The Materialist View of Human Nature
Hobbes believed that all phenomena in the universe, without exception, can be explained in
terms of the motions and interactions of material bodies. He did not believe in the soul, or in the
mind as separate from the body, or in any of the other incorporeal and metaphysical entities in
which other writers have believed. Instead, he saw human beings as essentially machines, with
even their thoughts and emotions operating according to physical laws and chains of cause and
effect, action and reaction. As machines, human beings pursue their own self-interest
relentlessly, mechanically avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Hobbes saw the
commonwealth, or society, as a similar machine, larger than the human body and artificial but
nevertheless operating according to the laws governing motion and collision.
In putting together this materialist view of the world, Hobbes was influenced by his
contemporaries Galileo and Kepler, who had discovered laws governing planetary motion,
thereby discrediting much of the Aristotelian worldview. Hobbes hoped to establish similar laws
of motion to explain the behavior of human beings, but he was more impressed by Galileo and
Kepler’s mathematical precision than by their use of empirical data and observation. Hobbes
hoped to arrive at his laws of motion deductively, in the manner of geometrical proofs. It is
important to note that Hobbes was not in any position to prove that all of human experience can
be explained in terms of physical and mechanical processes. That task would have required
scientific knowledge far beyond that possessed by the seventeenth century. Even today, science
is nowhere near being able to fully explain human experience in physical terms, even though
most people tend to believe that science will one day be able to do just that. In the absence of
such a detailed explanation, the image of the human being as a machine in Hobbes’s writing
remains more of a metaphor than a philosophical proof.
Fear as the Determining Factor in Human Life
Hobbes maintained that the constant back-and-forth mediation between the emotion of fear and
the emotion of hope is the defining principle of all human actions. Either fear or hope is present
at all times in all people. In a famous passage of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the worst aspect
of the state of nature is the “continual fear and danger of violent death.” In the state of nature, as
Hobbes depicts it, humans intuitively desire to obtain as much power and “good” as they can,
and there are no laws preventing them from harming or killing others to attain what they desire.
Thus, the state of nature is a state of constant war, wherein humans live in perpetual fear of one
another. This fear, in combination with their faculties of reason, impels men to follow the
fundamental law of nature and seek peace among each other. Peace is attained only by coming
together to forge a social contract, whereby men consent to being ruled in a commonwealth
governed by one supreme authority. Fear creates the chaos endemic to the state of nature, and
fear upholds the peaceful order of the civil commonwealth. The contract that creates the
commonwealth is forged because of people’s fear, and it is enforced by fear. Because the
02sovereign at the commonwealth’s head holds the power to bodily punish anyone who breaks
the contract, the natural fear of such harm compels subjects to uphold the contract and submit
to the sovereign’s will.
Good and Evil as Appetite and Aversion DEMOCRACY
Hobbes believed that in man’s natural state, moral ideas do not exist. Thus, in speaking of
human nature, he defines good simply as that which people desire and evil as that which they
avoid, at least in the state of nature. Hobbes uses these definitions as bases for explaining a
variety of emotions and behaviours. For example, hope is the prospect of attaining some
apparent good, whereas fear is the recognition that some apparent good may not be attainable.
Hobbes admits, however, that this definition is only tenable as long as we consider men outside
of the constraints of law and society. In the state of nature, when the only sense of good and evil
derives from individuals’ appetites and desires, general rules about whether actions are good or
evil do not exist. Hobbes believes that moral judgments about good and evil cannot exist until
they are decreed by a society’s central authority. This position leads directly to Hobbes’s belief
in an autocratic and absolutist form of government.
Absolute Monarchy as the Best Form of Government
Hobbes promoted that monarchy is the best form of government and the only one that can
guarantee peace. In some of his early works, he only says that there must be a supreme
sovereign power of some kind in society, without stating definitively which sort of sovereign
power is best. InLeviathan, however, Hobbes unequivocally argues that absolutist monarchy is
the only right form of government. In general, Hobbes seeks to define the rational bases upon
which a civil society could be constructed that would not be subject to destruction from within.
Accordingly, he delineates how best to minimize discord, disagreement, and factionalism within
society—whether between state and church, between rival governments, or between different
contending philosophies. Hobbes believes that any such conflict leads to civil war. He holds that
any form of ordered government is preferable to civil war. Thus he advocates that all members
of society submit to one absolute, central authority for the sake of maintaining the common
peace. In Hobbes’s system, obedience to the sovereign is directly tied to peace in all realms.
The sovereign is empowered to run the government, to determine all laws, to be in charge of the
church, to determine first principles, and to adjudicate in philosophical disputes. For Hobbes,
this is the only sure means of maintaining a civil, peaceful polity and preventing the dissolution
of society into civil war. DEMOCRACY
John Locke’s Political Philosophy
Philosopher John Locke is much more optimistic about people than Thomas Hobbes. Locke
saw the state of nature as cooperative, and saw people as interested in their own needs, but
were not necessarily as war-driven as Hobbes thought. People banded together to get rid of
“degenerates” and were able to mostly keep their own peace. Thus, Locke’s reasoning of why
we leave the state of nature is based more around the lack of politics rather than a lack of
Checks and Balances
Locke thought everyone needed to form a society together where there is a system of checks
and balances. The main problem in the state of nature, Locke would say, is that there aren’t any
impartial judges and there’s no clear interpretation of law. Creating a society solves these
problems. He also felt that the people should elect a series of representatives to keep things in
order, not place all the power in the hands of one.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Political Philosophy
According to Rousseau, a society is legitimate if it is freer than it was in a state of nature. He
believed that everyone is enslaved to each other under the original contracts and everyone is
also a slave to acquisition and protection of private property. Since labor as a commodity and
the right to private property don’t really exist in a state of nature, people are freer without it.
Rousseau believed we’d all be freer if we didn’t own property and if we decided what rules
Rousseau on Locke and the Social Contract
Rousseau felt Locke’s idea of a representative democracy doesn’t work because the
representatives only represent their own experiences and interests, not the common good of all
society. He felt the best social contract is one in which everyone participates in politics.
Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau
Rousseau’s ideas for a legitimate society are liberty and the common good. Locke’s test for
legitimacy is to make sure that individual interests are protected with a heavy emphasis on
property. And Hobbes felt that a good society is ruled by one person who instills enough fear in
citizens to keep them from breaking rules.
The concept of state of nature was posited by the 17th century English philosopher Thomas
Hobbes in Leviathan. Hobbes wrote that "during the time men live without a common power to
keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of
every man against every man" (Leviathan, ch. XIII). In this state any person has a natural
right to the liberty to do anything he wills to preserve his own life, and life is "solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish, and short". He believed that in the international arena, states behave as individuals do
in a state of nature.
Within the state of nature there is no injustice, since there is no law, excepting certain natural
precepts, the first of which is "that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope
of obtaining it" (Leviathan, ch. XIV); and the second is "that a man be willing, when others are
so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down DEMOCRACY
this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would
allow other men against himself". From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature
into civil government by mutual contracts.
Hobbes described the concept in the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes, in his work De
Locke's view on the state of nature
John Locke considers the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written
around the time of the Engagement controversy in England during the 1680s. For Locke, "The
state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it", and that law is Reason. Locke believes that
reason teaches that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions";
and that transgressions of this may be punished. This view of the state of nature is partly
deduced from Christian belief (unlike Hobbes, whose philosophy is not dependent upon any
prior theology): the reason we may not harm another is that we are all the possessions of God
and do not own ourselves.
Hobbes's view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who
claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of
the society in which they were raised. He affirmed instead that people were neither good nor
bad. Men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their
bad habits are the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people
to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society. DEMOCRACY
The Necessity of Freedom
In his work, Rousseau addresses freedom more than any other problem of political philosophy
and aims to explain how man in the state of nature is blessed with an enviable total freedom.
This freedom is total for two reasons. First, natural man is physically free because he is not
constrained by a repressive state apparatus or dominated by his fellow men. Second, he is
psychologically and spiritually free because he is not enslaved to any of the artificial