THE STATE OF NATURE AND THE "NATURE" OF THE STATE
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz
1. Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) shares Descartes' belief that
human bodies, as well as all natural and artificial bodies, are
determined by mechanical laws. All bodies are acted upon or "moved"
by other bodies. But, unlike Descartes, Hobbes denies the existence
of spiritual or non-material substance or "soul". For Hobbes,
to be is to be a body (see Epicurus). All that happens is the
result of particles of matter "bumping into one another," pushing
one another. Even human perception, imagination, reasoning, desiring,
and acting is but a chain reaction of material causes and effects.
God, if he exists, must be in some sense "body." Thus, Hobbes'
thinking is not dualistic, but consistently materialistic (as
2. Nor does Hobbes share Descartes' mistrust of the senses.
According to Hobbes, all knowledge comes through and by means
of the senses. Even geometry, according to Hobbes, is constructed
from images gained through the senses. There are no "innate ideas."
Mathematics, like everything else that we know, is learned from
experiencing the physical world about us. Whereas Descartes is
a rationalist (believing that knowledge is arrived at by reason
using the proper method), Hobbes is an empiricist (of a "constructionist"
variety). Nevertheless, Hobbes, unlike Descartes, does not place
much value in conducting experiments.
3. Hobbes once said, "Fear and I were born twins." Apparently,
he was born prematurely when England was under threat of attack
by the Spanish Armada. Fear -- specifically, fear of violent and
untimely death -- is the mainspring of Hobbes' view of human nature
and human society. In the state of nature (a hypothetical condition,
since in one way or another, man is always observed as belonging
to some civil society), man is afraid of his fellow human beings,
who compete with him for the same things. By nature, human beings
have an inclination to hurt one another. This is because, by nature,
human beings have a right to possess and enjoy whatever they desire.
By nature, human beings are reservoirs of unlimited desires seeking
unlimited satisfaction. Each has a right to all. Since this right
leads to incessant competition for the same limited number of
goods, human beings are necessarily continually at war with one
another. According to Hobbes, the "state of nature" or the state
of men without civil society is a state of continual warfare.
By nature, human beings are not social, as ancient philosophers
believed. Human beings, without constraints imposed on them by
conventional law and the fear of being punished, tend to exploit
one another for their individual gain. By nature, human beings
seek honor -- which is gotten at the expense of others -- and
profit -- which can not be shared equally by all. Human beings
do not seek one another's company out of altruism, but in order
to profit from one another.
Question: Why is it that private property and other
material goods cannot be "shared" equally by everyone? Why cannot
honor or fame be shared equally by all?
Question: Is Hobbes right about human nature? If
there were no legal restraints, how would human beings behave
toward one another? How would Americans behave if there were fewer
laws? How would corporations behave if there were fewer regulations?
4. In the state of nature, human beings are absolutely free to
pursue whatever they wish, although what they wish is determined
by their natural tendencies (instincts). In the state of nature,
human beings are "free" to pursue whatever they are "forced" to
desire. Freedom does not mean self-control or self-restraint. Freedom
means the absence of external restraint -- being able to do whatever
one wants without being stopped (without meeting with external resistance);
freedom is the ability to seek endless satisfaction of limitless
desires, without interference from outside force. One sees here
the inversion of Greek values. According to both the Greeks and
Hobbes, desires by themselves are unlimited. But for the Greeks,
happiness consists in self-limitation. For Hobbes, all limitations
and restrictions on natural inclinations reduce human happiness.
The happiest life would be a life of continual satisfaction of desires.
This, according to Hobbes, is impossible in this life; and since
to be is to be a body, and a mortal one at that, one is unlikely
to attain happiness in an "afterlife" either. Man's life is perpetual
motion, without rest, without tranquillity. For the ancients, rest
is the natural state and end of things. For Hobbes (following Galileo's
law of inertia), bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. The
natural state of man is a state of continual restlessness.
Question: In the light of Hobbes' view of human nature,
explain what is meant by the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit
5. In the state of nature, there is no "justice." There are
no "rules." There is no "right and wrong."
6. But in the state of nature, while absolutely free to do
whatever they wish, human beings live in constant fear. For other
human beings also have the right to do whatever they wish and
to whomever they wish. The state of nature is a state of incessant
mutual exploitation, all individuals seeking to dominate one another
and to acquire honor and profit (fame and fortune). Thus, one's
existence and therefore one's "pursuit of happiness" is constantly
threatened. It is "natural" for human beings to seek a way out
of the state of nature, to exchange war for peace, to trade some
of their "freedom" for safety. Safety is accorded by making artificial
agreements with one's fellows (recall Epicurus), thereby limiting
their freedoms and restraining their natural right to own and
enjoy all. Humans trade freedom, the right to do whatever they
wish, for security. A long life with moderate "happiness" is better
than a short life with intense happiness. This agreement or contract
or compact (the basis of every civil society) goes against human
nature and its desire to pursue happiness. It is "unnatural" or
artificial. Human beings by nature tend to draw up artificial
agreements to unnaturally restrict their desires. They make laws.
Laws are external restrictions on natural freedom. Thus, human
beings cannot be both safe and happy in this life.
Question: Why do human beings trade freedom for security?
Would this question make sense from Plato's point of view?
7. Laws and social contracts do not eliminate mutual exploitation;
they merely reduce such exploitation to a tolerable level. The fear
of violent death makes individuals sign away some of their freedom
-- allowing them to live a longer, albeit more frustrated life.
But civil society does not eliminate fear. It replaces fear with
fear. The fear of death in a state of nature is replaced by the
fear of punishment (including death) by authorities empowered through
mutual agreement to enforce the law. Laws -- negative restraints
upon man's natural aggressive instincts -- are not sufficient by
themselves to guarantee peace. Laws must be backed up by "force."
Fear of force in man's natural state gives way to fear of force
in civil society. The competition for public honors and private
property is "civilized" and made tamer by laws and the threats that
accompany them. Laws are not based on what is "good" or "desirable"
in man's natural state. The "law of the jungle" is the only "law"
in the state of nature. "Justice" is the legal inhibition of man's
natural desires. The purpose of legislative constraints or governmental
regulations is to protect human beings from their mutual and antisocial
pursuit of private gain at the expense and "over the dead bodies"
of one another. It is fear of punishment, not natural inclination
to act morally, that keeps individuals in check.
Question: If civil society is a system of regulated
mutual exploitation, what might be the result of deregulation?
Question: In what sense is "free enterprise" or "capitalism"
a kind of regulated "state of nature." To what extent do corporations
do "whatever the law allows"? Do laws eliminate or only reduce
mutual exploitation? Are laws merely negative restraints on excessive
8. Thus, man by nature is neither social nor political. Civil
society is the artificial deterrent to man's basically antisocial
tendencies. In this respect, the artificial (civil society) is superior
to the natural (state of nature). The artificial directly opposes
and frustrates the natural; but safety, which affords a little happiness
and peace, is superior to unbridled freedom. In civil society, the
closest example of existence in a state of nature is the unsocial
"freedom" of the criminal who, ignoring the law, can do whatever
he wishes for at least a little while -- until he is caught and
punished. His position is similar to that of every human being in
the hypothetical state of nature, where there are no rules, where
laws do not exist, and where one can do whatever he wants as long
as he can get away with it. Further hints of the "state of nature"
can be found in wars between nations, the struggle for survival
in colonial America, and in the habits of locking one's doors and
carrying weapons to defend oneself against thieves.
Question: Do you agree with Hobbes' view of colonial
America? Do you think that in America there is even today a tension
between a need for freedom to do what one wishes and the need
for negative restraints, between the "pursuit of happiness" and
the need for security?
Question: Do you believe that a society that values
personal freedom must expect high crime rates and unscrupulous
profit-taking? Is freedom the right to do whatever we want? Do
laws inhibit freedom? Use both Hobbes' and the ancient Greek understanding
of freedom to answer these questions. Does the result depend on
how one defines freedom and how one understands human nature?
9. But a state of war exists not only between man and man, but
also between man and non-human nature. Hobbes's attitude toward
nature, whether human or non-human, is one of fear. Natural forces
threaten human life every bit as much as human beings do. One must
tame these natural forces, subdue and conquer them. In Hobbes' view
-- which has more faith in technology than in nature -- nature is
an enemy to be conquered, a savage to be tamed, a raw and unreliable
material which must be "processed" and converted into stable products.
Hobbes sees the person and society in context, but this context
is a powerful and threatening universe against which one has no
choice but to secure a cunning defense. This is far removed from
the ancient Greek reverence for the -kosmos- (beautiful world-order).
Moreover, it overturns the ancient Greek confidence in nature: In
the ancient view, nature was regarded as a home and not a rival,
as supportive and not niggardly. The conquest of nature -- both
human and non-human -- through social contracts (or constitutions)
and technologies (which artificially transform non-human nature)
is the only way to achieve a modicum of happiness and security.
Question: To what extent is the exploitation of non-human
nature (and the destruction of the natural environment) based
on fear of nature, the need for security, and the unlimited desire
for profit? Are artificial comforts and conveniences preferred
to aesthetic appreciation of natural beings as unique particulars?
10. One must add to man's natural fears a fear of God (who possesses
absolute power) and fear of the future. According to Hobbes, the
"prudent" man "which looks too far before him, in the care of future
time, hath his heart all the day long, gnawed on by fear of death,
poverty, or other calamity; and has no repose, nor pause of his
anxiety, but in sleep." (Leviathan) For Hobbes, if God exists,
he is neither providential nor compassionate toward humans. God
represents one more force to be feared. Whereas for Epicurus, we
can achieve mental calm if we overcome fear of the gods and fear
of death (and fear of one's fellows), for Hobbes, the fear of death,
the fear of God, and the fear of others persists necessarily throughout
human life. Anxiety is the natural state of human nature. This anxiety
can be reduced, but not eliminated, by artificial laws, artificial
conveniences, etc. Hobbes' greatest fear was that civil society
(in his native England) might "return to a state of nature" because
of civil war and revolution. For this reason, Hobbes supported a
strong central government (monarchy) in England. Such government
is, according to Hobbes, most able to regulate human competitiveness
so that pursuit of culture, education, science, and technology (all
artificial products) might be possible. A strong central government
keeps the peace so that humans can pursue technologies that prolong
life (such as medicine) and make it easier (comforts and conveniences)
and secure human life against the forces of non-human nature. It
was Hobbes' belief that even an inefficient government was better
than no government at all.
Question: Who is right -- Epicurus or Hobbes?
Question: Why was a strong central government so
important for Hobbes?
11. We understand the things we have made (artificial beings)
better than we understand the things God has made (natural beings).
Even more, we can count on the things we make. Nature is unpredictable,
unreliable, and unruly. For example, human houses protect us from
hostile climates. God makes the weather; human beings make protections
against the weather. Similarly, civil society (with laws) protects
us from the vicissitudes of human nature. God makes human nature
(with all of its deficiencies); human beings make civil societies.
To reverse a statement made by Ralph Waldo Emerson, for Hobbes,
that which is built is better than that which builds. Artificial
institutions are better than natural human tendencies. The state
is better than human nature. Artificial products (producing health,
comfort, and convenience) are better than natural things, which
are useless or hostile until subordinated to human purposes. Tables
are better than, more useful than trees. The artificial individual
-- civilized and "processed" by education, culture, and the like
-- is better than the untamed savage who behaves like a predator
towards his fellow man. Civilization is opposed to and better than
freedom. Safety is more important than happiness.
Question: Is the artificial better than the natural?
Are artificial products better than natural beings? Is artificial
man better than natural man? To what extent does loss of faith
in nature and increase of faith in "products" bring about a situation
where the artificial is in fact more dependable and better than
Question: To what extent does a loss of faith in
human nature lead to a greater reliance on artificial constraints,
threats of punishment, and the like?
Question: To what extent are opinions about what
surrounds us, including preferences and priorities, self-fulfilling
12. For Hobbes, order is found in neither human nor non-human
nature. Order is a human product. Arithmetic, geometry, and the
"state" are human inventions. For Descartes, order is not to be
found in external nature (body), but can be found in internal
nature (mind or soul). For Descartes, order -- which is the basis
of mathematics and science -- is innate; it is a natural capacity
of reason. But when it comes to external things -- bodies, politics,
and the rest -- Descartes is in complete agreement with Hobbes.
Fear of ecclesiastical authority compels Descartes to restrict
and restrain the expression of his "ideas" publicly. Descartes
is absolutely free in his mind, but relatively determined (affected
by external events) in his outward behavior. What is possible
for Descartes, withdrawal from body and external confusion, is
impossible for Hobbes. For Hobbes, external troubles necessarily
lead to agitation of the mind; mind is not spiritual "soul," but
material "brain." Motion and emotion are the ultimate facts of
human existence. The following is Hobbes' response to Descartes
and others who believe that the soul is distinct from and independent
of the body: "And from hence (abstraction) proceed the gross errors
of writers of metaphysics; for, because they can consider thought
without the consideration of body, they infer there is no need
of a thinking-body..." (from Elements)
Questions for Discussion:
1. Describe Hobbes view of human nature in the "state of nature."
2. Define freedom (according to Hobbes). How may this view
of freedom be compared to the ancient Greek view?
3. What do Hobbes and Descartes have in common? What do they
not have in common?
4. Why is it impossible to be happy in this life?
5. Is civil society natural? Why do human beings seek social
contracts and civil agreements?
6. Is justice "natural?" Why or why not? Is there morality
in a state of nature?
7. Explain why civil society can not eliminate exploitation.
8. Describe the relation between the individual self and
non-human nature, other persons, and God. What is the relation
between civilization (or culture) and nature in the individual?
9. Compare Hobbes' views of human nature and society with
those of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, and Descartes.
Direct inquiries and comments to:
Copyright © 1996 Gordon
This page last updated 10/14/12
Please note: These philosophical
commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property
of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed
in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the
original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but
further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited
without the permission of the author.