The Human State of Nature

Philosophers have disagreed upon the human state of nature for millennia

Two prominent philosophers argue that the human state of nature, while being evident of the past, is still within us and cannot escape us.

The state of nature regarding humanity is one of the primary topics of philosophy debated throughout much of the second millennium, and has dominated the philosophical world during this period. The primary reference point of the state of nature regards the status of humans prior to a developed society which we now know of.

Two philosophers who lived during the peak of this philosophical innovation, during the late 16th to early 18th centuries, were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two English philosophers who devoted their minds and lives to analyzing the state of nature.

Although there were a plethora of other lesser philosophers who specialized in the study of the state of nature, Hobbes and Locke are the two prominent philosophers specializing in this field. Their views regarding the state of nature are best described in their respective works, Hobbes’ book Leviathan and Locke’s paper “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, both of which will be analyzed and compared in this article.

Although still debated today, it is very much known that humans have existed for at least 100,000 years, but did not begin to modernize until the Agricultural Revolution which occurred between approximately 8000 and 5000 B.C.E., when humans began to utilize agricultural techniques to grow food, crops, and domesticate animals.

Over the next few thousand years, humans further evolved from a natural nomadic, beastly nature into a more societal-oriented species, specializing in interactivity, trade and personal connections, unlike any other species, which still continues to this day, albeit in a more modern format. The very basis of Hobbes’ and Locke’s study of the human state of nature revolves around this very origin point, and the motivations behind the change, as well as the true nature of humans, takes the spotlight.

While Hobbes’ Leviathan considers this its primary point of revolution, Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” takes this into consideration but focuses more upon the foundation of human knowledge and understanding, and which qualities of the body are ‘real’ and which qualities are mere figments of our minds.

In the case of Hobbes, the entirety of his concept of the state of nature relies upon the social contract theory, the idea that humans must sacrifice some liberty in exchange for security. Hobbes very clearly lays out this principle in Leviathan, and that is the basis upon which his piece is written. However, the social contract theory is arguably caused by equality, of which Hobbes has a very distinct viewpoint.

To Hobbes, equality refers to the idea that all humans (men, as he refers to them as) are equally vulnerable to each other. Humans are naturally born with the same body and mind, not in terms of looks, but in terms of function. As he puts it,

“Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that…when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.”

Thus, all humans are naturally equal and are capable of harming each other despite their strength or size. This leads into his idea of the state of nature. According to Hobbes, the human state of nature is a permanent war-like scenario, with the world always posing a threat to the individual. In this state of nature, which is humans’ natural state, it would be a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ world, with no developed society or laws; humans would hunt and kill each other due to their desires overtaking them.

In Hobbes’ vision, the human state of nature is a constant pit of war, survival, and death.

According to Hobbes, all humans have desire, and under the state of nature, when two men desire the same thing, they will become enemies and fight to the death over it. He states that,

“…If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they will become enemies; and in the way to their end…endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.”

Under the human state of nature, humans are essentially animals, who obtain two qualities: complete liberty and equality. This concept of complete liberty refers to the idea that humans do whatever they want, ignorant of morals, and the concept of equality refers to the idea that humans are equally vulnerable to each other, as mentioned earlier.

The social contract theory revolves around the sacrifice of these two qualities in order to achieve a peaceful, organized society. Hobbes states that the quality that saves us from this natural state of war is rationality. Humans have a rational side to them which allows them to escape this state of nature and transition into an organized society. Essentially, the only method to achieve this is a centralized government.

To escape the state of nature, humans must contract into government, where humans become citizens and are granted freedom from violence, such as civil wars and foreign wars. However, the catch is that when humans enter this governed society, they give up some of the qualities which allow them to have freedom, including the previously-mentioned liberty and equality, in exchange for security. Hobbes states that,

“It is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition which is called war; and such a war is of every man against every man.”

Essentially, without a centralized government, humans will descend into the natural state of war, where they will become savage beasts bent on killing each other. Thus, the only way to prevent this state is to unite them under a common power, taking away some basic freedoms in exchange for security.

Hobbes then discusses the idea that the human state of nature will always overpower our lawful civilized lives, if we allow it to. If our law is taken away, humans will fall back into the state of nature. Additionally, the state of nature will always shine through our state of civilization, as humans will continue to carry with them reminders of their truly free selves. Of this, Hobbes states,

“…Nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience.”

In essence, even in a civilized society, humans will retain that natural essence of self-protection, putting their desires for safety above others. He follows this with an example, telling a fable about a man locking his doors and sleeping while arming himself with a gun, to protect him from the natural violent desires of other men, desires which even law cannot prohibit.

The early chapters of Leviathan round out with Hobbes’ idea of justice. To him, justice is merely a product of a civilized, lawful society, and thus in the state of nature there is no such thing as justice. In the state of nature, an action cannot be just or unjust since those concepts are not natural qualities of the body or mind, and thus actions cannot be right or wrong. Hobbes summarizes this by stating,

“To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. When there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no justice…Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude.”

Thus, humans do not have morals in their natural state, and require a civilized government to put them in their place and instill in them morals.

Hobbes’ view of the human state of nature is arguably reminiscent of the prehistoric era.

John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” has a different focus than Hobbes’ Leviathan. His work focuses more on the idea that human knowledge comes not from reason, as Hobbes suggests, but through the senses. Much of Locke’s essay focuses on laying out his classifications regarding what perceptions are, what makes them ideas or qualities, and the differences between the two classes.

Locke’s primary classification revolves around primary and secondary qualities: primary qualities are physical and their form cannot be changed, and secondary qualities are qualities produced in our minds, such as color. These secondary qualities are merely the ability of our bodies to produce these sensations in us.

Locke begins by explaining the importance of ideas and their definitions. He then addresses that he will be classifying perceptions into two classes, and that the second class is reliant on the first. Of this, he states,

“…most of those of sensation being in the mind no more the likeness of something existing without us, than the names that stand for them are the likeness of our ideas, which yet upon hearing they are apt to excite in us.”

Essentially, the first class of qualities, which Locke will go on to explain are physical and ‘real’ traits, are required for the second class of qualities, the sensations produced in the mind, to even exist, due to the fact that the mind requires a physical brain and body to function. Without the physical class, which is the body, there would be no sensual class, the mind.

Locke then advances to the specific separation of ideas and qualities. He defines an idea as the immediate reaction of the mind when it senses something, whether it be through sight, hearing, or any other sense, without further processing. He defines a quality as the further processing of an idea in the mind. Specifically, he states that,

“Whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding, that I call idea; and the power to produce any idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein that power is.”

Of qualities, he further classifies them into primary and secondary: primary qualities are our perceptions of physical items that contain traits that can never be taken away, no matter how altered or divided they may become. Secondary qualities, on the other hand, do not exist in the physical item itself, but merely spawn as a result of the sensations brought upon us by their presence.

Locke himself gives an example of this, stating that the ideas that a snowball produce in us — white, cold, round — are, in fact, qualities, as those are merely the result of the mind producing those sensations in us, not a direct effect of the physical snowball. Locke discusses this specifically, stating,

“[Physical items, items that possess] either solidarity, extension, figure, or mobility…these I call original or primary qualities of the body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but power to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e., by the bulk, figure, texture and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, etc. These I call secondary qualities.”

In essence, physical items that cause the production of senses in us, items that cause our minds to think of these traits, are the original or primary qualities, and the non-physical items that do not exist in the physical items themselves, but are merely sensations produced in our minds as a result of observing these physical items, are the secondary qualities.

According to Locke, the production of these ideas and qualities is a natural human characteristic, an “impulse”, as he refers to it as. From the natural senses, our perceptions then enter our brains, and are processed by our minds, becoming ideas. Locke consistently refers to examples regarding color and objects, but makes it clear that any sense can contribute to the creation of these ideas, stating,

“What I have said concerning colours and smells may be understood also of tastes and sounds, and other the like sensible qualities; which, whatever reality we by mistake attribute to them, are in truth nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us; and depend on those primary qualities, viz. bulk, figure, texture, and motion of parts.”

Thus, it is human nature to not only detect items via our senses (such as seeing or hearing them), but to also analyze and understand them and the qualities they force our minds to think of.

Locke’s essay ends with this overall point being reinforced once again, telling that there are certain qualities items possess that are actually real, whether our minds know it or not (he refers to these as real qualities), and then there are certain qualities that are merely produced by our minds as a result of our senses processing those real qualities. However, life essentially ceases to exist without these secondary qualities, with Locke stating,

“Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell, and all colours, taste, odours, and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.e. bulk, figure, and motion of parts.”

In essence, without the sensual secondary qualities, life will be reduced to the primary qualities only, and humans would naturally be unable to survive and thrive.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke believes the human state of nature focuses on the senses and mind, rather than conflict.

While it is known that Hobbes and Locke were quite similar in terms of their philosophical studies, and are often the subject of comparison, it shall be noted that the two have a completely different philosophical base standard.

Hobbes is a rationalist, and this is evident in the basis of his theories, as he believes humans obtain their knowledge from rational thinking. This is similar to the likes of other prominent philosophers, such as Plato, Descartes and Spinoza. Locke, on the other hand, is an empiricist, believing that humans obtain their knowledge via the senses, the opposite of rationalism.

These beliefs are clear in the philosophers’ two respective excerpts: in the case of Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans only escape their natural state of war and barbarism when they decide to rationally think of their safety, and enter a civilized state of government, where they are protected but give up some basic freedoms present in the natural state; in the case of Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, humans are not naturally in a state of war, but rather, their natural state involves using their senses to detect ideas and qualities; as such, humans are constantly in their natural state, even in a civilized society.

Obviously, this differs drastically with Hobbes’ perspective, who believes that humans’ natural state is a state of war, and once they enter a civilized society, they leave that natural state behind (although it always looms with them, as discussed earlier with the self-defense example).

The two works share a common similarity, and that is the discussion of the human state of nature. Hobbes believes the human is naturally filled with greed, pride, and a desire to be above their peers. In the natural state of war, this may involve killing other humans, which he describes as humans “[becoming] enemies; and in the way to their end…endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” However, reasoning is also a natural feature of humans, and they use this to enter a civilized society where they are free from the barbarism present in their natural state.

In the case of Locke, humans’ natural state consists merely of their use of senses, not a state of war like Hobbes believes. However, what both pieces agree on is the idea that humans never abandon or leave behind their natural state completely, even when they are a part of a developed, civilized, governed society. For Locke, humans never leave behind their senses, which is known to be true, and for Hobbes, humans never truly leave behind their natural state of greed and desire, which may also be true.

John Locke (left) and Thomas Hobbes (right).

It is clear that both Hobbes and Locke have points, which some consider valid and reasonable, and others do not. In this instance I take on a more centrist point of view, agreeing with some points of both philosophers, while disagreeing with other points.

Starting with Locke, I generally share his point of view regarding humans’ natural possession of senses, which is obvious, but more so with the idea that humans have an innate ability to create ideas in their minds, which Locke refers to as secondary qualities. This is arguably something no other species naturally possesses; while most possess what Locke refers to as primary qualities, the ability to detect an item using their senses, they cannot process it and their mind cannot generate ideas and qualities about it the way humans can.

I also agree with Locke’s division of qualities, with the world being divided into essentially two classes: the items that physically exist, and the items that exist merely in our minds as ideas. However, Locke often uses the example of colors as a secondary quality, one that only exists in our mind. I would disagree here, and in fact argue that colors exist in both realms: physical items possess color, but the classification of colors is merely in our minds.

Next, Hobbes’ Leviathan shall be defended or criticized. Once again, I take on a centrist perspective with Hobbes, agreeing with some points but not others. Hobbes argues that humans’ natural state is a state of war, similar to the pre-Agricultural Revolution period, where humans hunted and killed each other like the wild animals of then, and even now.

There is not enough evidence for me to agree or disagree with this, as it is known humans were more ape-like in their pre-evolution form, and eventually evolved into the societal, civilized species we know today. However, many faith-based religions deny the existence of evolution and would thus refute this theory. Nonetheless, Hobbes’ idea of greed and desire being a natural part of us is one I would agree with. Humans desire to be the greatest will always lead to a war-like scenario, even in a civilized society. If it weren’t, human wars and death would not occur today.

One aspect both philosophers can agree on is that humans can never leave their natural state behind, and this I agree with and will defend. For Locke, this involves humans analyzing and interpreting physical items in the world with their minds, and for Hobbes, this is human greed and desire. As mentioned, both of these elements are still present in every human today, even those that live in a developed society, which is the majority of the population. Thus, it is evident that both philosophers were correct regarding this matter.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were elemental philosophers of their time, and their viewpoints regarding the human state of nature continue to be analyzed and debated to this day, through their respective works of Leviathan and “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. They leave behind a legacy of debate regarding the human state of nature.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!

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