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State of Nature

Hobbes, Locke, And Rousseau

During the late medieval and early modern periods, claims according to which political power originated from a pre-political, natural condition generally supported limitations on political power—which people would have required for renouncing their natural liberty. The great originality of Hobbes was to use a contract argument to establish absolute government. He accomplished this by depicting the state of nature in horrific terms, as a war of all against all, in which life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, chap. 13). Hobbes argued that, in order to escape such horrors, people would consent to absolute political authority—and that only absolute authority could ward off the state of nature.

Although Hobbes employed the device of the state of nature for largely analytical purposes, he also believed in its historical accuracy. Evidence he provided is people's defensive behavior in society, the "savage people" in America, whom he saw as living in a "brutish manner," and how states confront one another in the international arena, "in the state and posture of Gladiators," with their "Forts, Garrisons, and Guns" pointed at one another (Lev. chap. 13).

In the state of nature described by Locke in his "Second Treatise of Government, " people live under the law of nature, which, in the absence of government, they enforce themselves (Secs. 6–9). People also establish property rights, use money, and have something of a developed economy. But conflict arises because people are self-interested and so not impartial in their own disputes. Recognizing the need for an impartial umpire, Lockean individuals leave the state of nature, in two stages, forming first a community and then government. When government violates the agreement according to which it was established, people revert to a pre-political but not pre-social state. The state of nature returns only with complete destruction of society, through foreign invasion or similar catastrophes (Sec. 211).

In his "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," Rousseau criticized other theorists for attributing to natural man qualities they found in their own societies. Influenced by anthropological and zoological discoveries, Rousseau depicted natural man as little different than an ape: solitary, without language, and with limited reasoning capacity. But because his purely physical needs are satisfied relatively easily, he is content and, above all, morally innocent. Man becomes corrupt only through a gradual process of moving into society, and Rousseau depicted the contract through which government originates as a clever fraud perpetrated by the rich upon the poor. Rousseau's political theory aspired to recapture as much primordial natural purity as possible, through the new contract described in The Social Contract.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Spectroscopy to Stoma (pl. stomata)State of Nature - Early History, Hobbes, Locke, And Rousseau, Contemporary Developments, Bibliography