animal and the question Hobbes seems to be asking is what kind of animal is the man? Besides, the desires and aversions of different men rarely coincide, and even the passions of a particular man can change over time. About the right of nature, Hobbes defines it as ‘the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature.[14]

For that reason is to suppose that for Hobbes the state itself is not a web of contrasts between the individuals or groups to further their own particular ends, it is a ‘real unity’, the creation of a visible, powerful representation of the common, rational, human endeavor for peace.  He also argues that the roughly equal people in such state of nature would be largely, but not exclusively, self-regarding. They would desire above all else their self-preservation, which would generate in them an interest in many material things, and they would have other powerful desires, in particular the desire of glory. In this basis, the question that arises is how would people so described behave towards one another?

In either case, the central problem with that Hobbesian people face in the natural state is what is called a Prisoner dilemma which ‘as game-theoretical analyses proliferated in philosophy and the social sciences, many harked back to Hobbes’s account of the state of nature as an exemplary description of collective goods dilemmas.[15]This approach assumes self-interested individualism and uses Hobbes theories to address the game-theoretical question ‘How can self-interested individuals be brought to cooperate when they should be better off free-riding on the contributions of others? In this point, Jean Hampton’s argues that Hobbes description of state of nature is not a genuine prisoner dilemma, but rather a situation in which self-interest inclines individuals to cooperate. Creating civil society thus requires merely the coordination of individuals’ interests rather than a fully fledged social contract.[16]

In the other hand, John Locke political and institutional arguments are predicated on the proposition that humans are really one another’s equals so far as jurisdiction and authority are concerned; and that they are bound by principles of natural law to respect one another as right-bearers. In opposition, these claims about natural rights and equality are defended on the basis of a deep and comprehensive conception of the human position in the world, its relation to God, and our capacity for reason and understanding. Also, Locke brings the concept of consent which he argues it doesn’t make an unjust law right, nor does it preclude resistance or disobedience if the law is unjust.[17] At this level, His starting point of political philosophy is the claim that human beings are, by nature, one another’s equals; no one may be put under the political authority of another except by his own consent (Second Treatise para.95).

The premiss of equality, therefore, is fundamental to the social contract theory and to everything which is built on it. Additionally, it is true that Locke’s account of natural law is rationalistic. He rejects any innatist account of moral knowledge. Natural law is the law of reason, and it is the cause that teaches us the basis of our duties to one another. Specifically, Locke’s believes that reason teaches us to have special respect for one another, not just as creatures of God; after all, rats are creatures of God too but as creatures of God whom it may plausibly be said (in virtue of their potential knowledge of God’s existence) that they have been ‘sent into the world by his order, and about his business made to last during his, not one another’s pleasures. (Second treatise para.6). In this basis, Locke reckons, that we can figure out that every one is bound to preserve himself, and by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not take away, or impair life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, etc.

Of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the second has been the more important and influential. The first, which is incomplete, attempts a detailed refutation of the political theory of Sir Robert Filmer [18] which purported to vindicate monarchy as a patriarchal institution founded by God in an original donation to Adam. At any rate, in this first Treatise, he is inflexible that man and woman were both created in God’s image, with Godlike intellectual powers and that neither Adam nor men generally have been singled out by God with any mark of natural authority over the rest of humanity. Moreover, the second Treatise is more constructive in character. Some, like Hobbes, have argued that humans beings what they are, absolute power is necessary to keep the peace between them. But Locke insists that the point of political institutions is ‘to avoid, and remedy those inconveniences of the State of Nature, which is necessarily follows from every Man’s being Judge in his won case’.  (Second treatise para.90.)

As a result and after the research done in this essay; it is tempting to conclude that even when John Locke begins his argument by sketching the outlines of a state of nature that is, in certain respect, a nicer place than Hobbes’s state of nature. Locke thinks human beings are naturally more other-regarding and thus more cooperative than Thomas Hobbes takes them to be. In particular, unlike Hobbes people; Locke’s people can be motivated in the state of nature not only by self-interest but also by God’s “Fundamental Law of Nature”. In general, they both insist that people are politically equals so that despite differences in talents and abilities, none of them is so superior as to be master of any of the others. Plus, Locke also insists that the law blinds all people in that natural state regardless of how they might feel towards others. And he argues that its blinding nature would be recognized and the law obeyed by all rational persons in the state of nature. So, even though Lockean people are capable of ‘moral’ concerns, the problems of conflict and warfare would be serious in his state of nature, perhaps just as serious as in Hobbes’s natural state.


-D. Boucher & P. Kelly; Political Thinkers: from Socrates to the present, Oxford University press, (2003).

– J. Hampton; Political Philosophy, Oxford: Westview Press, (1997).

– J. Locke; Two Treatises of Government, student edition;  ed. P. Laslett; Cambridge University press,(2009).

-M. Forsyth& M. Keens-Soper; The Political Classics (A guide to the essential texts from Plato to Rousseau), Oxford University press, (2004).

-M. Ramsay; What’s wrong with Liberalism? Leicester University press, London and Washington. (1997).

[1] M. Forsyth; The political classics  P.120

[2] M. Forsyth P.122

[3] Idim P.136

[4] J.Hampton; Political Philosophy P.41

[5]D. Boucher; Political thinkers P.165

[6]  Political Thinkers P.154

[7] Locke. The second treatise of government; Ed.P. Lasset.

[8] M. Forsyth; The political classics P.153

[9] M. Forsyth P.149

[10] M. Ramsay; What’s wrong with Liberalism? p.8

[11] M. Ramsay P.7

[12]  Idim. P.9

[13] M. Forsyth; The political classics  P.124

[14] M. Forsyth P.137

[15]  D. Boucher; Political Thinkers, P.166

[16] D. Boucher P.166

[17] Idim. P.187

[18] Sir Robert Filmer (1588 26-may-1653) was an English political theorist who defended Divine rights absolute monarchy.


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