Political Philosophy Spring 2021

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.1

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).

  1. Competition
  2. Diffidence
  3. Glory

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. (Leviathan 13.6)

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 assuming?


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 “diffidence”.

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 the OED.

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
Anticipate Wait
Anticipate 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Wait 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 “wait.”

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 state.

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, Leviathan 10.1-8)

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.2

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 another.

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 nature.

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, 128–29)

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.

Main Points

Here are the main things you should know or have an opinion about after today’s class.

  1. The three causes of conflict: competition, diffidence, and reputation. What do those words mean and how do the explanations work?
  2. 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 University Press.
Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.