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."
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).
(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
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.