Rousseau: State of Nature

By Dana Dardis, Kelly Price and Chantelle Lucas


The "state of nature" was a general theory which was designed to explain the fundamental laws of human nature. This philosophical discussion gained momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries. By studying the various features of individual behavior, theorists attempted to determine the degree to which human life should be governed at the individual, social and political level. There were many controversial issues surrounding the definition of the natural state of humans. Is mankind intrinsically good? Do individuals need to be governed by a sovereign? Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were interested in what happened to mankind as a result of this raw state of nature.

One major viewpoint on these issues was proposed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his book, The Leviathan. Hobbes says, "The state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"(Brinton,141). He says that man initially lives in a state of nature which is violent. In this state, everyone has certain natural rights, including the right to self-preservation. According to Hobbes, self-preservation becomes a natural right because of man's instinctual fear of death.

Natural rights then prompt natural laws. These laws include the laying down one's individual freedoms in exchange for peace. By utilizing these natural laws, people have the ability to escape the state of nature. This is accomplished through rational thought. Hobbes believed that people came together and decided to give up some of their natural freedoms in order to insure their own protection. This agreement is termed a covenant or contract, and essentially provides for the protection of the individual and his private property, by doing away with the "might makes right" philosophy prevalent in the state of nature( Encyclopedia of Phil.,334). The next step in establishing a society outside of the state of nature is to institute a sovereign. Hobbes felt that even a poor ruler was preferable to the brutal "state of nature."

Hobbes' theory was countered by John Locke (1632-1704), who proposed that there already was reason and order in the state of nature(Cobban,93). He believes that man can understand the needs of others and be objective outside of a society (Cambridge Dictionary,499). He thought there could be justice and charity in such an environment because man is intrinsically a rational creature. It follows, then, that individuals could conduct themselves sensibly without a strict ruling body. Therefore, the need for an ultimate authority to govern mankind (such as an absolute monarch) is eliminated. This concept is in direct opposition to Hobbes' theory. Hobbes felt that people chose to form societal groups ruled by a sovereign because of an innate distrust of others which arose from the need for self-preservation. Locke, however, feels there is perfect freedom and liberty within the state of nature(Brinton,156-7).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also had a theory on the state of nature. He thought that the state of nature was a condition of total innocence, devoid of socialization. He also believed, however, that it was impossible for anyone born into society to ever return to such a natural state, because of the "mechanisms of society" and the world's ever-expanding population. While Hobbes' argument supports the advantages of political society, and is used to justify the necessity of authority, Rousseau argues that society inevitably spawns inequality(Brinton,162-4).

Hobbes', Lockes' and Rousseau's theories on the state of nature were significant to 18th century thinkers because of the political climate of the time. Many governments (particularly England's) were on the brink of change, and there was a considerable amount of tension between those who sought an absolute sovereign (Tories) and those who desired a stronger parliament (Whigs). Both sides were trying to justify their political cause, and these philosophical theories on the state of nature were just the sort of ammunition each side needed to defend their beliefs.