HOBBES: 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 Epicurus).

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 of happiness.

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 profit-taking?
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 the natural?
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 prophecies?

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.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
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.