Hobbes on the State of Nature Notes for February 20

Main points

Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes all answer questions about the purpose of the state by considering why people who did not have a state would form one. According to Hobbes, people in such a ‘state of nature’ would want safety before anything else.

We contrasted Hobbes’s answer with those given by Plato and Aristotle. I argued that the major difference between Hobbes and Aristotle concerns whether the state is natural or not. I also said that Hobbes’s denial that there is a summum bonum (greatest or final good) does not mark as significant a departure from Aristotle as many people think. These points are made clear in the handout.

We also spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly why Hobbes thought that people without a state would live in a condition of war with one another, such that they would seek a state in order to give them safety.

The causes of conflict

Hobbes has an extensive list of reasons why human nature is inclined to conflict. The most important of these concerns the structure of relations in the state of nature. This structure itself contributes to insecurity. I say that this is the most important cause of conflict because it is the one that the state solves without employing significant violence itself.

The fact that some people want competition and the fact that they nurse grudges over perceived injustices (a.k.a. injuries) are causes of conflict. But these are causes of conflict that the state solves by direct opposition. At best, the state will be powerful enough to intimidate these characters, thus deterring any trouble from them. At worst, it may have to use violence to put them down.

Natural and artificial

One of the big themes for the day was that Hobbes thought the state is artificial whereas Aristotle thought it is natural. So imagine my distress when I realized I couldn’t answer Rob’s question about how Hobbes drew the distinction between the natural and the artificial. Doh!

It’s especially doh-worthy because I already knew the answer. In chapter 16, we’ll see him distinguish between a natural and an artificial person. When you couple this with the remark in chapter 17 that covenants are artificial, we get something like this. A body is artificial if it is created by transactions involving rights.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, have a look at the chart in chapter 9, p. 48 in the Hackett edition. Is there really only one artificial body? And what happened to sciography?

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted February 22, 2008.
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