The State of Nature
Hobbes’s method is similar to the one that Plato begins with. In
order to understand the state, he imagines what life would be like
without it. He calls this a “state of nature.” In today’s reading,
Hobbes argues that the state of nature would be extremely bad. In the
readings for next time, we will see how he argues that there is no way
of making the state of nature tolerable without political authority.
Taken together, they explain why states are good: they put an end to the
“war of all against all” or conflict among individuals.
Hobbes gives three reasons for thinking that people in the state of
nature would be “in that condition which is called war” and, more
specifically, a war “of every man, against every man” (13.8).
Before we get into the specifics, I want to say something about
whether Hobbes has a pessimistic view of human nature. He sure seems to!
But I think that’s a little misleading. What is interesting about us for
Hobbes is that we do not live in our natural condition. We are the only
animals who have deliberately changed our social environment. We have
arts, sciences, commerce, and morality. Hobbes’s point is that all of
this good stuff depends on something we made: the state. So he thinks we
are pretty great.
How to Read Early Modern Philosophy
Before I go any further, I want to point out two techniques for
reading early modern philosophy (roughly 16th-18th century) that I find
invaluable: backtracking and trees.
What I mean by backtracking is that whenever I find a little summary
statement, and especially one that mentions a specific number of
arguments, I immediately look back through the text to make sure I have
identified all the arguments.
The trigger to backtrack here is this line in the sixth paragaph.
So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of
quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.
He was good enough to give capsule summaries of each.
The first, maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and
the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves
masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second,
to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different
opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their
persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation,
their profession, or their name. (Leviathan 13.7)
After reading that, I know that the stuff I had read in the first
five paragraphs was supposed to show that there are three causes of
conflict that involve, respectively, gain, safety, and reputation. That
tells me how to chop up the text. You can see the fruits of my labor in
the gray outline headings that I added to the text.
Another useful technique is to look for the trees, especially at the
beginning of a chapter. What I mean is that early modern authors often
start off with conceptual trees, with a root idea and branches. For
example, at the beginning of chapter thirteen, Hobbes says that people
are equal in body and mind. The next logical part of the paragraph makes
the point about bodily equality and the one after that is about mental
equality. If you pay attention to the first sentence, you know where to
find the major break points in the rest of the paragraph.
The early moderns loaded up their writing with little tips like that.
Once you get in the habit of looking for them, you will find that they
are very useful. Plus it’s kind of fun to search them out. It’s like
finding clues in an ancient map.
OK, back the substance of the thing.
The first explanation of war in the state of nature links conflict to
scarcity: people fight for access to scarce resources. Hobbes says this
follows from a premise about equality, so we are going to have to start
with what he means in saying we are equal.
It’s not obvious! Does he mean we are literally equal? That isn’t
true. But if doesn’t mean that, what does he mean? The way to think
about this is to think about what inequality would amount to. Equality
is supposed to give rise to the causes of war. What kind of inequality
would block those causes?
Another thing we will do is talk about what assumptions Hobbes is
making about the world in which people live and about their motivations.
For instance, Hobbes is assuming that there is scarcity. What else is he
The second explanation of war in the state of nature links conflict
to insecurity: diffidence, the opposite of confidence.
Here is another methodological hint for you. The Oxford English Dictionary (also known as the
OED) is your friend. It is the most comprehensive dictionary the
English language including ways of using words that have
dropped out of fashion. Here is the entry for
1. Lack of confidence or faith in someone or something; distrust;
mistrust, misgiving, doubt. Also: an instance of this; a doubt, a
misgiving. Now rare except as merged with sense 2.
2. Doubt in one’s own ability, merit, or judgement; lack of
self-confidence; modesty or shyness resulting from this.
Hobbes is clearly using meaning 1. As the entry notes, that is now
rare except when it is used along with meaning 2. That is why you need
We can do the same thing here. What is Hobbes assuming both about how
the world works and about what people want?
For instance, what does he mean by “there is no way for any man to
secure himself, so reasonable, as anticipation” (13.4)?
And why does he think it follows that if those who would “otherwise
would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion
increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing
only on their defence, to subsist” (13.4)?
Here is how I understand what that means. Hobbes thinks that even
people who are willing to live in peace will invade others instead
because they cannot subsist if they fight only in self-defense.
Suppose we have two people: You and Me. Neither one of us wants to
fight. However, you think that I fear that you will attack me. We both
know that attacking others by surprise greatly increases the odds of
success. Given that, you have to at least entertain the thought that you
might have to attack me first, if only to defend yourself against a
misguided attack on my part. And I can go through the same kind of
thinking about you. It’s not hard to see how this process of thought can
lead two people who have no desire to attack one another to wind up at
one another’s throats.
What is called the prisoner’s dilemma is often used to illustrate
diffidence as a cause of conflict. (In this table, the first number is
the payoff for the row or horizontal player, the second number is the
payoff for the column, or vertical, player).
Pre-emptive violence in the state of nature
||3rd / 3rd
||1st / 4th
||4th / 1st
||2nd / 2nd
People whose interactions with one another have this structure have
what is called a dominant strategy. A dominant strategy is one
that it is rational to follow no matter what the other side does. In
this case, it is to anticipate, or start the war.
Hobbes’s idea is that the state is needed to lock people in to the
southeast corner, where each one waits rather than striking first. It
does so by changing the payoffs. If you start the conflict, you will get
punished. That lowers the value of “anticipate” and reduces the cost of
There is some question whether diffidence could stand on its own as a
cause of conflict or whether it presupposes competition. I think it is
the latter. If you have a bunch of people who have nothing to gain from
conflict, there is little reason to fear that one of them will engage in
anticipatory violence against the other. You have to have a reason for
fighting in the first place to get the cycle going, in my opinion.
The third reason for conflict is the strangest. People fight for
reputation. It looks as though Hobbes is saying that we are just
quarrelsome, like drunks looking for a fight. If so, it is hard to see
how this is a cause of conflict that the state could solve. If we’re
liable to fly off the handle for the slightest reason just because
that’s the way we are, we will still be that way even with the
I don’t think that’s right. I think the concern with reputation has a
rational basis and that it makes sense to be more concerned about it in
the state of nature than in the commonwealth. A reputation for defending
your honor makes you look powerful and people who look powerful
actually become powerful by attracting allies. Here is what
Hobbes says in an earlier chapter.
The power of a man, (to take it universally,) is his present
means, to obtain some future apparent good; and is either
original or instrumental.
Natural power, is the eminence of the faculties of body, or
mind: as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence,
liberality, nobility. Instrumental are those powers, which
acquired by these, or by fortune, are means and instruments to acquire
more: as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God,
which men call good luck. For the nature of power, is in this point,
like to fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy
bodies, which the further they go, make still the more haste.
The greatest of human powers, is that which is compounded of the
powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, natural, or civil,
that has the use of all their powers depending on his will; such as is
the power of a common-wealth: or depending on the wills of each
particular; such as is the power of a faction or of divers factions
leagued. Therefore to have servants, is power; to have friends, is
power: for they are strengths united.
Also riches joined with liberality, is power; because it procureth
friends, and servants: without liberality, not so; because in this case
they defend not; but expose men to envy, as a prey.
Reputation of power, is power; because it draweth with it the
adherence of those that need protection.
So is reputation of love of a man’s country, (called popularity,) for
the same reason.
Also, what quality soever maketh a man beloved, or feared of many; or
the reputation of such quality, is power; because it is a means to have
the assistance, and service of many.
Good success is power; because it maketh reputation of wisdom, or
good fortune; which makes men either fear him, or rely on him. (Hobbes,
Is it true?
Hobbes is surely exaggerating some features of the state of nature.
It can’t really be solitary or a war of “every man against every man.”
There are clearly groups and social interaction. The only way that glory
makes sense as a cause of conflict is if defending your honor gains you
what Hobbes calls “instrumental power” by impressing other people. That,
in turn, assumes that people are willing to work together in the ways
Hobbes describes in chapter 10.
That said, I think the basic dynamics are not really altered if we
introduce groups into the state of nature. Calling it a “war of every
group against every group” is probably more accurate even though it is
not as catchy.
One other point is worth mentioning. Hobbes’s case does not just rest
on showing that people who live outside the state are constantly at war
with one another. It is also that they lack the benefits of
civilization: agriculture, commerce, arts, and science. He has to trace
the reasons for lacking the benefits of civilization back to insecurity.
But it seems to me that he can do this even if the state of nature is
not literally a war of all against all. For example, if potential
trading partners can’t trust one another to keep a bargain, there won’t
be any trade. This would be bad even if people aren’t trying to kill one
Hobbes did not rely on arguments alone. He gave some empirical
evidence to substantiate his points. For instance, the fact that we lock
our doors at night shows we worry that other people will take advantage
of us. And the fact that states are constantly at war with one another
suggests that the dynamic of conflict outside of the state’s authority
is real. Finally, Hobbes did a little armchair anthropology, pointing to
the Americas as an example of a place where people live in a state of
Here is another fact that Hobbes did not use but that supports his
case. It is that human beings kill adult members of their species at far
higher rates than other animals do. My source is a very interesting book
called War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat. Gat’s explanation
of the asymmetry, I said, fits Hobbes’s assumption about the importance
of the tactic of anticipation, that is, striking first. Here is Gat in
his own words.
Among animals, it is mostly the young that stand at the receiving end
of intraspecific killing, whereas adults … are relatively secure. By
contrast, among humans, although women and children were often killed,
it was mainly the men fighters themselves who suffered most of the
casualties. With humans too, deadly fighting was asymmetrical, in the
sense that it was conducted under conditions in which the enemy were
caught helpless and unable to fight back, mostly by surprise. However,
among humans, the asymmetry regularly rotated, with the receiving and
inflicting ends changing places: the helpless victim of today’s raid was
himself the raider tomorrow. Thus the adult fighters themselves bore the
brunt of the casualties … What is the source of this difference between
humans and other animals?
Mutual deterrence, which is generally effective among adult animals,
fails in humans under certain conditions … because of that principal
threat to deterrence: first-strike capability. Why do humans possess it
to a much larger degree than other animal species? It is because of the
most distinctive human capability: tool making. The more advanced the
capability became, the more lethal humans became. …
As with other animal species, they normally did not seriously fight
conspecifics on the open battlefield for fear of being hurt themselves.
However, unlike other animal species, they were able to kill adult
conspecifics by surprise, when their adversaries were unarmed and
vulnerable. (Gat 2006,
In other words, it is true that adult chimpanzees will kill other
adults if they can catch them by surprise. But human beings are far
better at catching one another by surprise. Also, because they rely on
weapons rather than their physical strength, teeth, and claws, human
beings are more likely to be caught defenseless.
After tallying up the estimated rates of violent death among
hunter-gatherers and non-state agricultural societies, Gat makes a back
of the envelope conjecture that “average human violent mortality rates
among adults in the state of nature may have been in the order of 15 per
cent (25 per cent for men)” (Gat 2006, 131). That is a phenomenally
high rate. There are twelve people in our class. If we were in the state
of nature, we would expect about two of us to be killed by another
person. Needless to say, it would be shocking if that happened.
Here are the main things you should know or have an opinion about
after today’s class.
- The three causes of conflict: competition, diffidence, and
reputation. What do those words mean and how do the explanations
- People lived without states for thousands of years. How does that
affect Hobbes’s argument, in your opinion?
Gat, Azar. 2006. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford
Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C.
Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex