The State of Nature
Hobbes starts the same way Plato did. 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).
How to Read Early Modern Philosophy
Here are 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.
For example there is a trigger to backtrack in this line in the sixth
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. Trees? Well, conceptual trees. Early
modern authors often start off with a root idea and branches; that’s
what I am calling a conceptual tree. 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 prevent war?
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. You can see meaning 2
as well: people doubt their ability to defend themselves if attacked.
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)? What is
In addition, 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)?
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,
Here we start with a tree. The root concept is power. This is divided
into two branches: original (or natural) and instrumental. Original or
natural power is the power you have on your own: your strength or
intelligence, say. While important, it isn’t very interesting. There
isn’t much to say about it beyond some people have it and others
Instrumental powers are more interesting. These are powers that
enable you to gain more power. Riches, reputation, and good luck are
examples. Why does having these things enable someone to gain more
power? Because they attract other people. Everyone wants to be
on the side of a powerful person, roughly.
That is what is going on with glory. The reason why people fight over
small insults to themselves or their group is that letting the insults
go would be a sign that you aren’t powerful. The fight to preserve their
reputation for power, in other words. And they do so because having a
reputation for power makes someone genuinely powerful because it
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