Thomas Hobbes’ discussion of the state of nature prompted responses from a multitude of other philosophers and scholars. The author’s principal argument is that, without governmental control, people would always remain in their natural state, which is “a condition of war of every one against every one” (Hobbes 1660, p. 91). Hobbes provides a thorough rationale for this viewpoint, suggesting that the absence of control causes differences among people to escalate to continuous violence.
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While many people consider Hobbes’ work pessimistic and believe that society could function successfully through cooperation and mutual benefit, the arguments provided by the author are convincing. Based on the writings of Hobbes, the present paper will seek to argue that his interpretation of the state of nature is plausible, although the suggestion that this state will inevitably lead to the creation of absolute sovereignty can be debated.
The Natural Condition of Humankind
In Leviathan, Hobbes (1660) presents a number of arguments regarding human nature, which allow him to suppose what life in society would be like in the absence of formal governmental power. There are several arguments provided by Hobbes (1660) that are crucial to supporting his position. This section will explain and discuss these arguments to show that the author’s assumptions are mainly correct.
One of the core arguments in favour of Hobbes’ (1660) description of the state of nature is that fear is an essential factor in people’s lives, which dictates their actions and decisions in the absence of external controls. Hobbes (1660) argues that the “continual fear, and danger of violent death” is among the key characteristics of the state of nature (p. 88). This point is crucial to the author’s main argument because violence and war are, in part, supported by fear. When considering the effects of governmental control on different areas of people’s lives, it can be seen that Hobbes’ (1660) understanding of the role of fear is, in fact, true.
In most contemporary countries, the government is responsible for ensuring the welfare of people. It provides resources funding, healthcare, education, and food. For people who earn below the living wage, the government provides financial support so that they would be able to afford food and adequate, safe housing. Moreover, in many countries, the government also supports food production through subsidizing or otherwise promoting agricultural activity. Even in these pleasant circumstances, people often fear to lose their jobs and strive to maintain their comfortable living conditions.
Without the control of the government, the abundance of resources and services required for the population to live happily would deteriorate. For example, people who are jobless and homeless would no longer receive food and medical services. The factors attracting people to working in the agricultural sector would also disappear, prompting for a shortage of food. In these conditions, people will undoubtedly experience fear that could drive them to steal food from others and use violence to obtain services and products that they need.
Another core premise argued by Hobbes (1660) is that all people naturally aspire for power. According to the author, there is “a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Hobbes 1660, p. 70). He further explains that people always aim for more comfort and pleasure in their life while being unable to stay content with what they have for long (Hobbes 1660). The competition for power, in turn, is what makes people inclined to violence and war (Hobbes 1660). This point has a lot of weight to it because there are numerous examples of it in contemporary life.
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In order to show the validity of Hobbes’ argument, it is crucial to acknowledge that there are many definitions of power, and thus all people strive for power in different ways. Those who believe that power comes from social standing are likely to spend excessively on things that showcase their social status. People who think that power is money are likely to continue earning more and more throughout their lives. Those who think that power comes from knowledge are typically devoted scholars, aiming to uncover new information through research. Based on these examples, it can be suggested that the struggle for power is indeed part of every person’s life.
Even people who are not ambitious and feel comfortable enough in a low-paying job often strive for power in their personal life. For example, they may seek to control other people, including their spouses and children. The lack of power causes people to feel strong emotions and always results in unhappiness. Hence, the application of Hobbes’ (1660) argument to contemporary life suggests that his conclusions about people’s natural inclination to struggle for power are accurate.
The third argument that makes up Hobbes’ (1660) view of the natural state of humankind is that people differ in terms of their motivations and desires. In Leviathan, the author considers individual differences, including those arising from manners. Hobbes (1660) explains that manners define “those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity” (p. 70).
Differences in these manners, according to Hobbes (1660), arise “partly from the diversity of passions in diverse men, and partly from the difference of the knowledge or opinion each one has of the causes which produce the effect desired” (p. 71). As a result, different people would use different behaviours and actions to obtain what they wish. For example, one person could think that stealing is the best option to feed his or her family, while another would earn money honestly.
The author’s view of the relationship between individual variations in manners and the natural state of humankind is particularly essential. Based on Hobbes’ (1660) arguments, individual differences affect social order by preventing peaceful collaboration. When people view cause-and-effect relationships differently and vary in terms of their manners, religions, and intellectual virtues, they are unlikely to achieve a consensus.
The author’s discussion also allows suggesting that a particular share of people will always be willing to engage in violence and immoral acts (Hobbes 1660). Together with people’s natural desire for power and their fear of death, this factor contributes to the believability of Hobbes’ (1660) ideas about the natural condition of humans. Indeed, if one share of the population will always be willing to resort to violence to achieve power, other people will have to protect themselves from harm and death, leading to endless wars.
This conclusion is further strengthened by the author’s note that “nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that […] the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes 1660, p. 86). In other words, people are generally equal to one another in terms of physical and mental capacity. Based on this argument, almost every person is capable of injuring or killing another, which contributes to the state of endless war. Even if a group of physically strong people seize power in the community through violence, they will eventually be overthrown by others just as violently. This means that the achievement of stable, lasting peace and security in society is impossible when all power is in the hands of people.
As evident from Hobbes’ (1660) discussion of the state of nature, people require external control to live peacefully. To the author, absolute sovereignty is the ideal form of government, and he believes that the dissatisfaction with the natural state will inevitably cause people to establish this governmental structure. Hobbes (1660) argues that every commonwealth needs a single ruler whose power would be above that of laws and constitutions since “all laws, written and unwritten, have need of interpretation” (p. 196). While the author’s arguments in favour of his view of the state of nature are convincing, his claims about absolute sovereignty are somewhat dubious.
On the one hand, one of Hobbes’ (1660) key theses is that individual differences make it impossible for all people to reach a consensus. The pervasive nature of disagreements, in turn, would affect people’s interpretations of any laws, statutes, or constitutions, thus rendering them useless as the sources of high power. In other words, in societies governed by laws and a constitution, people would still disagree on how these documents are applied in separate cases or to global issues.
The differences that exist among people would make it challenging to enable for just decision-making, as some people will always see decisions based on a specific law as unjust. This is a convincing argument, and there are plenty of examples of people disagreeing on the application of laws in the modern world. Most importantly, people often disagree on the role of conditions in justifying crimes. For instance, some might say that killing should be punished in all circumstances, while others claim that killing in self-defence should not be punished. This creates difficulties in exercising justice and making political decisions.
On the other hand, the solution proposed by Hobbes (1660) does little to address the core issue. It is true that in absolute sovereignty, legal and political decision-making is smoother because the power is in the hands of one person. Still, differences among people remain significant, and the share of people who are discontent with their ruler’s decisions will be generally large. Additionally, the typical human characteristics discussed by Hobbes (1660), including the desire for power and fear, still apply to an absolute sovereign.
This means that rulers will still act in their self-interest, prompting for negative responses from their subordinates. As discontent grows, an absolute sovereign will likely be overthrown violently. Historical examples of revolutions serve to confirm the likelihood of this outcome. Therefore, the establishment of absolute sovereignty does not prevent violence and war; instead, it narrows down the target to a single person.
The political development of many countries also provides evidence refuting Hobbes’ (1660) claims about the inevitability and effectiveness of absolute sovereignty. Today, there are many countries applying the democratic political structure effectively. The mere fact that many societies developed from monarchy to democracy contradict the author’s arguments. While there are still difficulties in legal and political decision-making, the involvement of various people supports effective governance since it invites multiple viewpoints to the discussion and forces the majority to reach a consensus.
Hence, democratic governments provide another solution to the problem of human nature discussed by Hobbes (1660). Democracy also reduces the risk of civil wars and other violent events described by the author since, in this model, the government represents the diversity of people’s viewpoints, preventing differences from inciting conflict.
The analysis of Hobbes’ (1660) discussion of the state of nature and the ideal governmental structure produced some vital insights. Firstly, the author’s conclusions regarding power and fear as the core mechanisms in people’s decision-making are plausible. Hobbes (1660) suggests that the desire for power will inevitably cause people to engage in violence, whereas the fear of death and harm would cause resistance, resulting in an endless state of war. Secondly, Hobbes (1660) also considers individual differences in manners as a factor contributing to disorder and chaos. Indeed, variations in values and beliefs often prevent people from reaching consensus and functioning collaboratively.
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In the absence of external control, these characteristics lead to chaos as people use different means to obtain what they want, from violence and stealing to honest work. Hobbes’ (1660) explanation of the factors affecting the state of nature is convincing, showing readers the core reasons as to why external power is necessary for society to prosper.
Nevertheless, the author’s arguments about the usefulness and necessity of absolute sovereignty are far less convincing. While it can be agreed upon that laws require interpretation, which becomes difficult due to individual differences among the people involved, the creation of absolute sovereignty does not solve these issues. Instead, it usually leads to people’s discontent with rulers and results in civil wars and revolutions. Based on the explanation of the state of nature, democratic government structures are much more efficient because they balance the differences in people’s values and beliefs by achieving compromises.
Hobbes, T 1660, The Leviathan. Web.