If the state of nature is as what Hobbes described, will one ever leave it?

Thomas Hobbes leviathan outlines the pessimistic view on human nature, contributing to the conditions of the state of nature and the need to have absolute sovereignty. Flawed human nature causes uncertainty and fear while human beings struggle to preserve their own lives. Some commentators argued that Hobbes account of natural state and men make forming civil society impossible. This essay will analyse his conception of human nature and interaction in the state of nature and discuss how the law of nature motivates men to leave the state of nature by establishing a commonwealth.

Hobbes thinks that human nature is inherently flawed in the state of nature to justify the need to establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, human beings are appetitive creatures which constantly seek felicity and can never be satisfied. He also believes that men are fundamentally equal which he refers to the equal ability to kill or conquer another. For example, the strong must sleep and can be a victim of one who is physically weak but cunning. It is this equality that naturally leads to the three ‘principal causes of quarrel’: (i)Competition, (ii)diffidence and (iii)glory. (i)Men will violently compete to secure necessities of life and material gain, (ii)fight or challenge others out of fear and uncertainty and (iii)seek reputation for its own sake in order to deter others from challenging them. If two individuals want the same thing, they will become enemies. However, despite being self-interested, they are naturally motivated to fear death. Thus, men are conservative and anti-social, making cooperation seem almost impossible.

The conditions in such state of nature are highly undesirable which reinforce the need to for an overarching authority to govern men, especially an absolute one. The state of nature is a condition of scarcity with finite resources and has no morality, guided by our natural rights. He claimed that ‘the notion of right and wrong, justice or injustice, have no place’ in the state of nature. The unlimited liberty to use any means preserve themselves will lead to perpetual conflict and competition, or a “war of all against all”. This is also known as the right of nature, the right to self-preservation. A man will have liberty to kill another man if he feels that his life has been threatened. Hence, there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbes also argued that law of nature exists, fundamentally motivated by the fear of violent death, where we should strive to preserve ourselves, seek peace as much as others would and should keep agreements. Since the law of nature exists, shouldn’t we expect the state of nature to be peaceful and cooperative? Looking at Hobbes account on human nature, it seems that these laws are redundant to begin with. Since the law of nature relies heavily on reciprocity, the ‘first mover’ problem will arise. With so much uncertainty and mistrust, who will be first to lay down their rights and seek peace? Furthermore, there is no direct incentive to keep agreements. Thus, a sovereign is needed to create laws to determine the right and wrongs, along with sanctions for defaulters; Only then, can morality be artificially created.

Hobbes presents two accounts of the origin of the commonwealth: ‘commonwealth by institution’ and ‘commonwealth by acquisition’. The former refers to an agreement which each person agrees to lay down their natural right to liberty and transfer it to a third party – the sovereign. In return, the sovereign provides security and peace. The agreement will be between the individuals and not a contract between subject and ruler. Hence, the ruler cannot breach the contract because he is not bound by it in the first place. However, this raises an interesting question of how do men determine who the third party or sovereign is? Given that human beings have fundamentally equal chances of killing each other and inherently glory-seeking, there should be someone who will eventually dominate the crowd. Now that we have a sovereign, since the state of nature is a condition of uncertainty and fear, who will be willing to be the first person to give up their rights to be governed by that third party? Certainly, commonwealth by institution seems less possible.

Commonwealth by acquisition refers to conquest. The conqueror takes away the land by force and compels obedience at the point of a sword. According to Hobbes, men will seek peace and avoid violent death, they will submit to the conqueror because the alternative to conquest is war or death. By making a choice to comply and avoid a violent death, Hobbes argue that it can also be viewed as an agreement as it was a rational choice made by the conquered. It is interesting to note that if what he meant by conquest is the replacement of an existing sovereign, both his accounts cannot answer how the first ever civil society was ever formed. However, this does not mean that his contract theory is completely irrelevant. It was perhaps to show how difficult it is for men to exit state of nature.

Hobbes was trying to convince his readers that it is never favourable for a country to fall into anarchy. His aim was to convince his audience the importance of submitting to a sovereign by portraying a bleak perspective of how life without sovereign would be like. Critics would point out that since the state of nature perhaps never existed, the formation of a commonwealth can be rendered irrelevant. We should note that Hobbes never intended to prove that such premises were true. Rather, he was just painting a very disastrous scenario with the absence of a strong government upholding political order.

In conclusion, Hobbes was trying to justify for an absolute government and if the state of nature is what Hobbes accurately described, it seems that leaving the state of nature is highly impossible. He described human nature to be too uncooperative and unsociable, hence the need for an overarching authority to facilitate peace. The state of nature with fear and uncertainty will never motivate human to be positive. Perhaps if he had stronger reasons, other than the law of nature, for human beings to cooperate, civil society would more likely to be born out of institution.


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