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Living in Hobbes’ State of Nature? Still?

October 7, 2010

When Thomas Hobbes discussed the life of man in the state of nature in Leviathan he described it to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Ch 13).” I instantly pondered over the fact that some may agree we are in that state now, with the exception that most people are not in fear for their lives. Specifically, American college students tend to be in a constant push forward for more personal achievements and are often willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve them, just as in Hobbes’ state of nature, every man was for himself. Hobbes said men have “equality in ability…and therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they both become enemies… (Ch 13).” I interpret this to as it is anyone’s game to win in this race we call life, whether it be maintaining a high GPA or even landing the dream job, or as some would say, “living the current American dream.” I believe that sometimes the typical American college student and oftentimes myself included just do not know when to say enough is enough. We have a never-ending drive for perfection that could arguably be the reason some of us are still in the “state of nature.” Furthermore, a recent New York Times article discussed a study that showed college students are less empathic than they were about 30 years ago. The article quoted, “In a decisively everyone-for-themselves manner, they are less likely to agree with statements like ‘I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me’ and ‘I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.’ This is particularly notable since these are considered shared social ideals: people are more likely to say they agree than they really do” (To read the rest of the article go to ).   Therefore it seems there is evidence that suggests the internal drive of humans pushes one on to achieve this level of perfection, while forgetting about everyone but themselves. This drive may lead to keeping a short and nasty life that Hobbes discussed in Leviathan. With the exception of fearing for one’s life in the “state of nature”, Hobbes was not so far off from his 1651 thoughts, in fact, I strongly believe that Hobbes was right on with his thoughts. We, as humans, are still animals, and we do have an instinctive drive to be the fittest, which in terms of modern day society, means rising to the tops of our ranks even if we step on several feet along the way. Time may carry on, but history still repeats its. Life is competitive and only the strongest survive here on American college campuses.

  1. jptrue permalink
    October 7, 2010 9:51 AM

    I love the idea of a college campus, especially UM’s being considered as in a “state of nature,” according to Hobbes’ definition. One thought I would throw out to you is that I think that people ARE still driven by fear for their lives, but just perhaps just in a little bit of a different way. While in Hobbes’ work, he was most likely referring to the fear of someone out muscling you and pushing you off a cliff in order to obtain a specific resource (very brutish!), I think we would have a hard time finding many students who aren’t still motivated by fear. Specifically, I think the economy has magnified this. This is because I believe students are in fear of not getting a job, which obviously could directly affect their ability to maintain and protect their lives. While the fear may be triggered from a far more indirect source of danger currently, I would argue that the thought of suffering the dangers of being bankrupt and being forced to live on the dangerous streets is enough to motivate students to turn into competitive beasts when they step on campus. This is because the all know that jobs are limited (a limited resource) and that other students have the same desires as them (the same job). It all sounds very familiar doesn’t it?

  2. adamkornbluh permalink
    October 7, 2010 3:07 PM

    I believe you make a number of valid points, but there are also numerous examples of how covenants are made amongst students who strive to achieve the same goals. Led by fears that the job market is increasingly competitive and that they do not want to be one of the millions unemployed, students band together in various ways. One example is that of groupwork. Although many assignments are intended to be completed individually, out of fear that they may get incorrect answers and get a bad grade, students often search for classmates to complete coursework with them. In addition, clubs are another example of students forming an alliance to achieve a common goal. Lastly, LSA Student Government is run by elected leaders of the student body who make decisions that affect the thousands of students. This Leviathan-like body looks after students just like a democracy or government would look after a nation.

  3. Neil Rabinowicz permalink
    October 10, 2010 8:18 PM

    I have heard stories of competition driving students to getting their hands dirty. At the University of Pennsylvania, there are courses with no more than 20 students that are curved to a B. This means that 50% of the students will get below a B, something that could ruin a student’s GPA. As a result, many students actually try to do whatever possible to have an advantage over the other students. For example, students will steal other students’ books or notes, thus getting their hands dirty out of self interest.

    While I don’t think this can be seen at every campus in the nation, it is certain that competition is present everywhere. Any class that is curved, for example, automatically leads to competition since only x% of the students in the class will get above a certain grade. Personally, I always try to do better than the other students in my classes, since like you mentioned in your blog I want to be able to land that dream job once I’m out of college.

    Also, the way today’s society works, people always attain to be as close to perfect as they can and have as much as they can. These ambitions lead people to become more selfish and in the process care less about the misfortunes of others if it will prevent them from achieving their goals. This increase in self-interest has caused morals and values to play a less important role in most people’s lives, which greatly differs from life let’s say five decades ago. My grandparents, for example, are way less worried about money that my parents or I am. I hope this changes soon, because at this rate we are on our ways to a purely materialistic and superficial society.

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