The state of nature

Notes for February 13

Main points

You can divide this class into broad and narrow points. The broad points concerned the relationship between Hobbes and Plato and my case for treating Hobbes as something of an optimist about human beings. The narrow points concerned exactly how the arguments in chapter thirteen work.

Thomas Hobbes, optimist

The natural state of human beings would be “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” But we do not live in our natural state. Rather, we have figured out how to escape it. The state breaks the cycle of insecurity and violence that would otherwise characterize our lives. And with it comes commerce, the sciences, and the arts.

I understand why people read Hobbes as having had a dim view of humanity. But I myself think it’s actually the other way around. Human beings are the only members of the animal kingdom to have significantly altered their natural condition. Good for them!

If we had read the first twelve chapters, I would have made the case that Hobbes thinks we have made two major advances: politics and science. We have overcome our natural tendency towards superstition with science and our natural condition of insecurity and violence with the state. But Hobbes’s claims about science will have to wait for another time.


There are three principal causes of conflict in the state of nature: competition or gain, diffidence or safety, and reputation or glory. We went through each one, trying to identify exactly what assumptions Hobbes was making in each case.

The three reasons reinforce one another. For instance, competition is driven by scarcity. But, as Adam noted, trade and a division of labor are a way of responding to scarcity; it doesn’t have to be violence. Hobbes’s answer to that sort of point draws on his remarks about diffidence (the opposite of confidence). It is hard to establish the trust needed for trade and, without trade, a division of labor doesn’t work.

To give another example of the relationship among the three causes, I said that the concern with reputation is really a concern about power; I referred to the first five paragraphs of chapter 10 to make my point. Power is used to get the things you want (competition) and to defend against others (diffidence). So the concern for reputation is also a concern about competition and safety.

One of the most interesting ideas in chapter 13 is that the concern about safety could lead to conflict almost entirely on its own. This happens because “anticipation” is the best strategy. If A has reason to fear that B might attack, then A has reason to attack B first, so the fight is held on A’s terms rather than B’s. If B has reason to fear that this is how A thinks, then B has an incentive to attack A first. And if A has reason to fear that B has reason to fear … and so on. In short, A and B could have strong reasons to start a conflict even if neither one actually planned to attack the other in the first place. (They still need to have some reason to fear that the other might be aggressive, so this is not a completely independent cause of conflict.)

This is the perverse problem that the state solves. It gives both A and B significant assurance that neither is likely to attack out of the blue. The aggressor would be punished by the state, after all. With this assurance in hand, the spiral of insecurity does not get started.

Moral theory

We ended with Hobbes’s observation that there is no justice or injustice in the state of nature (¶13). Next time we will want to see how he could square that with what he called the laws of nature and, specifically, with his claim that violating a covenant is unjust even in the state of nature.

Key concepts

  1. The three causes of conflict: competition or gain, diffidence or safety, and reputation or glory.

  2. What Hobbes meant by “war.”


I referred to a book about the Americas. Hobbes had cited the American Indians as proof that some people live in a state of nature. The idea, I take it, was not that the American Indians were in a war of every man against every man. Hobbes knew that was false. Rather, it was that they suffered even more frequent violence than seventeenth-century Europeans did and that they lacked commerce, science, and the arts.

I just wanted to add that at the time Hobbes was writing the American Indians had very likely had their civilizations wiped out by diseases brought by early European explorers and their animals. I’m reading a really interesting book about this by Charles Mann called 1491. It summarizes debates in anthropology and archaeology about the Americas before the Europeans arrived. If the view Mann presents is correct, the Americas were a state of nature only because of an external catastrophe.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 14, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy