Home / Politics and Ethics: State-of-Nature Theories

Politics and Ethics: State-of-Nature Theories

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Recently, we’ve been treated to a short piece by Jason J. Campbell, "On the Evils of Privatizing America's Prison System."  His focus is limited, but it illustrates  why the idea of privatization, especially when applied to services typically reserved for, and provided by, the State (such as the administration of prisons, in this instance), is inherently a bad idea.  It is such a bad idea whenever it crops up, because it’s essentially immoral, violating the all-important fiduciary relationship that ought to exist between any well-conceived polity and its citizens. 

Consider a state-of-nature theory by Thomas Hobbes:

In such a condition there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing . . . no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

So runs the famous passage from Hobbes' Leviathan, describing the condition of humankind prior to  the development of a civil society. Ever since, Hobbes’ portrayal has been identified as a model of state-of-nature theories whose express purpose was to provide an account of the transition of a society from its pre-political form to one with a fully established and fully functioning polity –- an account, you might say, of the formation of the state. I say “a model” because Hobbes’s was but one version with many others to follow –- most notably, by such philosophers as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, even Hegel. 

There's no reason to subject Hobbes’s description to severe criticism as regards its factual content or accuracy. It’s common knowledge that the account he provides is based, in part at least, on the anthropological reports of his time; but it’s also true that some of those reports (of the North American Indians, for instance) were considerably less negative about the state of nature and led other of Hobbes’ contemporaries to a different conclusion entirely –- namely, “a picture stressing a high degree of order and solidarity resting on kinship, tribe, even complex confederations of tribes” (The Social Philosophers by Robert Nisbet, p. 27). It’s doubtful, however, that Hobbes would have been swayed by ethnological reports to the contrary. Empirical validity, as we shall soon see, was the least of his concerns.

The context in which Hobbes was writing shaped his work, because of historical circumstances which demanded that a patriot, any patriot,  make a stand for his or her country. As Nisbet explains it:

Hobbes wrote at a time of severe internal crisis in England, when the followers of the Stuarts were locked in bloody civil war with the Cromwellian Puritans, when devastation beyond anything England had seen in centuries took place in certain areas, when looting, pillaging, burning, and robbing were daily occurrences in one place or another, and when the monarch himself, Charles I, was publically beheaded. Of the effects of this scene upon Hobbes there can be no question. [Consequently,] his sole and consuming objective became to find intellectual justification for a political order so absolute, so total in its power, that civil wars, insurrections, and crimes could not destroy the fabric of society, could not release the ugly elements of man’s essential being that had once dominated the state of nature, when – as again now during the Civil War – there was only “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hence Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature in the most uncomplimentary of terms and his solution: the concept of “the sovereign” so absolute and all-encompassing in all its powers so as to quell any potential rebellion and social disorder while, at the same time, securing the good will and the absolute consent of all so governed, thereby avoiding the charges and the possible taint of tyranny. And for Hobbes, the ideal form of “the sovereign” was monarchy properly reconstituted.

This historical account of the man and his thought fails to do justice to Hobbes, the metaphysician. That’s who he was first and foremost.  Apart from the political upheaval, England (and the entire Christendom, in fact) was also torn by a crisis of faith. The old view of realism, or naïve realism, whereby God was perceived as bestowing his will and instructions to the faithful though sacred texts and the signs and omens of Nature, has been uprooted and replaced by a strange new dogma of nominalism.

In its extreme formulation and in matters pertaining to religion, nominalism means that “if God commands us to hate him, we are obligated to obey his command, since we have no independent grounds for doing otherwise. In addition,   we cannot have confidence that the world corresponds even to our intuitive (perceptual) knowledge of it” (Political Theory & Modernity, p. 19). Or as William of Ockham put it, “even if a thing has been destroyed the intuitive knowledge of it may be given to us (by God) and no intuitive knowledge is in itself and necessarily the knowledge that something necessarily exists: it may well be of something that does not exist.”

Hence the dilemma posed by the new worldview: to affirm the possibility that our sense-data might be pure fiction is to affirm God’s omnipotence –- since the latter premise was impossible to discard –- but it is also to make the relation between human beings and the world upon which they stand uncertain and precarious. Consequently, Hobbes' monumental task of constructing a political theory in such an unstable intellectual environment, where reason, experience, texts and signs which make up the mundane world, have been disconnected from “the essences.” To wit, “he must qualify nominalism enough to give sovereignty solid ontological standing; but he must retain it enough first to give the sovereign free rein to define the common rules and second to undercut attempt by discontented subjects to appeal above the sovereign to a higher power” (ibid).  In his attitude toward conflict or dissension of any sort, Hobbes was utterly ruthless. It was of Hobbes that Edmund Burke may have been thinking when he said a century later that “nothing is harder than the heart of a metaphysician.”

I have a simpler schema in mind: Why not view Hobbes’ project  as a thought-experiment of sorts? Unwittingly or not, that’s what he was doing, for in extrapolating from the existing conditions a “pre-societal” stage, reduced to bare bones as it were, indirectly at least he was accentuating the gap that must necessarily be bridged to make the transition a fait accompli. From Hobbess particular perspective, considering the political and social turmoil in his native England — the greater the gap, the more urgent the need. Hence his assessment of the state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  The account was skewed by design – to highlight the contrast.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Cindy

    There’s no reason to subject Hobbes’s description to severe criticism as regards its factual content or accuracy.


  • That was to take care of your objection, remember.

  • Cindy

    Yes, I see. 🙂

  • Dave changed my intended meaning somewhat, but I think the point gets across. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone into that much detail here, but I felt there was a need to set things straight. It’s a boring piece, a preamble. The next segment is where the argument begins.

  • Cindy

    “he must qualify nominalism enough to give sovereignty solid ontological standing; but he must retain it enough first to give the sovereign free rein to define the common rules and second to undercut attempt by discontented subjects to appeal above the sovereign to a higher power”

    Tell me if I am understanding this. First he decided what should be, and then he went about trying to figure out how to justify his own viewpoint?

  • No – he accepted nominalism because it had become by then the dominant philosophy and school of thought: namely, that you couldn’t take sense-data (do you know what I mean by that?) for granted or even know for certain they exist (because it all could be an illusion). So the signs and omens – e.g., in Nature – which served before as proof and evidence of God’s existence – had to be discarded, too, as being unreliable and ultimately signifying nothing.

    So Hobbes’s problem was to be able to assert the ontological status (existence) of God – he needed that because “sovereign” itself was a replica on earth, and you couldn’t argue for the sovereign’s authority while the status of God was left hanging – despite the nominalism’s dogma to the effect that whatever is knowable is subject to “definitions.”

    I’ll reread the text and will try to provide a clearer statement.

  • But in a sense, you’re right. He knew where he wanted to go and had to do a lot of maneuvering in order to get there.

  • Cindy

    My understanding is that Kings were “ordained by god”. Now Hobbes is trying to validate this?

    Why is he doing that in particular? I mean, why not some other idea?

  • Cindy

    Do you see what I’m asking? What made him go in that direction? Was it the thinking that came before him? Was it his own bias?

  • The divine right of Kings, the idea, I do believe that came later – when it was deemed necessary to justify the authority of Kings further down the line. (But you could argue, I suppose, that Hobbes was the precursor of the idea.) But first you had to establish the concept of sovereignty independently as it were (although on analogy with how you’d have to do likewise for God) – and that’s what Hobbes’s project was.

    There was of course the theocratic tradition/phase of government – from the Hebrew/biblical history –
    but I’m not certain whether Hobbes was familiar with it or whether he even drew upon this.

  • Cynthia

    Concerning the north american indians, would you say that they are living peacefully in a state of nature (disproving Hobbes state of war theory) or by forming tribes with some sort of organization (chief, hunters, gatherers …)they had transitioned to some sort of body politic?