In considering Locke's analysis of the state of nature, we shall mainly be examining his Two Treatises of Government (1689).

Authors Avatar


In answering this question I intend to account for both Thomas Hobbes’s and John Locke’s respective accounts of human nature and their interpretations of the social contract.  Afterwards I intend to critically examine their views and make comparisons between them, but first it will be helpful to explain just exactly what the state of nature is in its own right and why it is a useful starting point in political philosophy. Concerning Hobbes, we will largely be looking at his Leviathan (1660) which serves as a perfect illustration of both his empiricist approach to nature and his pessimistic conception of human psychology.  In considering Locke’s analysis of the state of nature, we shall mainly be examining his Two Treatises of Government (1689).  Locke’s thesis was not explicitly targeted at Hobbes and was actually intended as a response to Sir Robert Filmer’s royalist dissertation Patriarcha which was published in 1680, nevertheless it shall be interesting and informative to compare them closely.

When we think about how things should be, we are thinking normatively; political philosophy then is essentially a normative curriculum.  As well as thinking about how political society should be, we might also wonder about how it would have been before civilization as we understand it even existed.  After all, how can we tell whether our social system is good, bad or indifferent if we have nothing to compare it against.  This then is what the state of nature is; a time, either imaginary or actual, where there is no political organization, no government or ruling class, no laws or judicial punishment.  Philosophers then try to imagine what it would be like to live in these circumstances.  Not all philosophers actually believed that the state of nature had been a real stage in human development, Jean Jacques Rousseau, with no Darwin to compel him, thought that it would have taken far too long for human society to develop in this way (from primal to political) while Locke thought that there still were present-day models of people living in the state of nature, namely native Americans and in Soldania.  Hobbes and Locke are pre-enlightenment philosophers but their ideas actually anticipate the enlightenment’s emphasis on rationalization and natural liberty.  Both Hobbes, Locke and later Rousseau are all social contract theorists in spite of the fact that they envision very different ideas of utopia.  It was Rousseau that first articulates the phrase ‘contrat social’ but nevertheless, it is correct to consider them all as social contract theorists.   Generally speaking, Hobbes advances a theory of a pure monarchy while Locke advocates parliamentary democracy and Rousseau a city state like Geneva, but all fundamentally believe that political commitment must be based in consent.  Basically this means that if we do not give our consent to abide by the laws our government has chosen for us, then we cannot be punished for ignoring or crossing them, moreover, if we give our consent, it must be voluntary.  Consent must also be contractual, by this I mean that one cannot choose to abide by the laws merely when it suits one; the consent of the individual means that they must agree to relinquish certain privileges in return for certain dividends, for example security.  

Join now!

In Leviathan Hobbes illustrates the state of nature as an unforgiving realm of violence and fear and perhaps this is because Hobbes, being greatly concerned by the English civil war that he saw around him, feared that England would lapse into a state of nature itself if no stalwart government was reestablished.  Hobbes believes that it is exactly government which prevents us from degenerating into a state of nature, this is because human nature itself is undoubtedly selfish.  He says that we

“have a relentless desire of power after power which ceaseth only in death” (leviathan, 161).


This is a preview of the whole essay