Political Society and The State of Nature

An Academic Analysis of Philosophical Ideas

John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, & Jean Jacquis Rousseau

We cannot fail to pay tribute to our forefathers who formed the foundations for our everything. Here, I strive to explain and differentiate the ideas of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau in terms of the state of nature, type of political society resulting, the solution to this result, and the dissolution of this political society.

Hobbes believes that the general state of nature is that of no government, no laws, no civilization, and no common power to control man’s nature. This is a condition in which there is a war against all because of “…three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory…The first, maketh man invade for gain;the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation” (pg. 320, col.1). Nature made man equal in the sense that each has the ability to compete for the pursuit of power. Furthermore, the Right of Nature (which gives man power to preserve his life), liberty, and the Law of Nature (which forbids man to do that which is destructive to him and seek peace) all function to support the very mechanism of this state of nature. However, this immense capacity leads to a greater risk of social upheaval in political society because if everyone has a right to everything, they can infringe on the rights and even lives of others for the sake of power. As he states “I put forth an inclination of mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death”, he brings to light the core issue of this nature- that “competition of riches…power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war” (pg. 317, col.1). This result of mankind which is “nasty, brutish, and short” must be organized through a “body” that can help citizens evade this horrific condition.

Thus, Hobbes came up with a solution- “that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, which is but an artificial man” ( pg. 312, col. 1). The Leviathan is a metaphor for the state whose body consists of all citizens and whose head is the sovereign, or the supreme authority. It is constructed through a social contract, whose power protects mankind from the abuses of eachother. The law of the gospel, which states that “whatsoever you require that others should do for you, that do ye to them”, forms the basis of the contract or the “mutual transferring of right” in which individuals give up certain natural rights to the government in exchange for certain unalienable rights that can be conferred for the benefit of all of commonwealth. When each person can state “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner”, they have created a commonwealth that leads to peace amongst themselves and protection against other men. (pg. 333, col.1). This is because of the very nature of the contract: “If a covenant be made wherein neither of the parties perform presently, but trust one another, in the condition of mere nature (which is a condition of war of every man against every man) upon any reasonable suspicion, it is void: but if there be a common power set over them both, with right and force sufficient to compel performance, it is not void” (pg. 323, col.1) If man had to rely on mere words to uphold justice, then he could be corrupted by the state of nature that weakens his control over “ambitions, anger, and other passions”. Thus, it is necessary to oblige by a covenant such that “…to break it is unjust; and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just(pg. 324, col.2). In conclusion, to live by a covenant is to preserve man’s life.

Hobbes further describes several causes of the dissolution of a commonwealth. The first is that a man to obtain a kingdom is sometimes content with less power than to the peace and defence of the Commonwealth necessarily required” (pg. 341, col.1). In other words, when kings deny themselves power it is sometimes out of ignorance, so the sovereign lacks absolute power. Secondly, when “every private man is a judge of good and evil actions”, rather than civil law as the judge, this leads to debates and disputes amongst men which weaken the commonwealth. Thirdly, the doctrine that “whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is a sin” leads to dissolution because man follows his own reason rather than public conscience, or law. Fourthly, when “…faith and sanctity, are not to be attained by study and reason, but by supernatural inspiration” the sovereign’s authority over knowledge is challenged thus leading to the dissolution of civil government. Fifthly, commonwealth is dissolved when “…he that hath the sovereign power, is subject to the civil laws”. The sovereign cannot be subject the laws he makes because law over sovereign creates more power over the sovereign thus leading to confusion. Sixthly, when “every private man has an absolute propriety in his goods; such, as excludeth the right of the sovereign”, a commonwealth cannot exist because resisting the sovereign’s rightful claim to all property means that the sovereign “cannot perform the office they have put him into” by protecting from “foreign enemies and injuries by one another”. Furthermore, the power of commonwealth is dissolved when “…the sovereign power may be divided” by individuals among themselves. This is because “…powers divided mutually destroy each other”. In addition, if the Leviathan divides spiritual and civil authority this leads to civil war and dissolution as stated in the following passage: “When therefore these two powers oppose one another, the commonwealth cannot be put into greater danger of civil war, and dissolution…because the fear of darkness, and ghosts, is greater than other fears…and this is a disease…”. Other factors leading to dissolution include imitating foreign governments and creating a mixed government in which “if the king bear the person of the people, and the general assembly bear also the person of the people, and another assembly bear a person of the part of the people”, then “…they are not one person, nor one sovereign, but three persons and three sovereigns” (pg. 341–343). Thus, a mixed government leads to breakdown of the sovereign.

John Locke’s understanding of the man’s state of nature, on the other hand, is that of equality in which no one person has power over another and that all men are free to make choices. This is best summed in the following passage: “…we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (pg. 365, ch.2, sec.4.). In this state of nature, individuals have no control over others, natural law governs and renders all people equal, and each individual holds the executive power of natural law. However, unlike Hobbes’ theory of a amoralistic society, this does not license abuse towards others, as stated: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (pg. 366, ch. 2, sec.6). Locke basis this idea on the assumption that there is a system of morality in which the natural law comes from a theory of justice, which provides a set of natural rights. A moral code must exist in order to provide these “rights” and to provide just punishment. This is a striking contrast with Hobbes, who believes that morality is insignificant in the face of an antagonistic, lawless state of nature. Furthermore, Locke argues that the power of the state can only be derived by individual power as he states, “And therefore, if by the law of nature every man hath not a power to punish offences against it, as he soberly judges the case to require, I see not how the magistrates of any community can punish an alien of another country; since, in reference to him, they can have no more power than what every man naturally may have over another.” Hobbes, in contrast, advocates a strong central government in which the people must obey the sovereign in order to prevent dissolution. Locke concludes his point on the state of nature by articulating that “…the damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender, by right of self-preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind…a criminal…who has renounced reason…God hath given mankind…” (pg. 367, ch.2, sec.11) Locke advocates his belief that individuals have a right to live by rules and that political society is in nature itself. Those who do not use reason are a threat to society. Because we are all connected to each other, we can rise above our senses and how we feel about the world. In addition, we have the capacity to understand the level of punishment to impose. The fact that the state of nature is imperfect and leads to violence depicts how every man does not have the ability to reason. He further states that “ I easily grant, the civil government is the proper remedy for those inconveniences of the state of nature…”- an idea that Hobbes would find entirely unreasonable since he maintains that individuals are all out for themselves. In conclusion, Locke believes that people are in a state of nature until a compact exists to make them a part of a political society.

Locke’s theory on the state of nature influences the formation of political society in that man has certain rights in order to survive. He writes, “ Man being born…with…perfect freedom…has by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate…but to judge and punish…there and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted his natural power, reseigned it up into the hands of the community…” (pg. 374, ch. 7). Locke believes that work is essential for survival and that one gets what he works for. Man has the right to provide for his own existence, and the ability to craft with one’s own hands is itself a form of property. If he is dependent, then he is a slave; but he must be free in order to provide for himself and survive. The central idea is that mental or physical labor is property. This is what forms the foundations of political society- one in which men combine to make “one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude…” (pg. 376, ch. 8). The solution to the state of nature is thus to put oneself in an “obligation, to everyone of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it…or else this original compact…would signify nothing…” (pg. 367, ch. 8). Locke’s idea on the solution contrasts with Hobbes’ in that Locke states that man is born free and cannot be put into subjection by power without consent. This is summed as he writes, “nothing but the consent of every individual can make anything to the act of the whole” (pg. 376. Ch. 8). Hobbes, on the hand, advocates for a social contract in which some rights must be given up in order to benefit commonwealth.

According to Locke, political society is dissolved if the government is dissolved. He explains the reasons leading to dissolution: “First, When the legislative is altered…secondly…when the legislative…act contrary to [the people’s] trust” (pg. 390, ch. 19). When the state no longer functions for the people, it may be replaced. This happens when the legislative power is usurped by a tyrannical executive power, when the executive or legislative branches break its trust, or when the executive branch ignores its duties which leads to chaos within society.

Rousseau’s conception of nature is that of prehistoric origin when people were uncorrupted by society. They key feature is that humans have physical freedom and liberty to do as they please. He makes his most striking assumption when he states, “By stripping this Being, so constituted, of all the supernatural gifts he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties he could have only acquired by prolonged progress; by considering him…such as he must have issued from the hands of Nature, I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but…the most advantageously organized of all” (pg. 422, col.1). Here, our “Supernatural gifts” and “artificial faculties” refers to man’s sense of reason, language, and ability to socialize which must be developed. Unlike Locke, who believes political society is itself the state of nature that is governed by reason, Rousseau entirely rejects the notion of reason and believes that man is nothing more than an animal who has developed organization or perfectibility by evolution. In contrast to Locke, who holds egalitarian ideas, Rousseau maintains that men cannot be equal because of a need to dominate others in an unequal society. This state of nature also contrasts with Hobbes’ in that is it much more optimistic for the fate of mankind- understanding one’s true nature is essential for awakening a sense of natural goodness. Hobbes, however, presents the state of nature as a savage state of war.

This state of nature ultimately led to the formation of a political society in which social inequality results. The transition into a political society is best represented as he notes “But from the moment one began to stand in need of the help of another; form the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate…” (pg. 432, col. 2). Furthemore, Rousseau gives rise to the idea that agriculture and metallurgy were the “two arts which produced this great revolution” (pg. 433, col.1). The core idea is that inequality is inevitable because needs drive more needs, which makes man a slave who can be dominated by others. Competition results which is unbeneficial and status quo is on the basis of wealth. To give order, civil rights and law must be created in order to ratify the status quo. The solution is thus to create a social contract as stated: “To find a form of association which defends and protects with the whole force of the community the person and goods of every associate, and by means of which each, uniting with all…obeys himself, and remains as free as before. Such is the fundamental problem to which the social contract gives the solution” (pg. 440, col.1). Freedom is the most important right, and the sole purpose of the state is to secure this right. The social contract is an attempt to provide freedom, though the Discourse explains how man can never truly be free. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believes that society is best when individuals give up their “whole power under the supreme direction of the general will; and in return…receive in a body every member as an indivisible part of the whole” (pg. 440, col.2) Thus, the solution is a political society that achieves a harmony of obedience and freedom. In addition, equal citizenship must exist for the sake of common good. In order to maintain the supremacy of common good, citizens must themselves assemble regularly to reaffirm their social bonds, evaluate the executive, and pick fundamental laws that would best advance the common good. The solution can be summarized as a non-representative, direct democracy.

The dissolution of political society results because the government and sovereign are not the same and are constantly in friction. This friction will ultimately destroy the state, as explained in the following passage: “If then the populace promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master exists, there is no longer a sovereign, and from that moment the body politic has ceased to exist”. (pg. 443, col.2) He further outlines three key factors leading to dissolution: “If the (a) sovereign tries to govern, or the (b) magistrate tries to give laws, or if the subjects refuse to obey, disorder takes the place of regularity, force and will no longer act together, and the state is dissolved and falls into despotism or anarchy” (pg. 450 col.1). To assure states remain healthy, the general will must be the central goal of political society.

The differences amongst all three are striking. Hobbes conception of the brutal and chaotic state of nature led him to advocate for a strong central government that is organized through a social contract. Rousseau, on the other hand, advocated for the general will to compensate for nature’s inequality. Locke, however, advocated for total equality for man to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that greatly influenced our US Constitution.


Cahn, Steven M. Political Philosophy: the Essential Texts. Oxford University Press, 2015.