Political Philosophy Spring 2024

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.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

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 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. Trees? Well, conceptual trees. Early modern authors often start off with a root idea and then procede by making branches off of it. That is 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; 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 is not obvious! Does he mean we are literally equal? That is clearly false. But if he does not 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 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 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. 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 “anticipation”?

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 state.

I do not think that is 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.

I do not want to go into that in our class time. I can make the point only by using material outside of our readings and that would take us too far afield. So I am just going to say that this is what I think is going on and tell you that the support is found in chapter 10 of Leviathan (our reading is chapter 13). I will put the relevant passages in an appendix below, but you may feel free to ignore them.

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?

Extra: Glory and Power

The third cause of conflict is glory. What does that mean? I think Hobbes thought of it as a source of power. People ally themselves with those who they think are powerful. And one way of looking powerless is by letting insults go without retaliating. Here are the parts of the book where I think he says that; they are from chapter 10.

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)

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 is not very interesting. There is not much to say about it beyond “some people have it and others do not.”

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 are not powerful. You would rather absorb the insult than risk a fight. You must be afraid that you would lose and that means you are probably not very powerful. Glory moves people to fight in order to preserve their reputation for power, in other words. And they care about their reputation for power because having a reputation for power makes someone genuinely powerful. It does so because potential allies will only want to work with powerful people.

Extra: 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

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 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 17 people in our class. If we were in the state of nature, we would expect two or three of us to be killed by another person. Needless to say, it would be shocking if that happened.


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.

  1. Of course, states have wars with one another. Hobbes does not think that wars among states are intolerable in the way that violence among individuals is (see Leviathan 13.12).↩︎

  2. That said, we should not ignore the possibility that individual level violence within social groups would be quite high; if it is, then Hobbes’s language would be more appropriate. Given what I have read, I am inclined to think that there was, in fact, quite a lot of individual level violence within social groups in pre-state societies.↩︎