State of Nature


The state of nature and the social contract theories were early Liberal ideas which applied to the freedom and absolute rights of the people (that of life, liberty, and property) but also to how the authority of government impacts on, and influences, societies individuals and their rights (if at all and whether it has the right to).


The State of nature was an image constructed by John Locke, and fellow political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in order to analyze what authority governments should have over its people (if any at all), and what role it should ideally play, by portraying what a society would be like without government. The state of nature in essence is ‘men living together according to reason (or not), without a common superior on earth[1]’. Under this definition, the State of Nature can be portrayed in one of two ways. Either individuals or groups are in a state of peace and harmony and their actions are guided by reason, or it may be war, characterized by force, violence and brutish behavior. However, in neither of these portrayals is their a desire or effort for the establishment of a civil society governed by laws, as the former gives no cause for an impartial judge, and the latter, shows no possibility of supplying one[2]. Locke and Hobbes, in their writings, portray the state of nature as an immoral and un-liberal society as there is no government in effect to guarantee the rights and freedom of the people. To them, government is an essential component to the preservation of moral, civil society, and without it, anarchy would take over. Locke demonstrates this view when he defines the state of nature as one in which ‘everyone has the executive power of the law of nature[3]’, in which every ‘man has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all of his subjects whatever he pleases without the least liberty to anyone[4]’. He attacks at this idea revealing his attitude towards the subject when he asserts ‘it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases’, that ‘self love will make men partial to themselves (and to their friends)’, and opposite to their enemies– ‘nothing but confusion and disorder will follow[5]’. He therefore argues that governments and laws are crucial to maintain a stable, civil society in order to ‘restrain the partiality and violence of men’, claiming ‘civil government is the pro-per remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature[6]’ and therefore highly necessary.


Thomas Hobbes had a similar view arguing the issue of the state of nature lay within the question of the nature of man[7]. It must be noted however that Locke does not believe that the state of nature in itself is corrupt, but that of human nature. The state of nature he argues has laws of nature[8], however are not enough to preserve the absolute rights of all individuals. With that in mind, both he and Locke agree that human nature is greedy, selfish, and power-seeking, therefore the state of nature and consequently human society would be at best described as ‘a war of all against all[9]’, which Hobbes claims would result in human existence as being ‘solitary, poor, brutish, and short[10]’.


The whole notion of the State of nature was to analyse the worst case scenario which the nature of humanity can bring out, and therefore construct a moral and stable government which defends against this situation and doesn’t interfere any further with human life. Consequently both Locke and Hobbes attempted a rectification to this scenario. Hobbes suggested implementing a Leviathan (an absolute ruler) who would be elected by the people, to absorb all their rights in order to maintain stability. Locke attacked at this suggestion arguing that if society was in the state of total anarchy, how could anyone, or why would anyone come together and support the voting for one within them to higher levels of authority over all else? Locke refers to this situation as creating a ‘lion over foxes’ in which the authority created and given to an individual could and would destroy lives rather than protecting them. Locke further asserts that even the state of nature would be better than an autocracy ruled by a leviathan