Hobbes on the state of nature Notes for September 4

Hobbes vs. Aristotle

Both Aristotle and Hobbes believe that in order to understand the state, you have to study its origins. (Since Hobbes, at least, concedes that his account of the state’s origins need not be historically accurate [13.11-12], it’s a good question what an account of the state’s origins means for him.)

But they disagree about these origins. I began by going over four points of disagreement about the state. (There are some disagreements about ethics as well, though not as many as people think. I’ll bring some of these up later.)

Very roughly, Aristotle thinks that people get something positive out of political life: it is how they perfect themselves. Life under a state is the natural culmination of human nature. Hobbes thinks that people form states to avoid something negative: life that is nasty, poor, brutish, and short. Life under a state is the only way to avoid horrid conflict.

Why conflict in the state of nature?

Hobbes’s case for the state rests on how lousy life is outside of it. That’s what the “state of mere nature” is: life without a state. Why did he think that there would be conflict?

I contrasted Hobbes’s generic accounts of conflict (in the absence of a state) with his specific accounts. Generic accounts of conflict explain conflicts in ways that are largely independent of what particular people want. Those that are specific rely on aims that only some people have.

One generic account concerns the structural causes of conflict that favor ‘anticipation’. This is what was illustrated with the box on the board, the prisoner’s dilemma game. No matter what you want or how much you want to avoid conflict, you face a lot of pressure to start conflict in ways that are favorable to you. That’s what I meant in telling Fred and Nick that the complications they correctly brought up would wash out in the end.

The other generic account concerns power (see the beginning of ch. 11). Power is necessarily competitive: how much I have depends on how much you have. And everyone needs it, regardless of what else they want.

Finally, there are some specific explanations of conflict. Some seek glory or military command. Others are unsatisfied with what they have and want more. These people can achieve their aims only through conflict.

Note: there’s nothing like playing the prisoner’s dilemma for getting the feel to it. Fortunately, I wrote a tutorial a long time ago for just that purpose. After the tutorial, there are some more advanced remarks about this and similar games. Enjoy!

Are people naturally unsociable?

Aristotle paints human nature as ideally suited for political life. Hobbes disagrees. But I do not believe that he took the opposite position, that human nature is opposed to political life, such that the state constantly has to keep its subjects down by force.

Rather, I think he held that it’s the circumstances that matter the most. There is no determinately political or unsociable human nature. Without safety, people will fall to war. With safety, those who desire ease, sensual delights, knowledge, or the arts of peace, or those who fear death and wounds, are happy with submitting to a common power.

Of course, some aren’t this way. Some will want to “continue the causes of war, and to stir up trouble and sedition” (11.4). One thing the state will have to do is control or channel their ambitions. Hobbes does not mention the most obvious way of doing this, but I will. Foreign war!

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
Name of website