The State of Nature: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)


In his greatest work Leviathan, Hobbes writes that nothing could be worst than a life without the protection of the State.

Hobbes is a materialist and draws on Galileo’s theory about the principle of conservation of motion. Hobbes writes that “an object will eternally be in motion unless somewhat stays it” (Leviathan, 87).

Using the principle of conservation of motion, Hobbes explains that a human being is perpetually seeking for something. “Life it selfe is but Motion, and can never be without Desire” (129-130).

It is the search to secure felicity that brings human beings at war with each other, and only the fear of death can lead to the creation of a State. Hobbes pictures a state of nature where all are at war against all. The search of felicity leads men to constantly try to increase their power.

Moreover, according to Hobbes, human beings are by nature made equal, in a sense that human’s posses are equal in terms of skills and strength. “The weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others” (183).

Human beings are motivated by three reasons to attack somebody else in a state of nature: for gain, for safety, and for glory or reputation.

In Hobbes’ theory there is no room for morality, because in a State of Nature there is no space for the Unjust. Everything is somehow justifiable. Hobbes calls this the Natural Right of Liberty.

Hobbes contrasts individual with collective rationality. The peculiarity of the so called “prisoners dilemma” is that when individual and collective rationality diverge, it is hard to achieve co-operation. Instead, Hobbes believes that the individually rational behaviour leads to attack others. In other words, we have a duty to obey to the Law of Nature when others around us are also obeying to it too. But if we are insecure about the others’ stance, then we act selfishly. In Hobbes theory the level of mutual suspicion and fear in the state of nature is so high that we are excused for not obeying the Law. We are expected to act morally only when we are sure that others are doing the same.





John Locke (1632-1704)


Locke holds quite a different position compared to Hobbes. He believes that we could live in a State of Nature, and life would be possible even without the government.

The state of nature for Locke is a state of perfect freedom, a state of equality bound by the Law of Nature.

Locke adds a theological and moral aspect to the theory, stating that being all creatures of God we have a clear duty not to harm others (except for limited purposes of self defence) and we even have a duty to help them if we can do so without damage to ourselves (Wolff 2006).

Regarding the concept of liberty, we are given the freedom of doing what is morally permitted. His view is clearly in contrast with Hobbes’ who stated that in a state of nature everyone has the right over everything, including others’ bodies.

As far as the Law of Nature is concerned somehow both Locke and Hobbes seem to agree that the very concept of law implies a law-enforcer, otherwise it would simply be an empty concept. Having a law-enforcer in a state of nature means to give power to somebody and therefore create a governed system. Nonetheless, Locke who advocates equality among human beings, claims that everyone would be empowered to enforce the Law of Nature in a state of nature.

Locke believes that harming somebody is allowed in case of self-defence and punishment is a natural right to be implemented against those who breach the law of nature. “Each Transgression may be punished to that degree, and with so much Severity as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the Offender , give him cause to repent, and terrifying others from doing the like” (Second Treatise, 272).

In a state nature there are a number of rights to be secured and for Locke the most important is the private property. He claims that since God put us on earth, surely He did not mean it so that we would end up starving.

Along with this “religious claim” he also states that there is a natural reason for justifying private property. It would be absurd, Locke thinks, that in order to use the earth, a man had to ask the permission to all others and, again, the result would be that everyone ends up starving.

Lock picture of the state of nature sounds very optimistic, though eventually he tries not to portray it in idyllic tones.

In fact, if the state of nature was ruled by morality and individuals would naturally act for the best of the whole community, why we left that would-be perfect equilibrium to create a State?

Locke advocates that the reasons which pushed mankind to opt for the creation of the state are linked to an increase scarcity in resources and the invention of money, which granted people a non-perishable means of exchange. When human beings used to exchange the produce of the land, there was an equal risk to have it spoilt. Money gave people a reason to increase the yields and eventually accumulate wealth, unavoidably creating imbalances that lead to what Hobbes had defined as a state of war.



Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78)


Rousseau’s State of Nature is rather different from the ones explained by the predecessors.

He agrees with Hobbes and Locke that in a state of nature men’s main drive is towards self-preservation.

According to Rousseau, however, Hobbes and Locke overestimated the likelihood of falling in a state of war.

In Rousseau’s state of nature a man would be like a savage, whose actions are primarily determined by immediate needs food, sexual satisfaction, sleep and fears only hunger and pain. The savage man is also motivated by self-preservation and pity. In fact, he thinks that human beings are naturally affected by others’ human beings’ sufferance, in other words they have “an innate repugnance a fellow creature suffer” (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 73). So it is compassion which acts as a powerful mean to restrain people to harm others.

Rousseau pictures the savage man as a solitary human being, able to survive alone. His speech is not yet developed and cannot express opinions on things. He does not have the need of luxuries and do not consider anything outside his immediate needs as vital.

The savage looks pretty much like any wild animal but the peculiarity which distinguishes him from the animals is, according to Rousseau, the free will and capacity of self-improvement.

Finally, he advocates that it is the capacity of self-improvement to have brought progress to mankind and misfortune with it.

Rousseau believes that civilization and progress have somehow polluted the goodness which was reigning in the state of nature and there is not any chance to go back to that state. “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (Émile, introduction).

However, Rousseau’s point on morality is dramatically different form Locke’s one. He states that in a state of nature there is no room for law, right and morality. Rousseau simply means that we tend to avoid harming others because of our natural aversion to pain and suffering. Therefore, if men are in a state of war they would feel terrible for all the harming caused to other fellows.

In the state of nature man are equal. Rousseau sees the private property as a source of inequality, mutual dependence and jealousy: “The destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders. Usurpation by the rich, robbery by the poor, and the unbridled passions of both, suppressed the cries of natural compassion and still feeble voice of justice, and filled man with avarice, ambition, and vice. Between the title of the strongest and that of first occupier, there arouse perpetual conflicts, which never ended but in battle and bloodshed. The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war” (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 97).



Personal Impression


Has any of Locke, Hobbes or Rousseau provided a plausible picture of how life would be in a state of nature?


I think that the picture that Rousseau has drawn of the state of nature populated by “good savages” more similar to animals that civilised human beings maybe a plausible vision. Though, I do not necessarily agree with his dark view of human development. Rousseau’s beliefs that civilization and progress led to a state of war, bringing evil and misfortune into a “purified world” which was still blessed by ignorance, is certainly coherent with his argument. However, I find more challenging trying to imagine how the state of nature would be if populated by developed and civilized human beings as in Hobbes’ and Locke’s views.

I am reluctant to merry Hobbes pessimistic point of view. It is true that people happen to choose individual reason instead of collective reason; however this does not exclude the fact that also the contrary is possible.

I agree with Locke when he states that there are moral codes which inspire and guide human beings in a State of Nature. However, I find his point on the Law of Nature a bit weak. He does not explain how it is possible to have such Law in a state of nature since you would need an empowered man to enforce it, and his conclusion that everyone is empowered is, to me, more likely to lead to the Hobbes’ state of war. 


Writings for the online course in Political Philosophy, department of Continuing Education University of Oxford.

Bibliography: An introduction to Political Philosophy (2006), J. Wolff;

Political Thought (1999), M. Rosen and J. Wolff



© Claudia Giampietri and Appunti. Claudia Giampietri, 2007 – 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Claudia Giampietri and Appunti. Claudia Giampietri with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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38 thoughts on “The State of Nature: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau


  2. This is a very interesting subject and I really appreciate it. I read Political Science at the university. I read a lot on this political philosophers.

  3. This is absolutly nice, it has helped me to understand the ambiguous definition of state of nature and perception of the so called political philosophers. it is more than helpful indeed.


  5. of course you did it very good discussion

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  8. i am not actually in conglomerate with the writings of locke as it concerns the state of nature..if the state is actually peaceful as he claimed,then i think the state wouldnt have actually transferred from what it was into a more refined state,one that is governed by law. As for hobbes,i believe he was very much close as to how things really where before a govermental state was me,man is naturally wicked.cant really say why it is like that,cant also say if god made us so,but thats how it has come to bez.z.z.

  9. i like your analysis and arguments …..just i need to say that . T Hobbes idea.. of all men war against all ….every human being by nature is selfish ….striving to get more power .every one only cares for him self …..i think his idea still works in the contemporary world

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  11. Am a university student persuing a degree under the Medical field of study specified as Medical laboratory science,i do have positive personal intrest in Politics tht why i do get reading these Much intersting and Vital

  12. Very thorough, yet to the point. Love it! I for one always form my own theories either based solely on my ideas, or I form them with bits of other people’s. All of them got a few things right (in my opinion), as well as others wrong (which is completely understandable and normal given our being mere humans). I for one imagine that Hobbes’ war of all against all is true, but after the social contract it did not end, but subdued to a more discreet version, that is to say Rousseau’s war. I’d rather call it competitiveness, and now it takes place according to rules established by us, as opposed to those of the state of nature (non-existent). Nevertheless I shall get to the point, which is merely trying to thank you for the very helpful post!

  13. My elites have done well were there theory and I wish 2 add that “The higher the level of Civilization, the higher the rate of corruption”.

  14. Yea. In view on contemporary world. One can blend the ideas of this great contributor to political history in partIcular and human history as a whole that deir views are quite enrishing n scientific in mordern times as elements of human behavoir are in a process of continues study. So I will like to appreciate deir thoughts and call on other resourceful persons to continue dis rich literature to better mankinds knowledge of who he is and what he wants. As well as how to achieve what he desires without hurting others

  15. thanks a lot it really helped a lot in having a clear understanding of the roots of the political views

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